Disclaimer: I have never been to Thailand. I have never stood on a street corner in Bangkok, watching monks stream out of the temple to collect their morning rations as I eagerly await my own steaming bowl of jok–congee garnished with pork and fried egg. I have never skirted the crush of the marketplace in search of the perfect sour plum. In short, I do not know what Thai street food “should” taste like. But as a lover of Southeast Asian cuisine, I know what I want it to taste like. It is sharp and sweet and salty and spicy. It is slow-cooked, flash-fried, and fresh-picked. Personally, it is everything I want in a meal. And it is why I visit kBird so often.
Richard Glasgow has made a name for himself serving up the best Thai food in central Arkansas. If you have ever spoken to him, this acclaim should come as no surprise; the man knows his stuff. I sat down with him to learn more about the building blocks of his cooking.
When Glasgow opened “kBird” in 2012, it was a huge coup for the Little Rock food truck scene. Suddenly, fresh, authentic Thai food was available in Hillcrest most nights of the week. Glasgow opened a brick-and-mortar at 600 N. Tyler St. in November of last year. His rotating menu of regional curries and stir-fries, as well as traditional soups and green papaya salad, keeps customers old and new coming back for more. Every dish is made from scratch, and there is not an afterthought on the menu. Glasgow is a conscientious student of Thai cuisine, honing his skills with annual visits to Thailand.
What sets Thai food apart from other Southeast Asian culinary traditions has as much to do with method as ingredients. “Thai food almost always, if not always, starts in a mortar and pestle. That’s one. The other is you use sour fruits instead of vinegar to sour things.”
“Matt [Clark] and I make curry paste with the mortar and pestle down there.” He points to a black stone basin on the shelf beside me. It is coarse and pitted and retains a few flecks of plant matter. “Takes anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to make. It usually lasts maybe two days, tops. We use about a tablespoon in single plate of food.”
Glasgow goes on the explain the utility of this fundamental paste. “It goes into all the food in different ways. You can break it into oil, fry it in oil, you can dissolve it into liquid, you can crack coconut milk, which is knocking out the solids, separating the oil and the solids, and then fry it in that. That’s a regional difference. Rural curries, rustic curries, are pretty much just dissolved into boiling water, because cooking in oil is more modern.”
At kBird, that oil is canola and lard.
As for the pastes themselves, Glasgow often has to get creative. “Kaffir lime rind is something we just cannot get. We use just regular lime rind. That’s one of the substitutes. We’re going to end up growing them ourselves. [We use] a lot of cilantro root from Arkansas Natural Produce, when they tear up their beds of cilantro and keep them.”
Why the root? “The flavor of the root is different, certainly more intense than the flavor of the seed, which is different than the leaf, which is different than the stem. It’s also a root, so it has fibers, and breaking them down in the mortar and pestle is part of what thickens the curry.”
Now, as I greedily take in the aspect of Glasgow’s kitchen, I am once again left reeling by the sheer scale of indigenous food knowledge around the world–and by my incredible good fortune whenever such morsels find their way to my little corner. Blinking away stars, I ask him to tell me more about the shrimp paste.
“We go in and out with shrimp paste to accommodate vegetarians. So our red curry paste doesn’t always have shrimp paste in it. It should, in Thailand. Vegetarianism really isn’t a concept in Thailand as such […] there’s no word for vegetarianism in Thai.”
Shrimp paste is usually made from krill-like shrimp pounded into a paste and fermented for months. At kBird, they use the same fresh Gulf shrimp that goes into their green curry and tom yam soup. “We’ve actually got some out there on the porch. It’s been out since August, in a mason jar. And that’s a super classical Thai ingredient, for umami. It’s a means of preserving seasonally available protein sources. Fish sauce [likewise preserves] fresh water fish.”
Glasgow emphasizes that, “ingredient-wise, it is driven as much by where you are as what is ‘supposed’ to be in a dish.” For example, the use of sour fruits varies regionally. “Central and Southern Thais use lots and lots of tamarind, which is a pod. There are two kinds: there’s a sour tamarind and a sweet tamarind. You can eat them both fresh–they look like beans–but typically they’re dried and packed down. [Then] they’re almost like dates or figs. It’s really sour, but not in a bad way. That’s one sour fruit. Makham is tamarind. Ma- is the prefix for sour fruits.”
“The most simple paste, the most basic one we have around, is just chilis and lime juice and sugar and a little bit of fish sauce just dissolved together. That’s kind of like the hot-sour-salty-sweet all in one.” Glasgow keeps a wide variety of housemade sauces on hand, per customer request.
One would think that in order to achieve the wealth of flavors and textures available on kBird’s menu, Glasgow spends most of his time shopping. But in fact he has been able to source many ingredients locally, and if not locally, through Arkansas family-owned businesses.
A few dry goods are imported, such as the noodles, rice, rice flour, palm sugar, tamarind, and chili flakes, though they are often able to substitute Mexican chilies. “Remember, all everyone thinks about chilies is being a big ingredient in Asian food, and they are, but they weren’t in Asia until the Portuguese brought it in the 1500s.” Other imports include coconut milk and green peppercorns. “That’s the only thing we use that’s in a jar or can; if you know how to get any fresh green peppercorns, let me know.”
All of the meat, however, is local. “We’re getting it from the Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative. We use chicken, pigs, and that’s about it. There is beef in Thai food, but not a lot. You don’t see a lot of it on the street; that’s kind of a luxury item.”
In the summer, farmers’ market vendors like Arkansas Natural Produce and Little Rock Urban Farming are able to provide all of the fresh herbs, like holy basil, cilantro, and Thai basil. “Here and there we can get the vegetables, lemongrass, galangal, shallots, stuff like that […] I go to Sam’s Oriental Store [for everything I can’t get from local growers]. The quality of produce at Sam’s, whether it be organic or non-organic, is of a higher quality and better than wholesale-shipped-on-a-truck-from-somewhere organic stuff.”
Although many of kBird’s signature dishes reflect what is available in the streets and markets of Thailand, Glasgow’s commitment to traditional preparation methods lends a homestyle touch. “We fall a little bit all over the map. All of the wok-based dishes are street food–pat thai, fried rice, pat grapow–and then many of the curries are homecooking. Papaya salad is probably the most common, most popular street food in all of Thailand. […] That said, we’re doing them homestyle. We’re doing them all from scratch like people’s grandmas. We don’t have an electric appliance, not one. We don’t have a mixer, we don’t have a food processor. Just knives and mortars and pestles.”
Now, we all know authenticity is a fraught term. It implies that there is a single correct story of a given place, a story that can be replicated and parceled up and consumed as truth. Glasgow avoids the word, explaining that Thai food, like other national cuisines, “differs from region to region and place to place, so what’s authentic to someone from, say, Bangkok is different than what’s authentic or what they grew up eating 150 miles north of there in Phitsanulok, which differs from another 200 or 300 miles north in Chiang Rai. It just depends on the trade routes that were there, what’s available.”
Glasgow’s reverence–there is no other word for it–for the food and people of Thailand translates into a menu that celebrates regional differences and offers something for everyone.
“I’m very lucky to have a group of people who can objectively qualify whether kBird food is good or bad, and that’s the Thai people of Little Rock. They come here and they eat, and they like it. They say, ‘Rhot chaat’–Proper taste. They look around [the restaurant] and they say, ‘This is a lot of work.’ And I say, ‘Thank you.’”