Saturday, March 21, 2009

Aroi Means 'Delicious'

What's the best meal you ate this week?

Mine was this lovely assemblage from Aroi, the Thai restaurant in Rhinebeck. Squid salad with fresh mint, cilantro, lime and chilis. The sweet-salty-fishy-spicy thing is something Thai people have mastered. It's an acquired taste to some American palates, but acquire it. No American salad will tickle your taste buds like this one.

Since I lived in Thailand for three years, people are always asking me what I think of the food at Aroi. I have to say that I am biased. 1. because the Thai food I ate every day at open air markets and from street carts can never be made here, and 2. because I love Apichart and Suphat, who own Aroi.

What I love about Aroi is that every time I walk in, the ladies from the kitchen come out to take my son into their arms. He is, as my Thai friends say, "luk khern" or a "half-child." He calls himself a Thai boy, and at Aroi he is embraced as all children in Thailand are. When I lived there, pushing my stroller from mango stand to noodle cart, I was regularly stopped on the sidewalk by teenage boys cooing at my baby. Hasn't happened here, I can tell you.

I also love chatting with Suphat and Apichart. They are from Chiang Rai in the north of Thailand. The kitchen is full of their family, and it makes me homesick just to hear their soft voices and sweet sense of humor. As in Thailand, everyone who works in the restaurant lives upstairs. Their son plays with his Legos in the back room. Family life, work, and friends are one big soup.

But, it's the food you really want to know about. Thai people often make a tactical error when preparing food for farang, as they call us. They hold back the strong flavors. In Thailand, you are invariably asked, "Can you eat Thai food?" Literally, can you take the heat? You say, yes. They still take it easy on you. Aroi suffered a bit from this problem when it first opened. Customers complained about fishy-ness, and as a result dried shrimp rarely appear in dishes. Unfortunate, because a lot of flavor is lost. With time, Aroi has begun to trust our ability to "eat Thai food." The flavors are now much closer to "Thai for Thai" as they call it, as opposed to "Thai for farang."

So, what to order? You don't have to be a talented cook to make a decent Thai curry at home, since high quality curry pastes are available everywhere. And, Thai people just don't eat spring rolls and satay. Sure, they can be found, but they are hardly culinary staples. If you want a real taste of Thai food, order salad. The larb at Aroi is divine. Cold chicken, beef or tofu (I vote beef) sliced very thin and tossed with lime, chili, herbs and roasted rice powder. In Thailand, this is so strongly flavored that you'd be inclined to accept the Thai whiskey offered with it. (Thank goodness we're in Rhinebeck.) For soups try Tom Kha Gai, or chicken soup with Thai ginger. It's spot on. Thai people extol the virtues of the herbs in this soup as a cure for all ills.

The desserts at Aroi are fabulous. Thais don't eat chocolate and have only recently developed a taste for coffee, so there won't be anything on the menu to plop a birthday candle into. Thai desserts are SWEET. As we like to say in our house, SA-WEET. Pumpkin custard with sticky rice and mango with sticky rice balance sweetness with coconut milk and a hint of salt. You must. You really must.

And, don't forget to eat your rice. It is polite in Thai culture to taste a spoonful of rice before eating any other dish. The steamed jasmine rice at Aroi is perfect. Don't even think of ordering brown. Eat your rice. Eat lots of it, and you will be happy.

Aroi Thai Restaurant is at 55 E. Market St. in Rhinebeck. Phone 845-876-1114. Hours are Thursday to Monday 11:30 to 3 and 5 to 9; Tuesday and Wednesday 5 to 9. Take-out is very popular.


  1. Another great dish is the Chuchee fish (usually halibut) always delicious. Ezra has been practicing his one word in Thai there. I think its time for him to learn some more.

  2. The best fish I ever ate in Thailand was prepared this way... right off a boat and eaten on the dock. Wish I had a wok big enough to make it here...