River prawn paradise

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Crab egg nam prik at Jay Dum

One of my earliest memories was of the restaurant Aloha, located in the balmy paradise otherwise known as Youngstown, Ohio. It was the sort of place that served flaming pu-pu platters and just the thing to stand in as “Asian” food in an area starved for ethnic cuisine.  They would also give you a cocktail umbrella in your drink, even if it was something like a Shirley Temple. To my mind, that was the best thing about it. I saved my cocktail umbrella, a pink one, for weeks, keeping it in a drawer in a my desk to bring out at the most opportune moment.

Maybe a couple of months later, the opportune moment finally came. It had started raining heavily, and I was at home. I took out my umbrella and rushed out onto my apartment balcony, brandishing my pink umbrella over my head. Of course, the rain destroyed my umbrella in about 10 seconds flat. It was, up to that point, one of the most disappointing things to ever happen to me (SPOILER ALERT: I had yet to discover that Santa Claus didn’t exist). But what can you expect? I was, after all, only 23 years old.

I have since been hardened by the resentments and misunderstandings of my life into a miserable, cynical person. So when people suggest an old-style, locally foodie-famous restaurant for lunch, my first instinct is to shore myself up for the inevitable disappointment. Because that is what usually happens. There is the longstanding Thai-Chinese favorite on Rama IV Road that serves soggy fried chicken and salads slathered in mayonnaise in the name of nostalgia. The internationally-lauded open-air standby that purports to cook old-fashioned recipes even as they serve tom yum thickened with condensed milk. And all the places, born from the first flush of post-WWII prosperity, that have fallen by the wayside. Often, the eateries with grand reputations appear to be trafficking on their names, happy to slide into brand-stamped mediocrity. It’s not a great time for real retro either, at a moment when newer, shinier, splashier spots are opening every week.

Jay Dum, which is all the way in Patum Thani (Rangsit-Nakhon Nayok Rd Klong 10, 33/19 Moo 4, 02-546-1477, no reservations), is one such place with a grand reputation, but what sets it apart is that it is all the way in the middle of nowhere. So if you come here, you are really coming here, just to this restaurant, unless you are lost. My parents have been here enough times that they can say with authority that this day was better than that other day which was better than that other month, let’s not talk about that. I have only been here once. The specialty of the house is what the specialty of the house always seems to be, the grilled river prawn. It is central Thailand, after all.

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Grilled prawns, of course

But it’s all that other stuff that really gets me, because it’s special in the way a really good destination restaurant is special. There are the thin slices of bitter melon half-buried in egg omelet and the stir-fried morning glory peppered liberally with green bird’s eye chilies. The springy fried fishcakes (tod mun pla) with a cucumber relish. Those same fish turned into green curry with meatballs — made by loads of meticulous beating, because using a blender would turn these balls crumbly when they’re supposed to fight you a bit in your mouth.

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Fish meatballs in green curry

And then, there are the sautéed lotus stems, crispy and juicy and garnished with prawn legs (!) which is a first for me because, really, who wants to waste their time shelling those suckers? But my favorite of all, I have to say, is the crab egg chili dip, so thick with orange crab roe it would make you weep, and all tarted up with pickled baby onions.

If you ever find yourself in the neighborhood (why?) then by all means stop by without calling them first, because they don’t take reservations. But if you’re not in the neighborhood but have a hankering for fish in patty or ball form, and grilled river prawns in a place outside of Bangkok but not at the beach, you could do far, far worse than Jay Dum. You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

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Take it or leave it

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Artist Maitree Siriboon with his work “Mondrian Buffalo”

I first met Thai artist Maitree Siriboon while hitching a ride with my friend Top Changtrakul to the far outskirts of the province, where you can still see agricultural activity. Top was working on an art project, and part of it involved filming Maitree, clad only in silver hot pants and a pair of wings, running across a field towards the camera. There was no background music, only the sound of Maitree’s breathing. He had to do several takes because someone (me) kept making noise. The only people watching were me, Top, the sound guy, and a couple of very confused duck farmers. I never saw the final product, but I imagine it was a striking image: a solitary, otherworldly figure, attempting to transcend his mundane surroundings by running to … us.

I liked Maitree immediately. He is open and positive, smart without being patronizing, and, obviously, extremely creative. He would probably attribute his lack of pretension to his Isaan roots, and he is always incorporating his background into his artwork, seemingly working out his identity in the gaze of the audience. It’s something that I think is very brave, because it’s so exposed. What is especially interesting to me is his incorporation of his upbringing in Isaan — a populous but poor region that is often looked down upon by Thai urbanites — in all of his work. Of course, what we see in art is totally subjective, and we could go on and on about how intent doesn’t have to mean anything to the observer/listener/reader.  But when I see Maitree’s work, I see “This is me, take it or leave it” and always feel empowered by that.

American chef Dan Barber once said that the greatest cuisines of the world are born out of poverty and necessity. Isaan food is Thailand’s version of this type of cuisine. Unlike the rest of the country, which is verdant and fertile, parts of Isaan are dusty and dry, and the food — strong, spicy, quick to make, sugar-less — reflects that. Like Maitree’s art, it is direct and makes a big impact. Although in Bangkok that food is often bastardized by the local sweet tooth, there are still major sections given over entirely to serving Isaan dishes, the most popular street food in the country.

After 5pm, the strip along Henri Dunant Road on the Royal Bangkok Sports Club side is one of those areas. The sidewalk becomes a mass of locals looking for a bite of som tum infused with fermented Thai anchovy (pla rah), deftly grilled pork collar,  or even a pot of jim jum (Isaan-style sukiyaki). The food is unapologetically simple, and in its simplicity it is very Isaan. Take it or leave it.

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Green papaya salad with fermented anchovy juice

The most popular vendor on that sidewalk is Raan Boon-Henri Thai-Isaan, the second stall on the sidewalk when you are approaching from the Siam Skytrain stop. The specialties of the house here are the som tum kai kem (green papaya salad with salted egg) and the salt-encrusted grilled fish, but everything you could expect from an Isaan restaurant is on offer including decent moo namtok (spicy pork salad with roasted rice kernels) and mucho, mucho iced beer.

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Spicy sliced pork with sundried pork in the background

If you are able to brave this unending heatwave and willing to dine next to a line of parked cars, you too can feast on the fruits of Isaan ingenuity in the way it’s probably best: outside, with many friends and a couple of gallons of beer. And if you are art-minded, check out Maitree’s “Save Thai Buffalo” series at the YenakART Villa from June 9th.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Overlooked Street Food Strip

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Duck noodles at Chia 

There was a time when I was really busy, and I was complaining about that. Now that I am no longer busy, I would like to complain about this. I don’t know what happened, but somehow awesome work opportunities haven’t found their way to my couch. I guess it’s a cyclical thing.

So I’ve taken this downtime as the chance to focus on the things that really matter, like who has yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There are some shocking (to me) omissions.  I mean, everybody has their own (wrong) opinion, but there are some surprising people who haven’t been inducted yet, like Journey and Peter Frampton. Aren’t old white guys in this organization’s wheelhouse? The omissions that really rile me are the Pixies and Rage Against the Machine (yeah, I said it). I have a feeling people overlook the Pixies because they think Black Francis is an asshole, and because Rage Against the Machine are too rap-rock. But come on. The freaking Red Hot Chili Peppers were inducted in 2012!

No, instead they induct guys like Steve Miller, who doesn’t even really want to be there — who is, in fact, as annoyed as John Boehner yelling at a pack of trick-or-treaters to get off his lawn. Everyone is, again, entitled to expressing themselves, but if the ceremony was such a pain, why go man? Why not stay home in Margaritaville? Why this guy?  Steve Miller is Easy Listening dressed up as rock music. It’s for the type of person who is too embarrassed to admit to themselves and others that they like Adult Contemporary. It’s the Coldplay of the ’70s, the music I turn on when I want people to leave my house.

Places like Victory Monument are the Steve Millers of food: incomprehensibly popular. They seem to have everything you want, but nothing is even remotely memorable. For the street food lover, the stretch along Rama IV between the boat pier and Klong Toey Market is far more overlooked — even by me. “Where to go tonight?” I ask my friend Dwight of bkkfatty.com, who is willing to come along with me for an evening trawl with Portuguese food lovers Goncalo and Joao. “Rama IV?” he suggests, and I say, “Oh yeah. I forgot about Rama IV.”

“Everybody does,” Dwight says, and it’s true. It’s just that Rama IV is just such a miserable stretch of road if you don’t know what you’re looking for. But if duck noodles and Thai-style shaved ice are on your radar, you’re on the right track. At Chia Duck Noodles (2856 Rama IV Rd. across the road from Esso gas station, 02-671-3279, also referred to as Xia, or Sia, because the romanization of Thai letters is so hard to pinpoint), noodles come awash in a rich, almost velvety broth of unsurpassing duckiness, festooned with a shower of deep-fried garlic, tender duck meat, cubes of duck blood and a flourish of fresh coriander. And that’s just the noodles. There’s also roasted duck on rice, and duck stewed in Chinese herbs, and platters of well-seasoned thigh meat and duck innards to contend with.

Noodles aren’t complete without dessert. Although I’ve been put out by the closure of Suan Luang Market and the shaved ice place that was my original go-to, I haven’t really gone out of my way to find its replacement. Thanks to Dwight, who appears to come to this place on a weekly basis, I now have a place I can (almost) walk to called Thao Tung Peng Ang, down the road from Chia. My favorite thing about Thai shaved ice is its flexibility: you have a choice of toppings that range from the Chinese-inspired (lotus root, gingko nuts, grass jelly) to the distinctly Siamese (selim noodles, tubtim grob, coconut jelly) in either longan juice, ginger syrup or coconut milk and topped with a generous mound of shaved ice. Even better is what Dwight came up with: a scoop of vanilla mixed with a swiftly frozen egg yolk, leaving a stripe of extra-fatty yellow through the cream and garnished with slivered candied mango. It was the best ending to an evening of street food and a nice reprieve from our unrelenting heatwave.

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Songkran Redux

Every Songkhran starts the same way for me, at 5 in the morning in Hua Hin. My husband’s family has a family compound next to the beach, on land gifted many years ago to their ancestor by King Rama V. That ancestor, Somdet Chao Phraya Borom Maha Pichaiyat, had seven wives and 35 children, and every one of those children has a residence on this beachside parcel of land named after the family patriarch, “Baan Pichaiyat”. My husband’s grandmother, Yuwadee, is his last remaining child at 96.

What’s really funny (only to me) is that I remember staying at this place as a kid, dealing cards with my future husband’s cousins and trying to play soccer on the beach at low tide, when the receding water left little islands of sand deemed perfect for a football game. We played “bullshit” in the hallways, forcing our parents to step over us on their way to the buffet table. We pushed our luck with tennis when the heat wasn’t overpowering. We ate rice and omelets when we got hungry, doused with plenty of Maggi, and I talked everyone’s ears off with my Michael Jackson trivia. No one cared that I wore glasses and had a mullet. It was my favorite Thai New Year’s ever.

Now when I see those cousins they have kids of their own, and we never play those games anymore. But we still see each other every year in our customary purple, worn to commemorate Chao Phraya Pichaiyat’s birth day (Saturday, associated with the color of Prince and Barney.) We make merit at the crack of dawn with a procession of 20 monks who pass down the road that runs through the compound like an artery, bypassing the shrine devoted to the family patriarch before ending abruptly at the sea.

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Praying at the Chao Phraya Pichaiyat shrine

 

The setting is the same, but the food — now that we are adults with fewer pleasures in life — is better. Because no one could possibly survive the hour it takes to set up for the monks without food, there are deep-fried patongko (Chinese-style mini-crullers) drizzled with condensed Carnation milk and instant coffee and, if you are enterprising, a sunny-side-up fried egg.

And after the alms-giving ceremony, the main event: khao thom pla (fish and rice porridge) and khao na gai (rice with a cornstarch-thickened chicken gravy), a particular Chinese-influenced favorite that never fails to appear at a family gathering. I like to garnish mine with the usual coriander leaves, fresh scallions, sliced green chi fa chilies and cubed sweet Chinese sausage, but I forego the fried egg for the slivered ginger and deep-fried garlic bits that are meant to top the fish porridge, because too many condiments are never enough. I swear the ginger and garlic make all the difference.

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Later, the grownups gorge themselves on kanom jeen (fermented rice noodles) swimming in what they call gang nua (“beef curry”) but what everyone else knows as gang kiew waan nua (green curry with braised beef shank). The children (and anyone else who feels lucky) get to brave the head-bruising ploy tan, when the pu yai (family elders) throw heavy Thai coins into a waiting scrum of young elbows and fists. Winnings are hard-won (my mother-in-law once chipped a tooth) and jealously defended, safeguarded in every mother’s purse and forgotten about the next morning.

I guess there is comfort in knowing where I will be every April 13. And what I’ll be eating. When I see our children forging new memories of their own (overpriced horseback rides on the beach, risking various limbs to set off fireworks at dusk, terrorizing everyone else at the pool), I hope they too think back on their childhoods in Hua Hin as their favorite time, ever.

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Small rewards

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Khao soy at Hom Duan

If you are a Glutton like me, visits to the dentist can be especially excruciating. The half-hour/hour-or-so that it takes to clean my teeth are the minutes I spend regretting every single thing I’ve put in my mouth for the past six months. I will never eat again, I promise myself as I white-knuckle my way through yet another pass with the dental probe, the Dennis Hopper to my dentist’s Christopher Walken. I will stop eating forever, as soon as this is over.

This is a promise I invariably break the minute I step out of the dentist’s office. After all, surviving yet another near-death-by-drill experience calls for a celebration. Celebrations = food. So, if you are like me, you may choose to celebrate with an enamel-staining flat white and a cavity-inducing strawberry waffle at Roast, before ambling over to Ekamai Road and joining in the ever-growing queue snaking out the door at Hom Duan, a glorified rice curry shophouse vendor specializing in Northern Thai food favorites.

The popularity of Hom Duan — which I first learned about from Chef Jess Barnes now of the new Lady Brett on Thonglor — is simple: a wide range of Northern Thai food, close to your office and air-conditioned (because it’s hotter than Daenerys on a funeral pyre out there right now, you guys). There’s the expected, like khao soy and kanom jeen nam ngiew; there’s stuff that’s harder to find, like pounded young jackfruit salad (thum kanoon) and one of my favorite things to request from my aunt Priew in Chiang Rai, gang pak pang, seasoned liberally with chilies and crumbled fermented pork (naem):

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If Hom Duan were anything other than an eat-and-run khao gang spot, it would be one of the most difficult tables in town to score. Instead, people are willing to brave the line because they know that someone, somewhere will be getting up any minute now. You just have to be willing to share tables. And as you are waiting in line, there are oh-so-many options to mull over:

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Jackfruit salad, nam prik ong, gang ho, stir-fried veggies, deep-fried pork, and other stuff

Not surprisingly, lunchtime from noon onwards is a monster to negotiate, crowd-wise, so if you have some leeway with your time, going earlier is better than later (Hom Duan is open from 8:30 in the morning onwards, but supplies are obviously limited!) My favorite things on the menu were the gang pak pang, the young chili dip set (nam prik num with pork rinds and veggies) and the pounded jackfruit salad. It’s certainly the right time of year to go — you will not regret ducking out of the searing midday heat for this food, I promise.

(All photos by @sergiomireles)

 

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Setting the bar

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Baba ghanouj and chicken shawarma at Shoshana

I once met with a street food writer from Singapore who said he thought food bloggers should be subject to a certification process, to prove their opinions were worthy of publication. My immediate reaction was — and I apologize in advance — “How Singapore”. My second was to laugh, in relief, at the fact that nothing on earth would ever be able to stop anyone from ever publicizing their useless, worthless opinions on anything. As long as Perez Hilton and Andrew Breitbart and anyone else who has pulled a string of words out of their ass is able to publish all the nonsense they can muster, I and my uncertified, unqualified brethren will be safe.

Because let’s be honest here. Not only are we “writers” (and by “writers”, I mean people who write stuff in a public forum, like internet commenters). We are also “food writers”. That means we are doubly cursed. Let’s face it: anyone who can read can write. And most people who can write think they are pretty good at it. This is the reason why writers are some of the most miserable human beings you will ever encounter. The value of their work — unlike, say, a cheating sack of shit like Tom Brady — is completely subjective and unmeasurable, unless you count Nobel Prizes or book sales (and no one wants to count sales unless they’re JK Rowling or Dan Brown).

Now apply that to food. EVERYBODY EATS. Everybody eats more than they read and write. It’s a fact. Google it, as Marco Rubio would have said. And most people have an opinion on what they eat. So food writers are doubly useless. They write about what everyone, literally every person on earth, does every day. Everyone is an expert on this.

Sometimes I tell people that I’m more into the historical and social and political ramifications of what we choose to put into our mouths, and that the taste/atmosphere/and even artistic aspects of food are secondary to me. This is mostly true. But I usually don’t feel like I have to make excuses for how useless I really am. I’m a food writer. Food is fuel. My opinion is not more valuable than yours. And as crazy as I am about food, well, so is everyone else. Because food keeps them alive. The bar is that low. The bar to food writing is practically in the basement, it’s so low. I could be worthless, the absolute worst, and maybe I am … but I will always be qualified to be a food writer.

I think the people I went to journalism school with probably see food writing as cushy, a waste of a degree in a way that, say, being a political correspondent in Afghanistan would not have been. To them, it’s like selling out. So I wonder about selling out in other fields, too. Like, how terrible, really, was “Star Wars” for George Lucas? Did its incredible success basically suffocate his artistic vision? Some cinephiles would argue yes. And of course there are musical equivalents, so so many of them. Do you think those guys in Genesis miss the days when they were playing behind Peter Gabriel dressed as a condom to a crowd of budding dungeon masters? Or do you think those days are a faint haze that they try to forget as they sip their pina coladas by the pool at their estates in Mallorca? I think I know which way Phil Collins is leaning. And “A Song of Ice and Fire”? How thrilled is George RR Martin with its success now, really? You know the answer.

Luckily for me, I will never have to worry about the corrupting influence of success and the need to compromise for your fans, because I have always been a sell-out, and I have no fans. Not so for Shoshana, the longstanding kosher eatery in the Old Town that has been around since Khao San Road (i.e. “backpacker’s paradise”) was a thing. Testament to the scores of Israelis who flocked to the area while on holiday, Shoshana is still known for its Middle Eastern/Israeli favorites like hummus, shawarma, shakshuka, falafel and a creamy, garlicky baba ghanouj (“eggplant salad”) that may be the best in the city. They also now do schnitzel and chicken livers, and even bagels. Oh yeah, and there’s Thai food. Why? Well why not? Even though they’re in the middle of Old Town and there may be hundreds of better Thai food places around them, staying alive and thriving after all these years means expanding your menu and installing air-conditioning and putting in more tables. So if eating at Shoshana at lunchtime occasionally feels like eating with the pirate’s crew on the Black Pearl, know that this is the price both you and they pay for success, and that the food is still worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This is Thailand

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Nam prik kapi with all the fixings on the countertop at Krua Aroy Aroy

In the country that believes in ghosts that mess up the plumbing, in spirits that live in the trees, in black magic that can be thwarted by a few trips to the temple, you can also stumble upon a free meal. Like, literally stumble, while buying handkerchiefs for your dad and doilies for your dining table. A pair of shopkeepers, doing nothing more than taking their midday break. A tableful of food, brought from home, cooked by shopkeeper Sukanya’s mother from her very own recipe. A short conversation that leads to my favorite line of questioning: “Do you know about nam nueng?” “Would you like to have a taste?” “There’s so much food; can you help out? It’s unlucky to eat alone.” Who do they take me for?

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Homemade Vietnamese-style nam nueng at a shop in OP Place

Of course I stayed, of course I ate. I ate fully half of everything they had. Sukanya’s mother makes skewers and skewers of the pork meatballs, spending a good week to mix and cook the pork meat mix and several days to put together the dipping sauce, enriched with grilled pork liver and ground roasted peanuts. The sauce is what makes it — it is delicious. And although the shop, Mai Mai (which is leaving OP Place for a new location on Rama IX in May), sells a cutesy collection of linens and whatnot, they could do a good side-business with this nam nueng. Is there anything better than home-cooked food, slaved over by someone’s mother? Is there anyplace else where I could bumble into someone’s lunch, welcomed and fed like a friend and not some rando buying placemats? I suspect not. This is Thailand.

Thailand is also the country where you can be going about your regular day-to-day business only to find yourself surrounded by throngs of screaming girls at the Skytrain, bellowing at someone you can’t even see and forcing you to ask the guard what all the fuss is about. “It’s a Korean pop star,” he says, and, of course, it makes sense. My own daughter obsessively watches a string of Korean boys on Youtube all day long, doing things like wearing wigs and walking into doors. My daughter thinks it’s hilarious. It only reminds me of how old I’ve become, where I’m now that person, bewildered by her daughter’s choices in entertainment. And then I remember that it’s probably karma for Duran Duran.

Duran Duran’s music was good enough. It was passable, like how One Direction songs are considered passable and people debate with a straight face the merits of Niall’s or Harry’s songwriting skills. Duran Duran’s music was a bit like that, but with better musicianship and the most ridiculous, ludicrous lyrics ever recorded. Do you remember them? The “Union of the Snake?” “New Moon on Monday?” I dare you to reread “The Reflex” lyrics. Tell me that it isn’t a cocaine-fueled Pictionary game gone wrong. Tell me what Simon Le Bon is singing about, and I will quit writing forever.

The music wasn’t really the point though. It was really about five English angels come down to earth from a heaven called Birmingham. There was the little one, in the mold of all boy bands who have a little one. There was the cute quiet one who was shy. The androgynous one. The outgoing front man. But the prettiest one of all was John Taylor, the bassist. There is no debate about this. It’s simply a fact. And although I eventually grew and matured, and ditched my glasses and braces and changed my hair, John Taylor did not marry me. No, he chose some other woman, WHO WAS ONLY A FEW MONTHS OLDER THAN ME. And what did that woman do? She started hanging out with Courtney Love.

Unsurprisingly, they broke up. John found a very sensible woman, who was ALSO NOT ME. And this woman, she married one of the Strokes. Later, she said in an interview that she could, finally, enjoy listening to the music of her significant other. I found that a not very nice thing to say about her ex-husband. Especially since (even though Julian Casablancas was cute), the Strokes were overrated and John Taylor is a great bassist. Also, he should have picked me.

Maybe she regrets what she said. I regret what I once said, about Krua Aroy Aroy (corner of Silom and Pan Roads, 02-635-2365). I regret it so much I’m not even going to link to it. I wrote it ages ago, when this blog first started. I hadn’t been back since. But one day, meandering through the backstreets of Silom for an assignment, I found myself back there, and instead of passing it by for a quick avocado toast at Luka, I sat down.

What turned me off on my last visit, the laminated menus, the pad Thai, the salad kaek (peanut sauce-drenched greenery that is an iffy dish even under the best of circumstances) — all of that was gone. No one was there to hurry my order, no one to hover over my table as I perused a “menu”. There were specials written in Thai on a chalkboard, dishes and curries set out on the counter, and a bored-looking old woman staring off into the middle distance. Everything was as it should be in the Thai street food world.

I ordered a plate of kanom jeen (fermented rice noodles) slathered in an Indian-style yellow chicken curry with a side of ajad (cucumber-chili relish), and although it wasn’t really a proper thing to order — kanom been is usually eaten with nam ya, or nam prik, or maybe gang kiew wan — the man at the counter didn’t blink an eye. The curry was well-seasoned, the kanom jeen fresh, the chicken tender enough to fall apart from the slightest pressure of a spoon. And maybe it was the heat, or the quiet, or the pleasure of just being somewhere on my own, but my lunch made me happier for having eaten it. It’s all anyone really asks for, from a lunch, and it was at a place that I thought I disliked. This is Thailand.

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