As you probably already know, I have very little to do in Auckland aside from taking the bus to the yoga studio, doing my laundry and yelling at the television whenever a quiz show comes on. I end up doing a lot of reading. So it’s of little surprise, then, that I would come across this very important debate today on whether your preferred Mr. Darcy is Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen, and whether that preference is because of your age. Naturally — for scientific purposes, you see — I want to add my own two cents. My age: 47. My preferred Mr. Darcy: Matthew Macfadyen, all day long.
My friends are also helping me while the day away by sending me reading material. Dwight (@bkkfatty), who has just returned to Bangkok, sent me a story about the most recent move to bring street food vendors and the people who love them in closer accordance with the very brave freedom fighters who want to “return the sidewalks to the people.” F&B entrepreneur Chris Foo is living out my very own dream of filling out a street food fantasy football team by launching his own street food complex in Thonglor, initially sparked by finding his employees an affordable place to eat. It is set to open later this year and my only hope is to be able to find the time to go. Well, one of my hopes.
Dwight accuses me of writing about the changes to the Bangkok street food scene with “fear and insanity”, but I think this is unfair. “Fear and insanity” is my natural writing style. Also, is it fear and insanity to say something like Donald Trump is ruining American democracy? Or, stop buying property in Bangkok, because it will be underwater soon? Maybe. Maybe it is fear and insanity. But again, it’s my natural instinct. If it looks like it’s soon going to walk like a duck and talk like a duck, is it the BMA?
The latest Thai restaurant in Auckland that I’ve checked out is saan, which focuses on Isaan and Northern Thai food, but with the requisite nods to people pleasers like mussaman curry and Thai-themed cocktails. It is the kind of restaurant the BMA would trip over themselves to accommodate: upscale, but in a non-showy, quiet way, with its abundance of green plants and blonde wood. Everyone there is beautiful and young. And they get the details right; when I walked in, the barman was pounding a som tum salad with a mortar and pestle.
It’s a delicate balance, crafting a menu of lesser-known regional specials while still placating the diners who want to eat Thai food that they recognize. Saan does this well. You’ll find the super-rich, coconut cream-full curries — stuff that’s very Central and the most popular dishes on the menu — balanced out with things that a newbie wouldn’t necessarily gravitate to, but would find just as comforting as what they already know (drunken noodles with shrimp, kua gai, and pad see ew). Some of the dishes themselves have undergone a spiffy makeover as well. The popular-at-home Thai appetizer mieng kum sports toasted coconut, tofu and peanuts on perilla leaves in place of the harder-to-find wild betel. I missed a few of the flavors that make mieng kum something I love, like the green mango and the dried shrimp and the little diced bits of lime like tiny acid bombs. All the same, each very big mouthful (try two bites or you will look like an animal like I did) packed a big spicy punch.
Any time I see nam prik (chili dip) on a menu, I am all over it. So I was very excited to see a relish of roasted eggplant, mushroom and chili on the menu. This was also spruced up a bit too, since it came with deep-fried strips of tofu instead of what is admittedly the heart attack-inducing (but traditional!) accompaniment of pork or buffalo rinds. I missed those rinds though. Still, this dip came with a nice garnish of pai leaves (aka Vietnamese coriander), a flavor that I very much missed.
The waitress recommended that we also try the mussaman lamb curry, which is the restaurant’s most popular dish, so we did. I’ll say it: I didn’t like it. I thought it was gamey and sweet. But this is where my different taste buds come into play. Different people like different things. And that doesn’t make a restaurant any worse. It only makes them sensitive to the tastes of their customers. Who knew?
But about that som tum. If I felt like that mussaman curry would likely not find its way onto my family’s table in Thailand, I felt the opposite about the green papaya salad. Is there an old Isaan lady hidden somewhere in the back? Because that is what it tasted like; it tasted like home. Is the barman a secret Thai wizard? That alone is a mystery worth solving with another visit.