Author Archives: Bangkok Glutton

About Bangkok Glutton

Eating and writing in Bangkok.

A good story

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Egg noodles with both BBQ and crispy pork 

We don’t hear enough good stories nowadays. It’s all about stuff like “FBI” and “Russia” and moldy old mangoes in the discount bin that have come to life and become president. It’s about bans masquerading as cleanups, and dye jobs gone bad, and “oh yeah, can you make a 10-minute presentation tomorrow, my bad lolz” and panic attacks about public speaking (alcohol or Xanax? Which would be more effective in this situation?) And of course, there is story after story after story of a vendor who had to move, who went to a new place and no longer makes the money he or she used to, or the good food that they used to. There are so many of those stories. Too many.

So it’s nice to hear a good story, about a vendor who won a loyal and devoted  following on Sukhumvit Soi 38, making buttery egg noodles (bamee) gleaming with pork fat and dreams. Thin-skinned minced pork wontons and barely blanched Chinese kale. Tangy barbecued red pork with a cracked boiled red crab claw. A clear, peppery pork broth and a scattering of deep-fried pork crackling, the best punctuation a bowl of noodles could ever hope for. This is what was lost when developers bought the area the former Sukhumvit 38 market stood on and the vendor was forced to move.

I should say vendors. They are a family of six, though the youngest, Khun Suthep with the ponytail, is the one I remember: taciturn and efficient, like a bamee robot but without the warmth. But the third son, Khun Sumet, tells me that they had all planned on retiring, until the flurry of phone calls from forlorn gourmets became so numerous that Khun Sumet finally relented: Find an appropriate vending space near his house, all the way on Chalerm Phrakiat, and they would start cooking again.

I guess I don’t need to tell you the rest of that story. Because here we are, a good 18 km from their original location, looking up at a sign that reads “The first bamee vendor from Sukhumvit Soi 38” (Sukhumvit Soi 103 in front of Suan Luang Rama 9, Chalerm Phrakiat Soi 30, 095-593-6146).

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I would not be here, a good 30 minutes away on an evening of sparse Sunday traffic, if it was not for my dad, or his resourceful secretary Mine. They tracked down Khun Sumet and family at a time when I was still trying to eat the bamee that is currently on Soi 38, mistakenly believing that this was what my parents loved and attributing its blandness to my parents’ worn-out, enfeebled tastebuds. But a bowl here puts all of that to shame: as silky as remembered, with broth on the side and enough pork crackling bits to please even me. The only change is that there is no more crabmeat; at this new location, the customers cannot afford crabmeat, and don’t trust that it is fresh. Instead, the crabmeat has been replaced by generous garland of crispy deep-fried pork. The noodles, however, remain handmade.

It’s amazing that cooking of this quality is available at 40-50 baht a bowl (depending on size). Although there is little incentive or reason for street food like this to exist, pure pride makes it a possibility. This is what people mean when they say they love street food. It’s all about the discovery.

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What’s Left

First things first: I have been invited by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to a workshop to better improve my blogging. Wish me luck!

Until then, the latest on what’s up with the streetbanthat’snotastreetbanwhatareyoutalkingaboutstreetfoodisfine. Mostly cleared away are Thonglor, Ekamai and Phra Khanong: this ban-not-ban came into effect April 17. Some areas around Siam, such as Henri Dunant Road, have been cleared for longer. I know this for a fact because it’s nigh-impossible for me to get a taxi nowadays when I leave the gym, since there are no longer streetside places for the drivers to eat. I have heard they have been relocated, but it sure would be nice to know where without having to go all Sherlock Holmes on every motorcycle driver that ever set foot in Siam.

This got me to thinking, and spurred me to finally (actually) read a blurb announcing an upcoming Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) panel on “Bangkok’s Street Food Future”. The gist is this: despite “misreported” city official comments about how street food is toast, it’s actually getting more regulated, and vendors have been moved from some city areas. The word “moved” is interesting: does that mean they are now serving food somewhere else? Or does that mean they have been “moved” to their houses, where they are now free to make noodles for their own faces? So nebulous a word, “moved”, “relocated”, etc. No worries though — since I don’t have a life, I will try to track a few of them down. Still missing the braised pork trotter lady from next to the Sports Club (as are all the taxi drivers I manage to flag down who are looking for her).

Yesterday, while walking down Silom, I did feel that some of the pavement was easier to walk down … has some of it been cleared? The only thing keeping me from saying that my stroll on the sidewalk was a wonderful experience was that there were still a whole lot of other people on the sidewalk, blocking my way. Maybe something can be done about that. In any case, all of that leisurely strolling quickly came to a halt once I got to Convent Road. It was street food up the wazoo: fruit shakes, pig’s trotter on rice, egg noodles with pork, soup noodles, all crowded in front of the 7-11 and various chain restaurants like groupies at a Motley Crue concert. Forced to walk single file down the road, desperately attempting to keep from tripping over a stray bag of groceries, negotiating the many umbrellas shading diners from the relentless midday heat, it felt … like Bangkok again. With nary a clipboard-carrying BMA official to be found.

Of course, if I’m on Convent, the first place I’m heading to is the vendor serving Thai-Muslim chicken biryani.  Named simply “Khao Mok Gai Convent” (on Convent Road outside of Molly Malone’s), this place serves — and has served, for years — a whacking great portion of succulent, toothsome chicken thigh or leg atop a mound of sunshine-colored rice, festooned with deep-fried shallots and a Tinkerbell-sized bowl of sweet chili sauce. It’s wildly simple yet delicious, as is the chicken soup that you should not do without as accompaniment: clear chicken broth flecked with anonymous chicken parts and the same deep-fried shallots, bits of fresh coriander leaf, and a mashed base of fresh bird’s-eye chilies. It is tart and bracing where the biryani is generous and comforting, the yin to that yang. I am willing to bet there is no better lunch on that road, inside or out.

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When I remembered to take a picture

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tasty cluckers

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Chicken for sale at Klong Toey market

Before I start, I should mention that Bangkok Glutton was selected by Feedspot as one of the top 30 Thai food blogs. Thank you. I did not know there were 30 Thai food blogs. Congratulations everyone!

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Thais love their chicken. As do I. So it makes sense that, last month, when I was attempting to go vegetarian, it would be a bite of chicken that would break my resolve after a mere two days. Chicken is my Achilles heel. Even good-for-you, boring-ass grilled chicken breast, set in front of me on a plate by my scheming, undermining husband, garlanded with a mini-forest of steamed broccoli. Yes I swear, Your Honor, what did me in was that plate of food, the culinary equivalent of Mitt Romney.

Despite all of Chulalongkorn University’s best efforts, there is still wonderful chicken to be had in the Sam Yan market area — at least for the next three years. Gong Thui Gai Yang’s chicken is a standout: garlicky and juicy, wholesome with a smoky edge provided by all that endless fanning as the meat cooks on the grill.

Here I am, in a video shot by Scott Preston, talking about some of my favorite chicken from one of the street food areas set to disappear from Bangkok in the coming years. Go while you can, and indulge in some chicken, papaya salad and maybe even a bit of grilled pork collar with sticky rice. You won’t regret it.

 

 

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Something new

joke

 

As you may have already heard, the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) had plans to bring “order” and “hygiene” to the streets by clearing away many of the vendors on the sidewalk. This is roughly analogous to telling Axl Rose that all he needs to turn back the clock is a nice black t-shirt, but that is neither here nor there.

The real story is, how far is the extent of the planned ban? Is there a plan at all, or a case of a government official being quoted on something, and then after the resulting furore, everybody going “Oh yeah our bad never mind”? Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

After widespread concern that the “world’s best street food city” ™ would go all Ghostbusters on its own street food, the final answer (so far) is that, no, the places that tourists like are all good, so you can stop writing negative stories about it now, please, thank you for your understanding.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the street food will be untouched. Just the opposite, the BMA assures us! In a bid to preserve “Thainess” of the street food, they have many different plans to regulate quality and order, including mandatory government-run training programs for the vendors. Phew! That doesn’t sound ominous at all! Because the very people I want in charge of my street food are the same sorts of people who came up with the idea of the Thai food tasting robot. I can rest easy now.

Maybe all the BMA really needs is to hear from us street food lovers. You can let the Minister of Tourism know your thoughts on Richard Barrow’s Facebook page here, where the government has already denied its purported plans to ban street food … anywhere? So does this mean my chicken biryani vendor can come back to Thonglor?

One place that is for sure dunzo, government ban or not, might be legendary congee vendor Joke Samyan. Here, in a video directed by Scott Preston and edited by Peter Potts, we ponder the glories of congee and the future of one of Bangkok’s most famous street food places.

 

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Spring Cleaning

curryrice

My curry rice place for now

I saw the movie “Get Out” maybe a week ago, and like many people have said themselves, I am still thinking about it. After reading this wonderful Jezebel interview with the actress Betty Gabriel, who played “Georgina” in the movie, it got me thinking even more … about Thai street food.

To me, “Get Out” is a literal illustration of what cultural appropriation is. It also serves as a tidy metaphor for colonization. This is what empires did: taking over foreign lands, cherry-picking the most valuable bits, and co-opting them as their own to their economic benefit. This is frequently seen as an example of the bad old days, when powerful Western countries were less enlightened than the progressive nations they are today, having safely been enriched by those bad old days already.

But some say a hidden type of colonization still exists. Of course, this belief is often derided as coming from arch-conspiracists and the sort of non-American ethnonationalists who rail against the evils of McDonald’s and Hollywood. I would say, however, it’s not that far off (*adjusts tin foil on head*), because that is something like my experience with McDonald’s and Hollywood. Just because we aren’t asking God to save the queen every time we make a toast or saluting a foreign flag doesn’t mean we aren’t in thrall to a foreign way of thinking — a way of thinking that makes us, deep down inside, hate ourselves and see ourselves as the enemy. And just because that isn’t your experience doesn’t make it untrue. We, me, a non-white on the rural Western edge of Pennsylvania: from very early on, we see in magazines like American Vogue or movies like “Ghost in the Shell” (“Oh God,” ScarJo sighs, sipping a margarita poolside in Cabo. “This again.”) that white is prettier. Smarter (if not in a nerdy sense, then at least in a “street smarts” way). More rational. More relatable. More interesting. And, if you are Asian, more manly. More important. The blue-eyed, blond “anak” dude in the Philippines tourism commercials on CNN: the world is there for him to explore, to be given free sweets, to be treated like family, smiled at and coddled even if he makes a mistake. How lovely for that guy. How often I’ve wished that “anak” meant “moron” or “dickhead”.

In “Get Out”, people are just like suits, identities to be discarded when the next “in thing” rolls around (is that a spoiler alert? Aw, sorry, anak). It’s assumed that they’re not as important as the stars in everyone’s show.  And that does something to us, we, me. We start making ourselves the supporting actors in our own head-movies: at best, the funny best friend in “Crazy Stupid Love”, perhaps, or Nicki Minaj in “The Other Woman.” At worst, we are Georgina, the shell hiding an entirely person on the inside, a person who hates and fails to identity with her outside (in Betty Gabriel’s words, “the worst kind of assimilation.”) That begs the question for us-we-me: where do we fall on that spectrum? Am I Georgina? Probably sometimes. How could I not be? Why wouldn’t we want to be a part of the stronger team, and how far would we go to get there?

Let me revert to nerd-speak for a moment. Georgina is like Sansa, before Ned’s sentencing in front of the Great Sept of Baelor. Sansa, who wished to marry Joffrey, and rushed to tell Cersei of her father’s plans to leave King’s Landing. How we all hated Sansa and claimed to identify with Arya, just like all those Harry Potterheads who think they are Gryffyndors (although one could argue that Arya is her own kind of Georgina, rejecting her own “feminine” qualities to take on the “active,” “strong” characteristics of the far more powerful men). Maybe, to paraphrase the movie “The DUFF”: Everyone is someone’s Georgina.

Including Bangkok. See, I finally did get there. Bangkok appears to have internalized the image of Asia as written by people like Rudyard Kipling: a collection of rickety warrens filled with dirt and squalor and bleating live animals, populated by untrustworthy, nattering natives (not to mention the things they get up to when left to their own devices on what to eat — bugs, intestines, yuck!). In other words, we’re a background to whatever Indiana Jones is doing at the moment. Bangkok thinks of itself as a city of extras. It is Georgina-ing itself, of its own volition.

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Streetside food on Ekamai in happier times

Maybe that is why, in the interests of “cleaning up” the streets and imposing some “order”, Bangkok authorities are methodically clearing away the “mess” on the sidewalks that the authorities never walk on, simply telling vendors to move elsewhere … until they have to be moved again. Presumably, the idea is to make Bangkok more like modern-day Singapore, an artificial city built as a commercial port for the British empire. The problem is that, when trying to turn yourself into someone else, you will invariably become a pale imitation of the original. Sure, you can try to become Singapore, but Singapore will still speak better English and, sorry, remain far more efficient than you. Just sayin’, Bangkok.  Don’t get so upset. Why do you always have to take things so hard? You had your own things that make you pretty, too. Isn’t that what we always tell little girls? You were pretty in your own way, Bangkok.

The latest area to be “tidied” is Ekamai, Thonglor and Phra Khanong. Unlike Sukhumvit 38, where both local residents and tourists ate, this latest clearing is really a strike against the regular people who work the many restaurants, shops, banks etc in the area: the regular working Thai. Where are they to eat? I guess Emquartier/porium, where all the Bangkok authorities eat? But where will they really eat? Undoubtedly 7-11. Bangkok is condemning these workers to a diet of instant noodles, cream-filled buns, white bread mayonnaise sandwiches, and sausages of dubious origin. That’s better food, right? It’s “cleaner” and certainly “tidier”. It’s more “progressive”. And if a cursory look at what’s available by the highways nowadays (Starbucks, Burger King, McDonald’s, and of course 7-11), it’s the food of the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Glutton Abroad: KL is trying to kill us

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Delicious panipuri at Ganga Cafe

I love visiting Kuala Lumpur, but at the same time, I can’t help but view each trip with a bit of trepidation. After all, May is our host — the same woman who took us to a char siu place, a laksa shop next door, and then bought two pork meatballs for me to eat on the road because I would be without food for 15 minutes. This woman. She hosts us. And, although we are immeasurably grateful, there is no way for us (me, really, who cares about the others) to prepare for the immense mountains of food awaiting us.

This trip is no different. Perhaps anticipating the gluttony in store, my husband (with good intentions) orders me a gluten-free breakfast on Thai Airways, which ends up being a wildly overcooked poached egg next to a smattering of unseasoned sautéed mushrooms. So I am hungry when we enter Fuego, but it is the last time we are hungry for the next three days.

Fuego does a very brisk business serving up snazzy cocktails, creative South American-inspired tapas, and a lovely view of downtown KL that has only recently been obscured by construction for the new Four Seasons Hotel. It doesn’t really matter though. It’s all about the food: a handful of guacamole and ceviche iterations, different arepas, smoked quail eggs on a seaweed and vegetable nest. A ho-hum-sounding salt-baked potato with foie gras is actually the best thing I can remember having this year, covered in a sage hollandaise made with whole butter and so delicious that I will never attempt to make it on my own. A grilled watermelon salad with fried halloumi is refreshing; the lamb ribs toothsome and meaty; and the Malabar fish stew surprisingly light. We finish everything, and it is only after 3 or 4 (or 5) Sangrias (including Nat’s) that I remember to take a blurry photograph of our half-eaten churros dessert, served with a salted caramel espuma.

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The next day, I am not hungry, but that doesn’t stop us from following May’s advice to “pick up a roti” at Sri Paandi (37 Jalan Date Mahmud 11/4, 46200 Petaling Jaya). The roti ends up becoming a chicken biryani or two, because let’s face it, we don’t really understand what they are saying to us and “biryani” was the only word we recognized.

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Chicken biryani at Sri Paandi

We take everything they offer to us, different curries and dhals from buckets and tiny bowls of yogurt and whatnot, so it’s a surprise that they don’t offer the best-looking stuff of all, whatever this is:

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But we are already headed somewhere else. Kumi Cafe (21, Lorong Setiabistari 2, Bukit Damansara, 50490 Wilayah Persekutuan, +60-12-651-1182) specializes in Malaccan Eurasian cuisine, a mix of local Malay and Portuguese cooked by chef Ruben Moissinac. There are expected staples like curry seku, a Goan-Portuguese dry curry thickened with coconut milk, otak-otak (a steamed fish paste similar to Thailand’s hor mok) and a stew made with keluak (sadly unavailable that day), a nut that is poisonous on the tree but edible after it is buried in volcanic ash for three months and soaked for one week in water that is changed daily.

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Kumi’s otak-otak

But the best dishes were unexpected, like the savory pie stuffed with dry sambal chicken.

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Don’t worry. When we finished, it was only a couple of hours before dinner, which would be at our friend’s house. There, a Nonya-style pork curry would prove so delicious that we could not help but stuff our gorges yet again, only to bitterly regret it later on when we cannot sleep.

The next day, dark circles under my eyes, the first thing I eat is lunch, because I cannot imagine even the hint of food anytime before noon. Too bad for me lunch is a dazzling Indian vegetarian at Ganga Cafe (19, Lorong Kurau, Taman Bukit Pantai, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, +60-32-284-2119) and I once again can’t help myself — I have to have as much stuff as possible. We have thosai, light flaky stuffed crepes made with rice flour and paired with coconut chutney, but also something from the display in front, sweet pumpkin stuff and spicy chick pea something-else and dhal and bracing tamarind soup in a silver cup. There’s also panipuri, little cups of fried dough filled with chili, potato, onion and chickpeas. It’s left to you at the last moment to pour a little bit of coriander-flavored water into your “cup” before putting it into your mouth and enjoying the perfect bite: crunch that explodes into something tart, salty and just a little bit sweet.

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Some of the spread at Ganga

That night, we eat where we always eat when we are in KL: Overseas Restaurant. But to mix it up a little bit, we eat a succession of different things that now blur when I think of them, because we also had a lot of wine. We had perfectly stir-fried lettuce leaves with touched with a hint of fermented tofu and a fish soup that reminded me of Thai gaeng som, or sour curry. Of course, we had the roast suckling pig, served the way only Overseas does, with a side of sticky rice and plenty of curry sauce. There were other things that I no longer remember, but I’m sure we gamely tried them all. We didn’t end up exploding in KL, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

 

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Glutton Abroad: HK Hustle

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Wall of cooling turtle jelly

 

In all my trips to Hong Kong, Causeway Bay has consistently been my least favorite place to go. The reasons seem obvious: 1. I always get lost 2. I don’t know where to go 3. Did I mention it’s confusing and I invariably get lost there?

What I was missing was a neighborhood guide. Tadd, a Cantonese Singaporean who has lived in Causeway Bay for years, is the perfect person for the job. This is a woman who clearly loves this place, a study in contrasts that hosts not only the most expensive retail space in the world (in fact, Tadd says McDonald’s had to move a few blocks because it would have had to sell 16-17 hamburgers/second to make up for its rent), but is also home to a Hong Kong that, to its long-time residents, is becoming more of a distant memory: chaotic, Byzantine, busy, and yes, easy to get lost in.

Luckily, there are lots of delicious places to use as landmarks. A turn down every alleyway yields a wonderful place for rice porridge, a good stop for pineapple buns, delicious Macau-style egg tarts that are lightly charred on the outside and runny within, gently braised bits of cow lovingly layered over rice or noodles. Up yonder is the best store for fermented tofu; next to rice porridge is the store to go to for every variety of pickled plum imaginable. Tadd walks us to what she says is her daughter’s favorite wintertime restaurant, and it turns out to be snake soup (Se Wong Ke, 24 Percival Street, Causeway Bay), its different varieties meant to address different ailments such as coughs, a cold or I-don’t-kn0w-I-just-don’t-feel-like-it-anymore — what I would have ordered).

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I guess I’ll have one of those?

And culinary discoveries are not the only ones to make here — under the bridge, at the invisible border where Causeway Bay meets Wanchai and the “spicy crab under the bridge” restaurant, elderly Chinese ladies await customers who flock here especially to curse enemies or ward off those who would curse them, with the help of some candlelight, figurines and the sturdy sole of a shoe to batter someone’s written-down name with. On a busy night, the intersection rings with the sounds of shoe heels battering plastic, over and over again.

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Ready for business

But we’re here for the food. As is always the case with Hong Kong, it’s almost impossible to fit everything inside your stomach that you want to stuff it with, because no one ever has enough time or room for that. But some standouts included Chiu Chow Garden, where we feasted on crazy-fresh fried fish, an assortment of perfectly stir-fried greens, the “famous” roast chicken, and stewed goose on a bed of fried tofu to soak up its juices “because in Hong Kong, you must eat goose”, says Tadd. Although the Chinese in Thailand are predominantly Chiu Chow (or Teochew) and the Chinese-Thai food in Bangkok is supposed to reflect that, nothing we had in Hong Kong reflects anything we’ve had in Thailand, including the introductory and closing servings of bitter tea, meant to aid digestion.

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Cold eggplant in a stellar sesame sauce at Chiu Chow Garden

After dinner, to settle our stomachs, Tadd takes us for “dessert”, which should never be referred to as dessert ever forever, because that would hugely disappoint anyone with images of sugarplum anything in their heads. It’s called guillinggao, or turtle jelly, and it’s traditionally made from powdered turtle under-shell mixed with different Chinese herbs to correspond to your ailment. Yes, it’s medicine, just like snake soup, and HK people eat it for “dessert”, because they are that sort of good person that exercises on their holidays and appoints themselves designated driver even before anyone threatens to tell their mom.

Wikipedia says turtle pudding became a thing after an emperor almost cured his smallpox with it (before abandoning his treatment and dying). Today’s versions probably don’t really contain actual turtle shell (only herbal approximations), but tell that to all the people who stop by Kung Wo Tong on their way home from work, or after a run (!), or during a date (?) — not only for one of the different kinds of turtle jellies, but for a healing tea, or bracing “liver detox” that tastes like a mix of wood polish with raw turnip. I get the “cough” one, which ends up being less bitter than the others with a slight peppermint aftertaste, palatable enough to eat half a cup of on a full stomach. Emboldened by the fact it isn’t as awful as I had originally envisioned, I even joke that I will be there the next morning to try it again. I don’t, though. I have braised beef brisket on silky egg noodles, because duh.

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