Little Portugal

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Plates of kanom jeen gai kua at Yai Thi

I noticed that I haven’t been complaining about the heat lately, so I thought it was time to get back to my regularly scheduled programming. It’s really hot, guys. Even when it’s supposed to be rainy season, it’s still hot. The rain doesn’t really help very much. This heat sucks. The end.

But even with this heat, I still managed to corral a few of my friends into taking me to the Portuguese neighborhood of Kudichin, centered on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River around the Santa Cruz church. This patch of land was awarded to the Portuguese by King Taksin for their help in fighting the Burmese in Ayutthaya, and they have retained a cultural hold on the neighborhood ever since. I’m sure you already know about the impact the Portuguese have had on Thai culture, but to fill up this post with more words, I will say that the seafaring adventure-lovers that were the Portuguese spread their culture all over the world. This includes Asia, where they introduced us to heretofore unheard-of ingredients like chilies and created desserts like the egg-and-sugar extravaganza tong yod (a stand in for ovos moles) and kanom mor gang (a coconut custard, inspired by tigelada). Some other stuff the Portuguese brought to us: foy tong or “gold threads”, a stand-in for fios de ovos; look choop, mini fruits inspired by massapa’es but filled with mung bean instead of marzipan; corn; potatoes; guava (!); pineapple (!); papaya (!); cashew nuts (!); pumpkin (!). And of course tomatoes, which they brought to everyone, including the Italians. This is new stuff we all learned at the Baan Kudichin Museum.

Kudichin has something for everyone here, really: history buffs, architecture and design geeks, or people who really like walking around in hot places. For me, of course, it was the promise of food that I would not be able to find anywhere else, the Portuguese-Sino-Thai dish of kanom jeen gai kua, or fermented rice noodles in a mild chicken curry.

What makes this chicken curry and noodle dish different from, say, a standard Thai kanom jeen gang gai are the spices used to season the coconutty curry, which are mixed quite happily in a food processor instead of pounded in a mortar and pestle to release the oils (a shameful practice to Thais, who like to pretend that the food processor or blender don’t exist). The chicken is minced like in a bolognese and flavored with fish sauce, coconut milk, and a hint of chili. The garnish is always slivered green onion. The result is milder and lighter than something you would find elsewhere in Thailand, the flavors fewer and more focused. It is, not surprisingly, utterly delicious. I ended doing this thing where I tried to stuff it down my throat like I was a foie gras goose, but I was doing it to myself. This is not healthy behavior.

The first place where we had this is said to be the jao gow, or original vendor of the dish. Directly across from the Santa Cruz church next to the river, Yai Thi (02-472-5231) offers their most famous dish — prominently advertised in front of the restaurant — alongside more Portuguese-inflected fare like grilled pork chops with fries and a succession of thick toast with various toppings, including spinach with cheese and butter with caramel. There are chicken nuggets and waffled mashed potatoes, onion rings and garlic bread. It is essentially your picky 4-year-old’s dream restaurant.

Our favorite creation, though, was the banana “crepe”, which is actually a deep-fried samosa stuffed with mashed ripe banana. We thought it would be everywhere on our walk from the church to the Kudichin Museum, but it ended up being a unique thing to this restaurant.

samosa

You will have to remove your shoes to enter the “dining room”, which in this case, appears to be the family living room. The kitchen is located right next to the river, so that the chef can enjoy a pleasant view while preparing your order. In our (in)expert opinion, it appears that various households in the neighborhood are supplementing their income this way, by welcoming strangers into their homes for meals. This is what we surmised, anyway, after heading next door to the next place serving kanom jeen, called Pa Jae (080-305-2448). Unlike Yai Thi, the menu is more Chinese-focused, offering stir-fried pork in oyster sauce on rice, fried shrimp on rice, and macaroni in tomato sauce besides the requisite rice noodles with chicken curry.

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Unlike Yai Thi, you are expected to add your own nam prik of coconut milk and blended chilies, which looks like this:

namprik

A plus for Pa Jae is the karaoke, which is performed at your table, while eating your noodles. We blitzed our way through John Denver’s “Country Roads” (a Thai karaoke bar staple), what I believe was “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (I can’t be expected to remember things anymore) and “Top of the World” by the Carpenters before we took pity on the proprietors and showed ourselves out. The karaoke was free, something that maybe the owners should rectify in the future if they value their own mental health.

The third place we were aiming for was the most famous restaurant in the neighborhood, Baan Sakul Thong (213 Soi Kudichin 3, 062-605-5665), where we are told the dishes come from the recipes of great-grandmother Chawee Sakulthong. A set here is slightly more expensive than the other restaurants we visited, at 250 baht per person for a plate of the chicken noodles with two appetizers, a dessert and a soft drink.  Appetizers include Royal Thai-type stuff like chor muang (steamed dumplings stuffed with minced pork and dyed purple with butterfly pea extract) and jeeb tua nok (bird-shaped steamed dumplings stuffed with chicken). When we got there, we were confused by which door was the entrance and ended up busting in on a private family meal. Apparently, reservations must be made 2-3 days in advance. It took all of my willpower to not snap a photo of the family’s food from over their shoulders. I am not yet a savage.

So Baan Sakul Thong was a wash, but it wouldn’t do to not have something to look forward to on our next visit to Kudichin. Wasn’t it Kierkegaard who said that true despair was having all of your wishes fulfilled? Maybe not. I was never that good of a student.

 

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  1. Pingback: Little Portugal – Daily Info Web

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