Author Archives: Bangkok Glutton

About Bangkok Glutton

Eating and writing in Bangkok.

The Decade in Thanks

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Homemade gang jued

It’s hard to believe, but despite (occasionally) some of my best efforts, this blog will soon be a decade old. Since then, I have published two street food guides and occasionally been on TV — though efforts to make that a regular thing have been met this way:

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Me greeting television executives

(via GIPHY)

All the same, it’s not bad for a blog that was originally meant to last for a year. I sometimes enjoy going back and reading the posts that I wrote when I was 5 kg lighter. They seem hopeful, funny even, unmarred by middle age. However, my favorite post ever remains this one.

So, even though I had stopped doing Thanksgiving posts, I’m doing one today, to not only recap nearly a decade of this blog but to force myself to give thanks for nearly a decade of the friends and experiences that Bangkok Glutton made possible. I still meet interesting people because of it every year, and I am still surprised by it.

Also, I have a lot of unused photos on my phone:

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Amuse-bouches at Pru in Phuket

Also this one:

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Squid that dissolves into noodle strands in broth at the Front Room

Thinking about this post on one of my interminable walks in Auckland (yes, I am still here), I could think of something food-related that I could be genuinely thankful for. And that is the food in Thailand. Not just the food that we’ve always had — like the gang jued that your parents who have been driving you crazy during their two-week visit make for you to make you forget that they drove you crazy — but exciting new food made by chefs who clearly love their Thai cuisine and Thai ingredients and want to champion Thai growers and Thai knowledge. That this comes at a time when a wave of extreme right views seems to be taking root in other parts of the world, and when people who have been in power for centuries can act the aggrieved party when the historically disenfranchised and dismissed ask for their voices to be heard … well, this is moving to me.

There was a time, in a climate like this, that chefs in Thailand would want to dress up their food in Western trappings and Western techniques in a bid to “improve” that food. Chefs are still using those techniques, but not for the colonialist fantasy of fusion cuisine, meant to address a local cuisine’s deficiencies from a Western point of view. Chefs are now using cooking techniques that are now accepted in every part of the fine dining world, but in the service of old cooking traditions, like incorporating scent or smoking or using charcoal. The focus is now on the Thai-ness of it, the farmers and breeders, the local “wisdom”, the soil that nurtures the animals and produce that we eat — even in restaurants where the food or the chefs are not necessarily Thai, it (and they) are still Thai-informed. Even with the influence of Michelin on the dining scene, and how that influence inevitably shapes the dining experience in ambitious restaurants seeking accolades, the instinct, now, is still to be proud of this Thai-ness (or in the case of restaurants like Haoma, in triumphant expressions of their own identities).

This, to me, is liberating in a very personal way that many will probably not understand. We are taking refuge in things that we could never have changed in the first place. There is no denial or wishing that everything was different. There is also no retreat into the faux superiority gained by culinary orthodoxy. We are what we are, hovering in that in-between place that is still being built with every dish we make. What a relief that feels like.

TL;DR. Here are some more photos:

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Delicious fish curry and pork belly with stink bean at Taan

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Crab with housemate Sriracha and beets at Blackitch Artisan Kitchen

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Asian-style steak tartare at Thaan Charcoal Cooking

 

 

 

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I ate at another restaurant

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Oxtail soup and chicken biryani at Amat Rot Dee, one of the street vendors on Thonglor Road

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.

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Me looking at khao kluk kapi right now

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.

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Young papaya salad with pickled crab

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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Thai Restaurants Abroad

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Fish cakes at a typical Thai restaurant

I have a lot of alone time here in New Zealand, which gives me the time for a lot of self-reflection. Lol jk. I spend a lot of time thinking about things like Kenny Rogers and whether the relationship he described in the song “Lady” lasted, and if it didn’t, can he still sing the song in front of his newest partner or does she not let him? I mean if your husband is singing about the love of his life and it was before he met you, that might be uncomfortable, this public performance inspired by some other lady, wouldn’t it? Or maybe all you would think is “$$$$$$$$$” and then happily go home to your pool and your cleaning lady, the real love of your life.

When I am not thinking about Kenny Rogers and other artists that New Zealand Uber drivers play while I’m in their cars, I read the Internet. That is how I learned that Ali Wong is coming out with a book, helpfully excerpted by New York Magazine. The excerpt is a very useful guide to Asian restaurants (that have yet to go back to their own countries): Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino. Of course, I noticed that somehow she left out Thai in her handy list. This must be because she is waiting for me to write that part. So here I am, with this handy info, to complete this guide to Asian restaurants that have yet to reverse brain-drain themselves. You’re welcome, Ali Wong!

Thai Cuisine Abroad

Good signs:

  • The name contains a romanized form of a Thai word (“aroy”, “dee det” “rot det”, etc). A passable restaurant includes a reference to an elephant, orchid, silk, or tropical fruit.
  • The cook is an old Thai woman in a white cap, or an old Thai man with one or two hairy moles.
  • The menu is laminated (ABROAD ONLY) and has an Isaan section.
  • The other patrons are mostly Asian.
  • The location is in a strip mall or on a street with other Asian restaurants.
  • Bare-bones decor.
  • You can hear the sound of a mortar and pestle in the kitchen.
  • There is shouting in the kitchen.
  • There might be a fire in the kitchen.
  • The restaurant is also selling bottled sauces, relishes, snacks and/or fresh tropical fruit for exorbitant amounts of money in front of the cash register.
  • Thai beers are on the menu (bonus if the beer is Chawala).
  • The servers speak Thai.

Bad signs:

  • The name is a pun on the word Thai (“Thai One On”, “Dinner Thai”, “All Thai’d Up”, etc)
  • Thai classical music is playing.
  • The table is set with forks and knives (RUN); red flag if the table setting includes chopsticks and it is not a soup noodle restaurant or specializing in chicken rice (SEE: Montien Hotel coffeeshop).
  • There is a wine list.
  • The menu includes anything with Wagyu or Kurobuta, or if there are references to caviar (RUN if there is a sushi section).
  • There is neon lighting inside, extra red flag if that lighting is paired with artsy graffiti on painted brick walls.
  • The soundtrack is EDM or anything involving the Chainsmokers.
  • The patrons are all eating their own dishes by themselves, and have mostly ordered the same thing.
  • The kitchen is silent and you cannot hear the food cooking.
  • The servers don’t ask you about your preferred level of spice.
  • You are not sure if the servers can even find Thailand on a map.
  • You aren’t afraid of spilling your leftovers on your lap and smelling like week-old garbage or toe cheese.

 

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Bangkok food fix

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A sweet ‘n sour “tom som” of seabass at Kim Leng

First off, my autocorrect has been acting really strangely and tries to change “seabass” to “seabags” every chance it gets. Second, I arrived in Bangkok during the Vegetarian Festival period, when Thais go meatless for nine days. This would normally not affect me, except when my go-to Isaan food provider (it’s Polo Fried Chicken, because they are reliable and they deliver) decides to also take nine days off to be vegetarian as well. So I had to order from another Isaan place, and it was not a provider of the flavors that I had expected. That sort of disappointment got me feeling kinda sassy, like this:

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(From Getty Images)

I didn’t want to waste my meager food holiday back home all hot and bothered! I needed to decompress a little bit and get my head back on straight. So I called my friend Winner up and said, remember that place that you warned me was closing down at the end of this year? (Winner knows to warn me of these types of things because I like to use my stomach like an obituary). Well, I finally have some time to go. When are you free?

That was how I found myself on a stress-free (!) MRT subway ride from Sukhumvit all the way to Sam Tok, past Chinatown’s Wat Mangkhon (where I was sorely tempted to get out and have a look around). It was my first time on the subway extension, and while it hasn’t changed my life to the extent I thought it would, I was pretty thrilled not to have to get out at Hua Lamphong and take a white-knuckle motorcycle ride for 10-15 minutes to the Old Town with my head encased in a smelly used motorcycle helmet. Indeed, the Sam Tok station lets you out right in front of Old Siam — not necessarily the beating heart of the Old Town, but close enough to Phra Arthit Road, which is. Here, there are tuk tuks aplenty.

There is an old saying among some Thai-Chinese that it if you were to ever find a mole with a hair growing out of it on your face, you shouldn’t pluck it, because these types of moles are lucky.  I think these hairs truly are lucky, because the owner of Kim Leng (Tanao Road, 02-622-2062, open 10-20.00 except Sundays) has enough to form a makeshift beard, and his restaurant is delicious. It’s a substantial menu, full of the kind of home cooking you would get in a really wonderful friend’s house (if that friend, and you as well, were also lucky), similar to Krua Apsorn, but without the muted, polite Central Thai balance (for the most part.) One dish that did seem on the muffled side was the hor mok (steamed seafood curry), one of my favorite Thai dishes anywhere, but even then, it was still beguiling enough for me to stuff my face with in 1-2 minutes flat.

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Kim Leng’s hor mok

Also recommended, the springy fish cakes, a mochi-like mousse deep-fried to discs the size of a baby’s hand and garlanded with deep-fried basil leaves. And the tom som pla grapong, a soup of fresh seabass that is reminiscent of tom yum save for the dollops of tamarind that sweeten the broth.

If you want to cry, Kim Leng has that covered too. Its pad sator (stir-fried stink beans) comes with fresh shrimp and a thin sauce of minced pork that seems less pungent or shrimp paste-y than its Southern Thai counterpart, but is still sneaky enough to pack a punch courtesy of the slivered green chilies that hide like bombs amid the rubble.

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Stinkbeans with shrimp, pork and of course chilies

Long story short: it turns out Kim Leng is not closing at the end of the year. It appears to have been a ruse by Winner to get me to the Old Town. But the food is good enough that I did not fret; in fact, I plan on going to Kim Leng again, once I return home.

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Glutton Abroad: Thai in Exile

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Fried chicken and som tum pla rah at Zap 2

It was almost a full two days after the fact when I found out Ric Ocasek had passed away, in his sleep, at the age of 70-75 (no one seems to know for sure). Although I had not followed Ric’s comings and goings lately, and he had lived to a nice ripe old age, I still felt a pang of sadness for his family, his remaining bandmates and of course for myself. I still, only just two days ago even, listen to “The Cars”, their 1978 debut album. I do it enthusiastically, not by accident, not like when I end up with Gang of Four or Killing Joke on shuffle (sorry guys) and am too lazy or tired during my run to change it. I actually seek out “Best Friend’s Girl”, “Good Times Roll”, and “Bye Bye Love” in my downloads, and “Just What I Needed” remains my go-to karaoke song. They are carefully crafted earworms, but still cool, which gives my 15-year-old true inner self some plausible deniability.  The Cars were labeled as “new wave”, but they could have been considered alternative, even though they were played on mainstream radio. They rarely veered off their slightly offbeat course (save for the maudlin “Drive”, the ’80s precursor to every song by Train). Today, the Cars are classic rock.

I don’t really know what it is about them that enabled them to morph into everyone’s idea of their own particular brand of music — Was it the Boston thing? Ben Orr’s sleepy eyes? Or were the songs just simply that catchy? — but their work is classic in the way that New Order and Depeche Modes’ ’80s output is classic. It hasn’t aged badly like, say, some of Motley Crue.  It’s not “niche”. And by “niche”, I mean that it’s not Justin Bieber (which I also listen to, but only “Purpose”, and nothing before or since OK I mean I have standards OK).

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I know this isn’t really Justin Bieber

(via GIPHY)

I used to have a rule that I would never eat Thai food outside of Thailand. That’s because I thought of Thai food as niche like Justin Bieber and that it needed the special fairy dust provided by authentic Thai shallots, or the tiny pungent Thai garlic. The nasty funk of real Thai shrimp paste, or dare we say it, fermented anchovies. Let’s not even go near bird’s eye chilies versus jalapeños.

But all that has changed here, of all places, in New Zealand. Or maybe it was just desperation. In any case, I found myself on Dominion Road, ground zero for all Asian food in Auckland, awaiting an actual Isaan meal at the confusingly named Zap 2 Restaurant (639 Dominion Road, 09-638-6393) (unnecessary musing: where is Zap 1? No one knows, including Google). It specializes in Northeastern Thai favorites like larb, fried chicken, grilled pork collar, various spicy-tart nam tok salads and of course som tum (including with pickled crabs and Thai anchovies!), but as this is still abroad, it also serves a full roster of Central and even Southern Thai favorites like gang som (sour curry). In short, the menu is enormous, which used to be another red flag for me but isn’t here in New Zealand.

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Chicken I larb you

To last while abroad, a Thai restaurant needs to do a sort of “Cars” thing where they manage to morph into every diner’s idea of their own particular brand of Thai food. Somehow this restaurant has been around for 20 years, but for some reason I was stuck noshing elsewhere on khao soi the size of an infant and stir-fried leftovers rebranded as “Thai salad”. I will not make that mistake again.

Long story short, this is Thai food cooked by Thai people, where some of the other customers actually speak Thai. The other customers, the pad Thais, the central curry lovers, the southern Thai chili heads, are also catered to. And if the som tum is made of carrots (a little more watery, what can you do, no green papaya during a New Zealand winter) and the spicy salads a little short on the herbiage and greens, it’s still Isaan food served with a big helping of hot sticky rice and the kind of solicitous care from the makrua (chef) that is the first thing to remind you of home in a long time. It also blew my head off, chili-wise. That makes it my own particular idea of Thai food.

 

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The pig knuckle lady

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The “ovaltine pork leg rice” at SabX2

We are people of freedom. We love freedom. Except when we don’t. At those times, we like to be told what to do. Even if we pretend we don’t.

Some street food vendors understand this. Customers are like unruly children who need to be guided and occasionally scolded. The way to stand in line, the way to order, where to sit: sometimes, you need to be told these things.

The formidable woman who shepherds the tourist hordes at SabX2 (4/32-33 Petchburi Soi 19) is one such person, a lady who can be counted on to tell you what to do — in English, because most of the people in line with you (or possibly all) are from somewhere else. But no matter where you are from, the rules are the same for all of us: stand behind the yellow line; form one tidy queue; sit where you are told with no arguments; wait for the lady to give your order; wait for your dish, which must come in the order your request was placed; be open to being moved if more people come in; be considerate of the other people waiting in line after you.

We thought the shophouse might be difficult to find, but of course that was not the case, since the line into the shop stretched out along soi 19. The unusual name SabX2 is because this vendor has two specialties: egg noodles (bamee) and pig’s trotter on rice (khao kha moo), braised with the addition of ovaltine powder to enhance the pork’s sweetness and richness. Both dishes cost 100 baht apiece, but diners pay extra for egg noodles in soup (bamee nam). On a recent visit, the bowls of egg noodles outnumbered plates of the pork rice, but only just.

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In case you don’t know, there is no branch in Singapore

You are not coming here for Thai smiles. You are coming here to eat and nothing but. That means that if you have to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with a total stranger, with someone’s spit-out pork knuckle bones in front of you on the steel tabletop, you will. It’s not all a scene out of Oliver Twist, though. One of the men working there rushed to give me a plate of the last pork leg rice (by noon, they only had kaki, the fattiest part of the leg, on offer), earning him a reprimand from the lady because I was served before my dining companion’s egg noodles and wontons with barbecued pork were ready. Moral of the story: come earlier for the pork leg. It takes longer to run out of the egg noodles.

Another conclusion: a mean mommy fosters a sense of community. We got to know our dining companions, Singaporeans eager to try out some Thai street food.  When we left, the line was as long as the one we saw when we arrived, stuffed with people waiting to be told what to do.

 

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Bangkok’s Magic 8 Ball

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The future of street food?

You can tell when the popularity of something has crested when companies begin to incorporate parts of it into their own identities. If you ever see a Nike commercial featuring something like “Know Your Enemy” or “Bullet in the Head” by Rage Against the Machine, it is time to call it a day, our corporate overlords have declared themselves.

So when you see a sign like this:

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It is time to really ponder, what is street food? Is it the dish itself? Or is it the difficulty of striking out on your own? Is it the promise of discovery? Or is it community aspect of it, the commingling of people at the same table, glued together out of necessity, in a quest for a good plate of noodles or rice. Although I have derided some diners in the past as being the kinds of gourmets who prize atmosphere over the food, it turns out that street food lovers like me are the other end of that spectrum: the ultimate atmosphere seekers.

The so-called “street food cleanup” has been largely quiet since the run-up to the last election, suggesting that the Bangkok government (BMA) has washed their hands of an initiative that academics have charged with “hurting tourism” (Bangkok Post, 27 Nov 2018).

But that doesn’t mean efforts to impose a Singapore-style tidiness haven’t stopped completely. Even in Chinatown, the birthplace of street food, superstar seafood purveyor T&K Seafood (and its less famous rival) have been forced to clear its sidewalk and offer only tables indoors, effectively cutting 75 percent of its appeal to diners. Authorities are still clearing spaces, but are no longer framing it as “we’re Kevin Costner and the vendors are Robert Deniro in ‘The Untouchables'”. They are no longer saying they are “restoring order to the streets”. They are sneaking a bite from your dessert when you’re in the bathroom.

So it’s time to seriously consider what form street food will take on in the next few years. Shophouse vendors — the ones who have made enough money to be able to rent out a space and are established enough not to worry about getting kicked out, like Joke Samyan  — are currently immune from the threat of change, but the mobile vendors will face a dilemma as they decide in what form they should operate. Should they band together and form a Singapore-style outdoor hawker center? Or do they seek the relative safety (and air-conditioning) of the shopping mall? What does your Magic 8 ball say?

Unlike the bucolic canal-side idyll presented by Icon Siam, The Market shopping mall seems geared primarily towards locals, with its “Siam Square under a roof” concept and, yes, “street food”-focused floor, where prices promise to dip as low as you would find them on the streets.

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Shopping mall food courts that include street food usually make sure to include big names; at Emporium, for example, you get Bamee Sawang and the pork knuckle vendor from Soi St. Louis (making a restaurant’s bid to serve similar street food even more inexplicable).

So as you would expect, the street food court boasts its own local stars. There is  Chinatown dessert stalwart Sweettime:

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And another favorite of the neighborhood, longtime fish ball specialist Lim Lao Ngo. Marketed here as a “bistro”, this outlet offers things you wouldn’t find on the street in Chinatown, such as a salmon and a river prawn noodle version, priced accordingly (165 baht).

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Salmon, original fish ball, and river prawn noodles

As you can maybe see, plastic features prominently here. The chicken rice vendor Rungroj Khao Man Gai even includes plastic models of hanging chickens in their window display, a mimicry of the traditional display favored by the chicken rice vendors outside. It did not encourage me to try the chicken rice here.

Other vendors included Kha Mhu Fukui (pig’s trotter on rice) and Yen Ta Fo Jay Nung (pink seafood noodles). But opportunities still abound for the enterprising vendor. Missing were a guay jab (rolled pork noodle), congee and Thai-style rice porridge stall, so if you make any of these things, you still have a chance. You can then rest easy that, even if the streets are ultimately cleared, or if the world heats up to levels unbearable for noshing, you will at least have made your choice.

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