People frequently ask me about what I do when I get sick from eating street food. I almost always say that I’ve gotten sick from hotel buffets, but not really from street food (although the sickest I’ve ever been was when I was hospitalized in Oyster Bay from a wonky hamburger in midtown Manhattan. RIP, my beloved red Birkenstocks).
I can’t say I haven’t ever been sick from Thai street food, but surprisingly enough, it doesn’t happen very often. When I do, I just sit it out like I do everything else (my anxiety, Trump’s presidency, this world). If I do get sick from Thai food, it’s usually because it’s too damn spicy and my worn-out old digestive system just can’t handle it anymore.
So when I head into the jungle along the Burmese border south of Bangkok, it’s a real battle for my stomach, because everything on the table has been jungle-fied: made hot and tasty, the way the people here like it, with plenty of garlic and local herbs and about a gallon of chilies so hot they make your ears ring. Do you know the dish they call “jungle curry” (gang pa)? The tangle of meat and Thai eggplants of assorted sizes and roots and leaves that you’ve never seen before, spicy with a metallic tang and completely unmitigated by any hint of coconut milk or palm sugar? Think that, but for everything, with only heaping spoonfuls of white rice to give you comfort.
Not surprisingly, I got sick. It sucked, but it was a welcome reprieve from the mosquitoes, the jumping spiders that scuttled into my bedroom once I opened the door, and the dodgy Wifi, which only really worked once you climbed on top of an abandoned water tower to get a good signal.
It wasn’t really the jungle. It was Suan Phung, a town in Ratchaburi province that just recently got its own traffic light. Mind you, Suan Phung has loads of attractions for intrepid nature lovers (not me): waterfalls galore, a hot springs, an animal park/petting zoo, arduous hikes through the forest. In the early mornings and after the rain, the hills are cloaked in scattered patches of thick fog, which is truly beautiful. The border with Myanmar is just a short drive away, so locals claim that the soldiers on the Myanmar side like to amble over into Thailand on most mornings for a better cup of coffee.
But of course none of these things has the ability to distract like a good few plates of food can. At German Sausages Suanpeung (#315 Moo 3, 087-995-1119) you get a superior view of the surrounding mountains while chomping on German-style pork bits cooked over an open griddle with freshly-halved white buns, buttered and charred on the edges. Try to go early to Krua Karieng Restaurant (196 Moo 1, 032-395-166), or you will have to wait two hours for a serving of their superior gang pa. Best of all, we arrived at the tail end of forest mushroom (hed kon) season, so we had them every which way: blanched in spicy salads, boiled in tom yum soups, stir-fried with garlic.
But you’ve got to hand it to Kohkiew (Saen To, Tha Maka, Kanchanaburi, 081-986-6578), situated on the edge of town on the way back to Bangkok. Few restaurants consistently pack their tables with the promise of a platterful of deep-fried frog, smothered under an avalanche of deep-fried garlic and hot enough to burn the roof off your mouth. People frequently compare frog meat to chicken, but the only way in which it’s similar is in its white-meat blandness. The texture — chewy, smooth, slightly impervious to the flavor of anything around it — puts it in its own special category. Thais like to call it “gai na”, or “chicken of the rice paddy”. I would like to call it “delicious under the most specific of circumstances aka only at Kohkiew.”