It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that I love food, or that I am drawn to other people who love food. My friend Gwen is one such person. A constant whirlwind of activity, she touches place here or there long enough to, inevitably, pick up a friend or two and eat at this or that fabulous place. She is also invariably kind, which is probably why the most damning thing she can say about someone is that he or she “eats to live”.
Look, everybody has to eat to live. But it’s a very particular type of person who lives to eat. This is the person who plans his or her travel itinerary around restaurants; who would rather go hungry than eat something that tastes bad; who considers life a series of meals, and every sub-par meal a missed opportunity. I am this type of person, which explains why I have no friends and no one will travel with me. I have also met other people like this, and it’s like meeting other people with strange obsessions or second lives — the guy who dresses up like Boba Fett at the occasional Star Wars-themed convention, or Bruce Wayne in his off-time.
A person who eats to live might not find much to trumpet about when it comes to the Isaan dish mieng pla: there’s fish, and vegetables, sometimes noodles, and a dipping sauce. There is no interesting technique, no volcanically hot wok, no smoke, no fire to speak of. No welcoming waft of steam when you lift the lid off the bamboo steamer, no doughy dabs wrapped like tiny birthday presents, no glistening jewel-toned slabs of flesh arranged artfully on a platter like pieces of jewelry. This is all DIY work — it’s all up to you. All you need are the fish and the seasonings. Anybody can do it.
Except that not all mieng pla is made the same. It’s hard to screw up, that is true, but it’s also hard to make great. And that’s what Khun Sakol Boon-ek, the proprietor at the mieng pla tu stand at the Prajane Lumpini market, is able to do. Plump, fat (and deboned!) pieces of Thai mackerel; fat, juicy greens, and fresh, unblemished condiments (lime, shallot, peanuts, ginger, green mango, chilies, and, in her case, blanched thin rice vermicelli, or sen mee), this is everything you need for an afternoon snack, a light lunch, or, if you are a Hobbit like me, elevenses.
Khun Sakol’s secret is ultimately her dipping sauce: a mixture of lime juice, fish sauce, garlic, sugar and a bountiful harvest of chilies, yes, but somehow the sum is greater than the parts. Obviously she won’t tell me her secret.
To contact her (they deliver!) call 084-944-6732. Or, if you are very lucky, she might be at the Prajane Lumpini market situated along the right-hand side of Polo Road (Soi Sanam Klee) if you are coming from Wireless, but I’m not sure how much longer she’ll be there. Sadly, some big changes appear to be planned for that road: Khao Thom Polo (they of the fire-and-brimstone jungle curry) are being asked to move, and even the mighty Polo Fried Chicken might have to follow suit.