Glutton Abroad: Dining on our own in Vietnam

Banh xeo, or stuffed Vietnamese crepe, named after the sound the batter makes when dropped in the pan

Banh xeo, or stuffed Vietnamese crepe, named after the sound the batter makes when dropped in the pan

There is nothing Thai people understand less than the desire to be alone. When someone slopes off, declaring an interest in taking a solitary walk or — heaven forbid! — a meal alone, the obvious conclusion that most Thais will draw is that there is something wrong. Because there is nothing worse than being on your own, with nothing but your thoughts for company. There is strength in the collective “we”. In the solitary “I”, there is just you.

The tendency to leave ingredients unadorned is another thing that Thais would rather not do. Sure, there are the raw vegetables that go with salads or dips, but they are the supporting players, the antidotes to things that need balancing in the ultimate battle for harmony on your palate. But everything is just that: a force to be counteracted. Everything is meant to be manipulated for the greater good, no stray acacia leaf or shrimp paste ball left to its own devices. What would fish meatball want to go off on her own for, anyway? Who does fish meatball think she is?

This is what makes Vietnamese food so interesting to me. There is the furious jumble of salads where lightly blanched slices of beef vie with pickled onions and julienned bits of carrot and glass vermicelli, and soup noodles heaped high with greens and christened with a bit of fish sauce and a dash of lime juice. But it’s just that — a mix that comes apart in the mouth, free to remain carrots and coriander leaves and noodles despite being part of a dish, readily identifiable and unobscured by a paste marinade or egg netting or any other highfalutin culinary trick seeking to meld every component of the dish to some higher ideal.

A typical bowl of pho with maybe a few more chilies than usual

A typical bowl of pho 

And then there is the issue with the chilies: ultimately why I think Vietnamese food resonates with so many people in a way that Thai doesn’t. There isn’t the cloud of chilies literally obscuring your tastebuds. Vietnamese food isn’t a food-based “Fear Factor” where you are expected to endure varying levels of pain in the pursuit of eating like a local. It’s just there, a similar mix of textures and sweet, salty and sour tastes, but presented much more simply and accessibly. As Karen says, it’s “gently flavored”.

I think this sort of laissez-faire attitude is exemplified most by Ho Chi Minh City’s “Lunch Lady” (Nguyen Thi Tranh, Phuong Da Cao, District 1), who cooks something different for lunch every day and still has no problem expecting people to come to her streetside stall for a bite. In Thailand, where people are so hospitable it can become an affliction, there would inevitably be the worry that people might not like what you are cooking that day. Here, the attitude is, “This is what I’m cooking. You can take it or leave it.” Paradoxically, diners appear delighted to be told what to eat. These are the same diners that probably enjoy being yelled at by irate Asian ladies. Future street food cooks, mull a little on that.

The "lunch lady" at work

The “lunch lady” at work

I should add: diners are happy to have their choices taken away, as long as that food is very good. On the day we arrived, there were thick, glassy rice noodles like glittery udon — what Thais would call guay jab yuan — in a lurid, Will Arnett-colored broth flavored with pork bone and chili. The soup held slices of fatty pork, deep-fried shallots, coriander, bits of fried pork rind, boiled quail eggs and cooked prawns, and the noodles were inevitably heavy and difficult to eat. This bowl was accompanied by both fresh and deep-fried spring rolls and an iced green drink that tasted like pennywort, or bai bua bok. Whatever they chose to plonk onto our table, we ate, and we enjoyed it.

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Curry rice paradise

A selection of stir-fry dishes along the "khao gang" stretch of Thonglor Road

A selection of stir-fry dishes along the “khao gang” stretch of Thonglor Road

I always say I hate shopping, but that’s not true. I love shopping for food. I will happily use up the same amount of time usually spent staring at my phone on a couch at a Uniqlo somewhere, surfing through the aisles of a grocery store and looking through all the canned goods instead. You find out a lot about a place from the produce, condiments, and ready-made food on offer in its markets. And no question that food makes the best take-home souvenirs.

The raan khao gang, or “curry rice” stall, is the best approximation of the shopping experience that Thai street food has to offer. Vendors offer you a plate of rice (or, if you are in a southern Thai-type place, your choice of a plate of kanom jeen or fermented rice noodles) on which you have your choice of stir-fries, soups and curries with which to paint your blank, white “canvas”. I have usually seen a total of three toppings max, but theoretically, the sky is the limit. Sometimes, everything looks so wonderful that it’s easy to imagine having it all.

A selection of curries and soups at a Thonglor khao gang stall

A selection of curries and soups at a Thonglor khao gang stall

Which brings me to the stretch of street on Thonglor across from the police station labelled “Thonglor Pochana”. Sure, there is a Chinese-style rice porridge (joke) vendor and a great grilled pork collar (kor moo yang) guy and some nice-looking Chinese dumplings for sale if you get there early enough in the morning. But the real stars of this open-air block — the only block of this type left on a very expensive road, mind you — are the khao gang stalls who give pedestrians plenty to ogle on their way to work.

More stir-fries at a vendor on Thonglor

More stir-fries, deep-fried bits and chili dip at a vendor on Thonglor

The thing that invariably reins me in is when I find something at a curry rice stall that I won’t usually find anything else: call it the “specialty of the house”. When I say “specialty of the house”, I mean that no matter the season or what’s on sale at the Klong Toey market, that one dish will be available, rain or shine. At the very decent one near me, the khao gang lady’s specialty is braised pig trotter on rice (khao ka moo). At the first of the three curry rice vendors at Thonglor Pochana (the one closest to Petchburi Road), the specialty is even harder to find: yum hoo moo, or a very serviceable pig ear salad.

Spicy pig ear salad on Thonglor

Spicy pig ear salad on Thonglor

This is a dish that always brings me back home, when my dad would get pig’s ears on the cheap from the local butcher, blanch them, and them toss them with some fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, coriander, onions and chilies and call it a day. Here, she tarts up her salad with some tomatoes, cucumber and spring onion, creating something a little more robust (and watery) — a nice counterpoint to all the spicy, greasy stuff elsewhere on display.

These ladies (because curry rice vendors are almost invariably ladies) start selling from 6 in the morning to when their food runs out (usually around 2 in the afternoon). In order to “shop” to your heart’s content, weekdays (when the morning commute is in full swing and office workers are looking for some cheap nosh) are your best bet.

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What’s Cooking: Khao yum

Khao yum, pre-mix

Khao yum, pre-mix

I rarely talk music with other people. This is because most other people have terrible taste in music. I realize this is because people my age don’t have any time to trawl through iTunes looking for something they will really love, so content themselves with whatever it is that is playing on the radio right now. Usually, that is Taylor Swift, some teenager, or Taylor Swift.

When did it become a thing for middle-aged people to listen to One Direction? Or 5 Seconds of Summer? I’m talking grown-ass women and men. What happened? I mean, as long as U2 are still making albums, “old people music” will still exist. Arcade Fire, Black Keys: old people are still being marketed to! We have wallets too. It’s not a draconian world of Either/Or, where either you listen to Justin Bieber or you end up consigned to a dustbin of Air Supply and Kajagoogoo.

I’m sorry to say this, yet again, but this kind of stuff didn’t happen in my day. My dad wasn’t getting all up in my Duran Duran while I was growing up. My mom wasn’t drooling over Robert Smith and singing along to “Head on the Door” while doing the dishes. Come on now. Let’s resist shedding our old-fart identities, disintegrating into some mass-marketed stew of wannabe youth-dom, doomed to an ever-expanding wardrobe of Hot Topic, a cultural diet of Teen Wolf reruns and a never-ending trudge towards What Kids Are Doing Today. This, from the lady with the dyed mallrat hair.

My favorite Thai dishes are the ones in which each ingredient is free to sing clearly on its own merits. You can still identify each and every taste. This is why I love every type of yum, those spicy-tart salads that play with flavor and texture, and retro DIY snacks like mieng kum, which usually involves betel leaves and pairs them with an assortment of dried shrimp, flaked coconut, slivered peel-on lime, cubed ginger, sliced chilies, roasted peanuts and a gloppy sweet dipping sauce that manages to enhance rather than mask all the goodness underneath.

Another great dish that leaves the integrity of each ingredient intact? Khao yum, a Southern Thai mishmash of rice and painstakingly julienned herbs, fruits and vegetables, held together with generous lashings of nam budu, a Southern Thai fermented fish sauce used like a punctuation mark in many regional dishes. When Khun Nuraya, a Pattani-based artist, offered to show me how to make the only dish she ever bothers to cook, I naturally jumped at the chance.

In the process of making the salad

Pattani in the house: In the process of making the salad

First off, khao yum requires a LOT of preparation. The prep work will dwarf the actual cooking of this dish, which only requires a little bit of mixing in a bowl. If you don’t live in Thailand, a few of these ingredients will be hard to come by. That’s when your imagination comes into play: as long as it’s tart and/or crunchy and relatively dry (we don’t want soggy rice), it should work. That means things like julienned green apple, asparagus, roasted peanut dust … the sky is the limit.

Ingredients (everything is to taste, so measurements are not set in stone. Also, you want to keep reserves of each ingredient on the side so that diners can add to their own taste. This should make about 4 portions):

— Nam bu du (a southern Thai fish sauce that Nuraya doctors by boiling it with lemongrass, palm sugar, lime leaves, galangal and onion. This can possibly be bought at a large Southeast Asian grocery store. If you are really in a jam, use regular fish sauce or nam pla rah)

nambudoo

— Fresh shrimp, about a handful, cleaned and deveined, then grilled and cut into bite-sized pieces

— Dried shrimp, about 1/4 cup, powdered (can substitute with powdered dried fish, or even peanuts if in a pinch)

— Coconut, about 1/3 cup, desiccated

— Lime, roughly one per person, either cubed with peel on or squeezed into the salad before eating

— Chilies, about a Tablespoonful, sliced

— Cucumber, 2 large, peeled and cut into inch-long shards

— Long beans, about a handful, cleaned and sliced

— Pai leaves (an aromatic herb that accompanies many Northern and Isaan larbs, maybe use shiso in a pinch)

— Yeera blossoms (also referred to as dara. They look like this)

flower

— Winged beans, about a handful, sliced

— Lemongrass, sliced, bulb part only

— Lime leaves, chiffonaded

— Butterfly pea blossoms (optional)

— Pomelo, shredded (optional)

— Rice, mixed with pulverized bai yaw (also referred to as noni leaves, which are boiled, whizzed in a food processor, and then added to the rice cooking water)

noniThe rice will eventually look like this:

rice

Nuraya also adds small Thai mackerel that are pan-fried with lemongrass to rid it of its fishy scent, but a good substitute are dried small fish, which give the added bonus of adding a little texture.

Eventually, all of this is mixed together, but be prudent with the nam bu du if you don’t want a gigantic salad — you don’t want to tip the balance of flavors over in any way. The final product: a fresh, bright, light melange of ingredients that, instead of competing, manage to coexist peacefully without overshadowing anything else. In that way, one can say this dish is everything Thailand says it is.

A bite of the finished product

A bite of the finished product

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Duck noodle fans unite

Duck noodles with the condiment tray at Guaythiew Ped on St. Louis Road

Duck noodles with the condiment tray at Guaythiew Ped on St. Louis Road

Karen likes to say that everything on the internet is “public, permanent, and traceable”. Everything, that is, except for my blog posts. I don’t know where my latest one is. I should probably be sad because I spent a lot of time on it. However, it might be God’s way of saying that no one should ever have to see my terrible Anthony Bourdain fan fiction. Bullet dodged, world.

I have been giving a lot more thought to fan fiction lately. This is because I want to make EL James-level bank, see my flaccid scribblings re-enacted on the big screen, and then make a nuisance of myself at numerous, famous people-populated parties. I have narrowed the criteria down to three major points. To write successful fan fiction, one must: 1.) feature a love triangle 2.) have the heroine (who is invariably the narrator and unwitting object of everyone’s affections) possess some ineffable quality that is completely beyond her control and renders her irresistible to her more standoffish (and undoubtedly more handsome) suitor, and 3.) make the heroine dowdy and/or judgmental, because making an effort to look good/being popular with boys makes you a big slut. She must be attractive to every man in the story for some other reason, as long as that reason is not her personality or intelligence, because that is boring and/or hard to write.

There seems to be a set of criteria for the successful Thai food stall as well. These are: 1.) tables that are crowded with “locals” 2.) a gruesome display of animal carcasses either in front or in back, because one must always be reminded of how truly adventurous one really is, and 3.) an abusive and/or harried cook. If the cook is not sufficiently ornery, then the stall must be in a hard-to-find location. The point is to suffer for your food.

Luckily for me, Guaythiew Ped on St. Louis Road (127/44 St. Louis Soi 3, 02-211-1411) fulfills all of these criteria, from the grisly-yet-tasty carcasses:

Ducks ready for the noodle bowl

Ducks ready for the noodle bowl

to the crowded tables and harried, frantic cook out in front. Of course, the food stands center stage — yes, the duck in every iteration: its tender gizzards, simmered feet, soft neck, rich liver and tranches of soft meat, cut with a vinegary chili sauce to offset the greasiness of the flesh.

Duck meat without the noodles

Duck meat without the noodles

But my favorite part of my meal is the cubed duck’s blood, not so soft that it disappears into the broth, nor so hard that it resembles sanguinary finger jello: slightly squidgy and giving to the slightest pressure, festooned with spring onions and coriander leaves.

A bowl of duck's blood

A bowl of duck’s blood

Presented with a formidable pile of the stuff, I managed to dispatch of every duck blood cube in maybe 5 minutes.

“You ate that like a vampire,” said Karen, unable to try even a single cube, because I had eaten it all.

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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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