Songkran, the traditional Thai new year festival celebrated on April 13-15, typically involves people dousing one another with water for three days straight. However, these hijinks may not go down too well over here, which is why the majority of Dubai-based celebrations for Songkran are limited to food. Not that we’re complaining, mind you – any excuse to tuck into tasty Thai fare is fine by us. To learn more about the culinary traditions of Songkran, Time Out caught up with Chef Mac Withojit from Thiptara restaurant.
‘Songkran is a very family-oriented festival,’ explains Chef Mac. ‘I come from the north-east of Thailand and whenever I was working in Bangkok, my boss would let me go back home to see my family – everybody would do the same. You get together, you eat together and talk about life. And you throw water over everyone. Then you go back to work.’
So how is food involved? ‘Food is a big part of the festival,’ continues Chef Mac. ‘When I was working in Bangkok, there were a lot of things that we couldn’t eat [foods we couldn’t find] because I come from a very mountainous area, so when we went home we were looking to eat our local delicacies.’ Such as? ‘Something very popular. Like insects, you know? Beetles, worms…’
Chef Mac says these ‘delicacies’ could be fried or cooked in a banana leaf, though sadly they won’t be on Thiptara’s menu come Songkran. However, we can look forward to special duck dishes. ‘We always have duck,’ confirms the jovial chef. ‘You eat the duck with a honey sauce, and it gives you good luck. The honey is natural and sweet. It will bring sweetness into your life. You know, if someone doesn’t love you, now they’re going to love you. And then you mix tamarind with the honey. Tamarind represents long life, because a tamarind seed can last hundreds of years… served with crispy onions.’
The significance of the lucky duck derives from Chinese tradition – Chef Mac points out that at every special occasion in China, from weddings to New Year, the Chinese will eat duck for this reason. Not so lucky for the duck, we imagine.
When we press Chef Mac for more of his favourite dishes, he waxes lyrical about one particular Thai favourite: papaya salad (som tam thai). ‘I eat it every day. Two times a day! Sometimes I make it so hot it’s as though I want to kill myself! You eat it and you sweat – the more you eat, the more weight you lose. Have you seen any fat Thai people?’
In truth, we haven’t, and while Chef Mac concedes that papaya salad isn’t a Songkran dish, just a favourite of his, it will be featuring on Thiptara’s special Songkran menu. As will pla todd sam rod – Chef Mac’s eyes light up at the mention of this dish. Fish dishes are popular during the festival and while he won’t be using the traditional ingredient of plakapong [snapper], he’ll be using Greek sea bass as a substitute: ‘It has a very clean, sweet taste; it’s not oily. Then you add lemon and chili sauce, and throw over some coriander. That’s a winner for me.’ It sounds a winner for us too.
Chef Mac’s Songkran menu will be served on April 14-15 for Dhs279. Thiptara,The Palace, The Old Town (04 428 7888)
More Songkran deals
Benjarong: Celebrate a whole week of Songkran with Chef Naruemol Poolkuan, who has created a menu featuring grilled tiger prawns with tamarind sauce (goong pao nam pla wan or), spicy shrimp salad with Thai herbs (plar goong), and roasted duck in red curry with pineapple, tomatoes, and grapes (gaeng phed ped yang).
Prices vary. April 10-16, 7pm-11.30pm. Dusit Thani Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 317 4515).
Blue Elephant: As well as the usual Thai buffet, Thai dancers will be performing during Songkran.
Dhs210 (selected house beverages); Dhs105 (kids aged six to 12); free for under sixes. April 13-15, 7pm-midnight. Al Bustan Rotana Dubai, Garhoud (04 705 4818).
Fish Market: For Songkran, Chef Sombun presents a festive menu for lunch and dinner including traditional char-grilled seafood skewers, fried hammour topped with Asian herbs, or baked hallwa stuffed with onions, garlic and capsicum.
Dishes start at Dhs130. April 10-14, 12.30pm-3.15pm (lunch); 7.30pm-11.15pm. Radisson Blu, Dubai Deira Creek (04 205 7333).