Success stories

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I did so much work looking up this photo by John Griffiths via Creative Commons

A lot of people want success, but many struggle to define it. This is probably because the definitions of success should be as varied as people’s personalities, but the loudest people continue to insist on measuring it via concrete parameters like money, awards and/or Google alerts. By these measures, Kim Kardashian is successful. Donald Trump is successful. Harvey Weinstein is successful. But if I were to choose my own role model for success, I would choose Meg White.

I think Meg White is a great drummer. Or, I should say, as good as she could have been, under the circumstances. Jack White (he still uses her name) recently said that for all intents and purposes, he is the White Stripes. Technically, that may be true, but spiritually, it is not. Because Meg — perhaps even more than Jack — understood fully that the White Stripes were a showcase for Jack. She accepted her supporting player role with grace, and only asked to be respected by her partner. When that wasn’t enough, she chose to leave.

It was Meg who made Jack, leaving open the spaces that he could choose to noodle around in, the ominous silences that another, more insecure, less giving drummer might have been tempted to fill. And did Jack ever fill up space: not just physically, but onstage with his shrieking and soloing and unnecessary exhortations for Meg to “come on!” as if she was going anywhere; offstage with his motormouth interviews in which Meg seemed simply content to sit silently and just be. She — his first wife, his fake sister — was the best partner Jack could have ever had. Her generosity and, let’s face it, love for her ex-husband was what really drove that band.

And what did she get for her trouble? She was derided as a bad drummer (see: The Onion’s “Meg White Drum Solo Maintains Steady Beat for 23 Minutes”.) Her playing was described as “rickety” and “rudimentary” by professional music critics and “always behind” by fans who now can’t put their finger on why they don’t like solo Jack White as much. Hers was the apex of generosity from one person to another, playing the perpetually bumbling Hastings to Jack’s Poirot. Meg gave until she couldn’t give anymore, and then disappeared into Michigan with her riches, presumably to live a well-off, comfortable existence on her couch watching Netflix and ignoring Jack’s phone calls.

It would appear that Jay Fai would like to follow in Meg White’s footsteps. She won a Michelin Star last year, but that blessing seems to have been mixed (I think my favorite story on this is by my friend and fellow ASOIAF aficionado Oliver). Jay Fai had always had a steady clientele, but her relatively high prices kept her from being as packed as her neighbor, Thipsamai pad Thai. I’d heard that Michelin had transformed all of that, literally overnight. Since the last time I visited was the night before the Michelin awards were announced, I decided to go a few days ago to see if anything had truly changed.

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Jay Fai at work

The short answer: yes.

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You must now put your name on a waiting list, but if you are organized enough (the wait is truly, excruciatingly long), you should call ahead, because they now take reservations.

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There was no tax inspector sitting outside (how I would have loved to interview them) and the menu had not changed, but the outside tables were now filled with very patiently waiting diners, content to grab beers from the 7-11 across the street and wait it out until alrealdy-full tables finally finished their meals.

As for the food … well, the wait was long. And despite the partial barrier to her wok station that shielded her from the prying eyes of the street, people were still happy to treat her like a panda at a zoo, taking videos and photos next to her as she fired up omelet after omelet (for some reason, she’s now known as the “omelet lady”.) When our food came, we were happy to see it, and even better, her cooking appeared to not have changed in  quality. Granted, at 73, she is no longer at the apex of her wok-frying powers, but consider her something like 1990s-era Elton John, or The Who post-“Who Are You”, or The Clash after Mick Jones, or Coldplay after … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … uh …

… … … … … .. … … … …

Anyway, the point I was making was that I was a big cheerleader for Jay Fai, from the very beginning. I wanted her in every guide and to get all the recognition that I felt was her due. When that recognition did arrive, it did not seem to make her happy; in fact, it appeared to create hardships for her. This was not success by her parameters, but by other people’s. I recognize now that I wanted this recognition for her because I wanted to validate my own opinions and those of people like me. She herself could take it or leave it (but she could probably leave it).

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Making drunken noodles

I now hope for her to get her Meg White moment. I mean, come on, she’s not going to stop cooking, because she knows nothing else. But if her star were to fall by the wayside this year, it would not be the end of the line for her. She would be just as happy in her own spiritual Michigan, cooking up stir-fried crab in curry sauce (the superior choice to the omelet) for her regular customers and ceding the spotlight to someone else.

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Crab stir-fried in curry

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The Hangover: Macau edition

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Lunch at Fernando’s in Macau

Monday, March 26

8:00 – At Don Muang airport. It is entirely too early and we have been here an hour already. But it’s worth it: for some reason, the Asia’s 50 Best people have invited us to Macau to attend the big ceremony on Tuesday at Wynn Palace Cotai. I am not being unnecessarily humble. Literally no one we have dealt with has heard of “Bangkok Glutton” before. But they already sent me the invite and can’t take it back. Sucks for them!

9:00 – We start our big foodie weekend with a double sausage McMuffin set (Karen) and double Filet-O-Fish (me). Karen gets McDonald’s coffee and instantly regrets it.

14.00 – We have arrived at the Wynn Palace, having taken a taxi for the entire 5 minutes it takes to get there from the airport. Already, people are extremely nice and efficient. Check-in service congratulates me on being ready with my registration number. I feel smart and special. They take us to our room, and it has a great big view of the airport that we just left, as well as a ginormous bathroom. Karen and I are both thrilled.

14.20 – We register at the media center, while a nice man named Bruno opens three bottles of water that Karen keeps rejecting because she thinks they were already opened before Bruno opened them. I (yet again) request an interview with Chef Bee Satongun of Paste (Asia’s Top 50 Female Chef of the Year), because I earlier received an email from Asia’s 50 Best PR rejecting my interview request, telling me that I can just reach out to her at the event (where 840 people will be). Why include her on the list of people to request interviews from then? This is just a way to tell me to fuck off, right? (“Haha,” says Karen. “The next time someone pisses me off, I can tell them to reach out to me at the event.”)

15.00 – Work worries aside, our stomachs beckon, because it’s been ages since we ate our McDonald’s breakfast.  With “Everybody Wang Chung Tonight” blaring in the background, we take a taxi to Fernando’s, which I love as a great example of the Portuguese-Chinese fusion they call “Macau cuisine”. We get almost everything that we’re supposed to, like the suckling pig, bacalao fritters, and clams, but forego the fried rice and the gorgeous-looking salad with thick, huge slices of tomato.

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Fernando’s’s caldo verde

17.00 – We get back in time to get ready for dinner in two hours. We are absolutely zero percent hungry. But before we retire to our room, we take the free gondola that passes in front of the hotel complex and which offers a bird’s eye view of the property, including the preparations for tomorrow’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants party by the pool. Amped up by our gondola trip, I buy a pair of kitten heels from Gucci.

19.00 – Totally on time at SW Steakhouse, but we forgot our press passes, so the front desk is unsure of whether we are legitimate freeloaders or not. Once we get through (I am in the system as “Mr. Chawadee Nualkhair”), we get a nice table that for some reason seats us directly next to each other, with a view of the Chinese-panelled wall in front of us. We find out why exactly 30 minutes later, when the lights dim, the panels part, and we are treated to a mini-show featuring a giant gorilla figure and a banana. Karen thinks it has a very Disney feel. Every 30 minutes, a new mini-show comes on. My mom would love this.

SW (the initials of Wynn Resort founder Steve Wynn, who has since stepped down from the company) has smartly taken the decision of what to order out of our hands, and is providing us with a four-course menu complete with wine pairings. It’s great and smart, and the wines are fabulous — not a stretch considering the huge walk-in wine fridge, outfitted with 2000 bottles bearing 500 labels and maintained at the optimal temperature of 16 degrees Celsius (7-8 degrees for the champagne, stocked in mini-fridges within the fridge). Unfortunately, Karen and I are not hungry. Like, at all.

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All the same, William, the restaurant’s general manager, comes up and gamely attempts to guide us through the menu, which includes a Tuscan kale salad (a product of Steve Wynn’s stint as a vegan, William tells us), a Maryland-style crab cake generously spiked with Old Bay Seasoning, and an American Wagyu-Angus sirloin from Idaho, cooked perfectly medium-rare and bearing the sort of char one would find on Texas-style barbecue. Both William and L.A.-born chef Burton Li tell us that they are spreading the gospel of American-style steak to the Chinese, and that the Chinese are gradually responding. With us, they are preaching to the choir.

Tuesday, March 27

7.34 – I wake up late, having expected to run first thing in the morning, but being thwarted by the very effective blackout drapes, which make you think it is perpetually 3 in the morning. I am supposed to do the Wynn Palace Property Tour at 10 in the morning, but Karen decides to do it on her own so that I can finally run — something I am desperate to do after the copious amounts of food and wine at Fernando’s and SW Steakhouse. Overeating is no walk in the park, yo.

8.30 – Before we leave, though, we have breakfast in our room: healthy egg white omelet with fruit (Karen) and hard-boiled eggs with bacon, sausage and croissants (moi). Not surprisingly, we are rapidly feeling stuffed again.

10.00 – I run, finally. A note on music at the gym: Alan Parsons Project and Air Supply are probably nice when it’s late at night and you are six years old and your dad is driving you home from a Chinese restaurant in Cleveland, but it does not get you very pumped up. Instead, I entertain myself with video that Karen has taken of a phoenix bursting out of a flower-decked egg. During the tour she learns that every single blossom on the premises is real, sprayed with a material that lets it last up to a year and a half (!)

11.30 – I am showered and sitting in front of my laptop in an empty room. Where TF is Karen?

11.45 – Karen arrives, having made friends with absolutely every single person on her property tour, including Aron, the tour guide and Karen’s new boyfriend.

12.15 – We go downstairs to what we think is our reservation at Mizumi, the Japanese outlet at the hotel. We learn — gradually, after much prompting, because the lovely receptionist is afraid to tell us we are wrong — that we are at the wrong Mizumi, and are supposed to take a 15-minute shuttle to Wynn Macau, where our reservation at the two Michelin-starred Mizumi awaits. Aron walks us to the shuttle to make sure we find it.

13.00 – We are really glad to have been ushered off the premises of our hotel and brought here. We are being treated to a very long and rambling sushi omakase course that includes fresh hairy crab, ungodly amounts of uni and fatty tuna belly, plus as much Blanc de Blancs and sake as we want. “Is that OK with you?” the waiter actually asks us. We laugh.

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Our abalone and uni soup

People use the word “decadent” frequently, but this is truly it, with all that that means: copious lashings of tuna, and uni on everything, even on fatty tuna, rolled in a buttery slice of hamachi, and in a hot clear soup with slices of abalone. We eat everything, obviously. Karen announces to our surprised sushi chef that she loves it here and will never leave.

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Botan ebi nigiri

15.00 – I have nothing to do, since my request for an interview with Chef Bee — including a last-ditch Instagram DM before bed last night — was rejected. Laden with alcohol and with an entire school of fish in my belly, I succumb to sleep.

17.45 – Crap. It’s time to get ready for the cocktail ceremony, which starts in 15 minutes.

18.00 – The cocktail party (and the post-ceremony party) is held poolside, which makes me wonder if they expect people to get sloshed enough to jump into the water. But with the Cotai skyline, such as it is, spread out in front of us, and the gondolas that whizz over our heads, the smiling waiters offering glasses of wine and canapés and the odd, pulsing club music, it really does feel … very nice. It’s a nice party. And of course, William is here, like the genie in “Aladdin”, showing Karen the sake bar and offering to fetch me a glass of wine despite the fact there are about 8,000 other people here. This man is really good at his job.

My dream of interviewing Chef Bee shattered, I do manage to buttonhole Chef Ton of Le Du at the bar, pestering him to answer my email by Friday. “Thank you,” he says, which I think is a classy way of saying “You can leave me alone now.” Later, Karen bumps into Chef Ian Kittichai and congratulates him on his excellent Instagram feed. He takes the compliment graciously, especially for a man in a crowded elevator. And that is the extent of our pleb-chef interaction for the evening. Hey, at least I got a pair of shoes out of this trip.

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Karen woke up like this 

20.00 – We are gently encouraged to attend the ceremony by a young man bearing a mini-xylophone and innumerable food and drink waiters, who tell us they cannot serve us anymore. I manage to cajole someone into giving me a glass of red wine, which I suspect was taken off of a clean-up tray. I later regret it when someone makes me down the entire glass on the red carpet before being allowed into the ceremony room.

10.00 – Congratulations everyone! I am told that the ceremony was finished in record time. The merits of the restaurants themselves and the fairness of their rankings versus Michelin’s (and personally, the striking dearth of female chefs), well, that’s debating material for somewhere else. Ultimately, what these lists and stars do is spur chefs to work harder and customers to explore more places, and in the end, doesn’t everyone end up winning?

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Congrats you crazy kids

 

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Only the young

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Kai kata at Srinakharinwirot University Market

I am supposed to be working right now, so of course I am Googling Kanye West albums and figuring out my own ranking of his top three. I am doing this because I have just read of the Kanye West-based matchmaking service, Yeezy Dating, launched by a kid named Harry Dry who (allegedly) believes that “Life of Pablo” is Kanye West’s best album. This is clearly, horribly, terribly wrong. Obviously the ranking goes: 3. “Graduation”, 2. “808s and Heartbreak”, and 1. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”. OBVIOUSLY. What is wrong with kids today?

The thing that I have discovered about my bewilderment when confronted with modern music tastes is that I am offended by my own bewilderment. I am offended because this bewilderment makes me feel old. Like, okay, I am repeating myself like an old lady who tells the same story over and over again, but Drake sings like he’s got a clay mask on and it’s rapidly drying but he keeps trying to sing his way through it. And I cannot emphasize the confusion I felt when, while watching a rerun of the “Ellen Degeneres Show” (I know I’m old), I caught a Travis Scott performance and then spent all day listening to his music to confirm 100 percent that I absolutely hated all of it. I don’t understand this stuff, like how cavemen feel about lightning and fire.

Other things that make me feel old:

  • People who are fans of Harry Styles
  • People who know who Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert are and can tell the difference between them
  • People who can tell the difference between BTS and EXO
  • Having to take digestive enzymes if I’m having dinner after 9pm
  • People who can fit into jeans for sale on the sidewalk in Bangkok
  • Eating at university outdoor markets

Almost all Thai universities benefit from outdoor markets, and Srinakharinwirot University (referred to as “Saw Nor Wor”) is no exception. Its market is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so if you amble up on a Friday, like I did last week, you are shit out of luck. My friend Vincent told me about it when we were arguing about the state of Thai street food on camera one day, and although we agree to disagree re. all Bangkokians’ access to street food, we do agree that the SNW market is pretty awesome.

This place has everything, including an elusive yum naem sod (fermented pork salad) vendor who also serves khao chae (summertime rice) in season, a woman whom Vincent assures me is real and absolutely not made up like a unicorn or a mermaid.  Although I have yet to try this woman’s food, I did have some lovely khao yum (Southern Thai-style rice herbal salad) and some salad rolls that I immediately regretted purchasing. There was Thai-Vietnamese-style kai kata (egg in a pan) with corresponding kanom pang yad sai (bun stuffed with Chinese sausage and steamed pork loaf), as well as some harder-to-find offerings like mee kati (noodles in coconut milk) and something called Hong Kong noodle, which is reminiscent of the “complicated noodle” at Greyhound Cafe.

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There are also old-fashioned Thai desserts and sweet snacks like tako (pudding with coconut milk topping) topped with flecks of steamed taro or mango.

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There were also fresh fruits and vegetables, drinks and even fancy items like organic melon, grown via university project, Vincent says. The only drawbacks, I’d say, are the dozens of fried items on sticks sent to torment me into abandoning my diet and the blaring, intense summer heat, which might be the worst it’s ever been. Of course, the university students continue to munch outside unruffled by the weather, unconcerned about the coming apocalypse — another great thing about not being old, when you start sweating profusely and embarrassing your dining companions.

I’m so gifted at finding what I don’t like the most. So I think it’s time for us to have a toast.  Here’s to the Travis Scott generation.

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Let’s Eat

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Dak galbi the way Soo-kyung would have had it

Something was going on in my life, and it was becoming a problem. So much of a problem, in fact, that my husband and friend would have intervened, if not for the fact that there are only two seasons of it. I am referring, of course, to the South Korean drama (?) “Let’s Eat”, which is ostensibly about a sad pathetic young divorcee named Soo-kyung (season 1), but is really about Korean food. You see, she loves food (specifically Korean food, this is important), but she is so sad and pathetic that she has few friends to eat with. In her quest for finding food partners, she ends up meeting friends and even eventually getting a love life. Oh, and busting an evil serial killer and helping to fix up a troubled young man’s life and … you get the picture, maybe. Season 2 is about a different young woman in a different Korean city, but the same ingredients are there: the woman is sad and pathetic and loves food (specifically Korean), a sinister subplot, a seemingly perfect guy who is good on paper, a cute dog, an extremely cute young woman, a catty female co-worker, a convenience store, a dry cleaner, a food blogging mansplaining male protagonist who is inexplicably irresistible to all women, and truly incredible shots of Korean food.

“Let’s Eat” is valuable in that it shows you what the definition of sad and pathetic is in South Korean life, and that definition definitely fits me. Haha, jk. What is truly love about “Let’s Eat” is that it is food porn in its purest form. You know how you are watching a porno and the plots are the most useless, flimsiest contrivances possible, useful only in connecting the various sex scenes together? Pizza delivery guy when the husband is away, pool cleaning guy when the husband is away, cowboys going camping, blah blah you get the picture? That is “Let’s Eat”, where the scenes are just excuses for making the characters sit and discuss food, with a particular focus on the eating. I mean the actual eating, the slurping and exclaiming and chewing (mansplainer is an especially loud chewer), with close-ups for the food that are so detailed that I swear they use a special filter for them. It is here, not in Seoul, where I learned about black bean noodles slick with soy glaze, gelatinous cartilage coated in red chili sauce, octopus shabu. When I watch these scenes, I have to put my hand over my mouth, to catch the drool.

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Fried chicken, one meal featured in season 1

Like all great art, “Let’s Eat” can be interpreted in different ways. Trude, whom I’ve forced to watch every single excruciating/drool-worthy episode, sees “Let’s Eat” as an ode to female pleasure. I see it as a nationalistic celebration of things that are unabashedly Korean.* The food is perfectly tailored, George R R Martin-style, to each specific situation and character: sad-ass onigiri from a convenience store when the main character is stressed and alone; overcooked slices of liver at a dingy Korean BBQ spot when the mansplainer is sad; boiled chicken stuffed in glutinous rice, floating in broth on a rooftop with garden-fresh veggies when characters are just starting to get to know each other. Western-style steak at a stilted and pleasure-less meal with the losing suitor for the female protagonist’s affections. A molecular gastronomy dinner with a different, ill-fated Prince Charming. A “Thai” meal (which includes that most iconic of Thai dishes, PHO), where mansplainer gets to show off his Thai language skills. And in one of my favorite scenes, a bizarre Korean-Italian feast consumed almost entirely by a woman who has decided to give up on her diet because WHAT IS THE POINT (me every other day). Foreign food is invariably expensive and the settings uncomfortable, putting the characters in situations where they are ill at ease. It’s the Korean food — specifically the sort of down-to-earth food featured in bars and shophouse restaurants — that make the characters their happiest.

*(There are also more unsavory interpretations, like how it’s a cautionary tale about what happens when you’re female and single).

I have just spent 630 words blathering on about “Let’s Eat”. That is how much I love this show. I haven’t even gotten into how its examination of Korean food has given me an appreciation for the variety and freshness of Thai food.  It’s also given me the strength of character to open the boxes of kimchi we carted back from the Kim Chi Museum in Seoul LAST JULY.

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kimchi

In fact, I love this show so much that I’ve run out of steam writing about what I originally intended to write about, and which I’ll save for next week. If you desire a taste of something more Thai food-related, why not check out a Thai cooking masterclass run by Spice Vagrant? I initially turned on the first season of “Let’s Eat” to help jog my memory for this post, but now I find myself yet again sucked in, and will have to sign off in order to re-re-watch it in earnest. Send help, someone, please.

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The food of our dreams

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The uni roll at Kanesaka in Ginza

I just saw “Black Panther”, and plan on seeing it again this weekend with my son. Part of the thing I love about “Black Panther” are all the great think pieces that it’s inspired. But don’t you worry. I am not going to write a think piece about “Black Panther”. There are plenty of far more qualified people writing things about it.

One of those think pieces that really struck me — Jelani Cobb’s in the “New Yorker” — basically says that, yeah, Wakanda is a fictional place, but the “Africa” depicted for the rest of the world for hundreds of years was also fictional. As with most things, that got me thinking about food. Because food is also a cultural construct, and people actively choose how to showcase it to others. How many times have you seen images of Bangkok, streets heaving with locals in coolie hats and live animals (“Bridget Jones Edge of Reason”), or sidewalks choking with street food carts selling God-knows-what (every Bangkok food documentary), or intrepid, good-looking adventurers gamely chomping on crispy grasshoppers or freshly grilled intestines (everything else). I’m not criticizing it, because that’s what people want to see if they haven’t been somewhere; they want to see something that’s different from what they know. I do this too. In Harbin, China, where I spent four days freezing my ass off in -40-degree Celsius temperatures, I wasn’t really all that interested in taking photos of the deep-fried fish and steamed dumplings that everyone eats over there. It was stuff like this:

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Cocoons, fresh enough to jiggle from time to time

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Chicken fetuses

This is why you get the Africa you see in “Tarzan” and all those colonial safari movies and Taylor Swift videos. Who wants to see some dude grabbing groceries at Big C before trudging to his condo in On Nut after a long day of work? I don’t even want to see that, unless it’s to pass judgment on the quality of his food haul (probably instant noodles and beer, amirite?) It’s why I don’t watch reality TV shows like “Dance Moms” or “Real Housewives”: if I want to hear some lady yelling at me, I can just call my mom.

What I do want to criticize, because hello, this is me, nice to meet you, is Bangkok’s reaction to it. When Bangkok does crazy shit like build a “tasting robot” to judge food authenticity (a losing proposition if there ever was one) or try to “declutter” streets by taking away people’s food choices, they are reacting to this construct, this culinary jungle Tarzan idea, that is completely out of their control. This seems about as useful as complaining about anyone who is still Facebook friends with your ex-boyfriend (didn’t they hear what a dick he was? Omigod Taylor.)

There’s a flip side to this Tarzan, though, and that’s Wakanda: something that is awesome because it is different, something that you want to seek out, and not as a foil to show off the superiority of the mundane. When you go to a different country, you want to find that sense of wonder, Wakanda even, in your food. In Japan, that usually means stuff like sushi or — since sushi is ubiquitous all over the world now — delicious chicken bits on sticks like this:

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It usually doesn’t mean stuff like pasta, even though a form of it is what Japanese people (and Asians everywhere) eat all the time, either with the tomato sauce, cream sauce or pesto that you recognize and love, or with fish eggs, seaweed, shiso leaves and a crapload of freshly ground black pepper, like at my favorite restaurant in Tokyo (no joke), Spajiro:

spajiro

In Thailand, the food that gets fetishized as “exotic” varies, of course, depending on who you are. There are insects, sure, and pad Thai and soup noodles, but if you ask me (no one asked me), nothing screams “Thailand” and “exotic” and “Other” like Isaan food: grilled meat, chilies, spicy dips and relishes, baskets brimming with lush local fauna, and the holy food trinity of pounded papaya salads, grilled chicken and sticky rice. For the truly die-hard, the bona fide Thai chili head, it’s Isaan food that moves the emotional needle, the thing that screams “Thailand” whether that’s what a majority of Thais are eating (quite a few suggest that might be the case) or not.

Right now, there is nothing more “Instagram-ready” than what you would find on the menu at the extremely buzzy 100 Mahaseth, an Isaan specialist that I can unabashedly say I am a big fan of (hence the write-up of a place that is not even close to being street food. (Also, Instagram is destroying food, but that’s fodder for another day’s thoughts. Also, microherbs=millennial parsley)).  Yes, there are descriptors like “nose-to-tail” and ya dong (moonshine) on tap and its Thai hipster clientele and its very buzzy location on the very buzzy Charoen Krung Road, but it’s more than those parts. It’s well-made food that still surprises even the most jaded Thai palate and gives umami up the wazoo:

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The pounded Thai eggplant salad, which looks a lot better than my own version

The cassia leaf and braised oxtail curry (tom ki lek), the fish sauce-marinated pork chop with young green chili dip, the curried pig’s brain with rice noodles, the grilled bone marrow dressed in perilla seeds, even the house-made ya dong: there is so much to try, so little time. Like the next showing of “Black Panther”, I am already planning my next visit.

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Generation gap

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The filet mignon at Today Steak

(All photos by Dwight Turner)

There is something that happens when you’re seated at a table and a plate of food is set in front of you. There is no longer any need to think; there is only the basic, animal act of getting that food into your mouth in a way that will settle the stomach that’s telling you it’s been ignored. After a few bites in, after your brain truly gives you the green light to dig in and you really start hitting your stride, the euphoria of finally getting what you want starts to settle in. All is suddenly right with the world, your mind instead focused on this element with that sauce, or maybe that vegetable with this protein, the task of cleaning the plate the only one looming in your immediate horizon. When that world, your plate, is gone, so is your high. And that’s when you ask your dining companion, “What should we have next?”

This is something that happens, even if, as I was, you are somewhere patronized mainly by university students. Let me tell you, I typically avoid places that host a lot of university students as a rule. The reason is simple: they are young and their main motivation is value for money. They are young enough to think they have a lifetime of meals ahead of them, calories and grease and deep-fried breading be damned. So when Dwight (@bkkfatty) told me about a specific niche of restaurant that championed “steak” for student budgets, I was intrigued and made him take me to the Sam Yarn market, where Today Steak (or Steak Today, we can never be sure) resides on the second floor.

Thais have always been good at taking foreign influences and twisting them into something that is unique and probably unrecognizable to their creators. These budget steakhouses — and they are a specific niche, perhaps most famously represented by Chokchai Steakhouse — fall roughly into a similar category to the mid-century “luxury Western” restaurants like Silom Pattakarn and Agave that serve Chinese-Thai takes on Western dishes such as beef stew and Anglicized chicken curry. These steakhouses are, if not exactly parodies, then idealized versions of their American counterparts, serving food that is actually affordable and tailor-made to young Thai tastes.

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My “pork godfather”, even though I asked twice for beef

At Today Steak, we took seats in an air-conditioned room dominated by what was clearly a Chulalongkorn University student meeting of some sort. A bridge actually connects the second floor of the market to the campus, making it basically another canteen of the university. I envied these students with their lives ahead of them, thinking that there were good things to come. Because you see, I had already seen the menu.

The basic philosophy of these types of restaurants are that there is nothing that a slab of processed cheese, bacon or red sauce cannot fix. There is no dish in which one of these elements is not present, unless you give up completely and order the Thai food (and then, why are you here?) The prices never veer over 200 baht, even if you order a T-bone steak (160 baht). But again, why chicken out and order the T-bone steak, if you are here? You came here to play, did you not?

And, even if you do try to order beef, there is a very good chance you will not get it. I twice tried to order the “beef godfather” for 150 baht (OK, I liked the name), only to receive a breaded pork cutlet garlanded with a salad tossed in mayonnaise and peas, cold white bread touched with margarine and the kind of ketchup-y Thai spaghetti that makes you realize why Pan Pan became such a culinary sensation in the 1980s.

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Me, thrilled to be so close to a big bottle of mayonnaise

Dwight ordered the “filet mignon” (120 baht), which we assumed would be a beef ribeye. Smothered in a red sauce and slices of flabby bacon, it looked a lot more like well-seasoned pork. Does this explain the price tag? In any case, the fries were as good as Dwight promised they would be.

But authenticity is not the point. It’s never the point here, unless it’s Thai food. The point is that this food is the stuff of someone’s childhood. This is the Thai equivalent of that alarming “salad” of lime jello, pineapple and nuts that your grandma keeps busting out on Thanksgiving. Tuna casserole with lots of canned cream of mushroom soup and potato chips crumbled on top. Sweet potatoes crowned with cherry pie topping and mini-marshmallows. Let’s not pretend this is grosser than anything else we’ve seen.

At the end of the evening, though, we showed our age. We finished our meal at Nai Peng Kua Gai and finally considered ourselves fed. As I write this now, I am planning on chasing my next high with a big plate of pad se ew.

kuagai

 

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Glutton Abroad: Burmese days

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Lunch at Feel in Yangon

There is something wrong with being on a diet while on holiday. Not only is it perverse — you are supposed to be on holiday — but it could quite possibly be immoral. Yes, immoral, or maybe just narrow-minded, or, at the very least, criminally incurious. You are in a new country, not your home, shutting yourself off from sampling the very best that country has to offer. Yes, there are sights to be seen and money to be spent buying souvenirs for people who will throw these souvenirs away after you have left. But closing off the very best part of you, making it subject to rules that curtail the full enjoyment of a country’s cuisine — making that stomach, in effect, work while on holiday — that’s just wrong. That is no way to travel.

This is what I’m telling myself, anyway. That diets are immoral while on holiday in Yangon. Because it would be criminally unfair to Myanmar. And I want to give Myanmar’s cuisine every chance, as many chances as a good-looking white guy in the entertainment industry could possibly hope for. Taylor Kitsch- and Justin Bieber-level chances. That’s how generous I want to be to Myanmar. Because I suspect that food may be getting a bad rap.

Patrick, who lives in Yangon, had been telling me I should try out the food in Myanmar for a while, and I agreed that I should, in the way that one agrees they should go to the dentist, or finally get around to listening to that new Eminem album. Which is to mean, it would probably never happen. But one night (in Bangkok), Patrick told me something that was so simple that it blew my mind: Myanmar food is delicious to the Myanmar people. Just as Thai food is delicious to the Thais — something that Thai people don’t really consider, because they think whatever Thai people like must be liked everywhere else too. In Thailand: balanced flavors, different textures, good aroma=good. In the US: rich, creamy, salty, sweet. What is good in one country is not necessarily good in the other. What are the culinary values in Myanmar?

Denigrated as oily and salty by Thai people, Myanmar’s food operates along a wholly different set of values: heavy even when it’s light; highly flavored; filling. It’s food that asks to be remembered, well after the meal. All dishes — even the salads — adhere to this rule. The one time I went to Yangon in 2006, the only meal I honestly remember was Chinese-style hotpot. Who would I be if I didn’t want to try real Myanmar cuisine?

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Streetside sweets in Yangon, reminiscent of Thai kanom tua pap

Perhaps the most famous purveyor of Burmese cooking is Feel, an unassuming cafe on a nondescript street in what I’m told is the expatty part of the city. Once inside, customers are expected to grab the first seat that comes available and then somehow navigate their way through a vast curry buffet amidst a crowd of equally-hungry Burmese customers. Happily, Patrick takes charge, ordering a delicious beef curry, a sweet-and-sour fish, a chili dip strongly resembling Northern Thai nam prik ong, and a tart, crunchy pennywort salad that still coats the tongue even after it’s gone (“Heavy even when it’s light,” Patrick says). There’s even a clear refreshing soup that tastes of pickled bitter gourd. Even after all that, Patrick eventually gives in and orders the tea leaf salad — arguably Myanmar’s most famous dish and a mishmash of textures and pungent, bottom-heavy flavors that never skew acid. “Real tea leaf salads are never sour,” Patrick says. Everything is delicious, even if it’s different from what Thais would say is good.

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Feel’s tea leaf salad, with the necessary garnishes

Later, in Bagan, we get a different view of Myanmar food at an outdoor vendor set up in the shadow of one of the temple’s parking lots. When we ask one of the guards if he knew of a good place to eat lunch, we are totally unprepared for him to ask his friend to take over his post, and wait with us(!) while my notoriously snail-like daughter slowly makes her way through the temple. He takes us through the parking lot to the far side of the bric-a-brac vendors, and we entertain thoughts of him killing us only once. Finally, he leads us to a vendor set up behind a makeshift stove and set under a blue tarp, orders for us, and sits with us while we take our first bites. What they served: a clear, oily (but not unpleasantly so) spicy soup with pork; a salty-spicy salad of acacia leaves and minced meat; stir-fried snake gourd with eggs, and honking big fluffy omelets piled on top of rice bulked up with beans. This type of hospitality was not uncommon during our trip to Myanmar. It got to the point where we hesitated to ask for the bathroom, for fear someone would end up driving us to their home.

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A streetside lunchtime feast

It was an important lesson about Myanmar, its people and its culture, and one that may not have been learned, had I been on a diet.

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Starchy streetside snack at the market in Yangon

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