When I had but a prepubescent palate and my mother didn’t know what to cook, she’d defrost chicken schnitzels.

In Bangkok, the quick-fix meal of choice is pad kra pao – literally “stir-fried” (pad) “holy basil” (kra pao). Without holy basil, pad kra pao is just a stir-fry. The herb is mildly peppery with a liquorice sweetness that regular basil doesn’t have. After chilli, garlic, shallots, spices and protein (usually ground meat) are cooked in a wok, holy basil leaves are tossed in, sighing in a fragrant steam cloud as they succumb to searing carbon steel. Pad kra pao is served with rice and a fried egg.

Back in Australia, not everyone knows it. The issue, I think, is that few consistently refer to the dish by its name on English menus. In Melbourne CBD, you can find pad kra pao at Dodee Paidang under “chilli & holy basil sauce”, Thai Town QV as “chilli basil stir-fry” and Isan Soul as “hot basil with chicken”.

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The other problem is that pad kra pao concept Phed Mark doesn’t exist in Australia. This small restaurant in Bangkok’s Ekkamai neighbourhood was created by famous food Youtuber Mark Wiens, Thai food blogger Khun Tan (aka iTan), designer and actor Khun Pongthep, and Iron Chef champion Gigg Kamol, after discussing who makes Bangkok’s best. The group realised that everyone has their own version of “best” – and it’s usually the local corner stall. But I tell you: the best pad kra pao is at Phed Mark. And so it should be – the team ate a different version almost daily for six months during their research and development.

Pad kra pao punters can pick between ground chicken, pork, sour pork sausage, regular beef, Wagyu, Wagyu shank, squid, and vegetarian tofu and mushroom. You can also adjust the chilli level from one (not spicy) to five (very spicy), though many Thai locals don’t dare go above level three. I tried a level two, four and five of the classic pork. The owners are right: level four is the sweet spot for flavour. Despite the sting, it best brings out the nuances of the dish. It’s completely addictive; I found myself shovelling in spoonful after spoonful, greedy for the flavour and avoidant of the burn. It made my tongue tingle and temples buzz.

Forget Thailand’s temples. Forget its floating markets. Forget 25-year-old Leonardo di Caprio sprawled on Ko Phi Phi Island in The Beach. Maybe it’s the chilli talking, but Phed Mark’s ground pad kra pao could be enlightenment. It defies logic that something so fiercely hot can be so well balanced. There’s the hum of chilli heat, a buzz from green peppercorns, rounded sweetness from shallots and sugar, and the umami undercurrent of fish sauce.

Crumbly, dry pork intermingles with perfectly steamed rice, each grain decipherable from the next. And instead of the regular chicken egg, richer duck egg yolks coat the punchy flavours and slowly introduce them to your tongue. The underneath of the whites are so crisp, I found myself thinking of Persian tahdig (“bottom-of-pot” rice). Truly, all I can say is pad kra p-WOW – and refuse to apologise.

The good news is Phed Mark is coming to town for the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. It’s part of BKK restaurant’s Bangkok Street Food Festival on Friday March 31 and Saturday April 1. Drewery Lane will transform into a Thai-style food fair, with Phed Mark serving pad kra pao (complete with hard-to-find holy basil from an Adelaide farm); BKK slinging chicken curry puffs, vegetarian som tum (papaya salad) and mango sticky rice popsicles; Soi 38 dishing up larb ped (minced duck salad); and Dodee Paidang ladling out tom yum noodle soup. Ignore the minimal spots left online – walk-ins are welcome.

Can’t make it? Try the venues I mentioned earlier, looking out for the words “basil” and “stir-fry”. For certain, BKK head chef Sungeun Mo will put a Phed Mark-inspired pork pad kra pao on her menu from April. The signature spice level will be adjustable.

“Phed Mark, and Thailand more generally, take chilli pretty seriously. In Melbourne, you either get it or you don’t,” says Mo. “For those that want to give it a red-hot go, we’ll offer a heat level that challenges even the most seasoned chilli fiend, but for those less experienced, there’ll also be a more approachable version."

One pork, level four Thai heat, please. Actually, I’ll take two.

The Bangkok Street Food Festival featuring Phed Mark, BKK, Soi38 and Dodee is taking over Drewery Lane in the CBD on Friday March 31 and Saturday April 1 as part of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. Pre-purchase tickets are $10 and include a welcome drink and guaranteed entry. Walk-ins will also be welcome throughout the day on a first come first served basis, with no entry fee.

phedmark.com
bkk.melbourn
melbournefoodandwine.com.au

I Can’t Stop Thinking About is a series about dishes Broadsheet writers and editors are obsessed with.

The writer travelled to Bangkok as a guest of HQ Group.