It was an interesting proposition: turn out some recipes inspired by my favorite street food stalls. Of course, I would never get the exact recipes from these folks, however lovely they are; in the street food world, recipes are family heirlooms, to be guarded as insurance for the next generation. Instead, the recipes we end up with would be approximations, wild guesses, stabs in the dark — love letters to the originals in the hope that imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.
To aid my on my quest, I enlist the help of my friend Chris Schultz (http://christao408.xanga.com), one of the best home cooks I know. We would do a total of 15 dishes over the course of three months. Some would be simple, chosen for their (expected) ease. Others would take more work refining. All would, eventually, hopefully, fingers-crossedly, be delicious.
There is no question that Jay Fai (327 Mahachai Rd., 02-223-9384) is one of my favorite street food vendors. A middle-aged lady in a woven beanie and a slash of lipstick, Jay Fai plows through an extensive repertoire of made-to-order favorites, solo and with the help of two searing hot woks. Her fried noodle dishes are to die for: punters frequently argue over which is her best, wavering between her “drunken noodles” (guaythiew pad kee mow, so called because the grease and spice are good hangover remedies) and her crispy noodles in seafood gravy (guaythiew lard na talay). Her crabmeat omelet, currently holding at 900 baht/serving, is a Japanese-inspired eggy roll stuffed with mammoth chunks of white, juicy crabmeat; hers is the only kitchen in town to serve a “dry” congee (jok hang), a gelatinous splay of broken-in rice grains topped with a tumble of shredded ginger and scallion. I could go on.
But it’s possibly her spicy lemongrass soup with prawns (tom yum goong, priced at an astronomical 1,500 baht/bowl) that intrigues me most. It’s a dish that everyone knows, but I suspect few bother to tinker around with. Have you ever made a tom yum? I ask because, despite the “infusion”-style broth that simply calls for throwing a handful of bruised herbs into water at a rolling boil, this soup is hard to excel at.
Boil 6 cups water, toss in a handful of bruised galangal, 7-8 kaffir lime leaves, 4 bruised lemongrass stalks , a shallot or two, a couple of green peppercorn branches and 4 chilies; a few minutes later, throw in 3 Tablespoons fish sauce and at least 3 limes’ worth of juice, take your pan off the heat, and add your 8 cleaned and shelled jumbo shrimp; stir around in the muck until your shrimp blush a deep red, then garnish with coriander leaves — this is tom yum made the traditional way. Yet the flavor is … underwhelming, warmed-over Lean Cuisine after two days in the refrigerator. Where is the heat? Where is the tart? I was missing the fireworks, but without sticking an entire forest of dreck into the broth, what was I to do?
The verdict: I can’t hope to replicate even half of the flavor Jay Fai gets with her tom yum by doing a straight-up infusion. There is a chili paste in there somewhere. In the coming days, I will pound fresh chilies, garlic, shallots and herbs with my mortar and pestle and see where that gets me; I’ll also roast the chilies, garlic and shallots before pounding a second batch and compare the two. I’ll try another with roasted chili paste (nam prik pao), and in yet another, I might even add a dash of coconut milk. What do you think? There is a grocery store’s worth of places where this can go.
Until then. The leftovers beckon.