Whenever I tell people I am a freelancer, someone invariably busts out the decrepit old joke about “working hard, or hardly working hahahahahahah” like I have never heard that one before. I think of it now because I have barely been able to post much over the past few weeks, and the normal temptation is to say that I have been hard at work. The truth is, I have been hard at work watching Netflix. Specifically, the show “Lords & Ladles”, with which I am obsessed in the way that Naomi Osaka is obsessed with “the villain from Black Panther“. As in, totally.
If you don’t have as discerning taste in Netflix shows as moi (or don’t have Netflix, I’m sorry), let me fill you in: It’s three Irish chefs with a nice, easy rapport who cook old-ass recipes from dinners held in centuries past at old-ass ancient houses. It’s a brilliant concept because it’s food porn, Fear Factor-grossness porn (offal plays a big part in every meal), real estate porn and snooty family history porn all wrapped up in one, and it is irresistible. I cannot stop watching it.
Here is where you realize that: 1) Aspic really does play a huge role in these meals; 2) Testicles loomed large as a source of protein; 3) You can eat lambs’ ears if you work really, really hard at it; 4) “Hedgehogs” are the name for a type of dessert; 5) Anything can be served if you encase it in dough; 6) Everything was served “a la Francaise” (all the dishes of a particular course served all at once instead of in succession, which makes me look more favorably on Suhring’s tasting menus); and 7) Booze has always been an important source of calories.
In the last episode I watched, “pepper pot” was served as the first of 13 dishes, which is freaking insane because pepper pot is basically chili con carne with a bunch of crazy-ass off-cuts thrown in. In the US, pepper pot is most associated with Philadelphia — a bone-warming stew of tripe, veal knuckles and whatever vegetable you could lay your hands on, said to sustain George Washington’s troops as they endured winter at Valley Forge. That would become a huge enough selling point that vendors could sell it on the streets of Philadelphia years later, when those sorts of things were still sold on the streets.
This is food ephemera in the way that recalls the origins of the dish “syllabub”, another former street food of sugar and bourbon enriched with a splash of milk straight from the udder of the street vendor’s cow. This particular dish was so popular that the vendors (and their cows) would be invited to dinner parties so that the syllabub could be made as fresh as possible. A good hostess would often milk the cow herself. Street food in old-timey America was something else.
Today of course, street food in America is often characterized as something slapdash and dirty, meant for tourists or people with little time or respect for themselves. It’s not something you travel a long way to seek out; the stuff you travel for, like pizza in New Haven, a burger at Shake Shack or Chinese food in Flushing, has long passed the point where it could be considered street food. Also, the existence of places like McDonald’s make working hard for your “street food” to seem incredibly self-indulgent, something for a dilettante with nothing better to do. And of course, many people in America no longer depend on that street food to survive.
This would be a nice future for Thailand, when street food would be an optional thing that could be sampled as part of Thailand’s rich cultural heritage and a fun pastime for tourists. We aren’t there yet, however. We are still at a place where a vast majority of Thais buy something off the street every day. Occasionally, Bangkok authorities get the message. After public outcry following the decision to “clean up” Khao San Road (please check out the tags on this linked Bangkok Post story), the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has reportedly capitulated and decided to leave it as is. But the message has not been lost: if developers have major plans for an area, the BMA — like reverse-Samwise Gangee-type handmaidens, or real estate Dementors — can be called on to assist them on their quests.
Few projects have as much potential impact for an area as Icon Siam, expected to open later this year (!) on the Thonburi side of the river. Fang Thon (the Thonburi side) has been percolating for a while now, thanks to new developments like Duangrit Bunnag’s Jam Factory and Lhong 1919, establishing the area as a true hipster successor to crowded Aree and played-out Thonglor/Ekamai. The opening of a huge mixed-use shopping mall like Icon Siam will tip the area over into a real hub, a full-day destination just like Siam and Emquartier have become.
Of course, this inevitably means gentrification. So the stakes facing long-time markets like Klong San Plaza are high … but you wouldn’t be able to tell from asking the vendors there. A former railroad station for goods on their way to Bangkok, Klong San is today the kind of covered market you see increasingly less of: earmarked exclusively for Bangkok locals on the lookout for crazy-good deals. Think jeans at 250 baht, designer knock-offs, discounted makeup, and the inevitable scourge of streetside Thai-style sushi, you get what I’m saying.
The vendors here, who pay a fairly hefty rent at around 18,000-30,000 baht a month depending on your proximity to the river, obviously see enough foot traffic to make it all worthwhile. To them, Icon Siam and Klong San are two completely different markets, aimed at two completely different segments of the public. They can only serve to help each other. But the fear among people like my friend Trude, who is studying commercial spaces, is that Klong San’s “hyper-local” nature is what makes them so vulnerable to being taken over eventually by a neighbor with far more money, eventually to be replaced by an ersatz “street market” that really markets to the hipsters that occupy Jam Factory. Eventually, the market for bargain-hunting locals will be only what is siphoned off to them by big corporations like 7-11 and its myriad instant noodles. Think chicken rice courtesy of Burger King, congee a la McDonald’s, sticky rice and Thai-style fried chicken from KFC. Don’t pretend you haven’t already seen it.
Until then, Klong San will give you culinary bright spots like any other local market: southern Thai-style samosas stuffed with cauliflower or bamboo shoots; Isaan food catering to the construction workers next door offering spicy chili dips, pork intestine spicy soup and herb-stuffed steamed fish with sticky rice; the usual soup noodles and crispy pork on rice alongside goong ob woon sen, or steamed river prawns in glass vermicelli. And, if you have had your fill of the cheap snacks and knick-knacks, finish your jaunt across the river with something a little more substantial at — you guessed it — Jam Factory, because gentrification is here to make noobs of us all and we are nothing but the human handmaidens to our corporate overlords, but at least in this case they are Thai corporate overlords and not Hilton Worldwide. Yes, the winged bean salad is that good.