A stitch in time

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Mee krob at the Florida Hotel

In my last few posts, I’ve been focusing a lot on weight, but I’m going to take the opportunity now to head on back to a golden oldie, age. I do this because only very recently — well after everyone else, it would seem — I discovered that beloved Thai-Chinese cookshop Yong Lee had closed down. The chef, second generation after the passing of her father, founder Keepong sae Dan, has developed diabetes, and decided to put her health first. It’s sad (for me), but a very wise decision. It’s just a shame since there were many times I passed by the open shopfront on motorcycle and failed to go in, thinking I would have time in the near future for a meal. Unfortunately, no. I will miss their nuea pla kapong pad prik dum (stir-fried seabass with black peppercorns) and hae gun tod grob (crispy fried shrimp dumplings), and a bunch of other stuff besides.

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Yong Lee now

Not that I would have been able to try the food in the past couple of weeks. While in Japan, I somehow managed to injure myself in what I have been told was an eating-related ailment … like an athletic injury, but for people who stuff their faces. What I thought to be an ear infection was actually a painful inflammation of the joint in my jaw, which my doctor says must have been triggered after chewing too enthusiastically on Nagano’s apple-fed beef. The pain was enough to cause a migraine that radiated all the way to the top of my head. So I was ordered to eat soup and rice porridge until the pain went away.

I imagined a future like this lady:

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But luckily the pain went away after a few days, which was lucky for me because I went to Florida Hotel’s Tampa Coffee Shop (not to be confused with its Orlando Dining Room) for the first time a little while later. No one calls it by its coffee shop name though, preferring to simply call it “Florida Hotel Restaurant” (43 Phaya Thai Rd., 02-247-0991).

This is a restaurant that inspires a lot of questions. First and foremost, where have you been all my life, Florida Hotel Restaurant?

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Pork ribs with barbecue sauce and the Florida Hotel salad

The answer: it’s always been there, since 1968, and my ignorance and laziness kept me from going sooner. My loss, because this is the Thai-Chinese-Western diner of my dreams, attached to a hotel that is abandoned-looking enough to plausibly be haunted (some Google reviews: “feels like no one stays there”, “old fashioned”) but bright and crowded enough inside to inspire comparisons to the diner in “Happy Days” or, if you’re too young for that, “the Peach Pit” in “Beverly Hills 90210” (RIP Luke Perry).

The original chef is said to have learned his recipes at the knee of Rama V’s own farang chef, but the menu doesn’t stick to the old cookshop favorites that most of those types of restaurants (like Yong Lee) featured. If you are too lazy to flip through the menu, specials are listed on the wall: there is a hamburger, and filet mignon, and a freaking club sandwich. The barbecued ribs, a photo of which adorns the menu’s front cover, are good enough to be found on a paper plate in any backyard in actual Florida, tender and smothered in a ketchupy sauce with a hint of spice. The special Florida Hotel salad comes with big chunks of canned white asparagus and unwrapped slices of processed cheese (please don’t cheese your dining companion). And there’s soup! Although …

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“French onion soup”

No, the reason why the place is so crowded isn’t the recommended Western-inspired specials. It’s because of their renditions of Thai-Chinese favorites, like the goy see mee (stir-fried egg noodles in gravy) and the mee krob (a tamarind- and citrus-touched noodle dish that I’ve just learned is Thai-Chinese, not pure Thai).

So I suppose there is plenty more I will have to try to really get to know Florida Hotel Restaurant. But when you are newly freed from a dependence on soup, gnawing on a pork rib with sauce is enough to remind you that you’re not dead yet.

 

 

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Glutton Abroad: Tokyo drift, the sequel

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Shirako roll at Yamazaki in Toyosu Fish Market

Every year, I go to Nagano for about a week of skiing, during which I find new ways to make my legs and feet hurt. Because going up and down the stairs becomes a challenge, it helps me pretend that I am losing weight. We eat the same nabe stews every night, I drink too much sake, and I come close to being Gwyneth Paltrowed at least once. It’s pretty much the same thing every time … although I have to admit that even after 4-5 hours of skiing, a steady diet of comfort food and booze has me looking more like this than Lindsey Vonn:

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Me, apres-ski

(Photo from BBC)

But one of the great things about being only two hours away from Tokyo via shinkansen is that … there is Tokyo. And one of the great things about Tokyo is that there is always something new to explore. It’s a lot like Bangkok in that way. My friend Naomi took us to Nihonbashi institution Taimeiken, rightly revered for churning out Japanicized renditions of Western favorites such as beef stew and breaded cutlets in a cooking style known as yoshoku and similar to some of the stuff you find in old-timey Bangkok places like Yong Lee . It’s an interesting fusion that ends up being not-quite-Western, but not-really-Japanese, either.

Downstairs is a casual, first-come-first-served kind of affair, but the second floor (reservations only) is a more dressy deal, replete with white tablecloths and shrimp cocktail on the menu. It doesn’t really matter though — either floor you choose, first-timers are still expected to order the city-famous omurice dish “chicken rice omelet”, popularized in the seminal 1985 Japanese food geek movie “Tampopo“.

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The famous omurice as it comes to your table

The waiter was concerned that I did not know how to eat this dish, but Naomi assured him that I had indeed watched the movie “Tampopo”. Although I’m not always a fan of being told how to eat, I understood how important it was to the kitchen that I slit the omelet lengthwise, just enough to pierce the skin but not enough to cut all the way through to the ketchup-slathered rice beneath. The omelet’s innards, barely cooked, are then laid out like a blanket on the plate and drizzled with even more ketchup from a gravy boat in a move that is commonly known as YIKES.

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Before eating

 

Do I regret passing up the shrimp cocktail and coquilles saint jacques for egg and rice with ketchup? Maybe kind of, but also worth it as a food tourist to say, “Oh, I had that.” Not ordering it the next time I darken Taimeiken’s door, though, which is something that is definitely happening on my next trip to Tokyo.

Another return trip I hope to make is to Toyosu Fish Market, which opened last October as a successor to the much-lamented Tsukiji. While Tsukiji’s outer market (and Sushi Zanmai, so don’t worry Thai people) is still open to fish-loving tourists, the business end of the deal — namely, the tuna auction — moved over to the new place in January of this year.

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Some guys cutting up fish

To see the auction, you can either watch from an upper observation window, or apply to the lower observation deck a month ahead of time. This is so that, unlike at Tsukiji, the people actually working will not be bothered by lameass bystanders getting all up in their business. However, I have to admit, and I am a little embarrassed to say, that I totally completely lucked out by having a family friend who went to high school with one of the tuna vendors on the main floor, so we were able to bypass the auction at 5:30 and stroll on in at 7:30. And yes, I was totally a lameass bystander who got all up in everyone’s business as they were trying to go about their regular day.

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Orders for the day

 

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maguro bocho, a sword used to break down tuna

It was worth it (for me, not for them) because I got a really lovely breakfast of maguro and chutoro, eaten with toothpicks on a table used only minutes before to break down tuna destined for the Conrad and Ritz-Carlton.

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The wholesale seafood section, where you used to be able to purchase the stuff you would later find at your favorite sushi bar, is not yet open to the public. However, you can view the action from an upper observation window in an adjoining building which is accessible via outside walkway. You can also purchase some sushi paraphernalia and produce on the fourth floor of the adjoining intermediate wholesale building.

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Fairy squid for sale

You can also simply sample actual sushi at one of the sushi bars that have relocated to Toyosu (with long queues to match). The place we hit up was Yamazaki (not yet crowded at 10am), where we got an omakase set for 6000 yen and copious amounts of beer and sake which added substantially to the bill and rendered me useless for much of the rest of the day. But hey, great for a first-time visitor, yes?

 

 

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Dream fuel

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Kanom bueng, a Thai dessert “taco” of candied prawn and meringue at Icon Siam

Nothing is more snore-inducing than listening to someone else talk about their dreams, so here are mine. There was the dream about the bees that kept chasing after me, and another one where I was chased by crocodiles in a water park. In another one, I tried to jump out of a high-level window into a shallow lily pond to escape from some invaders who were … also chasing me. I’m sensing a theme. In any case, the dream that recurs most often is the one where I’m at a sprawling buffet (although sometimes it’s a jewelry store, or an underwear sale) where everything looks good and I can’t quite decide what to get, but once I make my choice what I want is gone or lost (“this is difficult to interpret,” said no one, ever).

It’s rare to encounter in real life what you’ve already experienced in your dreams, but this is what happened to me when I dropped by for lunch at Icon Siam. In case you haven’t been to Bangkok in a while, Icon Siam is the latest high-profile mall opening in a city that is chock-a-block with them, but on the Thonburi side of the river instead of in a majorly trafficked part of downtown Bangkok. It’s the first really big development in Thonburi, so only a handful of vendors have been displaced and the street food scene in general there is still pretty robust.

Full disclosure: I was approached a couple of years ago to help consult on a “street food” section for Icon Siam when it was still gestating, but was never contacted again. So — as with anything that I write about “Game of Thrones” the TV series, or most Asian food television programming — anything that I say about Icon Siam can and probably should be interpreted as sour grapes.  That said, the last few GOT seasons have been trash, marred by illogical storytelling and huge misinterpretations of key characters. Icon Siam is not as bad as Season 5 Sansa.

You encounter the thoughtfulness they’ve put into how they present their “street food” the instant you step through the door. They’ve built a Vegas- style “canal”, with careful lighting and nicely dressed vendors set up at various stalls alongside the water, a nice nod to Thai street food’s origins. The food up in front — mostly sweets and snacks — really does look great. It’s just a shame there IS NO ENGLISH LANGUAGE SIGNAGE.

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Look choop, mini-fruits made from mung bean, part of the Portuguese-influenced dessert cart

Existing translated signage is wonderfully vague, even in Thai.

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As you proceed further in, food translations get better, featuring both Chinese and English. Not surprisingly, these areas were busier.

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Chinese translations for spicy chicken “toe” salad, heart cockle salad, and fermented pork salad

All the same, it was daunting to get a bowl here, because a dearth of places to sit meant latecomers like myself would be doomed to eating fish-sauced specialties with their dishes balanced precariously on their knees. Come on guys. I am a very clumsy person. Smelling like fish sauce is bad when you are taking public transport. And the chi-chi section in the back, where there actually are seats, serves “nice” stuff that I didn’t feel like eating, like Chinese seafood and Dean & Deluca-style deli salads.

They tucked the best vendors off to the side, like kids who hide their favorite dishes from the table by sticking it behind their elbow. These are the savory vendors serving big-ticket one-dish meals like kanom jeen (fermented noodles with curry) and popular snacks like satay and tod mun pla (deep-fried fish cakes).

Here, the signage was extensive. But the seating,  just like at an actual outdoor floating market, comprises a bunch of tiny child-size stools and is the opposite of extensive. I get the “replicating the floating market” thing, but you are still in the mall, so you have already made a choice. You chose to include air-conditioning, so why not more substantial seating? Of course, this is coming from someone whose butt is too big to sit on a seat that resembles the stool you put your purse on in fancy restaurants.

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If you are wondering where the rest of the street food is, some of it is tucked up even further out of view in the mezzanine or “UG” section, accessible via TWO escalators in the same quadrant of the mall (one in the central area, one in Takashimaya). This is annoying because I discovered it only after finally choosing a place to eat, which was, just like in my dreams, nowhere near as good as what I could have been eating (like the soup noodles or pig’s trotter on rice in the mostly deserted UG section, which actually had seating). Instead, I ended up choosing yakitori on the ground floor of Takashimaya, which was the dumbest thing I could have done because yakitori needs smoke and a real grill to be good, and those things are impossible to do in a mall. Also, all of the plating was done in plastic cups, including salad (!) and cold edamame (!!) Is this a tailgate party? Are we in a parking lot? Not surprisingly, I was completely alone.

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To be fair, Icon Siam’s food “court” isn’t completed yet. There’s still a market off to the side that needs to be finished, and a bunch of vendors needed to fill out the mezzanine section (and maybe better signage for that too, since the Thai massage parlor on that same level was also completely deserted). As with all ambitious undertakings, Icon Siam will need a little time, and it’s only just begun. This already puts it in a better position than “Game of Thrones” Season 8.

 

 

 

 

 

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Changes

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Khao kluk kopi on the pass at Raan Nai Ngow

It’s January, so obviously I have been on a diet. After a few weeks of abstaining from all sugar, starchy foods and alcohol, I have managed to gain 2 kg. This, of course, serves to highlight the fact that my body has become trash. I will stick with this for now though, because I am dieting for my health. Like the Trump administration’s sliding scale of guilt (never talked to Russians = saw some Russians once = OK we talked but it’s not illegal = OK it’s illegal but I didn’t know about it), I now have a sliding scale of what will make me happy vis-a-vis my body (I need to lose weight = I am doing this for my health = I’m fine with being called “handsome” by people who are trying to be nice).

Unlike my body, some things change for the better. Khao Sarn Road, which was once in danger of being cleared of all its vendors despite hosting a high concentration of backpacker tourists, has seen a return of food carts, but the pad Thai and spring rolls of a few years ago have been replaced by Isaan-focused som tum-filled mortars and pestles and meat grilling on skewers. This, to me, means that the tourists coming to even the most touristy areas of Bangkok are growing more sophisticated with their Thai food knowledge. They are now basically eating like everybody else in Thailand.

But you know that old saying, “Plus ca change … and I forget the rest”. There are things that you can count on, even amidst all of the change and chaos that sometimes threatens to overwhelm us all. The longstanding vendor in front of Baan Chaophraya, Raan Nai Ngow (112 Phra Arthit Road, 087-021-0213), is one of those things. Nai Ngow serves up highly sought-after helpings of khao pad nam prik long ruea (rice fried in sweet pork chili paste) and kanom jeen sao nam (fermented rice noodles with a sauce of coconut milk, shrimp powder, pineapple, ginger, garlic and chilies). But their specialty is khao kluk kapi (rice in shrimp paste with Chinese sausage, sweet pork, egg, mango, green beans, dried shrimp and dried chilies), a central Thai dish that acts like a fried rice dish but is actually a salad. Combining the fresh crunchy snap of fresh veg and fruit with the comforting sweet fat of sausage and pork, acidity of fresh lime juice, and the complicating umami of dried shrimp and shrimp paste, this dish has something for everyone: a feast for every sense except for maybe the ears. Just mix like your life depends on it and resign yourself to the fact that some stuff is going to end up on your shirt by the end of the meal.

In a food world dominated by Chinese-derived dishes like soup noodles and stir-fries — Thai street food’s origins come from Chinese immigrants, after all — Nai Ngow specializes in actual Thai food dishes that are becoming more of a rarity on the street due to the profusion of ingredients and complicated assemblage. If you find yourself in the area with a few minutes to kill (and are no longer on a diet, note to future self), it’s worth it to take some time out from all the change coming at you and shelter your face in a plateful of some shrimpy-sweet rice.

 

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Discoveries

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The aptly-named guaythiew bae at Khao Perb Yai Krieng

I’ve given a lot of thought to this today, so I’ve decided to share with you my findings. There are, at heart, three basic categories for the faces that guitarists make in music videos. There is the “I’m surprised” expression, made famous in the MTV heyday of the 1980s, in which the guitarist appears to be saying, “I can’t believe I know how to play this instrument!” There is the tongue-hanging-out or licking expression, during which the guitarist seems to say, “You are so lucky to be nowhere near me at this moment.” And then, of course, there is the “O face” expression, first described in the (blink and you missed it) TV series “Ben and Kate”. “Ben and Kate” was the Dakota Johnson vehicle which I felt was under appreciated at the time, but now that she is a movie star and dating Chris Martin, I feel better for her even though presumably she sometimes has to listen to his music. I don’t know anything about Chris Martin’s O face.

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This is John Mayer, not Chris Martin

Tl;dr — I am basically saying that you can categorize anything. But sometimes you come across things that defy categories. For example, street food. I’m often asked why I love Thai street food, but the answer is always the same: I discover something new all the time. Whether it’s some fusion-y newfangler like ramen in a tom yum broth, or an old-fashioned tidbit brought back to life by some enterprising foodie, it’s something that stymies the typical categorizations that you see in Thai street food, like stir-fried noodles, soup noodles, plated rice dishes, porridge, or Isaan.

Just yesterday, while walking in the Old Town, I came across a woman in a flat-topped straw hat selling a sweet snack I’d never seen before. Called khao thid din (“down-to-earth rice”), it’s actually a deep-fried batter of banana, coconut milk and rice flour cooked to form an airy puff in the middle like this:

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Located between Tani and Phra Sumen roads

The flavor is only slightly sweet, the texture light and spongey. The vendor has been selling this treat in the Old City since she was a young girl, but claims to be the only person in Bangkok offering it. Eyes: opened. Again.

I came across some other dishes new to me while on a never-ending drive north to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, a trip that typically takes 9 hours. About an hour north of the old Thai capital of Sukhothai, a 40-year-old open-air eatery called “Khao Perb Yai Krieng” (Ban Tuek, Si Satchanalai, +6687-036-0060)  serves … you guessed it, khao perb, a steamed rice noodle stuffed with greens and served in a clear pork broth with egg and fresh coriander.

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Khao perb is pretty good, don’t get me wrong, but in my opinion the namesake dish should be guaythiew bae, rice noodles paired with a generous rectangle of pork and seasoned with the region’s prized limes, peanuts, sugar, shredded crispy pork and garlic. Add some slivered green beans, and you could very well have guaythiew sukhothai hang,  or Sukhothai noodles without broth.

Another specialty is mee pun (this place has a lot of specialties, all cooked in front of you in a thatched-roof, open-air kitchen using traditional implements and charcoal). These sausage-like cylinders are a steamed mixture of rice noodles and bean sprouts, encased in a homemade rice wrapper and served on a banana leaf.

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The only thing keeping the dishes khao ob and khao pun from joining the roster of Yai Krieng’s signature dishes is availability. When the place gets crowded, you can no longer order stuff served on skewers. But if you are lucky, as we were, you are able to sample anything you like, yakitori-style, in a jumble on the same platter. Instead of the more traditional khao ob we opted for khao pun kai, a steamed rice noodle (but more of a rolled crepe) seasoned with egg and herbs. But they also have a version seasoned with a dash of pork soup, and another with chilies because of course.

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The only caveat to all of this hard-to-find grub is that, well, you have to get there. But if you find yourself in the area, it is well worth a stop when you’re sick of scarfing down regular Sukhothai noodles or 7-11 mieng kham-flavored potato chips and want to get a (much needed) break from the road.

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I Don’t Like Doing This

There is a reason why I have a rule about never, ever (and I mean never) reading stuff that I have been interviewed for, or watching myself on any program, or reading anything that could possibly mention my name. And it is because I do not want to get pissed off. But it’s too late now, because Dwight (@bkkfatty) brought my attention to an article in SCMP about, ostensibly, the Thai dining scene that I am not going to link to, because I am that pissed off. You can just Google it, Google is there for a reason. Also I am hungry because I only had an apple for breakfast.

This is all Dwight’s fault. LOL (sort of but not really I still love you Dwight).

The premise is that Thai food is now being taken over by fine dining restaurants, and street food is a thing of the past. I think that is the premise, but I stopped reading when a real estate person was interviewed. Nothing against the real estate person, I have friends who are real estate people, and my husband is a real estate person. But interviewing a real estate person about Thai street food is like asking this lady about Donald Trump:

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What the story appears to be doing is setting up a conflict between street food and Thai fine dining. Like, you could either eat street food or you can eat at Paste and Bo.lan, but you can’t do both. Like street food has usurped the role of fine dining in Thailand, and that conventional wisdom frames street food as the pinnacle of Thai cuisine. This is a false equivalency.

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No one is saying street food is the best that Thailand has to offer. Street food could never compete with Sorn or Saawaan, either for the investment involved in its making, or in its presentation or the time and thought spent in its creation. I don’t think there are any people who don’t welcome well-made Thai cuisine, be it organic, “farm-to-fork”, or expensive. As my friend Trude would say, the move from informal to formal is normal. Go crazy with the tasting menus. Feel free to grow your own dill and coriander. Break out the mason jars. No one is against that.

Street food is made by people in a hurry, for people in a hurry (unless, like Jay Fai, that becomes impossible, but that’s another story). It’s a bet on a vendor’s ability to make a couple of dishes well enough that they can feed their family off of it. And yes, when they do make it well enough, it becomes something that is passed down from generation to generation, and that becomes tradition. When it endures for long enough, it becomes imprinted in people’s memories and becomes a part of their childhoods and personal stories. That is what people mean when they think it’s the best. It does not mean it is the best expression of Thai cuisine. That is like saying Prince Street Pizza is the best restaurant in New York.

What this faux conflict between fine dining and street food ignores is that most Thai people can’t afford fine dining. That limiting options, in any way, not only cheats a whole bunch of people out of alternative ways of feeding oneself outside of a mall (run by a big-time real estate developer) or a convenience store (run by a big-time food company), but stifles the kind of creativity and entrepreneurship that has long fed Bangkok’s dining scene. Limiting options cuts down on the (very, very few) places where all segments of a highly stratified society can still mix, where they are all on equal footing (NOT at the mall). Limiting options means less avenues for the poor, who do not have the right last names or go to the right schools, to make a good living. If Jay Fai — the daughter of a mobile kua gai vendor — were to start out now, would she have thrived enough to buy up her own shophouse, hence escaping the current street food sweep? The problem with the street food ban is that it’s classist. It has nothing to do with food.

I have resigned myself to a future of eating noodles at food courts, but when it’s forced too soon at the expense of other people, and those other people are erased from a story that is basically theirs, it pisses me off. Of course, you can disregard what I say as someone who “profits” off of street food (55555555 all the 5s in the world). But there is still a space in Bangkok’s undeniably rich (HAH) and varied tapestry of food offerings to accommodate both ends of the Thai food spectrum, from R-Haan to non-prepackaged corporate sandwich options. To argue otherwise is disingenuous.

 

 

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Ipoh-licious

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Crab with black pepper, curry leaves and dried shrimp at Crab House

Here are some controversial hot takes for you. One, Shawn Mendes is just not that good-looking. (Is he considered good-looking because he washes his hair, unlike Justin Bieber? This appears to be the sole criterion.) Two, the New England Patriots are cheaters. (It’s well-documented.) Three, open-air shophouses where all the cooking is done in front are still considered street food, both in terms of food and culinary tradition, according to me, a street food eater. And four, Malaysia has better street food than Singapore.

This could also be considered well-documented. A recent New York Times story on Malaysia and Singapore had enough burns to make me, an innocent bystander who considers both to be inferior to Thailand, want to write about it. Singapore is planning on petitioning UNESCO to recognize its street food as one of the cultural treasures of the world. But Malaysians are feeling salty about it. Take the opinion of Chee Kean, presumably of Malaysia, who tweets “I think they mean they want to protect their air-conditioned food court.” [fire emoji yikes]

In return, Singaporeans point to international arbiters of taste like Michelin to rub Malaysians’ nose in their relative lack of marketing savvy. “Perhaps this discussion can be carried out properly after a hawker stall in Malaysia achieves a Michelin star” says Coconuts Singapore, which, ok Coconuts lol.

 

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I stopped reading after that because then it dawned on me Thailand was trying to be like Singapore and it was just too rich when Singapore said a successful petition would help “safeguard” their street food culture since everything is already in a mall and words mean nothing anymore. But I did not start out wanting to write about the death rattles of Thai street food. What I want to write about is Ipoh, where street food is still thriving.

Ipoh is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of Kuala Lumpur and home to a sizable Chinese community, hence its reputation for great food. The hills, water and soil of the area are said to produce the biggest, crunchiest and juiciest bean sprouts in the world. But it’s not all dim sum and beansprouts — busloads of foodies from KL and Penang hit the town every weekend to sample all the local dishes that they prefer to the renditions back home.

For example, you can get “black pepper crab” in KL and even, yes, in Singapore. But is it like this: unbearably fresh, shells caked in a breathtaking sludge of pounded black pepper and dried prawn, lit with a tinge of curry leaf, hiding sweet soft flesh within? I hate to say it, but the version at the Crab House (32, Laluan Perajurit 1, Taman Ipoh Timur, 012-565-7723)  is my favorite crab anywhere, even better than the freshly steamed swimmer crabs I can get beachside in Hua Hin, toes in the sand and a cold beer at my elbow. Sorry, Thailand.

The Crab House also does a “fish skin salad” — egg yolk-coated deep-fried skins piled high in a deep-fried nest of taro beside a pile of lightly dressed veggies — that is inexplicably popular amongst Malaysians. If you are feeling adventurous or just want to try something that has yet to translate to anywhere else, the Crab House is a good place to start.

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We were made to pose this way

That’s not all I have to rave about. There was the aggressively smoky duck, honey-glazed to a delicate crisp and smelling of lychee wood, at Yuk Sou Hin at the Weil Hotel (the owner’s name spelled backwards).

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There was also the fresh seafood at the well-named Lucky (266, Jalan Pasir Puteh, Taman Hoover, 05-255-7330). Fish head curry (with cockles, treated the way Thais treat fresh bird’s eye chilies), homemade fish balls, and the inevitable char kway teow (broad rice noodles wok-fried in soy sauce and garlic) finished off the meal.

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Char kway teow

The next day was devoted almost exclusively to street food: open-air shophouses jam-packed with tables and plastic stools, around which were grouped various vendors offering a whole range of dishes: curry mee (spicier in Ipoh than its cousins in KL or Penang), chee cheong fun (flat rice noodle squares in chili paste), hakka mee (curly noodles with minced braised pork), deliciously fluffy kaya-stuffed pau (steamed dumplings) and of course, laksa. Unlike Penang, Ipoh does not have its own laksa, but the Penang version (touched with tamarind and garnished with a raft of fresh herbs and veggies) is extremely popular.

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Chee cheong fun

Feeling as stuffed as a foie gras goose, I still managed to wolf down a few helpings of kaya toast (bread smeared with coconut jam and butter) because that stuff is manna from the gods.

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Kaya toast at Dong@22 Hale Street

We finished off our trip at a banana leaf spot, which ended up being a lotus leaf place called Tamara’s (36, Persiaran Greenhill, 012-642-8821), offering both Sri Lankan and South Indian specialties.

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Sri Lankan chicken curry at Tamara’s

Our hosts refused to partake in the especially Ipoh-ian dishes known as salted chicken (which I get, it’s like being forced to eat pad Thai in Bangkok), but we did get to sample it, along with the ubiquitous hor hee (fish soup noodles with fish won tons, meatballs and of course an avalanche of bean sprouts) at the home of local food celebrity SeeFoon Chan, who regularly writes her own food column on Ipoh cuisine for the Ipoh Echo.

The 73-year-old SeeFoon is a former model and beauty queen whose work as a journalist and in the hotel industry has taken her all over the world. Yet she has chosen to settle down in Ipoh, despite not even being an Ipoh native. She is, in fact, Singaporean. What she looks for most, she says, is authenticity, a quality that the food in Ipoh seems to have in spades. Fingers crossed it doesn’t change anytime soon.

durian

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