Markets: Bang Noi

“Purple” pad thai at Bang Noi floating market

When people ask me, “What do you do?”, I give varying answers depending on how honest I am feeling that day. Sometimes I say I am a “food writer”, which usually elicits raised eyebrows and a sense of bewilderment as to how someone could get a job like that. The real answer, of course, is that very few people can get a job like that, and in my case, only sporadically. So sometimes I tell them I am unemployed. To me, “food writer” and “unemployed” are frequently the same thing in that I eat food, I write about it, and I don’t get paid.

Very once in a while, I do get promises of getting paid. Which is why I dragged my friend Nong, who is always up for exploring corners of Thailand, south of the city to explore some floating markets — not the fun big floating markets guaranteed to yield things to do, eat and buy, no — but the smaller, lesser-known ones mainly patronized by actual Thai people. Markets like Bang Noi, made up of a series of vendors lining the Bangnoi canal and set up in the shadow of Amphawa. While the market is busiest during the waning and waxing moon, it’s open every weekend and offers enough action to warrant a visit from an inveterate market-goer and scourer of street food (me sometimes, Nong most times).

While the Tourism Authority of Thailand website recommends you visit the only roti shop in the market, we were not in the mood for something sweet. After trawling through every food vendor on one side of the canal (and buying more than a few woven baskets and pomelos that turned out to be flavorless), we stopped at a welcoming guay thiew moo tom yum (pork noodle with spicy lemongrass seasonings) vendor boasting a dining balcony set out over the river. We were early enough that we had the veranda all to ourselves, with a quiet and relaxing view of the disconcertingly large fish in the water.

Pork noodles with tom yum seasoning, dry because it’s still too hot for soup

But as we sat and ate, we noticed a persistent caterwaul across the canal from a rival noodle shop advertising guay thiew poo (crab noodles). No, it was not a cat, but a man, singing what appeared to be traditional Thai songs in between advertising various dishes at the eatery. It was when he mentioned hoy jor (Thai-Chinese crab-pork fritters) that I was compelled to brave the music and cross the bridge to the other side of the canal.

The fritters was not what I had been hoping for, greasy and accompanied by an aggressively sweet dipping sauce. But it was the scene before us that kept me riveted: a sort of karaoke club, made up of retired locals who took turns singing very old Thai songs for the assembled noodle shop throng. In between bites of our food, we ended up joining in with the egging on of various singers (as with any karaoke club, two people ultimately competed for the microphone) and clapping enthusiastically when they were done.

The noodles were okay, too.

Noodles featuring crabmeat painstakingly picked from the legs, more economical than big lump crab

And if I occasionally got shards of shell from the crab, so what? We also enjoyed something we hadn’t seen before, a plate of “purple pad thai” featuring noodles colored with dok anchan (butterfly pea) extract. After our pork noodle appetizers, both dishes were a lot for us to handle.

It was only when the singers began asking us for requests, and then asking us to sing, that we decided to pay our bill and get out of Dodge. Don’t let it be said that we would ever overstay our welcome. Besides, the only Thai song I know is “Sabai Sabai”. I had a feeling they didn’t have that one.


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The Perfect Break

The perfect “taking a break” street food: rolled-up roti stuffed with sugar floss

I went away last weekend to Koh Phi Phi, and although it was a wonderful trip surrounded by good friends and family in beautiful surroundings, I felt so stressed that I broke out in hives. I decided that I needed to spend the next week recuperating from my island vacation, holed up in my house and obsessively reading a romance fantasy book series that my friend Nat had gifted me for my birthday (it’s this series, in case you are curious. Don’t judge me! Actually, you can go ahead, I probably deserve it).

This is, to paraphrase probably every magazine writer ever, self-care at its finest. For me, of course. It’s true that my time would probably be better spent elsewhere, with more “nutritious” occupations, like taking care of my family, or taking a shower, or work. But would it be as all-encompassingly engrossing? No. Responsibilities suck. Nutrition is necessary, but taking a break is as much of a necessity. How many of us rush around, feeling exhausted all the time, never having fun except for the fleeting moments when we are gobbling up a handful of chocolate chips from the fridge in the middle of the night? (Too specific?) This is what the break does for us; it makes the nutritious parts of the day less of a slog. “Real Housewives of (insert here)” is a break. Doing yoga in the middle of the morning is a break. And reading something that will not help me in any way in my life might be the best break of all.

Well, except for eating roti sai mai, of course. This snack, which you can find sold by vendors next to the highway as you head down South, is basically a flatbread wrapped around spun sugar (aka cotton candy aka fairy floss), sometimes colored pink from roselle or purple from butterfly pea flower or green from pandan leaves. But even when the sugar is left to its OG beige, it remains a delight, especially when the roti comes fresh from the griddle like in Khlong Toey market. With the roti warm enough to risk melting the sugar inside, the appeal is undeniable, an unmitigated joy.

When I see it, I buy it. So in the middle of what is undoubtedly a “nutritious” task: finding appropriate bathroom tiles for an aggro 11-year-old on the cusp of full-on teendom, we rewarded ourselves with a trip to this vendor outside of Boonthavorn, bringing bags of the stuff on the way home after a morning spent doing emotional wrestling with our son.

Dare I say it: even now, in this time when my son’s one response to seeing my face is “What?!” and my husband makes me stressed enough to sprout hives, this one treat brings us all together again, for a minute, as we take a break from the day.

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The real Thai diner

The specialty of the house, stir-fried pork liver with garlic

I have lunch with my friend Andrew about once every two weeks. We usually meet up at the same places over and over again (Luka, Sakuragawa), but once in a while one of us (and when I say that, I mean me) will feel adventurous enough to branch out and try something new. That happened yesterday, when I agreed to go to the little Thai-Chinese shophouse place near Andrew’s called Thong Li (Sukhumvit Soi 20 next to Millennium residence, 02-259-4649, open 9am-7.30pm except the third weekend of every month).

I’ve been to the place called Thai Diner in New York and enjoyed it, but to me, the dishes served at these little Thai-Chinese cookshops are what I truly consider to be “Thai diner” food. From its humble shophouse setting to the old man standing sentry at the entrance, Thong Li is the spiritual brethren to the Silom Pattakans and Florida Hotels of Bangkok, started by the descendants of the Hainanese chefs who once cooked for the palaces and embassies of old Siam. You won’t find the Anglo-Indian-inspired chicken curry of Silom Pattakan, served with a hefty slice of white bread, but you will find mee krob, the deep-fried noodle dish with tamarind sauce that is somehow ubiquitous in any cookshop worth its “Thai diner” credentials. Best of all, it takes the place of the much-lamented Yong Lee as nearest cookshop to my house, meaning that I no longer have to trek to Banglamphu to have some comfort food, Thai-Chinese-style.

One of the things that sets Thong Li apart from its shophouse brethren is its fondness for pork liver. Indeed, you can find this ingredient added liberally to more than its share of dishes, from the signature stir-fry above — umami and rich in its liverishness, studded with enough garlic to put Dracula away — to its supporting role in a big bowl of tom klong ruammit, a clear infused soup touched with tamarind juice featuring bits of chicken, pork, shrimp, mushrooms, and of course tranches of pork liver.

There were non-pork liver dishes on the menu, too, including a beautiful yum of mixed mushrooms (het) that unabashedly celebrates the potency of Thailand’s most important ingredient, nam pla (fish sauce), as well as a deliciously sweet-and-savory stir-fry of pork meat in shrimp paste (moo pad kapi).

And finally, ordered in a bid to remember our distant childhoods, an omelette stuffed with minced pork and doused in a ketchupy sauce (kai yat sai), kind of reminiscent of the omurice at Tameiken in Tokyo but without the mound of American fried rice underneath.

Stuffed omelet, revisited after many years

So come to Thong Li, order a bunch of food, and enjoy your lunchtime in relative quiet as an elderly Thai man does his best to not look at you as you stuff your face. Just don’t bring a laptop, notebook or tablet computer; they are actually banned from the tables to discourage the afternoon-while-away-er. There are the stairs of the Family Mart down the street for that, after all.


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