What’s Cooking: How to cook your feelings

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Deep-sea pomfret ready for frying in the wok

MFK Fisher once wrote of “How to Cook a Wolf”. She did not mean it literally. It was during World War II, and the wolf that she wrote of was snuffling at the door and threatening to devour all of the inhabitants in the house. The wolf, of course, was hunger. The recipes, while mostly standard, were introduced with pithy headings that spoke to the times: “How to be Cheerful through Starving”; “How to be Content with a Vegetable Love”; “How to Pray for Peace”.

In “How to Keep Alive”, she details a recipe that involves a strictly utilitarian mix of ground beef, whole grain cereal, and root vegetables, cooked into what Fisher referred to as “sludge”. It was not a meal over which to mull the day’s little triumphs. “Not only is it good for people, it is ideal fare for dogs,” wrote Orville Prescott of The New York Times in a May 22, 1942 book review.

Today, there are many wolves at many doors. The wolf may come in different guises, but its methods are essentially the same. My friend James wrote to me just a few days ago, exhorting me to go out and patronize all the restaurants I could; the days to go out would be numbered, he said. The next day, he was proven right. It’s hard to say what the cost of the shutdown will ultimately be on businesses both large and small, but it is clear that it will probably be very high. If you can, contact that restaurant you have been thinking about and order from them. It will not go unappreciated. Just last weekend I enjoyed a roast chicken with perfectly soft, garlicky spinach  and a super-thyme-scented tranche of porchetta with apple sauce delivered to my door from Appia. Of course I have no photos.

Here, in Phuket now where it is at the height of the hot season, I have little desire to spend any time over a hot wok or boiling vat of water. However, I can spend a couple of minutes making a simple sauce in the mortar and pestle.

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OK OK Prince. You win. What I mean is, I can watch Pravee doing it. Pravee was born in Chiang Rai, just like me, but she is a far better cook. This sauce is the bomb for any type of seafood: boiled shrimp, fried fish, steamed crab, grilled squid, you name it. The secret is the inclusion of pickled garlic and mashed coriander root.

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Pravee’s Seafood Sauce (for 4)

  • 2 cloves of raw garlic
  • 1 head of pickled garlic
  • 2 tsp of pickled garlic juice
  • 5 bird’s eye chilies (for spicy)
  • 1 large coriander root (or 2 small ones)
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 2 tsp fish sauce
  • 1/2 tsp palm sugar

Add solid ingredients to the mortar and pestle and mash well, Thai-style, pounding like you have a grudge against the ingredients. Gradually add liquids and palm sugar, mushing around like you are working at an ancient apothecary. Taste to adjust seasoning. Like most Thai food, this wasn’t meant to lie around in wait for a few days. Use as soon as you can!

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Be like Pravee and make this sauce!

 

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What’s Cooking: The one with som tum, again

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Getting ready for som tum

It’s nearing the end of my self-quarantine period, and I have yet to do anything constructive with my time, aside from rererewatching “Friends” on Thai Netflix. So the valuable hours I could have spent making tasty batches of jam (“Friends” season 3, episode 3), learning how to ballroom dance (season 4, episode 4), brushing up on my public speaking skills (season 6, episode 4), or getting divorced (any episode with Ross) have instead been spent scrutinizing all 10 seasons of a 20+year-old television show that I never watched back when it was actually on TV, because there was a time when I was actually cool.

But there are times when even *I* tire of seeing Ross throw a hissy fit over his half-eaten Thanksgiving sandwich. Those are the moments in which I threaten to actually do something. My friend from Malaysia, Eddie, braved my potential cooties long enough to come over to learn how to make a good batch of som tum (grated Isaac-style salad) with pla rah (fermented Thai anchovies) from our super-housekeeper, Somporn.

A Roi Et native, Somporn is actually a superlative cook of just about everything, but her number one dishes, in my humble opinion, are her deep-fried chicken wings and her som tum. The chicken wings I’ll save for another day, because I am afraid of heating up the whole vat of oil necessary to make the wings (it’s just so scary!) Som tum, however, just involves the potential cutting off of one’s fingers.

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Grating the green papaya the right way

We live in a time of amazing technological innovations, like the julienne peeler, which allows you to cut the long, thin strands that make up som tum. The problem with this tool is that the strands are too thin to add the kind of heft to the salad that makes it really sing. You need to cut up the papaya (or any other vegetable, because som tum can be made from pretty much anything) by hand.

Tak-tak-tak-tak goes the knife into the papaya, scoring the side of the fruit with thin vertical cuts that are then peeled off of the papaya with the knife edge pointing outward. Anything else you choose to add: in our case, carrots, a bit of Thai eggplant, maybe even a bit of tomato skin like the time when Monica did that cooking demo and said she would julienne her tomatoes. Add some cut-up long beans and a bit of lime peel and you’ve got a great approximation of what you’d get from a very good food cart.

Some things to ponder as you are making this som tum:

  1. Always do this with a mortar and pestle. Make the dressing first and add the salad ingredients after. Pound with intention like you are Rachel on a break, not gently like you are Phoebe with a massage client.
  2. We use tamarind juice (mixed with a few teaspoonfuls of hot water) plus the lime juice because the salad lasts longer that way. When it’s just lime juice, it gets bland more quickly, just like Chandler’s personality in season 10.
  3. If you are making this to go, always add the dressing at the last minute, like when Rachel shows up at Ross’s second wedding.

Foolproof Som Tum Pla Rah (the superior som tum, in my opinion)

Ingredients 

  • juice of 1 lime
  • 3 Tbsps of tamarind pulp, thinned out with a few teaspoons of hot water
  • 2 Tbsps of pla rah (we buy bottled, made from boiled anchovies only)
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1/4 Tbsp of palm sugar to even out the flavors
  • Fresh bird’s eye chilies (between 2, my standard family level, to 20, the level preferred by Chef Prin Polsuk at Samrub for Thai!!!)
  • Salad ingredients: Anything crunchy and julienne-able, e.g. 1/3 of a small green papaya, half of a large carrot, 3-4 plum tomatoes, handful of cut-up long beans. (It actually doesn’t have to be julienne-able either. Corn kernels are popular, as are cut-up long beans on their own. They just have to be poundable.)

Mix all the dressing ingredients together in the mortar. Taste to adjust seasoning. Then add the salad ingredients and pound with the pestle hard enough to bruise the strands (in the papaya’s case, to release some of the sap into the dressing). Mix well. Upend onto your serving dish and eat as soon as you can.

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A blurry photo of the som tum. I was in a hurry

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At the end of the day

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Me waiting for the end of my meal

Having recently returned from Japan, I find myself with nothing to do, having succumbed to government directives to self-quarantine for 14 days. Even though I am bored and watching episodes of “Friends” over and over again (still on Thai Netflix!), I still cannot bring myself to update my blog. The effect of SSRIs on the creative drive is real, folks.

Being at home has given me plenty of time to ponder the important questions in life. Why do young women in the prime of their lives want to wear “Mom jeans”? How did beards become so ubiquitous? What is Shawn Mendes?

But if you think this time gives me the chance to, say, finally read “War and Peace”, catch up on an Akira Kurosawa film, or learn about economics, well, you will be disappointed. These things would ultimately be enriching to my life, no doubt. But why? Why would I do this? Do I really want to spend my time this way?

So I watch, for maybe the 15th time, Ross finding out that his sister is dating his best friend (SPOILER ALERT). It is enjoyable to me. It is a big fluffy blanket to drape over myself when I want some comfort in the world. It is listening to Haim in my kitchen when I’m preparing a meal. It is a big bowl of spaghetti Bolognese, don’t ever ever hold the cheese. Is life long enough that we can spend our time doing the stuff that gives us cool points in the eyes of others instead of what we really want? Will I ever stop writing rhetorical questions? Of course the answer is no.

I am thinking about this because I had a conversation with a friend who visited Chicago recently. She went to a famous restaurant there and had the menu with wine pairings. This was, of course, a once in a lifetime opportunity. But it was a slog, and towards the middle, she wanted to quit. At the end of the meal, she realized that she hadn’t enjoyed it at all. That realization ended up making her feel bad.

At the end of the day, isn’t enjoyment ultimately — Instagram and Facebook be damned — the point of going out for dinner? You know the answer to that.

For all restaurants with fine dining pretensions (Bangkok included), a set menu is par for the course. This is the vision of the chef, after all, and as long as you are not deathly allergic to something on the plate, the vision of the chef is what you will get. The wine and liquors that accompany the courses only enhance the experience.

But that experience can often be long. And when you are prepping for a restaurant like a runner before a marathon — maybe training your stomach and tolerance with more quantities than usual, fasting for hours ahead of time so you can get your money’s worth, wearing your stretchiest pair of pants so you’re not tempted to unbutton yourself at the table  — the onus falls on you to make the most of the experience that you yourself have paid for. You become the person who is responsible for carrying out the chef’s ultimate vision: the completion of the meal by the guest in a way that frames you as grateful and amazed. Failing that, you have become the disappointment, not the chef.

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Me after a many-course meal

I’m not saying that every fine dining experience for me has been a slog. Believe me, I have had plenty of life-changing meals in fine dining restaurants with set menus. But I have occasionally fallen victim to these types of meals as well. After an 18-course meal in New York, my sister claimed the restaurant was actively trying to kill us. In Paris, another 18-courser, my husband chastised me for sighing when presented with an extra tart, “compliments of the chef”. These are wonderful restaurants, with enormously talented chefs and staff, world renowned for their food and hospitality. But they were also taxing experiences to go through. They were the equivalent of an Ingmar Bergman marathon, when all you really want to do is kick back and watch “Clueless” for the 20th time; listening to Sonic Youth and Television when Lizzo is right there in your playlist; reading Proust instead of JK Rowling. “Go on,” the world says. “It’s good for you.” It’s the spinach of the soul: edifying, no doubt, but such a chore.

This is my last rhetorical question of the day: is fine dining supposed to be this way? I thought the purpose of going out was to enjoy yourself. And I’m sure plenty of people do enjoy themselves; I’m not saying everyone is the same. But for me, and for my friend at least, there are times when the culinary fiesta becomes a food marathon, a Bintan death march for the senses. In the chef’s desire to showcase the kitchen’s prowess, the only thought for the diners is how to dazzle them, not how to make them comfortable.

There is a movie that I tried to watch that I still think of a lot: Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games”. It is about intruders who come to a house and terrorize all the inhabitants. It is a cruel movie, meant to make fun of people like me who actually enjoy horror movies. In the middle, I realized that the audience is just like the terrorized family, held captive to the filmmaker, like the family is to the intruders. Unlike the poor family, the audience actually has a choice. The audience can leave. Which is what I did.

Here is where I say that not all fine dining restaurants (#notallmen) offer these types of draconian choices to their diners. Places like Paste offer a la carte options; not everyone has to do the set menu. And some set menus, like 80/20’s new summer menu, are crafted with the weather in mind, made lighter to suit the oppressive climate. It’s these kinds of options that are the way forward for fine dining patrons who, frankly, can’t hack the entirety of the chef’s unique vision. And aren’t those kinds of choices what hospitality is all about?

 

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A Chiang Mai Go-To

I can relate to George R. R. Martin right now. Not because of the insane wealth or the fact that people actually read his books, but because sometimes, like right now, I don’t feel like writing either. If I were to wait until “inspiration struck”, as I usually do (lol), then I would not be writing for a very long time.

That is, I don’t feel like writing what I’m supposed to be writing about. I could easily write 2,000 words on how the real precursor to Fall Out Boy is not punk or even goth but Sisters of Mercy, the Poppy Years, an unnatural development which ended up blurring the boundaries between all three genres to such an extent that even the makers of South Park felt it was their duty to explain.

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But this is not what we are here for. We are here to discuss food. Specifically, street food in Bangkok. To be honest, I don’t feel like discussing street food in Bangkok. It’s depressing and boring. Capitalism rules, screw everyone else. The end.

So here are some photos of restaurants abroad who serve street food. Specifically, Kin Len (“eat-play”) in Seattle, a new-ish restaurant specializing in obscure (for the US) street food dishes like goong ob woonsen (steamed shrimp and glass vermicelli), khao ka moo (pig trotters on rice) and satew lin wua (beef tongue stew on rice).

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Pig trotter on rice

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Thai-style fresh oysters

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Kin Len welcomes you

Have I exhausted my cache of photos yet? No.

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Fried chicken with grilled young chili dip

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In case you were confused about where you were

But wait, there’s more. I was in Chiang Mai with my parents recently, shopping for food in Warorot Market (deep-fried pork schnitzel and nam prik num at Damrong, naem (fermented pork sausage) at Anchan) and getting into arguments with tourists at Doi Suthep. Exhausted from our day, we retreated to the comforting embrace of Tubtim Grob Jae Uan (193 15 Sridonai Road, 085 041 9419, open daily 10am-9.30pm), a shophouse institution where it’s not just the tubtim grob (sticky rice flour and water chestnut mini-dumplings in coconut milk and ice) that’s popular, but just about everything else.

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The namesake dish

There are other dishes you should definitely try, say my parents, including the pad Thai, a dish I would never order, and you shouldn’t either, unless the middle-aged lady with the banana clip is overseeing the kitchen, my mom says.

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She always orders this with a side of Thai-style som tum (papaya salad) — but only if the guy with the dyed orange hair is making it. (If either of these people changes their hairstyle, you are screwed.)

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One visit to this place and the world seems all right again. It will not bring back your yen for writing, but it will remind you why people are still willing to venture out into the open air to eat food, and sometimes that is all you need.

 

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Glutton Abroad: Appetizing NY

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Nova salmon and whitefish platter with everything and pumpernickel bagels at Barney Greengrass

I have been traveling a bit these past few weeks, and so have not been able to update this blog, sorry mom who is my only reader. Jk. My mom never reads this blog.

I have learned a few things over the course of my travels, such as to always look where I am stepping on a San Francisco sidewalk, and that Washington’s oysters are the sweetest and most succulent. But the biggest takeaway from this entire trip was that there is nowhere — and I mean NOWHERE — that can compete with New York City when it comes to bagels, and all the stuff that comes with them.

I mean, people try. I remember ordering “bagel and lox” at a deli in Auckland and being rewarded with a shriveled, thin bagel-shaped piece of toast with a tiny hole in the middle. Cream cheese can be found anywhere, and lox can be fudged a bit. But the bagel always tells. It needs to be chewy and dense and filling, via a consistency that can only be achieved through boiling before baking. And that’s even before we get to the stuff that goes on top. I am salivating as I write this.

The stuff that goes on top are the “spreads”, the smoked or cured fish, and the salads. The spreads are cream cheese mixed with various ingredients, like scallions or lox. The smoked fish usually means lox, but it can also be sturgeon if you’re old-school, or the sweeter, less complicated Nova Scotia salmon if you’re new. And then the “salads”, which are not the salads you get at the Sizzler salad bar, but ideal for piling on top of chewy bread: egg salad, pickled herring, chopped liver, or my favorite, whitefish. Everyone has their usual order, and like a fingerprint, it is unique to them. My usual order is whitefish salad on a toasted everything bagel. Karen’s is pumpernickel, untoasted, with tofu veggie spread. My husband, on the other hand, proves he is Thai by ordering a toasted poppyseed bagel with sun-dried tomato spread. My daughter proves she is a Glutton by ordering a toasted everything bagel with both scallion cream cheese and whitefish salad. And my son proves he is 9 by ordering a toasted plain bagel with butter and jam. What can you do.

The shops that sell these things are called “appetizing” stores, where “appetizing” is a noun that refers to the cold starters that kick off Ashkenazi Jewish meals. When they settled in New York in the 1800s and early 1900s, they brought their culinary traditions with them. Kosher law dictates no mixing of meat and dairy (like cheeseburgers), so delicatessens focused on the meats like pastrami, while appetizing shops got the eggs, dairy and fish. Today, most people think of Russ & Daughter’s when they think of New York appetizing shops, but I have never gotten into the original branch, and I have another place where I’d rather be anyway. That place is Barney Greengrass.

Do you remember the theme song to the TV series “Cheers”, where everyone knows your name? Were you even born yet? I think of Cheers when I go to Barney Greengrass, even though absolutely no one knows my name. But the welcomes are always warm anyway, in a city with a notorious reputation for the opposite. To be honest, the only time I have had a negative, New York-style interaction was when the manager of an Italian restaurant told me the Pilates classes were paying off, but in a way that was not nice. What’s wrong with Pilates? (Note: I do not do Pilates).

It’s a strange relationship, the one between the waiter and the customer. The waiter holds all the power during the meal: will the food come or won’t it? Will it be what I want? Will it have been altered or unpleasantly tweaked in some way? So when your food arrives promptly, and it is delicious, and it appears to have been unmolested, a weird feeling of gratitude descends. That feeling could spread into warmth, its flames fanned from being nurtured and secure. It could even develop into … love.

Mom, I fell in love during this trip. I fantasized that the burly man bringing me platters of cured fish festooned with half-sours and unimaginably juicy slices of tomato and onion — always promptly, never forgetting — would also fall in love, and that we would run off together after my husband left me for his secretary even though he doesn’t have a secretary. His rugged beardiness would prove useful in cold weather, walking down the street, his size shielding me from the icy New York wind, his burly arms able to carry as many bags of bagels and tubs of cream cheese as his employer would allow back home, where I would be waiting, since for all its attractions, Barney Greengrass has yet to have a television.

Mom, it would be a romance for the ages. Until then, I will have to bide my time, and refrain from the temptation to order a bagel anywhere else. It wouldn’t be the same.

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The popular scrambled eggs with lox and onions, when I remembered to take a photo

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The Decade in Thanks

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Homemade gang jued

It’s hard to believe, but despite (occasionally) some of my best efforts, this blog will soon be a decade old. Since then, I have published two street food guides and occasionally been on TV — though efforts to make that a regular thing have been met this way:

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Me greeting television executives

(via GIPHY)

All the same, it’s not bad for a blog that was originally meant to last for a year. I sometimes enjoy going back and reading the posts that I wrote when I was 5 kg lighter. They seem hopeful, funny even, unmarred by middle age. However, my favorite post ever remains this one.

So, even though I had stopped doing Thanksgiving posts, I’m doing one today, to not only recap nearly a decade of this blog but to force myself to give thanks for nearly a decade of the friends and experiences that Bangkok Glutton made possible. I still meet interesting people because of it every year, and I am still surprised by it.

Also, I have a lot of unused photos on my phone:

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Amuse-bouches at Pru in Phuket

Also this one:

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Squid that dissolves into noodle strands in broth at the Front Room

Thinking about this post on one of my interminable walks in Auckland (yes, I am still here), I could think of something food-related that I could be genuinely thankful for. And that is the food in Thailand. Not just the food that we’ve always had — like the gang jued that your parents who have been driving you crazy during their two-week visit make for you to make you forget that they drove you crazy — but exciting new food made by chefs who clearly love their Thai cuisine and Thai ingredients and want to champion Thai growers and Thai knowledge. That this comes at a time when a wave of extreme right views seems to be taking root in other parts of the world, and when people who have been in power for centuries can act the aggrieved party when the historically disenfranchised and dismissed ask for their voices to be heard … well, this is moving to me.

There was a time, in a climate like this, that chefs in Thailand would want to dress up their food in Western trappings and Western techniques in a bid to “improve” that food. Chefs are still using those techniques, but not for the colonialist fantasy of fusion cuisine, meant to address a local cuisine’s deficiencies from a Western point of view. Chefs are now using cooking techniques that are now accepted in every part of the fine dining world, but in the service of old cooking traditions, like incorporating scent or smoking or using charcoal. The focus is now on the Thai-ness of it, the farmers and breeders, the local “wisdom”, the soil that nurtures the animals and produce that we eat — even in restaurants where the food or the chefs are not necessarily Thai, it (and they) are still Thai-informed. Even with the influence of Michelin on the dining scene, and how that influence inevitably shapes the dining experience in ambitious restaurants seeking accolades, the instinct, now, is still to be proud of this Thai-ness (or in the case of restaurants like Haoma, in triumphant expressions of their own identities).

This, to me, is liberating in a very personal way that many will probably not understand. We are taking refuge in things that we could never have changed in the first place. There is no denial or wishing that everything was different. There is also no retreat into the faux superiority gained by culinary orthodoxy. We are what we are, hovering in that in-between place that is still being built with every dish we make. What a relief that feels like.

TL;DR. Here are some more photos:

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Delicious fish curry and pork belly with stink bean at Taan

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Crab with housemate Sriracha and beets at Blackitch Artisan Kitchen

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Asian-style steak tartare at Thaan Charcoal Cooking

 

 

 

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I ate at another restaurant

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Oxtail soup and chicken biryani at Amat Rot Dee, one of the street vendors on Thonglor Road

As you probably already know, I have very little to do in Auckland aside from taking the bus to the yoga studio, doing my laundry and yelling at the television whenever a quiz show comes on. I end up doing a lot of reading. So it’s of little surprise, then, that I would come across this very important debate today on whether your preferred Mr. Darcy is Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen, and whether that preference is because of your age. Naturally — for scientific purposes, you see — I want to add my own two cents. My age: 47. My preferred Mr. Darcy: Matthew Macfadyen, all day long.

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Me looking at khao kluk kapi right now

My friends are also helping me while the day away by sending me reading material. Dwight (@bkkfatty), who has just returned to Bangkok, sent me a story about the most recent move to bring street food vendors and the people who love them in closer accordance with the very brave freedom fighters who want to “return the sidewalks to the people.” F&B entrepreneur Chris Foo is living out my very own dream of filling out a street food fantasy football team by launching his own street food complex in Thonglor, initially sparked by finding his employees an affordable place to eat. It is set to open later this year and my only hope is to be able to find the time to go. Well, one of my hopes.

Dwight accuses me of writing about the changes to the Bangkok street food scene with “fear and insanity”, but I think this is unfair. “Fear and insanity” is my natural writing style. Also, is it fear and insanity to say something like Donald Trump is ruining American democracy? Or, stop buying property in Bangkok, because it will be underwater soon? Maybe. Maybe it is fear and insanity. But again, it’s my natural instinct. If it looks like it’s soon going to walk like a duck and talk like a duck, is it the BMA?

The latest Thai restaurant in Auckland that I’ve checked out is saan, which focuses on Isaan and Northern Thai food, but with the requisite nods to people pleasers like mussaman curry and Thai-themed cocktails. It is the kind of restaurant the BMA would trip over themselves to accommodate: upscale, but in a non-showy, quiet way, with its abundance of green plants and blonde wood. Everyone there is beautiful and young. And they get the details right; when I walked in, the barman was pounding a som tum salad with a mortar and pestle.

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Young papaya salad with pickled crab

It’s a delicate balance, crafting a menu of lesser-known regional specials while still placating the diners who want to eat Thai food that they recognize. Saan does this well. You’ll find the super-rich, coconut cream-full curries — stuff that’s very Central and the most popular dishes on the menu — balanced out with things that a newbie wouldn’t necessarily gravitate to, but would find just as comforting as what they already know (drunken noodles with shrimp, kua gai, and pad see ew). Some of the dishes themselves have undergone a spiffy makeover as well. The popular-at-home Thai appetizer mieng kum  sports toasted coconut, tofu and peanuts on perilla leaves in place of the harder-to-find wild betel. I missed a few of the flavors that make mieng kum something I love, like the green mango and the dried shrimp and the little diced bits of lime like tiny acid bombs. All the same, each very big mouthful (try two bites or you will look like an animal like I did) packed a big spicy punch.

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Any time I see nam prik (chili dip) on a menu, I am all over it. So I was very excited to see a relish of roasted eggplant, mushroom and chili on the menu. This was also spruced up a bit too, since it came with deep-fried strips of tofu instead of what is admittedly the heart attack-inducing (but traditional!) accompaniment of pork or buffalo rinds. I missed those rinds though. Still, this dip came with a nice garnish of pai leaves (aka Vietnamese coriander), a flavor that I very much missed.

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The waitress recommended that we also try the mussaman lamb curry, which is the restaurant’s most popular dish, so we did. I’ll say it: I didn’t like it. I thought it was gamey and sweet. But this is where my different taste buds come into play. Different people like different things. And that doesn’t make a restaurant any worse. It only makes them sensitive to the tastes of their customers. Who knew?

But about that som tum. If I felt like that mussaman curry would likely not find its way onto my family’s table in Thailand, I felt the opposite about the green papaya salad. Is there an old Isaan lady hidden somewhere in the back? Because that is what it tasted like; it tasted like home. Is the barman a secret Thai wizard? That alone is a mystery worth solving with another visit.

 

 

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