A Lesson in Gaa: Garima Arora Takes on Manila
I’ve never been one to shy away from spice. The idea of tasting broad profiling strokes of Indian cuisine (here, the fiery factor hits every taste bud) with the distinct flavours of Thailand (this type of heat presses certain bud buttons as well as those at the back near the tongue) was a tantalising match to anticipate.
Mumbai-born Garima Arora had with her her core crew; PR manager and coordinator Teerana Hiranyakorn, who thoughtfully walked the guests through the genesis of every flavour fabrication of each and every Gaa signature in the 10-course repast. Hiranyakorn divulged that a full tasting menu at Bangkok’s acclaimed Gaa (No. 14 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list—the highest new entry for the year opened April 2017) is 13 courses but every now and then, Arora likes to sneak in secret creations on a whim. Also with her was chef Manav Khanna and Filipina R&D chef Samantha Jumchai.
This was the first of two consecutive evenings and both, as it were, saw Arora cater to a full house on both occasions.
Cross Cultures founder, Cheryl Tiu, explained that prior to the Gaa team’s arrival, interest in employing Filipino ingredients were expressed and Margarita Forés was more than happy to oblige, even hosting them at her family’s Family Market in Araneta. Tiu, who also pointed out that this was her first Cross Cultures event in a two-year long hiatus (having executed a number in the US and around Asia), happily accompanied them on their tasting spree around the city.
Keeping his welcome short and sweet, Discovery Primea GM, David Pardo de Ayala was intent on letting the food and wine speak for itself and turned to Moët Hennessy Philippines’ new Managing Director, Patrick Madendjian, to inaugurate the evening with a Veuve Clicquot and Cloudy Bay initiation. Later that evening, Pardo de Ayala, a former chef turned premier hotelier, attested that this was quite possibly the best thing he’d eaten all year.
To start, the chilled soup of pink guava, roselle (a type of hibiscus), and fermented mulberries was nothing short of refreshing. One would go as far as to say that this dish would have done spectacularly well at either end of the meal, appealing in particular to those who delight in light, fruity desserts.
Truly a highlight of the tasting menu was the trio of betel leaf, duck doughnut, and duck tongue paired with a sparkly Veuve Clicquot rosé. The leaf was crisped with duck stock and presented on an arrangement of dry twigs. Topped with chilli paste, the chickpea flour duck doughnut stuffed with keema filling, on its own, was utterly divine on every nuanced level—the initial bite, the mouthfeel and the intricate balance of the savoury and spice that ensued. The duck tongue was an intricately thought out quirky dish; glazed with tamarind with a smattering of coriander stems, which, Hiranyakorn interestingly pointed out, are sweeter than the leaf.
Toning down the heat, the very much vocalised crowd favourite was the chicken liver and longan on toast. Devoid of fiery ingredients, this dish was “softer” on the palate in one way, but more intense in another (think velvety rich pâté) punctuated by a juicy burst of sweet. A cool sip of the oaky Cloudy Bay chardonnay laced the tongue, pushing the pairing to another level.
Simple, straightforward and Asian-soul gratifying, the grilled young corn served with a corn milk dipping sauce was a nod to Indian street food. Fresh yeast oil was used to render a subtle nuttiness to the overarching chargrilled flavour. The magic finishing touches? A dash of black salt and a squirt of fresh lime. I could honestly consume this seven days a week without suffering from diminishing value on returns.
Inhaled in all but two divine bites, the sweet koji bread crowned with caviar left one wanting for a third. As demonstrated by Hiranyakorn, instead of applying the koji culture (typically used to ferment Japanese rice to produce sake), Arora instead fermented Thai jasmine rice. Aromas of lychee and banana wafted from the plate—the resultant chemistry between the koji and the jasmine rice—and brilliantly, Arora rounded off the experience with a syrupy “essence of banana.” “It’s blended ripe banana,” revealed Hiranyakorn, gesturing to the glass of banana water. “It’s basically the soul of the banana without the flesh.”
The talangka and fresh salad over and Indian flat bread (khakra) turns out to be the spiciest dish of the savoury lot and is perfectly doused by the chilled and vibrantly citrus Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc. Fresh from Forés’ market, the puro taba ng talangka (or fat of the talangka crab) was prepared with vinegar, and an added punch came by way of chopped red onions and refreshing mint.
The next creation could be best likened to the taco, comprising soft shell crab wrapped in a soft seaweed bread “shell.” Lining the seaweed bread is a creamy cashew paste and filling the “taco,” was a curious medley of fried local soft shell crab, chewy unsweetened nata de coco, and custard apple for texture. Crowning the delicious mess were vibrant marigold petals, and, to localise the coss-cultural dish even further was a squeeze of calamansi.
Visually inviting, the grilled pork belly topped with pomegranate, onion and coriander, was an exquisite lesson on how to prepare, cook, and present anything porcine. Adding textural drama, Arora augmented with tamarind vines and shallots. Never the popular choice in the Philippines, Forés complemented Madendjian on the wine pairing, Cloudy Bay’s cherry and plum-forward pinot noir, remarking that she ought to include it on all her menus.
Sweets were next and the first dessert of burnt coconut sugar ice cream liberally sprinkled with fluffy pork floss emerged from the kitchen. The addition of the salty-sweet pork floss, a familiar Thai street food, to the perfectly executed ice cream, showcased Arora’s knack for making something so simple and accessible, luxuriously exotic. Paired with a chilled Veuve, the bubbles and salt were meant to be.
The bitter sweet ending, both literally and figuratively, was the dark chocolate covered betel leaf, also beautifully bolstered by the vanilla and brioche notes of the champers. Arora, if you’re reading this, you need to mass produce your chocolate betel leaf and package it as the next big thing in Thai exports!
About Garima Arora
Gaa was awarded by the 2019 Michelin Guide for Thailand. She worked briefly as a journalist before pursuing her interest in the culinary arts. After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu Paris in 2010, she worked at Noma in Copenhagen, learning alongside René Redzepi. In 2016, she was appointed sous chef at Gaggan, the award-winning Bangkok restaurant which has held the No. 1 position on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for four consecutive years.
- Photography Kryss Rubio