For years, I had heard about a magical neighborhood in Bangkok where southern Thai vendors congregated like college students on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. That is to say, there were a lot of them. The only problem was, it was too far away from me. How to go to this place, so far away, when I was so, so lazy?
Well, it takes another person, obviously — another person who is a friend, but not so close that she knows how much of a total and utter slob you are. That is what Chin is to me, and that is how she gets me to leave the house: a sense of shame, coupled with a underlying current of greed. I am always hungry, after all. And the promise of not one, but a handful of Southern Thai eateries, where curries and coconut milk flow thick and fast, and chilies blanket everything like a Biblical plague of deadly deliciousness, was too heady to be ignored.
Chin tells me she wants to take me to the Wang Lung neighborhood, which requires a Skytrain trip to Saphan Taksin, and then a boat trip to Wang Lung. Now, I know how much fun riding the “river bus” is for visitors to this lovely city, but I can confidently say I am totally over it. Just get me somewhere, quickly. Unfortunately, the quickest way to Chin’s favorite Southern Thai place in the Wang Lung market is on the water, which threatens to make me nauseated even before I take a single bite.
Located on the market’s main thoroughfare, Raan Aharn Pak Tai (a very no-nonsense name that means, literally, “Southern Thai Restaurant”, 086-664-8472) offers a sprawling selection of Southern Thai curries, soups and stir-fries that dwarf the offerings at any other vendor in the area. We get what Chin likes: pla samunprai (deep-fried fish with lemongrass), kanom jeen with nam ya gati (fermented rice noodles with a coconut milk-based fishmeat curry) and something I’ve never had before: gaeng sai gluay, or a coconut milk-based curry made of banana stems. It’s unctuous and slightly sweet — not what I expect of Southern Thai food, which is fierce and hot and uncompromising, but it is augmented by some flaked fish flesh, which in itself feels very Southern to me. I also love that it takes an ingredient that would otherwise probably be thrown away — banana stems — and forms an entire dish around it. Best of all, our order comes with a collection of different pickles and fresh vegetables and herbs to enjoy as we see fit, my favorite thing about eating at Southern Thai places.
Our Southern Thai-oriented explorations don’t end at the market. Next up: Phran Nok Road, which hosts a collection of Southern Thai khao gaeng (curry rice) vendors that have been around for decades. The most famous of these is Dao Tai (508/26 Phran Nok Rd., 02-412-2385), which has a reputation for fearsomely good Southern Thai food despite its relatively “remote” location all the way over in Thonburi.
The day I get there, I am starving, having saved room all morning for this very (series of) meal(s). Chin and I try to pace ourselves, so we only order my favorite Southern Thai dish, gaeng som pla grapong (sour curry with seabass and bamboo shoots), and kua gling moo, a “dry” curry of minced pork dry roasted in a pan over low heat with a handful of herbs and an entire pantry’s worth of chilies. I find both dishes absolutely delicious, manna from heaven, especially when coupled with the shoots, leaves and cucumber slices that automatically come to our table once we sit down, an offering to the Hot Chili Spice Gods.
I am so ravenous I don’t even notice the chilies, ploughing through half of my plate of rice until I see Chin across the table from me, tears in her eyes. She is not verklempt over the beauty of our meal, or from having to watch me shovel rice with so-so accuracy into my mouth hole. No, it’s too hot. And there is, she suspects, an overabundance of MSG. The curries and stir-fries are too “dark”, the “wrong color”, she says. In short, Chin is not impressed with my selection of Dao Tai. It’s time to move, ideally to that place across the street that looks a little better.
That place is called Ruam Tai and it sits kitty-corner to Dao Tai, an arrangement I suspect was set up to accommodate overflow from the more famous restaurant. However, the food here may be just as good. We have hor mok (steamed, rubbery seafood curry topped with a disappointingly icing-like dab of coconut cream) and a far better coconut milk-based curry of snails which have to be plucked from the liquid and their meat extracted via toothpick. It’s far too fiddly for me. I NO LIKE EXTRA WORK! Chin, for her part, is charmed.
Now I am absolutely stuffed, and contemplating the ride home, after which I will be rewarded by passing out on my couch for two hours while pretending to edit my book. But there is one more place to check out, and that is Chawang, right next door to Ruam Tai. It’s a shame we leave it last, because it’s friendly, airy, and full of food that is the most restrained (chili-, flavor- and MSG-wise) of the three. Here, I manage a few bites of khao yum (a “salad” of rice with minced veggies, toasted coconut and herbs in a light, sweet-tart dressing), and then groan and make faces while Chin tastes the sator (stinkbean) stir-fried with shrimp paste and shrimp, and gaeng gati, a coconut milk “soup” bulked up generously with shrimp and pakliang leaves.
The trip back home is a doozy.