Blue Plate Special: Hattapon's Thai Kitchen
Hattaporn Wattanarat wasn’t sure she could survive in the United States, she recalled in a recent interview. She didn’t object to the climate or the people ... but the food stymied her.
The Thai native moved to this country in 1998 with her partner, Beth Greeney, whom she had met in Thailand. When Wattanarat came to these shores and tried American cuisine, she found so little to her taste that she lost an enormous amount of weight. She told herself, “I cannot live here.”
In order to have something to eat she began preparing the dishes her mother had taught her to make back home. She soon gravitated toward cooking Thai food professionally as well as personally.
After learning the restaurant trade at Thai Corner in Amherst, Wattanarat decided she was ready to helm her own establishment. With help from Greeney, she opened Hattapon’s Thai Kitchen in a small Greenfield storefront in 2006. (For some reason the “r” was left out of Hattaporn Wattanarat’s first name in the restaurant’s official name.)
The restaurant moved to its larger quarters on Main Street three and a half years ago. Greeney, who had been helping out on weekends, joined Wattanarat full time at the new location.
The two are the restaurant’s only staff. They admit that they can feel a bit stretched when a crowd comes in, but in general they appear calm and organized.
Greeney, who jokes that she is “just the surly waitress,” keeps her cool as she does whatever needs doing — table work, dishes, even cooking. Wattanarat cheerfully prepares food standing on a small platform that enables her tiny frame to reach the stove.
The two seem to know most of the people who come in; they have a loyal following of locals and non-locals in search of authentic Thai cuisine. The Kitchen’s most popular menu items are Pad Thai and a peanut-sauce, noodles, and vegetable dish called Angel in the Garden.
I asked them to describe Thai food.
“It’s salty, sweet, sour, and spicy,” said Wattanarat.
“It’s very balanced with all those flavors,” added Greeney. She noted that when she first arrived in Thailand she was surprised to find salt added to sweet drinks like smoothies and juices. She soon learned to appreciate the mixture of tastes, however. “The salt really reacts with the food in such a nice way,” she explained.
As the recipe Wattanarat made for photographer Beth Reynolds and me demonstrates, Thai cuisine involves a great deal of preparation, most of it traditionally done with the simplest of tools.
Wattanarat remembered that getting food ready for her mother to cook was a lot of work. “To cook for (my mother) and make her satisfied is hard,” she announced.
“I’m glad I’m not her sous chef anymore!”
In the restaurant she has introduced some non-Thai technology such as graters and peelers, but she often still blends her ingredients in a mortar and pestle and uses a simple knife for chopping.
The dish she made when we visited was a spicy papaya salad known as Som Tum. It can be found on every street corner in Thailand, Wattanarat and Greeney told us. Surprisingly, each individual flavor stands out among the carefully balanced ingredients.
Hattapon’s Thai Kitchen is open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. Because only two people work there, Greeney suggested that would-be diners call or check the restaurant’s Facebook page before coming in to make sure it is open — particularly in February.
“In February,” said Wattanarat with a smile, “we like to go to Thailand.”
According to Wattanarat and Greeney, this papaya salad is a popular Thai version of a traditional Laotian dish. In Laos it is customarily made with fermented fish. Although it did not originate in Thailand, Greeney told me, the salad is “real Thai food—great flavors, great chiles.”
THAI PAPAYA SALAD
1 to 3 chile peppers, to taste (start with 1 and see whether you want more heat)
1 clove garlic
a handful of green beans
1/4 cup peanuts
1 teaspoon palm sugar (regular sugar may be substituted)
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon tamarind paste (optional)
1 to 2 teaspoons lemon or lime juice
1/2 tomato, cut up, or several tiny tomatoes
1 cup shredded unripe papaya
1/2 cup shredded carrot
Combine the chile(s), garlic, and green beans in a mortar and pestle. Blend until the mixture resembles a paste. Add some of the peanuts and mix roughly. Blend in the sugar, the fish sauce, and the tamarind paste if you are using it.
Lightly mix in the tomatoes, the papaya pieces, and the carrot pieces. Cover with the remaining peanuts.
Serve with sticky rice or regular rice. Serves 1 to 2.