Nothing reminds me of the year I spent travelling around south-east Asia quite like the taste of iced coffee with condensed milk. Its tooth-achey sweet caffeine hit kept me propped up on Thai boat crossings, twilight train rides through Malaysian rainforests and never-ending Vietnamese bus journeys more times than I can remember.

So I was delighted when I looked down the drinks menu at Plaza Khao Gaeng – chef Luke Farrell’s new southern-Thai canteen in London’s Arcade Food Hall – to see three riffs on this south-east Asian sharpener: cafea yen (iced coffee, condensed milk, evaporated milk); cha yen (iced black tea, condensed milk) and cha kieow yen (iced green tea, condensed milk and squirty cream). They also do an off-menu shot of Thai nom yen (Thai Pink Milk), an unholy marriage of condensed milk and sweet-and-sour Snake Fruit Syrup, the colour of Gaviscon.

Sweet-and-sour Snake Fruit soda
Sweet-and-sour Snake Fruit soda
Inside Plaza Khao Gaeng on New Oxford Street, London
Inside Plaza Khao Gaeng on New Oxford Street, London

Plaza Khao Gaeng is cheerfully no frills: plastic tablecloths from Bangkok, tinny cutlery, loud music, unforgiving strip lighting. The iced drinks are made with ChaTraMue, a classic Thai tea and coffee brand, and served in big plastic cups with ice and a straw.

“In Thailand people love drinks that are an instant pick-me up,” says Farrell. “That amuse and divert.” The son of the renowned lepidopterist Clive Farrell, Luke has been visiting south-east Asia since he was a child. He spent more than 15 years living, cooking and working around Thailand, and now divides his time between his home in Bangkok and the family farm in Dorset, Ryewater, where he grows speciality Asian ingredients in greenhouses full of his dad’s butterflies.

Maeng Da Lagerita, edged with chilli salt and spiked with mangdana
Maeng Da Lagerita, edged with chilli salt and spiked with mangdana

Many of those herbs and spices – curry leaves, pink pepper leaves, Thai basil, Chinese keys, chillies – can be found in Plaza’s spicy dishes. You can cool the fire with a mango, cucumber and Thai basil soda, or a tamarind, mint and jasmine kombucha. There’s a Gimlet spritzed with Dorset-grown pomelo essence, and a fermented pineapple and vodka cooler topped with butterfly pea tea ice shavings – a traditional infusion that turns from blue to purple when it comes into contact with acid.

The restaurant’s signature drink is the Maeng Da Lagerita, a cross between a margarita and a shandy that’s edged with chilli salt and spiked with mangdana, a highly scented secretion produced by male water beetles that’s a prized condiment in south-east Asia. As Farrell says: “It smells of cloves, Jolly Ranchers and pear drops.”

Farrell is serious about creating Thai cuisine that is as authentic as possible. The drinks, on the other hand, are really a bit of fun. “I have to admit we toned down the amount of condensed milk in the coffee a bit, to suit British tastes,” he says. “But if people asked for double measures it would make me very happy!” 

@alicelascelles

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