Soft Rock Classics

A bowl of guay jab at Oun Pochana

I find that I am frequently starting my posts with the announcement that I had intended to write something else and was suddenly diverted from my brilliant plans. That is once again the case today, after learning of the death of Christine McVie at 79. Like Christine McVie herself, her manner of death was not strange or out of the blue — she had lived to a decently ripe old age. Classy to the end, her departure was met quietly with little news on her side; her bandmates weren’t even informed of her illness. The outpouring of grief came afterwards, after she was gone. It’s the way I would have liked to go, if I had left behind a body of great songs and a long history of performing for millions of fans.

Christine McVie wrote well-crafted, catchy, and understated pop songs that erred on the side of classy. Obviously, it is strange that I would be a fan. But it’s not just her songs that I enjoy (I’ll admit it now that I’m old, my favorite composition of hers is “Got a Hold on Me”) but her whole persona. It takes a very interesting and secure woman to allow Stevie Nicks the creative (and literal) space to twirl around in her scarves and skirts, singing about witches and gypsies, as she stays at her station, behind the keyboard, off to the side of the stage, doing her job. It takes a smart woman to last, period, among all the drama queens that Stevie, Lindsay and Mick surely were (especially during their cocaine — I mean “Tusk” — era). And of course there were the mutual heartbreaks over the course of recording “Rumours”, and the ways they were used to fuel that incredible spasm of 24-karat creativity; I admire all of it. It’s inspiring for me to see her, on my laptop screen or on TV, exhibiting excellence in her own way. Not everyone has to be Stevie Nicks, you know.

For over half a century, Chanchai Tangsupmanee — aka Nai Oun — toiled away in front of an abandoned movie theater, chopping up pig parts in the sweltering heat by the side of Yaowarat Road. He was no wealthy hitmaker, and few would call him a genius. But, at his street food stall Oun Pochana (MRT Wat Mangkhon), he was an artist in his own way, churning out bowls of pork noodles for the masses. After decades in obscurity, a huge number of loyal customers brought this humble guay jab vendor to the attention of none other than Me Myself (and also later Michelin). The fact that these accolades all came from a simple bowl of rolled Chinese noodles swimming in broth with pig parts and a boiled egg is fairly remarkable. It’s even more remarkable that it’s for guay jab nam sai (clear broth), arguably less popular than its nam khon (thick broth) counterpart due to the impression that clear broth hosts less flavor.

Now, guay jab is no Stevie Nicks. It doesn’t compare, glamor-wise, to other dishes like the noodles on the sizzling hot plate and the morning glory in the wok with the flames reaching up into the heavens. It doesn’t even compare to other soup noodles: egg noodles in tom yum broth leaves it in the dust when it comes to Instagram, and even a bowl of lowly fish meatball noodles with a spray of deep-fried garlic manages to outshine it. Let’s not get started on braised beef noodles. Face it, guay jab is not a pretty dish.

What set Nai Oun’s bowls apart from the rest is the broth, which is clear, yes, but also peppery and full of pork flavor, yet still also clean-tasting. There really isn’t anything else like it on that street, and that is saying a lot. Even after Nai Oun passed away from Covid, and his son Adulwitch took over, the bowls remained the same. If anything, the crowds have gotten larger and more insistent. My last visit there, I was seated so far back I was reminded of the time I visited Oun Pochana’s bathroom (don’t ever do this). Oun Pochana’s popularity has only grown over the years, turning this vendor into one of the road’s few real must-trys, even among native Bangkokians. A bowl of hand-rolled noodles with pork did that, a sign of real craftsmanship with staying power.

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Nostalgia, sort of

Spaghetti Naporitan at Kelly’s Another, my fave so far

To my dismay, I have not been able to return to Japan, making it almost three whole years since I last set foot on the Land of the Rising Sun. To make up for this, I have been experiencing Japan vicariously through — what else — the TV, even going so far as to overcome my distaste for Ansel Elgort’s face to watch the entire first season of “Tokyo Vice” (which is very good).

But my favorite of the “vicariously living in Tokyo” programs are, of course, the food ones. There is “Midnight Diner”, where each episode features a dish that becomes the theme that day; unfortunately, it’s marred by the fact that the customers are forced to order the same thing every time they pull up to the bar, a sort of culinary “Groundhog Day”. There’s “Gourmet Samurai”, where the protagonist overcomes dining-related embarrassments (the horror!) by conjuring up a more handsome, younger alter-ego who is so macho that he is willing to try new ingredients in his oden! There is also the Road to Red Restaurants List, where a salaryman avoids hanging out with his family on the weekends in order to ferret out restaurants serving “endangered” (read: unusual) foods, and “The Way of the Hot and Spicy”, where another salaryman gets hazed by his coworkers into eating progressively spicier dishes as the series goes on. There’s even “Curry Songs”, which is not really about curry, and made me cry. I have been watching a lot of television.

But none is as dear to my heart as “Izakaya Bottakuri”, where a pair of sisters take over their deceased parents’ restaurant. You not only learn a lot about how the dishes are made, but also about what drinks pair best with them. Through this show, I have learned that carrot tops can be stir-fried and seasoned with sesame oil and seeds; that the broth from stewing chicken wings can be made into a jelly and served as a drinking snack; that tororo (mountain yam) can be grated and cooked on top of a hot plate as a “steak”, topped with dancing bonito flakes. But the most eye-opening dish for me, personally, was the “spaghetti naporitan” (S1, E8), a Japanese-Western fusion (yoshoku) featuring pasta, hot dogs, bell peppers, and a sauce made primarily of ketchup.

Now, I am no newbie to ketchup pasta. Indeed, for years, Bangkok restaurants served only that kind of pasta, at places with “Western” food choices like 13 Coins. I remember my 13-year-old self turning her nose up at these dishes, forcing family members to eat my own “more authentic” spaghetti sauces made from tomato paste and canned tomatoes. Little did I realize then that I was passing on an interesting sliver of food history. I would not remake that mistake.

“Spaghetti naporitan” (spelled that way because it’s the usual way to spell it, not because I’m making fun of Japanese people) is, of course, derived from the southern Italian dish spaghetti alla Napoletana, which is basically pasta al pomodoro. It’s not that way in Japan, though. Said to have been created by a chef at the New Grand Hotel in Yokohama and inspired by the food served to American soldiers, this dish uses ingredients common to Japan at the time to create something Western — a real example of culinary ingenuity, like kai kata. The sauce is a melange of ketchup, milk and Worcestershire sauce; the proper “hot dogs” used are smoked Vienna sausages; the pasta is supposed to be overcooked and soggy. Best of all, it’s served on an iron hot plate, over a bed of beaten egg that can be wrapped around the pasta like a blanket as you eat. Seriously, what’s not to like?

Because I live in a city where the Japanese food is almost as good as in Japan (except for the sushi, which still suffers from the rice), I sought to seek out all of the spaghetti naporitans I could find in an effort to find the closest version to the one at “Izakaya Bottakuri.” My quest started at My Porch , which by night is a karaoke bar but by day is a hotbed of lunch activity for Japanese housewives. I thought of this restaurant first because I used to go often, when I was going through an uni pasta phase (sadly, definitively ended after trying Zac Posen’s uni pasta recipe during lockdown).

As you can see, it’s a fancy plate of pasta, as full of good taste as the other offerings on the menu at this super-classy joint. The pasta is al dente, the protein is bacon instead of hot dogs, and the sauce is made from tomatoes. In other words, not really naporitan. But tasty!

On a rare night out drinking with my sister and her friends, I suggested Kelly’s Another as a post-bar possibility after we discovered that the Teppen on Sukhumvit 61 (sadly, still the only good one) was fully booked. An offshoot of the hugely popular Teriyaki Bar Kelly’s , Kelly’s Another (I can’t with the sequence of words in both names) has a more salaryman-in-Shinjuku vibe (as opposed to the idealized 50s vibe at the teriyaki bar) and a more subdued crowd. Here, I got a tiny plate of naporitan (the servings are small here) that, to me, tasted the most like the one that the customers at Izakaya Bottakuri would have had.

But there were other places ostensibly serving naporitan to try. My friend Andrew agreed to go with me to Kitchen Niigata, an old-fashioned style “diner” that would not have been out of place in the alleyway in Asakusa. The old-fashioned style extends to the table dividers, which I promptly stubbed my toe on. As we took our seats (right as it was opening at 11:30), the room was already filling up. Andrew got what you’re expected to get, the Hamburgu steak teishoku. I of course got the naporitan.

I have to say, it was pretty close. There were hot dogs in there, and the pasta was definitely overcooked. I did taste the ketchup in the sauce. But points docked for no “shakey shakey” (the grated processed Parmesan cheese) or even Tabasco, which seems to be an obligatory addition to every naporitan served in Bangkok.

I did not draft Andrew for my next naporitan at nearby Tonsei , a grubbier version of Kitchen Niigata. As I entered, there was only one other customer there, an older Japanese man reading. Out of all of the places I’d been to, this was the only one where the television was playing NHK. The decor was very much past its prime. This felt like a truly legit place.

I guess this version, of all the ones I’d tried, felt like the most in keeping with the spirit of naporitan (ie. a cheap mishmash of leftover odds and ends). The protein was leftover seafood sausage normally used for the soup noodles. The pasta was overcooked. The sauce was definitely ketchup-y. The cook (Thai) came out to get a look at the person who had ordered naporitan instead of a teishoku. Still no shakey shakey.

So when Andrew and I went to Samurai Diner and they helpfully set down not only the Tabasco but the shakey shakey, I of course went to town when my naporitan arrived.

Alas, it was my least favorite version by far. While the noodles were indeed soggy and the sauce indeed ketchup-based, the sausage (and/or bacon used) emitted an unpleasant smell that no amount of nostalgia could power through. I eyed Andrew’s hamburger steak with envy. Lesson learned: some things are not surefire hits, even when slathered in ketchup.

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The Best Dessert is a Dill Pickle

I have been writing on this blog since 2010. I guess that makes me a longtime food blogger, even though I have yet to make money from my blog. All the same, the cumulative knowledge earned from 10+ years of blogging would suggest that I know how to get eyeballs to my website. This is very much not true.

Considering how long I have been blogging, very few people actually read my blog. This means that either I am a very stubborn person, or very good at denial, or both. All of which is to say that only recently have I learned how to win “engagement” with my audience. It’s to make them really, really mad with trash opinions that will create controversy.

I learned this, of course, from a guy named Elon Musk, who appears to write trash opinions on Twitter for a living. This, of course, keeps his name in the news, and his website in the news. It doesn’t matter that much of that news is negative and/or mean; the only thing that matters in this brave new world is that people are talking about you (see: Ye, Ted Cruz).

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that TasteAtlas (no, I will not link to it) is the Elon Musk of food opinions. If you do not understand what I mean by this, let me put it another way: their opinions are trash. I know that this is what they want me (and you as well) to think, and even more importantly, to say and write. I hate that I have fallen into their very cleverly laid trap. The truth is, when their completely arbitrary and strange lists of “world’s best cuisines” and “world’s best dishes” initially made little splashes on the news, I steered away from them, recognizing them for the attention trolls that they are. I recognized this from seeing that they put Romanian food at number four on the “world’s best cuisines” list, before Mexican food, and that they made Polish pierogis number three on the “world’s best traditional food” list while placing satay and tonkatsu at the bottom. “What a troll,” I thought, before clicking onto the more important business of playing my Redecor app. But here I am, talking about it (finally! I know they have been waiting) because I now realize what it is that they were trying to do: teach me how to be a professional troll, the Yoda to my Luke of learning the great art of Elon Muskery.

So here it is, a list of trash opinions. They are (mostly) about food, of course. And, unlike, I suspect, TasteAtlas, these are my truly, sincerely held opinions. Make of them what you will.

  • The Japanese have ruined both steak and whisky. Steak is supposed to taste like beef. Wagyu beef is 1. more of an exercise in texture; 2. impossible to enjoy for more than a few bites, even with the addition of freshly grated wasabi, and 3. should be cooked to medium at the very rarest, in order to activate the fat. When it is cooked medium-rare, it is simply an overfatty slab of beef. As for their whisky, yes, it is too smooth. I like mine smelling like tires on fire and burning your throat as it goes down. This way, I can remind myself that I am alive.
  • Sweet pickles are an abomination against God. I’m sorry. I know there are uses for them. But when I get a sandwich with a pickle on the side, and then bite into said pickle to discover that it is sweet, I want to throw the entire plate out the window. Don’t psyche me out like that. It is cruel, and a war crime.
  • “Catch and Release” is a great movie, and perfectly cast.
  • When Asian restaurants make hamburgers, they are always too high. You are supposed to be able to fit it into your mouth. Why are you piling a million things on top of each other like you are playing edible Jenga? I do not want to have to eat my hamburger in two horizontal halves. That is not the point of a hamburger.
  • Alternatively, never order nam prik or gang som from a Thai restaurant abroad unless you are absolutely sure of the kitchen. Just believe me on this one.
  • Japanese rolls that involve tempura flakes and/or mayonnaise are horrible and should be served in restaurants that specialize only in these kinds of rolls, so that you can know for sure where to avoid.
  • I’ve heard respected critics say that The Cup is a silly restaurant. No offense, but that restaurant isn’t meant for them. It’s not even meant for me. It’s a restaurant for rich Thai people who went to boarding school in England and miss the food they had at that time, but with some Thai flair.
  • Tom yum should not have coconut milk in it. Don’t even get me started on cow milk or evaporated milk. The addition of milk changes the entire flavor profile. It makes it into an entirely different dish. So name it something else! Just don’t call it tom yum, which an astringent, tangy, bracing, herbalicious soup, not sweet, creamy, or unctuous.
  • Out of all the stupid decisions that the show runners made on “Game of Thrones”, the dumbest was the decision to add a character named Talisa who would be Robb Stark’s love match. Robb Stark married a girl he had sex with because he did not want her to have a bastard baby, because he saw how his own mother treated Jon, who was supposedly a bastard. He did not want to create another Jon. So the fact that the Red Wedding happened is because of Catelyn Stark’s own shitty actions and karma, not because Robb fell in love with some random chick. (Also, George R.R. Martin will never finish the series. Let’s stop pretending that this will happen.)
  • Mieng kum is erroneously referred to online as a Northern Thai dish. The truth is that the dish as we know it today is about as Northern Thai as I am Miss Argentina. Yes, it was first presented by Dhara Devi at Rama V’s court, featuring pickled mieng leaves. That dish is not the dish that we are presented with today, featuring wild betel leaves and an assortment of ingredients that can be placed into your leaf (helpfully folded into a cup) that includes smoked coconut, peanuts and dried shrimp, before being topped with a savory-sweet dipping sauce. This dish, with the flavors and ingredients that I just mentioned? It’s a Central Thai dish. You will find it at Central Thai restaurants. And if you see it in a restaurant in Northern Thailand, it’s a dead giveaway that the owners of that restaurant are Central Thai.
Mieng kana at Klang Soi Restaurant in Bangkok

Now, here’s a bonus opinion on mieng kum: I prefer mieng ka na. The leaves are sturdier and there is usually the addition of some deep-fried pork skin, which is delicious in any iteration. My favorite in Bangkok is sold at Klang Soi (12, 1 Sukhumvit 49/9 Alley,  02 391 4988, BTS: Phrom Phong) which is on the grounds of the Klang Soi Racquet Club. It’s close to another personal favorite, Lert Ros, which has a cool Thai diner-y vibe, but Klang Soi’s food is better (their gaeng nuea, or beef green curry, is the closest that I’ve found in taste to my husband’s family’s green curry, which is delicious.) If I have time on my own, I try to head over there, order a deep-fried toast with minced pork on top (with cucumber ajad of course), and tuck into a mieng ka na before deciding on the rest of my lunch (they have good daily specials). Try it, it’s fun. And, yet another bonus opinion: eating alone is better because you don’t have to share.

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