I’ve given a lot of thought to this today, so I’ve decided to share with you my findings. There are, at heart, three basic categories for the faces that guitarists make in music videos. There is the “I’m surprised” expression, made famous in the MTV heyday of the 1980s, in which the guitarist appears to be saying, “I can’t believe I know how to play this instrument!” There is the tongue-hanging-out or licking expression, during which the guitarist seems to say, “You are so lucky to be nowhere near me at this moment.” And then, of course, there is the “O face” expression, first described in the (blink and you missed it) TV series “Ben and Kate”. “Ben and Kate” was the Dakota Johnson vehicle which I felt was under appreciated at the time, but now that she is a movie star and dating Chris Martin, I feel better for her even though presumably she sometimes has to listen to his music. I don’t know anything about Chris Martin’s O face.
Tl;dr — I am basically saying that you can categorize anything. But sometimes you come across things that defy categories. For example, street food. I’m often asked why I love Thai street food, but the answer is always the same: I discover something new all the time. Whether it’s some fusion-y newfangler like ramen in a tom yum broth, or an old-fashioned tidbit brought back to life by some enterprising foodie, it’s something that stymies the typical categorizations that you see in Thai street food, like stir-fried noodles, soup noodles, plated rice dishes, porridge, or Isaan.
Just yesterday, while walking in the Old Town, I came across a woman in a flat-topped straw hat selling a sweet snack I’d never seen before. Called khao thid din (“down-to-earth rice”), it’s actually a deep-fried batter of banana, coconut milk and rice flour cooked to form an airy puff in the middle like this:
The flavor is only slightly sweet, the texture light and spongey. The vendor has been selling this treat in the Old City since she was a young girl, but claims to be the only person in Bangkok offering it. Eyes: opened. Again.
I came across some other dishes new to me while on a never-ending drive north to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, a trip that typically takes 9 hours. About an hour north of the old Thai capital of Sukhothai, a 40-year-old open-air eatery called “Khao Perb Yai Krieng” (Ban Tuek, Si Satchanalai, +6687-036-0060) serves … you guessed it, khao perb, a steamed rice noodle stuffed with greens and served in a clear pork broth with egg and fresh coriander.
Khao perb is pretty good, don’t get me wrong, but in my opinion the namesake dish should be guaythiew bae, rice noodles paired with a generous rectangle of pork and seasoned with the region’s prized limes, peanuts, sugar, shredded crispy pork and garlic. Add some slivered green beans, and you could very well have guaythiew sukhothai hang, or Sukhothai noodles without broth.
Another specialty is mee pun (this place has a lot of specialties, all cooked in front of you in a thatched-roof, open-air kitchen using traditional implements and charcoal). These sausage-like cylinders are a steamed mixture of rice noodles and bean sprouts, encased in a homemade rice wrapper and served on a banana leaf.
The only thing keeping the dishes khao ob and khao pun from joining the roster of Yai Krieng’s signature dishes is availability. When the place gets crowded, you can no longer order stuff served on skewers. But if you are lucky, as we were, you are able to sample anything you like, yakitori-style, in a jumble on the same platter. Instead of the more traditional khao ob we opted for khao pun kai, a steamed rice noodle (but more of a rolled crepe) seasoned with egg and herbs. But they also have a version seasoned with a dash of pork soup, and another with chilies because of course.
The only caveat to all of this hard-to-find grub is that, well, you have to get there. But if you find yourself in the area, it is well worth a stop when you’re sick of scarfing down regular Sukhothai noodles or 7-11 mieng kham-flavored potato chips and want to get a (much needed) break from the road.