Category Archives: chicken

Glutton Abroad: Qatarific


Feeling nutty?

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

The message came as I was eating my second lunch of the day. James was unsure about the food options in Doha, where he works and where I’d be crashing for an entire week. “Maybe you should bring some protein bars with you and write about that,” he texted. “Ha ha!” I replied. “You know I can eat anywhere.”

Fast forward to the Jean-Georges restaurant at the W Doha, where @SpecialKRB — still in her TEDx NY t-shirt — James, and I are huddled around a small table groaning with crab, lobster, steak, burgers, and one or two other things I have completely forgotten about. I cannot taste a thing. My stomach feels like it’s trying to ‘asplode me from the inside, like the bad swarthy man in an episode of “24″. Is this what middle age has brought me: panic attacks on airplanes and a digestive system in revolt when I eat after 6pm Thai time? And what indeed am I to do here if this affliction does not go away?

The answer may be to eat something you don’t like all that much. We find this out the next day, after getting kicked out of a TEDx event on the waterfront at the Katara Cultural Village. We wander into Mamig (Armenian for “grandma”), which serves, of course, Armenian specialties and the Lebanese dishes that every Middle Eastern restaurant has to provide if they want to please any customer ever.

Beef "mortadella" with pickles at Mamig

We focus on Armenian, and the results are … different. Full of nuts, wholesome enough to be tree-hugger fodder, but big on citrus and sweet pomegranate flavors, this food gives you the sense you are eating something that is good for you, but if you have to keep reminding yourself that, something must be wrong. Along with a pistachio-studded beef “mortadella” and an entire bowl of pickled vegetables, we get these tiny little birds, like sparrows, coated in honey and pomegranate juice and lemon and full of little bones that crunch when you bite into them. It’s weird.

“This is like Game of Thrones food,” says James. Coming from a man who falls asleep once the opening credits stop running, this is not a compliment.

Maybe we’re not going authentic enough. We hit a restaurant called an “institution” by Time Out Doha magazine, Al Shami Home Restaurant (in case you don’t get it from the name, this is “home cooking”) and order all the dishes we should have ordered before, all the hummus and baba ghanouj and light, fluffy pitas that flop onto the plate. And it’s unmemorable, maybe marred by the clouds of smoke coming from every other table in the room. But I would like to report that it’s true: people can indeed set themselves on fire from the shisha set so perilously close to the table. A man’s sleeve caught on fire. You must watch your shisha, people.

Baba ghanouj and hummus at Al Shami

Do I want American food? Is that it? We head to Ric’s Kountry Kitchen (yes, really), where we order biscuits and gravy and get beef sausage and cheesy grits. We also get a pecan “pie”, set on a crust that is literally indestructible.

Me: “I can’t cut through this crust!”

James: “Maybe they want to reuse it for their next pie.”

Me: “It’s uncanny!”

James: “Is this the stuff they make the new Airbuses out of?”

And so on and so on.

Ric Kountry Kitchen's pekan pie

No. We’ve been relying on restaurants. The answer to our dietary malaise is, obviously, street food. At Souq Waqqib, we come upon an entire courtyard of ladies who make mankouche, or crispy, thin crepes that are slathered with either Nutella (sweet option) or labneh and a heavy sprinkle of za’atar (sesame seeds, thyme, sumac). We ambush an entire row of women who provide real home cooking: they make their food at home and haul it over to the souq at nightfall. We try everything, selecting harees, a creamy mix of chicken, wheat and ghee; keshari, a tomato-based stew ladled over a spaghetti-macaroni mix; madrooba, flaked fish in, again, a creamy sauce; malfouf, cabbage stuffed with meat; and waraganab, stuffed grape leaves. We discover that much of this is a whole lot like baby food, and that this may be the point: it’s hot in Qatar, there are a lot of people, you’ve got a lot of things to do. Maybe you need the ultimate comfort food when you get home.

Checking out the wares

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

So (barring a lunch at a secret restaurant that I can’t talk about), this is my vote for best meal of the week: cartons of take-away, eaten with plastic utensils on the sidewalk next to the neighboring Thai restaurant, shared with a stray cat. Somehow, my rebellious stomach stayed quiet that entire evening.

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Filed under chicken, food, food stalls, markets, Middle East

Infatuation with Isaan

"Thum pa" in Udon Thani

There are certain ways people are supposed to talk about things. Like, unless you are a commie weirdo freakazoid, you have to say Tim Tebow is “inspiring”, or “great”, or at least “intriguing”. Or, as long as you aren’t one of those strange people who hates freedom and puppies and all things wonderful, you obviously think the “Game of Thrones” HBO series is the best thing EVAH and don’t feel any need whatsoever to read the books, instead harping on and on about how you can’t wait until the next installment airs so you can find out what happens next instead of picking up a book and, uh, actually reading it (no, it doesn’t bother me that much, why do you ask? I’m just plucking an example out of thin air, I say!)

There are also ways, it seems, to talk about whole groups of people. For example, when someone is Asian, they are invariably described as “technical” or “proficient” or, if you are really good at describing, “technically proficient” (read: good at violins and math). Asian food gets similar treatment.  If you write about Asian food, you have to make sure you are as reverent as possible. References to old recipes from the 17th century get you extra points (and more if, like, you can go back to the Bronze Age. Everyone wants to know what those guys were eating!) You should consider it a monolithic “whole” that never, ever changes in order to ensure as much “authenticity” as possible. And, for God’s sake, make sure to use a poncey know-it-all tone so that people who don’t know what you are talking about feel ashamed and bad about themselves. If you cook, everything has to come out properly; if you eat, everything has to be difficult to find and hard to consume.

I try as hard as I can to adhere to these rules. Sometimes it works out splendidly. But today, it might not work out so well, because, to tell you the truth, I don’t know all that much about Isaan food. Yes, you’d think I would, since I know a bit about Northern Thai food and, since Northerners also use sticky rice, then Northern Thai and Isaan foods are OBVIOUSLY ONE AND THE SAME CUISINE. But those uppity Northerners and Isaan-ers insist that their cuisines are completely different. What do they know, right? I just can’t wait for that next “Game of Thrones” episode.

So when I trekked up to the Northeast and had my first bite of thum pa (jungle som thum), I was blown away. Rice noodles instead of grated fruit or veggies? A fishy, earthy dressing, heavy on the fermented Thai anchovy? The inclusion of everything but the kitchen sink: some shards of bamboo shoot, a few stray strands of acacia, a handful of unripe tomatoes, a few lost snails, the occasional bashed-in green bean. Thum pa (also referred to as thum sua or thum mua, “confused thum“) incorporates what Isaan is all about — fire, earth, and even water (if you include those fermented fish) — with the relatively newfangled addition of kanom jeen “noodles”. I had to find some in Bangkok!

It was harder than I expected. Bangkokians really love their som thum Thai, what can I say? But finally, on Rachadapisek Road across from the Esplanade shopping center, Saab Wan (or “Yummy Day”, 081-751-3181, parking at the gas station next door), where thum sua (40 baht) is on the menu.

Saab Wan's thum sua

This is a nice melange of crispy bean sprouts and tiny deep-fried fish with the smooth slithery silk of noodles, papaya and bamboo shoots, spiked liberally with chili and pla rah (fermented anchovy). But even more startling is the so-called gai yang (80-150 baht), which turned out like this and, at a glance, explains the rampant popularity of this street food stall:

Saab Wan's gai yang and bamboo shoot salad

You and I know this is not Isaan-style grilled chicken. This is a lacquered Kim Kardashian of a chicken dish, a bastard child of American barbecue and Chinese sweet pork. This is sugary, sugary stuff — in spite of the fact that Isaan food is not supposed to have any sugar in it. No wonder this stand is packed at all hours of the day! Bangkokians are stuffing their pie holes with the saccharine-sweet oblivion that only sugar can provide.

Of course, this has inspired me to open my own Isaan food stall, using beer-butt chicken instead of gai yang, a grilled corn thum on the side, and maybe a white barbecue sauce alongside the jeao (Isaan-style spicy dipping sauce). Think I’m kidding? Watch this space.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, chicken, food, food stalls, Isaan, som tum, Thailand

Chiang Mai Diary

Aunt Tui's roses in bloom

When I decided to start research for a second book, this one for, basically, all of Thailand ex-Bangkok, I knew it would be a big undertaking. Nosing out Bangkok’s street food stalls took a year; this one … could take more. More months of 5 lunches and 3 dinners a day, more weeks registering a steadily rising number on the scale, more nights of clutching at my belly as I struggle to digest (I know, I know. Pity me! Pity me!).

Well, screw that. I’ll tell you now: I want this done by year-end. I’m no spring chicken, and I am no longer pregnant, so I can no longer hide all the extra poundage behind the “but I’m pregnant excuse!”. Maybe I don’t have that much time left before my digestive system finally rebels once and for all and explodes. Long story short: I will have to eat more, now.  What better place to start than Chiang Mai?

It’s obvious where out-of-towners eat when they come to the “capital of the North”: the usual suspects, Lamduan Faham (either branch), Samoerjai, Huen Phen. What they eat: khao soy, roasted young chili dip (nam prik num), deep-fried pork (moo tod). I decided I would do all I can to avoid that for the time being. You already know these places, right? There must be some culinary gems that all yinz guys have overlooked!

Apparently, “hidden culinary gems” means this:

Chicken rice at Khao Mun Gai Hailum

And this:

Chicken rice at Gied Ocha

Yes, I had a whole lot of khao mun gai. Inexplicably. Because, I think you all know this, chicken rice is not in any way a Northern Thai thing. It’s a “way north…er…east of Thailand” thing (my geography isn’t too good). In my defense, it’s a little different here in Chiang Mai: the rice is fluffier and less fatty, and, well, the chicken appears to be too. Two stand-outs were Khao Mun Gai Hailum (to the right near the entrance of Rotfai Road, 053-242-833) and Gied Ocha (41-43 Intawororos Road, 053-328-262-3); the former a bare-bones haven for chicken rice purists who are picky about both their rice and their chicken, the latter a sunny, welcoming favorite where the owner — a former lottery winner, yes really — still patrols the dining room, barking out incomprehensible orders to a beleaguered and obviously very clever Hainanese chicken rice-making station in front.

On the same road as Gied Ocha stands a fish noodle-and-rice porridge stand called Sa-Ard (33-35 Intawororos Road, 053-327-261) that, as full as I was, turned out to be among the most delicious fish noodle places I’ve been to (I am not a fish noodle fan). The broth, perfectly clear and a bright, fresh slick of seafood; an assorted array of fish meatballs of various shapes and degrees of deliciousness; a bowl heavy with lettuce and deep-fried garlic. What I’m talking about, when I came to and remembered to take a photo:

When I was done with my fish meatball gow low

Other good things: Isaan sausages, both stuffed with rice and with woon sen, or glass vermicelli; deep-fried bananas, encased in a lattice of batter and coconut flakes; som tum muang, or “Northern-style” grated green papaya salad, flavored with tamarind juice instead of lime (is that really what makes it Northern?); and thu-ka-ko, rounds of taro tossed in flour and deep-fried, a street snack you actually honest-to-God can’t get anywhere else, apparently.

But where’s the Northern Thai food? What am I, made of stone? Of course I had some. First, at a Disneyland-style “Northern Thai” restaurant where the food swung through some very un-Northernlike extremes of flavor to accommodate the Bangkokians who want their Northern food to be as highly spiced as Isaan; then, at a restaurant my dad directed me too, promising that the food would be just like what I would get from my Aunt Priew (this is very high praise).

Huen Jai Yong (near Sankumpang intersection, 086-671-8710, 086-730-2673) might be hard to get to, and it’s definitely a restaurant, not a street food stall, but it’s worth it to call and ask for those directions (I am useless at directions. Can you tell?) This is Northern food: flavorful yet a little mellow, yummy but not pandering  (too sweet, too spicy). Don’t miss out on the saa pak, a “salad” of minced vegetables that recalls salty and tart without overly favoring either, or the thum makuea, mashed Thai eggplant bearing a mellowness that defies its fierce appearance.

Mashed Thai eggplant at Huen Jai Yong

But as good as Aunt Priew? Sorry. No.

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Filed under Asia, Chiang Mai, chicken, fish, food, food stalls, Northern Thailand, restaurant, Thailand