Author Archives: Bangkok Glutton

About Bangkok Glutton

Eating and writing in Bangkok.

Old Lady Shakes Fist at Sky

Mala skewers at the Chiang Mai Gate night market

If you need concrete evidence that popular culture sucks more today than 30 years ago, look no further than “Jurassic Park” (1993). If you haven’t seen “Jurassic Park” (and my 11-year-old son hadn’t until just a few nights ago), it’s the first movie of the series, based on books by Michael Crichton, in which scientists manage to figure out a way to recreate actual living dinosaurs with drops of blood taken from prehistoric mosquitoes. I didn’t fully appreciate it as much as it deserved when it came out, but rewatching it now, I see that it’s a fantastic movie with fantastic actors, fantastically directed by Steven Spielberg. The hero is a smart scientist who uses his intelligence and knowledge to make his way through a jungle hellscape populated by very hungry creatures with very big teeth. He does this, all the while shepherding two children who play the audience surrogates (one a dinosaur nerd, the other an unlikely computer hacker). Meanwhile, the woman is another brilliant scientist who spends the entire movie in khaki shorts and hiking boots. The rich guy is a well-meaning but dim Scottish person who unwittingly puts his grandchildren in danger. The bad guys are a greedy IT employee and a blood-sucking corporate lawyer. And the eye-candy bimbo is Jeff Goldblum.

In “Jurassic World” (2015), the heroes and villains have all switched places. The hero (Chris Pratt) is a former military guy who would be the like the game warden in the original movie, Robert Muldoon, but only if he were fused with the guy who trains orcas at Sea World and is also the walking embodiment of Axe Body Spray. The woman is the blood-sucking corporate cog whose sole superpower appears to be the ability to run full tilt in high heels (thanks to her improbably all-white outfit, she also does double-duty as the eye-candy). The rich guy is a South Asian man who is also a bad (helicopter) driver *wink wink*. And the bad guys are the scientists, because all that book learning leads to jerkfaces who use all their superior knowledge for their own nefarious devices. Watching both back-to-back, it’s easy to think the world — via pop culture, at least — has backtracked, especially when it comes to attitudes towards women, science, businesspeople, and Chris Pratt.

Well, I’m here to say that not everything has degenerated. I was pleasantly surprised on my most recent trip to Chiang Mai to find the streets liberally studded with “mala” stalls, modeled after similar stalls in China where you point to various ingredients, they get put on a wooden skewer, and are slathered in a spicy sauce and grilled over an open flame. Apparently these stalls are in every city where there are a lot of Chinese tourists, but somehow they are not really popular (yet) in Bangkok.

For someone who is *trying* to get through the short month of February with as much of a plant-based diet as is Glutton-ly possible, these mala stalls are a godsend. You can pick what you want — mushrooms, tofu, what have you — and even modulate the level of spice (original spicy, which boasts tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns), medium (really a little spicy), or not at all (sweet soy sauce). You can watch what you choose as it cooks in front of you. And it’s a mere 5 baht per skewer. It’s a clean eating meal (for the most part) that also costs a handful of coins. You don’t need to be a blood-sucking corporate cog to recognize this for the deal that it is.

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Self care

Graffiti in Chiang Mai

My first time at Soul Food Mahanakorn was in its first week. My friend James and I sat at the bar and I don’t remember what we ordered, but I do remember being excited to be there. “Rock Lobster” by the B-52s was playing. We had more than our share of cocktails. It was everything I had hoped it would be when I first heard about its opening, appropriately enough, over Twitter.

At the time, a mere 10 (!) years ago, there weren’t a lot of restaurants like Soul Food, straddling the line between your mom’s favorite place (insert appropriate old-timey restaurant here) and pleasant-enough eatery to take a tourist (any hotel). In short, it was that rare place that fell anywhere on the spectrum from a fun place to hang out with your friends over a couple of drinks to a restaurant to take your out-of-town guests to where you didn’t want to drown yourself in the middle of the meal.

Just last year

The truth is, Thai food in Bangkok wasn’t really hip. There were cool places to hang out, don’t get me wrong, like the deeply-lamented Rain Dogs and Wong’s, and Sarika Steakhouse and, for a while, Le Bouchon, but they all had the flavor of a student-run cafe in the basement of an American college building, or the backyard of an expat townhouse made up entirely of male models and European DJs. Soul Food was Thai food, but not precious about it, peppering its menu with plenty of Isaan and Northern specials seen as too “street” for a restaurant at the time, and a decent list of beers and cocktails that put paid to the notion that “good” restaurants needed to only serve wine. It was a culinary pioneer in a lot of ways and made people who fell somewhere in between — not quite entirely expat, not super-duper local — feel like they were at home.

I’m writing in the past tense because Soul Food has now (rather abruptly, like a loved one who passes away without warning) put itself on hiatus in the midst of a second wave of coronavirus and a government ban on selling alcohol in restaurants to control it. Soul Food was cool and fun; an evening there wasn’t complete without bonding over a Beer Lao or three or a couple of their “Exile” cocktails, says this alcoholic. I met some of my closest friends in Bangkok at the bar at Soul Food, celebrated the publication of my first street food book there, and for the first time listened as someone quoted an article that I had written back to me, not knowing that I was the author (this is obviously a bigger deal for me than for you but then again, so is this entire blog). Although the Bangkok dining scene has changed and expanded in so many ways, especially after the arrival of Michelin & Co., Soul Food was like a family member that I assumed would always be there for me.

Not to say I will lament them forever, because I truly do believe that I will see Soul Food again, in one form or another. Like most of us during this terrible time, Soul Food is simply taking a break, retreating back into itself for a time of self-reflection and self-care. I myself am trying to do this very thing. Soul Food can join me on my couch as we binge-watch “Cobra Kai” on Netflix and share a bottle of wine. We are simply holding fire, preparing ourselves for bigger and better things. I imagine that the both of us will emerge from this period all the stronger for it.

Fried rice with fresh prawns and shrimp butter, a personal favorite

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Samui stopover

Pork boat noodles at Guaythiew Ruea Khun Paw in Samui

I noticed only recently that I rarely write about Samui; if I do write about an island, it is usually Phuket. It’s true, I am partial to Phuket, I am playing favorites. And for whatever reason, I don’t get the chance to go to Samui that often unless it’s for yoga. In the interest of turning over a new leaf for the new year, I’m giving some love to Samui.

It’s also true that I don’t write that often about boat noodles. It’s easy enough to explain that one: I’d rather be having other types of noodles. But while in Samui on a family holiday — where I overindulged in champagne and freaked out in a French restaurant — my father really wanted to have boat noodles, and these boat noodles in particular. Being a busybody as usual, I asked hotel staff if the place that my father wanted to go to was legit.

“Oh boat noodles? You must be going to Khun Paw on Chaweng,” they said, and they were right, although I’m sure it’s not the only boat noodle place on the island. The fact is, if you’re from Samui, Guaythiew Ruea Khun Paw (“Dad’s Boat Noodles”) is famous, and everyone knows about it.

Now, boat noodles have a great mythology around them about having been invented and sold on the boats that plied the waterways way back when. They come in pork and/or beef versions, with a smattering of organ meats and maybe a handful of Thai basil to go with the broth, which is thickened with cow’s or pig’s blood. Despite the bloodthirsty description, it’s actually quite a sweet dish, with notes of cinnamon and star anise in the soup. And in spite of its association with Thai canals, in a lot of ways, this dish is a lot more Chinese than Thai.

Bad boat noodles, though, are really bad. They smell and/or they are overly sweet. At Guaythiew Ruea Khun Paw (Chaweng Beach, 086-408-2281), they do not fall into these terrible traps. Instead, these noodles are deliciously meaty, laden with scrumptious liver slices in a fragrant broth with just a hint of sweetness. Long story short: I was supposed to be pescatarian this month. I ended up eating the pork version of these noodles, and inhaled 10 (!) enormous sticks of grilled pork meatballs slathered in a sweet chili sauce to boot.

These meatballs are not tiny and dainty

Did I regret my rash actions? Not at all! I did, however, end up having an existential crisis at a French restaurant later that evening when I discovered that there was nothing that I wanted to order on the menu. What am I? Why am I?

But that is a story for another day. In the interest of the new year, I will choose to dwell on the sunny side of the street: these boat noodles.

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