Bangkok Street Food TK

Bangkok's street food future? A vendor at a wet market on the Thonburi side of the river

Bangkok’s street food future? A vendor at a wet market on the Thonburi side of the river

I come from a family of hypochondriacs. My sister has gone to the emergency room for an undiagnosed case of SARS (it wasn’t SARS) and because she thought she was going deaf (she wasn’t going deaf). My mother, who thinks she is suffering from all sorts of strange ailments and visits the doctor about once a week, is always being told how healthy she is and will probably live to the age of 100. But of my family’s doom-filled women, I am of course the queen. I diagnose myself with a host of diseases on the regular, with the help of the trusty old Internet. You know when you hear about strange people who are always visiting sites like WebMD and you think, “At least I’m not one of them”? Well, here I are. I’m one of them.

Here, let’s look up my Google search history. A quick scan comes up with … “Invincible” soundtrack (what was I thinking?); chronic pulmonary disease; Eat Me menu; tapeworm symptoms; tapeworm in brain; reddit Game of Thrones night’s king theory; asthma symptoms; Jack White dancing gif; jack white ass (THESE TWO TOPICS ARE RELATED OK); stroke symptoms; stroke test FAST; Ledu head chef Ton (what is this dude’s last name? I still can’t find it); Q&A Bar Bangkok; fluttering in stomach; tapeworm symptoms.

Looking through that, it would seem like I think I am going to die — of a stroke, serious respiratory problems, a tapeworm in my brain, or something I haven’t thought up yet, like stress from worrying about these things. But it’s not really about dying, per se. It’s more about maintaining a constant, strong vigilance: if you think about these things enough, they won’t happen, right? Isn’t that the way the world works?

A Chinatown gravy noodle vendor's mise-en-place

A Chinatown gravy noodle vendor’s mise-en-place

So when I think about Sukhumvit 38 eventually closing (yes, still), and how this could be a harbinger of how Bangkok is going to treat its street food in the future, it’s more of that … just thinking, a kind of vigilance, a mental chant to ward off the worst case scenario. In fact, at this very moment, the closure of Sukhumvit 38’s street food area is not even that bad. The entire left side of the soi has found a home in the food court of the Gateway Mall near Ekamai. The right side has not, but the little sub-soi where the pad Thai guy and mango sticky rice ladies are located doesn’t even have to move. And the landlords have done well out of all of it, making off with a rumored 2 billion baht. I’m not even gonna hate on these landlords. I mean, if I was presented with 2 billion baht, I would do exactly the same thing, I’m not gonna lie. In fact, if you have $76.13, you can have this very blog.

But I’m not going to stick my head in the sand and say things might stay the way they’ve always been forever more. I can tell which way the wind is blowing. Let me think of another cliche: I can read the writing on the wall. We are now at that particular point in time when landlords are going to sell their properties, where places are going to gentrify and be developed. We could see Bangkok following the Singapore model, where vendors are all herded into certain “centers” located throughout the city. This model sucks for several reasons: it would drastically cut down on the number of vendors, hence limiting creativity and, ultimately, the drive to compete. The food would be set in stone, and never evolve. We could go the Tokyo way, where everything is basically ushered indoors, unless it’s earmarked for tourists or very, very drunk people. You can see where the problem lies in that. And finally, we could do like Hong Kong and obliterate it almost completely. I couldn’t even tell you how much that would blow.  Where would everyone eat? Not everyone can afford eating in yet another godforsaken shopping mall, and a big part of why people visit Bangkok would be lost.

What I hope for is that, as Bangkok progresses, a typically “Thai” solution for street food’s future will develop, with the same brand of creativity, spontaneity, eye for convenience and mild contempt for regulation that Thai people have always displayed. Hopefully, they will display it at a place somewhere close to me in the near future.

The work station for a Sukhumvit som tum vendor

The work station of a Sukhumvit som tum vendor

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The trouble with change

Grilled snails on the street at Sukhumvit 38

Grilled snails on the street at Sukhumvit 38

Unless something really, really sucks, we usually want things to stay the same. That’s why progress, when it comes, always throws us for a loop. So with the news that the street food area at the entrance to Sukhumvit Soi 38 will soon be replaced by a spanking new development, I find myself as perplexed as the next old person with a lawn, and as much in denial:

1. How could this happen when it is so popular, with both tourists and locals?

2. ANOTHER property development? How could they be so short-sighted?

And then, 3. How could they do this to me?

Because, as much as other street food places have (and soon will) find themselves homeless in the path of the powerful god of gentrification (see: Bamee Rungrueang on Sukhumvit 26; Tang Meng Noodle near Sukhumvit 49), this is the first one to really hit home. Where else will the mango sticky rice ladies greet me, where I can bump into my parents on the way to the egg noodle vendor, where the Thai dessert stall ladies can completely ignore me? Where else will I be able to find a complete street food ecosystem — organically grown, spontaneously grouped, and dare I say “authentic” — a mere 5-minute motorcycle taxi ride away?

Thai street food has become a home for me in a lot of different ways. It’s given me plenty of fodder to write about; it’s nourished me with food that has been occasionally mind-blowing; it’s taught me a lot about how Thais live and interact with each other. It’s also provided me with a sort of community where I feel welcomed and included — Sukhumvit 38 was a part of that. And, yes, the fiery woks, sweating, beanie-clad cooks, plastic chairs and tables wreathed in steam from a just-cooked bowl of noodles, sidewalks grimed in picturesque squalor, all of this served as a reminder that I was indeed in Thailand, and that it felt like nowhere else on earth. For me, Thailand is all about this sense of spontaneity, of possibility and anything waiting for you just around the corner — even maybe the best meal you’ve had yet.

But Thailand is changing, and street food with it. Some of Sukhumvit 38’s vendors will sink into retirement, and some will find new homes, probably in a food court at one of the city’s inexhaustible supply of new malls. That would be a shame, because as nice as it is to sit in air-conditioning for a while, the food somehow seems nowhere near as good. It’s funny, really: having said repeatedly that “it’s all about the food”, I find myself realizing that the secret ingredient in a lot of the stuff I sample is sitting streetside or in the shophouse, hobbled by inconveniences, surrounded by strangers. Sitting with everything laid out for me on a tray, utensils helpfully provided, makes the food seem picayune in comparison, something to fill my stomach until I have something better to do. The food is no longer the destination. To think that this is probably the future for Thai street food makes me want to stick my head in a vat of McDonald’s french fries.

Yet Bangkok is still full of streets just like mine, where a curry rice lady shares space with a noodle guy just down the road from my house. I only need to walk a few steps to get an old-fashioned cup of Thai iced coffee from a woman who has been there for the last 50 years, and the ice cream guy and Isaan sausage guy go past my house in the afternoons. Only a couple of months ago, I opened the door to find that a made-to-order vendor had set up shop right next to me. Street food as I know it is still around. I’m going to make sure to try the made-to-order guy the next time I see him.

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Glutton Abroad: Doing it all wrong in KL

Banana leaf curry at Raja Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur

Banana leaf curry at Raja Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur

Throughout the years on this blog, I have pretty much demonstrated a Taliban-like commitment to eating Thai food the way Thai people eat it. It seemed like a no-brainer to me because a fork and spoon are so obviously the best eating utensils ever created. Why on earth would you struggle with a fork or, god forbid, a pair of chopsticks, when presented with a curry and a plate of jasmine rice? Because, no duh, the best way to eat something is the way locals have been doing it for years, and that this was obviously a rule that would apply to every cuisine, no matter what.

Then I went to Vietnam, and discovered that I have been eating the Vietnamese fried crepe — banh xeo, supposedly named after the sound the batter makes when dropped into a sizzling pan — wrong for years. It turns out the brittle, shell-like crepe is not the vehicle for the herbs: it’s the herbs that are meant to enclose the crepe, the leaves rolled up like an egg roll and dotted inside with bits of crepe crunch like croutons before they are dipped in a sweet-tart sauce and brought to the mouth.

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

Banh xeo, or stuffed Vietnamese crepe

Somehow, in all my years of patronizing Vietnamese restaurants all over the globe, no one thought to tell me that Vietnamese people eat their crepes differently than I was eating my crepe. They would just set the plate on my table and walk away, possibly resisting the urge to tell me, just like I resist/don’t resist the urge to tell other people, “You are doing it all wrong”. They simply seemed happy that I was there. This is because Vietnamese waiters are better people than me.

I was resolved to learn from my mistakes and to eat things properly from then on. But what happens when you don’t want to do it, even when presented with incontrovertible evidence that you’re DOIN IT ALL RONG? When our friend May took us to a banana curry leaf place called Raja Restaurant on a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur, I was forced to face this very question.

Because, let me tell you, eating gloppy food with bare hands is definitely my gastro-Achilles heel. Meaning, THERE IS NO WAY THAT IS HAPPENING. I mean, I’m Northern Thai and I can barely eat sticky rice with my fingers. The thought of all that unseen hand guck coating those grains of rice just makes me want to scrape my tongue with a chainsaw. So apologies, banana leaf curry originators. To the first people who thought of tearing a leaf off of a tree, tipping delicious curries from pails onto those leaves with a hefty mound of rice and a dollop of pickles and then having at it with their gross-ass bare hands, I say: hell naw. I say, I’m sorry. I say, it’s great you are eco-friendly and all, but thank God for the fork and spoon. Cuz when I see people doing like they’re supposed to and eating banana leaf curry with their hands, the grains of wet rice sticking to their fingers as they maneuver their way through their meal, it makes me think of this:

Stuff I would rather do than eat wet curry rice with my hands

  1. Get a painful charlie horse in the middle of a great dream
  2. Wear a repurposed garbage bag for two weeks
  3. Go to a Michael Buble concert
  4. Wash my face with sand
  5. Drink creme de menthe instead of water for a month
  6. Stub my toe really hard on something
  7. Go without sleep for three days
  8. Go camping (same as #7)
  9. Watch a “Glee” marathon from start to finish
  10. Eat a raw hotdog from current-day Leonardo DiCaprio’s crotch

In conclusion, I have to say thank everything worth thanking that the folks at Raja Restaurant are not judgmental asses like yours truly and happy to give a fork and spoon to anyone who finds themselves manually challenged. That’s pretty great of them. Because their food is really wonderful, and it would be a shame to miss out on that incredible curry due to my dumb neuroses. As for eating Thai food like Thai people … well, who am I to say how people eat? It’s nobody’s business but yours.

bananaleaf

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Like frogs in a coconut

It’s no secret that these past few days have been the hottest that Thailand has seen for decades. I can barely drag myself back home before I want to plop myself onto my couch and go to sleep. That is, after I carefully dry out the sweat-drenched handkerchief I have taken to carrying around with me for when I inevitably start melting on the Skytrain platform. I have bought an assortment of handkerchiefs for just this very purpose, in different colors to suit my varying moods. My transformation into elderly Japanese man is nearly complete.

Many people say that global warming is to blame for hot spells like these. Yet, as with everything else — people who congratulate themselves for having not read A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, like illiteracy is a badge of honor — there are a handful of naysayers who seek to buck the conventional wisdom. These are the people who insist that what we are experiencing on a global scale is a normal blip in the sequence of things, and we are not slowly broiling ourselves to death. English-speakers liken them to ostriches with their heads in the sand. Thais have a term for them too: they are frogs in coconuts.

The term is old-fashioned, but it still applies. The coconuts may have changed, but they are still there, air-conditioned, sprawling, outfitted with many Starbucks and Burger Kings for your particular convenience. They are our shelters from the cruel concrete world. They also, somehow, harbor decent “street food” dishes, even though you have not trawled through winding alleyways or braved potential carbon monoxide poisoning for them. When it’s this hot outside, one need not suffer so much for a good bowl of noodles (as long as you’re willing to pay for it). Here are three places where the coconut yields some good-enough flesh.

1. Bamee Sawang

Egg noodles with wontons and barbecued pork at Bamee Sawang at Emporium

Egg noodles with wontons and barbecued pork at Bamee Sawang at Emporium

This outpost of the famous streetside bamee vendor on Rama IV Road is probably the most popular noodle place located in Emporium’s newishly-refurbished Food Hall (Sukhumvit 24, BTS Phrom Phong). It’s almost the same thing, but without the fluorescent green lighting or the elderly Thai man who insists on reminding you (over and over again) that alcohol is not allowed on the premises.

2. Peninsula Plaza

Peninsula's beef boat noodles

Peninsula’s beef boat noodles

Despite the relentlessly “fancy” surroundings — like the sitting room of your favorite stuffed doll-collecting widowed aunt — Peninsula Plaza (153 Rajadamri Road, BTS Rajadamri) has long served some of the most popular bowls of “boat noodles” in the city. Incongruously called “Provence”, the specialties here are actually upscale versions of Thai street food, like Thai-Chinese-style porpia sod (“spring rolls” wrapped in white flour dough and slathered in a sweet sauce) and deep-fried wontons. The boat noodles — so called because they were first served from the boats that plied Bangkok’s canals in the 1940s and seasoned with a dash of pork or beef blood mixed with salt — are by far the most famous, considered an oasis of flavor in an otherwise timid menu.

3. Nuer Koo

Wagyu beef noodles in broth at Nuer Koo

Wagyu beef noodles in broth at Nuer Koo

Even I was skeptical about this place, since there is another fancy beef noodle place that my family is fanatically loyal to. But if I don’t feel like trekking to this other place, and want to take the Skytrain with my collection of multi-colored handkerchiefs, then Nuer Koo at Paragon (4th floor, Rama I Road, BTS Siam) is my most likely destination. They too offer wagyu and “Japanese kobe” beef noodles, as well as kurobuta pork for non-beef eaters. Not surprisingly, this kind of imported beef noodle bowl costs a pretty penny, but then again, no one said the luxuries of the coconut would be free.

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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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