For whatever reason, I don’t really go to Dusit to even sightsee, much less eat (unless it’s to Krua Apsorn). I don’t really know why that is — Dusit is, after all, a picturesque part of town, as Bangkok’s administrative hub; it has a lot of pretty temples and of course there is the Dusit Palace Park. The only excuse I have for it not really crossing my radar is that I’m not a government official.
Luckily for me, Adam of @otr.offtherails invited me to a mini-food crawl in the neighborhood, and, since I knew almost nothing about where or what to eat there, I was only too happy to tag along. He asked me to meet at a vendor called Hor Mok Mae Boonma, who of course sells the steamed coconutty mousse to a hungry queue of diners daily.
If I had to choose my top three Thai food dishes, I would definitely put hor mok somewhere up there, and the other two would change periodically, depending on my mood. I’m used to the seafood kind, but Mae Boonma isn’t satisfied with just making seafood versions; she does a scrumptious pork hor mok alongside her catfish and pla grai (a type of freshwater fish). Each of the three versions take their turns getting ladled into their banana leaf cups and spending a few minutes in the steamer before they are snapped up by whoever is next in line. Surprisingly, for Thai customers, no one is picky; any version goes quickly, and when you’re extra hungry, tod mun pla made from the freshwater fish is also available.
But one of my top three Thai dishes (OK, I’ll admit it, it’s the top) wasn’t all that Dusit had to offer. Passing along the way to our next destination, we saw a vendor selling pancake-like “kanom babin”, which I’d never seen before. Turns out, it’s modeled after a Chinese snack, and is made of black sticky rice and coconut, and not taro like we’d originally surmised. In any case, it’s delicious when hot off the griddle and cut into little squares: slightly crunchy on the outside, oozy on the inside, and only slightly sweet.
All the same, it wasn’t our original destination. No, that was the large, two-story restaurant that turned my head on the way to Mae Boonma: Gaeng Pa Sriyan, considered a culinary institution for all things that have to do with jungle curry. You can make do with the usual, like beef or chicken or fish cake, or you can splash out with your freaky self and opt for frog, snail or wild boar. Whichever you choose, it is guaranteed to be delicious, because who calls themselves a “jungle curry specialist” if they can’t back that up?
Now, jungle curry heads are a weird bunch. There’s nothing there to distract you, not like with my beloved hor mok. There’s no soothing coconut milk to mitigate anything, no jiggly texture with which to delight the eye or the palate. It’s full on, undiluted SPICE, with a few herbs (added to amp up that spice), veg, and whatever meat you have on hand to get in the way of the spice, occasionally. You’re fishing galangal out of your maw, you’re getting holy basil in your teeth. You are definitely, most certainly, going to feel some pain. But that’s what jungle curry heads love about this dish, the deep forested-ness of it all. It’s a deep-seated form of masochism, posing as Bourdainesque adventurism. Not to say I disagree; after all, I am a Pittsburgh Steelers fan.
That masochism is multiplied xx times once you get to dessert. If you go with the flow and order what everyone else is ordering, you are presented with three generous scoops of durian ice cream over sticky rice. Now, I’ve had plenty of durian ice cream, and it just gives off a whiff of “eau de cologne” durian, as opposed to the more concentrated “extrait de parfum” durian. Here, it tastes like you are actually having a full-on durian pod stuck on your face, and you are in some sort of Saw movie trying to eat your way out of it before the guy across the table does it and you end up dying. What I’m trying to say is, this ice cream is extreme durian realness, and I’m sad to say it’s all beyond my admittedly limited abilities. I’m happy with eau de cologne.
When I go again (because I am definitely going again), I will branch out into more of the non-jungle curry offerings on the menu. Get the stir-fried catfish in curry paste, like everybody else in the building. Maybe get the shrimp paste chili dip. And definitely, definitely ordering the ice cream “ruam mit” (mixed coconut milk) instead of the durian.