Author Archives: Bangkok Glutton

About Bangkok Glutton

Eating and writing in Bangkok.

Glutton Onboard: Finding home in Mozambique

A giant lobster “tom yum”

More than halfway through my “around the world” trip, I figured out I was seriously homesick for Thai food after caving in and ordering a “Thai red curry” from the ship’s main dining room for lunch and … genuinely enjoying it. What was happening to me? With this curry that lived somewhere in limbo between a gang phet and a gang kua? When I discovered that we were due to visit a Thai restaurant owned by an actual Thai person in Maputo, Mozambique, I was not only jazzed, but relieved — at least I would stop fixating on Thai food.

Now, I am embarrassed to say this, but I knew nothing about Mozambique, not even that it was a Portuguese colony, not even that it is famous for its fresh seafood. Both were welcome discoveries: everything sounds so much friendlier in Portuguese, even haggling over woven baskets in the market, even international labor day “celebrations” that looked at first like protests as people walked the streets downtown, waving flags.

Unfortunately for the workers at Spicy Thai in downtown Maputo, they, unlike their celebrating compatriots, did not have the day off. However, it was lucky for us. Khun Ton, our new best friend, had planned a seafood-heavy lunch procession that would quickly turn into a composite breakfast-lunch-dinner for us, so enormous were the portions and generous was the kitchen. Starving and assuming I was set for a typical Thai meal abroad, I was ready for the plates of gratong tong (deep-fried “golden bags” stuffed with shrimp and served with a sweet chili sauce), as well as the fried egg rolls (of course) and grilled chicken wrapped in banana leaves. I assumed that next we would get some pork larb, a green curry, a stir-fried noodle dish or two, and some greens and call it a day.

But K. Ton, alarmed at our eating style (which I’ve heard described as “peak-era-shark-feeding-frenzy”), asked us to at least hold up for the next dish, goong cha nam pla (raw shrimp marinated in fish sauce), a personal favorite of mine and something you almost never found outside of Thailand. It arrived arranged as a giant rosette, crowned with a bowl of nam jim seafood (Thai seafood sauce ) and peppered with slivered red chilies and sliced fresh garlic.

The raw shrimp — rosy and glistening on the plate — was improbably sweet, and K. Ton told us that even the Japanese imported tons of the stuff from Mozambique, supplementing their stores of amaebi (sweet shrimp). I believed it, because the shrimp were as delicious and fresh as anything I’d had in Japan, but better because it had Thai flavors.

Everything else then started arriving at a brisk clip, expected stuff interspersed with dishes that were less so: stir-fried Chinese kale with large slabs of pork belly; individual bowls of tom yum each sporting their own “baby lobsters” like a sunburned man in a jacuzzi; a gang kua of well-stewed beef shank; enormous platters of crabmeat doused in a yellow curry sauce.

Stir-fried crabmeat in curry

Another large bowl, enough to feed a family of 6 in Thailand, brought us a lobster “khao soi” crowned with an improbably big lobster head, its meat shredded in a khao soi broth and accompanied by pickled mustard greens and fresh lime wedges in a nod to the dish’s origins.

A tom yum of “baby” lobster, full of eggs

And just when everyone was ready to stick a fork in themselves (because they were done), a laughably enormous steamed grouper was ushered to the table, cooked in a soy sauce dressing and nestled in a bed of melt-in-the-mouth steamed cabbage, ludicrously delicious.

Pièce de resistance

So, of course, everyone found a little more space in their bellies.

For dessert (yes, there was room for dessert), I was surprised to discover that dishes I assumed would be universally loved, like mango sticky rice, were unpopular in Mozambique, where the idea of fruit with rice was thought of as ridiculous. Same with gluay buat chee (bananas stewed in coconut milk), even though the ingredients were all readily available. Instead, they served a “guava” steamed pudding, English-style, with a side of coconut ice cream, the photo of which I will spare you, because it was a grisly scene.

You would think we would be all “Thai’d” out by then, but sadly, you would be wrong. On our one evening out in Cape Town, we still managed to find ourselves in one of those Nobu wannabe restaurants that spout up in somewhat fashionable dining areas — you know, with the club music and the dry ice. There, we ended up with the usual suspects: oysters drowned in ikura and yuzu, sushi rolls with names like “rainbow reloaded”, crispy rock shrimp coated in chili mayonnaise, Korean fried chicken, Peking duck.

Later tonight, we will have the Thai seafood dipping sauce that we smuggled onto the boat from Maputo as crew members were engrossed in examining another passenger’s wooden artifacts (which must be sprayed in case bugs get on board). We will ask the ship’s kitchen to grill some lobster tails, shrimp and scallops, and steam the freshest seabass they can find. Our new friend Jean-Claude will bring along a Riesling that he brought in his suitcase from his hometown of Strasbourg. And we will attack everything we see on the table with our beautiful nam jim, a perishable reminder of the flavors we are missing.

And then we will be back on the lookout for more of those flavors.


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Glutton Onboard: Cruising the Indian Ocean

Roughly 110 days of 144 days into the cruise, I drink too much. I know, that is shocking, because it would seem like I always drink too much. But this time, I drink so much that I am unable to go on my planned tour excursion, Day 1 at La Digue in the Seychelles. And of course I would end up regretting it. The Seychelles are stunning — as beautiful as the Maldives or French Polynesia, but less crowded than either. The water isn’t as clear, but the fish come right up to you on the beach. Also, the food is arguably better.

What people come to La Digue for

Having missed my first day in the Seychelles, I make sure to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the next day at Port Victoria, the islands’ capital. Although this part of the Seychelles was arguably British, everyone still speaks French and eats food that is a mix of French, Asian and African, aka “Creole”. There are chilies galore, and plenty of fruit and vegetables, and anything (and I mean ANYTHING) can be curried, including octopus, parrotfish, and fruit bat.

At the market

So when out snorkeling excursion ends, we tidy up as quickly as we can and set out into a sweltering heat on a walk to lunch at Marie Antoinette. Google Maps tells us it’s a mere 30 minutes from the pier, which is totally doable, right? Especially since, on our way there, we encounter the German-speaking Belgian group, who have been out and about for a whole two hours. “We’re missing our excursion,” says Johan, glowing in a peachy sheen of sweat. “But it probably wouldn’t have been fun anyway.”

But after 15 minutes, I cannot believe I am still outside walking. After 20, while walking up a hill, I realize that if I were to trip and fall, I would simply lay down and die. Finally, we reach the restaurant, which is actually on the outskirts of town, halfway up a fairly steep incline. At the restaurant, we encounter more people from the ship. “We took a taxi,” they said, glancing at our clothes, which look like we’ve been thrown into a swimming pool. The staff kindly direct us to the coolest spot in the open-air dining room. Behind us, next to the restrooms, a crowd of tortoises is having their own lunch, a mass of carrots, eggplants, cabbage and tree leaves.

To cool ourselves down, we order the local beer, which aptly features a turtle logo.

Yes, it’s true that Marie Antoinette serves fruit bat curry, but we did not have the guts to order it. We got the set menu instead, intended for 2 people but ultimately enough for 3. Included was a hefty serving of parrotfish and eggplant fritters, served with a kind of sweet Thai-like chili dip; improbably tender marinated tuna steaks; baked Creole-style red snapper with garlic; and what they called a “Creole” sauce, which tasted like a mix between tomato salsa and ketchup and was meant to be eaten with the fish.

Best of all, however, was the rice and chicken curry, paired with a spicy mango salsa, pickled chilies and pickled, shredded cabbage and carrots.

On the way home, we ordered a taxi.

In Madagascar, we have fewer moments for food spotting, simply because the lemurs take up all of our time. And when we are not turning around to see a bright-eyed lemur staring straight at us from a nearby branch, we are in a rickety old bus that is clearly on the verge of dying, just like I would be if I was forced to walk instead of ride.

In fact, two other buses break down during our day out in Madagascar, which, when forced to fend for itself on the “non-lemur” side of the road, produces sights like the “Ghost House”, where an Indian man once lived and committed the grave sin of … not having any children. In retaliation, a ghost took over, forcing the European family that purchased the house later to flee. Today, the children from the school next door look in through the window, having told each other of a time when some children exploring the house were pushed from the walls by the ghost, never to climb again.

But later, at a “comfort” stop where both men and women queued 20-something deep for two bathroom stalls, only to queue again for soft drinks with which to refill their bladders, we wandered to the second floor where we could look out over the beach. Here was the beating heart of the town, where young people jogged, danced, flirted and even exercised in earnest as fishermen strolled past with their catches and the occasional tourist splashed in the water. Also, there were doughnuts.

All very nice and good, but the next stop, French Comoros, is actually a bona fide district of France. And although our tour of the island ended up being a half-hearted stroll past some government buildings, our lunch afterwards at the pier was worth the 10 kg of water weight that we had lost in the humidity.

The Chef at La Croisette with the menu of the day

We ended up ordering the ubiquitous “poulet au coco”, less curry-like than its counterpart on the Seychelles, as well as the cote de boeuf, saignant, with the chef’s signature chili-laced mayonnaise sauce. Even better (I’m afraid to say) was the accompanying hot sauce, a specialty of the island and a mainstay at the markets.

My favorite of the day was the blanquette de poisson, made from swordfish that had only just been sent to the kitchen. This was fortuitous, since we foolishly ordered two of the blanquettes (and three steaks, plus all of the side dishes on the menu). It was a lot of food.

It was a nice lunchtime foray into our brief moment in France, but I must admit I am looking forward to our next stop, Mozambique, where I am told I am going to eat at … a Thai restaurant. Yes. I should be ashamed, but it’s been a while. Latest tally: 113 days down, 31 to go.

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Glutton Onboard: There will be shopping

Arabian coffee and dates by the ferry in Dubai

In the movie “There Will Be Blood”, the discovery of oil turns Daniel Day Lewis’ protagonist from a humble prospector into a rabid, ever-hungry force of greed, capable only of dominating and consuming, Western capitalism personified.

Oil has changed the Arabian peninsula, too, but in different ways. It is less about a rapacious need for one’s own dominance, and more a case of making sure everyone is taken care of — for, let’s be honest, better (free education and healthcare for citizens) or worse (“protecting” women by restricting them from working on weekends). Case in point: Oman, which makes Singapore look like Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the ‘80s. In Muscat, the streets are clean enough to eat off of, the landscaping and lawns alongside so well-attended that one wonders exactly how many gardeners are employed by the government. Maybe it’s because it’s Ramadan, maybe it’s because it’s midday, but the impression is very much like a Sim city, with very few NPCs other than the shopkeepers and cafe owners catering to your various whims.

A fruit stall in Salalah

When people (okay, racists) say things like how the discovery of oil turned a bunch of desert dwellers without a culture into millionaires overnight, they are demonstrating a huge ignorance of history. Oman has a long multi-cultural heritage, represented by the patchwork of different people that comprise it. Clothes and jewelry differ in accordance with region, as do the hilts of the ceremonial daggers that men wear (a peaceful man wears his dagger on the right side in order to make it more difficult to draw). In the spring, the country’s famous Damascus roses are picked and made into rosewater for desserts; lockets carrying phrases of the Koran are worn around the neck to protect the wearer, much like Thais wear certain Buddhist amulets. But the product that Omanis are most proud of is their frankincense, taken from the sap of trees and prized most from the inland regions for their light green-yellow color and intense fragrance. These buds of resin, or “tears”, are lit on charcoal in ceremonial burners (the symbol of Omani hospitality), their smoke used to mark every celebratory occasion that you can think of.

There is one more thing Omanis can be proud of, and that is their dogged salesmanship. In the main souk in Muscat, I make half-hearted stabs at negotiating and fail at most of them. All the same, I make off with bags full of souvenirs for family back home (okay, mostly for me), even in the height of the Omani heat. 

Dubai is a similar story. Many people — including me — have come to Dubai, explored the “biggest mall in the world” with its very many attractions, and called it a day, leading most to conclude that Dubai is basically one big mall. The truth is that, once you leave this sprawling complex (and all the other malls that may come your way), you will have an enjoyable adventure, even in the sizzling heat. There is the “new town”, yes, but that means there is also an “old town”, and that is where the bulk of the fun is for both foodies and shoppers. A litany of souks awaits: textile, perfume, spice, gold, as well as the different ways to find them: bus (the bus stops are housed in little cabanas with AC!), subway, even by boat for a mere dirham. And if you were to accuse me of simply buying a luggage-load of spices and calling it a day, you would absolutely be right (give or take a fluffy beanbag cover or two and a couple of pairs of camel pants). Once again, I am an abject failure at bargaining — so much so that the shop owner gives me a free bag of chocolate-coated almonds and a couple of chocolate-covered dates filled with pistachios (which come in handy on an empty stomach in the heat).

The “Dubai spice mix”: 8 layers including sumac, saffron and turmeric

But yes, the mall is fun, too. Besides the aquarium and the much-ballyhooed ski field, there is the walk to the Dubai Mall subway stop, a good 20 minutes away via a covered bridge that I discovered later is the longest walking bridge in the world. A shame I was wearing my sandals, though, or I would have enjoyed that walk (and the subsequent trek to the restaurant from the subway stop) much more. Because it was Wikki’s birthday, our destination was Gazebo Restaurant, which serves a wide selection of Indian specialties, but is perhaps most famous for its biryanis. We ordered chicken and lamb, as well as a spicy chicken that made people cry.

Chicken biryani with bread topping
Biryani without

In Abu Dhabi is where my story ends. When I first arrived, in around 2009, it looked a lot like how Salalah, Oman looks now: dry, dusty, a little barren. It seems to have woken up in the decade-plus since then and realized that, oh yeah, it is actually the richest sultanate of the UAE; just about every part of Abu Dhabi now hosts cranes and construction and scaffolding.

Aside from that, I have no thoughts, since I spent nearly the entire day and most of my afternoon trying to persuade my son and my nephew to leave Ferrari World (the world’s “largest indoor theme park”, no less) or the ship would depart without us. What can I say? We had fun and were sad to leave — especially the good Wifi.


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