What’s Cooking: Nam Prik Hed

The finished product

The finished product

There is a scene in the movie “Pretty Woman” (have you ever heard of it?) where Julia Roberts (do you know who she is?) is having dinner at a fancy restaurant with Richard Gere (my mom’s boyfriend). This woman met Richard Gere the night before while wearing a tie-dyed dinner napkin and Woody Harrelson’s toupee from “True Detective”, and now he is taking her to a French restaurant with waiters and everything. That’s really realistic. And then this douchecanoe goes and orders the escargots, even though his date has no freaking clue how to use her cutlery and one of the dinner companions (the “hothead” grandson who plays polo) has clearly cottoned on to Richard Gere’s game and ordered a dinner salad. Why didn’t Richard Gere order her the salad too? Is he really that attached to the prix fixe menu? Isn’t he rich enough to order a la carte? That is the moment when I figured out this movie was complete horseshit. Let your hooker order her own meal, Richard Gere!

I was thinking about this because, well, there are lots of mealtime etiquette thingies that even I, with all the many many meals that I have eaten, have no clue about. When faced with the mushroom chili dip you see above, I did what I usually do and piled all the crap I could find onto my plate, crowned with a healthy heaping of aforementioned nam prik. My dining companions snorted in my face. “Steady on!” they basically said, in Thai. “That chili dip will still be there in a few minutes’ time”.

“Thais are very fastidious about their manners while eating,” said one person, trying to be nice. “That’s is the only thing Thais do properly”. (Again, horseshit).

Oh, but wait. Let me start at the beginning.

I love nam prik. But I am extremely lazy. So it’s rare that I will make my own, preferring instead to pester harried-but-obliging wet market vendors or darken the doorstep of the occasional Thai restaurant in order to get my chili dip fix. It’s just that there are so few dishes that are as immediate — spicy, tart, funky in that fermented, garbage-y, wrong-side-of-garlic sense that Thai food is known for — as this one. Strange, then, that it’s not such a well-known dish once you find yourself out of Thailand.

It’s also so pretty and deceptively obliging: that little dollop, that big taste. Always surrounded by its various little accomplices, all chosen to offset whatever chili dip you’ve decided to guzzle on that particular day: sweet silky tamarind (macaam), sharp peppery roasted banana pepper (nam prik num), the ubiquitous, funkier-than-George-Clinton shrimp paste (gapi), a pillar of the standard Thai meal. In fact, nam prik was such a go-to dish in Thailand that husbands were once said to choose their wives on the sound their mortars and pestles made when pounding out a particular dip (if this were the case today, I can confidently say I would never get married).

So when my friend Chin took me to Nakhon Pathom with the promise of a good meal and a cooking class, you could color me curious. I rarely take cooking classes, because a.) they remind me of the time I was in culinary school, where I was bad and not good and to which I was generally unsuited, and b.) I don’t like to listen for long enough to follow directions (which may explain a. Really, though, why cook and then not eat? Who cares about these so-called “customers”? Let’s not discuss cooking school ever again.) But at Oo Khao Oo Pla (a take on the Thai saying “Nai nam mee pla, nai na mee khao” or “There is fish in the water, there is rice in the fields” aka Thailand is a lucky land of bounty), the friendly chef is happy enough to chat with me as she gives her hand-picked mushrooms a quick stir-fry with sugar and garlic in the wok, and garnishes her thom kloang pla salid (sour soup with smoked dried fish) with freshly plucked tamarind leaves from the tree out back. Better yet, she lets me pound the nam prik hed (mushroom chili dip) into a paste on the dinner table, peppering her commentary on my poor working style with the occasional “pok pok pok” (the sound a mortar and pestle should ideally make).

Sacrificing my shirt to the cooking gods

Sacrificing my shirt to the cooking gods

 

So with her blessing, I’m giving you this recipe. A tip or two: when you are pounding the shit out of that chili mixture, make sure you do so with intent and malice. Pretend you are Mike Tyson in the ring. Thais may seem all smiley and happy-g0-lucky, but that is because they are getting all their aggressions out on their food.

My chili paste

My chili paste

Nam Prik Hed (makes 4 servings)

- 2 hed fang (large straw mushrooms), cut up

- 4 red bird’s eye chilies and 4 green bird’s eye chilies

- 1 green, 1 orange, and 2 red prik chee fah (chili peppers)

- 5 garlic cloves

- 4-5 shallots

In 1 tsp oil, fry garlic, shallots and sliced chilies in hot wok with mushroom pieces until “dry”, about 5 minutes.

It should look like this.

It should look like this.

 

Next, mix the dressing:

- 3-5 tsp fish sauce

- 2-3 tsp sugar

- juice from 2-3 limes

Or, if you are going the vegetarian route, substitute the fish sauce for light soy sauce and salt.

Mix to taste.

Pound your wok mixture with your mortar and pestle. Add “dressing” to taste.

Done!

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Glutton (sort of) Abroad: Best Laid Plans

 

 

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I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. Last week, I finally bought the ticket. It’s non-refundable. So I’m doing it. I’m finally going  on my very first barbecue tour in the southern US this July.

Unlike most other things I do, where I just sort of throw things at the wall and see what sticks, I am actually trying to plan this time. It’s not easy for me, because I am a spaz. I will start researching something, only to find myself clicking on the crazy True Detective theory website, or looking up songs from the “Sixteen Candles” soundtrack. I have the attention span of a gnat. So it is really very slow going. But it’s (sort of) set. I’m focusing on what is called “real” barbecue, in the so-called “barbecue belt”. That means Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas. That’s it. Really, Texans.

Barbecue means pigs. Pigs are, somehow, intrinsically connected to the Southern identity: a cheap source of protein for centuries, pigs were allowed to run semi-wild in the woods up to the turn of the 20th century, making them easy game for hungry hunters with a halfway decent knowledge of how to start a fire. Although it is back-breaking and time-consuming work manning the pit, it also requires little more than experience: the more you barbecue, the better you get at it. And it is a relatively cheap pastime, breaking the tough or stringy pieces of meat into something that collapses into a velvety ooze. Each region boasts its own sauce, and even, in the case of Texas (beef) and Kentucky (mutton), different protein. But bona fide barbecue deals in pork, and smoke, and fire.

The act of barbecuing is said to have been the glue that kept Southern society together. Any big event — political rallies, church gatherings, etc. — featured one, and all and sundry would show up to socialize and have a little taste of the pig. The word “barbecue” supposedly comes from the West Indian term barbacoa, but Southerners have managed to take this cooking method and knit it securely into their own identities. To provide barbecue, real barbecue, one must be Southern, and understand the tradition of it. And any permutations, variations, iteration must be debated ad nauseum by anyone with even the slightest claim to Southern heritage, because to know about barbecue and its traditions is to be Southern. In this way, barbecue in the South is comparable to street food in Thailand, to me at least. Thais love to debate the merits or demerits of a particular version of any street food dish. They love to cast aspersions on another region’s treatment of the same ingredient. It’s like the social, conversational form of trading cards. This is how you show you are plugged in. Only, in the South, it’s the different ways someone slow-roasts a pig, instead of how someone cooks noodles.

I will start in Nashville, where I’ve never been. I must admit it’s not the barbecue that is drawing me here: it’s something called “hot chicken”, or fried chicken with hot sauce on it, which may be the best thing I have ever heard of. I LOVE FRIED CHICKEN. Next comes St. Louis/Kansas City, where a sweet, tomatoey sauce ladled over slow-cooked ribs is favored. In Memphis, the pig is “pulled” (shredded with a fork) and the sauce has molasses in it. In Alabama … I hear there is something called “white barbecue”, or a mayonnaise-based sauce (YIKES). In Georgia, the barbecue is served alongside “hash” — the Southern version of Scrapple. In South Carolina, the pork is sliced or chopped, and the sauce is piquant and mustardy. And in North Carolina, the “home of barbecue” to many, the sauce is either vinegary and the ‘cue served with hush puppies (on the east coast), or tomatoey and peppery, and served alongside a faintly terrifying dish called “Brunswick stew” in west North Carolina.

Do you know barbecue? Do you, like me, wonder how the different ways people roast pigs reflects the environments they live in? Do you have a favorite barbecue place? This is my tentative itinerary, and my very first attempt at crowdsourcing. If you have any opinions at all — even if you are not a Southerner — please let me know what you think.

TN

 –  Jim Neely’s Interstate (2265 S. 3rd St., Memphis)

–  A&R BBQ (1803 Elvis Presley Blvd., Memphis)

–  Jack’s (416 Broadway, Nashville)

–  Siler’s Old Time BBQ (6060 Hwy 100 E., Henderson)

–  Prince’s Hot Chicken (123 Ewing St., Nashville)

–  Hattie B’s (112 19th Ave. S., Nashville)

MO

–  Arthur Bryant’s (1727 Brooklyn Ave., Kansas City)

–  FIorella’s Jack Stack BBQ (101 W. 22nd St., Kansas City)

–  Pappys Smokehouse (3106 Olive St., St. Louis)

–  C&K BBQ (4390 Jennings Station Rd., St. Louis)

 

KS

– Oklahoma Joe’s (3002 W. 47th Ave., Kansas City)

– Woodyard (3001 Merriam Lane, Kansas City)

 

SC

– Scott’s BBQ (2734 Hemingway Hwy, Hwy 261 Brunson Cross Rd., Hemingway)

– Martha Lou’s Kitchen (1068 Morrison Dr., Charleston)

– Home Team BBQ (2209 Middle St., Charleston)

 

NC

– Allen and Son (6203 Millhouse Rd., Chapel Hill)

– Lexington BBQ (100 Smokehouse Lane, Lexington)

– Stamey’s (4524 N. Carolina 150, Lexington)

– Wilber’s BBQ (4172 Hwy. 70 East, Goldsboro)

– Skylight Inn (4618 S. Lee St., Ayden)

– The Pit (328 W. Davie St., Raleigh)

– Scott’s (1201 N. William St., Goldsboro)

– Bill’s (3007 Downing St., Wilson)

GA

– Gladys and Ron’s Chicken and Waffles (529 Peachtree St., Atlanta)

– Pittypat’s Porch (25 Andrew Young Intl Blvd., Atlanta)

– Fat Matt’s Rib Shack (1811 Piedmont Rd., Atlanta)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Touring the Old Town

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Chin’s pomelo salad

(Photo courtesy of Chili Paste Tours)

I don’t often give street food tours. Don’t get me wrong — I like getting out and about and meeting people — but if I do go with someone, it’s more of a walk-a-long to somewhere I’m trying out anyway, because I’m not sure I’m a very good guide. The thought of charging for an experience that may or may not be useful to someone is very fraught for me. I JUST WANT TO BE LOVED, OKAY?

So when I went on my own Bangkok food tour, it was an interesting change of pace for me. Recommended by the talented Anne Faber, Chili Paste Tour (www.chilipastetour.com) is a name that frequently springs to mind when people ask me for street food tour recommendations. Because I have mentioned them a couple of times, Chin — the tiny powerhouse behind Chili Paste — generously offered to take me to her favorite food stops. This was an incredible windfall for me, since these stops fall in my favorite part of town: the loop from Pra Arthit Road bypassing Rachadamnern Avenue, up through the Chinese Swing, and onto Tanao Road.

Now, I like to think I have fairly delineated tastes, meaning very few things are neutral to me. I like to think that I can be picky, but fair. I also like to think that I’m nice and that if I don’t like something, it doesn’t show, but my husband has just told me that I’m an abject failure at that. In other words, I can be a raging bitch. But Chin, while managing to veer nowhere near Bitchtown, is even more exacting, and really knows her food: she frequently spends entire afternoons sampling the offerings of vendors in nearby towns, trying to find a suitable place to take her charges. A famous som tum place is dismissed for being too “sweet”; a widely lauded Thai lunch spot is “bland”. Almost everyone is guilty of too much MSG. So when Chin likes a place, I feel like it must really be good.

First up: Chin’s favorite restaurant, Krua Sam Hom at Praeng Puthon Square. This road may sound familiar to you because of the perennial tourist favorite, Chote Chitr, which is close to the entrance from Tanao Road. Krua Sam Hom is a little further in, on the right hand side, directly across from the “park” that forms the square.  It is, like most of the places in that neighborhood, surprisingly empty. But that ends up being a blessing, since Chin commandeers the kitchen (she takes a lot of people here), gathering ingredients for a spicy pomelo salad, the recipe for which she has loaned below. She is a whirlwind of instructions and information: the best pomelos come from Samut Songkhram and Nakhon Pathom; good nam prik pao (roasted chili paste) can be bought at Aor Thor Kor; she adds fresh orange segments from a particularly tart type found only in Samut Songkhram. And other stuff: how many modern Thai stir-fry cooks rely on margarine to add color and sheen to their creations, at the expense of aroma; to always have pomegranate juice vendors squeeze their juice in front of you, because many bulk up their bottles with cheaper watermelon juice.

We also get a beautiful plah goong, a prawn salad blanketed in minced lemongrass, mint, shallots and kaffir lime leaves and a stir-fry of morning glory and chilies. There is also a gaeng som (sour soup) with more prawns and squares of acacia leaves battered in egg, its rich red color courtesy of polished red chilies hand-picked by the chef, who keeps the discards in a plastic bag by the stairs.

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Krua Sam Hom’s gaeng som

Now, being a Glutton is my thing and all, and I really thought I might end up going home hungry, but that was foolish. After lunch, a stop at what is probably still Bangkok’s most famous ice cream shop, Nuttaporn: mango and coconut were especially recommended. Then, an iced coffee at the corner with the possibility of 12 baht pork noodles on Dinsor Road looming on the horizon and … I was stuffed. Stuffed like an 18-course meal at Eleven Madison Park (where I was convinced they were trying to kill us) stuffed. What can I say? We all have our limits.

Chin’s pomelo salad (for two)

- 5 pomelo segments

- 1/2 som kaew (glass oranges from Samut Songkhram)

- 1 Tbs roasted chili paste

- 1 Tbs peanut powder

- 1 Tbs dried coconut

- 3 Tbs palm sugar mixed with tamarind juice

- 1 Tb fish sauce (more to taste)

- 1/2 lime (more to taste)

- 5-6 dried chilies

- 1 Tbs roasted peanuts

- 1 Tbs fried shallots

- 4 cooked shrimp

- 3 fresh bird’s eye chilies

- 3 Tbs lemongrass, minced

- 2 tsp granulated sugar (to taste)

1. Mix roasted chili paste, peanut powder, palm sugar/tamarind juice, fish sauce, lime, fresh chilies, lemongrass and granulated sugar to form dressing.

2. Add citrus segments, squeezing them a bit to add juice to the dressing.

3. Garnish with shrimp, coconut, shallots, dried chilies and whole peanuts.

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Mango and coconut ice creams at Nuttaporn

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Isaan foodie haven

Fish grilled in a salt crust at Jay Dang

Fish grilled in a salt crust at Jay Dang

It’s official: I’m in worry for my second book, which threatens to be stillborn in Singapore. It’s hard for me to point fingers, since it is supposedly all my fault. Remember that time when I thought signing a book contract and handing over control meant I could sit back and let other people do the work? Remember that? That was foolish, me. At least there is my non-existent writing career to fall back on. Silver linings!

Let’s look at more silver linings. Such as: a movie like Pompeii 3D exists. My lack of social life means I can finally grow a beard, just like I always dreamed of. And that there are still little pockets of unique, special foodie-dom in Bangkok, existing in spite of jams and disturbances and disorders. Hanging in there until the commotion dies down. In some cases, thriving.

Example: the Isaan neighborhood on Petchburi Road, next to Ratchathewi intersection and across the street from the mosque on Soi 7. Dwight Turner of bkkfatty.com told me about this place first; later, the very talented Isaan artist Maitree Siriboon took me here when I asked him where he ate when he got homesick. By day, it’s a grimy, slightly down-at-heel working class neighborhood where you’d expect to see a lot of hubcaps sold. At night, though, the strip suddenly lights up and the people come out like Isaan food-loving vampires, basking in the dusk and the neon lighting of the restaurant signs as they are switched on: Jay Orn, Jay Goy, Jay Dang. There may be a Loong (or “Uncle”) sandwiched in there somewhere.

But the aunties are the big ones, the favorites of the diners here — either transplanted Isaaners like Khun Maitree, or chili-seeking junkies like me. In that respect, this place doesn’t disappoint: hot, hot grated papaya salads peppered with pickled crab and sprinkled with fermented Thai anchovy juice; steaming vats of soup sporting an abundance of chicken feet, bright orange in its toxicity and nicknamed thom super (“super soup”). There are strips of pork liver and minced pork or chicken meat dressed in a spicy-tart dressing and a shower of mint leaves. And, if spice isn’t really your thing, there are old favorites like grilled chicken, sliced pork collar, and snakehead fish cooked over an open flame, stuffed with lemongrass stalks and kaffir lime leaves and coated in a salt crust so that when the skin is split open, the flesh stays wonderfully fragrant and tender. There is nothing like this dish when it is done right.

A shame about the dancing shrimp: live baby shrimp that are drizzled in a tart-spicy Isaan-style dressing and served to you, as is. It is baab (a sin) to eat them, as you are causing the suffering of untold little animals, but the experience — while horrifying — is unparalleled by anything else in Thai food. When I asked about this dish last week, and the tanks that used to be at every cooking station, they all said the protests had made bringing fresh live shrimp to Petchburi impossible. Good or bad? As with everything else, my feelings are mixed.

 

 

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Glutton Abroad: Soup’s on

Maguro chazuke at Chikuyotei

Maguro chazuke at Chikuyotei in Tokyo

Fetishizing food is encouraged in Japan. Much like how having an opinion on the best chicken rice or egg noodle in Bangkok lends you social currency among a certain set in Bangkok, the genuine appreciation of a certain dish or ingredient — in the right season, of course — is considered cultured, even necessary. Knowing about this stuff seems to be part of what being Japanese is all about.

So it’s not surprising that I always enjoy my trips to Japan … even though I almost always end up committing some horrible faux pas on some poor unsuspecting Japanese person (people). Once, as a guest in a holiday house with its own onsen bath, I was offered the opportunity to bathe first. Now, I’m not a total idiot: I knew I would have to sit on a teeny tiny stool and clean myself out in the cold before actually going into the bath, which was very hot and the size of a baby pool. But maybe pulling the plug after I got out wasn’t such a great idea. They had to fill it all back up again with new water after I left the room. To this day, they have never mentioned the appalling thing I did (and I’ve never mentioned it either. Call it a game of embarrassment chicken). That level of politeness also seems to form a part of being Japanese.

One of my favorite dishes to search out when I go to Tokyo is ochazuke, which is rice served with whatever topping you feel like (raw fish, pickles, or fish eggs are common) and broth on the side. You yourself decide how soup-y (or mushy) you want your porridge (I don’t like too much broth). Rice porridge doesn’t sound like it would set many hearts a-flutter, and not many people order it outside of Japan, but to me there is no better lunch (if you are wondering, Aoi in Bangkok serves versions topped with pickled plum, salmon, baby sardines or spicy fish roe). I could eat it every day: with a different topping for each day of the week, of course.

It’s not a hard dish to get right, but it’s a difficult dish to really excel at. Which is why I think the taichazuke (sea bream porridge) at Chikuyotei (5-8-3 Ginza, across the street from Mitsukoshi and next to Nissan) is so exceptional. The morsels of fish are freshly sliced and then left to “marinate” for a bit on a tangy sesame sauce spiked liberally with sesame seeds and strips of nori seaweed. There is a big bowl of rice and pickles, and the all-important kettle of broth. It’s simple but deceptively disarming. I blame the sesame sauce.

A pity I’ve been eating it wrong all these years. Apparently, you are supposed to “savor” the delicate taste of the fish in the sauce with the dry rice before drowning all those poor rice grains in fish broth and your grody drool drops and then pouring that mishmash down your open face hole. Oh well. The long-suffering ladies who serve here must deal with this kind of stuff all the time (not really. I never see any gaijin there).  They also serve a raw tuna version that is less good, but more substantial, for those days when you really want to pig out without looking like you are pigging out (or you can just suck it up and order oomori, or a large-sized portion). Really, these triumphs in the art of rice porridge cookery are not bad for a restaurant that supposedly specializes in unagi (eel). Yay, porridge!

A great surprise, then, that the culinary wasteland known as Narita Airport also boasts its own ochazuke restaurant, in the “mall” adjacent to the check-out counters — a place I never go to normally because I am usually so late getting to the airport. Wasting your entire day at Narita might be worth it, if only for the 15 minutes that it takes to find Dashi Chazuke En, order your porridge at the counter (they also have their own raw tuna and sea bream versions, as well as fish eggs, pickles, and a cold version topped with thinly sliced pickled cucumber), and slurp that whole shebang down your throat before your waitress even knows what’s up. Sure, it’s the “poor man’s” chazuke, the Joan Collins to Chikuyotei’s Liz Taylor, but who on earth is choosy at the airport?

Dashi Chazuke En's raw tuna porridge

Dashi Chazuke En’s raw tuna porridge

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Street food celebrities

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Deep-fried sea bass at Jay Maew Seafood in Samut Songkhram

Gordon Ramsay. Jamie Oliver. Anthony Bourdain. You know who these guys are, right? Everybody does. And, if you like reading about food, chances are you have your own favorite celebrity chef whom you hope to meet one day and become best fwends with forever and ever (mine is Martha Stewart. I know. But the lady looks like she wouldn’t shy away from a drink and likes to have a good time. What can I say? Love has no logic, okay?!) 

The relatively tiny little world of Thai street food (or, as tiny as hundreds of thousands of street food stalls in Bangkok can be, anyway) also hosts its own celebrities. Everybody who has lived in Bangkok for some period of time knows about the dude who sells moo ping (grilled pork on skewers) at the Convent/Silom intersection late at night, greasy sweet manna for the high school-age revelers who are just stumbling out of Soi 4 (and with that last sentence, I have officially entered Middle Age). Many know about the guy who plies customers at his cart just off of Saladaeng Road with great yen ta fo noodles and carefully selected snippets of abuse. And of course, there is Jay Fai. So there are Thai street food celebrities out there. And, it would seem, the grumpier they are, the bigger the accolades. 

Jay Maew seems to fit into this mold. I have written about this fantastic seafood place in passing before, but after a recent trip there I think they deserve their own post. Like many professional chefs — and I am only just getting this — Jay Maew is a control freak, happy to bust out of the kitchen with a schmatta on her head to direct your car to a new parking spot if she thinks your parking skills are subpar (which must make her a lot of friends). She likes to tell customers that she is going to close soon, or is close to retiring, or maybe she will serve lunch, but just for you, because she likes you that much. Then you show up at the restaurant and see that lots of other people are already there. Why you gotta toy with my emotions like that, Jay Maew? 

Her other regulars like to tell me that she does this whole song and dance every time you make a reservation because she is trying to limit the number of customers she has, otherwise she gets flustered and stressed out — which, for a professional cook, sounds batshit crazy. Isn’t that what cooks do for a living? Serve customers food that they’ve cooked? But once the food comes out, it doesn’t really matter what uncharitable thoughts you had before, because everything is genuinely that good. There are always the stews — the bright, pungent gaeng som, the slightly sweet and meaty tom som, and of course the all-star tom yum – all thick with deftly cut hunks of pomfret or whatever other fish is a specialty that day. The gaeng kai pu – full of crab shells encrusted with orange bits of crab egg — will bring a tear to your eye. 

There is more than just the stuff that is thom (boiled).  There’s also the stuff that is pad (fried): a whole battery of different greens, my favorite being the young pumpkin shoots and acacia leaves, and the Chinese-y fried shrimp or crab dumplings accompanied by a homemade plum dipping sauce, and plump bits of crab as big as the pad of your thumb, stir-fried with garlic and chilies. 

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Jay Maew’s stir-fried crab with scallions and onion

I’ve only ventured a little ways through the menu here because I always end up sticking to my favorites, and let’s face it, that is way too much food to order in one sitting. I haven’t even mentioned the grilled tiger prawns, or the simply steamed fresh crab, or the steamed Chinese-style fish with either lime and chilies or pickled plums or soy sauce, or the deep-fried anything that you can think of. Although it’s an hour-and-a-half trip out of Bangkok on most days, it’s worth it — as long as you can get Jay Maew to agree to seat you.

How to get there: Get on the expressway to Dao Khanong. From Dao Khanong, go towards Samut Sakhon. From Samut Sakhon, head towards Samut Songkhram. Look for the sign for the Maeklong River, and then exit towards Maeklong village, where Jay Maew is located. Go under the bridge, turn left at your first left, and it should be on the left hand side. If you or someone you know can speak some Thai, you can also call 034-713-911.

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Thai food rant

The remnants of a "gra moo" (pork crackling stir-fried with herbs)

Scraping the plate clean: the remnants of a “gra moo” (pork crackling stir-fried with herbs)

Whenever a group of people talk about the nature of Thai food, talk inevitably alights on how Thai food is “spicy” and “wild” and whatever other adjective suggests something is “too much” for foreigners. I don’t have to tell you that this drives me up the freaking wall, but I’m going to do it anyway — and tell you twice, and maybe three times. This drives me up the wall. Almost as much as when someone eats rice and curry with a fork or chopsticks (how do you keep the sauce on the rice? Drive me up the wall x2), or when someone orders something like stir-fried morning glory or thom kha gai (coconut lemongrass chicken soup), and then proceeds to bogart the entire thing themselves (it’s meant for the entire table. Drive me up the wall x3).

But one rant at a time. The origins of the myth that Thai food is too challenging for Western palates are murky, but believing in it is still considered as Thai as, well, cherishing the right to take to the streets in protest: equivalent to the French fondness for going on strike. Thai food — much like the Thai political situation itself — is too difficult, too complicated and nuanced for foreigners to understand. And, let’s face it, it’s just too spicy. Hence the need for a gatekeeper to explain it to them, to tame those culinary zigs and zags that Thais take for granted, to turn them to those neutered bowls of green curry and plates of pad Thai, things that are tailored to welcome foreigners to the bosom of Thai food instead of pushing them away. Because ultimately, Thai food — as deemed by Thais themselves — is too strange, and too “other”.

Hence the creation of parallel menus in Thai restaurants abroad, and, in essence, an entire parallel cuisine. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone to a Thai restaurant in, say, Ardmore, and had a menu taken away from me by a Thai waiter, proclaiming it “not what I’m used to”, followed by a promise that they will get me something cooked for the staff. Another gatekeeper: this time in the reverse direction. But why the need for guarding Thai food like a bouncer at a nightclub in the Meatpacking District? I used to think it was a form of self-hatred, that the feeling that Thai food was too “weird” was akin to masking one’s own quirks in order to keep from scaring off a blind date. But now I think it’s something else. Real Thai food is ours, and you can’t have it. It’s too complicated and challenging because we are special snowflakes incapable of being really understood by a bunch of outsiders (aka dumbasses). To be honest, I cannot really count myself among those special snowflakes, because I have been tainted by my long stay in the West. Maybe I am being paid off by an Isaan som tum purveyor.

So the next time someone says Thai food is too “spicy” or “difficult” for foreigners, I want to ask them why the diner can’t make the decision for himself or herself? I feel like Thai food is so wide-ranging, with so many great regional variations of incredible complexity, that it’s a shame it’s being parceled up into these foreigner-friendly packages when it doesn’t need to be. I certainly haven’t had the experience of a Brazilian dissuading me from trying acaraje or a Japanese person telling me to avoid natto because it’s grody to the max. In fact, they are quite happy to let me shove fish sperm or fermented squid guts down my throat without any warning whatsoever (maybe this is just the kind of crowd I am running with). Maybe Thais — many of whom are grossed out by pla rah (fermented Thai anchovy) and sometimes even eschew fish sauce (my husband) — could cede culinary control in a similar way. It could win Thai food — a cuisine that is indeed nuanced, and varying, and detail-oriented, and special — even more fans than it already has.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, Thailand