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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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.

lunchfood

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