Early Wednesday Morning

Flaky roti and massaman beef curry at Yusup Pochana

Flaky roti and massaman beef curry at Yusup Pochana

While doing research for a story recently, I came across the menu for the Dining Room at the House on Sathorn, the former Russian Embassy that has been turned into a drink-dine-function space by the W Hotel. Chef Fatih likes to emphasize the creative process that spawns his dishes by drawing their names directly from his past experiences. So you can order something like “Early Morning at Tsukiji Market” (bluefin tuna/seaweed/avocado/wasabi) or “Once Upon a Time in Istanbul” (lamb belly/eggplant/hummus) and feel like you’re being told a story and offered a voyeuristic glimpse of someone’s life through a series of “slides” that probably taste delicious too.

Naturally, I thought of the menu that I would create as Chef Fatih, but culled from my very own experiences.  There could be “Sophomore Year of College” (frozen pizza/cocoa nibs/instant noodle powder/hemp seeds) or “Limbo in Palo Alto” (whitefish/tortilla/avocado/artichoke). I could get more ambitious and go for “Junior Year Abroad in Tokyo” (curdled milk/mentaiko/nori/pickled plum) and “Penniless in Culinary School” (torn-up baguette/hard-boiled eggs/grated carrot/black olives). Maybe we could end the evening with a heaping helping of DIE BITCH DIE (herring/monterey jack/triscuit/gherkin) in honor of my high school boyfriend who cheated on me, not that I care that much anyway. Or “Barfing at Gas Panic in front of Agee the hot Japanese-Brazilian bartender” (Budweiser/Jack Daniel’s/Jagermeister/Goldschlager).

If I were to concoct a dish for “Early Wednesday Morning in the Bangkok Rain”, it might be something along the lines of (braised beef/potato/flaky dough/cinnamon/coconut cream/peanuts). It would be delicious, because it would be modeled after the breakfast-lunch I had at Yusup Pochana (531/12 Kaset Nawamin Road, Tawmaw 97, 081-659-6588), considered one of Bangkok’s best Thai-Muslim restaurants but one I had yet to go to because I am lazy. Yusup Pochana has all the Thai-Muslim faves we have come to know and love: biryanis, South Asian-inflected curries, mataba (a sort of crepe stuffed with fish, beef or chicken), a pungent hot-sour soup strong enough to cut through the other dishes’  sweet coconut milk and a respectable array of noodle soups.

Lots of curries

Lots of curries. This one is the massaman.

The online love for Yusup’s curries falls almost squarely on the rich massaman, a dish that is almost entirely Malaysian-influenced but a deeper and more aromatic version than others commonly seen in Bangkok. The even more beloved “kuruma goat” curry is only available on weekends, and the khao mok (biryani) is okay, but it’s really the mataba that drew raves from my friends from KL (excellent meat-to-dough ratio) accompanied by a generously chunky ajad of cucumber, shallot, and chilies in a sugar syrup. I, meanwhile, was enamored of the roti, which was so supremely flaky and light that it reminded me of clouds and made the roti at other places look like baked rubber cement. The roti here versus there is like croissants versus dinner rolls. Don’t miss out on this stuff.

To get here without a car, your best bet is to take the BTS to Mor Chit and then a taxi. The earlier you come, the better.


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An accidental education

"Dancing shrimp" from Petchburi Soi 5

“Dancing shrimp” from Petchburi Soi 5

A lot of the things I learn about Thailand, I stumble into out of ignorance. You would think I would know more than I do, but there are a lot of things in Bangkok that they don’t think to teach you. One of those things is where to hail a cab.

How to hail a cab is fairly simple: pretend you are pointing at the taxi with your entire hand, and then beckon with your palm to the ground. Why you would do this instead of raising your hand like anywhere else, I’m not sure. I’ve heard it’s because it’s impolite to show your open palm to anyone. The best Thai cab hailers manage to beckon with a mix of insouciance and grace that minimizes effort while maximizing effect. Drivers always stop for these people. I’m still perfecting my technique.

Back in the days when I was still raising my arm for a taxi like Tracy Flick in English class, I had just moved back to Bangkok from Paris and was preparing to move back out again, to Palo Alto. I was living on Wireless Road, and on my way to dinner with my parents at a place called Shintaro near the Ratchaprasong intersection, back when there was still a Regent Hotel. To find a cab more easily, I thought I would cross the street to Lumpini Park and hail a taxi going in the direction towards Ploenchit. It seemed like an easy enough proposition, despite the deepening dusk and the cacophony of bird sounds that erupts from the trees just as the sun goes down, making it more difficult to tell drivers your final destination.

Let me tell you, so many taxis passed me by. So many. It seemed like these cab drivers were even more desperate to give up money and keep from working than they usually were. When a taxi finally did slow down for me, I wasn’t even sure if they were for hire or not, so desperate was I to avoid walking to the Regent Hotel in my hugely impractical high-heeled mules.

The taxi driver seemed deeply nervous. When I told him to take me to Regent Hotel, he actually told me no, that he would take me somewhere behind it (Thai cab drivers are so temperamental, and so particular about where they go). As long as he was taking me somewhere fairly close, it was fine by me. But when he parked in a dark alleyway next to the hotel and lit a cigarette, I started wondering what was up. His hands were shaking. It was different from other taxi rides.

There was no fare due on the meter. So I took 100 baht out of my wallet and threw it at him before leaving the cab. I was willing, at this stage, to walk down the street in my high heels. But even though I knew something was wrong, it wasn’t until much later when I realized he thought I was a prostitute. Because I was hailing a cab from Lumpini Park at twilight.

Since I am in the mood to give tips, here’s another one for you: don’t go with your Isaan friend to try his favorite childhood dish unless you are very, very sure you are hungry, or that his favorite dish is something like grilled chicken. Because you could be in for a big surprise. In my case, the surprise came in the form of a dish called “dancing shrimp”, which does not refer to fresh shrimp “dancing” on a grill, or “dancing” in a bubbling soup, or “dancing” in the proximity of any cooking fire whatsoever. No, these shrimp are alive. And they are babies.

The “dancing” probably refers to when the baby shrimp are scooped into a bowl, drizzled with fish sauce and vinegar, mixed with coriander and green onion, and sprinkled with chili powder, ground toasted rice kernels, and a small squirt of fresh lime. To subdue these little suckers, you are meant to cover your bowl with another, empty bowl in order to shake those babies to oblivion without getting any gunk on yourself. You can then eat them with minimal interference. Of course, you can opt instead to watch them “dance” on your table, desperate in their ineffectual gyrations to get away from your gaping maw.

When my friend Maitree took me for “dancing shrimp” (goong then), it was at one of the restaurants along the Isaan strip of Petchburi sois 12-14, and the shrimp were collected from fish tanks that lined the sidewalk. These restaurants no longer serve this delicacy, because the shrimp have become more expensive. But streetside baby shrimp served live in a chili sauce is still a possibility, thanks to this vendor along Petchburi soi 5.

The "dancing shrimp" vendor displaying her wares

The “dancing shrimp” vendor displaying her wares

You are meant to enjoy your baby shrimp at home with some mint and sawtooth coriander, but if you ask nicely, you can eat it right there, in front of the 7-11 with the rest of the vendors on the soi waiting eagerly for you to keel over and die. Just make sure to tell them to go easy on the chili powder. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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A catalogue of pet peeves

Chinese-style congee with pork and egg at Joke Ruamjai

Chinese-style congee with pork and egg at Joke Ruamjai

I have a lot of pet peeves. Pet peeves — not street food — might actually be what forms the real fuel for this blog, so I nurture them, like children. My culinary pet peeves are few but strongly felt (eating soggy rice with my hands; using chopsticks with curry rice; overcooked, soggy soft-shell crabs). My social ones are similar, like people who say something is “fascinating” or “interesting” when they clearly mean the opposite.

Don’t worry, I haven’t run out of pet peeves — I have literary ones, too. Or ones for popular reactions to other people’s literary creations, like to the different houses in the Harry Potter books. Like, why is Hufflepuff the most denigrated of all the Hogwarts houses? When did qualities like “loyalty” and “kindness” become the doofiest of all the characteristics that a person could have? There are people out there who happily let all and sundry know that they are Slytherin, the house of “cunning” and “resourcefulness” and, oh yes, the occasional batshit crazy genocidal maniac or two. The ones who only wanted Purebloods to enter Hogwarts. Never mind that, though. At least you’re not Hufflepuff! As long as you’re not loyal or kind, you’re set! Phew, well done!

This also applies to many people’s opinion of JRR Tolkien’s Frodo Baggins, aka the “weaker Baggins who is nowhere near as cool as his uncle Bilbo”. I clearly disagree. I posit that Bilbo is a dumbass who lucked into the ring and took on that burden without any consideration of the toll that it could have taken from him, because he was completely ignorant (aka a dumbass). This level of ignorance enabled him to live with the ring for years and years, with barely a nick in that plastic-wrapped, impervious psyche. Frodo, on the other hand, knew. He knew that the ring was bad, and that the journey would be terrible, and that incredible difficulties lay in wait for him for very little reward. And he went anyway. Frodo is braver than Bilbo.

The Chinese-style congee known as joke is the Frodo Baggins or Hufflepuff house of Thai street food. This roadside staple, stirred for hours until the grains of rice break down into a sludgy, starchy mass, has been called “food for children, or invalids” in forums as vaunted as “Hangover 2”, but whoever wrote that has clearly not actually had joke. The best ones — uniform grains, delicious pork meatballs, ample toppings — also manage to infuse flavor into the porridge itself even before the introduction of the obligatory vinegared chilies and fish sauce. Add a raw egg, broken into the hot sludge to barely cook before the yolk is stirred into the grains to stain the bowl a sunny yellow, and you are, as they say, golden.

At Joke Ruamjai (Sukhumvit Soi 23, about 50 m from the entrance to the left, 02-258-4373), they are old hands at congee, including preserved squid with their standard pork meatballs (instead of the less popular blanched pork liver) and topping the lot with slivered ginger, green onion bits and deep-fried mini-crullers — a pretty impressive mix of both tastes and textures. The sign looks like this:


All the same, even Frodo-like joke must bend with the prevailing winds, and Joke Ruamjai also has a pretty formidable array of stir-fries at lunchtime, plus 5-6 curries and a hulking big pot of pig’s trotter, which is an impressive way of hedging your bets.

Lunchtime curry rice selection

Lunchtime curry rice selection

I would aim for breakfast or lunch (Joke Ruamjai is open from 7.30), but if you can’t make it until later, try to get in before 10pm.


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The Summer of Our Discontent

Fish porridge from Khao Thom Pla Saphan Lueng

Fish porridge from Khao Thom Pla Saphan Lueng

I haven’t been posting much lately. If you are my dad or Karen, I apologize that I haven’t updated the blog as often as I should. It’s not because I’m busy. It’s just that I don’t have anything to say.

I’m supposed to be writing a book proposal. This is funny because to me, a proposal means a few short paragraphs hinting at what you will eventually write in a book. My publishers feel differently. They think proposal = actual book.

My proposal so far:


Riveting, right? It doesn’t help that I am so far up my own ass in my quest to do anything other than what I am really supposed to do that I have begun voraciously reading bad fiction, REALLY BAD stuff, like boy bander fanfiction and stuff based on the various elves in “Lord of the Rings” (call me, Thranduil!)  I do not go anywhere and I do not see friends. My only consolation is that I have weathered these periods before. When I was unemployed and sitting on my couch, I went through an Oprah phase — like, a serious one — and was mesmerized by the fascinating world of outback Australian ranching as portrayed in “MacLeod’s Daughters”. Now that I am … unemployed and sitting on my couch, it only seems natural that I would go through this again, and that this addiction to the literary versions of diet Coke would eventually fade away.

Until then, I will be busy stewing in my own self-loathing. Busy times like these call for quick, easy food, food that does double-duty as both comforting and tasty. That kind of food, inevitably, is porridge, or khao thom. Unlike khao thom gub, where the rice porridge is served as pure as the driven snow, waiting for you, dear diner, to sully it with your hand-picked arsenal of stir-fried vegetables, spicy salads, pickles and dried fish, this kind of khao thom comes already packed, sharing space with whatever protein the vendor deems fitting.

At Khao Thom Pla Saphan Lueng (506/2-3 Soi Pranakares, Rama IV Rd., 084-727-8899), the protein of choice is juicy, generous pieces of deep-sea pomfret, plopped unceremoniously into a fish stock-enhanced brew. These pieces vie with salty-sweet morsels of cooked pork, added because too much is never enough for a Thai diner, and a fermented brown bean-based sauce for which this vendor is famous. There is a splash of controversy too — the septuagenarian vendors of rival Sieng Gi claim that the original owner of this rice porridge shop absconded with the brown bean sauce recipe years ago. Now manned by the son, this shop remains in its original location in the popular street food mecca of Saphan Lueng (“Yellow Bridge”), hidden in plain sight behind a “Viroon Ice Cream” sign.

Try it, preferably with a plate of steamed bread dipped in pandan-scented coconut custard (kanom pang sankaya) sold out in front on the sidewalk. And if you find the flavors could stand to be a little bit bolder, the broth in need of a more bracing slap of deep-fried garlic, remind yourself that it’s your own discontent talking, and that it will fade away soon.


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My grandmother

Grandma Jeanette and Grandpa Tongdee on their wedding day

Grandma Jeanette and Grandpa Tongdee on their wedding day

I didn’t really get into Joni Mitchell until recently. She and Bob Dylan always occupied the same place in my brain, the one reserved for artists whom everyone likes so much that it would become uncomfortable to say anything bad about them. If there’s anything I love a lot of, it’s comfort. So I would go along, say “Blue” is brilliant, because no one likes you as much as when you are validating their own opinion about something. But I never really got it.

I gave “Blue” a relisten after many years and found it incredibly moving. This was a big change for me because I love music that is extremely loud and full of rage. Listening to “Blue” felt more circumspect. It was like looking out the back window of a departing car at something, trying to fix it in your mind in case you don’t return.

Seeing my grandma Jeanette gives me similar feelings. She has Alzheimer’s, so she doesn’t remember me. It’s also hard to communicate because she mostly speaks only French now, peppered with some northern Thai dialect. It’s like she’s a locked box and I don’t have the key. She is occasionally happy to let me sit next to her in the living room. I am happy to spend time with her in any way that makes her happy.

Grandma Jeanette at 17 in Vientiane

Grandma Jeanette at 17 in Vientiane

I prefer to think of her as the elegant, intelligent woman who spoke three languages and loved diamonds, Thai silk suits and good French food. All the same, everything I know about my grandmother is stuff I remember from many years ago and information from other people. What I do know for sure is that my grandmother was born Jeanette Thibault in Luang Prabang, to a French government official and a Laotian woman. Her mother died soon after she was born and she was raised by relatives. A photo of her still sits by my grandmother’s bed. I have never seen a picture of her father.

In her late teens, my grandmother moved to Thailand to be a Christian missionary. That is where she met my grandfather, Tongdee Duangnet, one of 10 children in a family that had been Christian for two generations and in Chiang Rai for far longer.

My grandparents at 19 in Chiang Rai

My grandparents at 19 in Chiang Rai

My grandparents were together for many decades — nuer koo, the Thai phrase for “soul mate”, is what I think of when I think of them. My grandfather Tongdee passed away of cancer far too soon, but he always stayed in my grandmother’s thoughts. One of the last conversations I remember having with her was when she let out a little exclamation as I was clearing something away and grabbed my hand. “Oh, it’s nothing,” she said when I asked her if there was something wrong. “It’s just that your hands look just like your grandfather’s, with the rounded palms.” I never knew my grandfather, or that my hands were any different from anyone else’s, but when I look at my hands now, I always think of him. That was a gift from her.

Grandma with friends, grandpa hiding behind her

Grandma with friends, grandpa hiding behind her

Another gift was a love of French food. As irritating, as pretentious, as cliched as French culinary experiences can be, I remain an unrepentant Francophile. After all, I spent a year in Paris in cooking school for my honeymoon. (Not a fun Cordon Bleu one, either, but a full-on French one with much-younger French students and instructors who get really mad when you throw away butter). How much of that love was nurtured by my grandmother, grew out of my own pretensions, or was borne by the blood of my own French ancestors, I can’t say.

I can say it started with an omelet. It’s the only thing my grandmother ever cooked for me, and it came at a typically terrible time, when I was 10 years old and desired nothing more than to be fully American. All I wanted were some eggs. But she made me a perfect oval of an unblemished, uniform yellow, pinched at both ends and garnished at the top with snipped chives, crossed like tiny swords. I ate it with ketchup.

When I got older and was living in Thailand, I discovered that my grandmother was only too happy to sit with me in a French restaurant, any time I wished. It was a two-way street — I was the only person, she said, who wanted to eat French food as much as she did. From then on, I would scan the city for promising French restaurants, planning when and where to take my grandmother the next time she came to town. Would it make her happy? Would the food here be up to scratch? It’s something I still do today.

Grandma and Grandpa with my aunt Noy, my dad, and my aunt Pung

Grandma and Grandpa with my aunt Noy, my dad, and my aunt Pung

Writing this now, I realize it was simply her way of spending time with me, in any way that made me happy.


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Simplicity rules

Vietnamese-style rice noodles at Guay Jab Yuan

Vietnamese-style rice noodles at Guay Jab Yuan

It might not be obvious to you from reading these posts, but I am an idealist. I like to think that, as long as I am coming from an honest, well-intentioned place, I can be as much of a weirdo as I want and people will still accept and even like me. Adopting this personal philosophy allowed me to take the “meta” out of all my interactions, to quiet down the observer who is always telling me I just did something wrong. It made my life a lot simpler.

Unfortunately, if several years of experience has taught me anything, it’s that people would prefer not seeing the authentic me. Acting like an honest, well-intentioned weirdo means you are acting like a weirdo. You gotta cover that shizz up. It’s not like no one else is a weirdo — it’s just that, if you are a normal person who must rely on other people for occasional help, layers and layers of deception are required to distract them from the bizarre, undigestible core underneath. Please, people, just keep that to yourselves. This is why rules for social discourse were invented. It’s also why the richer and/or more famous someone gets, the weirder they become. The world is not clamoring to really see me unveiled, or you, either. Let’s all just be perfectly civil to each other.

But if one dish were to be the antithesis to all that, the essential core pared down to what makes a noodle dish work and only that, it would be the Thai-Vietnamese hybrid popular in Isaan known as guay jab yuan (not to be confused with the Thai-Chinese pork noodle dish that is simply called guay jab).  A simple mix of broth, noodles, and pork with a flourish of coriander and the haunting scent of deep-fried shallot, these Vietnamese-style noodles take what is prized in our eastern neighbor’s cuisine (simplicity, freshness, restraint, subtlety) and add a smidgen of what could be called Thai flair (scent, spice) to form something that is unlike almost anything else in Thai street food: unadorned, pure, naked. This is a dish unafraid to let its freak flag fly.

The best place of have these delicious noodles? Well, as sprawling as the Thai capital is, its Isaan food can’t hold a candle to the stuff you can actually find in Northeastern Thailand. All the same, my friend Chin of Chili Paste Tours (www.foodtoursbangkok.com) — originally from Isaan — showed me her favorite guay jab yuan place in Bangkok, on Soi Sukha 1 (also known as Trok Mor) in the Old City called, unsurprisingly, “Guay Jab Yuan” (081-623-0665, 085-149-1098). Blessed with an almost pristine cleanliness and wildly efficient staff, Guay Jab Yuan gets pretty packed at lunchtime in spite of the unrelenting midday heat. And of course, the Vietnamese noodles themselves are a mix of the fresh and light (broth, herbs) paired with the comforting mush of soft, thick  udon-like rice noodles and rounds of moo yaw (Vietnamese-style pork sausage) that turn this dish into the best kind of nursery food, familiar yet slightly tweaked at the same time. It’s a mirror to the authentic in all of us.

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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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