Let’s start from the beginning. My first encounter with the street food project Khwan at a Bite Club in 2016 resulted left me with an itching sting of mediocracy. It was the sort of encounter that would usually keep me away for a while. Not with Khwan however, I returned very soon. The reason was the Khwan founder Daniel Lambert. His persistence, ambition and emotional approach to his food touched me in the right spot from the very start and made me come back to his street food stall and, later on, his pop ups. I kept coming back since the food became better. And better. And then even better again. The pace of development was stunning and before I knew it, I found myself at a dinner table in a moment of silence, realizing that I was eating some of the most exciting, exhilarating and finger-licking good Thai food I had ever encountered.
“I found myself at a dinner table in a moment of silence, realizing that I was eating some of the most exciting, exhilarating and finger-licking good Thai food I had ever encountered.”
Apart from not being a properly trained chef, Daniel Lambert also has no official ties with Thailand apart from extensive travelling to the land of eternal smiles as well as a short stint at the famous Smoking Goat in London. He picked up his cooking skills during his finer dining years in Australia, but it was at the Smoking Goat where he realized how he could channel his obsession for Thai cuisine into a project that evolved entirely around open fire. He named his project “Khwan”, which is Thai for “smoke”, and moved to Berlin to cater at the city’s street food markets like Bite Club and Street Food Thursday. It was really after bringing on South African/Taiwanese David Chien, the brain behind Taiwanese Beef Noodle soup project ZAN, to Khwan that the focus started shifting to pop ups and things really started taking an interesting turn.
“…he realized how he could channel his obsession for Thai cuisine into a project that evolved entirely around open fire.”
Khwan’s regular stints at Berlin’s street food markets were successful, but it was really the addition of a semi-fixed location during the summer pop at Craft & Smoke this year that catapulted this project into proper food stardom. Suddenly the whole R.A.W. area around the pop up smelled of smoked meats and people in the scene started reaching out to me, raving about lavish smoked chicken, grilled oysters and fermented pork rib orgies.
Orgies and lavishness are indeed the suitable words to be used, a visit at the Khwan pop up unleashes raw emotions and leaves no senses untouched. Most of the food is designed to be eaten with your hands and the act of finger licking will be very hard to resist. Everything is cooked over open fire, from the Dutch giant oysters, placed directly on the hot coals for a few minutes and served with a brilliant Nam Jim sauce that packs a lovely green chili punch, to the whole mackerel that’s grilled on the roast with a dry curry paste, turmeric chili, lemongrass and gappi. The glazed lamb shank with mandarin and honey is smoked and then finished off over open flames, just like the signature smoked chicken with lemongrass, wild ginger and tamarind, a stunning piece of chicken that’s been perfected over the course of the last year. The mild smoke flavour of the juicy meat plays incredibly well with the grilled skin and the acidic notes from the tamarind and the signature ingredient ground roasted rice Lambert loves to use on his food adds that extra dimension of taste that I’ve learned to crave.
“A visit at the Khwan pop up unleashes raw emotions and leaves no senses untouched.”
The dishes at Khwan that don’t get a stint over the flames are no less enticing though, the classic Som Tam Papaya salad for example is an extremely well balanced and delicious specimen of its kind and the brilliant Miang Kham iteration, a take on the classic Thai street food snack where pomegranate, pomegranate are wrapped in a bettle leaf, is a very entertaining and fun bar snack I’v been missing dearly in Berlin. And the only item on the menu that does venture into the curry dimension, the Pork Belly & Apple Huang Lay, is an exercise in deep and rich umami flavours. Thinking about it, the only item that needs to go back to the drawing board is the palm sugar and fish sauce ice cream, not at all because of the flavour combo (delicious – especially with the grilled banana), but really because of quality of the ice cream. And that’s really just because they can’t afford an ice cream machine yet.
Khwan is truly a bootstrapped project and the survival of this pop up us as uncertain as the weather. With every written word of mine I hope that Khwan does survive and prosper and also, eventually, find a permanent home. The development I’ve witnessed in the last year leaves plenty to imagination what kind of genius the right conditions can unleash here. Khwan embodies the new Berlin food era, where young food minds put their minds and small saving together to create something unique and damn tasty. And I can only conclude that I’m truly f-n excited about it.