Beauty contest

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Dry suki and sauce at Manop Sukiyaki

I know it’s not very cool of me, but I don’t like to watch Woody Allen films. It always ends up (excuse my French) pissing me off. This is just the stuff on the screen that I’m talking about, not even his personal life. Watching Husbands and Wives was downright excruciating.

Call me shallow, but I just can’t get past the fact — especially with the mid-career Woody Allen stuff — that he got away with casting himself as a romantic lead in most of these movies. Even in the Annie Hall era, this requires more suspension of disbelief than I am capable of exerting. His movies require that you believe this man — who is constantly complaining, who always needs taken care of, who weighs less than me — is capable of drawing beautiful, frequently younger women to his side. Wassup with that? All those dry, pursed-lip onscreen kisses he has forced us to endure all of these years, like watching someone finish off a chicken wing while still trying to keep their lipgloss intact grossgrossgrossgrossGROSS. I mean, are all these women blind? And deaf? Juliette Lewis, what are you doing? Come on Diane Keaton, you got other options, gurl! Julia Roberts … well, ok, it already looks like she’s thinking of throwing herself into the Grand Canal. Just go ahead and do it, honey. Maybe a gondolier will sweep by and rescue you. I’d take my chances.

Of course, I can say this now, before my husband leaves me for a 24-year-old. I know this is the likeliest post-breakup option for him, because he has actually told me, to my face (“I won’t lie. I would go younger.”) Meanwhile, we live in a world where I would be forced to marry an octogenarian with (hopefully for him) impaired hearing because I have no marketable skills of my own. We could watch tennis and talk or not talk about soup all day. Maybe Woody Allen will be available by then and I will be forced to eat my own words. But who am I kidding? Woody Allen could get a 24-year-old if he wanted to, too.

I can’t say I’m the only shallow one around. People use appearance to figure out what food they want to eat, too. It shows in their choices: grilling chicken or fish, smoking on the grill or glowing white on the skewer over charcoal. Fresh chunks of mango piled sloppily over grains of rice glistening with coconut milk. Steaming noodles in broth with fish meatballs or a splash of bright pink fermented tofu sauce. It’s not hard to figure out why you would want to eat this stuff.

Unfortunately, the pleasures of Thai sukiyaki — adapted from the Japanese noodle dish but even more slatternly, sloppier — are not readily apparent. Ordered dry (hang), it’s a mess on the plate, a mixed-up melange of glass noodles, egg, green onion and whatever protein you’ve opted for, pork or chicken, beef or seafood. Even with broth (nam), it’s like Asian ribollita, an indiscriminate stew that suggests instead of shows. Yet the best versions of this dish make you forget that it’s a mess. Like a lot of Thai street food, the secret lies in the sauce.

At Manop Sukiyaki Rod Kraba (622 Soi Charoen Krung 27, 02-332-5516), suki is king, and the sauce (based on fermented tofu, spiked heavily with chilies) is the queen that made it all possible. Sure, there are dishes like guaythiew kua gai (chicken-fried noodles) and roast pork (chewy during rainy season because of the increased humidity), but they assume you are there for the suki. From 6 in the evening on, the back of a truck turns into a kitchen capable of churning out some of the best suki in the Chinatown area. The location is similarly as homely as the dish: an otherwise-abandoned alleyway with the occasional cat or cockroach. But unless you are absolutely sure this dish is the Woody Allen to your Mia, don’t turn back, don’t be deceived. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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Soi 38 Revisited

Today’s text from my friend James:

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I lol’ed in a taxi because it is true. There is a certain type of expat in Bangkok, who works hard and is good at his job, but is also unrelentingly miserable, eyes fixed on a future that will inevitably not involve Bangkok. This makes them turn to different outlets into which they can funnel all that energy and desire, and, since many of these expats are also terribly wholesome, those outlets are usually Type A competitive things that involve sports. Like Crossfit.

I know about this, because I was a Lonely Expat in Tokyo. I didn’t want to do the Lonely Tokyo Man ritual, which usually involved pondering life over a cup of coffee and a cigarette at a Jonathan’s on a Friday night. This was also pre-Crossfit, and I could not afford to join a Tokyo gym. So my weekends were spent walking from my place into Shibuya, which would burn up most of my Saturday. It made me feel like part of the city, as disconnected and alone as I was. For those few hours, I was just like everybody else. It was an outlet. It was my Crossfit.

There are different ways to Crossfit. What I mean is, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Just because George RR Martin takes 10 years to finish a book and “Game of Thrones” is nearing the home stretch of its television run doesn’t mean I will soon have to do without Jon Snow and Jaime Lannister — there are umpteen fan theory sites, sites dedicated to comparing “Game of Thrones” with real historical events, sites on which wonderful people create alternate universes in which my second boyfriend Rhaegar Targaryen comes back to rule the Iron Throne. If there is a need for something, that need will eventually be met. Sometimes, all one has to do is to simply be patient.

Much was made of the demise of Sukhumvit Soi 38 (by me?) but in reality, it hasn’t really gone anywhere at all. No, really, even though a few buildings have been leveled and Daniel Thaiger has decamped to greener pastures. There is, and will always be, a need for affordable street food in Bangkok, even on Sukhumvit. Many of the usual suspects are still there, like this mango sticky rice vendor — only in slightly different locations:

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You can still have this at Sukhumvit Soi 38

(Photo by Karen Blumberg)

Soi 38 has become less of a collection of street food vendors loosely congregated around the mouth of a soi and more like a Singapore-style hawker center, mostly located in the basement of Sutti Mansion (plus a few holdouts — mainly the OG Soi 38 vendors — who are now clumped further along into the soi). The “food court” looks like this:

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Here, located in the sub-soi off of 38 which still hosts the fruit shake, mango sticky rice and pad Thai vendors, you can get: khao soy, Isaan food, Japanese favorites like ramen and curry rice, Chinese specialties, pork noodles, fish porridge, Chinese pork noodles (guay jab), chicken rice and egg noodles. Across from the pad Thai guy, Isaan-style salt-encrusted fish still grill on rotating skewers, pork satay still smoke over an open flame, and a new roti stall has set up shop. The seating is easy to get and it’s relatively cooler than out in the street. It’s also an altogether more manufactured, touristy experience. Beggars can’t be choosers, though, can they, especially when it comes to that mango sticky rice? (Longtime customers advise getting the mangos here and buying the sticky rice across the street at Khun Mae Varee.)

Old guard holdouts still cling to the main road, mostly along the left side of Soi 38. Beyond the other mango sticky rice vendor, there are still the yum (spicy salad), chicken rice, egg noodle, and Thai shaved ice dessert stands, plus pork trotter on rice (khao kha moo), more guay jab, more fish porridge (khao thom pla), fish noodles, and what are still my parents’ favorite Chinese-style egg noodles (bamee) in town. The only glaring omission is the Chinese-style congee (jok) place, which has moved to a sub-soi between sois 38 and 36. My advice: get to Soi 38 before stuff somehow reconfigures again and you are left searching for another Crossfit with which to sate your Sukhumvit street food needs.

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Ultimate Hipsters

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Springy fishcakes at Krua Apsorn

Thai people are the ultimate food hipsters. If a place has gotten too much press, has become too popular, or is too convenient, it is automatically devalued in the eyes of the food hipster. That gets you less “food cred” (i.e. the mental points you give yourself for posting a photo of a hard-to-get culinary trophy on social media), therefore rendering it a waste of time. Nothing is more excruciating to the food hipster than posting a photo of an out-of-style dish (say, tuna tartare) from a passe, all-too-accessible eatery (think hotel restaurant). It would be the hipster equivalent of killing yourself, or professing your love for Imagine Dragons or Taylor Swift (unless you are being ironic, like wearing a sweatshirt with a picture of your cat on the front, or actually marrying your cat). (That said, I enjoyed Ryan Adams’ version of “Bad Blood”. I AM NOT ENDORSING TAYLOR SWIFT, signed, hipster).

I am too old and fat to be a hipster, yet — like every other Thai — I otherwise fit into the basic definitions of the “food hipster”. To the Thai food hipster, if more than 10 people have heard of the food place you are raving about, then “everyone already knows about it”. The breath you have used in talking about it has already been wasted, stealing oxygen that would have otherwise been successfully utilized by someone else. What you have just done is useless, and, by extension, immoral. OMG PLEASE STOP TALKING ABOUT POLO FRIED CHICKEN, a thousand food hipster voices cry out in anguish. MY GRANDMA LIKES THAT PLACE. You don’t even have to be Thai to be a Thai food hipster. After I emailed someone a suggestion to try Jay Fai, the reply was “Isn’t that in the Lonely Planet guide?” (FEEL THE BERN).

I’ll admit it: I regularly eat at Krua Apsorn. The food is reliable, the service is fast, and some of their most popular dishes are my favorite renditions of that dish, anywhere. A case in point is the crabmeat and long bean stir-fry, a dish you will probably find on every table in the restaurant (alongside the cowslip creeper stir-fry, the green curry with homemade fish meatballs, and/or the pillbox-shaped crabmeat omelet):

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You’ve probably had this before

Many, many legit Thai food lovers eat at one of the Krua Apsorn branches (on Dinsor Road, or preferably in Dusit) every day. But it’s not cool to say so. It’s like saying to a room of Williamsburg 25-year-olds that “hey, this Missy Elliot person is pretty good.” OK MOM.

It’s like being reliably good, easy to find, and comfortable to sit in (aka air-conditioning) are actually bad things that should be actively avoided. Food hipsters like to flirt with danger. Oh, the fried chicken is hand-foraged from a dumpster out in back? The oil in the wok hasn’t been changed since the vendor’s mother opened her doors in 1956? The restaurant is located on top of a tree in the Kanchanaburi jungle? These are all risks that true food-lovers are willing to take. Take the Ruenton Coffee Shop in the Montien Hotel in Bangkok, which appears to have been last renovated in the spasm of economic hedonism that accompanied 1980s Thailand. The food here is not only excellent, the service is efficient and the portions are BIG. Also, it is deserted.

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Not just chicken rice: Ruenton’s yen ta fo

Perhaps the most naff place you could think of as a food hipster is the one that everyone in the world already knows about. Someplace like Blue Elephant, which even has a branch in London, that’s how well-known it is. Does this mean the food is something to turn your nose up at? I was so confident of having a decent meal there that I allowed my friend Susie to comp my lunch, so I can risk looking like I sold my soul for a deluxe multi-course meal of butterfly pea dumplings, warm duck salad, stir-fried stinkbeans in shrimp paste, a green curry, and a side of mango with sticky rice (it’s mango season after all).

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Butterfly pea dumplings at Blue Elephant

This is probably the least food hipster-y thing I’ve done in a while (aside from lunch today, which was at Greyhound Cafe, come at me haterz) so I wanted to make sure I got my stomach’s worth.  Maybe next week I’ll be back to slurping beef blood noodles in an alley and risking malaria riverside as I down raw prawns plucked from the Mekong. Or maybe I’ll be eating hotpot for dinner at 5:30 at MK (it’s so healthy, you guys). There’s a whole city of food out there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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