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Mini Thai: Authentic basil, fried rice & green curry from ex-construction worker taught by ‘abusive’ chef

If you’ve been to the Kallang area, you likely missed the quiet stretch where the Jalan Benaan Kapal Food Centre is. This hidden coffeeshop houses a few noteworthy stalls that draw loyal customers despite its obscurity, and among them is Kang Siang Coffee Stall (known for affordable coffee) run by just 1 uncle and the plainly named Kway Chap that I visited 2 months ago.

Mini Thai - Stallfront
Mini Thai - Stallfront

During my first visit on a regular Sep Thursday, I learned that the kway chap stall’s neighbour, Mini Thai had only moved in a few months prior. It was then that I met 65-year-old Khim Ong for the first time. He is a former construction worker who learned his craft from an esteemed Thai chef. As they were already closing then, all I managed was a promise to visit again and a stipulated date that I soon forgot.

Mini Thai - Ingredients
Mini Thai - Ingredients

When I eventually returned in late Nov, Ong was more than happy to share the story of how he had come to open the stall. And boy, was it quite the story!

Learning Thai cuisine had been a spontaneous decision as he was introduced to the chef by happenstance. From there, the Thai chef imposed a hard 3-month window for Ong to learn as much as he could; he would depart the country once time was up. 

So why did it have to be done in Singapore where the cost-of-living is so much steeper? The Thai chef turned out to be affiliated with the royal palace, which has strict regulations on who could come and go. Eventually, they settled on a payment of about $3,000 with Ong hosting the chef at his home.

Mini Thai - Wok action
Mini Thai - Wok action

Throughout the 1 and a half months it took Ong to learn the ropes, he was punished for every mistake. As he so eloquently put it in Mandarin, “I would be cooking and getting smacked with a wooden spatula at the same time.”

At my comment that this sounded like physical abuse, the 65-year-old hawker emphasised that he was fully committed to picking up every bit of knowledge. Laughing it off afterwards, he then cited the demanding nature of Thai cuisine and the chef’s high expectations of him.

On top of what the chef had charged for the lessons, Ong was also paying to shuttle him back and forth daily (Tampines to Ubi), which could cost well over S$20 during peak hours.

After hearing all that, I was in awe of how much he could put up with given his age. Crucially, this raised our expectations of his dishes. The Thai chef’s harsh tutelage must have paid off in some way.

What I tried at Mini Thai

Mini Thai - Basil Rice
Mini Thai - Basil Rice

Unlike my previous visit when the sun was trying its hardest to cook us alive, the torrential rain made a plate of freshly stir-fried Pork Basil Rice (S$5) with a sunny-side-up (S$0.50) the most tempting idea ever.

Mini Thai - Basil pork
Mini Thai - Basil pork

When I took a whiff of the ground pork, the scent lobbed me all the way to Amphoe Fang in Chiang Mai, where I had tried the dish for the first time. The pork was prominently savoury, followed closely by a subtle sugary trail. Amidst this hit of nostalgia, I discovered something entirely foreign that brought the dish up a notch — deliciously crunchy pork lard.

Mini Thai - Egg on basil rice
Mini Thai - Egg on basil rice

I had to really reach to find a complaint as the egg was just about perfect. The rice was just slightly dry out of the cooker. Then again, if not for the apocalyptic weather, Ong would have closed the stall well before we had arrived (oops!). He later confirmed the use of Thai basil over Holy basil, which is par for the course at most local places.

Mini Thai - Green Curry
Mini Thai - Green Curry

Next was Thai Green Curry with Pork ($6). I don’t think I’m alone in saying that this is one of my favourite Thai dishes. Compound that with the soaking wet weather and I was more than ready to dive into a bowl of comforting green curry, as modest as the portions might have seemed at first.

Mini Thai - Curry pot
Mini Thai - Curry pot

According to Ong, this was the dish he struggled with the most as the Thai chef had been particularly firm on the order of ingredients. Yes, that meant more thwacks with the spatula. Ouch.

Mini Thai - Curry drip
Mini Thai - Curry drip

The curry was the perfect level of spice for me so it might be likely too light for the average person. There was a fruity depth to the richness of the curry, which Ong shared was due to his own addition of mango ginger on top of the typically-used galangal.

Mini Thai - Curry collage
Mini Thai - Curry collage

We also caught brinjal, cherry tomatoes and some makrut lime leaves swimming within. There were more pieces of pork than expected, which made this quite filling for a one-man job. I really enjoyed how they had absorbed the curry while chewing through the meat. 

Unfortunately, the curry quickly mellowed out as I had it along with spoonfuls of rice, perhaps due to a weaker kick. Despite this, I could appreciate the slight modification to the original recipe and its sweetness was a good contrast against the salty majority.

Mini Thai - Khao Pad
Mini Thai - Khao Pad

Khao Pad or Thai Fried Rice (S$5) with another sunny-side-up came as our second rice dish. Like the Basil Rice, its presentation was uncomplicated.

Mini Thai - Khao Pad zoom
Mini Thai - Khao Pad zoom

When we took our first bites of the fried rice, there was an immediate agreement over a somewhat enhanced profile. Ong shared that he uses pork lard over vegetable oil in most dishes — including Basil Rice. The smoky wok hei element intertwined with this distinct aroma amps up the dish as a whole, resulting in a delightful departure from the countless khao pad I’ve had over the years.

Mini Thai - Vietnamese fish sauce
Mini Thai - Vietnamese fish sauce

He also favours Vietnamese fish sauce as he finds it imbues a faint lingering sweetness while also delivering on the coveted umami. Cooked in khao pad that’s known to be more savoury, the added depth is noticeable if you’re not a spice loser like me.

Mini Thai - Kao Pad Chilli
Mini Thai - Kao Pad Chilli

Also present here is a blend of Indonesian with Thai chilli padi, garlic and fish sauce. This is where most of the piquancy comes from, tacking on an earthy heat to the fried rice.

Mini Thai - Egg burst
Mini Thai - Egg burst

Of course, Mini Thai’s sunny-side-up is executed just as well here. 

Mini Thai - Prawn petai
Mini Thai - Prawn petai

I unfortunately cannot provide my own first-hand account of what the Petai (S$6) tasted like. The abhorrent smell from my mother’s breath has put me off the dish since childhood; never mind that they’re supposed to be super healthy. Ong takes 8 whole hours to prepare the chilli paste, which is actually his own creation (drawing inspiration from his mentor’s).

Mini Thai - Petai zoom
Mini Thai - Petai zoom

I relied entirely on my friend’s experience on this, given the dish was his pick. Pungent with a mild bitter aftertaste characteristic of perfectly cooked stinky beans, he opined, adding that it was a good juxtaposition against the sweeter sambal that the ingredients were drenched in.

Mini Thai - Sambal zoom
Mini Thai - Sambal zoom

The sambal lit a minor fire on my tongue, but its heavy scent was much more prevalent. Take this as a petai sceptic’s opinion — if so much is done to mask the stinky beans’ foetid edge, why not use another ingredient entirely?

Mini Thai - Prawn zoom
Mini Thai - Prawn zoom

Despite our differences, we agreed that the prawns were fresh, being both firm and juicy. They were still outshone by the sambal and petai.

Final thoughts

Mini Thai - Overall
Mini Thai - Overall

Though the portions were smaller in size (visually), they were much more filling than expected. Very likely that the pork lard played a role in this.

If there’s any consolation for enduring the uh… pushy Thai chef’s tutorship, it would be that Ong’s dishes do conform to the authentic Thai taste. It was shocking to us that he had endured all that only to run the stall as a side gig, as Ong also works as a handyman.

We also enjoyed the few personal touches to some recipes, like pork lard in both forms and the mango ginger in the green curry. In Nov 2023, he came up with a new dish — Thai Sauce Cheong Fun, though its availability remains undetermined.

It’s really a pity that Jalan Benaan Kapal is so far for us because we would definitely be regulars. Do check out the other stalls if you happen to drop by this small coffeeshop.

Expected damage: S$5 – S$11 per pax

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