Bangkok Chili Dog

Stuffed bun, Thai-Vietnamese-style

Stuffed bun, Thai-Vietnamese-style

My friend Janet once said that the worst thing anyone could be to a Thai person is boring. People could be uncouth, or inconsiderate, or even rude, but if they are also amusing, their other sins could be overlooked with ease.

This maxim also applies to food. Once you think you’ve got a handle on all the dishes likely to appear on restaurant menus and street vendor carts, a smattering of new ones pops up. Vendors cannot bear the thought that you might be bored by something they are serving up. So they are always experimenting, adapting, making known quantities like khao gaeng (curry rice) undergo little tweaks, turning what was once mundane into something entirely new.

Foreign dishes provide ripe fodder for this kind of experimentation. Like spaghetti, slathered with green curry at a khao gaeng stall. Or Thai streetside “sushi”, stuffed with canned tuna salad and garnished with deep-fried tempura bits, slicks of wasabi mayonnaise and flying fish roe.

And kanom pang yad sai, a white flour bun that is served across Isaan and in any restaurant specializing in the Vietnamese-inspired dish kai kata (egg in a pan). It’s usually buttered thickly and stuffed with moo yaw (Vietnamese-style pork loaf) and slices of gun chieng (Chinese-style sweet sausage), and meant to accompany the kai kata – perfect for dipping into a still-runny egg yolk dotted with Sriracha and maybe a little Maggi.

At Raan Ee Noi on Fueang Nakhon Road (085-125-4333), diagonally situated from Rachabopit Temple, the kanom pang yad sai comes still warm, stuffed with moo yaw and lashings of what looks — and tastes — suspiciously like sweet chili, a type of nam prik ong for babies. They are Thai-style chili dogs! Kanom pang yad sai are available alone (13 baht apiece) or in pairs (25 baht) and, if you are willing to wait, or take a seat at one of the four tables on the sidewalk in front (there are tables inside, but the fan doesn’t work), they will be yours in roughly 10 minutes’ time.

There is no kai kata to pull focus from these babies. And although it’s the guay jab yuan (Vietnamese-Thai-style, Chinese-inspired  pork noodles — yes, that’s right) that takes pride of place on each table, filling the shophouse with the sweet smell of deep-fried shallots, it’s the kanom pang yad sai that I like most, and the least boring thing I can imagine today.

 

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Southern Thailand across the river

A quick lunch of khao yum, sator with shrimp and coconut milk soup at Chawang

A quick lunch of khao yum, sator with shrimp and coconut milk soup at Chawang

For years, I had heard about a magical neighborhood in Bangkok where southern Thai vendors congregated like college students on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. That is to say, there were a lot of them. The only problem was, it was too far away from me. How to go to this place, so far away, when I was so, so lazy?

Well, it takes another person, obviously — another person who is a friend, but not so close that she knows how much of a total and utter slob you are. That is what Chin is to me, and that is how she gets me to leave the house: a sense of shame, coupled with a underlying current of greed. I am always hungry, after all. And the promise of not one, but a handful of Southern Thai eateries, where curries and coconut milk flow thick and fast, and chilies blanket everything like a Biblical plague of deadly deliciousness, was too heady to be ignored.

Chin tells me she wants to take me to the Wang Lung neighborhood, which requires a Skytrain trip to Saphan Taksin, and then a boat trip to Wang Lung. Now, I know how much fun riding the “river bus” is for visitors to this lovely city, but I can confidently say I am totally over it. Just get me somewhere, quickly. Unfortunately, the quickest way to Chin’s favorite Southern Thai place in the Wang Lung market is on the water, which threatens to make me nauseated even before I take a single bite.

Banana stem curry at Pa Oun

Banana stem curry at Raan Aharn Pak Tai

Located on the market’s main thoroughfare, Raan Aharn Pak Tai (a very no-nonsense name that means, literally, “Southern Thai Restaurant”, 086-664-8472) offers a sprawling selection of Southern Thai curries, soups and stir-fries that dwarf the offerings at any other vendor in the area. We get what Chin likes: pla samunprai (deep-fried fish with lemongrass), kanom jeen with nam ya gati (fermented rice noodles with a coconut milk-based fishmeat curry) and something I’ve never had before: gaeng sai gluay, or a coconut milk-based curry made of banana stems.  It’s unctuous and slightly sweet — not what I expect of Southern Thai food, which is fierce and hot and uncompromising, but it is augmented by some flaked fish flesh, which in itself feels very Southern to me. I also love that it takes an ingredient that would otherwise probably be thrown away — banana stems — and forms an entire dish around it. Best of all, our order comes with a collection of different pickles and fresh vegetables and herbs to enjoy as we see fit, my favorite thing about eating at Southern Thai places.

Pork kua gling at Dao Tai

Pork kua gling at Dao Tai

Our Southern Thai-oriented explorations don’t end at the market. Next up: Phran Nok Road, which hosts a collection of Southern Thai khao gaeng (curry rice) vendors that have been around for decades. The most famous of these is Dao Tai (508/26 Phran Nok Rd., 02-412-2385), which has a reputation for fearsomely good Southern Thai food despite its relatively “remote” location all the way over in Thonburi.

The day I get there, I am starving, having saved room all morning for this very (series of) meal(s). Chin and I try to pace ourselves, so we only order my favorite Southern Thai dish, gaeng som pla grapong (sour curry with seabass and bamboo shoots), and kua gling moo, a “dry” curry of minced pork  dry roasted in a pan over low heat with a handful of herbs and an entire pantry’s worth of chilies. I find both dishes absolutely delicious, manna from heaven, especially when coupled with the shoots, leaves and cucumber slices that automatically come to our table once we sit down, an offering to the Hot Chili Spice Gods.

Sour curry at Dao Tai

Sour curry at Dao Tai

 

I am so ravenous I don’t even notice the chilies, ploughing through half of my plate of rice until I see Chin across the table from me, tears in her eyes. She is not verklempt over the beauty of our meal, or from having to watch me shovel rice with so-so accuracy into my mouth hole. No, it’s too hot. And there is, she suspects, an overabundance of MSG. The curries and stir-fries are too “dark”, the “wrong color”, she says. In short, Chin is not impressed with my selection of Dao Tai. It’s time to move, ideally to that place across the street that looks a little better.

That place is called Ruam Tai and it sits kitty-corner to Dao Tai, an arrangement I suspect was set up to accommodate overflow from the more famous restaurant. However, the food here may be just as good. We have hor mok (steamed, rubbery seafood curry topped with a disappointingly icing-like dab of coconut cream) and a far better coconut milk-based curry of snails which have to be plucked from the liquid and their meat extracted via toothpick. It’s far too fiddly for me. I NO LIKE EXTRA WORK! Chin, for her part, is charmed.

Snail curry at Ruam Tai

Snail curry at Ruam Tai

Now I am absolutely stuffed, and contemplating the ride home, after which I will be rewarded by passing out on my couch for two hours while pretending to edit my book. But there is one more place to check out, and that is Chawang, right next door to Ruam Tai. It’s a shame we leave it last, because it’s friendly, airy, and  full of food that is the most restrained (chili-, flavor- and MSG-wise) of the three. Here, I manage a few bites of khao yum (a “salad” of rice with minced veggies, toasted coconut and herbs in a light, sweet-tart dressing), and then groan and make faces while Chin tastes the sator (stinkbean) stir-fried with shrimp paste and shrimp, and gaeng gati, a coconut milk “soup” bulked up generously with shrimp and pakliang leaves.

The trip back home is a doozy.

 

 

 

 

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Glutton Abroad: All we do in KL is eat

A bowl of assam laksa from Penang Cuisine in Publika

A bowl of assam laksa from Penang Cuisine in Publika

Frequently, when one is comparing A to B, it’s always a case of either/or, or this versus that. It is never about both things being awesome. I think it is because we are bred to think of things in terms of conflict. But A can indeed be as good as B, if different, and it would be foolish to choose one over the other. I mean, who would choose between Loki and Thor if you can have both?

So I am here to say that — while I still love Thai cuisine — Malaysian food is absolutely, indisputably delicious. Not everything makes me want to rend my garments with how wonderful it is: for instance, Chinese-style laksa seems like an exercise in flavor layering  that is unnervingly similar to how a 3-year-old puts together a sundae (let’s have that, and then this, and then a little more of the other thing, and while we’re at it, more of that again). At the same time, there are dishes that are tear-out-your-heart, stomp-on-the-ground yummy. Malaysian food is varied and many-dimensional and complicated, sure. And I’ve only just scratched the surface! The verdict, after one short trip to Kuala Lumpur, is the one that I ultimately feared: I cannot believe I waited so long to eat here.

Chinese-style laksa with tofu, fried wontons, egg noodles and cockles

Chinese-style laksa with fried and fresh tofu, pork, fried wontons, egg noodles and cockles

I know our culinary “guide” May means business when she sends us a detailed food itinerary a couple of weeks in advance. She jokes about it being “gut busting”, but it really and truly is. There was once a time when I could eat like this, like when I was researching my first book only a few years ago — a handful of places, three times a day. The trick, you are supposed to tell yourself, is to remember to “graze” so that there is enough room for everything to fit.

This is truly easier said than done. Especially when you are presented with the delectable char siew (Chinese-style barbecued pork) at Restoran Meng Char Siew (13 Tengkat Tong Shin, 012-252-1943). Unlike the other versions I’ve tried, this pork is neither overly sugary nor brittle with glaze; it’s a soft, melting heft of meat lacquered with sweet and bitter from the makeshift drum-like “ovens” in the kitchen.

Malaysian barbecued pork

Malaysian barbecued pork

There is less worry about offsetting greasiness with something cleansing or tangy in Malaysia, so here you have your “oiled” rice (similar to the rice you get with chicken rice) or your rice vermicelli drenched in soy sauce and your freshly sliced cucumber and maybe a stir fry of lettuce or bean sprouts (ideally from Ipoh, because those are the best, says May from Ipoh). Then you call it a day. Or, in our case, we call it an hour, because it’s already time to head off to the next destination. But before we go, May stops to watch the pork meatball vendor at work next door. Unlike the Thai pork pellets that are skewered and then grilled over an open flame, these meatballs are golf ball-sized masses of pig, served with a burning hot pork broth and bits of green onion. They are small enough to trick you into thinking you can eat them in one bite, but big enough to turn that endeavor into a total disaster.

“You should try a couple,” May urges me, but it’s too much, and I am already thinking of the next restaurant.

“Oh no, I will die if we have any more food right now,” I say.

“Two meatballs!” May answers, before I am presented with a small plastic bag of balls that I am free to carry into the car to maybe nosh on later.

So no, I did not die, because I am sitting here writing this right now, duh. And my stomach did settle in time to sample the eye-opening bak kuh teh at Teluk Pulai (Claypot) Bak Kuh Teh (32 Jalan Batai Laut 5, 03-3344-5196). I am used to the Singporean and Thai-Chinese version of this dish, which is referred to as the “peppery” kind involving cooking greens and pork into a sort of vegetal sludge. I absolutely loathe this dish. It reminds me of Italian ribollita, which I also find revolting. Why ruin all the best parts of the vegetables? But here, they specialize in the “herbal” type of bak kuh teh, which means the greens are strewn over the top as the pot of pork is served at your table, alongside rice and cut-up deep-fried crullers (patongko) to soak up all the delicious pork broth.

bakkuhteh

There is also a “dry” kind of bak kuh teh, which was sort of a revelation for me: no broth, no greens, just a bunch of slowly braised pork bits, heavily coated with bah kuh teh spices, what appears to be the cooked-down broth, and dark soy sauce.

dry

The crullers go with the “wet” bak kuh teh. I didn’t know that when I took this photo.

As full as I was from the barbecued pork, I could not pass up this dish — a dish I had previously dreaded seeing on the dinner table. Another thing I remember dreading: Chinese food, the kind that my parents would drive two hours to Cleveland for. There, at a restaurant called “Bo Loong”, my parents would get their Asian food fix while we kids moped around like mourners at a funeral, eating plain rice and wishing ourselves at McDonald’s.

But even my parents, longtime Bo Loong boosters, would say that Restaurant Oversea (84-88 Jalan Imbi, +603-2144-9911) is a far superior restaurant. In fact, it is now my favorite Chinese restaurant in the world. There are a bunch of excellent dishes: things that are slow-cooked in pots, or freshly plucked from the fish tanks downstairs, or (this being Malaysia) coated in that black sauce that seems capable of covering just about anything edible here. But there real reason I am hoping to go back is this (order 24 hours in advance):

Roast piglet with gravy at Restaurant Oversea Imbi

Roast piglet with gravy at Restaurant Oversea Imbi

Now, I look at this and feel a twinge. This was a baby pig. I do feel bad about that. But do I respond by crossing my arms and not partaking, basically rejecting the gift that this piglet has given us? Or do I dig in and honor this pig’s sacrifice to my stomach as heartily as possible? You can guess my reaction. It is: thank you, baby pig. Your tiny squares of skin, paired with the fluffy Chinese-style steamed bread (man tou), or chunks of fatty, tender flesh drenched in pork gravy. Your sweet little trotters. And then, yes, the head, cleaved in two and presented to my neighbor at the dinner table and me, in an unspoken foodie dare.

I nibbled at the ear as my neighbor exhorted me to dig in with my bare hands, tearing the head apart at the jaw to release more of the meat buried under the cheekbone. “Try the eye,” she said, poking it out from underneath the skull to pop into her mouth. And, well, if she went to St. Andrews with Prince William and could chow down on half a piglet head like it was NBD, then I could do it too. It tasted like nothing, like a crunchy piece of gelatin. I had passed.

This is nowhere near all the food that I had. There are other highlights: fish head curry, Assam laksa (like noodles in a gaeng som broth), various stir-fried noodle dishes, yam rice with a light, slightly sour broth peppered with pig innards. But it’s not even close to the end of the road for all the dishes I want to try. I’m no fortuneteller, but I see … another trip to KL looming in my future.

Pan mee from Kin Kin: noodles with dried fish, minced pork, chili and a poached egg

Pan mee from Kin Kin: noodles with dried fish, minced pork, chilies and a poached egg

 

 

 

 

 

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Isaan on Sukhumvit

Pork shoulder on the grill at Pa Oun

Pork shoulder on the grill at Pa Oun

One of the things I love about the TV show “Hannibal” is, obviously, its treatment of food. Because it’s a show about a cannibal who is also a psychiatrist who is also, somehow, a ninja, it includes a lot of cooking scenes. But it is all very much the exact opposite of food porn. Instead, food is treated as something that is alien and repellant. That is hard to do for a person like me who will eat just about anything, but “Hannibal” manages it just fine. Honestly, I have no idea how this man gets people to dine at his home. The dishes he serves them — some kind of gelatin thing with octopus tentacles splaying from the top, or a whole heart encased in pastry, in a wacky take on Wellington — are things that would make anyone blanch and suddenly profess themselves a vegetarian. Yet these dodos regularly tuck in, week after week, oblivious to the mountains of brains and kidneys and offal-meat sausages they are stuffing down their face-holes (this is possibly because they really, really don’t want to offend their host).

Besides making humans the main protein, Hannibal does a lot of roulades, vols-au-vent and aspics — things that, again obviously, involve disguising the meat. They are cooking techniques that I don’t enjoy so much, because I don’t like thinking of my food being manipulated in that way. Of course, food is being handled in every possible way in a restaurant kitchen, but I don’t like it being so obvious. I prefer food cooked on the bone, sort of looking like it was quickly butchered before it promptly decided to jump through a fire and land onto a plate.

This is why I am so feeling Isaan food right now. It’s simple and straightforward and mostly revolves around a lot of quick cooking: grilling and boiling, whatever gets the food on your table in a half hour, tops. Sometimes the main ingredient is minced before it is cooked and mixed with toasted rice kernels, seasonings and herbs (larb), and sometimes it’s about food that’s simply being served as is (the raw veggies that go with som tum, a grilled beefsteak accompanied by a simple tamarind dipping sauce). In all respects, every ingredient in Isaan food plays a role of some kind, with nothing extraneous or fussy. It’s the complete opposite of Hannibal’s cooking.

Some people like to pooh-pooh the idea of finding a decent Isaan restaurant in the Sukhumvit area, but I think good food can be found anywhere people are willing to pay for it. Such is the case with classic Isaan standby Nomjit Gai Yang (Ekamai Soi 18, 02-392-8000), which also has a branch in Srinakarin. There is plenty of grilled chicken and pork, and much has been made of their selim (Thai dessert vermicelli in coconut milk), but their som tum (grated salads) are also surprisingly good for an area well-known for its Starbucks branches, Japanese sushi bars and pubs. Long story short: Thai yuppies gotta eat too.

Som tums are made in a mortar and pestle, and the best som tum cooks jealously guard their mortars and pestles for generations, much like a chef would guard his omelet pan, or a Japanese oden vendor guard his broth. My friend Chin tells me the very best mortars and pestles (krok) are made of tamarind wood, but that ceramic or stone are too hard on the delicate strands of vegetable or fruit, turning your salad into a gloppy mess. At Nomjit, som tum is made in a krok of mango wood by a Si Sa Ket native with 20 years of experience. The salads are flavorful and full-bodied, the exact opposite of the anemic versions you might expect to find in this neighborhood.

A som tum of green beans at Nomjit

A som tum of green beans at Nomjit

Another great find was completely unexpected. A short stroll about 50 m down Sukhumvit 18 yields a smoking grill attached to two humans on the left hand side, along with a cooler of soft drinks and, of course, a mortar and pestle. The humans who make up Pa Oun (089-760-6478) grill some of the best pork I have ever had the pleasure of eating, either simply sliced and served with a clump of sticky rice, or mixed with lime juice and fish sauce and rice kernels to form a moo nam tok (spicy pork salad). I would love to show you a photo, but my computer is misbehaving. Just know that this stuff is delicious, and that I had to work VERY VERY HARD to get it — i.e., stand in front of the grill, getting smoke into my hair and eyes, for a very long time. This was one of those cases where, no matter what, the vendor just didn’t want to serve me, for whatever reason (maybe this just happens to me). So it sort of deteriorates into a sort of smoky stand-off, a culinary game of chicken. Will she eventually serve me or won’t she? When that line of people that have come after me tapers out, what will she do then? Am I doomed to stand there forever, like a statue? Will I become a landmark? Will people eventually say, “Turn right at the chubby crying woman in front of the grill, and you will find parking. Enjoy the salsa club!” Will I die this way?

She did eventually serve me, after all the people who came after me finally left. I smelled like a chimney for the rest of the day. The end.

 

 

 

 

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Sit Eat Talk

Steamed fish with soy sauce, one of the many courses at Nang Gin Kui

Steamed fish with soy sauce, one of the many courses at Nang Gin Kui

We all have our biases. They are shaped from our individual life experiences and form a part of who we are. If, for example, James Franco opens his mouth to say something, I am going to be predisposed against taking it seriously in any way. Same if the opinion comes from a person who refers to Daenerys Stormborn as “Khaleesi”. Nope nope nope nope. Not going to pay attention.

I kind of feel the same way about TripAdvisor. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think it’s completely useless. It’s just that I don’t really know about the methodology. In fact, I don’t know about any methodology, because I can’t math. I can only listen to people I know and trust, who tell me where to eat (and what to do and where to go). If, however, they are James Franco or a person who calls Daenerys Stormborn “Khaleesi”, then I don’t want to hear their opinions on good restaurants. Because 1.) I am a huge Game of Thrones nerd, and 2.) I won’t believe them. How many James Francos and “Khaleesi”-lovers submit reviews to TripAdvisor? No one knows, right? This is something to consider, TripAdvisor. This is cause for concern.

Just last week, though, I got to try dinner at the top-rated Bangkok restaurant on TripAdvisor, Nang Gin Kui (aka Eat, Pray, Love. Haha. Just kidding. It stands for Sit, Talk, Eat). It’s actually the very first restaurant I’ve tried that is currently listed in TripAdvisor’s top 10 Bangkok restaurants. At #2 is Creamery Boutique Ice Creams (yes, an ice cream parlor is Bangkok’s number two restaurant), and #3 is Chef Bar, which I’ve heard good things about but haven’t tried yet. These are then followed by Sensi Japanese restaurant and The District (huh? Never heard of either), followed by G’s Restaurant (there’s another German place besides Bei Otto?), JP French Restaurant, Reflexions (at the Plaza Athenee? Really?) Old Town Cafe, and finally Le Petit Zinc (oh yeah, I have tried that place). Maybe you have been to all these places and found them excellent, or maybe you don’t know them from Jorah Mormont’s half-bear sister. It’s all subjective, isn’t it? Do you take a chance or not?

Maybe. Because, as much shade as I’ll throw on an ice cream parlor being the second-ranked restaurant in Bangkok, I do totally understand why Nang Gin Kui is TripAdvisor’s #1. It is charming, intimate, lovely and — for a certain type of outgoing, personable diner (not me) — a lot of fun. It is also really, really smart. Set on the 15th floor of the oldest apartment house in a quiet riverside section of Chinatown, Nang Gin Kui is the brainchild of architect Florian Gypser and his girlfriend, chef Goy Siwaporn, who open up their own home to grubby outsiders about four times a week. Evenings are either “meet and greets” (where a bunch of strangers gather together and try to find common ground for a few hours) or private dinners for a couple or group of people, and they serve set menus of 12 courses which change nightly, depending on what’s fresh at the market.

One of the reasons Nang Gin Kui works is that, well, very few people have a nice, cozy space with a stunning view of the Chao Phraya River. Besides Le Normandie, this probably has the best view of the river I’ve seen — in fact, it might be better, because it’s up higher. My photos don’t really do it justice.

Riverside view

Riverside view

Another thing is, it’s a lot of food, with a whole lot of space in between — European-level amounts of space — that allow for plenty of conversation and digestion. The fare is mostly Asian-ish: Thai, with a bit of Chinese or Japanese and some fusion-y touches, depending on Goy’s mood. There are plenty of little nibbles to go with your aperitif, like tofu-and-sesame salad or asparagus wrapped in salmon, as well as heartier stuff (curry, grilled seafood). The cooking smartly avoids getting too fancy, or too fussy, in favor of simplicity and flavor. And food is not the only thing in abundance here; Florian is very, very good at making sure your champagne and wine glasses are filled at all times.

The ultimate effect is like a dinner party spent at the home of very ambitious and efficient foodie friends whom you’re just starting to get close to, so you’re trying to be as polite as possible to their other friends in order to score more invitations to their house. The only problem for Florian and Goy is that all I have to do is call them up and reserve a table if I want another evening with them! Something to consider, Florian and Goy. Cause for concern (for them).

NOTE: Despite my offer to pay, Florian and Goy comped my dinner. Can I be bought off by a pleasant, boozy evening full of food? Why, yes. YES I CAN. However, I also thought it was a fun experience and would have happily paid. Plus, I am not James Franco and refer to Dany by her real name. You can trust my opinion! Or not. More food for me.

 

 

 

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Payday

Coconut milk-basted grilled chicken at Lang Ram Mieng Pla Pow

Coconut milk-basted grilled chicken at Lang Ram Mieng Pla Pow

The last Friday of every month is a guaranteed traffic nightmare in Bangkok, because it’s the day most people get paid. This means that everyone takes that monthly salary check, cashes it, and proceeds to blow their hard-earned money on stuff like karaoke and mixed whiskey drinks. It’s a night that, for fuddy-duddies like me, is better spent at home drinking red wine and watching “Orphan Black”.

But my friend Cha is having none of it. Last year while out on the interminable Camino de Santiago, we passed the time by talking about all the Thai food that we missed back home and where we would go the second we touched Thai soil. He talked about succulent grilled chicken and mieng pla pow, or skewered fresh fish cooking over open charcoal, sizzling flesh enveloped in cool lettuce leaves and slathered in a green chili sauce. He said he would take me to his places, a clutch of Isaan-inspired vendors worth waiting for after the gazillion-km trek to the far side of Spain. Then we got home and life intervened. Until that night. So there was no postponing this food journey, even if these vendors were located on the other end of town and it was payday.

We reached Lang Ram Mieng Pla Pow (located at the back entrance of the Rajamangala Stadium) after a 3-hour drive for Cha (and one measly hour for us). Despite being named after a grilled fish dish, Lang Ram had no mieng pla to offer us. It didn’t really matter, because this place is actually better loved for its incredible, luscious, tasty (insert more yummy adjectives here) chicken. This chicken is so good that I would actually go back to Ramkhamhaeng for it. And when paired with a battery of pounded Isaan-style salads (som tum) and Thai-style spicy yum, a plate of sticky rice or two, and a soda or three (no alcohol at this Thai Muslim-owned spot), you’ve got enough reason to spend three hours in traffic on payday. Include a big vat of tom sab (spicy Isaan-style soup) to be absolutely sure.

Cucumber som tum with fermented anchovy and pickled crab

Cucumber som tum with fermented anchovy and pickled crab

It’s easy to be full after a meal like that, but we are made of sterner stuff. All we had to do was go right next door for an actual shot at some mieng pla pow, since vendors selling similar things are frequently clustered together — as is the Thai way (are my words making any sense right now? That photo of grilled chicken up top is really distracting). What’s next door? Well, it’s called Racha Mieng Pla Pow Jay Goong, and its grilled fish are actually cooked over an open pit filled with flaming charcoal, which is deeply unpleasant to stand next to in the height of the hot season, but a great way to cook your grilled fish:

Hot to trot

Hot to trot

Racha is also staffed with a highly-efficient coterie of transgender servers dressed in pink air hostess outfits. They offer beer here as well as mieng pla, plus all the Isaan bells and whistles – som tum, sticky rice, eye-wateringly spicy soups — that one comes to expect from Northeastern Thai specialists. I dare you to find something better than a pla tubtim (red snapper) fresh off the grill, crusted lightly with salt and stuffed with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf, surrounded by a mountain of fresh greens and rice vermicelli. Even better, Racha offers two sauces: one, a tamarind base garnished with chopped roasted peanuts, and the second, a bewitching green chili sauce leavened with a dash of coconut milk that is out of this world. It was almost enough to make me forget that it was payday and there were even more hours of traffic awaiting us on the ride home. Almost.

Mieng pla pow at Racha Mieng Pla Pow Jay Goong

Mieng pla pow at Racha Mieng Pla Pow Jay Goong

 

 

 

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Dinner with strangers

The spicy lemongrass prawn soup at Som's place

The spicy lemongrass prawn soup at Som’s place

I know, I know. If you are like me, it seems like it would be something close to excruciating, right? I mean, it is not like I am the greatest conversationalist of all time. But I am doing this thing where I am trying to say “yes” to more things. So I’ll be meeting up for that drink with you soon, @bigboobs88! Until then, I’ve been filling up my time with more food-related activities, like sampling the food tours on offer at withlocals.com, a website that connects diners with local “hosts” who foolishly welcome them to the dinner tables at their very own homes.

Withlocals has hosts in a smattering of Asian locations including Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Nepal, and has recently found some hosts in Thailand. I wanted to go with someone who hadn’t been reviewed before, so I chose Som, a young Thai engineer whose home is on the outskirts of the city. My husband and I weren’t expecting much: Som promised “three sets of food and Thai fruit” for the reasonable sum of 15 euros, making it seem like a quick-turn-of-the-tables kind of evening where we would say our good-byes and I’d make a quick stop at Burger King before heading home.

Namprik pla tu

Namprik pla tu

We were pleasantly surprised by Som’s beautiful house, and when we got into the kitchen to meet Som’s “grandmother” — Som’s very own personal chef, mind you — we felt like Johnny Depp in a scarf store. The “three sets of food” were a delicious nam prik (chili dip) of minced Thai mackerel with all the fixings (Som had asked ahead what I like and I, of course, told her I have a weakness for chili dips), a stir-fry of prawn and vegetables, eggs stir-fried with preserved cabbage and a big steaming vat of freshly made tom yum goong. It’s home-cooked food, but the kind of home-cooked food that Thais make when they have guests over — all served alongside big Mason jars brimming with homemade roselle juice (nam grajieb). Som’s mother and Big Som joined us as well, and at the end of the dinner they served up a big bowl of green mango with nam pla waan (sweet fish sauce augmented with shrimp paste, palm sugar and chilies).  Needless to say, we were completely stuffed.

Prawns and veggies in the wok

Prawns and veggies in the wok

Sometimes people ask me about hosting dinners at my house and, well … I’m too much of a miserable bastard to do it. But spending the evening with Som, her mother and Big Som — people who open their home to others almost nightly — revived my faith in humanity for a little bit. There are lovely people in the world, yinz guys. Not at my house, obviously, but elsewhere, in homes as warm and hospitable as Som’s. If there is anything that “marketplaces” like withlocals shows us, it is this.

Little Som, Mom, me, Win, Big Som

Little Som, Mom, me, Win, Big Som

 

 

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, Thailand