The rise of a neo-Thai restaurant scene in the last three years has created unprecedented opportunities for Thai eating in Berlin. On one hand, there’s superstar Dalad Khambu’s Michelin starred Kin Dee in Schöneberg with her niche-defying Thai tasting menus. And on the other there’s the eclectic interpretation of Northern Thai by means of the open fire pits at Khwan’s R.A.W. warehouse. In February 2019, however, a third option that’s at least as interesting as Kin Dee and Khwan emerged on the radar: Khao Taan in Friedrichshain, the inspirational Thai family-style eating concept spearheaded by Gaan Kitkoson.
The rise of a neo-Thai restaurant scene in the last three years has created unprecedented opportunities for Thai eating in Berlin
“An invitation to my Thai family dinner” is the first thing you’ll read on the Khao Taan menu - meals at Khao Taan are a reflection of owner Kitkoson’s culinary experience during his youth, a time he spent in a small river town just East of Bangkok. The former lawyer-turned-wedding-planner grew up with his half-Chinese mother and Kitkoson spent the better part of his childhood in his grandparents’ Chinese bakery. The strong influence Chinese food culture has had on him can be traced to his cooking today, that’s also why Kitkoson’s first food venture in Berlin was selling Chinese Boazis at Street Food Thursday and Bite Club.
...Kitkoson realised that his true food passion wasn’t in Dim Sum, but in showing Berliners what real Thai home cooking is
While his Baozi business was successful, Kitkoson realised that his true food passion wasn’t in Dim Sum, but in showing Berliners what real Thai home cooking was. He was cooking a lot at home while he watched the first neo-Thai wave materialize around Kin Dee and Khwan and that’s when he decided "Damn it I can also do this" and embarked on a journey to open up his own Thai restaurant. He went back to Bangkok, did an internship at the iconic Thai restaurant Nham (22nd place on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019), came back to Berlin and found a restaurant space in the Eastern district of Friedrichshain.
Khao Taan means “Rice/Food from my Grandmother” and refers to the heavily inspirational role Kitkoson’s grandmother played in his life. Khao Taan opened in February 2019 on a quiet street in Friedrichshain in a very nondescript venue that could be home to any modern eatery. No Thai decoration, no Thai flag, nothing of the branding you would expect from a Thai restaurant in Berlin. The fact that nothing in this venue tells you that you’re eating at a Thai restaurant is entirely intentional, gone are the usual elephants and bamboo shenanigans, Khao Taan is a contemporary and stylish restaurant which nuclear blasts your Thai stereotypes from the very start.
Khao Taan is a contemporary and stylish restaurant which wipes out your Thai stereotypes from the very start
Meals at Khao Taan always come in a menu of six servings and there is no à la carte ordering. The food is designed to be shared between guests and while the structure of meals always remains the same (canapés, soups, relishes, salads, currys, stir-fries and desserts), the actual dishes in these categories are subject to constant changes which reflect seasonality and Kitkoson’s remarkable recipe research process - a story in and of itself as he spends weeks in Thailand every year seeking to unearth the forgotten recipes of certain regions. The menu structure is designed to emulate the experience of a Thai family meal, an intrinsically social occasion “where food always is shared, dishes never are eaten at the same time and nothing is eaten in order”, to say it in Kitkoson’s own words. With the set menu structure, Kitkoson’s Pad Thai-free restaurant (a dish that traditionally is eaten by itself) controls the narrative and makes sure people eat the right things together.
Already the first bite you take at Khao Taan will put all your food senses on high alert, especially if the item between your teeth is Kitkoson’s eclectic version of Miang Kham, the small bethel leaf parcels packed with shallots, chilli, lime peel, coconut and tamarind, designed to explode between your teeth in a firework of spicy, sweet, sour and bitter. General spice levels at Khao Taan? Can be described as intensely moderate with occasional outbreaks of sweat, but most will find it quite balanced (Kitkoson doesn’t eat food that spicy himself).
...designed to explode between your teeth in a firework of spicy, sweet, sour and bitter
From the server’s tray the magic of a Khao Taan meal will unfold onto your party’s table. This includes pleasantly sour and utterly delicate seafood in Tom Yum soups or Geang Jeut, as well as Gang Yu Chinese-style pork and seaweed soup. Relishes might not be something that you’re used to from Thai restaurants, but at Khao Taan they’re a staple often in the form of a Young Green Chilli and Mackerel relish which comes with crispy, seasonal veggies as scooping material - a literal dance party for your senses that makes you realize why this is eaten so often.
Yam Ta Wai is the dish people from Bangkok think the rural population eat, okra poached in coconut cream to tender perfection, tossed with banana flowers, green bean, asparagus and poached shrimp in a light saté sauce. A bowl so bloody divine it forever defies the myth that Thailand doesn’t produce any good salads apart from the Som Tam papaya salad. The same can be said about the marvelous vegetarian mushroom laab salad, a dish famous for its use of roasted rice.
The secret of curry flavor at Khao Taan is literally all in the sauce: curry pastes are ground by hand and the coconut milk is made freshly in the restaurant.
“There will never be dishes on the Khao Taan menu such as 'Green' or 'Yellow Curry', Kitkoson is adamant to point out. “These are descriptions rooted in Western attempts to simplify Thai cuisine and Thai people never use these names”. Instead you’ll be served creations like the Guinea Feel Curry, a marvellous adaptation of a Northern curry dish with Thai apple eggplant, Thai banana and roasted rice packed with earthy and gamey flavors, or the Aromatic Duck Curry, an imported dish from India in which duck’s legs have been slowly poached in fresh coconut milk and then assembled into a curry that draws uncanny amounts of flavour from spices including cumin, coriander seed, Thai cardamom pods and leaves. The secret of curry flavor at Khao Taan is literally all in the sauce: curry pastes are ground by hand and the coconut milk is made freshly in the restaurant. The difference in taste is remarkable and adds a whole new meaning to eating Thai curries.
...maybe you’ll get to try the best sticky rice with mango that Berlin has to offer.
So, when you’re done eating all this fantastic food (I didn’t even mention the stir fries they are always great as well!) and maybe you’ve also had a couple of ice-cold Traunstein beers to wash it down or some natural wine - the choice is yours, as a last act you’ll be exposed to another passion of Kitkosan: Thai desserts. And maybe you’ll get to try the best sticky rice with mango that Berlin has to offer.
Khao Taan is a truly remarkable restaurant. Kitkoson and his kitchen team are not into corner cutting and this translates into every bite you take during your visit. If you add in the fact that as a non-Thai person, you’ll most likely not have a point of reference for most of the dishes you’re eating, a meal at Khao Taan will achieve exactly what Kitkoson envisages: A fully immersive and highly educational experience which removes stigmas and challenges your existing perception of Thai food forever.
Truth is, Khao Taan is hands down not only one of the best Thai restaurants you can visit in Berlin right now, it’s really also one of the most meaningful restaurant experiences per se, and you need to go.