February 6, 2005: Headlines: COS - Thailand: Food: Cooking: Washington Post: Nongkran Daks studied food and feeding others when she married a Peace Corps volunteer, Larry Daks, in Thailand who later became a Foreign Service officer

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Thailand: Peace Corps Thailand: The Peace Corps in Thailand: February 6, 2005: Headlines: COS - Thailand: Food: Cooking: Washington Post: Nongkran Daks studied food and feeding others when she married a Peace Corps volunteer, Larry Daks, in Thailand who later became a Foreign Service officer

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Nongkran Daks studied food and feeding others when she married a Peace Corps volunteer, Larry Daks, in Thailand who later became a Foreign Service officer

Nongkran Daks studied food and feeding others when she married a Peace Corps volunteer, Larry Daks, in Thailand who later became a Foreign Service officer

Nongkran Daks studied food and feeding others when she married a Peace Corps volunteer, Larry Daks, in Thailand who later became a Foreign Service officer

Thai on the Fly
A handy refueling spot, near Dulles and the new air and space museum

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page W25

** Thai Basil
14511 Lee Jackson Memorial Hwy./Route 50 (near Lee Road) Chantilly. 703-631-8277
Open: for lunch daily 11 am. to 3 p.m.; for dinner daily 5 to 10 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. No smoking. Limited wheelchair access. Parking lot. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.50 to $6.95, entrees $6.95 to $10.95; dinner appetizers $3.50 to $6.95, entrees $8.95 to $13.95. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip about $30 per person.

Nongkran Daks has never been far from the pleasures of the table.

When she was only 8, the Thai native was helping her sister-in-law, a caterer, grind spices for parties and, as a university student in Bangkok, she returned home on weekends to cook for friends and family. She continued studying food and feeding others when she married a Peace Corps volunteer, Larry Daks, who later became a Foreign Service officer. Assignments took them to Laos, China and Taiwan. When the couple settled in Northern Virginia in 1996, Nongkran Daks decided to turn all that experience into a business of her own.

"I didn't want my restaurant to look like the others," the 64-year-old chef recently recalled. So Daks decorated her modest space, on the far end of a small shopping strip, with conical hats and bamboo steamers collected from travels through Southeast Asia. She also brightened her tables with handsome cotton and silk cloths representing the four regions of her homeland.

The effect is personal and mostly comfortable (though the generic waiting-room music detracts from some of the charm). For passengers flying into or out of Dulles International Airport, or visitors to the National Air and Space Museum's new outpost nearby, Thai Basil also provides a convenient place to refuel.

Daks hails from Chumphon province in southern Thailand, where fish and seafood are abundant, coconuts are plentiful, and the food tends to be hot with chilies. This last detail is evident on her menu in dishes such as chicken (or pork or beef) in green curry; the tingling gravy -- made with chilies, fish sauce and coconut milk -- is sweet and complex. Crisp green beans and soft bamboo shoots fill out the entree.

Fish cakes are familiar finds on Thai menus, though the tongue-tingling patties served with cucumber relish at Thai Basil are zestier and lighter than much of the local competition. Even more enticing are shrimp cakes, an occasional special, seasoned with little more than soy sauce, and crunchy beneath their coats of Japanese bread crumbs. Whole shrimp bundled with scallions and julienned carrots, then fried to a gentle crisp, are wittily billed as "shrimp in a blanket." They're tasty. Shrimp are featured again in a simple stir-fry with asparagus, cooked so that the vegetable retains its bright hue and gentle crunch, and accented with a delicate garlic sauce.

I'm reminded of India's influence on Thai cooking when I bite into what could pass for samosas: flaky, crescent-shaped pastry snacks filled with soothing potatoes, carrots and peas. They come with a dip of red onion and cucumber that lends each morsel some punch. And I'm reminded of Rice Krispies when I order No. 3, or khao tang na tang, which translates as airy rice cakes whose scooped centers hold pinches of minced pork and shrimp, peppercorns, garlic, chopped nuts and other savory enhancers. Another starch to explore is No. 2, small pastry shells, or "golden cups," filled with ground chicken and vegetables. (Romance alert: On Valentine's Day, this appetizer is made with a heart-shaped mold.)

Daks's soups pulse with flavor -- and keep a diner reaching for his beer (or, better yet, his rice bowl; the starch is better than any liquid for taming the flames). Chicken and coconut milk are jump-started with lemon grass and lime in one heady bowl, while another choice finds tender shrimp bobbing in a brick-red broth that sears the tongue with blazing chilies. Your brain cries, "Stop!" but your taste buds say, "Bring it on, baby." Both soups are less than $3 at lunch, and both show off the layering of flavors that make Thai food so appealing.

Meanwhile, salads are truly refreshing. One zippy plate among the lot mixes green beans, corn, grated carrots, bean sprouts, chili flakes and toasted coconut.

Your server will ask how spicy you prefer your food, using a scale that starts with "American Hot," indicated by a single chili pepper, and tops out at "Laos Hot," signaled by four peppers -- and plenty fiery, I should add. When ordered "Thai hot" (three peppers), shaved beef in a creamy red curry is a blowtorch of a dish that still lets you taste ingredients other than its red chilies.

In the course of three meals, I had a few serious disappointments. One was the kitchen's pad Thai, the classic noodle dish, flagged as a signature but heavy on the palm sugar when I sampled it. Indeed, sweeteners are used generously here; even the limeade is not as tart as it should be. And deep-fried fish -- flounder on my visit -- is thin and dry, with too much crunchy skin and too little snowy flesh. Not even generous applications of a dark and fruity "three-flavor sauce" could rescue this entree.

On a housekeeping note, I wish the servers could find something other than window spray to clean the glass tabletops. Meals are not improved when an antiseptic mist wafts your way and settles on your food. Thai Basil is one of many restaurants whose staff pull out a spritzer filled with blue cleaning solution, and I say, please cease and desist.

Fortunately, the long menu holds plenty of pleasures, and clock-watchers will be pleased to know that the food tends to come out quickly. The standing roster of chef's specials includes a dish that tastes like something you might encounter in a Thai home: fried rice mixed with moist ribbons of chicken, chopped tomato and licorice-like Thai basil, and scattered with fried shallots. And the dessert list stretches to eight options, an impressive number for an Asian kitchen. The house-made coconut ice cream with bites of jackfruit, the steamed custard and the fan of mango slices arranged around sticky rice all make simple and satisfying finishes.

Thai Basil would be an asset to its neighborhood -- even in a neighborhood with more restaurants to choose from.

When this story was posted in February 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

February 5, 2005: This Week's Top Stories Date: February 5 2005 No: 420 February 5, 2005: This Week's Top Stories
Peace Corps swears in 12 new Country Directors 4 Feb
Kenneth Hawkinson studies oral traditions of Mali 4 Feb
Tony Hall urges politicians to bring religious faith to office 4 Feb
Dodd opposes Gonzales nomination 3 Feb
Dr. Robert Zeigler to head Rice Research Institute 3 Feb
Taylor Hackford going into television with "E-Ring" 2 Feb
President Bush's past promises in State of the Union 1 Feb
Moreigh Wolf says gays cannot volunteer with partners 1 Feb
Coleman to chair Peace Corps Subcommittee 1 Feb
Vasquez assesses need in Southeast Asia 31 Jan
James Bullington says Bush Inaugural speaks to PC 31 Jan
Allen Andersson creates foundation to promote libraries 31 Jan
Joseph Opala to film "Priscilla's Homecoming" 31 Jan
Donna Shalala embarks on aggressive UM expansion 31 Jan
Thomas Dichter says Poor Countries Need Smarter Aid 30 Jan
Alberto Ibargüen to head Knight Foundation 28 Jan
Helen Sheehy organizes "Endangered Peoples" exhibit 28 Jan

RPCVs mobilize support for Countries of Service Date: January 30 2005 No: 405 RPCVs mobilize support for Countries of Service
RPCV Groups mobilize to support their Countries of Service. Over 200 RPCVS have already applied to the Crisis Corps to provide Tsunami Recovery aid, RPCVs have written a letter urging President Bush and Congress to aid Democracy in Ukraine, and RPCVs are writing NBC about a recent episode of the "West Wing" and asking them to get their facts right about Turkey.
RPCVs contend for Academy Awards  Date: January 31 2005 No: 416 RPCVs contend for Academy Awards
Bolivia RPCV Taylor Hackford's film "Ray" is up for awards in six categories including best picture, best actor and best director. "Autism Is a World" co-produced by Sierra Leone RPCV Douglas Biklen and nominated for best Documentary Short Subject, seeks to increase awareness of developmental disabilities. Colombian film "El Rey," previously in the running for the foreign-language award, includes the urban legend that PCVs teamed up with El Rey to bring cocaine to U.S. soil.
Ask Not Date: January 18 2005 No: 388 Ask Not
As our country prepares for the inauguration of a President, we remember one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century and how his words inspired us. "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."
Coleman: Peace Corps mission and expansion Date: January 8 2005 No: 373 Coleman: Peace Corps mission and expansion
Senator Norm Coleman, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee that oversees the Peace Corps, says in an op-ed, A chance to show the world America at its best: "Even as that worthy agency mobilizes a "Crisis Corps" of former Peace Corps volunteers to assist with tsunami relief, I believe an opportunity exists to rededicate ourselves to the mission of the Peace Corps and its expansion to touch more and more lives."
RPCVs active in new session of Congress Date: January 8 2005 No: 374 RPCVs active in new session of Congress
In the new session of Congress that begins this week, RPCV Congressman Tom Petri has a proposal to bolster Social Security, Sam Farr supported the objection to the Electoral College count, James Walsh has asked for a waiver to continue heading a powerful Appropriations subcommittee, Chris Shays will no longer be vice chairman of the Budget Committee, and Mike Honda spoke on the floor honoring late Congressman Robert Matsui.
RPCVs and Peace Corps provide aid  Date: January 4 2005 No: 366 Latest: RPCVs and Peace Corps provide aid
Peace Corps made an appeal last week to all Thailand RPCV's to consider serving again through the Crisis Corps and more than 30 RPCVs have responded so far. RPCVs: Read what an RPCV-led NGO is doing about the crisis an how one RPCV is headed for Sri Lanka to help a nation he grew to love. Question: Is Crisis Corps going to send RPCVs to India, Indonesia and nine other countries that need help?
The World's Broken Promise to our Children Date: December 24 2004 No: 345 The World's Broken Promise to our Children
Former Director Carol Bellamy, now head of Unicef, says that the appalling conditions endured today by half the world's children speak to a broken promise. Too many governments are doing worse than neglecting children -- they are making deliberate, informed choices that hurt children. Read her op-ed and Unicef's report on the State of the World's Children 2005.

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Story Source: Washington Post

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