Author Archives: Bangkok Glutton

About Bangkok Glutton

Eating and writing in Bangkok.

The Coffee Lady

Grandma Nang, who sold Thai coffee and tea on Soi Methi Nivet

One of the great things about living on my street was seeing Yai Nang, or “Grandma Nang”, on the corner every morning as I left the house. For as long as I could remember, she was there, offering enormous plastic cups of her super-sweet Thai coffee or tea concoctions, filled to the brim with life-saving ice on hot afternoons. My husband was partial to her orange-hued Thai tea and would ask her to fill up an entire 1 L glass measuring cup with it at lunch; my son would order one of her glasses of nom yen, iced milk with a drop of nam dang, or red sugar syrup, every day after school. As for me, it was simply a “sawasdee ka” to her every morning as I left the house, and, because I knew little else of what to say, a “sawasdee ka” every time I returned home. She was good-natured enough to humor me both times, raising her hands to rup (receive) my clumsy wais.

When people talk of someone who has become a fixture in their community, they mean someone like Yai Nang, who sold cold beverages on the corner since even before the soi was a real soi. Yai Nang was a person who could bear testament to the breezy, quiet canal that existed before the road, when the neighborhood was made up of people from one family and shopping malls and chain restaurants were but a gleam in a property developer’s eye. Houses lined the canal, with simple bridges set up to allow for easy navigating between households. Later, when the canal was filled in to make a road, the same family hired a guard to police the entrance to the soi. Yai Nang also saw that change, and continued to sell her drinks. And when family members started running out of money and began selling their plots of land to developers, and condos sprouted up from where the houses once stood, Yai Nang still was there in their shadows, selling her drinks to the security guards and tenants of those buildings.

All in all, Yai Nang was a fixture on our street for over 50 years, witness to a lot of Bangkok history: the quiet prosperity of the post-WWII years, the heady boom of the ’80s, the thom yum goong financial meltdown of 1997, and then the string of political crises to hit Thailand after. In the last few years, she quit selling her Thai tea and coffee, saying no one really had a taste for it anymore. Instead, she sold simple soft drinks, packets of instant noodles, eggs, and the occasional bunch of morning glory. Her daughter set up shop next to her, selling a tasty bowl of pork noodles; on the other side, an aharn tham sung (made to order) stall started operating. The pungent aroma of kaprao (holy basil stir-fry) became my wake-up call, sending me into sneezing fits; it seemed a small price to pay for the lunchtime embarrassment of riches that the busy corner provided. My favorite orders were the pork noodles, dry, or the stir-fried suki with seafood, or sometimes a pad se ew (soy sauce stir-fried noodles) with rice vermicelli and the bracingly bitter stalks of Chinese kale. I only had to take about 5 steps to get good street food.

I went away to the U.S. for a few months, and when I got back, the corner was quiet. I found out that Yai Nang had passed away from Covid only the week before I had returned. I asked about her funeral and when and where it would be; in the Thai way, her people said they would get back to me but then never did. It probably was more fitting that way, since no one wants a strange interloper at their relative’s funeral, gawking like a tourist. All I can do is say that my Bangkok shines less brightly without her.

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Glutton Abroad: Dude, where’s my curry

I believe in karma on a very personal level. When I say that, I mean that the rules of karma don’t apply to everyone — look at Donald Trump, or the expats who populate the Thai Visa forum — but they definitely apply to me. I am always met with an instance in which I criticize someone for something that I end up doing later on. That is hypocrisy, yes, but it is also karma: a lesson for oneself that they are not immune.

I like to think that I am fairly open-minded when it comes to Thai food; I say “fairly” because, in the immortal non-words of Prince, let’s not go crazy, I’m not going to order a green curry pizza anytime soon. But I believe in different expressions in the same vein, that authenticity is an illusion kept alive by gatekeepers, that time and surroundings must be allowed to shape the ways that food evolves. To illustrate this in another way: I have practiced yoga enough to have philosophies and opinions on it, and I firmly believe that there is no such thing as the “right” way to do an pose, since people’s bodies are all different. In other words, Iyengar yoga is the same thing as the Thai traditionalists railing against the passage of time — a joke.

This is why I have frequently and forcefully made fun of a past Thai government initiative to build a Thai food robot that would determine the “authenticity” of Thai dishes made abroad, in a vain attempt to bring people the gospel of “real” Thai food. Economics, different tastes, reality — all of those things are anathema to this aspiration, the culinary equivalent of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. After much derision from the international media, the food robot scheme fell silent, but I still bring it up often, because it is funny, and also, in a way, very Thai.

So imagine the internal struggle when I am seated at a very high-end and critically acclaimed Thai restaurant in the States and order gaeng som (sour curry), one of my favorite Thai dishes ever. And I get this:

This is gaeng som

I hope this video comes out, but if it doesn’t, it’s a type of thick sauce that appears to have been blitzed in a blender with cashew nuts and something that smells suspiciously like tomato paste. It is not gaeng som, or if it is, it is the type of gaeng som that makes me understand why the Thai government wanted a food robot.

In other words, it’s culinary karma.

I am appalled in both the gaeng and the visceral reaction that I myself am feeling, the fear that the people around me think that this is actually Thai food. I cannot believe that a Thai person is in the kitchen. And I realize that I have not heard a mortar and pestle at any time during the preparation of our meal.

Now, I know I’m not considered the greatest expert on Thai food. I have been around long enough to hear food journalists at other tables in overrated bars say that I’m not very good. I have made mistakes — even recently, like a couple of months ago when I went to Kate’s Place and didn’t understand that her mee krob was a specific version of mee krob sot (fresh “mee krob”, where the seasonings are layered on top of the noodles), which I later found on the menu of a restaurant in Kanchanaburi. So tell me if you think this is gaeng som.

But even if it’s a tweaked version, shouldn’t it taste good? I’ve happily eaten jasmine rice ice cream in Chef Ton’s reimagined version of khao chae, and reveled in Chef Saki’s interpretations of traditional Thai desserts. But maybe this is where my limits stretch. To gaeng som.

So here are some dishes I did enjoy, because I hate ending posts on negativity (except for you, gossiping food journalist, you suck).

A not-very-good photo of a vegetarian thali at Chaat House in Seattle
A fresh beef pho in a bowl the size of my head at Turtle Tower in San Francisco
A tricked-out spicy yuzu ramen at Afuri Ramen in Portland

In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to having some Thai food in Thailand next week.

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Glutton Abroad: Seattle Chinese

Beef noodles at Mike’s Noodles in Chinatown

Unbeknownst to everyone except my friend Galen, I have been kicking around the idea for a documentary about Thai food abroad. It would explore the ways that Thai restaurants adapt to the environments around them, be it in Europe, in the Americas, on a remote island, and in other parts of Asia. It wouldn’t be a finger-wagging exercise in authenticity, I hasten to add — just a sincere exploration of how we all alter ourselves in order to appeal to people who are not us. I imagined the Thai food as a metaphor for me myself: an Asian transplant in a mostly white town, tucking away the fish sauce and the shrimp paste into little corners of herself to make her palatable to a different world. The Thai restaurants and I were one and the same.

So imagine my consternation — but also admiration, OK? — when I learned that Lisa Ling had already done this very same thing, except broadened to several Asian cuisines. It’s a good idea! And like me, Lisa Ling has grown up having to adapt and evolve, assimilating yet losing a part of herself in the process. Because don’t get me wrong: however delicious these restaurants can end up being, they lose parts of themselves in the process, sloughing off the bits that would make their own stomachs happy in order to fit into preconceived notions of what those foods should be: takeaway, cheap, fast, unskilled, maybe even a little bit “dirty”. 

Then when those notions get mirrored back to us, we inevitably absorb them, believing our own food to be dirty and cheap (do you know of a Thai person who has NOT complained of paying too much at a nice Thai restaurant or, dare I say, Jay Fai?) In writing of this, I am thinking of the news story in which a random judge is supposed to decide whether a restaurant is serving Mexican food or not (due to zoning restrictions, two Mexican restaurants cannot be next to each other in this city). 

We all know a “Santa Fe” salad is not Mexican food; or do we? Do we know that California rolls are not Japanese? Or that crab rangoon is not Thai? Therein lies the conundrum for “ethnic” restaurants everywhere. How do Mexican people feel, realizing that throwing beans and jalapenos on something makes it Mexican? And what are the accompanying “signifiers” for Thai food? (Peanuts and chilies, no doubt). If I, a 50-year-old menopausal mother of two, take on the signifiers of a hot girl (long blond hair and big boobs), will guys actually take notice of me? This case opens the door to a whole host of questions.

As the first Asian restaurants to take root in North America (and probably all over the Western world), the Chinese have dealt with these questions for at least a century. Yes, there are some enclaves in which Chinese communities are booming and their restaurants emerge relatively unscathed from the ravages of assimilation (consider Vancouver or Auckland). But most of the older ones, established for decades, have had to create a completely new genre of food in order to appeal to their new customer base: think chop suey, chow mein, cold sesame noodles, and that bewitching deep-fried dish known as “General Tso’s chicken”. 

Chinese-American cuisine has developed fans in its own right, even in Bangkok, where a handful of restaurants cater to Asians like me with colonized tongues and a hankering for sweet and sour fried meat. For some, it’s the taste of their childhood; for me, having grown up in a family that loved to drive for hours in search of “authentic” Cantonese cuisine, it’s the taste of rebellion, eating the forbidden stuff that made up “bad” Chinese food.

So when my friend Janet mentions Tai Tung, the oldest Chinese restaurant in Seattle, I want to go immediately. It has everything I am looking for: a history, an immigrant story, a retro vibe, and of course good food.

Letting you know immediately what it is

Unlike many of the other Chinese eateries in Seattle’s compact-but-vibrant Chinatown, Tai Tung is not the door into a meal in Asia. Instead, Tai Tung leans into its own unique sense of kitsch. Started by “Grandpa Quan” in 1935, the restaurant’s decor seems unchanged from its heyday in the mid-1900s, as does most of the staff. Janet, a longtime customer, tells us there was a longtime customer who posed as a host at the entrance to the restaurant, greeting everyone (but mostly women) as they came through the door. We did not get to see him today.

The bar up front

The menu itself is a piece of food history, showing what Seattle-ites expected of a Chinese restaurant in the 1930s; for example, there are two big sections titled “Chop Suey” and “Chow Mein”. At the last minute I, someone who has never had either dish, inexplicably wimp out, which is vexing in hindsight given that I was called “Chow Mein” throughout most of my childhood. Instead, we order some potstickers (I cannot resist fried dumplings) and Janet’s recommendation, a delicious stir-fry with bitter melon, as well as some stir-fried pea shoots in season and stir-fried “Chinese-style” squid (meaning ginger and garlic, apparently the signifiers for Chinese food). As a nod to Chinese-American food, I order sweet-and-sour chicken.

Lunch at Tai Tung

Everything is as good as we could expect from even the most highly regarded Chinese restaurants in town, like Jade Garden. Well, except for the sweet-and-sour chicken, funnily enough; it bears the one-note flavor of honey and nothing else. The squid, somehow, is the most tender I’ve had anywhere, even in Thailand. Someone get this chef some salted egg yolk or some Thai basil and chilies! The meal as a whole is nowhere near “bad” or even in the realm of the inauthentic; in spite of the kitschy surroundings, it’s a surprisingly straightforward Chinese meal. For some reason, I am slightly deflated by the results, maybe because, were I to be reincarnated in restaurant form, my food would be nowhere near as good.

When we left, the lion dancers were out in full force for the new year, roaming through the Chinatown streets and randomly throwing firecrackers on the sidewalks. I cried out that it was a lawsuit waiting to happen, but Janet said no one would sue here in Chinatown. I heard another person say that only in Seattle could firecrackers ring out and alarm no one (except me and a nearby toddler sitting on his dad’s shoulders). Every time the sharp loud bangs flashed, I cowered in the corner with my hands over my ears, like a true Thai. As much as I’ve had to adapt, it is in these instances where my DNA shines through.

I hope to go again, with adventurers who are willing to try out the chop suey and chow mein (if you’re wondering, this is me asking you, Janet!). It’s a story that has yet to be finished. But I look forward to darkening those doors again, and maybe even running into that customer who thinks he’s a host. It’s nice to try to travel back in time, once in a while.

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