Glutton Abroad: Tsukiji Slam

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Uni don, topped with 5 kinds of Japanese sea urchin

My first concert was the Ramones in Cleveland. I was 16 years old and I went with my friends Tanya, Jen, and Jen’s dad, who was not a Ramones fan. Tanya wore an old prom dress ironically. I, having never been asked to a dance, wore a black miniskirt and a camo t-shirt from Kmart. Since this was our first concert, Tanya and I tried to fight our way to the front of the stage in a vain attempt to catch Joey Ramone’s eye, only to be thwarted by a mosh pit that formed an impenetrable barrier to our groupie aspirations. I mention this because the Cleveland mosh pit was nothing in comparison to the throng awaiting us at Tsukiji market on the day before New Year’s Eve.

Tsukiji market was supposed to have left us by now, but hasn’t, because its new home is not quite ready. I also imagine the original architects of the scheme have, in a Brexit-like fit of remorse, lost enthusiasm for the move. In any case, Tsukiji is with us for a little while longer, a fact that both Japanese and tourist gourmets sought to take advantage of in the last gasp of 2016.

Have you ever been propelled forward without any help from your arms or legs? This was the feeling that day, like a salmon rushing inexorably upstream. Have you ever been hit on the back by an old lady wielding an umbrella? I can now say I have, twice. Old Japanese ladies, freed from the societal constraints of having to make nice for 60+ years, like nothing better than to aggressively tap on the small of your back with their umbrella handle when they feel you aren’t moving as briskly as you should. So why put yourself through this? The answer is obvious.

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Sea urchin buffet, walkway-side

If you have the fortitude and patience to stick out the career mosh-pitters and Japanese grannies, a feast awaits you anywhere you choose to walk. We started our breakfast with a couple of rice bowls at a spot tucked into the second floor off the walkway — a spot just like many others peppering Tsukiji that offer a choice between three types of bluefin tuna or five kinds of domestic uni.

Indeed, uni has become kind of a big thing: next to the kanimiso (crab innards) stand, another vendor grilling fist-sized meaty scallops topped with dollops of the stuff, rendering the chewiness of the scallops almost negligible. Yet another, making up for its dearth of sea urchin by serving up freshly shucked Japanese oysters the length of one’s hand, with nothing to season them but hope and greed. More uni, simply sliced open and served on ice with a spoon. Somewhat improbably, soft wah-wah mochi (cloud-like rice cakes) dusted with powdered sugar, stuffed with cream and topped with a single giant white strawberry. And always a place set aside to eat all these things, because walking while eating in Japan is so gauche.

But if you hate the state fair-ness of it all, there is also the actual, bona fide sushi bar. Like Bangkok and its wok cooks, every neighborhood in Japan has one: the eatery that considers itself a step above the rest, with a chef that rivals Kyubey’s. You seat yourself in front of the chef and your banana leaf, take what they offer to give you, dampen any expectations of American-style spicy tuna rolls, and for God’s sake, don’t ask for salmon (unless they are these gorgeous almost-eggs):

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A morsel of almost-ikura, on a bed of sushi rice

Sushi is supposed to be the main event here, but a lot of times, it feels almost like an afterthought, like the rice at the end of a meal in Shanghai. The real soldiers that fight your battle against hunger for you are the appetizers: usually sashimi and then a parade of grilled or fried whatsits and whatnots, whatever is in season, whatever will impress. This is how I manage to encounter something new on every trip: one year, live baby fish, in season for only two weeks out of the year as the snows from the Japanese Alps thaw. Two years ago, I had cod sperm sacs grilled on a slab of Himalayan sea salt, an experience I repeated this time with my daughter:

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There were more oysters, fresh, and a steamed kinki (orange roughy) in a Chinese-style sauce, but the most memorable thing for me was the sea cucumber — the meat of which was sliced and served in a ponzu sauce (anything in ponzu is delicious), the guts of which were dropped into very hot sake and drunken like Jagermeister shots at a frat party. This was a personal first.

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Sea cucumber in ponzu

This is all heavenly, of course, unless you don’t like sushi. If you are my 6-year-old son, you don’t like it very much at all.

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NO SUSHI

 

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Noodle Buoy

noodles

Specialty of the house: egg noodles with broth on the side at  Buoy

I am supposed to be a writer, but it’s been a long time since I’ve really written. I no longer tell people that I do anything for a living, and I no longer think of writing as part of my identity. If I were to tell the truth about what it is that I do, a calling which gives my life real meaning, I would say that I watch television.

I watch a lot of TV. It’s like my job that I haven’t been paid for yet, but that I still do because someday I expect a check to show up in the mail. I am as rigorous about it as doctors who check in on their patients, or accountants who do stuff with numbers. Here’s my day: I wake up and watch CNN until I absolutely cannot bear it (about 45-50 minutes), then I switch to Ellen DeGeneres. I try to catch “Veep” and/or “Silicon Valley” if I can. Maybe some “Hoarders” or “Love at First Sight”. Then I take a lunch break, and then I watch the “Sopranos”. The rest of the day is devoted to Netflix. If it’s Monday or Tuesday, I can watch American football all day long and not have to change channels. It’s a pretty full schedule.

Sometimes, I go to the gym. It’s the only thing that consistently gets me out of the house. I have not one, but two personal trainers, both of whom are named Champ. One is “Big Champ” even though he is little, while the bigger one is “Even Bigger Champ” (just kidding. He’s “Little Champ.”) Both like to give me advice on where to eat, probably because it is the only thing I like to talk about while working out.

Some of their advice is terrible. I can say this because they like to make fun of me, and I only realize they are making fun of me after I have been humiliated. Like when they tell me that the “chicken at Lumpini Park is delicious.” Now let me give you some advice: don’t go to Lumpini Park and ask people about where to get good chicken. You aren’t going to end up with chicken (see: som tum at Hualumpong Station). Just take my word for it.

But because they are Thai, some real advice slips out occasionally. For a while now, everyone has been telling me about a killer bamee egg noodle place called “Hia Buoy” (or “Uncle Pickled Plum”, named after the owner, 10/2 Soi Polo, 081-629-5231). He offers a few soup noodle dishes like yen ta fo (pink seafood noodles), but the real standout is, of course, the egg noodles with pork and tom yum seasonings, silky and full of flavor. The servings are decently big (though not so big that I can’t eat two), and when I order hang (dry), as I am wont to do, I get a little bowl of aromatic pork broth on the side, because it’s the right thing to do. There was a time when Thais expected you to eat dry rice and noodles with a side of soup, you know, because it would help the rice kernels and noodle strands go down. Now when I go to a noodle stand and order hang, vendors usually don’t give me anything on the side, and I end up feeling like when I see a playlist of “Greatest Punk Songs of All Time” that includes Green Day and Blink 182 and then I make a face like:

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I will never stop using this photo

Like, why not just go whole hog and include Avril Lavigne while you’re at it? Oh, Offspring, never mind. LOL Elvis Costello.

All the same, I will probably end up downloading it, because I have no standards or pride. Also, I need something to listen to while I’m on the road in Japan. I will be there for 3 weeks, sans television! Wish me luck.

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Chickening out

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Grilled chicken at Gong Thui Gai Yang Bang Than

My friend Noy brought my attention to an interview with Andy Ricker in Eater Los Angeles published earlier this month. It was thoughtful and interesting, and because it was mostly in Q&A format, wonderfully straightforward, allowing a glimpse not just into the U.S. Thai food scene, but into the restaurant business in general. It’s hard, y’all. Unless you are wildly lucky, it seems a lot like being on a restrictive diet for the rest of your life, only your body keeps trying to find ways to trick you into stuffing your mouth hole with more delicious fat. People who open successful restaurants over and over again aren’t flukes. As much as I like to eat and then complain about it afterwards, nothing I could ever do would match up to maintaining even one food outlet.

And even if your family has managed to successfully steer your street food eatery for nearly six decades, you may still find yourself facing an uncertain future. Gong Thui Gai Yang (Chula Soi 11, 086-166-2084) has served millions of Thais its delectably juicy grilled chicken for three generations, even sending over 3,000 boxes to the royal palace almost every month. The marinade is the usual Thai-style: crushed coriander root, garlic, two types of peppercorn, fish sauce and palm sugar, but the secret lies in the amounts — Gong Thui isn’t stingy, and they go through 60 kg of garlic a week (i.e. my weight, post-election). The chicken meat — split thighs, breasts, gizzards, livers, and best of all, butterflied chicken halves — is tied into bamboo “skewers”, placed over a low open flame and then fanned continuously for about 15 minutes until the meat is juicy and tender and the skin takes on the smoky scent of peppery barbecue. The finished product is intensely flavored and reminiscent of a chicken custard, absent the kind of tough fibers that find their way between your teeth and torment you while in polite company.

That’s not to mention the ubiquitous grilled papaya salad (som tum), pounded to order. Oh, and they also have grilled pork shoulder, cooked to a mahogany sheen in a soy sauce-based marinade. I haven’t gotten to that yet, but I’m sure it’s good, if the lines on weekend mornings are any indication.

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Gong Thui’s fresh som tum

Unfortunately, like its neighbor Nakorn Pochana (and, incredibly, Joke Samyan, which, alongside Polo Fried Chicken and Chicken Rice Pratunam, is probably the most famous street food vendor in Bangkok), Gong Thui may find itself kicked out of its digs in three years’ time, as landlord Chulalongkorn University develops the area further. Progress is a fact of life, yet I have to say it saddens me, since much of this neighborhood’s street food scene has already been decimated over the past two years alone. Rush, rush to Samyan while you can.

And while you’re at it, stop by Raan Aharn Nuea Pa Porn (Chula Soi 50), where — wonder of wonders — she serves khao soy (curried Northern Thai noodles) with beef or chicken and kanom jeen nam ngiew (fermented rice noodles with Northern-style pork stew), along with a rotating roster of daily specials including sai oua (Northern Thai sausage, available Mondays), gang hang lay (Burmese pork belly curry) and the ever-elusive thum kanoon (pounded young jackfruit salad, both served on Tuesdays).

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Pa Porn’s khao soy and kanom jeen with garnishes

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The Breakup

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Full o’ pork noodles at Guaythiew Moo Jay Pui

Excuse me if I don’t make a lot of sense today. America broke up with me this week, and I’m only now beginning to make sense of it.

They talk about the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), but I am unsure of where I stand. Mostly I just feel numb. I feel like I should have known better. There had been so many signs. There were all the times you questioned my English, or tried to explain to me my own culture. Or the time you came over to my house for dinner and asked if we were eating dog. The couple of times you mistook me for Lisa Ling, or automatically assumed I could fix your computer. And so many times you told me I was overreacting to jokes you had made or things you had done, that I was too emotional, being too touchy. I needed more things to do, you said. Was it that time of the month? After all, America doesn’t see color, and everyone knows America believes in women’s equality, everyone says so.

I should have seen it coming. You told me yourself, that no one understood what you were doing with me in the first place, that you could do better. You made sure I knew that. You said I was cute, and “pretty in my own way”, but there was no way I could ever be a 10. Oh sorry, you said it would be “very hard” for me to be a 10.  There I go again, misrepresenting you, but what do you expect? My English will never be as good as yours, and going out with me in public always embarrassed you a little bit. “Why her?” your friends would ask, and you would shrug and tell them that it was a good year for small town girls. You thought I was lucky, for a while. But it’s time to go back to the Courtneys of the world. Doubtless you think I’m overreacting now, at this very moment. SAD! You should have known better, too.

When you are dumped, you want to eat the whole world. I am saying this, just a few hours after having inhaled 3 pieces of broccoli-and-sausage pizza and some pillow-soft pappardelle in duck ragu. Also, I an gluten- and dairy-intolerant, so my stomach will feel like exploding any minute now. But I feel like it will be worth it. I have been eating and drinking so much lately, never feeling full, always so ravenous. Maybe a case of indigestion is a good thing, when you are hell-bent on eating your feelings.

But if your stomach is always empty and your face always in need of stuffing into a silent mask of despair, a great big bowl of noodles is probably a better bet, in the long run. So if you find yourself at Guaythiew Moo Jay Pui, also known as “Moo Deng”, on Prachatipatai Road in Banglamphu, and you feel like there is a bottomless hole in your gut that you cannot fill, well, this bowl could go a ways towards helping a little bit. Sweet pork broth, two different types of meatballs (one smooth and bouncy, the other sweet), a heaping helping of rice noodles and a generous shower of deep-fried shallots and fresh coriander? You can’t always get what you want … but a bowl of pork noodles does go a long way.

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Phuket’s sure thing

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(Photo by @seenyc)

I used to be afraid of watching horror movies. I remember watching “Aliens” (not even the scary Ridley Scott original, but the James Cameron action flick) and having to sleep on the floor of my parents’ room for three nights straight (this was in 1986, and I was 14 years old). At slumber parties, I would cower in the kitchen at crucial parts of “The Exorcist” or “Halloween”. Now, I don’t know whether it’s my advanced age, or my own cray brain, but I love horror movies. I prefer the slasher and home invasion genres to supernatural or demonic possession, simply because they are usually scarier and nothing is worse than a scary movie that isn’t scary. As I write this, I am watching “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (the remake, because I can’t get the Tobe Hooper original). It helps me concentrate. That said, I won’t go anywhere near the zombie genre or French horror, because that is *still* straight-up terrifying, even in my deadened state.

There are foodie versions of horror movies too. They are the restaurants you go to, lured by a glowing review that grabs at you like the promise of an idyllic summer camp experience (“Friday the 13th”) or a whirlwind marriage to Taylor Swift’s ex-boyfriend (“Crimson Peak”), thereby forcing you into the dodgy situation in which you currently find yourself. There, like Morgan Freeman opening up that box in “Se7en”, you are confronted by the very worst of what you could expect to find in a restaurant — food that is contrary to everything that drew you there in the first place (the horror!!)

Under these circumstances, it would make sense to head for what is known and proven, culinary security. And in Thai cooking, there are few choices that are safer than the Southern Thai dish of kanom jeen (Mon-style fermented rice noodle) in Phuket. A bowl of this is the Thai equivalent of the slam dunk: rice noodles slathered with nam ya (fish curry, thickened with coconut milk, heady with grachai or wild ginger) and accompanied by a battery of fresh, blanched and pickled vegetables.

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Kanom jeen nam ya at Kanom Jeen Ji Liew in Phuket

(Photo by @seenyc)

Kanom jeen is ubiquitous on the island, and the dish’s identity — like khao soi in Chiang Man — is inextricably linked with its home. Because of that, it seems churlish to single out one of the many fermented rice noodle places that dot the island, but I’m going to do it anyway. Kanom Jeen Ji Liew Phuket (Thep Kasattri, Thalang District, Phuket 83110, 081-256-9615) has the culinary chops to back up that impressive-looking sign:

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(Photo by @jiminspace)

But perhaps the best reason to visit this place is not even in the name … or even in any photos, for that matter, because it was devoured immediately before anyone could take any photos of it. I’m writing of the fried chicken, crispy nuggets of drool-inducing savor hiding tender morsels of flesh that actually  melt in your mouth, for real. So OK, I love fried chicken anywhere (I just had some fabulous stuff in Malaysia, for instance), but this really was good, I’m not joking, I’m not playing you like Pazuzu in “The Exorcist”.

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Pickled garlic, one of the many accompaniments to southern kanom jeen

(Photo by @jiminspace)

Bottom line: you can’t lose with kanom jeen when you are down south, especially in Phuket. Don’t take this advice lightly. The sure thing may be just what you need to get you through any crisis, especially at a time when every day brings threats of more horror stories just around the corner.

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Northern Exposure

I try to post something every two weeks or so, but with the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej last week, it seemed silly to natter on about noodles while the country was still newly mourning. Don’t get me wrong, it is always silly to natter about noodles, but sometimes that is all that we (I) have.

One of the great silver linings about taking taxis in Bangkok is the opportunity to listen to whatever the taxi driver is listening to during a traffic jam. What we were listening to was a very long, involved radio interview with a royal palace cook hailing from Suphanburi, because Thais are fascinated by what royalty like to eat. What I learned was that the King was partial to a nice piece of steamed fish paired with Hollandaise or a lemon sauce, simple Thai culinary standbys like gang som (Southern-style sour curry), and childhood favorites from his time in Switzerland, taught to the cook personally by Princess Srinagarindra, the King’s mother. It was nice to know that the King was fond of dishes from his childhood, too.

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you will probably know that I like to wax poetic on my own childhood favorite, kanom jeen nam ngiew, a Northern Thai noodle dish that my father used to call “Thai spaghetti”. In the North, it is typically made with the fermented Mon-style rice noodles found all over the South called kanom jeen, but you can also find it served with rice noodles, just like they appear to do in Laos (where, to make things more interesting, they call it “kao soi”): a stew of minced pork with tomatoes, chilies, shallots, and garlic over a base of fermented soy beans and topped with bean sprouts and coriander leaves.  In the North, they add well-stewed pork ribs, cubes of congealed pork blood and the requisite dok ngiew, witchy-looking blossoms that resemble broomstick ends and bring a chewy texture and floral taste to the brew. If one is lucky, the ribs have been cooked until the bones have nearly disintegrated into the sauce, the blossoms are thick and plentiful, and the dish comes to you with a generous dusting of deep-fried garlic. And if you are really lucky, the chef has been liberal with the tua nao, the fermented soybean discs that form the basis for flavor in Northern Thai cooking, much like gapi (shrimp paste) in the Central region and pla rah (fermented Thai anchovy) in the Northeast.

 

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Eating the namesake dish at roadside vendor Nam Ngiew Nua Sud Sud

One reason I find a lot of the Northern Thai food lacking in Bangkok (especially with this dish) is that no one wants to bother using tua nao, thinking the Chinese yellow bean sauce (thao jiew) is good enough. I am here to tell you that is not true. And at Raan Nam Ngiew Nua Sud Sud (meaning “Northernmost Nam Ngiew”, Soi On Nut 12, 081-741-8917) … they also do not use tua nao, rendering the sauce just-ok-but-good-enough-because-there-is-nothing-better-in-Bangkok. But their larb kua (a minced beef dish cooked Northern-style with plenty of liver and a heavy chili paste base) is off the hook, the best I’ve had outside of the North: properly ponderous, slightly bitter from the deep-fried garlic, thick with the deep dark flavor you would expect to find in a place like Chiang Rai.

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What my dad calls “larb muang”

Of course, they also offer khao soy, because what is a nam ngiew stand in Bangkok without the ubiquitous curried noodle dish? Through my Wikipedia research, I have just learned that Northern Thai khao soy most corresponds to the Burmese dish ohh no kao swe. 

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Khao soy

And, in a shoutout to my brother Sutree, the all-important Northern Thai accompaniment of nam prik ong, a chili relish most like Bolognese sauce in the Thai culinary lexicon, except with a fermented soybean base:

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Nam prik ong

Is this stuff going to change the life of a Northern Thai food lover whose best memories center around eating these dishes? No, of course not. It’s hard to compete with one’s childhood, and to prepare for the change that inevitably lies ahead. It’s good enough for now, though.

 

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Glutton Abroad: KL overload

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Malaysian ice kacang at Madame Kwan’s

One of the best things to have happened to me this year is learning that I am allergic to almost everything. Instead of the usual old response to “how are you doing?” (which was “I’m okay I guess aslfjasklfnbj;js ……..zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz”), I can now regale people with fascinating insights on not being able to eat gluten, dairy, asparagus, almonds, mustard, cashew nuts, etc. It gives me a good 10 minutes of cocktail conversation at least. Sometimes people lose track and offer me a sour cream dip or cheese afterwards, but I don’t blame them, because the list is so very long — who can be expected to remember all that? I myself keep a list handy whenever I forget (which is often):

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#prayforbangkokglutton2016

I am supposed to stay away from these things for six months, and indulge occasionally in some of the others every 3 or 4 days or so. The idea is to gradually reintroduce these offending ingredients into my diet in a controlled manner. In all honesty though, I eat eggs and coconut probably every other day — how else would I be able to eat Thai food otherwise? — and the rest … well, I now know that I’m allergic to them. And when I overindulge? Let’s just say I still bear the traces of my last two indiscretions on my chin, in the form of zits named “4 slices of Domino’s Pizza” and “pecan pie”.

So when I decide to fall off the wagon, it’s a real, conscious decision with pros and cons: pros (I will be happy), cons (I will look like I have leprosy). On my trip to Kuala Lumpur for my friend May’s birthday, I choose to go it whole hog, as it were, for as much as I can.

There are places we never miss while in KL, such as Overseas and their Chinese roast suckling pig, sliced into crispy fat-backed squares, laid atop a mound of sticky rice and served alongside steamed white buns and gravy boats (gravy boats!) of Malay-style curry.  But May always tries to mix it up with dishes we haven’t tried before, and although that list gets smaller every time we visit, there are still, unbelievably, things there.

Such as Ipoh-style chicken and noodles. Where we go (creatively named “Ipoh Chicken Rice”), we try all the things we are meant to, even though it is our second lunch of the day after a quick “breakfast” (15 minutes ago) of succulent pork belly char siu with a side of stir-fried thread-like egg noodles and a plate of gossamer cooked lettuce leaves. We eat the stir-fried bean sprouts, Ipoh’s best, awash in a light sour-salty sauce and a platter of chicken with meat so custardy that it barely resembles meat:

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Ipoh Chicken Rice’s chicken and sprouts

Plus the noodles. As a Thai, I am supposed to say that they were bland and strangely resistant to chewing, but as a Glutton, I can say that their texture was strangely addictive, bouncy and sweet from all the shallots.

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At Kukus (26, Jalan Tun Mohd Fuad 1, Taman Tun Dr., 03-7731-3559), open only three months ago, we go batshit crazy and each order what can only be described as a gigantic circular tray of rice (150 g or 300 g’s worth of 100 percent Basmati rice, take your pick) topped with various types of sambal ranging from sweet vegetarian to a slightly spicy dried fish version and incredible fried chicken (“worthy of a Southern matron,” says my friend Nat).

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The “Kapitan”, with four types of sambal and two eggs

There was also a rice dish hailing from Malaysia’s Northeast, where the Thai influence is strong, and the chilies are more predominant. The rice is colored lavender with butterfly pea extract, a dollop of curry rests alongside it, and the “salad” accompanying it resembles a spicy-tart Thai “yum” in taste, melding the textures, smells and flavors that both Thailand and Malaysia are known for.

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My favorite dish of the trip, however, may be the spicy crab at Sweet Inn (18 Jalan SS20/10 Damansara Kim, 03-7732-6623), where freshly cooked crab is stopped with a mixture of deep-fried shallots, garlic, scallions, flour and plenty of salt and sugar to form a dish that is better than anything that Under Bridge Spicy Crab in Hong Kong could ever come up with.

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Yet it is with a feeling of something like relief when I get on the plane to get back to Bangkok. Not just because I will have to detox for days before approaching anything like normalcy again, but also because there is something else popping up on my chin that will soon get big enough to develop its own allergies. Time to call it a day.

 

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