Rama Thai is that rare find – a genuinely happy place, a place you can count on to lift your spirits no matter how hard the rain is outside.
If you want to see this as a metaphor for war, Brexit, Covid and government incompetence I won’t get in your way, mainly because my mind is now so crushed I barely have the energy to reach a Valium or a glass of Valpolicella Ripasso to temporarily take away the pain of 2022.
As the world looks more and more like the site of a permanent winter, I take comfort in the fact that March is at least the start of the warm season in Thailand, in the same way that I can now rationalize the opening of a bottle of wine at 5 p.m. because, somewhere in the world, the sun finally passes over that damned yard.
Also, the clocks have changed and we can finally see small signs of renewal in our daily lives. Every little gesture counts!
In confusing and confusing times like these the eye must travel and I now often find myself hurtling down a mental time tunnel to sunnier and happier climes which might also explain why the brilliant owner of Rama Thai was left for this beautiful country a few days after having dined in his cheerful restaurant in Dundee.
I’m pretty sure I asked him to take me with him, despite the fact that we had only just met.
Rama is wonderful and joins a small list of restaurants in Dundee which are trying valiantly to improve the general standard and range of food on offer in the city. I adore it and thank Buddha or the Thai goddess Nang Kwak that it exists.
It’s a place that makes you feel good, a happy place in a world of fear and anger – much like a vacation in Thailand itself.
A celebration of food and travel
Happy places are so important in life, and of course many of mine are restaurants and hotels. That’s something from someone who didn’t fly until the age of 26, as our very occasional family vacation was always at Butlin’s holiday camp in Ayr.
Mum used to pay for this vacation every week at Napper Thomson’s shop in Lochee, from where the coaches eventually left to take our working classes to the land of chairoplanes, chalets, discos playing T.Rex, adverts of stentorian tannoy and desperate attempts to get a kiss with this girl from Glasgow before the lights go out.
Hello! was the Savoy in comparison. The food at Butlin was disastrous – British canteen cooking at its worst. The fact that it was served in seance did nothing to dispel the idea that it was less a holiday than an exercise in mass observance and obedience.
To this day, I run a mile from any vacation that bills itself as all-inclusive, a place where you never need to leave the resort to experience life in all its messy glory.
I was a late developer drifting off to see the world. The first time I flew was when EMI Records sent me to America with a reporter and I had to ask him how to fasten my seatbelt. At 26, I was at least too old to be embarrassed, although my companion was incredulous at my naivety, especially since my main reason for being on that plane was to be his chaperone.
I now feel so blessed that my work allowed me to travel the world for decades before we were all so cruelly grounded; unlike Albert Camus, I really thought I could reinvent myself in each country I visited.
And, although my all-time happy place was the original Bel-Air Hotel in Los Angeles – the smell of wood smoke coming from each bougainvillea-covered pink villa at 6 p.m. as you passed the azure pool which Marilyn Monroe once swam in, was hugely intoxicating – it was the vacation to the Far East that proved most transformative for this born-again world traveler.
This was largely due to the food and the culture that surrounded it.
If you’ve ever had a simple meal in Thailand or Bali, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
There, the celebration of food is almost performative – the exact opposite of food as fuel so ubiquitous in Western culture.
What was telling about traveling abroad for us pasty Brits experiencing world cuisine for the first time was not just the vast array of unfamiliar produce, it was how these disparate elements were combined and presented.
It was, literally, a new world, and a world I wanted a huge bite out of.
Much of Western food is a one-note symphony – two if you’re lucky; as such it is often the equivalent of a composition by Steve Reich or Harold Budd. Yes, it’s often beautiful and it’s also often deeply felt, but the tonal variations in taste and texture don’t seem as alchemical as in foods from faraway lands.
Thai cuisine is a very good example of precision, innovation and balance.
Before going to eat at Rama, I had coincidentally been engrossed once again in that seminal book of Thai cuisine – Thai Food, by David Thompson.
I think I’ve quoted this book every time I’ve written about Thai cooking and there’s a reason for that. I simply haven’t found any other reference that offers such a broad and comprehensive exploration of this amazing cuisine.
The fact that the book was published in 2002 and remains a textbook today speaks volumes. Some 20 years after its publication, it remains an indispensable companion for anyone wishing to explore the culture of Thai cuisine, as well as how to cook it.
I could quote much of this important volume here, including the fascinating section that explores the rice cycle and festival calendar, but here is David Thompson explaining the fundamentals of Thai cooking:
“Thai cuisine is the opposite of Western cuisine, where two or three flavors blend together in an elegant way to arrive at a distillation of the required flavors. Thai cuisine creates a place of flavor in every dish, through its components, producing a complexity that can be dazzling.
“Recipes can be simplified and adapted but, to do so without debasing the kitchen, one must have a full appreciation of what needs to be changed before it can be successfully adapted.
“So the recipes should become a starting point, the beginning of possibilities, a starting point.”
I like this concise explanation because it recognizes the importance of getting the basics right while appreciating that food and recipes are soulful celebrations (I apologize for the laborious pun, but it’s true).
Elsewhere in the book, Thompson explains that Thai cookbooks themselves are relatively new, with the first published in the late 19th century.
Before that, recipes were passed down orally from generation to generation.
Knowing this stuff makes a trip to a good Thai restaurant even more rewarding. And make no mistake, Rama Thai is a very good Thai restaurant.
Thai places in the UK quite often fall under two visual archetypes, the first being the bare room, devoid of much decoration, and almost monk-like in Zen approach to design and comfort.
Rama is not that. Rama is what you get when you take the ostentation of a Thai temple to a space in Dundee’s Dock Street. Minimalist it is not.
Whenever I go to Rama I am always struck by the exuberance of the place and the fact that it attracts a real cross section of clientele. There are visitors from local hotels. The arts gang of DJCAD and the V&A.
Regulars who know their Thai cuisine so well they just have to look at the extensive menu. Families sharing a banquet. All life is here, and there is a certain knowledge of the place that encourages that.
Is it the location? The fact that you have to look for it even though it’s right in the city center (parking nearby is free at night, of course).
It is certainly the warmth of the welcome, which is genuine and expansive. Once through these doors, you feel transported to another world, which is exactly what it should be.
The food is great and you could happily come here once or twice a week and never get bored of the menu.
Their takeaway menu is also excellent and I only wish they had the ability to deliver here in Fife. The standout dishes for me on our last visit were both recommended by the owner and both were spot on. My starter of sai oua (£5.95) was a wonderful dish of homemade pork sausages with lemongrass, coriander and chilli, served with a choice of sweet chilli sauce or ‘a taste surprise’.
Go for the surprise because there is already enough sweet pepper in your life. Plus, you really want to put all five components of this dish in your mouth and let your salivary glands get to work, because the taste explosion is a joy – like a cracker exploding five times in your mouth, if not. is not the case. sound too weird.
My main course of pad kraprao (£12.95) was also the deal, a classic Isaan spicy dish of fresh chillies, with sweet basil and vegetables, it was both spicy and subtle in the same range. I took the recommendation to have a fried egg on top (don’t judge me, Ian the owner advised, and he was right) and urge you to do the same.
Incidentally, there is a recipe for fried eggs in David Thompson’s book in which he recommends dressing the eggs with sweet fish sauce.
Vegetarians are well catered for here and David was very happy with his Tom Kah soup (£4.95) and his red vegetable and pineapple curry with tofu (£10.95). The coconut rice (£3.50) was perfectly cooked.
We didn’t have dessert this time but I can guarantee the Banana Donut (£4.95) is worth the size angst and the Coconut Delight (nutty ice cream de coco served in a basket of brandy and garnished with fresh fruit) sounds just the ticket, marked £5.95.
Rama is a delight. Great food, exceptional service and a location that is both transformative and uplifting. These people care about the food they serve and they care about your enjoyment. A gem in the middle of Dundee.
Address: 32/34 Dock Street, Dundee, DD1 3DR
P: 01382 223366
Price: Starters from £4.95, mains from £10.95, dessert from £4.95
- Food 5/5
- Service 5/5
- Around 5/5
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[A celebration of food to lift flagging spirits at Dundee’s Rama Thai]