One of the things I love about the TV show “Hannibal” is, obviously, its treatment of food. Because it’s a show about a cannibal who is also a psychiatrist who is also, somehow, a ninja, it includes a lot of cooking scenes. But it is all very much the exact opposite of food porn. Instead, food is treated as something that is alien and repellant. That is hard to do for a person like me who will eat just about anything, but “Hannibal” manages it just fine. Honestly, I have no idea how this man gets people to dine at his home. The dishes he serves them — some kind of gelatin thing with octopus tentacles splaying from the top, or a whole heart encased in pastry, in a wacky take on Wellington — are things that would make anyone blanch and suddenly profess themselves a vegetarian. Yet these dodos regularly tuck in, week after week, oblivious to the mountains of brains and kidneys and offal-meat sausages they are stuffing down their face-holes (this is possibly because they really, really don’t want to offend their host).
Besides making humans the main protein, Hannibal does a lot of roulades, vols-au-vent and aspics — things that, again obviously, involve disguising the meat. They are cooking techniques that I don’t enjoy so much, because I don’t like thinking of my food being manipulated in that way. Of course, food is being handled in every possible way in a restaurant kitchen, but I don’t like it being so obvious. I prefer food cooked on the bone, sort of looking like it was quickly butchered before it promptly decided to jump through a fire and land onto a plate.
This is why I am so feeling Isaan food right now. It’s simple and straightforward and mostly revolves around a lot of quick cooking: grilling and boiling, whatever gets the food on your table in a half hour, tops. Sometimes the main ingredient is minced before it is cooked and mixed with toasted rice kernels, seasonings and herbs (larb), and sometimes it’s about food that’s simply being served as is (the raw veggies that go with som tum, a grilled beefsteak accompanied by a simple tamarind dipping sauce). In all respects, every ingredient in Isaan food plays a role of some kind, with nothing extraneous or fussy. It’s the complete opposite of Hannibal’s cooking.
Some people like to pooh-pooh the idea of finding a decent Isaan restaurant in the Sukhumvit area, but I think good food can be found anywhere people are willing to pay for it. Such is the case with classic Isaan standby Nomjit Gai Yang (Ekamai Soi 18, 02-392-8000), which also has a branch in Srinakarin. There is plenty of grilled chicken and pork, and much has been made of their selim (Thai dessert vermicelli in coconut milk), but their som tum (grated salads) are also surprisingly good for an area well-known for its Starbucks branches, Japanese sushi bars and pubs. Long story short: Thai yuppies gotta eat too.
Som tums are made in a mortar and pestle, and the best som tum cooks jealously guard their mortars and pestles for generations, much like a chef would guard his omelet pan, or a Japanese oden vendor guard his broth. My friend Chin tells me the very best mortars and pestles (krok) are made of tamarind wood, but that ceramic or stone are too hard on the delicate strands of vegetable or fruit, turning your salad into a gloppy mess. At Nomjit, som tum is made in a krok of mango wood by a Si Sa Ket native with 20 years of experience. The salads are flavorful and full-bodied, the exact opposite of the anemic versions you might expect to find in this neighborhood.
Another great find was completely unexpected. A short stroll about 50 m down Sukhumvit 18 yields a smoking grill attached to two humans on the left hand side, along with a cooler of soft drinks and, of course, a mortar and pestle. The humans who make up Pa Oun (089-760-6478) grill some of the best pork I have ever had the pleasure of eating, either simply sliced and served with a clump of sticky rice, or mixed with lime juice and fish sauce and rice kernels to form a moo nam tok (spicy pork salad). I would love to show you a photo, but my computer is misbehaving. Just know that this stuff is delicious, and that I had to work VERY VERY HARD to get it — i.e., stand in front of the grill, getting smoke into my hair and eyes, for a very long time. This was one of those cases where, no matter what, the vendor just didn’t want to serve me, for whatever reason (maybe this just happens to me). So it sort of deteriorates into a sort of smoky stand-off, a culinary game of chicken. Will she eventually serve me or won’t she? When that line of people that have come after me tapers out, what will she do then? Am I doomed to stand there forever, like a statue? Will I become a landmark? Will people eventually say, “Turn right at the chubby crying woman in front of the grill, and you will find parking. Enjoy the salsa club!” Will I die this way?
She did eventually serve me, after all the people who came after me finally left. I smelled like a chimney for the rest of the day. The end.