The secret to becoming a successful chef can be more than just graduating from a famous culinary school. Often, especially regarding Thai cuisine, which does not have as many dedicated culinary institutes as their western counterparts, it is the inspiration and knowledge that come from experiences and memories of “mum-made meals”. Such home-cooked flavours, sometimes passed along for generations, influenced these chefs, not only in their menus and cooking styles, but also helped mould them to showcase their own creativity and flair.
Here they share how their mothers inspired them on their culinary journeys.
“My mother is the main inspiration for me in choosing a culinary career to opening a restaurant.”
Chef Tanaporn “Can” Markawat on why The Local should be called Kaeng Dai Pla
The Local (Bib Gourmand, MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2021)
When you think about the Thai restaurant The Local (Bib Gourmand, MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2021), the full-flavoured, rich kaeng dai pla (fish kidney curry), definitely comes to mind. This signature dish, with its deep orange reminiscent of Southern Thai kitchens, is one that Chef Tanaporn “Can” Markawat, founder-chef of The Local by Oamthong Thai Cuisine, and his sister Ployphan Markawat say cannot be missed. A family favourite, both remember their mother making this curry for them since they were kids.
“My mum is from Trang, and although her family is Chinese, she has loved Southern Thai food since she was a kid. So, when I was a kid, mum would make Southern food for me to eat. Kanom jin dai pla is a dish she always made. Maybe it’s because she grew up in a Chinese family, but kaeng dai pla at our house was different from others. If we’re talking about ‘authentic’ kaeng dai pla though, there are really a lot of different recipes. Some prefer kaeng dai pla dip. Others like a khlua kling (roasted) style. Even others want a little fishiness in the aroma. My mum’s recipe requires filtering and straining many times. Not too fishy. Not too bitter. Not too salty. The main focus is on selecting the fish kidneys, which should only be from a queenfish. The grilled fish should be sheatfish. Others may have bamboo shoots or eggplant. Mum uses pea eggplant, bitter bean, and shrimp. You could call it fish kidney with accompaniments. When my sister and I had the chance to open a restaurant, this was one of the first dishes we thought of. Kaeng dai pla is a must for our menu, because it’s what made us who we are today. We could call this place Kaeng Dai Pla.”
However, it wasn’t just this dish that inspired Chef Markawat. Looking back, he recalled his mother as a key influence on his path to cooking and restaurants.
“Ever since I was a child, my mum was running a restaurant. My memories are filled with my mother in the kitchen, looking after customers, riding a tuk-tuk to go shopping. Slowly, it all got absorbed. It wasn’t as if she told me I had to run a restaurant this way or use these recipes. She just showed me how to handle customers, to look after employees, to care about food, and to select the best ingredients. Even at home, as we sat at the dinner table, she would discuss food and the restaurant with us from when we were kids. So, there is no denying how much my mother is my main inspiration, from choosing a culinary career to opening a restaurant.”
Chef Sujira "Aom" Pongmorn: “My mum taught me the flexibility of flavours”
Saawaan (One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2021)
Chef Sujira "Aom" Pongmorn, head chef of Saawaan, is the first chef to win the MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award Presented by Blancpain awarded in Thailand. And she has also been inspired by her family in the kitchen.
Growing up in a large family, Chef Pongmorn was used to home-cooked meals mainly made by her father, the family’s head chef. Her mother wasn’t as skilled in the kitchen, but Chef Pongmorn said that this showed her how cooking was about being flexible and adaptable, not rigid and exacting.
“To be honest, I have to say that my father or my aunt took care of most of our meals at home because my mum wasn’t as good as they were. What I learned from her was how to not be fixed and to be flexible instead. She believed it would be delicious,” laughed the chef. “When I think about my mum’s food, I think about how she made the same few dishes distinctive. Why they were delicious, I don’t know!”
Her mother may not have shown off her cooking skills often, but what immediately came to mind for Chef Pongmorn was her mum’s rice and mackerel with soy sauce and tom yam with snakehead fish.
“As far as I can remember, mum would feed us rice and mackerel with a little soy sauce, using Healthy Boy brand soy sauce only. Or it would be rice soaked with tom yam soup. The tom yam would be a kid version, with no chillies and with white snakehead fish that she would pick off the bone for us. The meat would be chewy and full, no fishy taste, and, most importantly, so tasty. If you ask why these dishes, it’s because every time I eat them or see them, I always think of my mum. About how she made it taste so good. Add this, add that -- she did everything based on her feelings and it was still delicious.”
“My mum likes every dish I make. Why does she like them? Probably because I made it for her.”
When asked about her mother’s cooking techniques that she remembers most, The Young Chef Award winner replied, “Her technique probably came from her carefulness. Because whenever she made food for us, it would have this wonderful flavour that we couldn’t explain. Even if I tried to make rice with mackerel just like her, mixing it with my fingers, I could never match ‘mum-made’. I think this is true for everyone. Take her tom yam with snakehead fish. She would pick snakehead fish from the rice paddies. She would say to look at the head and the body, making sure it’s not too big or fat, like the ones we get nowadays. Then clean it with coarse salt and rub it with lemongrass that has been pounded and broken to remove the mucus. After washing it thoroughly, cut it into slightly thick pieces. Then boil them, changing the water once to get rid of any fishy smell. Then take all that to make mum’s tom yam.”
Even as her mother’s cooking techniques are like no other, Chef Pongmorn insisted that this is the key influence on her own cooking style, so that she is not restricted by any one dish.
“What inspires me most about my mother’s cooking is probably how she mainly would use local ingredients. She would prefer using what was easy to find. But what is most important to me is that she would not be rigid in her cooking. She would adapt to whatever the situation.”
Asked which of Chef Pongmorn’s dishes does her mother like the most, she was quick to respond in a way we’d all expect.
“My mum likes every dish I make. She’ll compliment me on how good it tastes. Why does she like them? Probably because I made it for her.”
Chef Thaninthorn “Noom” Chantrawan and his mum’s secret recipes
Chim by Siam Wisdom (One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2021)
Along with the Nakhon Pathom’s rich culinary heritage, the other inspiration that drives Chef Thaninthorn “Noom” Chantrawan is the flavours of “mum-made meals”.
A native of Nakhon Pathom from birth, Chef Chantrawan is now head chef of Chim by Siam Wisdom. He once took us on a food tour of Nakhon Pathom, where we learned that his main culinary inspiration was his family, especially his mother.
“My father was in pharmaceutical sales, so he got to know a lot of good restaurants. That was how I could follow him around and find many tasty places to eat. At home, it was mainly my mum who made our meals.. Usually it was Thai food that she modified and seasoned the way her kids would like. For example, I didn’t really eat spicy food as a kid, so she wouldn’t use a lot of chillies. When I think of her, I think about her kaeng som (sour curry) with papaya and shrimp. It’s an easy dish, using ingredients we have like papaya. In the provinces, papaya is usually growing in the garden. But my mum’s kaeng som is not like you’d find in other homes. She would pound dried shrimp into the curry paste, but she’d roast the dried shrimp first. Then add shrimp paste, shallots, and dried chillies. Kaeng som is pretty easy to make. Kids like to eat it with a hot Thai omelette. But mum has her own little secret touch too.”
By using dried shrimp in the curry paste, his mother added umami and a richness to the dish. “Normally, some will make kaeng som curry paste with fresh chillies. Others, dried chillies. But my mum’s recipe has dried chillies, and the saltiness is balancing the saltiness between the shrimp paste and the dried shrimps. This is an easy dish, but there are details that need attention.”
“My mum thoughtfully considered what her children would eat, what they liked. And how to get her kids to eat nutritious food.”
Another unique, signature dish of Chef Chantrawan’s mother is her phad kaprao with winged beans.
“Some people ask why we put long beans with holy basil in a phad kaprao? I think it boils down to the eating habits in each home. When I was a kid, I was picky about my vegetables. I’d eat bean sprouts, but not long beans. So, my mum thoughtfully considered what her children would eat, what they liked. How can a mother get her kids to eat nutritious food? For me, as a boy, I didn’t like long beans. I rarely ate vegetables. So, my mum put winged beans in her phad kaprao. Now, it’s on the menu at my restaurant, with a few adaptations. I call it Kaprao Somphot because it was the dish that won me a cooking award in a district competition during the 200th Rattanakosin Anniversary celebrations. So, I wanted a name that reflects this seemingly simple dish.”
Chef Chantrawan added that his mother would use traditional Thai cooking techniques such as slow cooking rice over low temperature on a stove, which have been passed down to him and now influences the essence of Chim by Siam Wisdom.
Chef Supaksorn “Ice” Jongsiri remembers his grandmother’s love and strength in her cooking
Sorn (Two MICHELIN Stars, MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2021)
When mentioning Sorn, most will remember the young Chef Supaksorn “Ice” Jongsiri who brought Southern Thai food to the world of fine dining along with casual dining. Behind his successful and inspirational cuisine is the warmth and caring cultivated between grandmother and grandson in the kitchen.
“This year Grandma turns 100 years old. She doesn’t cook anymore. Looking back to what made cooking fun for me, it would be my experiences in her kitchen. I didn’t exactly finish cooking school to become a chef, but rather, I developed my skills in my grandmother’s kitchen throughout my childhood. I grew up with her. She was a school teacher, and she cooked for her students and her grandchildren every day. As a kid, I was her helper. And I liked being in the kitchen because that meant I didn’t have to do schoolwork. It was like playtime, but with tasty stuff to eat. Her food was delicious. Especially for temple festivals, she would make so much food, and I got to go help her all the time.”
Chef Jongsiri spoke about how he learned the cooking basics as he helped his grandmother in the kitchen. Then she retired and moved to Bangkok where she had the opportunity to open a small Southern Thai restaurant on the ground floor of their home. That gave Chef Jongsiri the chance to go back into his grandmother’s kitchen again. He emphasised that she never said that he had to join her, even though she named the restaurant after him.
“It was as if she knew that if she called it Baan Ice, in the end I would have to go back. But she never said anything. She would only say, whatever you do, don’t think about profits. Remember when we would cook together and we were happy? Remember when people would come and eat our food and say it was delicious? How happy were we then? The most important thing is not to lie to diners and not lie to yourself. That’s what Grandma would say to me and that’s what guides me as I run my restaurant to this day.”
“This year my Grandma turns 100 years old. Looking back to what made cooking fun for me, it would be my experiences in her kitchen.”
Asked about what dish reminds him most of his grandmother, Chef Jongsiri said Southern-style tom khem with steamed eggs.
“Tom khem is a delicious soup using fresh coconut milk boiled with vegetables from the South, dried shrimp, and shrimp paste. It’s not spicy. Grandma would add bitter beans and coconut shoots. This was the dish that got me to eat vegetables when I was a kid, because when it was in the soup, it tasted good to me. It’s on my restaurant’s menu as Tom Khem Muang Khon. As for her steamed eggs, they were a favourite when I was little, but she wouldn’t tell me her recipe. Why are they so smooth and silky? It was like she was challenging me. So, I kept trying to make them. She actually tricked me into it, but it was fun. At first, the eggs were hard, not fluffy at all. Finally, I messed up my way to her recipe! So as a kid, I would make the steamed eggs, not my grandmother. This is a dish from both grandmother and grandson.”
As the captain helming a Two MICHELIN Starred restaurant, we had to ask which of his dishes impressed his grandmother the most? He replied, “When I came back to take over from my grandmother’s restaurant, I would be the one to cook. But in the end, whenever I go back to her, she’s the one who wants to get up and cook for everyone.”
Hero photos and photo of Chef Supaksorn Jongsiri: © Courtesy of the chefs mentioned in this article, Anuwat Senivansa Na Ayudhya / MICHELIN Guide Thailand