Author Archives: Bangkok Glutton

About Bangkok Glutton

Eating and writing in Bangkok.

The Natural

crab

Crab from the Crabman

(Photo by Chatree Duangnet)

I have not posted in a while because my laptop was being held hostage by my son, who used the tail end of his summer holiday to make numerous Google slide presentations for his own amusement. I have to admit I appreciated the excuse to stop writing. Unfortunately, he is back at school so I suppose I will have to start up again.

Also during the summer holiday, I was lucky enough to be tapped to do some research work for a documentary on street food. This led me to various restaurants, not all of them street food, where for some reason or other (such as, they were not street food) they did not make the final cut. One of those non-street food places was “Jok Tho Diew” (“One Table Jok”), also known as Jok Kitchen.

Jok Kitchen has been around for a while, a little over 10 years now. From the very beginning it was a success, winning write-ups from various publications and months-long waiting lists. The funny thing about this (Alanis Morrissette would call it “ironic”) is that Chef Jok came to the success of his one-table restaurant fairly late in life, after decades of kicking around Asia doing anything but cooking.

Born 65 years ago in Chinatown to a Chinese-Thai mother and a father who had immigrated to Thailand from Shantou, Jok spent his earliest years in the hospital, cared for by nurses because of a rare allergy to his mother’s milk. Fed on a mixture of chocolate and rice water, he was given the name “Jing Jok” (Thai for gecko lizard) by the nurses because although he didn’t eat much, he wouldn’t die.

This early ailment may explain why he remained the apple of his parents’ eyes well into adulthood. Gregarious and talkative, Jok was deemed unsuited to the traditional support roles in the family business, which was one of the most prominent suppliers of crab in the country. So instead of following his siblings into management, Jok became a delivery boy.

Watching what the cooks did with the crabs he delivered sparked his interest in food. His first taste of steamed fish in soy sauce, the signature dish of famed Thai-Chinese eatery Hai Tien Lo, sealed it. Determined to make the dish himself, 12-year-old Jok convinced his father to let him apprentice with the chef, Meng Jai, igniting a pattern of incorporating, adapting and improving others’ dishes that he continues to this day.

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Fried snow fish on lettuce, inspired by a meal at Fuji

 (Photo by Chatree Duangnet)

Never at a loss for friends, Jok honed his kitchen skills by cooking for his friends, starting a “cooking club” where he would attempt to replicate dishes that he and his friends admired at famous restaurants. Even as he took on a more peripatetic lifestyle, embarking on various ventures in Indonesia, Vietnam and mainland China, the cooking club remained a near-monthly occurrence, his interest in food unrelenting. “You should start a restaurant,” was a familiar refrain from friends that he kept touch with, childhood friends who had since grown into positions in the military, banks, police, media, and of course, in neighboring shops in Chinatown.

This would become key later on, when his parents passed away and he was left to fend for himself. After a brief and acrimonious stint maintaining a food outlet at Suvarnabhumi Airport (he quit after one month over rent issues), he decided to essentially monetize his supper club, opening up the table typically reserved for guests to his house to food-loving members of the general public willing to make the trip down the dank, dark alleyway to his door.

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By day, a bustling market. By night, the entranceway to Jok Kitchen

The concept was irresistible to Bangkokians: one table, reservation only, serving high-end Thai-Chinese food that was championed by big-name mucky-mucks in all corners of high society. Since then, Jok Kitchen has expanded to a back room next to the kitchen that easily fits two more tables; at maximum capacity, Jok Kitchen can accommodate six. The repertoire has also expanded, including special requests from guests if made far enough in advance (although his signature dish remains the beautifully steamed, fresh crab.) Other dishes are a map to his own experience: “Prosecution Fried Rice”, a delicious mix of perfectly wok-cooked Chinese sausage, egg, and Chinese kale was hatched during a late night session with lawyers working on the prosecution case against Thaksin Shinawatra; his “hangover soup”, a clear seafood soup with pomfret, ginger and pickled plum, was born after an evening spent overindulging on whisky.

The kitchen, however, remains tiny, a condominium-sized cubbyhole with four burners and a shelf full of homemade condiments, including his own version of a famous oyster sauce from a restaurant in Hong Kong. This is used to best effect in his steamed fish dish, inspired by that first bite of steamed fish in soy sauce at that restaurant in Chinatown years ago.

 

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This one is about Wuanood

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Beef noodles at Wuanood

Note: The owners here are actually Thais who have studied abroad in the US. The basic premise (that we cross-pollinate our culinary influences when we spend any amount of time somewhere else) holds, doncha think? 

I have never been a fan of Khao San Road. The bucket cocktails, the blaring music competing from both sides of the street, the endless parade of pad Thai/fried spring roll carts standing in for Thai street food — it’s all pretty much my nightmare, aside from being in an actual club blaring the Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get It Started” on a never-ending loop as a bunch of fraternity bros high-five each other over my head.

All the same, the decision to clear the street of its street vendors from August 1 onwards is baffling to me in many ways. It’s not just because we always thought Khao San Road would be untouched. It’s because of the reasons behind that assumption: namely, the budget-conscious backpackers who form the backbone of the clientele there, the fact that the Thai economy relies heavily on tourism, and the likelihood of these tourists wanting to see something that doesn’t look like what they left back home. What would end up taking these vendors’ place? If you guessed 7-11, Starbucks, Burger King and some nearby shopping malls in the offing, congratulations, because I guessed that too and we are officially guessing twinsies.

At a time when Thailand is undergoing a gradual strip-mallification, Thai food continues to proliferate and flourish abroad. Sometimes it is not in the form that many Thais recognize … but them’s the breaks. Was Kurt Cobain thrilled to see fraternity bros enthusiastically mouthing the words to his songs in concert? No, he was not. Was Prince thrilled to see various people maul his songs onstage during a tribute performance? No, he was not. Cooks abroad, making food for people who are not necessarily Thai, are doing the very same thing with their interpretations of these classic dishes.

Now, when I sit down to a Thai restaurant in, say, Brooklyn and am confronted with crab rangoon and a watery green curry, do I think to myself, “Gee, I wish someone would swoop in and save me/save this restaurant?” I admit, sometimes I do. But never, ever, do I ever think the answer lies in the Thai tasting robot (I will never stop talking about this forever, because it was a genuinely batshit crazy idea). I guess I am just not as proactive about these things as Thai officials are. Also, I feel like it’s a futile exercise: aside from LA, there are just not enough Thais and Thai palates in this world to ensure that dishes in Thai restaurants from Prague to Pennsylvania taste like they do in Thailand. This is unlike the situation for Chinese food in Auckland or Vancouver, where there are plenty of Chinese people around to reward authenticity. Be happy that someone else knows about green curry and pad Thai. Count your blessings.

And sometimes, something genuinely exciting happens when you grow a cuisine abroad and see it imported back to you. People saw that with Chinese-American food, a once-derided niche that is today genuinely beloved for its chop suey, moo goo gai pan, kung pao, and of course, General Tso’s chicken (all stuff that I never got to try as a kid, because my parents liked the real thing). The things that people do with sushi rolls nowadays (tempura, deep-frying, mayonnaise) are things you are just starting to see in Japan, where now even salmon is everywhere, except at serious places where it is embarrassing for you if you order it (trust me).

In that vein, Thai-American stuff is just beginning to trickle back to the homeland. Wuanood purports to serve the same recipe as longstanding fave “Nuea Grob Noodles Behind Thai Airways” on Vibhavadee Road, but they do it with a decidedly fusion-y flair. Owned by Thai-Americans descended from the original Vibhavadee vendor, Wuanood specializes in, obviously, beef noodles, but allows you — via super-detailed multiple-choice menu — to choose the cut of beef, method of cooking, and even level of spiciness, allowing a level of customization set to please even the most persnickety of diners. Beef-averse customers need not worry: you can also get pork (Kurobuta of course) and/or a plethora of sides that include yum woonsen (spicy glass noodle salad), fried spring rolls and crunchy Korea-like chicken wings. Best of all, it’s indoors and air-conditioned, so you don’t risk heat stroke from going out on your lunch hour. If this is what the coming strip- mallification of Thailand looks like, bring on the corporate overlords.

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Self-portrait with noodles

 

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Finding the Om in Nom

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You may start with a 30-minute run, or a group barre class. It’s boring and/or excruciating, but after a week, you’re hooked — the pain is nothing when compared to the glow of self-congratulations after the fact. I AM AWESOME, you think, so you do it again. After a while, like a drug, that hour-long class seems like old hat; it’s new heights of boredom and pain that you now seek. Some find that backbreaking solace in Crossfit, or marathons, or iron man competitions. Others take a different route: meditation, a cleanse, or detox.

It’s easy to say “I’m detoxing for 30 days, don’t feed me anything good”, and then eat soup and be mean to your husband all month long. But if you really want to do it, and to be held accountable, you go to something like Samahita Retreat in Samui, where detox, yoga, and, yes, weight-loss programs are available for anywhere between 7 to 14 days.

Samahita’s slogan is “Breathe into a new life”, but my friend Trude would say a more honest one would be “Luxury fat farm”. Open since 2003, Samahita means “centered” and its default setting is its “yoga/core/cycle” program, which every guest automatically gets once they book into the retreat. This basic default mode means that you aren’t required to stay the minimum of 7 days that it takes for the detox or weight loss programs to take effect. So naturally, this is what Trude, Fiona and I chose. It was not until I arrived on the premises that I discovered that “yoga/core/cycle” means yoga, core, and cycling classes because duh (I thought it meant some sort of yoga like “sun cycle”, only “core cycle”. Whatever ok?)

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Gwyneth judges me

The “yoga/core/cycle” program involves up to 5 hours of classes, including morning meditation and breath work, yoga flow, core class in the afternoon, spinning, and then a gentler, “restorative” yoga. In the evening, you get another hour of meditation if you want. There is a morning banana and coffee and tea from 6.45 on, and a “hot” breakfast available from 9.30 while you are already in yoga class, but the bulk of the eating is done from 11am to 8 at night, when the dinner buffet closes down. In the afternoon lull at 3pm, you get a “snack” that is invariably a fruit that skinny girls always seem to eat, like papaya, watermelon or dragonfruit. I am detailing this as clearly as I can because 1. I am a pig and 2. this is ultimately what Samahita is all about.

In other words, besides being “centered” and working the crap out of you with its fitness and yoga classes, Samahita is mainly about (excuse my French) “le poop.” If you have problems in this area, Samahita is there to fix it with its smoothies, its juices, its poop-y fruity snacks, its all-you-can-eat lunch and dinner fiber buffets. I can attest (again TMI) to going to the bathroom twice a day; my companions, three. In any other setting, this would be cause for alarm and a trip to the pharmacist. Here, it was merely a byproduct, evidence of our detox.

And the food? The food. The food is a portal through which any culinary pathology can pass and thrive, uninhibited. Gluten-intolerant? Lactose-free? Vegan? Wary of garlic and onions? Every food phobia you can think of is acknowledged, cosseted, tended to like the weary feet of a tourist at an upscale Thai spa. There is even a handy food index:

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Note the “Thai food” warning

Not surprisingly for a place that must denote its Thai food dishes, the clientele is overwhelmingly Western, with a smattering of Singaporean and Japanese guests. Many, if not most, of the guests knew Thailand solely through their experience at Samahita. This might explain why the food caters to a crowd that prizes purity first and taste second: the buffet changes daily but always features a salad, steamed veggies, a dip with crudités and a “green power soup” that I strongly suspect are the pureed steamed green vegetables from the night before. The focus is on freedom from meat, from sugar, with the occasional nod to dairy, wheat, eggs and even fish.  Things that hint at “sweet” are simply nods at those things, security blankets that don’t mean anything. This comes into focus most clearly in things like the “chia chocolate pudding”, which Fiona calls “the most anorexic pudding ever” and tasting as if “a chocolate bar had been waved over it during assembly”.

chia

Perhaps this is why much of the Thai staff, when confronted with an actual Thai and a Thai-speaking farang like Trude, did not really take us to heart. Even Fiona noticed, telling us, in case there was any doubt, that “Yeah, they really don’t like you guys.” I think the underlying assumption (because it couldn’t possibly really be us!) was that farang whose only experience of Thailand would be this retreat would be expected to indulge in crazy things like vegan food and 5 hours of fitness classes a day. Why on earth would other people who really know Thailand do it though? To opt for a garlic-free mash of grilled green peppers instead of nam prik num, to content oneself with flat rice noodles in a vegetable-and-arrowroot gravy instead of real guaythiew lard na? In their eyes, what were we thinking?

What we were thinking was that it was nice, for once, to feel so exercised, healthy and self-righteous. All the same, three days was enough. So enough, that we plan to do it again, later this year. I will bring athletic shoes this time, so I can go spinning. It won’t be any longer than three days, of course.

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Twinsies

On the way home, I bought a wildly overpriced bag of Doritos (extra Nacho flavor) and ate them outside, in a courtyard of the cray-cray Samui airport built to resemble a suburban US shopping plaza. It was the best Doritos I’d ever had, everything I’d been missing: satisfyingly crunchy, aggressively umami, yo-yo flavors both salty and sharp. That alone seemed worth the trip.

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Sincere eats

tapioca

Crispy tapioca cracker with mieng kum sauce

(Note: If you think I can be bought with a bottle of Pinot Noir and some nice dinner conversation … you are right? Not a question. Dinner came courtesy of Haoma and Extrovert PR & Marketing.)

One of the best things about Anthony Bourdain was his refusal to be diplomatic. This really set him apart in the food world, where usually the best thing to do when you have nothing nice to say is to say nothing at all. But such was the force of his personality, his charisma, his barefaced intelligence, that people were willing to let him slide for it, even though he had the best job in the world and was therefore a worthy magnet of our jealousy and envy.

Karen sent me a list from insidehook.com detailing all the targets of his social media ire over the years. This includes the movie “Baby Driver” starring Ansel Elgort, whose face never fails to remind me of the guy who rolls his eyes when I complain that the music is on too loud at the cafe near my house. Also, the soundtrack is vastly overrated. So I agree with Bourdain, whose writing was always best — and he was a wonderful writer — when he was raging against something.

But I don’t always agree with him. Here, this list of the edible things he has insulted suggests that he was woefully misguided on matters like hot chicken (too spicy? lol) and Frito pie (which he compared to dog poo), but very much correct on club sandwiches (like Al Qaeda), Kobe sliders (Douche City), house-made ketchup (ditto), and unicorn frappuccinos (barfarama).

Here, my own list of culinary pet peeves would have to include:

  1. Dry ice. It makes me instantly suspicious of what is underneath all that haze that is obscuring it, like the sunglasses and huge visors that plastic surgery patients always wear after a procedure.
  2. The movie “The Hundred Foot Journey”. I know it’s not food per se. But every time I think of it I fly into a rage. The idea that a young Indian cook has to prostrate himself before some old French lady in order to become a proper chef still makes me want to throw a vat of dal over Lasse Hallstrom’s head even today. India has no long culinary history? That dates back to before the people who became French had ever heard of pots? Those were not questions.
  3. Cynicism. Sometimes it’s expected, like when McDonald’s tries to sell cold brew coffee. But sometimes it comes out of left field, in a restaurant where the chef is clearly capitalizing on his name, a bare-bones operation masquerading as something else, clearly designed to make the owners some money, finally, because it’s their time now and kids are expensive, yo. It’s the restaurant equivalent of Rod Stewart’s entire post-1977 career. Not as obvious as frozen pizzas, but not that far away, either. It’s an outpost in Las Vegas where the owner never visits.

So when I go to a restaurant like Haoma — which is not Chinese, but named after a sacred plant in the Zoroastrian religion brought to earth by divine birds — I am struck first by its naked sincerity. The brainchild of former Charcoal chef Deepanker Khosla, Haoma labels itself as an “urban farm”, where the herbs that perfume your dishes and cocktails are grown in profusion in the garden in front of you, and the fish available for your dinner is plucked straight from a barrel next to your window.

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The current veggie main course of roasted cauliflower and long beans in a curry cream with crispy Job’s tears

You don’t have to worry about not understanding what each dish is, because someone, even Chef Deepanker himself, will be there to stare earnestly into your eyes as he explains exactly what went into your food. No worries if you rudely take photos of your food as he speaks — he’ll wait for you to finish. It’s this kind of obvious care that permeates every bit of the experience; it’s not a marketing gimmick, it’s not a trendy ploy.

After leaving Charcoal, Chef Deepanker said he took a food truck around the country, attempting to make sustainable food with as little waste as possible. After a few months, a friend told him it was time to go back to fine dining. Haoma, set deep into the residential wilds of Sukhumvit 31, was the result. Chef Deepanker, who lives next door, hopes to eventually harvest the root vegetables in his own garden and incorporate them into Haoma’s menu. Helping him in the kitchen is sous-chef Tarun Bhatia, christened “San Pellegrino Young Chef of 2017” by the powers that be at Asia’s Top 50.

The garden is already pretty extensive, providing the sorrel for the caramelized milk bread or the Job’s tears for the bread. The grouper with lettuce cream is the restaurant’s first 0-km dish, featuring ingredients plucked from its own grounds. It could seem precious until you remember how people have gotten sick from eating contaminated spinach or Romaine lettuce, how fish are disappearing from the water, and how pigs and cows are killed, and then you think, This might be how we will have to eat from now on. Purposefully and with an eye to the future, like the ascetic monks in the Zen temple who eat every grain of rice.

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Meringue with passionfruit

And then you remember how uncool it is to be so sincere, and go back to listing all the stuff that you hate.

 

 

 

 

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Lost Youth

There was a time when you would catch a glimpse of someone in passing via car mirror or window and think, “Who’s that?” but in a good way that made you want to look at them again. The shocking realization that the reflection was yours was a nice feeling.

But there comes a time when the sudden reflection is shocking in a bad way, like the realization that you’ve signed onto an expensive dinner where you are starving, there are only three courses to be served and that one of them will be chicken. You catch a reflection of yourself while riding on a motorcycle taxi where the mirrors are angled in just that way to showcase the growing dumpling underneath your chin and the impressive bags under your eyes. The thought that springs to mind is not “Who’s that?” Instead it is “Oh shit.”

This is the theme of what is commonly known as “middle age.” The Starks have the direwolf and the house words “Winter is Coming.” If “middle age” had a house sigil and words, it would be a bathroom scale, placed inside an hourglass, the number creeping inexorably higher as the sand accumulates on top, the words OH SHIT lettered neatly underneath. OH SHIT indeed.

I used to judge people who posted very old photos of themselves in their lost youths, but now I am one of them. My friend Trude, who should work for the IRS or FBI, ferreted out this old video after I mentioned that my first commercial involved Vaseline lotion and a floating umbrella over my head. And lo and behold, here it is….

 

That was the year I was 24, and the golden age of me, oblivious of the hourglass and inevitable shifting of the sands. Just like Bangkok’s street food, poised on the threshold from which there will be no return. (Oh, the lengths I will go to just to post an old commercial! Sad!)

I recently spoke with Vallop Suwandee, the architect of the street food cleanup in Bangkok, who was quite candid about how much of it was precipitated by the complaints of real estate developers anxious about their property values. Ultimately, he was aiming for the Singapore model, but added that sub-sois — like Convent Road and even Ari — would be left alone. Next on the chopping block: Klong Toey, which is interesting, given that vendor protests have roiled the market before.

All the while, Chinatown (the birthplace of Thai street food) and Khao Sarn Road (home of mediocre pad thai and cold fried egg rolls) are said to be left untouched because of their reputations as a tourist draw. But once the subway stop to Chinatown opens up, who is to say that property values won’t change, and the temptation to “clean up” take root? BMA officials are currently positioning the street food drama as a struggle between agricultural workers using street food as a way to make extra money in the city after the harvest season, like toddlers setting up lemonade stands on their front lawns. Meanwhile, upright, tax-paying Bangkokians simply want to be able to walk on their sidewalks. But simple observation would suggest that this is not completely true. Bangkokians are also making street food, year-round, and eating it to survive.

Jek Pui (25 Charoen Krung, 19 Soi Mangkorn, 02-222-5229) is a textbook example of the Bangkok boogeyman, the vendor blithely clogging up the sidewalk. This curry rice vendor, which sells from a cart placed at the corner of Charoen Krung and Mangkorn Roads on the edge of Chinatown, forgoes tables in favor of more plastic red stools in order to seat more people at a time. Because of this, it has earned the nickname of “Musical Chairs Curry”.

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What’s on offer at 2.30: green curry with fish meatballs, green curry with chicken, mild pork curry 

But it’s been around for 70 years, set up by the grandfather, who immigrated to Thailand from China and made his way by selling curries from a bamboo pole. When his daughter turned 13, she, too, helped sell her father’s curries, walking the streets for so long she eventually developed a hump in her back.

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In the kitchen

Today, “Jay Chia” does the bulk of the cooking, but the business is run by her children. The cart-and-stools setup started over 20 years ago, for which they have obtained full permits from the government. The specialty of the house, however, remains the one that Jek Pui (aka “Uncle Chubby”) toted around all those years ago: gaeng garii moo, or mild Chinese-style pork curry, topped with a healthy sprinkle of sliced, deep-fried gun chieng, or Chinese-style sweet sausage.

 

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As with all things in the waning days of their golden age, it is best to sample this street food as soon as possible, for as long as it is available. Who knows when the next time you accidentally find yourself in Chinatown will be, scouring the streets for a bite to eat that does not come from Starbucks, KFC or a tourist restaurant? OH SHIT indeed.

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Jungle Rock

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Signature dish: deep-fried frog legs at Kohkiew Racha Gob Tod

People frequently ask me about what I do when I get sick from eating street food. I almost always say that I’ve gotten sick from hotel buffets, but not really from street food (although the sickest I’ve ever been was when I was hospitalized in Oyster Bay from a wonky hamburger in midtown Manhattan. RIP, my beloved red Birkenstocks).

I can’t say I haven’t ever been sick from Thai street food, but surprisingly enough, it doesn’t happen very often. When I do, I just sit it out like I do everything else (my anxiety, Trump’s presidency, this world). If I do get sick from Thai food, it’s usually because it’s too damn spicy and my worn-out old digestive system just can’t handle it anymore.

So when I head into the jungle along the Burmese border south of Bangkok, it’s a real battle for my stomach, because everything on the table has been jungle-fied: made hot and tasty, the way the people here like it, with plenty of garlic and local herbs and about a gallon of chilies so hot they make your ears ring. Do you know the dish they call “jungle curry” (gang pa)? The tangle of meat and Thai eggplants of assorted sizes and roots and leaves that you’ve never seen before, spicy with a metallic tang and completely unmitigated by any hint of coconut milk or palm sugar? Think that, but for everything, with only heaping spoonfuls of white rice to give you comfort.

Not surprisingly, I got sick. It sucked, but it was a welcome reprieve from the mosquitoes, the jumping spiders that scuttled into my bedroom once I opened the door, and the dodgy Wifi, which only really worked once you climbed on top of an abandoned water tower to get a good signal.

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Leo=my stomach, bear=Thai jungle food

It wasn’t really the jungle. It was Suan Phung, a town in Ratchaburi province that just recently got its own traffic light. Mind you, Suan Phung has loads of attractions for intrepid nature lovers (not me): waterfalls galore, a hot springs, an animal park/petting zoo, arduous hikes through the forest. In the early mornings and after the rain, the hills are cloaked in scattered patches of thick fog, which is truly beautiful. The border with Myanmar is just a short drive away, so locals claim that the soldiers on the Myanmar side like to amble over into Thailand on most mornings for a better cup of coffee.

But of course none of these things has the ability to distract like a good few plates of food can. At German Sausages Suanpeung (#315 Moo 3, 087-995-1119) you get a superior view of the surrounding mountains while chomping on German-style pork bits cooked over an open griddle with freshly-halved white buns, buttered and charred on the edges. Try to go early to Krua Karieng Restaurant (196 Moo 1, 032-395-166), or you will have to wait two hours for a serving of their superior gang pa. Best of all, we arrived at the tail end of forest mushroom (hed kon) season, so we had them every which way: blanched in spicy salads, boiled in tom yum soups, stir-fried with garlic.

But you’ve got to hand it to Kohkiew (Saen To, Tha Maka, Kanchanaburi, 081-986-6578), situated on the edge of town on the way back to Bangkok. Few restaurants consistently pack their tables with the promise of a platterful of deep-fried frog, smothered under an avalanche of deep-fried garlic and hot enough to burn the roof off your mouth. People frequently compare frog meat to chicken, but the only way in which it’s similar is in its white-meat blandness. The texture — chewy, smooth, slightly impervious to the flavor of anything around it — puts it in its own special category. Thais like to call it “gai na”, or “chicken of the rice paddy”. I would like to call it “delicious under the most specific of circumstances aka only at Kohkiew.”

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Frog meat stir-fried with ginger

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Bangkok’s secret kappo

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Crispy fried shrimp in garlic and scallions — an Uncle favorite

(Photo by Tod Krisanapanna)

Uncle Sondhi has been my “uncle” for as long as I’ve been married. Like almost all journalists of a certain age in Bangkok, he was briefly my boss; even after I went on to other places, we would still eat at various places together. Almost all of these places were typically of his choosing: you see, not only is he a good eater, he is also a picky one. You will not find him saying, Oh, I guess this will do, and sitting down to some half-assed fried rice at S&P or something. Like my dad, he would rather that every meal counts; if it’s not good enough to count, it won’t be eaten.

He was the first person to show me the goat curry at Roti-Mataba, the first person who forced me to try braised sea cucumber in a Chinese restaurant in New York. But the biggest foodie beneficiary of Uncle’s good graces is quite possibly Oud, a stir-fry cook who makes food out of his home, appears to accept reservations only by referral, and fashions a menu just for you.

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Oud in his kitchen deep-frying shrimp

I’ve been to Oud’s house once before, with Uncle, and remember in particular a dish of swiftly stir-fried bean sprouts so deftly cooked that they were still crisp yet full of flavor. He has since moved, but to an area even further from central Bangkok, in the suburb of Bang Kruai. Customers who haven’t been before will need to call K. Oud (086-905-6664) to get directions; every customer will need to find a day (he’ll do either lunch or dinner) when he is available (not surprisingly, since it’s his house, space is limited). When we called, we actually had to drop Uncle’s name, because we weren’t sure if we were going to even score a table.  Once we did, though, it was smooth sailing, because Uncle is quite possibly Oud’s #1 customer.

Naturally, once we dropped Uncle’s name, we got Uncle’s menu, which is big in seafood: a big deep-fried pomfret with a spicy-sour-sweet “3 flavor” sauce; deep-fried shrimp in garlic; fried chunks of fresh seabass with chilies; stir-fried clams and Chinese kale in oyster sauce. Uncle can’t have lime and usually goes for a plain clear soup (gang jued)  but we asked for a big vat of tom yum shrimp and stir-fried crab in curry sauce, because I love that dish. If you don’t want to go by Uncle’s menu, you can choose whatever you like, within reason. The decisions are made via a committee of you and him and whatever is in the market that day.

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The sign marking the townhouse

Once you find your way to Oud’s neighborhood, you will still need to ask for directions from the security guard. He’s used to that though. Even once you find his soi, you will need to keep on the lookout for the sign above, the only thing marking his home as different from the others.

Once you enter, though (after having shed your shoes because it’s a home after all, hello) the feel is like that of an intimate kappo bar in Japan. I love Japanese kappo — chef’s bars with limited seats where the husbands cook and the wives try to make you as comfortable as possible, plying you with sake all the while. The set-up at Oud’s is similar, the single table with a window overlooking the back kitchen area when Oud is hard at work.

clams

Tender sweet clams and Chinese kale in oyster sauce

I get the feeling, though, that unlike at a traditional kappo, he would prefer you not traipse all the way back into the kitchen and obsess over his every move. Oud is an introverted type of cook, quiet and tidy, looking a bit like he could be an older model in a Muji catalogue. His food is similar in temperament, not flashy or showy but of very good quality. It’s the kind of deceptive Thai-Chinese comfort food that anyone feels like they could cook if given the time; it’s the food equivalent of the Jackson Pollock or late-stage Matisse that would prompt the nearest douchebro dragged to the gallery by his girlfriend to exclaim that his 3-year-old nephew could do it for nothing. I will tell you now: Don’t do this yourself. Also, your nephew will not be able to stir-fry you any seabass with chilies. Don’t try to make him.

tomyum.jpg

Tom yum goong, the broth made creamy by scraping out the inside of the prawn heads

There are a lot of exclusive places in Bangkok, and a lot of expensive places in Bangkok, and places that check both boxes (exclusive and expensive, in case you were wondering). But of all the places I have been, none feel as intimate — outside of a friend’s house — as Raan Oud, where the chef and hostess are there exclusively for you, for as long as the duration of the meal. For five people, the bill came out to a little over 5,000 baht; for a minimum of 10,000 baht (invite all your friends!), Oud will come to your house to cook. I am already thinking about doing it myself.

seabass

Seabass with chilies and garlic

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