Author Archives: Bangkok Glutton

About Bangkok Glutton

Eating and writing in Bangkok.

Sausage party

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Goat at Wattanapanich

Maybe you move in different sorts of circles, but I have been told a couple times to eat a bag of dicks. Not to my face, but I read it a lot. It is very evocative and memorable. I have never partaken of this bag, however.

I have eaten cod sperm sacs several times, either doused in ponzu and grated daikon radish, improbably battered in tempura coating and dipped in salt, or grilled gently on a slab of pink Himalayan salt. These were all good ways to eat fish sperm. I have also had poached rooster testicles, simmered in a hot pot seasoned with scads of Szechuan pepper. These were also good.

But I had never actually consumed animal dong (don’t worry, I will try to use as many slang words for wiener as possible). That is, until Matt — who was the first person to tell me about the Talad Rot Fai years ago, despite being from New York — mentioned a particularly memorable meal at Wattana Panich where he had both beef and goat wang for lunch.

I haven’t been to Wattana Panich (336-338 Ekamai Soi 18, 02-391-7264) since I first moved to Bangkok in 1995. A mangled cockroach in the chili pepper-studded vinegar made me not want to return ever again. But Matt made me want to go back, as did many, many publications such as BK Magazine, which exhorted readers to revel in the “lumpy and gooey” beef broth (said to be 40 years old, simmering in a vat that is topped up with more broth daily but never washed out). They also recommended customers try “their famous goat meat in Chinese soup, too” which may or may not be a nasty trick to play on unsuspecting readers.

In any case, diners eyeing the goat meat may opt for the “thua un thua diew” (literally translatable to “one per body”, 200 baht) and risk the shady side-eye of the servers, who will act like you have just ordered a porn video on the corner of Nana Road. After pointing you out to the other servers, they will eventually come back bearing the “thua un” in a “lumpy and gooey” broth, just like its beef counterpart, which is a tad cheaper at 180 baht.

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The beef version

Both meats are tender, as soft as anything I’ve ever been served in a bowl which isn’t sperm. That doesn’t sound great but it actually is, because sperm sacs are very soft indeed. I suspect it’s more about the texture than the broth itself, which looks goopy enough for Gwyneth Paltrow and bears the mild flavor and faintly medicinal aroma of many of my least favorite Chinese dishes. Beef tasted better to me than goat, which was both gamey and gloopy, a double-handled chore. Surprisingly, my husband — who loves both Cantonese food and beef noodles — did not care for it, either. Maybe because there’s no hiding what it is, a bowl of doinkers.

And finally: in the pickled chilies, another bug. A little one this time.

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Goat on rice

Despite all of this, it is packed to the rafters, one of the few street food shophouses left that still draws everyone, from all corners of society, to its tables. This is genuinely the case of a place that is just not for me. We finished our lunch next door, at Nomjit.

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Glutton Abroad: NY diet

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Taking a seat, courtesy of Oyster Bay Police Department

(Photo by @garethdoestheatre)

Tuesday, Aug 8

I never planned on going to New York. It was purely a spur-of-the-minute decision. But when Karen invited me with the promise that I would be able to fulfill all my greasy spoon fantasies — at a time when diners are becoming to NY what mobile cart vendors are to parts of Bangkok — I could not say no. Also, my Gold Card status was expiring at the end of August.

So I arrive in New York at like 10 in the evening, meet up with a super-jetlagged Karen who has only just arrived from South Africa a few hours earlier, and … fall asleep.

Wednesday, Aug 9

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Tater tots and Heinz ketchup at City Diner

The very first thing we do when we wake up — super early, because we are jet lagged — is go to the first diner we can think of. That is City Diner, which I love unreservedly because it offers everything you would expect out of a diner: greasy, hangover-dispelling breakfast plates paired with gigantic hash browns, crispy shards of overcooked bacon, and bottomless cups of hot coffee. Everything is, of course, delicious, but mostly a vehicle for Heinz ketchup, which is far more delicious in the US than it is in Thailand. For some reason, Thai Heinz ketchup is sweet and gloopy, like red sauce at a really bad Eastern European Italian restaurant, or a mousse at most molecular gastronomy restaurants.

I go to bed at like 5 in the afternoon.

Thursday, Aug 10

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Chopped herring, pumpernickel bagels, and a bunch of other stuff at Barney Greengrass

I love, love, love Barney Greengrass and try to go every time I’m in New York. Actually, it’s usually the first place I go to when I arrive in the city if I’m not already fixated with some other food genre (see: diners). I also love the story behind the Barney Greengrass type of restaurant — referred to as “appetizing shops”. Apparently, they were brought to New York by Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s, and encompass all the accoutrements that accompany bagels: salads, smoked fish, herring, cream cheese and eggs, separated from the smoked meats of “New York delis” like Katz’s due to the Kosher rule of separating dairy from meat. The “appetizings” (here a noun) come from the cold appetizers (forspayz) served at the start of the meal. Even though these types of places have thinned out a lot from their height in the mid-1900s, the story of the New York appetizing shop is the typical story of the American Dream.

At Barney Greengrass we always end up ordering the chopped herring, whitefish salad, and Nova platter, because the salmon comes from Acme, considered the best smoked fish purveyor in the city. Karen always gets the pumpernickel bagel, but I am happy with anything vaguely bagel-ish, and if we are feeling ambitious, we also get scrambled eggs with onions. And yes, we are super judgy bitches, because we never ever get individual sandwiches and think people who do don’t know what they’re doing. Always order a platter to make your own sandwiches with, since it costs less for more food. Duh.

Karen and I stay up late enough to have dinner with @garethdoestheatre at Cafe Un Deux Trois, where Gareth apparently lives. I have lots of red wine and a steak tartare with fries and more Heinz ketchup, even though I am still completely stuffed.

Friday, August 11

Breakfast at Metro Diner. It’s a difficult balancing act, being a good diner: you have to be friendly but not creepy, comfortable but not so comfortable that people end up there all day long with one cup of coffee. I don’t number this place as a place I have to return to. My favorite diner ends up being The Mansion, which has an old-timey feel and super efficient service, directed with “soup Nazi” precision by a guy who is always on the floor.

Dinner with Gareth at Vaucluse, where the chef chooses what we get: grilled leeks with anchovies in a mustard seed vinaigrette, a dainty Nicoise-style salad and New York strip steak with a battery of sauces, none of which is ketchup.

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Saturday, August 12

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Cold borscht with all the fixings at Krolewskie Jadlo

We hatch plans to trek to Greenpoint in Brooklyn to have Polish food, after which we will visit the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD). The one we choose is flagged by a couple of life-sized medieval knights in front, Krolewskie Jadlo (it means something like “king’s feast”), and the menu is suitably large and imposing. Karen wants to order every borscht on the menu, but after slogging to Brooklyn in 90-degree weather, I am happy with just the cold version. All the borschts we order come with a side of mashed potato (?). We also get plenty of sliced bread with lard and pickles. We also end up with pierogies, potato pancakes with Karen proclaims as excellent, and a plate of venison and walnut meatballs bathed in a brown gravy. They are out of the stuffed cabbage.

Instead of taking a nap like we want to, we walk to MOFAD, where the current exhibition (until mid-February 2018) is appropriately enough entitled “Chow”, about the Chinese-American restaurant. It chronicles the story of the Chinese-American immigration experience, where the first Chinese-American restaurant opened (San Francisco) and the stories behind some of the genre’s best-known dishes, like “fortune cookies” (which began as a Japanese-American thing, until they were all interned during World War II and the Chinese took it over). My favorite part of the exhibit are the old restaurant menus, some dating back to 1910. This one is from the 1980s:

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That night, we go to a midtown bar to wait for Gareth and split a slider plate: I have the beef and Karen has the chicken. We are going on the train to Long Island to go to the beach the next day.

Sunday, August 13

I wake up in Oyster Bay feeling strange and out of sorts, and even though we go to a perfectly nice diner (Taby’s Restaurant, if you are interested), I can’t manage a single bite of my one-egg plate (which Gareth refers to as a “child’s plate”) and drink copious amounts of water. After breakfast, on the street in the middle of town, I throw up for the first time, ruining my Birkenstocks and my new Eileen Fisher menocore pants. I throw up two more times (in the park, in a discarded brown paper bag next to an empty bottle of vodka) and in the ambulance (my first trip!) before I’m in the emergency room. Gareth, Kathleen and Karen spend an idyllic morning in the waiting room of the Oyster Bay Hospital. The doctor informs me that it was probably food poisoning, from the slider (or the condiments — did you know bad ketchup can make you sick?) and that my red blood cells are extra-large, meaning I’m a drunk (I’ve never heard of this before, not the drunk part but the red blood cells part). Later my therapist says maybe I was just stressed.

I still find time for dinner though, because who do you think I am? I get a big bag of sea salt popcorn from Duane Reade and eat that while Karen gets us takeout from Ollie’s. I go for the steamed white rice with steamed veggies and tofu, no sauce.

Monday, August 13

For breakfast, I have the cold miso soup that accompanied my Ollie’s order, straight from the fridge. Karen says I am slowly turning into her.

For dinner, we meet up with Bryn Mawrter friends Laurel and Adele for early drinks at Maison Premiere in Williamsburg. It’s the kind of place where the service seems very good, except that it takes an hour to get a platter of oysters, and where every woman is beautiful but you want to punch every man in the face. Also, where you need to make a reservation even though it’s 5:30 in the afternoon.

I know I was hospitalized for food poisoning the day before, but I cannot resist fresh oysters when they are sitting right in front of me. I have maybe 12. ANASSA KATA.

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These are actually from Chelsea Market

Having successfully gone barf-free at the worst bar in New York to ever barf, I feel confident enough to steer my friends towards a Thai restaurant in Williamsburg. We then proceed to have the worst Thai meal any of us have ever had anywhere, including anything cooked by my own hand. The warning signs were not really there; the staff was fully Thai, after all. However, we could have been tipped off by the “crab rangoon” on the menu if we had really paid attention, and not thought it was a kitschy nod to the past. The green curry is reminiscent of … a green curry you would get at a molecular gastronomy restaurant (I have that on the brain right now, sorry). But when the “Thai seafood salad” comes as boiled shrimp dumped on top of a mound of iceberg lettuce and doused in a “spicy Thai” salad dressing, the alarm bells really go off. It’s not incompetence or lack of knowledge. These people genuinely do not give a shit. I know I made fun of the Thai government’s food robot a while back, but now I can truly understand and even sympathize with their feelings. Nobody wants to be blamed for spicy Thai iceberg lettuce salad. I certainly didn’t, and I didn’t even make it.

Tuesday, August 14

Like Godzilla devouring a Japanese village, I manage to inhale an entire gluten-free Vegana pizza at Keste, after having downed an entire lobster and a passel of oysters at Chelsea Market. It’s my happiest food day by far.

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Korat state of mind

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Somtum Korat at Kanom Jeen Kru Yod

Korat is known as the “gateway to Isaan”, but there’s nothing entry-level about the Northeastern Thai food you get here. Green papaya salad, grilled meat, sticky rice, fermented Thai anchovies — it’s all there, graced with a decidedly “Korat” stamp like an edible Isaan-style “LV” with extra chilies on top, if you please.

There are as many types of som tum, or what’s commonly known as “green papaya salad”, as there are fruits and vegetables. That’s because, while the green papaya variety is the most well-known, you can make som tum out of just about anything: corn, green banana, sweet santol (known as gratawn). “Som tum Korat”, ostensibly named after the town in which it was created, veers from the usual with the addition of pickled field crab, dried shrimp and fermented Thai anchovy juice alongside all that green papaya and pounded long beans, garnished with a shower of roasted peanuts. The result is spicy and salty with a touch of sweet, in a region where sweet flavors are usually anathema.

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Som tum Korat with plenty of moo yaw at Som Tum Pan Lan

Of course, the flavors vary depending on the chef. Despite its deceptively simple appearance and quick assembly time, som tum is surprisingly hard to get right, a tightrope walk between salt, spice and tart, with an additional hit of sweet or bitter when the recipe demands it.

At Kanom Jeen Kru Yod (200 moo 9, Moo Ban Kokpai 2, Thanon Siriratchathani, 081-548-4097), the restaurant is named after the fermented rice noodles that locals flock to for lunch to eat slathered in the gang gai, or chicken curry.  But as delicious as those noodles are, the som tum salads are just as toothsome, big, bright flavors in a jumble of fresh, crisp textures and colors. This is also the big draw at Som Tum Pan Lan (Ratchasima-Pakthongchai Road, 081-966-1497), where we waited out a torrential downpour while hunched over a plate of som tum, bulked up and chilled out with a generous handful of moo yaw, or steamed Vietnamese-style pork sausage.

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A vat of Kru Yod’s ubiquitous chicken curry

Sometimes people want a little drama with their som tum. Or something to properly Instagram. I hate to say it, as I am a big Instagram user too (follow me @bangkokglutton guys!), but Instagram is ruining food. To win more interest, restaurants are creating dishes with an eye toward how spectacular they will look in photos, instead of how these dishes actually taste. The birth of som tum tad (literally “som tum on a tray”, surrounded by a solar system of items meant to go with the som tum “star” in the middle) falls into this category, but some versions are more palatable than others. Enter Thum Saeb Gaen Khon (11/2 Suebsiri Road, Soi Suebsiri 3, 084-605-9120), which, alongside a very tasty selection of regular som tums, thom saeb (spicy Isaan-style soups) and grilled meats, offers an enormous som tum tad centered around their very own “som tum gaen khon” and less manicured than the scary specimens haunting your local food court.

Here, the som tum is surrounded by fried pork rinds, fermented rice noodles, soy sauce-fried rice vermicelli, sprouts, pickled mustard greens, blanched cabbage, dried sweet pork, katin seeds, boiled shrimp, steamed cuttlefish, steamed mussels, blanched surimi, dried shrimp, sour fermented pork sausage, and three types of egg: hard-boiled, salted, and century. It’s a meal fit for 3-4 kings.

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Som tum tad at Thum Saeb Gaen Khon

When/if you get som tummed out, there are still some Korat-based culinary alternatives. Krua Khun Ton (Jomsuranyat Road) is as hidden as a hidden gem gets anywhere: tucked into an outskirts-lying development that calls to mind images of basement meth labs and Episode 4 of “True Detective” Season 1. Somehow, amidst all of this, a restaurant terrace sits behind a tranquil pool of carp and artful display of old furniture arranged around an ancient television set. Everything is good here, if the enormous crowd of people (everyone awake in Korat on a Sunday morning) is anything to go by. We settle in with a mee Korat (fried rice vermicelli with dark soy sauce, fish sauce, palm sugar, chilies and pork) and the restaurant’s signature, kanom jeen nam ya pla rah (fermented rice noodles with fermented anchovy curry).

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Khun Ton’s mee Korat

The soup — deep, salty, slightly funky and somehow sweet — is studded with thick, meaty chunks of fish and accompanied by a plethora of garnishes including shredded cabbage, pickled greens, and green foliage that I sadly didn’t catch the name of but tasted both tannic and tart, gorgeous next to the murky curry.

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Kanom jeen nam ya pla rah

It’s hard to leave Korat without feeling like you have swallowed a submarine whole. But like all physically taxing experiences, like childbirth, you forget about the pain afterwards in favor of the good and fuzzy feelings. Over the course of two days, I ate enough for a week’s worth of meals. This was only a little bit of it. But damn it if I didn’t end up wishing I could stand to eat a little more.

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BKKian of a certain type

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Pork meatball congee at … Joke Samyan?

There used to be a certain type of person you would always bump into in Bangkok. This type was a real Bangkokian, the same way you expect to only find a certain type of person (black-clad, highly strung) in New York, one in L.A. (glossy, tanned, a believer in detox cleanses and crystals), or in Paris (grumpy). The Bangkokian is the person who will gauge your street food knowledge upon first meeting you, gently probing whether you have been to hotpot in Sutthisan (yes) or Nai Ho near Mahachai Market (no) and slot you into the food knowledge hierarchy accordingly. Like rival dungeon masters comparing arcane Dungeons & Dragons lore, these Bangkokians equated more knowledge with more power, and treated you accordingly. It was a rivalry, but it was also a shared language. A person who knew their street food spots was a cultured person.

That type of Bangkokian is disappearing, the food knowledge now pushed aside in favor of K-pop bands, handbag designs and where to find the best Korean dessert cafes. Fewer people care about where to eat street food, making it easier for that street food to disappear. Already, rumor has it that plans are afoot to clear up Suan Plu and Convent, adding to the grim list of places (Asoke, Sukhumvit, Thonglor/Ekamai) that are deleting older spots from their landscape in the name of progress. Unfortunately, it happens everywhere.

Win (not my husband) is one of this dying breed, even though he is young. It’s a rare combo, this youth and knowledge. Win is good for a quick spin around the boat noodle area canal-side, good for sussing out the best spots for beef noodles (his favorite), good even for making confident foodie suggestions in cities abroad. He is also good for correcting me, like when he tells me that the Joke Samyan at the actual Samyan is not really Joke Samyan, but an imposter like the Black Swan who comes in at the third act and steals the prince’s attentions away (I am the prince in this scenario okay). It’s an example of what happens when intermittent attempts to “clean up the streets” are carried out, vendors are chased away, and others take their place. It’s a cycle as old as Bangkok street food.

This spot, helpfully also named “Joke Samyan” and all the way in upper Sukhumit (Udom Suk Soi 9, 081-350-6671), features the silky texture and highly seasoned meatballs that congee aficionados prize. The atmosphere is pure old-school shophouse, replete with a loud soundtrack of ’80’s power ballads (Air Supply and Richard Marx figure prominently), sung along to by one accommodating shoplady as the other critiques your congee-slurping technique in between stabs at her knitting. Who would want their joke any other way?

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Glutton Abroad: I’ve got Seoul

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I made this kimchi

While traveling, it is occasionally fun to hear remarks that you may have made to a visitor to your own country — call it “conversational karma”. In my case, it came from being warned repeatedly that this dish or that morsel might be “too spicy”, and to beware. This has never made me not think of the kid glove treatment I give people who come to Thailand, which no one has ever associated with chilies or spicy food before, no siree.

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Ogling Korean-style hot dogs at Lotte World

Like the Thais, Koreans came into contact with chilies in the 1600s, courtesy of the seafaring Portuguese. And like the Thais, Koreans have taken to chilies with a vengeance. There is rarely something adorning the dinner table that is not slathered in some kind of chili sauce, ready to be cooked and wrapped in greenery of some kind, a handy food delivery system in lieu of those sadistic metal chopsticks that Koreans like to use. If it’s never come into contact with chili before, no worries, they have it covered. I learned this the hard way when I went to Krispy Kreme for the first of what would be many times (I have a 7-year-old) and ordered the “hot original”. No, the “hot original” is not a glazed doughnut hot from the oven. It is a doughnut flavored with kimchi spices and then glazed. This would explain its bright orange color and the bits of scallion that appear to float on the surface of the dough. For once, it was indeed “too spicy”. My son was not a fan.

But it was summer, and many other delights awaited us. For example, the chilled buckwheat (and sometimes corn!) noodles, a great relief to this particular Glutton allergic to most other types of flour:

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Chilled buckwheat noodles with shaved ice, hard-boiled egg and cold nashi pear

This was a great relief at mealtimes because the weather was so stultifyingly hot, it made me actually miss Bangkok. It felt like walking around inside of a microwave. Needless to say, it was murder on everyone around me, as I had chosen the occasion of this trip to start experimenting with natural deodorants. I spent the week oscillating between “orange alert” (smelling like ketchup) and “red alert” (lamb souvlaki).

The Korean antidote to hot weather is (quite characteristically for people who believe that eating ginseng is good for you) consuming even more hot food. This is why we ended up at Gobong Samgyetang in the mall (it has a Michelin star don’t you know) ingesting hot chicken-ginseng soup at midday. The samgyetang features a whole chicken — not post-steroid Ben Affleck-sized, but juvenile-sized — stuffed with rice and ginseng, boiled and served in its own broth with dates and a smattering of sliced leeks and black sesame seeds. Served with a side of pickles, kimchi, and a “bone bucket” into which to throw your discards, it is both delicious and sweat-inducing. On weekends, Gobong only serves either sanghwang or hanbang samgyetang (with added medicinal herbs). This one-pot meal is considered a summertime go-to.

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Hanbang samgyetang at Gobong

If chicken stew is meant to improve your stamina, I guess even more stew could turn you into Wonder Woman. With this in mind, our friends took us to get kimchi jjigae (kimchi hotpot) at a convivial, buzzy restaurant where everything was in Korean, including the name. Everyone was thoughtfully given bibs to wear, but the cooler, in-the-know Koreans simply draped these bibs over their laps, because unlike me, they wouldn’t be sloshing their grody kimchi juices everywhere. This stew was served with sides of cold soup and dried seaweed, as well as chilled guava juice, all meant to lessen the sting of the spice. Koreans seem more thoughtful about this than the Thais, whose anti-spice remedies amount to laughing at you, cucumbers, and rice.

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Kimchi stew with a side of cold soup to alleviate the spice

Such is our love for chicken that we even made time to trek two hours out of town (on three different trains) to Chuncheon, where a street crowned with a giant golden rooster is lined with myriad restaurants all serving the same dish: dak galbi, or chicken stir-fried on a hot plate.

 

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Dak galbi, at the most popular place on the strip

Our friend Michelle tells us that dak galbi was a dish favored by poor students who dreamed of dining on real galbi made from red meat, but could only afford chicken. So the dish was rebranded as galbi, although it in no way involves “ribs”. Our host Jay ordered two servings of intestine to go with the chicken, probably because he was punking us. Not surprisingly, this stirfry — chicken, intestines, cabbage, scallions, onions et al — are wrapped in lettuce leaves and eaten with your choice of sauce, kimchi and raw garlic, if you like.

Incidentally, that is also the way we ate our Northern Chinese-style lamb kebabs, skewered and cooked in front of us at the table and later dipped into spices like dried chili and fennel seed while still dripping with fat:

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Lamb kebab, with spices

Of course, no trip to Seoul would be complete (for a Thai, at least) without some Korean “barbecue”. Our hosts ordered us both pork and chicken, plus copious amounts of soju (distilled rice liquor) and enough kimchi to sink a dinghy, but before embarking on dinner we had to pass the test of the complimentary appetizers: a mound of Jay’s fave, black beef tripe, accompanied by pickled perilla leaves and several cubes of raw liver.

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There is not much I can tell you about this except that it tastes exactly like it looks. I preferred the liver cubes seared, wrapped in fresh perilla leaves with a nice big dab of ssamjang (brown dipping sauce). The soju didn’t hurt either.

 

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Tomorrow’s street food

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A table full of food as everybody goes crazy at Thalad Ruamsap

Barbecue was the glue that held the American South together. Served at political rallies as a way to lobby for votes and at church parties as a way to lure lazy congregants, barbecues became associated with celebrations and a surefire way to deliciously dispose of the hordes of wild pigs that lived in the forests at the time.

The production of pork became a mark of Southern American patriotism, a way of making sure the South was self-sufficient. Attending a barbecue was not considered especially patriotic, because of course you would attend a barbecue, who wouldn’t, unless you were crazy and had no friends. The “whole hog” was used — this was no time for getting queasy about pig parts — so diners could get their choice of cracklings, Boston butts, bacon, ham hocks, fatback, ears, tongue, spleen, feet, tails, smoked intestines stuffed with sausage, and souse (an indiscriminate mix of the hearts, lungs, skins, etc). The lucky pig was cooked slowly through indirect heat from wood or coals that had to be painstakingly replaced every 10 or 15 minutes, in a smoky shack built over the pork situation just for the occasion.  The resulting meat, after 10 hours of work, was served with lemonade and whisky, because a party’s a party. These barbecues were considered “class-blind” occasions, a place that served as the glue for Southern society. The story of barbecue — a tradition that became entrenched in the 50 years before the Civil War — turned into the story of America.

It doesn’t take a great leap to say that Thai street food could once have been considered roughly the same thing, the glue that held Thai people together. There were places that were, quite obviously, closed to no one — staffed with plastic stools and steaming hot vats of something edible and, ideally, a grumpy person who would put you in your place — but clamored over by everyone, because the food was that good (and cheap, but mostly good, because you don’t have a cook and you can’t cook, don’t pretend). The knowledge of the best of these places among Thais was like scrapping over baseball cards with a bunch of nerds, something that either solidified or obliterated your personal street card. Plus one if your knowledge extended beyond your personal neighborhood; +5 if it included a different city (usually Chiang Mai); -10 if it involved a different country, because who cares. The idea of this mix, and this glue, was what drew me to Thai street food in the first place: that I could easily insert myself into the “we” of it all, if I could just pick up a pair of chopsticks and march out onto the sidewalk.

And the stories behind street food, I loved those too. How it turned some families into millionaires over the course of one generation; how it enabled record numbers of women to join the workforce, and others to gain financial independence and flexible hours if you were good enough in the kitchen and had good kids to help you, like Ian Kittichai’s mom. The “American dream” could actually exist, in Thailand, if you were good enough or smart enough. You could become just like that moo ping dude on Silom Road, probably the most durable success story in all of Bangkok street food-dom. Who would not want to become Hia Owen?

But when people talk about becoming an adult, a lot of it involves resigning yourself to stuff and accepting “reality”. Like, I accept that I will never see the White Stripes or Prince play live. I accept that my blonde hair makes me look like the crazy albino guy who stalks Whitney Houston in “The Bodyguard”. I accept that George RR Martin will probably never finish “A Song of Ice and Fire”, so I will have to finish it in my head, knowing that everything I choose is the right way for the series to end. Street food will change, because time changes everything, and progress is inevitable, whether it’s artificially induced or not.

So when our friend Matt came to Bangkok to write about street food, it only made sense to check out something that would, in all likelihood, become one of Bangkok street food’s futures: the “thalad” (market), a collection of many street vendors under one roof, sharing tables and resources. Vincent showed us one of his favorites in his ‘hood, Asoke, called “Thalad Ruamsap”, a lunchtime standby for all the office workers in the area.

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The entrance to the “market”

Inside, you get two interlocked “food courts” featuring a plethora of choices, from the very basic (rice with fried omelet) to the harder-to-find (a chili dip station; Northern Thai food; fermented rice noodles with different curries and fixings). We, naturally, went hog wild, picking everything we could find until our table was a heaving mass of bounty that drew side-eyes from every Thai who passed us by.

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One of the two “dining rooms” in the market

Was it good? That seemed beside the point. There were “son-in-law” eggs, steamed savory seafood custard in banana leaf cups, chili dips, charcoal crepes, pretty awesome fried bananas. That the market displayed food that appeared to have some degree of care put into it seemed good enough. That you wouldn’t have to traipse an hour out of the city center seemed good enough. Good enough, and without the threat of some clipboard-wielding policeman coming in to bust everything up. That’s where we are now, in the world of Thai street food. That’s a sign of impending adulthood, right?

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You can get to Thalad Ruamsap by crossing Asoke Road from the Mor Sor Wor University and entering the alleyway next to Ochaya.

 

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The future is now

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Grilled pig parts vendor on Suan Plu

We can rage against the dying of the light all we want but progress continues apace, bringing with it a Starbucks and 7-11 on every corner. Soon we will become the shopping mall utopia that our ancestors had always dreamed of. Until then, we will still have to contend with food that does not come in plastic wrapping. The future cannot come soon enough for New Bangkok.

When I heard through the grapevine that Suan Plu was the next street to be cleared, I was confused. After all, this street is home to both the Immigration Office and the district police station. Why would they want to get rid of the places where they themselves eat, and where their own wives work? Not to mention that the quality of street food on Suan Plu is very, very good. But then I remembered that we live in Thailand (see: Thonglor) and that our corporate overlords progress is not to be denied.

And then when I heard that a new market would be opening up on the corner of Suan Plu Soi 3 (right behind Isaan hotpot vendor Jay Ouan Moo Jum), and that it would be charging vendors 30,000 baht a month for a 2×3 meter area, it all made sense. This would be the new street food model to be followed in New Bangkok — how better to make money than from street vendors who need space to stay downtown?

So when Trude and I went to Suan Plu to check out the space earmarked for the market, we were surprised to find out (from the local grapevine, our friend Jason) that plans had gone Thai-style kaput: quietly, with no information on why. After pouring concrete and marking out the plots, the owner had decided to fence off the entire space. Rumor now has it that the lot will become a much-needed hotel.

But we still needed to eat. After asking a very accommodating server at a nearby wine bar (where else would I be) where to go, we learned that the cart vendor just across the street was improbably popular, setting up at around 6 in the evening and usually selling out by 8pm. She claimed it was the best place in the entire neighborhood for grilled pork parts: tongue, ears, short ribs and most importantly, pork neck.

I have always thought that the best pork neck on Suan Plu was Jay Ouan. For an idea of what I’m talking about, here it is:

porkneck

Pork neck at Jay Oun Moo Jum

It’s fatty and slightly sweet, paired with a spicy tamarind sauce. It’s what you’d expect from a good Isaan place in Bangkok.

But we probably figured out we were in for a treat when people kept cutting in line to place their orders to the pig parts vendor (unfortunately, I do not have a name and he does not have a card, but he is across the street from Wine Out and Smalls, which is on the corner of Suan Plu Soi 1). Don’t worry, I lost my temper and complained. And fear not, he was smart enough to tell me that we were next. I was very hungry, you know.

They had run out of pigs’ ears by the time we had gotten there, so we got grilled pork tongue and asked for pork neck served nam tok style (spicy salad garnished with shallots, chilies, fresh mint and roasted rice grains). He asked us how spicy we wanted it, which is a question that vendors rarely bother to ask, especially busy ones with a long line in front of their cart. I always ask for “klang”, or medium (which actually amounts to one half ladle of dried spice and ended up being not spicy enough).

We took our stuff and ended up eating it furtively at Jay Ouan, which was slammed with customers and didn’t have time to see what we were doing. We agreed: pig parts guy was the superior pork neck, fattier and redolent of smoke. The grilled pork tongue, too, smoky and chunky with just enough resistance to make chewing fun. And the tamarind sauce, sweeter and thicker than Jay Ouan’s, if you like that sort of thing.

To grab your own bag of delicious grilled pig, make your way to Soi Suan Plu on a day that is probably not Monday, after 5:30 but well before 8 in the evening. Find the mobile cart outfitted with a silver chimney thing about 5 minutes in, on the left hand side if you are walking from Sathorn Road. And if someone cuts in line in front of you, jai yen yen. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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