Hold the pretension

ThaiDay, 11/05/06
What's the quickest way to South India? Families converge on a fast-food favorite.

I had been eating at Komala’s, a Singapore-based Indian restaurant on Sukhumvit Soi 20, since it opened in 2002, and always harbored suspicions that the food was good. My hunch was confirmed when the food and beverage manager of a five-star Bangkok hotel—himself a native Indian and former chef—mentioned to me that Kormala’s was his favorite Indian restaurant in town. This is all it took for me to go back to the restaurant with an even more critical view.

Do keep in mind that in the case of Komala’s, restaurant is a loose term. Specializing in southern Indian style vegetarian cuisine, Komala’s is a self-confessed peddler of fast food. But, please don’t run away just yet. As one would expect from a fast food joint, the emphasis on value (is this necessarily a bad thing?), and few of the restaurant’s dishes cost more than 100 baht. Unfortunately, this frugality is also manifest in the restaurant’s interior, which seems to share the same design sensibilities as McDonald’s (plastic molded chairs, an overabundance of counters, reckless use of teal), but luckily not in the food, which despite the setting, is as vibrant and delicious as any Indian restaurant in Bangkok.

Komala's South Indian Meal.

Visiting Komala’s with a companion one recent Sunday, I strode into a restaurant packed to the gills with Indian families on their day out. Indeed, virtually every time I’ve been to Komala’s, I’m generally the only White Guy, which is generally a good sign. Ordering food here involves a confusing process of placing an order at the counter in the front of the restaurant (“Ordering Counter”) and taking the receipt to a counter in the back of the restaurant (“Servery Counter”), whereupon the food will be probably brought to your table by the wait staff. Despite the obvious setbacks, this system can sometimes work in the diner’s favor, such as when my companion was given a delicious dish (onion uttappham, ? baht) he hadn’t actually ordered.

I chose the South Indian Meal, a vast banana leaf topped with a manly mound of rice and no less than 12 different items including rasam, a sour broth; sambar, a hearty soup of pureed lentils and spices; and several delicious sides of steamed raw banana and curried vegetables, among others. Being a fan of sour tastes, I thoroughly relished the tart rasam and the mouth-puckering achar, and even liked the dessert—a tiny cup containing sweetened warm milk with vermicelli. I washed this down with the traditional can of Elephant Ginger Beer (“Using real ginger”), a tasty beverage of Sri Lankan origin.

Ordering at Komala's might be a confusing ordeal, but the food compares favorably to that found in any other Indian restaurant in Bangkok, especially given the prices. Just ignore the unfortunate color scheme and the plastic chairs.

My companion ordered the Mysore masala (95 baht), a large triangle of thin crispy dough filled with a spicy pulse and vegetable mixture, which he found agreeable. Indeed, the various breads associated with southern Indian cooking (dosai, rawa, parrotta, poori) are the restaurant’s specialty, and all are served with sides of coconut chutney, onion chutney, and the aforementioned sambar. Many of the breads are intimidating in their girth, but are generally quite light, and I never find one to be enough. However I still recall the shock on the faces of a Thai couple when served a dosai the length of a baseball bat.

Desiring more, my companion ordered a plate of samosa (? baht), which was the biggest disappointment of the meal. As if punishing us for ordering such a banal Indian standard, the samosa were doughy and tasteless, and seemed to have forgotten that they were supposed to be crispy. Also a letdown was another Indian cliché, the mango lassi (? baht). The drink appeared to be nothing more than yoghurt laced with a miserly swirl of mango syrup, and tasted correspondingly.

A girl enjoys bhattura, a deep-fried bread of southern Indian origin.

A girl at the table next to ours ordered a deep-fried bread that was puffed up to the size of a small basketball, a bhattura, I later learned. As the girl poked the bread with her finger in an effort to deflate it, her father told us that the food at the Bangkok Komala’s was “different” than that of its Singaporean predecessor, although he wasn’t able to explain exactly how. In general I found the food at Komala’s to be everything good food should be: tasty, a good value, and fun, bringing into question why other restaurants need to go to such pretentious lengths (custom-designed carpets, foie gras) to provide good sustenance. Although honestly, somewhat less teal would be appreciated.

15 Sukhumvit Soi 20
02 663 5971-2