THE first great food invasion of these shores must have come with the Romans. Before that, our Brit ancestors were content to slap on the woad and squat around the campfire, eating scavenged offal and cups of mud. Come to think of it, that probably explains why we seem to be genetically predisposed to McDonald’s.
When the Romans left, everything went quiet for a while and, as the Dark Ages descended, we lost the recipe for lasagne and spag bol.
Then the Normans arrived and brought with them French cuisine. The trouble was, they refused to share it. The country quickly became divided into a class system.
The aristocracy, those with French names, were enjoying venison diane and truffles washed down with chateau lafite while the rest of us were stewing up the odd hedgehog and boiling our vegetables to a grey pulp.
This seemingly intractable state of affairs continued until a strange thing happened. The great unwashed masses – and yes, I do mean you and me – suddenly started to become a little wealthier.
In the 1960s, people began to discover they could afford holidays in sunnier climes than Blackpool and a few adventurous pathfinders were dipping a tentative toe in the Mediterranean.
Soon we were all at it – and we began to discover two things, depending on our perspective:
1. All the resorts did a great line in all-day fry-ups, beans on toast, egg and chips and Watney’s Red Barrel. There was no need to risk the foreign muck.
2. There was an exciting new world out there, full of marvellous and unexpected treats – fish that looked like fish, vegetables that had not had the flavour remorselessly stewed out of them, unthinkably exotic ingredients like peppers and olives.
At home, Chinese chippies were blossoming everywhere, quickly followed by Indian restaurants.
Suddenly Brits would try anything. Soon we had Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, American, Turkish, Greek.
But, bringing us up to date, the most significant late arrivals have been Thai restaurants. They are to the culinary invasion what Polish plumbers are to the human influx... everywhere and generally welcome.
I first tried Thai almost 20 years ago when I stumbled across a newly-opened restaurant in Kensington. I immediately fell in love with the cuisine.
Now, of course, Thai restaurants seem to be around every corner – but they still retain that exotic air.
Take the Siam, on Chester’s City Road, for instance.
Four of us visited last week to discover a curious schizophrenic type of establishment – Japanese and raucous downstairs, Thai and more laid-back upstairs.
The building, taking up a couple of floors above the excellent canalside Harker’s pub, seems to be a remodelled warehouse and is decorated in sparse but attractive style – bare brick walls with a coating of terracotta paint.
Dave and I decided we would kick off the evening in Japanese mode – pints of Kirin Ichiban at £3.25. The beer was by far the most expensive on the menu – other prices are far more reasonable – but Dave was on a huge celebratory high after the successful culmination of a work project that had taken him months.
Angela had a gin and tonic (£3.35) and Beverley enjoyed a glass of dry house white.
If there is a criticism of Thai restaurants that crops up with regularity it is that the menus tend to be a little confusing.
The Siam is no exception – so what is a foursome to do? Order a set banquet, that’s what.
Banquet C, at £25.95, looked just up our street – but alarm bells were ringing for Angela and I.
It included hot and sour king prawn soup. Now we had both had our fingers, not to mention our tongues, burnt by Thai hot and sour in the past so we decided to substitute chicken in Thai spicy coconut cream soup from Banquet B.
‘I wouldn’t normally do that, but I will for you,‘ said our charming waiter with a knowing grin. I bet he says that to all the punters.
In fact, he was the third charming waiter to attempt to take our order within 10 minutes – service is not a problem.
We ordered a bottle of Pinot Grigiot Terre del Noce, according to the menu dry and crisp with clean, light, aromatic fruits. I couldn’t argue with that description.
Starters were spicy Thai fishcakes with a sweet chilli sauce – a little too rubbery for my taste.
The other four starter items were excellent. The chicken kebabs with satay and prawn and pork dumplings with soy were well received but the stars of the show were the barbecue ribs – falling-apart, bone-gnawing, finger-licking gorgeous little beauties that they were.
The soup showed I was wrong to be suspicious – a taste of Beverley’s proved it to be spicy but not unbearably so.
But it turned out Angela and I had made the right decision – our chicken concoction was simply beautiful and a rather jealous Beverley and Dave were forced to agree.
The crispy duck third course was not particularly crispy but it was particularly nice, and although Beverley ducked out (sorry), three of us polished it off.
With belt buckles straining, we asked for and received a little reprieve before our mains and I decided to go a for a walk.
Raucous laughter and cheering had been drifting up the stairs from the Japanese section below and my investigation presented me with a strange sight.
A group of young men was sitting around the chef who was, to general and loud merriment, quickly cooking something and then flicking food in the air.
The customers were catching – or attempting to catch – it in their mouths. If you’ve ever seen sea lions being fed you will get the picture – although the sea lions are much better fielders.
Then to the gents’ – decorated in presumably traditional Thai style with paintings of scantily clad couples, who appeared to be giving each other some form of massage.
Despite close – and I mean close – perusal, I couldn’t quite make out what was going on but I did notice the gentleman participant had a huge smile.
By now, we felt ready for our mains – scallops and cashew nuts, chicken green curry, mixed seasonal vegetables in oyster sauce and king prawn in Thai special curry paste.
What can I say? They were all excellent.
I was particularly taken with the scallops and Dave, not a huge fan of nuts, was forced to revise his opinion of cashews.
Dave and Beverley felt the curry paste was a little too overpowering and gloopy. I didn’t – I loved it. That’s what a banquet is all about, picking and mixing to your own taste.
The green curry and the mixed veg got a thumbs-up from us all.
The only downside of the whole evening was that we decided to have a drink in Harker’s, only to find it had closed – surprisingly in the current climate – at 11pm.
Perhaps we should set off earlier next time.
Siam Thai restaurant, 32 City Road, Chester CH1 3AE
Price for four, including drinks, two bottles of wine and set banquet: £144.35
Best thing: Excellent food, excellent decor, excellent service.
Worst thing: Confusing menu.
Would suit: Lovers of Oriental food.
Wouldn’t suit: The egg and chips brigade.