The Beauty in Bitterness

Sator -- or stink beans, a famously bitter Southeast Asian ingredient

Sator — or stink beans, a famously bitter Southeast Asian ingredient

His name was Aharon. He was very smart, cute, enormously funny, and had great hair, a dark mass of curls. I harbored a crush on this poor boy for what felt like years, but was probably only months. For weeks and weeks, I blathered on to anyone who would listen about my crush on this innocent person, who had not done anything to anyone, in the same way I had bored my fifth-grade lunch table mates with stories about Michael Jackson’s daily workout routine, or how John Taylor’s favorite meal was breakfast. So it was inevitable that one of those friends would take revenge on me by actually telling the object of my affections how I really felt about him.

It was, as Karen likes to say, a sixth-grade nightmare. There is nothing worse than having your secret crush discover the audacity of your affection for him — as if you actually had a CHANCE, as if something like this could even fall within the realm of possibility. The weight of my presumption was made worse by the knowledge that he would be kind, and would not make fun of me or emit “ewww” noises like an actual sixth-grader.  He would be nice. He might even have deigned to give me hope. But that only made it worse. The fact is that someone’s affection for you, even if unreturned, leaves a terrible yoke of obligation that can either be shrugged off gracefully, severed cruelly, or borne patiently. I was sure he would have been patient. But I did not want to be present at anyone’s pity party if I was going to be the guest of honor.

I responded as one would when it is 1995 (e.g. running home and listening to Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye”. We didn’t have Adele in those days). I also decided to tell him that I most definitely did NOT have feelings for him. I mean, I was going to lie. This would relieve him of the burden of having to pretend anything with me, and we could continue to at least be friends. Sixth-grade nightmare averted. So I knocked on his door and that is what I did. He never really spoke to me again.

A male friend of mine, when told this story (I am still boring people with my stupid stories, 30 years later. Welcome to my blog) said I had humiliated my crush. This, when I thought I was doing him a favor. The thought that I would miscalculate to the extent of causing this person actual distress represents a low point in my romantic life. Don’t get me wrong — as all of my ex-boyfriends would attest, there are many, many low points in my romantic life. But this is the one I remember most.

Low points are an inevitability in life. In fact, they are a necessity. Who walks downhill all the time? You need to climb uphill in order to get to that point. They provide the contrast with which the high points can be truly appreciated. Do you know who understand this? You’ll never guess.

Thai cooks are known to understand this. They are able to use low points — bitterness — in ways that manage to amplify the high notes to make them that much more dramatic, like the way blanched bitter gourd is served alongside a tamarind chili dip, or sadao (a Thai riverside herb) offsets grilled snakehead fish with sweet tamarind sauce. They provide the oomph against which the freshness of certain ingredients can be highlighted, like the thin shavings of raw bitter melon in goong cha nam pla, or raw  shrimp marinated in fish sauce. And they lend gravitas and heft to certain dishes, emphasizing meatiness, warmth and substance, like in larb muang, the Northern Thai minced pork salad. Indeed, of all the regions, it is perhaps the Northern Thais who accentuate bitter flavors the most, since bitterness figures prominently in their cooking: echoed in the flavors of the North’s many fresh herbs and leaves, or in the animal bile that figures so prominently in their meat dishes. Bitterness is a major component in the Northern Thai flavor profile, a deep, dark thrum against which salt, chili and animal fat can play.

It’s a common misperception that, to make something more authentically Thai, one simply has to dial up the spice to 11. I don’t find that to be true of either central or northern Thai cuisine. Thailand, as any long-term expat can tell you, is never that easy to work out. Instead, to make something more Thai, all the flavor facets — sweet, salt, sour, spicy, bitter — have to be represented and balanced. Sadly, this is becoming less of an imperative, even in dishes where it figures importantly, like in gaeng jued mara yad sai (bitter melon stuffed with pork and stewed in a pork bone broth). This is because the Thai palate is changing to reflect globalized tastes: becoming sweeter, saltier, spicier. In other words, more amped, more MSG’d. What this means is that dishes are actually changing, leaving out the bitter melon in goong cha nam pla or threatened with extinction, like sadao nam pla wan (Thai river herb with grilled fish and sweet tamarind sauce).

This results in the nature of Thai food changing. And no, it’s not because of farang chefs, or McDonald’s, or the media, or anything that people like to blame when things change. It was simply a matter of time. Low points — at least in food — have been swapped out for a vista of downhill rambles, a glossy world of ease and convenience where everything is a quick, Rot Dee-assisted stir-fry away from the table. But bereft of our culinary sixth-grade nightmares, how will we appreciate life’s occasional sweets?

Kua kling with fresh stink bean, courtesy of @chilipastetour

Kua kling with fresh stink bean, courtesy of @chilipastetour

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A day with Worapa

The finished product: our kanom yodmanee, under Khun Worapa's direction

The finished product: our kanom yokmanee, under Khun Worapa’s direction

Chin (www.foodtoursbangkok.com) is always full of surprises. A lot of the time, those surprises involve exerting oneself via a long, brisk walk and some elbow grease, so I always try to psyche myself up before our next excursion. This isn’t because days out with Chin are an ordeal. It’s because I need to hide the fact I am terribly lazy and would prefer to burrow myself into the faux-leather confines of my mother-in-law’s hand-me-down couch, pretending to watch “Outlander” for all the historical information on Jacobite Scotland, and not for a reason that rhymes with “Shmamie Shmaser’s shmass”.

But I’m excited for today, because @karenblumberg is with me and the surprise du jour involves trekking out to Samut Songkhram, where we will learn how to make a Thai dessert known as kanom yokmanee — “bundles” of cooked pearl tapioca flavored with pandanus leaf extract and rolled in fresh coconut flesh. Before we get there, however, we stop off at “Thalad Rom Hoop” at Maeklong, so named because an honest-go-God train runs through the center of the marketplace about four times a day. This necessitates display tables on retractable rollers and awnings that can be pulled back, hence the market’s name.

When the market is not busy hiding from the wrath of an onrushing train (that is traveling at roughly 5 mph), it is busy selling the stuff that most Thai wet markets sell, like the famously delicious Thai mackerel:

Steamed pla tu Maeklong

Steamed pla tu Maeklong

And offbeat snacks that I mistake for fish meatballs, like these rolled-up balls of potato and coconut, grilled just enough to form a thin crust over a fluffy, soft center like a sweetened, globe-shaped French fry:

Mun tip on the outskirts of the market

Mun tip on the outskirts of the market

But gradually, it becomes time to finally head over chez de Khun Worapaa Thai cook whom Chin discovered after sampling some of her wares at a nearby temple. Thai desserts are often a tricky proposition because they sometimes manage to incorporate a jarring, almost metallic sweetness that tends to set teeth on edge. Unfortunately, this becomes the only thing that people remember of them, instead of the fresh ingredients and old-fashioned methods of preparation (usually steaming and boiling, if they are old-fashioned central Thai sweets). Worapa’s desserts, however, come from 100 percent natural ingredients — most from her own garden — and as a result, bear natural, almost muted flavors and a delicate balance of sweet-salty that is the standard signature of any true Thai dessert.

Before we cook, though, we have to eat. Luckily for us, Khun Worapa has lunch covered, too, setting out a jungle curry flavored with fish entrails and Thai eggplant, a sour curry of maroom, a type of thick-skinned gourd broken open to reveal a soft, custardy flesh meant to be scraped from the peel like an artichoke leaf, and this flaked fish stir-fry that Worapa assures us is made entirely of fish, instead of being bulked up by breadcrumbs like at other vendors':

 

Flaked fish stirfry with chili paste and lime leaf

Flaked fish stirfry with chili paste and lime leaf

Like any good cook, Worapa has control freak tendencies. This becomes obvious once she starts critiquing our eating technique (“Why are you piling everything on your plate at once? Why don’t you try everything one at a time? Your food isn’t going anywhere!” and “Why don’t you sit up straight? You will be able to fit more food into your stomach if you don’t slouch!”), but her friendly patter only enhances the dining experience, because we love being bossed around as long as it comes from a Thai person who cooks good grub.

Alas, the time to put us to work draws near and we begin to slow down. Karen confesses she is nervous, because we have just learned we will have to stir the tapioca mixture in a copper pot over the stove for a full hour in order to get it to the proper consistency. What kind of consistency? Think super glue, but stronger — something you can build a brick wall with. Worapa says this kind of back-breaking labor forms the heart of all Thai dessert-making: “The ingredients are cheap,” she says. “It’s the labor that makes up the value of a dessert.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself: first, you have to make the tapioca mixture. It’s a package of tapioca, mixed with 2 glasses of pandanus leaf juice (squeezed from a handful of julienned leaves that are steamed), a glass of coconut water, and 3 glasses of rose water steeped overnight from Worapa’s own pesticide-free roses (in summer, Worapa advises using jasmine instead):

Rosewater with steamed coconut flesh in the background

Rosewater with steamed coconut flesh in the background

This mix is earmarked for the copper pot, which conducts heat more evenly and acts as extra insurance from burning.  We take turns stirring this big pot of green, which is quickly taking on the appearance of Ghostbusters slime. Those of us not stirring our arms off are set to work on yet another backbreaking job, scraping gobs of shredded flesh from halved coconut shells:

Getting to work

Getting to work

Worapa has opinions on both work fronts: “Shave from the rim!” she instructs Chin, before telling me how I should place my hands on the wooden paddle as I stir. All of this must work, because before long we have a pot full of a thick, heavy, glutinous green mass and two trays full of coconut shavings to steam (steamed coconut keeps for longer than the fresh kind). After only 50 minutes (!), the tapioca is ready to be poured out and cooled, before it is hand-rolled and covered in coconut.

Pouring the tapioca out to cool

Pouring the tapioca out to cool

The taste is as it should be: slightly sweet, salty from the coconut and fragrant with the smell of pandanus and rose. We go home with our newly-made candies sticky in our bags and our bellies bulging with food, and we fall asleep in the car with our hands smelling of fresh leaves.

To learn more about cooking with Worapa, contact Chin of Chili Paste Tour at chilipastetour@gmail.com.

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In praise of the porky

Rice vermicelli in pork broth with meatballs at Wor Rasamee

Rice vermicelli in pork broth with meatballs at Wor Rasamee

No one wants to be a pig. The very worst thing one can do is to eat like one, squeal like one, or sweat like one. Don’t even think about looking like one. That is the worst that bad can get.

But when cooked over a grill, crisped and sliced over a mound of fluffy white rice or minced and folded into an omelet, the pig becomes something that every Thai food lover wants a part of. Few dishes demonstrate this more than guaythiew moo, or pork noodles: a mix of pork meatballs, minced pork, stewed fatty pork and pork liver, simmered gently in a pork broth before a quick dunk in a plastic bowl with a handful of rice noodles, some blanched bitter greens, and a sprinkling of bean sprouts and deep-fried garlic bits.

Because many Thais refrain from eating beef for religious reasons — as followers of “Mae Kwan Im” (a Mahayana Buddhist Goddess of Compassion now popular among many Thai-Chinese Theravada Buddhists), they are encouraged to cut out beef in view of eventually going vegetarian — pork noodle joints are probably the most numerous of all the noodle vendor varieties scattered throughout the city. This means there is tons of competition, and more pressure to set oneself apart from the rest of the noodling fray (I’m not counting bamee, or egg noodles, with the rest of the pork noodle crowd because the emphasis there tends to be on the noodles and the toppings are different — that said, there’s lots of competition there too).

Some vendors bomb the crap out of your tastebuds with a plethora of chilis, and some are nam tok specialists who add a touch a pork blood to their broth. It’s the rare vendor who lets the pig stand on its own porky merits. That is Wor Rasamee (corner of Silom and Saladaeng roads), a longtime pork noodle shop run by a deeply efficient elderly man who is the Thai street food equivalent of Rene Lasserre. Every need is fulfilled quickly and with as little drama as possible, sometimes before you have even thought of it. And the time it takes for a bowl to get to your table? 10-15 seconds, tops. Really.

Not to say there’s no little gimmick to set this little stall apart. Here, it’s the unique sauce, set atop every table and served alongside the four-pronged usual condiment selection of sugar, chili flakes, chili-studded white vinegar and fish sauce. It has no name, but it does have ingredients: vinegar, garlic, chilies, palm sugar, and an irresistible hit of fermented tofu, my culinary Achilles heel, a quicksilver sweetness in a pork broth smelling faintly of Chinese 5-spice powder.

sauce

How can I say no? It is food crack. There are surely more ingredients in this sauce than were relayed to me, and I will try to spend the next few weeks ferreting them out. Until then, I will have to risk heading back to this crowded, busy neighborhood in the heart of the central business district in the hopes of snagging a seat in the midst of all the Japanese tart cafes and fast food chains.

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Northern Thai sausage kings

Grilled northern Thai sausages from Sai Oua Pa Nong in Chiang Rai

Grilled northern Thai sausages from Sai Oua Pa Nong in Chiang Rai

Everyone has a secret superpower, and I am no different. Some people are wonderful dancers. Some people can catch anything that is thrown at them. Some people can multiply large sums in their heads. And me? I can clear a 3-foot radius around me in about 10-15 minutes without even trying. When I tell people about this, they shake their heads and think, She’s at it again. Exaggerating her uselessness. But they’re not around to see it. I can guarantee that, if I sit on one side of a room before yoga class, everyone else will try to sit on the other side. At a large dining table, if no one is assigning seats and no one really knows me very well, one or both chairs to either side of me will remain empty. I have even had people switch seats at a movie theater in Thailand — where there is assigned seating — to move to an empty seat further away from me. I don’t know if it’s my smell or what. It certainly isn’t something I do on purpose. And it is almost never useful. It’s just something that happens, more often than not.

It’s a shame my secret superpower isn’t something useful, like languages. I am ashamed to say it, but I only have room in my head for 1.5 languages, as full as it is of Game of Thrones trivia and a detailed chronology of Jack White’s past haircuts. As you might have guessed, English makes up one of those languages. The other 0.5 is up to where I am living at any point in time. It used to be French, when I was studying cooking in Paris. Then it was Japanese, when I was working as a financial reporter in Tokyo. Now it is Thai, my “native” language, which makes it all the more pathetic when I open my mouth to order a meal or give directions or make small talk — whatever it is that people do to wile away the time until you get to go to sleep. People will frown and say, “Where are you from?” And I will smile and say, “The Philippines.”

Sometimes. Just sometimes. Other times I have to go into the whole rigamarole of how I moved to the States when I was a baby and came back and blah blah blah blah. It is the penalty that life exacts for speaking such terrible Thai. So it is no surprise when I find myself with a spare 10 minutes in Chiang Rai (the town of my birth) and head over to Sai Oua Pa Nong  (San Kong Noi Road, across from Chetupon Temple, 082-760-4813) for what a few locals said were the best sai oua (Northern Thai sausages) in town. That is hard for me to believe because 1.) the best Northern Thai cook I know is my Aunt Priew, who lives in Chiang Rai and 2.) I make my own sai oua too, and it is not bad. It might even be good, if you are my friend and you just spent an entire afternoon making sausages with me.

The minute I get there and ask for “50 baht of sausage” in Thai, the man in front waiting for his own sausage order to be grilled narrows his eyes at me. “Where are you from?” he says, and I’m still thinking if I should choose “Filipino” or “Japanese” when a sprightly little old lady carrying what looks like 1000 baht worth of sausages looks up at me and grins.

“Can I just get a little bit of this sausage?” I say. “I just want one or two bites,” and she says “Certainly!” with a great big smile.

“And what’s this?” I ask, pointing at a bunch of small plastic baggies filled with a thick green liquid.

“It’s nam prik nam pak (vegetable juice chili dip),” she says. “You should get it, it’s very good.”

I run over the rest of the menu with her, asking for recommendations and whatnot and it’s only when she turns to leave do I realize that this lady is a freaking customer and I’ve been running my mouth at the wrong person for something like 10 minutes.

“The smallest order of sausages for takeaway is 150 baht,” says a 20something man behind the counter.

“Do you work here?” I ask. He may or he may not, but he throws in the vegetable juice chili dip for free, just so I can try it out.

It turns out the sausages are thick, closely-packed and meaty, peppered liberally with big melting chunks of pig fat. They taste like they’re supposed to, salty and herbal but with a generous kick of chili spice, so I get why people like them. The real revelation, though, is the chili dip, which is fibrous and green, yes, tasting just like Claussen dill pickle juice. I love it.

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Glutton Abroad: Weathering the holiday season in Germany

Deep-fried pork knuckle atop a mound of cooked cabbage at Augustiner brau Munchen in Berlin

Deep-fried pork knuckle atop a mound of cooked cabbage at Augustiner brau Munchen in Berlin

The only reason I go anywhere is for the food. I don’t think this should come as a surprise to anyone. It really is my only requirement. I mean, everyone has their “thing”: some people need bathrooms in their hotel rooms, or to see the most popular sights, or to get a proper grounding in the local history. I do not require even that. My only desire is to be properly fed, and by proper I don’t even mean for the food to be served on nice plates, in pleasant surroundings with decent servers. I mean the food must be proper. It must be cooked with some semblance of sincerity and even pride. It must say, I did this for you to enjoy, I did this just for you because I think it is good. Treat it accordingly. It’s one of the biggest acts of generosity, to do this for someone you don’t know and might not even like if you did.

Food that is meant for tourists doesn’t always say that. Sometimes it says, I just need to get through this shift. Four more covers and I’m done. Get out of my face as quickly as you can. Please. It seems to be the attitude that underlies a lot of the street food still in parts of the West, as something made with haste for people who don’t know any better and are in a hurry themselves. Food as fuel, eaten to live. That kind of food, I would rather not eat. To some, it makes me a difficult traveling companion.

Take the German Christmas market as an example. Full of people, food, drink and games, it would seem like the ideal place to take anyone with even an inkling of some joie de vivre.  For my part, I thought the Christmas market would be like Aor Tor Kor, but cold and with Christians. It turned out to be more like the Suan Lum Night Bazaar. And while that pleases most, normal people — tourists and Germans alike — there are only so many cups of gluhwein and eggnog to slog through, so many sausages in hot dog buns to consume, so many bites of flammkuchen and langos slathered in ham, cheese and sour cream to take before it all becomes an indiscriminate blur of sameness, all folded neatly under an all-encompassing cloak of German-ness. The culinary boundaries to Brandenburg, Thuringia, Bavaria all become blurred. This is what all Germans are, it says. Don’t look any further. It’s the same thing that Thais do: hiding behind the gilt-edged screen of culture, religion, green curry and smiles. You don’t have to work any harder, it all says. This is as far as you go.

A globally-beloved favorite: Nuremberg sausages at the Bratwurst House in Nuremberg

A globally-beloved favorite: Nuremberg sausages at the Bratwurst House in Nuremberg

It got me thinking about the tourist restaurant experience. To my mind, Bavaria is the German equivalent of Cantonese cuisine: the region from which the country’s most popular culinary exports hail. Everyone with even a passing knowledge of German food knows the sausages, the sauerkraut, the deep-fried pork knuckle, the potato soup and the light-as-a-feather dumplings that adorn every platter on every table ever set in the shadow of an Oktoberfest sign. It’s also the food that appears on nearly every “traditional German” restaurant on the road, from Berlin to Munich. One would think that this food is what all Germans eat, everywhere, regardless of whether they live in Stuttgart or Dresden.

Thai restaurant menus are the same — even in Thailand. While regional specialists shilling Isaan or Northern Thai do exist, it’s the rare Thai restaurant that is brave enough to leave off central Thai favorites like green curry, because that is what most people definitely like. It’s like presenting your best face to strangers at a party. Everyone sees your best face — your pad thai, your tom yum soup. It’s only the people who really want to who get to go further. Some day, I am hoping to return to Germany to get a peek at what’s underneath that mixed sausage platter.

Both veal and pork knuckles at Haxnbauer in Munich

Both veal and pork knuckles at Haxnbauer in Munich

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Super chicken

The famous "gai super" at New Tiem Song

The famous “gai super” at New Tiem Song

There are a few things that I absolutely will not do, not even while in the pursuit of the culinarily fabulous. One of those things is eating with my hands. I absolutely loathe it. This is particularly strange for me, since a lot of Northern Thai and Isaan food involves sticky rice, which typically includes eating with one’s hands. The rice is rolled up into a little ball with the fingers and used to mop up whatever chili dip, soup or protein there is on your plate in a swift, neat little action called pun khao. The unfortunate thing about this is that all the crap that is on your hands — imaginary or real — ends up in your mouth. And that is really gross.

I know you are thinking, why don’t you wash your hands first then? which is something I do already. Or you could be thinking, but you stuff your face with potato chips and hot wings all day long, and aren’t bitching and moaning about getting your icky hand grossness all up in those tortilla chips heaving with guacamole. And this is true, mom! But it’s not the same as getting soft, soppy stuff all over your fingers. So, sorry Ethiopian restaurants and banana leaf curry stands.  I will never eat you the way you are meant to be eaten. I will always be asking for a spoon and fork. Because that is the way people should eat everything, always (except for potato chips, hot wings and tortilla chips with guacamole).

I like offal meats. You could even say I seek them out. I love kidneys, and sweetbreads, and liver, and grilled chicken gizzards sprinkled with sea salt. I don’t even mind brains, if they are battered and deep-fried, or grilled in a banana leaf. I enjoy shirako with ponzu sauce and a scattering of sliced chive, and I think a cube or two of congealed pig or chicken blood is the perfect touch for a great Thai noodle dish. That kind of thing doesn’t bother me at all.

Except when it comes to feet. Or anything with bones, pits or seeds in them, really. Because if I loathe eating with my hands, I absolutely HATE spitting anything out of my mouth. This is why I don’t eat mangosteens, and why I stay away from grapes, unless they’re seedless. The thought of regurgitating some little something that has to sit there as a reminder of all your salivary grossness is just unbearably vile to me. I would just rather swallow these things, if I can. This is probably why fishbones are so infuriating.

So chicken feet is a no-fly zone for me. It’s a shame, because the most important men in my life — Antonio Brown and Troy Polamalu (haha, jk) — really love them. It’s a street food dish called gai super (“super chicken”) which, when I first heard it, made me really excited because I thought it referred to either chicken wings or some sort of crispy, boneless chicken part, like deep-fried cartilage. Alas, it is a stewed mass of splayed, spidery chicken legs, plonked into a broth simmered from their cooking and accompanied by a mash of bird’s eye chilies.

Just another look at the same dish

Just another look at the same dish

The meat is supposed to be coaxed gently from the bones via the gentle suction usually meant for a milkshake through a straw, but HELL NAW. I’m sorry. I couldn’t do it. You can sue me now, or make me watch a Mark Wahlberg film. Instead, there was the broth, which was deeply chicken-y even without those gross-ass feet all over them, a slight twinge of coriander, and the metallic fire of a dozen pulverized chilies. All in all, it was MEH, unless you are really into the sort of masochistic task of getting those skimpy bits of flesh off of all those little bones. And some of you are like that, if the gigantic pile of toothpick-sized bones on my dad’s and husband’s plates are anything to go by.

So, no judgment. If you are headed to Dinsor Road close to the Chinese Swing, go over to New Tiem Song, which is the open-air shophouse across the street from Bangkok’s City Hall and only a couple of doors down from Mont Nom Sod — the wildly popular toast restaurant credited with being the first eatery to bring fresh milk to the Thai masses. Or, well, you could just go to Mont Nom Sod, and wait in a big long line with Thai teenagers for … toast. Either way, there is something awesome for you waiting on Dinsor Road, whichever way you choose to go.

 

 

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Yen ta fo for h8ers

Yen ta fo with rice vermicelli at Thi Yen Ta fo Rot Ded

Yen ta fo with rice vermicelli at Thi Yen Ta Fo Rot Ded

I write a lot about yen ta fo. It is my absolute favorite Thai noodle dish. What’s not to love? An unlikely but irresistible melange of textures and flavors, from squidgy blanched morning glory stems, rubbery squid, soft fish balls, crackly bitter deep-fried garlic and the crunch of a deep-fried wonton — and that’s before you even get to the sauce. Because it’s the sauce that makes or breaks it all: tart with distilled vinegar and pickled garlic, resonating from the heady boom of fish sauce, underneath which the slightest whiff of sweet fermented red tofu emerges like the flash of a red sole on an expensive shoe … that is what yen ta fo is to me. A very delicate balance that, at its best, is the stereotypical juggling act illustrative of the best of Thai cuisine.

At its worst, yen ta fo is something different. It’s all sweet, all pink, all sickly and flat, like Hello Kitty. So it gives people the wrong idea, that these noodles are something for people with a sweet tooth, that there is no complexity to it at all, that it’s Britney Spears when you want to be rocking the egg noodle-PJ Harvey special. I always put this down to people going to the wrong places for yen ta fo. There is such a thing as the wrong place for a certain dish. In fact, that is the whole point of this blog.

I’ve been to Thi Yen Ta Fo (084-550-2880, open 11-22 except Mondays) more times than I can count. I mean, it was always closed those other times, but it feels like second nature to me now to just head automatically to that street corner on Mahachai Road, just down the street from Thipsamai and next to Jay Fai. Usually, I just find a shuttered cart with a sign bearing the vendor’s name. But just a few days ago, it was all systems go: an entire corner and then some, littered with packed tables and the sort of flustered, harried waiters you would see at your nearest Fuji or Crystal Jade restaurant.

For a soup noodle dish that is so often dismissed as “those terrible pink noodles”, yen ta fo sure seems popular here. But there is a very good reason for this. When our bowls come to the table, it’s less about the pink sauce and fermented tofu and more about the veritable blanket of chopped chilies that coats our food like a suit of armor. If there was ever any doubt in my mind that a typical Thai fix-it involves just throwing a bunch of chilies on something to make it taste better, that doubt has long since been blasted from my head by the smoke coming out of my ears after a bite of these noodles. This stuff is SPICY. It changes the whole flavor profile of the dish. Here, it’s all tart and fiery, even slightly metallic. It’s yen ta fo for people who don’t like yen ta fo very much.

There’s other stuff too. The immense popularity of this place has necessitated the incorporation of a second cart, this one offering fried noodle dishes like guaythiew kua gai (pan-fried rice noodles with chicken and egg). That’s not to mention the pork satay place that also serves the customers here, and the other soup noodles offered by Thi, like the just-as-spicy tom yum egg noodles with fresh basil and minced pork:

Bring your tissues

Bring your tissues

I can’t say I don’t like these noodles, because that wouldn’t be true. Would they be my favorite yen ta fo? No, because they are barely yen ta fo at all. Would I go back? Absolutely. With a pack of tissues. And some Tums.

 

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