My year in food


My son’s map of the USA

I’ll be honest. 2017 didn’t start off that great. I didn’t think it would be that memorable of a year in food for me, especially since I was only interested in making a handful of comfort food recipes. Some of my favorites:

Number one comfort food dinner:

– 5 glasses of red wine

Comfort afternoon snack:

– 2 glasses of red wine

Don Draper nightcap:

– 2 glasses of red wine

– 1 shot single-malt whisky, neat

But, like every 2016 presidential election prognosticator, I was wrong. 2017 was a great year in food. But don’t take it from me, the person who accidentally burned a plastic spatula while trying to cook lamb meatballs because she was busy reading a story about Al Franken and still ate the meatballs even though they were uncooked in the middle and may have had melted plastic on them.  Take it from the Michelin people, who came to Thailand (Wonder why? Doesn’t matter) to anoint 17 lucky happy eating places with their coveted stars, and the just-as-important bib gourmand to a bunch of other people at 33 happy eating spots.  Dreams do come true, you guys.


The recipient of one Michelin star (it’s Jay Fai)


Caviar terrine at the recipient of another (it’s L’atelier de Joel Robuchon)

Of course, Thais being Thais, there is already plenty of grumbling about who got what and why. For once in my life, I am not going to add to that chorus. Congrats you guys! Good for you! Please continue allowing me to eat in your restaurants! Thank you.


Poached black cod at now-Michelin-starred Paste


The emoji menu at two-Michelin-starred Gaggan


Police confused at the gargantuan line at now-Bib-Gourmanded Thipsamai

And of course I’m waving the flag for all the bib gourmand recipients, including Soul Food Mahanakorn (those guys once said hi to me) and the taciturn guay jab guy in the porn theater in Chinatown (he never says hi to me and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been there). Because I’ve eaten at most of these places, I feel a sense of ownership, just like if I was a member of the Michelin team myself. Of course, I was not. Just FYI, I’m free next year, you guys. I could make some room in my schedule for you.

I gotta say, even though no one asked me, the Michelin folks have included a pretty judicious selection of street food spots. Do you think this will change the current government attitude to street food vendors? And, just an observation but I cannot help but ask: who chooses the photos that go with these restaurants? Is there a stock photo factory of rando table settings in France somewhere? Because that is definitely not Soul Food, Sanguansri or for God’s sake Jay Oh with the white tablecloths lol. Someone who looks at this might get ideas.


Spicy fried sausage at Sri Trat, one of 76 “The Plate Michelin” recipients

But I have had meals this year that have not been at eateries lauded in the Michelin guide. Here, my own guide to the past year’s good eats:


Fresh green pumpkin shoots stir-fried with garlic at Niyom Pochana


A plate of som tum at Krua Khun Ton in Korat


A plate of shrimp paste chili dip (with sour curry with bamboo shoots in the background) at Raya in Phuket


Khun Sumet, carrying on with Bamee 38 in Charm Phrakiet

I am, for once, looking forward to what the next year will bring. I hope that doesn’t mean it will be a crap year!

Happy New Year, all! Thank you for sticking around.


Thank you and farewell at Teppen



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Something for everyone


Hainanese rice vermicelli at Jay Wa-Jay Yong

My friend Winner describes himself as “super Chinese”, even though he grew up in California and cheers on terrible American football teams. It’s not the kind of Chinese that my husband is, where they all hang out in Chinatown and burn stuff in the front yard once a year. According to Winner, “super Chinese” means having parents who were forced to go to Chinese school and meeting up at community centers and temples to describe your particular brand of Chinese-ness — in his case, Hainan, which Thais refer to as “Hailum”.

The majority of Thais with Chinese heritage are Teochew, or Chiu Chow. That means a healthy smattering of Teochew restaurants throughout Bangkok, keeping the bak ku teh and oyster omelet faith. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a healthy slice of eateries out there that aren’t Hainanese. After all, one of the most well-known street food dishes in the country is probably Hainanese chicken rice (khao mun gai), the one-two punch of fork-tender chicken and fatty globules of slick white rice (and clear soup and, let’s face it, the chili-speckled sauce). That’s just one of the dishes that this southernmost Chinese province has to offer. There’s also kanom jeen hailum, or Hainanese rice vermicelli.


Winner, stopping mid-inhale on a bowl of noodles

One of my favorite things about Thai street food — if not my absolute favorite thing — is the range of dishes available, snatched and twisted into Thai-style shapes from cultures all over the globe. Unlike its chicken rice counterpart, Hainanese rice noodles are one of those dishes that are increasingly hard to find, in spite of itself: a seemingly bewitching mix of thick udon-like strands cosseted in a thickened broth punctuated with shrimp paste, peanuts, sesame seeds, pickled greens and of course coriander and green onion, left to stew into an amiable sludge. And there are the slices of pork too.

There are several places to have this dish, including the pretty obviously-named Kanom Jeen Hai Lum (Charoen Nakorn Road between Sois 17 and 19), which also serves chicken rice, because of course. But another place that places almost all its eggs in the kanom jeen basket is Jay Wa-Jay Yong (463/54-55 Luk Luang Soi 8, open 5-11pm), where the distinctive green bowl of Shell Chuan Chim (Thailand’s answer to the Michelin guide) adorns the shophouse.


Shrimp paste dipping sauce

For my money though (even though Winner paid), the best thing at this shophouse is the yum Hailum, or Hainanese spicy salad, cleverly made up of all the things that would garnish a bowl of noodles, but dressed up in the Thai chili-lime-fish sauce dressing that renders everything it touches delicious. A mix of pork slices, moo yaw (steamed pork pate), Chinese mushrooms, lettuce, pickled greens and sesame seeds, this salad has it all: texture, taste, and punch, a dish that can only be found at this dinner spot (so Winner says). They gave me a separate plate so that I could share, but of course there was no need.


Jay Wa-Jay Yong’s yum Hailum


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Security blanket food


Beef shin khao soy, my favorite kind

Guess what? There’s a lot of bad mojo in the news today. Maybe you haven’t heard, because you are off being happy and hanging out with Diana Ross. Maybe you have been traveling and are spending your days with a good book. Or maybe you are medicated to the gills, like me. In any case, even I am aware that bad stuff has been happening, including bad inappropriate behavior guy stuff (I’m not talking about Donald Trump, although, wait, maybe I am).

Women grow up knowing to look out for those guys, the handsy ones who treat your personal space like a salad bar at Sizzler. They do this because they can. It’s always our fault, and we’re always the ones left feeling ashamed. But I’m not here to tell the same old story about the perv on the crowded Tokyo subway car, or the totally inappropriate weirdo at your friend’s wedding. I feel like the tide may be turning, and that people are learning to appreciate — or at least fear — what women have to contribute and say. Fingers crossed.

This extends to food. Still, even here in Thailand where the myth of the magical mortar-and-pestle-wielding grandma reigns supreme (the culinary Asian version of Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance”), woman food remains mom food, stuff that you eat in a pinch or that you miss when you’ve moved on to bigger and better things.

At the same time, much of the Thai food landscape is populated by strong women cooks, people like Jay Fai and Bo Songvisava and Bee Satongun and Krua Apsorn. Women make up nearly half of the Thai workforce. Thailand ranks first in the number of women CEOs at private companies. Yet every time you step outside there are still commercials about the need for women to slim down, bleach their skin, beware how they smell. My mother still complains about how her friends tell her I look like I was pulled out of a dumpster (“pulled from the dumpster” is my look right now a la Alison Mosshart OK mom?!). These parallel existences shouldn’t be, but they are.

No wonder, then, that a discerning woman would choose to eat their feelings, the security blanket of choice for the bon vivant. That is how I found myself at Kruajiangmai (Thonglor Rd., 099-196-2464) instead of the street food noodle place I initially intended to visit, wearing my most comfy elastic waist pants and a pristine white shirt just begging to be splattered with lunch. Kruajiangmai, which started out as a pure delivery service, just happens to be helmed by another cooking woman, Chinnanan Sethachanan, who cooks good Northern Thai food even though she’s from Chiang Mai (my dad says Chiang Mai food is the blandest in the north OK reader?!)


Nam ngiew in the pot, with actual dok ngiew

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you will probably know that I am extra picky about Northern Thai food, because my dad has cooked it for us all our lives. You might have also noticed I was super judgy about places with laminated menus promising pad Thai and mango sticky rice but I’ve matured since then (OK mom?!) and realize that people have to do what they can to survive. Kruajiangmai not only has the temerity to be from Chiang Mai, but also does this laminated menu thing, and yet I still did not run away. Maybe I was super hungry (I ordered both beef shin khao soy and kanom jeen nam ngiew). But the food itself was promising: the nam ngiew, spicy and cartilaginous and uncluttered with the desiccated corpses of cherry tomatoes that tend to dilute the stew.


Most importantly? There were actual dried ngiew blossoms in the broth, as well as the correct garnishes like deep-fried garlic, bean sprouts and pickled greens, because when you see stuff like green beans and carrots you (I) want to jump out a window. The same could be said for the khao soy with beef shank, which was not only tender and rich but also included the deep-fried egg noodles for texture and plenty of raw onions, because it’s not a good lunch until everyone within a 3-foot radius wishes they were dead.

I ended up leaving with a bag of khao ganjin (Shan-style rice cooked in pork blood) and gaeng ped hed prao (exploding mushroom curry) on my arm, splattered Jackson Pollock-style with enough khao soy curry and nam ngiew juice that I looked pulled from a dumpster next to the Ping River. I didn’t see any of my mom’s friends on the way home. Comfort food indeed.




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Glutton Abroad: NZ life


Typical NZ: Free protection from the rays

I’ve been away from home for a while, and so have been busy the last few days gorging myself on all the stuff I didn’t expect to miss in Thailand but did: grilled chicken smothered in a mountain of fried garlic, searingly hot shredded bamboo shoot salad, steamed seafood custard, perfectly stir-fried pumpkin shoots, even proper sticky rice. But now, of course, I find myself thinking more about what I left behind over there, like gorgeously juicy oysters, breezy beachside walks and appropriately-priced booze. Them’s the breaks I guess.

I learn more about New Zealand every time I visit. Stuff I didn’t notice before, like how meat pies are to Kiwis what hamburgers are to Americans. They are the staple food, ruefully described as junk but irresistible all the same.


Steak and cheese pie breakfast by the highway. I somehow survived this.

I knew about the penchant for bare feet everywhere you go, but not the obsession with fries on a menu, even at Chinese takeaway and American barbecue spots. We all knew about the sheep, but not the inexplicably overwhelming popularity of Jason Derulo. And then there is the — what I see as new — interest in local produce, presented in novel, thought-provoking ways using ingredients like surf clam, seaweed, manuka honey and mutton bird. Of course, I’m talking about Pasture.


Pasture’s wild onion chawanmushi

Imagine a place where — yes — they make their own bread and butter and the menu changes regularly (standard Brooklyn hipster moves), but also features pairings of “juices” like fermented white asparagus alongside wine and declares its fondness for acidity over sweetness on the menu like a mission statement, or a warning. That is not to say that everything works, because, like in any place that tries something new, there are hits and misses. But it comes across as sincere, instead of as a cynical exercise in justifying an inflated price tag by providing an “experience” that makes the flavor of the food a secondary concern.


The cocktail menu

The Asian food scene is still something I am unpacking. Malaysian restaurants are abundant, packed, and good, and a whole range of Chinese food from Sichuan to Shanghainese to Cantonese is available. Thai food is different, somehow, and can either be characterized as a casualty of its own global successes (pad thai, sweet green curry) or as an entity that has moved beyond “thing” into the realm of “concept” — big enough to be subject to interpretation like the Mona Lisa, or what George really meant by “Song of Ice and Fire” (I don’t think it’s Jon marries Daenerys and they live happily ever after OK?).

Like any true and patriotic Thai, I was annoyed by terrible Thai food that curdled the spirit of the culture and turned the generosity of cooking into flat-out scams (see: my trip to a NY Thai restaurant). I understood the impulse to create a neutral arbiter, a superhero who could prosecute every culinary crime, like an official food robot. But what the Chinese, and Japanese, and Italians (and everyone else who has achieved worldwide food stardom) understands is that making things the way you think they should be is a pipe dream. Actually, that is probably a hard lesson to learn for everybody, not just food people.


Potstickers at Barilla Dumpling, where I fell down the stairs

When I worked at a news agency that I will hereby refer to as “Root Canal”, management frequently talked about how “fresh eyes” were needed to see things in our culture that we had grown used to, people like Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan (we can discuss how often “fresh eyes” ended up being white guys later). Through them, we could see new things about ourselves, even if they didn’t know as much as we did about the local nuances.

So why does that go out the window when it comes to food? This is the question I’m still asking after visiting Kiss Kiss , a Northern Thai-leaning restaurant that only just recently opened in Auckland.


Pork ribs and jaew

The first thing you notice is that it’s super cute. There’s no BS about trying to make this place look “authentic”, or that Thai people have ever really set food inside. The colors are bright-bright, like a Wachowski movie. The cocktail menu is viewed via Viewmaster. The soundtrack veers between cool Western obscure stuff and cool Thai obscure stuff.

The next thing you’ll notice is that it’s packed. New Zealanders love this place. It is full of the sort of young New Zealander you would expect to find in magazines like i-D and Paper. When you talk about it with other people, they will invariably say it is delicious.

I only point these things out because it wasn’t to my taste. I found it sweet and bland, and some dishes were full-on bad ideas, like the “naem” rice salad topped with shredded sai oua and fried sticky rice balls that looked like a way to utilize pesky leftovers. I admit I did not have the guts to order som tum. It wasn’t Thai food that Thai people would eat.

But is that the point? Is it bad if it’s an homage, done by people who loved something enough to be inspired by it, who then tweaked it to their own tastes? Like David McCallum’s “The Edge” versus Dre and Snoop’s “The Next Episode”? And what if people like the new thing better? What about it if I like the remade “Evil Dead” versus the Sam Raimi original, where Bruce Campbell makes too many stupid faces and is useless? (I realize this is horror fan heresy). There is a world different from us, a world where people might actually prefer a cappella versions of songs to the clearly superior originals. Shall we blame them? Or just accept that people have different tastes? And see their “remakes” as tributes to the original? (I realize this is Thai food lover heresy).



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Sausage party


Goat at Wattanapanich

Maybe you move in different sorts of circles, but I have been told a couple times to eat a bag of dicks. Not to my face, but I read it a lot. It is very evocative and memorable. I have never partaken of this bag, however.

I have eaten cod sperm sacs several times, either doused in ponzu and grated daikon radish, improbably battered in tempura coating and dipped in salt, or grilled gently on a slab of pink Himalayan salt. These were all good ways to eat fish sperm. I have also had poached rooster testicles, simmered in a hot pot seasoned with scads of Szechuan pepper. These were also good.

But I had never actually consumed animal dong (don’t worry, I will try to use as many slang words for wiener as possible). That is, until Matt — who was the first person to tell me about the Talad Rot Fai years ago, despite being from New York — mentioned a particularly memorable meal at Wattana Panich where he had both beef and goat wang for lunch.

I haven’t been to Wattana Panich (336-338 Ekamai Soi 18, 02-391-7264) since I first moved to Bangkok in 1995. A mangled cockroach in the chili pepper-studded vinegar made me not want to return ever again. But Matt made me want to go back, as did many, many publications such as BK Magazine, which exhorted readers to revel in the “lumpy and gooey” beef broth (said to be 40 years old, simmering in a vat that is topped up with more broth daily but never washed out). They also recommended customers try “their famous goat meat in Chinese soup, too” which may or may not be a nasty trick to play on unsuspecting readers.

In any case, diners eyeing the goat meat may opt for the “thua un thua diew” (literally translatable to “one per body”, 200 baht) and risk the shady side-eye of the servers, who will act like you have just ordered a porn video on the corner of Nana Road. After pointing you out to the other servers, they will eventually come back bearing the “thua un” in a “lumpy and gooey” broth, just like its beef counterpart, which is a tad cheaper at 180 baht.


The beef version

Both meats are tender, as soft as anything I’ve ever been served in a bowl which isn’t sperm. That doesn’t sound great but it actually is, because sperm sacs are very soft indeed. I suspect it’s more about the texture than the broth itself, which looks goopy enough for Gwyneth Paltrow and bears the mild flavor and faintly medicinal aroma of many of my least favorite Chinese dishes. Beef tasted better to me than goat, which was both gamey and gloopy, a double-handled chore. Surprisingly, my husband — who loves both Cantonese food and beef noodles — did not care for it, either. Maybe because there’s no hiding what it is, a bowl of doinkers.

And finally: in the pickled chilies, another bug. A little one this time.


Goat on rice

Despite all of this, it is packed to the rafters, one of the few street food shophouses left that still draws everyone, from all corners of society, to its tables. This is genuinely the case of a place that is just not for me. We finished our lunch next door, at Nomjit.


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Glutton Abroad: NY diet


Taking a seat, courtesy of Oyster Bay Police Department

(Photo by @garethdoestheatre)

Tuesday, Aug 8

I never planned on going to New York. It was purely a spur-of-the-minute decision. But when Karen invited me with the promise that I would be able to fulfill all my greasy spoon fantasies — at a time when diners are becoming to NY what mobile cart vendors are to parts of Bangkok — I could not say no. Also, my Gold Card status was expiring at the end of August.

So I arrive in New York at like 10 in the evening, meet up with a super-jetlagged Karen who has only just arrived from South Africa a few hours earlier, and … fall asleep.

Wednesday, Aug 9


Tater tots and Heinz ketchup at City Diner

The very first thing we do when we wake up — super early, because we are jet lagged — is go to the first diner we can think of. That is City Diner, which I love unreservedly because it offers everything you would expect out of a diner: greasy, hangover-dispelling breakfast plates paired with gigantic hash browns, crispy shards of overcooked bacon, and bottomless cups of hot coffee. Everything is, of course, delicious, but mostly a vehicle for Heinz ketchup, which is far more delicious in the US than it is in Thailand. For some reason, Thai Heinz ketchup is sweet and gloopy, like red sauce at a really bad Eastern European Italian restaurant, or a mousse at most molecular gastronomy restaurants.

I go to bed at like 5 in the afternoon.

Thursday, Aug 10


Chopped herring, pumpernickel bagels, and a bunch of other stuff at Barney Greengrass

I love, love, love Barney Greengrass and try to go every time I’m in New York. Actually, it’s usually the first place I go to when I arrive in the city if I’m not already fixated with some other food genre (see: diners). I also love the story behind the Barney Greengrass type of restaurant — referred to as “appetizing shops”. Apparently, they were brought to New York by Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s, and encompass all the accoutrements that accompany bagels: salads, smoked fish, herring, cream cheese and eggs, separated from the smoked meats of “New York delis” like Katz’s due to the Kosher rule of separating dairy from meat. The “appetizings” (here a noun) come from the cold appetizers (forspayz) served at the start of the meal. Even though these types of places have thinned out a lot from their height in the mid-1900s, the story of the New York appetizing shop is the typical story of the American Dream.

At Barney Greengrass we always end up ordering the chopped herring, whitefish salad, and Nova platter, because the salmon comes from Acme, considered the best smoked fish purveyor in the city. Karen always gets the pumpernickel bagel, but I am happy with anything vaguely bagel-ish, and if we are feeling ambitious, we also get scrambled eggs with onions. And yes, we are super judgy bitches, because we never ever get individual sandwiches and think people who do don’t know what they’re doing. Always order a platter to make your own sandwiches with, since it costs less for more food. Duh.

Karen and I stay up late enough to have dinner with @garethdoestheatre at Cafe Un Deux Trois, where Gareth apparently lives. I have lots of red wine and a steak tartare with fries and more Heinz ketchup, even though I am still completely stuffed.

Friday, August 11

Breakfast at Metro Diner. It’s a difficult balancing act, being a good diner: you have to be friendly but not creepy, comfortable but not so comfortable that people end up there all day long with one cup of coffee. I don’t number this place as a place I have to return to. My favorite diner ends up being The Mansion, which has an old-timey feel and super efficient service, directed with “soup Nazi” precision by a guy who is always on the floor.

Dinner with Gareth at Vaucluse, where the chef chooses what we get: grilled leeks with anchovies in a mustard seed vinaigrette, a dainty Nicoise-style salad and New York strip steak with a battery of sauces, none of which is ketchup.



Saturday, August 12


Cold borscht with all the fixings at Krolewskie Jadlo

We hatch plans to trek to Greenpoint in Brooklyn to have Polish food, after which we will visit the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD). The one we choose is flagged by a couple of life-sized medieval knights in front, Krolewskie Jadlo (it means something like “king’s feast”), and the menu is suitably large and imposing. Karen wants to order every borscht on the menu, but after slogging to Brooklyn in 90-degree weather, I am happy with just the cold version. All the borschts we order come with a side of mashed potato (?). We also get plenty of sliced bread with lard and pickles. We also end up with pierogies, potato pancakes with Karen proclaims as excellent, and a plate of venison and walnut meatballs bathed in a brown gravy. They are out of the stuffed cabbage.

Instead of taking a nap like we want to, we walk to MOFAD, where the current exhibition (until mid-February 2018) is appropriately enough entitled “Chow”, about the Chinese-American restaurant. It chronicles the story of the Chinese-American immigration experience, where the first Chinese-American restaurant opened (San Francisco) and the stories behind some of the genre’s best-known dishes, like “fortune cookies” (which began as a Japanese-American thing, until they were all interned during World War II and the Chinese took it over). My favorite part of the exhibit are the old restaurant menus, some dating back to 1910. This one is from the 1980s:



That night, we go to a midtown bar to wait for Gareth and split a slider plate: I have the beef and Karen has the chicken. We are going on the train to Long Island to go to the beach the next day.

Sunday, August 13

I wake up in Oyster Bay feeling strange and out of sorts, and even though we go to a perfectly nice diner (Taby’s Restaurant, if you are interested), I can’t manage a single bite of my one-egg plate (which Gareth refers to as a “child’s plate”) and drink copious amounts of water. After breakfast, on the street in the middle of town, I throw up for the first time, ruining my Birkenstocks and my new Eileen Fisher menocore pants. I throw up two more times (in the park, in a discarded brown paper bag next to an empty bottle of vodka) and in the ambulance (my first trip!) before I’m in the emergency room. Gareth, Kathleen and Karen spend an idyllic morning in the waiting room of the Oyster Bay Hospital. The doctor informs me that it was probably food poisoning, from the slider (or the condiments — did you know bad ketchup can make you sick?) and that my red blood cells are extra-large, meaning I’m a drunk (I’ve never heard of this before, not the drunk part but the red blood cells part). Later my therapist says maybe I was just stressed.

I still find time for dinner though, because who do you think I am? I get a big bag of sea salt popcorn from Duane Reade and eat that while Karen gets us takeout from Ollie’s. I go for the steamed white rice with steamed veggies and tofu, no sauce.

Monday, August 13

For breakfast, I have the cold miso soup that accompanied my Ollie’s order, straight from the fridge. Karen says I am slowly turning into her.

For dinner, we meet up with Bryn Mawrter friends Laurel and Adele for early drinks at Maison Premiere in Williamsburg. It’s the kind of place where the service seems very good, except that it takes an hour to get a platter of oysters, and where every woman is beautiful but you want to punch every man in the face. Also, where you need to make a reservation even though it’s 5:30 in the afternoon.

I know I was hospitalized for food poisoning the day before, but I cannot resist fresh oysters when they are sitting right in front of me. I have maybe 12. ANASSA KATA.


These are actually from Chelsea Market

Having successfully gone barf-free at the worst bar in New York to ever barf, I feel confident enough to steer my friends towards a Thai restaurant in Williamsburg. We then proceed to have the worst Thai meal any of us have ever had anywhere, including anything cooked by my own hand. The warning signs were not really there; the staff was fully Thai, after all. However, we could have been tipped off by the “crab rangoon” on the menu if we had really paid attention, and not thought it was a kitschy nod to the past. The green curry is reminiscent of … a green curry you would get at a molecular gastronomy restaurant (I have that on the brain right now, sorry). But when the “Thai seafood salad” comes as boiled shrimp dumped on top of a mound of iceberg lettuce and doused in a “spicy Thai” salad dressing, the alarm bells really go off. It’s not incompetence or lack of knowledge. These people genuinely do not give a shit. I know I made fun of the Thai government’s food robot a while back, but now I can truly understand and even sympathize with their feelings. Nobody wants to be blamed for spicy Thai iceberg lettuce salad. I certainly didn’t, and I didn’t even make it.

Tuesday, August 14

Like Godzilla devouring a Japanese village, I manage to inhale an entire gluten-free Vegana pizza at Keste, after having downed an entire lobster and a passel of oysters at Chelsea Market. It’s my happiest food day by far.











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Korat state of mind


Somtum Korat at Kanom Jeen Kru Yod

Korat is known as the “gateway to Isaan”, but there’s nothing entry-level about the Northeastern Thai food you get here. Green papaya salad, grilled meat, sticky rice, fermented Thai anchovies — it’s all there, graced with a decidedly “Korat” stamp like an edible Isaan-style “LV” with extra chilies on top, if you please.

There are as many types of som tum, or what’s commonly known as “green papaya salad”, as there are fruits and vegetables. That’s because, while the green papaya variety is the most well-known, you can make som tum out of just about anything: corn, green banana, sweet santol (known as gratawn). “Som tum Korat”, ostensibly named after the town in which it was created, veers from the usual with the addition of pickled field crab, dried shrimp and fermented Thai anchovy juice alongside all that green papaya and pounded long beans, garnished with a shower of roasted peanuts. The result is spicy and salty with a touch of sweet, in a region where sweet flavors are usually anathema.


Som tum Korat with plenty of moo yaw at Som Tum Pan Lan

Of course, the flavors vary depending on the chef. Despite its deceptively simple appearance and quick assembly time, som tum is surprisingly hard to get right, a tightrope walk between salt, spice and tart, with an additional hit of sweet or bitter when the recipe demands it.

At Kanom Jeen Kru Yod (200 moo 9, Moo Ban Kokpai 2, Thanon Siriratchathani, 081-548-4097), the restaurant is named after the fermented rice noodles that locals flock to for lunch to eat slathered in the gang gai, or chicken curry.  But as delicious as those noodles are, the som tum salads are just as toothsome, big, bright flavors in a jumble of fresh, crisp textures and colors. This is also the big draw at Som Tum Pan Lan (Ratchasima-Pakthongchai Road, 081-966-1497), where we waited out a torrential downpour while hunched over a plate of som tum, bulked up and chilled out with a generous handful of moo yaw, or steamed Vietnamese-style pork sausage.


A vat of Kru Yod’s ubiquitous chicken curry

Sometimes people want a little drama with their som tum. Or something to properly Instagram. I hate to say it, as I am a big Instagram user too (follow me @bangkokglutton guys!), but Instagram is ruining food. To win more interest, restaurants are creating dishes with an eye toward how spectacular they will look in photos, instead of how these dishes actually taste. The birth of som tum tad (literally “som tum on a tray”, surrounded by a solar system of items meant to go with the som tum “star” in the middle) falls into this category, but some versions are more palatable than others. Enter Thum Saeb Gaen Khon (11/2 Suebsiri Road, Soi Suebsiri 3, 084-605-9120), which, alongside a very tasty selection of regular som tums, thom saeb (spicy Isaan-style soups) and grilled meats, offers an enormous som tum tad centered around their very own “som tum gaen khon” and less manicured than the scary specimens haunting your local food court.

Here, the som tum is surrounded by fried pork rinds, fermented rice noodles, soy sauce-fried rice vermicelli, sprouts, pickled mustard greens, blanched cabbage, dried sweet pork, katin seeds, boiled shrimp, steamed cuttlefish, steamed mussels, blanched surimi, dried shrimp, sour fermented pork sausage, and three types of egg: hard-boiled, salted, and century. It’s a meal fit for 3-4 kings.


Som tum tad at Thum Saeb Gaen Khon

When/if you get som tummed out, there are still some Korat-based culinary alternatives. Krua Khun Ton (Jomsuranyat Road) is as hidden as a hidden gem gets anywhere: tucked into an outskirts-lying development that calls to mind images of basement meth labs and Episode 4 of “True Detective” Season 1. Somehow, amidst all of this, a restaurant terrace sits behind a tranquil pool of carp and artful display of old furniture arranged around an ancient television set. Everything is good here, if the enormous crowd of people (everyone awake in Korat on a Sunday morning) is anything to go by. We settle in with a mee Korat (fried rice vermicelli with dark soy sauce, fish sauce, palm sugar, chilies and pork) and the restaurant’s signature, kanom jeen nam ya pla rah (fermented rice noodles with fermented anchovy curry).


Khun Ton’s mee Korat

The soup — deep, salty, slightly funky and somehow sweet — is studded with thick, meaty chunks of fish and accompanied by a plethora of garnishes including shredded cabbage, pickled greens, and green foliage that I sadly didn’t catch the name of but tasted both tannic and tart, gorgeous next to the murky curry.


Kanom jeen nam ya pla rah

It’s hard to leave Korat without feeling like you have swallowed a submarine whole. But like all physically taxing experiences, like childbirth, you forget about the pain afterwards in favor of the good and fuzzy feelings. Over the course of two days, I ate enough for a week’s worth of meals. This was only a little bit of it. But damn it if I didn’t end up wishing I could stand to eat a little more.

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