100 percent Thai

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A spicy oyster salad with horse tamarind leaves at Fah Mui. I was afraid it wouldn’t end well for me, but I’m fine thanks for asking

For the last week or so, I have been following the controversy around Lucky Lee, the “clean” Chinese-American restaurant founded by Arielle Haspel, who is not Chinese-American. There are several takes on this, but my favorite is probably the one on Eater, which can break down why and how the controversy.

Cultural appropriation is a tricky thing. The idea that a white chef shouldn’t cook Asian food is ridiculous, as it is when it’s an Asian chef cooking Western food. Brought to modern music, it’s even worse — all forms of modern music were appropriated from black people, for example (do you remember when Eric Clapton did “I Shot the Sheriff”? He was the Cliff Richard of the ’70s.) When you get to clothing and who gets to wear a sari or cheongsam, it becomes completely bewildering, especially from the eyes of Asians living in Asia, who think anyone willing to spend money for any of their stuff is A-OK.

But then when you seek to “improve” on the “yucky” food of a minority group, you rightfully get into trouble. That is because it doesn’t come from a place of love or respect, and it builds on a long history of devaluing other cultures in favor of the ruling one. I once attended an exhibit on the history of the Chinese-American restaurant in New York and it detailed very clearly how, from the very first restaurant in San Francisco, the food had to be marketed as cheap and convenient in order to compete. Burgers and steaks still had to be on the menu, along with “fusion-y” creations like chop suey. The first fortune cookies were actually a Japanese-American creation, but after the inventor was put into an internment camp, the Chinese took over.

Despite the kitschy, “inauthentic” connotations ascribed to it now, Chinese-American food became a thing that people genuinely love, and an example of how a community assimilated and survived by adapting its culture to that of its new host. The changes that were made to it as time passed (or in some cases, the gradual reversion to the real thing) serve as historical documents themselves.

Thais are doing this now, with the inclusion of Chinese dishes on their menus and a change in flavors that may have dismayed some native-born Thais to such an extent that they invented a a food tasting robot (I will never forget). But it, and the Chinese-American food that came before it, is still only really accepted if it knows its place, asking for less money than its Western counterparts.

“Leave the fine dining to the Europeans,” someone once wrote on a message board controversy sparked by a story I wrote on Bangkok’s new fine dining restaurants (LOL at old people who can’t read timelines). I don’t remember the problem with the story — aside the fact that people think I am a poorly paid 25-year-old intern. HELLO I am a poorly paid 75-year-old intern! — but I will always remember this stupid dumbass comment, and feel rage. This comment is racist. If you don’t see it, I’m not going to help you. I’m done with that. Asian food is just as good as anyone else’s food, and should cost what it’s worth. That is why I so admire ladies like Jay Fai and Pen, who despite a lot of pressure have kept their prices at a place where they feel properly compensated, and have kept their food at a high quality as a result.

The restaurant I’m writing about today is not an expensive one though. Hahaha.

It is, however, very good, an example of a cuisine that, even when you leave it alone at home, still manages to evolve and change. I’m talking about Thai food in Hua Hin, specifically at Fah Mui (20 Naresdamri Road, 082-587-4659). I’m talking about their gaeng prik nok (bird’s eye chili soup). Tell me this is an old-age Hua Hin thing, because I have never seen this before, and I have been to Hua Hin a time or two or three.

The sign looks like this. It’s kind of hard to find because it’s just a door (decorated with a bull’s skull with red balls for eyes). Look for the mayom fruit tree. The door will lead you through a narrow walkway to the restaurant behind, which looks out over the water. It’s basically an aharn tham sung (made to order) stall with a view.

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The soup comes from this paste, which the cook tells me is just shallots, shrimp paste and chilies, just like a regular gaeng som (sour curry). It’s not, of course. It’s tart, salty and spicy like sour curry, but there’s definitely plenty of sugar, and an added bonus of fresh holy basil leaves that echo the sweetness and make it resonate (I am writing like Jewel sings, kill me now).

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The paste turns into this soup, bristling with fresh seabags and fish eggs. I only remembered to take this photo at the very end because I have better things to do than taking photos all the time, like fighting off my family for more soup:

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There’s more stuff that I don’t remember, but I do recall these fish egg sacs fried with garlic and meant to be dipped in a sweet chili sauce, but come on, that’s just gilding the lily:

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Fish eggs with garlic

There is also a terrifying gaeng pa (jungle curry) and succulent deep-fried pork ribs. There is whole deep-fried seabags in more garlic. There is more, but I have forgotten, because there was so much. It is food that is a perfect historical document of the times we are living in right now. Too bad it’s all in my stomach.

 

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Glutton Abroad: They juice bitter melons in Taiwan, don’t they?

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Taiwan’s white bitter melons

By now you will have probably already seen the viral clip of The Cure’s Robert Smith interviewed by journalist Carrie Keagan at this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. If not, well, I’m not sure which one to link to, and where have you been anyway, it’s everywhere, even Piers Morgan has covered it. Morgan even claims to have wooed his wife with The Cure songs (instead of dancing alongside her and eventually biting her neck, like other lizards would normally have done). This must be very horrifying for Robert Smith, sorry, you can rest in peace now, our thoughts and prayers are with you.

The interview is most often pitched as an illustration of the differences between Britons and Americans, but like Jordan Peele’s new movie “Us”, I think it serves as a Rorschach test for the viewer’s own prejudices. In my case, I was convinced Carrie Keagan was the alternative music version of a social-climbing parvenue, the kind who listens to the “Wish” album and then proclaims herself a mega-fan, versus a long-suffering misfit who had to eat lunch with their one friend at school and listened to “Pornography” before bed in order to make themselves feel less alone (Hmmm? What’s that? I’m not talking about myself you’re talking about myself.) It turns out she is a “Japanese Whispers” fan and, although it’s technically considered a singles collection, whatever, I have to eat my words and pretty, ebullient people like Carrie Keagan can also be closet Goths even though they probably never had to pay any of the social cost for it, what, I’m not talking about myself why are you so obsessed with me.

The Cure are a good band to consider when it comes to discussing a wide-ranging, even surprising, fandom. They appealed to everyone from the likeliest (Trent Reznor, I feel you) to the unlikeliest of music fans (Piers Morgan) and everyone in between, thanks to the universality of Robert Smith’s songwriting and unvarnished voice, and some really stellar musicianship that never really gets a lot of attention because everyone is paying attention to Robert Smith (not his fault). Watching The Cure’s set from the induction ceremony, I was struck by how generous they were in playing for this smug peroxided bunch of phonies who represents everything in music that The Cure have always hated (and will probably induct a band like Poison any year now, just you wait).

Wait, what was I saying? Oh yes, a wide-ranging fandom. Yes, really, that was what I was talking about, not about how rock music has become equated with the oppressor Donald Trump types of the world and has lost all credibility as a resistance art form as a result. Oh wait, I mean a wide-ranging fandom …

… which Taiwanese food also enjoys. What I’m saying is, Taiwanese food appeals to a whole range of people, from the foodie Gluttony types to the junky sweet tooth set to the genuine, food-of-the-people champions — like The Cure’s discography, there’s something for almost everyone there (provided they aren’t Motley Crue fans or whatever).

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Colored like an apple, shaped like a banana

I’ve been to Taiwan before. I consider that my pure Glutton trip, an attempt to inhale as many of the things I’ve always loved about Taiwanese food in Taipei. This trip was a more wide-ranging jaunt, a budget tour through the island, focused on covering as many stops as possible from Sun Moon Lake to Alishan to Yehliu Geopark and every souvenir shop doling out commissions in between. The food was different from what I would choose to eat in Taipei, but it ended up being a good thing and probably much more representative of what regular Taiwanese people outside of the capital city eat.

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Open-air hotpot in the mountains

Of course, there is always something new to discover here. In my case, it was the “tea egg”, which our guide said was the only street food allowed to be sold in the Alishan area during Chiang Kai-Shek’s time because the vendor was a widow with children. Besides this story, tea eggs are simply the perfect snack, savory nuggets of protein stewed in a broth of tea, soy sauce and Chinese five-spice powder for long enough to form the characteristic marbled pattern on their surfaces, reminiscent of how Tom Hardy looks when Venom is taking over.

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Tea eggs on the street

Because they are such perfect snacks, tea eggs are pretty much everywhere, on the street, in tea shops, even in the 7-11. But it took finally arriving in Taipei to suss out what I had been wanting to try the whole time: Taiwan’s supposedly ubiquitous fried chicken (I love fried chicken, did I ever mention that?). This magic stuff is like a half of a chicken pounded flat through sheer WTFery (bones be damned) and then lightly breaded, fried to a face-sized slab and cut into squares to allow for easy grazing from a paper bag. It comes in normal and “spicy” (which is a lot like Nashville’s “hot chicken” in flavor) and is so delicious that I forgot to take a photo until the very end, when I was finally able to stop myself from eating for long enough to snap a picture.

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Fried chicken on Hanzhong Street

Also delicious: bubble tea. I know we all say we’ve had bubble tea, but the fact is that no one has had bubble tea unless they’ve had it in Taiwan, the actual birthplace of bubble tea. The inventor of “pearl milk tea” is said to have been Chun Shui Tang, but count us as Tiger Sugar converts, thanks to the addition of dark brown sugar syrup to its signature drinks.

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Praise be Tiger Sugar

 

And then there are the bitter melon juice stands. Like Robert Smith’s hair, the sight of several rows of bitter melons lined up like soldiers at the front of a juice stall could appear intimidating. But these gourds are not the light green variety commonly adorning eggy stir-fries and pork broth-based clear soups elsewhere in Asia. Fortunately (unfortunately?), Taiwan’s produce is almost unparalleled (gorgeous guavas and rose apples, etc) and its fat white bitter melons — said to be milder than their green counterparts — are no exception. The juice is augmented with honey and ice cubes and is a bittersweet jolt to the senses, the Goth shadow to the ebullient lightness enjoyed by the happy and uncomplicated fangirls of the world. Just like The Cure (YAY I DID IT), bitter melon juice is the darkness by which all the sweetness of the world can be measured.

 

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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.

khaoperb

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.

meepun

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.

khaopunkai

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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