Author Archives: Bangkok Glutton

About Bangkok Glutton

Eating and writing in Bangkok.

Little Portugal

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Plates of kanom jeen gai kua at Yai Thi

I noticed that I haven’t been complaining about the heat lately, so I thought it was time to get back to my regularly scheduled programming. It’s really hot, guys. Even when it’s supposed to be rainy season, it’s still hot. The rain doesn’t really help very much. This heat sucks. The end.

But even with this heat, I still managed to corral a few of my friends into taking me to the Portuguese neighborhood of Kudichin, centered on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River around the Santa Cruz church. This patch of land was awarded to the Portuguese by King Taksin for their help in fighting the Burmese in Ayutthaya, and they have retained a cultural hold on the neighborhood ever since. I’m sure you already know about the impact the Portuguese have had on Thai culture, but to fill up this post with more words, I will say that the seafaring adventure-lovers that were the Portuguese spread their culture all over the world. This includes Asia, where they introduced us to heretofore unheard-of ingredients like chilies and created desserts like the egg-and-sugar extravaganza tong yod (a stand in for ovos moles) and kanom mor gang (a coconut custard, inspired by tigelada). Some other stuff the Portuguese brought to us: foy tong or “gold threads”, a stand-in for fios de ovos; look choop, mini fruits inspired by massapa’es but filled with mung bean instead of marzipan; corn; potatoes; guava (!); pineapple (!); papaya (!); cashew nuts (!); pumpkin (!). And of course tomatoes, which they brought to everyone, including the Italians. This is new stuff we all learned at the Baan Kudichin Museum.

Kudichin has something for everyone here, really: history buffs, architecture and design geeks, or people who really like walking around in hot places. For me, of course, it was the promise of food that I would not be able to find anywhere else, the Portuguese-Sino-Thai dish of kanom jeen gai kua, or fermented rice noodles in a mild chicken curry.

What makes this chicken curry and noodle dish different from, say, a standard Thai kanom jeen gang gai are the spices used to season the coconutty curry, which are mixed quite happily in a food processor instead of pounded in a mortar and pestle to release the oils (a shameful practice to Thais, who like to pretend that the food processor or blender don’t exist). The chicken is minced like in a bolognese and flavored with fish sauce, coconut milk, and a hint of chili. The garnish is always slivered green onion. The result is milder and lighter than something you would find elsewhere in Thailand, the flavors fewer and more focused. It is, not surprisingly, utterly delicious. I ended doing this thing where I tried to stuff it down my throat like I was a foie gras goose, but I was doing it to myself. This is not healthy behavior.

The first place where we had this is said to be the jao gow, or original vendor of the dish. Directly across from the Santa Cruz church next to the river, Yai Thi (02-472-5231) offers their most famous dish — prominently advertised in front of the restaurant — alongside more Portuguese-inflected fare like grilled pork chops with fries and a succession of thick toast with various toppings, including spinach with cheese and butter with caramel. There are chicken nuggets and waffled mashed potatoes, onion rings and garlic bread. It is essentially your picky 4-year-old’s dream restaurant.

Our favorite creation, though, was the banana “crepe”, which is actually a deep-fried samosa stuffed with mashed ripe banana. We thought it would be everywhere on our walk from the church to the Kudichin Museum, but it ended up being a unique thing to this restaurant.

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You will have to remove your shoes to enter the “dining room”, which in this case, appears to be the family living room. The kitchen is located right next to the river, so that the chef can enjoy a pleasant view while preparing your order. In our (in)expert opinion, it appears that various households in the neighborhood are supplementing their income this way, by welcoming strangers into their homes for meals. This is what we surmised, anyway, after heading next door to the next place serving kanom jeen, called Pa Jae (080-305-2448). Unlike Yai Thi, the menu is more Chinese-focused, offering stir-fried pork in oyster sauce on rice, fried shrimp on rice, and macaroni in tomato sauce besides the requisite rice noodles with chicken curry.

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Unlike Yai Thi, you are expected to add your own nam prik of coconut milk and blended chilies, which looks like this:

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A plus for Pa Jae is the karaoke, which is performed at your table, while eating your noodles. We blitzed our way through John Denver’s “Country Roads” (a Thai karaoke bar staple), what I believe was “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (I can’t be expected to remember things anymore) and “Top of the World” by the Carpenters before we took pity on the proprietors and showed ourselves out. The karaoke was free, something that maybe the owners should rectify in the future if they value their own mental health.

The third place we were aiming for was the most famous restaurant in the neighborhood, Baan Sakul Thong (213 Soi Kudichin 3, 062-605-5665), where we are told the dishes come from the recipes of great-grandmother Chawee Sakulthong. A set here is slightly more expensive than the other restaurants we visited, at 250 baht per person for a plate of the chicken noodles with two appetizers, a dessert and a soft drink.  Appetizers include Royal Thai-type stuff like chor muang (steamed dumplings stuffed with minced pork and dyed purple with butterfly pea extract) and jeeb tua nok (bird-shaped steamed dumplings stuffed with chicken). When we got there, we were confused by which door was the entrance and ended up busting in on a private family meal. Apparently, reservations must be made 2-3 days in advance. It took all of my willpower to not snap a photo of the family’s food from over their shoulders. I am not yet a savage.

So Baan Sakul Thong was a wash, but it wouldn’t do to not have something to look forward to on our next visit to Kudichin. Wasn’t it Kierkegaard who said that true despair was having all of your wishes fulfilled? Maybe not. I was never that good of a student.

 

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Kindred spirits

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If you want to know what I was ranting about before, of course it is about Game of Thrones and Kit Harrington’s reaction to the script, which was terrible /endrant

My sister Chissa has been on my case for a while for not mentioning her in my blog. This is not true, but it is true that I have not mentioned her by name. So here I am, doing that. My sister is Chissa, and she is one of my best friends.

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I was wondering (briefly, because there is Netflix to be watched) about why I rarely mention Chissa, and I think it is because we never eat street food together. Sometimes we talk about going to a street food place, but it’s with the same kind of enthusiasm where you tell someone “we have to have dinner sometime” and then the both of you immediately regret it because they will have to think of an excuse not to go and you have to pretend to be senile and forget about it. So we don’t end up going for street food, because 1.) it is hot, 2.) a lot of it is far and 3.) Chissa is kind of a gourmet person, as opposed to a person like me, who loves MK and Hooters. This means any old street food won’t do, and do we want to wait 7 hours for dinner, really? It has to be 100 percent for real guaranteed, and, oh yeah, 4.) it has to allow for copious amounts of booze. This is too much pressure for me, which is why I always end up suggesting El Mercado.

But I went somewhere last week that I think Chissa would appreciate. That place is Someday Everyday (Next to Warehouse 30 on Charoen Krung Soi 30, open daily 9am-6pm), a khao gang (curry rice) venture spearheaded by culinary kindred spirits David Thompson (arguably the most famous Thai food chef in the world) and Prin Polsuk (one of the best Thai food chefs I know). Now curry rice is not only a type of Thai street food vendor but also an action on the part of the consumer: you are presented with your plate of rice (or kanom jeen, or fermented rice noodles, if you are in the South) and you have your choice of several curries and stir-fries with which to adorn your starch. Someday Everyday presents this hallowed street tradition — popular as a to-go breakfast on the way to the office, or during lunchtime when you are running away from the office — but in dressed-up Greyhound-y surroundings, and with top-notch ingredients that are good enough to warrant the THB90+ price tag. In other words, it’s a good tip of the hat to the tradition of Thai street food while still retaining the feel of a restaurant.

 

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House-made tong yip, tong yod and foy tong, Portuguese-style sweets made of egg and sugar

Even better, they have Rama V-era dishes that would be difficult to find on the street where prices have to be kept as low as they go — I mean, nam prik kapi is a stretch — so you find stuff alongside mainstays like green curry and pullo (Chinese 5-spice) eggs, like pork with madan leaves, nam prik (chili paste dip) and a gang gai (chicken curry) which is simply explained to me in English (several times) as “red curry” even though in my husband’s family, gang gai is always green WTF people are different!

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Lunch

There is a specials menu as well as a roster of regulars, so that the kitchen can feature great produce in season and you don’t get bored and blasé about the whole thing. Perhaps best of all, there is dessert, so you are spared from rushing to After You or, God forbid, Starbucks to satisfy your sweet tooth after the meal.

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Black sticky rice with coconut and longan

Awesome food? Check. Air-conditioning? Check. Cool neighborhood? Check. Booze? I don’t think they care. This has it all when you’re hot from the boat and don’t want to risk getting even hotter eating soup noodles on the main road.

Now all I have to do is convince Chissa to trek all the way there.

 

 

 

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Subverted expectations

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Mee krob at Meng Lee

People who have been reading my blog for a while know that I occasionally enjoy writing about “Game of Thrones”. This is in spite of the fact that no one has ever asked me my opinion on “Game of Thrones”. You’re welcome, world.

But saying anything now seems like a pile-on to basically everyone else on the planet who watched the finale. Can I add to what Aaron Rodgers, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have already said? No, I can’t. I can only subvert expectations by saying that I hope to kinda forget about the last few episodes as thoroughly as Dany kinda forgot about the Iron Fleet.

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I AM DISAPPOINT

(Photo by Karen Blumberg)

Luckily, there is food to channel all my rage into. I have been trying my share of great food, without bothering to take many photos, because I am realizing that the constant documentation takes me out of the moment too much. It is no longer enjoyable for me to imagine what other people will think of what I’m eating. Also, I think Instagram is ruining food, more than even Michelin, San Pellegrino and the celebrity chef culture (btw, follow me at @bangkokglutton)!

It’s hard to get your food, though, when your server is running away from you like Dave B. and Dan W. running away from enraged GOT fans. Also, when the restaurant is turning away foreign customers when they threaten to give the restaurant their money. This is what happened at Meng Lee (Na Phra Lan Road next to Silpakorn University, open daily 11am-7pm), and I’m thinking it’s pretty lucky that I managed to slip through the door like a Faceless Man without having to unleash my crappy Thai.

You’d be right to think that it’s crazy for a Thai restaurant across the street from the Grand Palace to turn away foreigners, almost as crazy as sending out warriors to fight dead things in the dark. But then again, you’re not Meng Lee. This Thai-Chinese restaurant is a longstanding “cookshop”, a type of Bangkok-specific eatery that serves Thai-Chinese versions of Western favorites. These are the dishes that the courts of Rama IV and Rama V served to Western dignitaries to show that they were “sivalai” (the Thai term for “civilized”). As yucky as this whole enterprise might seem upon deeper examination, this “sivalai” cooking could be credited with helping the kingdom in the long run, aiding in the effort to keep Siam (all together now) the only uncolonized country in the region.

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Meng Lee is — alongside fellow golden oldies Silom Pattakan, Florida Hotel Restaurant and Chairoj  — part of a Dothraki-like tribe of cookshops, which serve a distinctly Bangkokian form of cuisine. It basically comes from a smattering of recipes handed down from the chefs who helmed the palaces, embassies and wealthy households offering this type of food. Because Western chefs were difficult to import into Asia, most of the chefs hired were Hainanese, who, like the “water dancers” of Essos with their swords, were blessed with sterling reputations for great cooking. As a result, the ensuing dishes ended up being a hybrid of Thai, Chinese and Western influences.

Every restaurant specializes in something different, but every cookshop serves a “steak salad”, or salat nuea san. Here the meat comes unsliced and simply panfried to an innocuous beige, set next to a green salad with a tart-sweet clear dressing that is canonically accurate (unlike GOT seasons 7 and 8).

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There is also always mee krob, the crispy tart-sweet fried rice noodles dressed in tamarind and citrus that have become a Varys-ish caricature of themselves in recent years, lacquered to a cloying caramel crisp. Here, it is a soft jumble of mild crunch and tang, pleasant and comforting and not at all aggressive. Now, like the reason behind maintaining a Night’s Watch, no one knows why mee krob is always served at a cookshop. It is not particularly Western, Western-seeming or Chinese. We can only assume that, like Podrick Payne’s supposed hunkiness, it is something that simply caught on.

Not to say there isn’t anything else very Asian, because of course there is. Meng Lee is known for its beef-kale stir-fry, which, like Davos the Onion Knight, comes as you would expect, with no nasty surprises.

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And then there’s the omelet. Maybe Jay Fai has spoiled us all. But this is a latter-stage Tyrion Lannister version of a crab omelet, something I might slap together hung over and resentful over the intrusion of friends I’d invited over to the house the night before.

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At the end of the day, it might not be the food itself that lures you — if you make it past the Unsullied at the door — to this quiet corner shophouse oasis in the middle of everything touristy. It’s the nifty time travel that happens once you are seated: the checkered floor, the ceiling fans, and, yes, the elusive, super-shy servers. You are not transported “back” to fantasy medieval times; instead, you find yourself in mid-20th century Bangkok, when things seemed a lot simpler and the heat wasn’t quite so oppressive. Maybe this is enough reward to brave a trip through Meng Lee’s green door (BITTERSWEET).

 

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The New North

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Khao soy at Ong-Tong

Before Winner left to visit his family in California, he took me to Maliwan Kanom Thai (Ari Soi 1) to buy 20 bags of their pandan-flavored kanom chan (layered jelly of sticky rice flour and coconut milk). It’s just one of a bunch of great street food stalls on the street — and incidentally, part of an area that was saved from being cleared by the government thanks to the vendors banning together to petition City Hall. In case you are ever lost on Ari Soi 1 and in desperate need of some Thai street dessert, you will always be able to pick out Maliwan by the long line of people waiting patiently for a shot at their sankaya fuk tong (pumpkin stuffed with coconut custard) or khao niew dum kati (sweet coconut milk-covered black sticky rice). Although the kanom chan is probably the most popular offering at Maliwan, I am embarrassed to say we completely cleaned out their store of the green ones, although the purple (butterfly pea) and brown (original) were still available. Not that this information will help you in any way today.

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Maliwan’s pandan kanom chan

Despite Ari Soi 1’s cup overflowingeth with great street food choices, we could not pass up the chance to try the new(ish?) Northern Thai spot Ong-Tong Khaosoi Ari (17 Phahonyothin Soi 7, 02-003-5254), since Winner knows I love to complain about things and am rarely satisfied by Northern Thai food in Bangkok.

I will start out by saying that I have recently come back from braving the toxic air in Chiang Mai, where I indulged in old favorites at Huen Jai Yong (which I’ve written about before).

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Pak waan stew at Huen Jai Yong

I also had a chance to try the new “face” of the Northern Thai food scene a la Blackitch Artisan Kitchen, where local food celeb Chef Black is turning Thai ingredients into exciting new dishes, with the help of a pioneering spirit and a willingness to experiment.

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Works in progress at Blackitch: a silkworm fish sauce, fermenting shrimp heads, pickling Sichuan peppercorns

Ong-Tong doesn’t do this sort of high-concept experimentation, which is OK, because that makes Ong-Tong 1.) way cheaper and 2.) far less crowded (bookings only at Blackitch, and even then, be prepared to spend a lot of time by yourself downstairs in a room that resembles the cellar in a horror movie). The height of CRAY at Ong-Tong is their pairing of dry khao soy with sai oua (Northern Thai sausages), which could sound amazing but sort of lands with an anticlimactic huh on the palate. It’s sort of like Northern Thai chop suey. But you be the judge.

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Khao soy sans broth with sai oua

As for the namesake dish, khao soy, well … how bad can it get at this point? It’s egg noodles in a coconut milk-enriched curry broth, right? How can anyone hate on that and not be a total monster? All the same, I feel a little (a lot) like this dish, as lovely as it is, as much like the most popular and nicest sorority sister at the state university as it is … is sort of becoming the pad Thai of the millennial age. Ubiquitous, everywhere, inoffensive, universally loved. All hail, Asian Taylor Swift in noodle form.

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Not to say that this place is one big meh. A personal favorite — and something I like to complain about almost as much as GOT’s Benioff and Weiss or Donald Trump’s face — is kanom jeen nam ngiew, a fermented rice dish that features a thick pork stew (in Chiang Mai they add tomatoes, which flattens the flavors out a bit) seasoned with fermented beans (tua nao). And at Ong-Tong, hey, it’s good! I know I wasn’t expecting it either. The trick is lots and lots of deep-fried garlic.

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I’m thinking it will take a couple more decades for this dish to be as played out as pad Thai and khao soy — after all, there is still kua gai (stir-fried chicken noodles), kanom jeen nam ya (Southern-style rice noodles in fish curry) and even tum sua (somtum with rice noodles) waiting to be unleashed on the world. Until then, I can find plenty of other stuff to complain about.

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100 percent Thai

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A spicy oyster salad with horse tamarind leaves at Fah Mui. I was afraid it wouldn’t end well for me, but I’m fine thanks for asking

For the last week or so, I have been following the controversy around Lucky Lee, the “clean” Chinese-American restaurant founded by Arielle Haspel, who is not Chinese-American. There are several takes on this, but my favorite is probably the one on Eater, which can break down why and how the controversy.

Cultural appropriation is a tricky thing. The idea that a white chef shouldn’t cook Asian food is ridiculous, as it is when it’s an Asian chef cooking Western food. Brought to modern music, it’s even worse — all forms of modern music were appropriated from black people, for example (do you remember when Eric Clapton did “I Shot the Sheriff”? He was the Cliff Richard of the ’70s.) When you get to clothing and who gets to wear a sari or cheongsam, it becomes completely bewildering, especially from the eyes of Asians living in Asia, who think anyone willing to spend money for any of their stuff is A-OK.

But then when you seek to “improve” on the “yucky” food of a minority group, you rightfully get into trouble. That is because it doesn’t come from a place of love or respect, and it builds on a long history of devaluing other cultures in favor of the ruling one. I once attended an exhibit on the history of the Chinese-American restaurant in New York and it detailed very clearly how, from the very first restaurant in San Francisco, the food had to be marketed as cheap and convenient in order to compete. Burgers and steaks still had to be on the menu, along with “fusion-y” creations like chop suey. The first fortune cookies were actually a Japanese-American creation, but after the inventor was put into an internment camp, the Chinese took over.

Despite the kitschy, “inauthentic” connotations ascribed to it now, Chinese-American food became a thing that people genuinely love, and an example of how a community assimilated and survived by adapting its culture to that of its new host. The changes that were made to it as time passed (or in some cases, the gradual reversion to the real thing) serve as historical documents themselves.

Thais are doing this now, with the inclusion of Chinese dishes on their menus and a change in flavors that may have dismayed some native-born Thais to such an extent that they invented a a food tasting robot (I will never forget). But it, and the Chinese-American food that came before it, is still only really accepted if it knows its place, asking for less money than its Western counterparts.

“Leave the fine dining to the Europeans,” someone once wrote on a message board controversy sparked by a story I wrote on Bangkok’s new fine dining restaurants (LOL at old people who can’t read timelines). I don’t remember the problem with the story — aside the fact that people think I am a poorly paid 25-year-old intern. HELLO I am a poorly paid 75-year-old intern! — but I will always remember this stupid dumbass comment, and feel rage. This comment is racist. If you don’t see it, I’m not going to help you. I’m done with that. Asian food is just as good as anyone else’s food, and should cost what it’s worth. That is why I so admire ladies like Jay Fai and Pen, who despite a lot of pressure have kept their prices at a place where they feel properly compensated, and have kept their food at a high quality as a result.

The restaurant I’m writing about today is not an expensive one though. Hahaha.

It is, however, very good, an example of a cuisine that, even when you leave it alone at home, still manages to evolve and change. I’m talking about Thai food in Hua Hin, specifically at Fah Mui (20 Naresdamri Road, 082-587-4659). I’m talking about their gaeng prik nok (bird’s eye chili soup). Tell me this is an old-age Hua Hin thing, because I have never seen this before, and I have been to Hua Hin a time or two or three.

The sign looks like this. It’s kind of hard to find because it’s just a door (decorated with a bull’s skull with red balls for eyes). Look for the mayom fruit tree. The door will lead you through a narrow walkway to the restaurant behind, which looks out over the water. It’s basically an aharn tham sung (made to order) stall with a view.

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The soup comes from this paste, which the cook tells me is just shallots, shrimp paste and chilies, just like a regular gaeng som (sour curry). It’s not, of course. It’s tart, salty and spicy like sour curry, but there’s definitely plenty of sugar, and an added bonus of fresh holy basil leaves that echo the sweetness and make it resonate (I am writing like Jewel sings, kill me now).

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The paste turns into this soup, bristling with fresh seabags and fish eggs. I only remembered to take this photo at the very end because I have better things to do than taking photos all the time, like fighting off my family for more soup:

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There’s more stuff that I don’t remember, but I do recall these fish egg sacs fried with garlic and meant to be dipped in a sweet chili sauce, but come on, that’s just gilding the lily:

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Fish eggs with garlic

There is also a terrifying gaeng pa (jungle curry) and succulent deep-fried pork ribs. There is whole deep-fried seabags in more garlic. There is more, but I have forgotten, because there was so much. It is food that is a perfect historical document of the times we are living in right now. Too bad it’s all in my stomach.

 

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Glutton Abroad: They juice bitter melons in Taiwan, don’t they?

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Taiwan’s white bitter melons

By now you will have probably already seen the viral clip of The Cure’s Robert Smith interviewed by journalist Carrie Keagan at this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. If not, well, I’m not sure which one to link to, and where have you been anyway, it’s everywhere, even Piers Morgan has covered it. Morgan even claims to have wooed his wife with The Cure songs (instead of dancing alongside her and eventually biting her neck, like other lizards would normally have done). This must be very horrifying for Robert Smith, sorry, you can rest in peace now, our thoughts and prayers are with you.

The interview is most often pitched as an illustration of the differences between Britons and Americans, but like Jordan Peele’s new movie “Us”, I think it serves as a Rorschach test for the viewer’s own prejudices. In my case, I was convinced Carrie Keagan was the alternative music version of a social-climbing parvenue, the kind who listens to the “Wish” album and then proclaims herself a mega-fan, versus a long-suffering misfit who had to eat lunch with their one friend at school and listened to “Pornography” before bed in order to make themselves feel less alone (Hmmm? What’s that? I’m not talking about myself you’re talking about myself.) It turns out she is a “Japanese Whispers” fan and, although it’s technically considered a singles collection, whatever, I have to eat my words and pretty, ebullient people like Carrie Keagan can also be closet Goths even though they probably never had to pay any of the social cost for it, what, I’m not talking about myself why are you so obsessed with me.

The Cure are a good band to consider when it comes to discussing a wide-ranging, even surprising, fandom. They appealed to everyone from the likeliest (Trent Reznor, I feel you) to the unlikeliest of music fans (Piers Morgan) and everyone in between, thanks to the universality of Robert Smith’s songwriting and unvarnished voice, and some really stellar musicianship that never really gets a lot of attention because everyone is paying attention to Robert Smith (not his fault). Watching The Cure’s set from the induction ceremony, I was struck by how generous they were in playing for this smug peroxided bunch of phonies who represents everything in music that The Cure have always hated (and will probably induct a band like Poison any year now, just you wait).

Wait, what was I saying? Oh yes, a wide-ranging fandom. Yes, really, that was what I was talking about, not about how rock music has become equated with the oppressor Donald Trump types of the world and has lost all credibility as a resistance art form as a result. Oh wait, I mean a wide-ranging fandom …

… which Taiwanese food also enjoys. What I’m saying is, Taiwanese food appeals to a whole range of people, from the foodie Gluttony types to the junky sweet tooth set to the genuine, food-of-the-people champions — like The Cure’s discography, there’s something for almost everyone there (provided they aren’t Motley Crue fans or whatever).

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Colored like an apple, shaped like a banana

I’ve been to Taiwan before. I consider that my pure Glutton trip, an attempt to inhale as many of the things I’ve always loved about Taiwanese food in Taipei. This trip was a more wide-ranging jaunt, a budget tour through the island, focused on covering as many stops as possible from Sun Moon Lake to Alishan to Yehliu Geopark and every souvenir shop doling out commissions in between. The food was different from what I would choose to eat in Taipei, but it ended up being a good thing and probably much more representative of what regular Taiwanese people outside of the capital city eat.

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Open-air hotpot in the mountains

Of course, there is always something new to discover here. In my case, it was the “tea egg”, which our guide said was the only street food allowed to be sold in the Alishan area during Chiang Kai-Shek’s time because the vendor was a widow with children. Besides this story, tea eggs are simply the perfect snack, savory nuggets of protein stewed in a broth of tea, soy sauce and Chinese five-spice powder for long enough to form the characteristic marbled pattern on their surfaces, reminiscent of how Tom Hardy looks when Venom is taking over.

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Tea eggs on the street

Because they are such perfect snacks, tea eggs are pretty much everywhere, on the street, in tea shops, even in the 7-11. But it took finally arriving in Taipei to suss out what I had been wanting to try the whole time: Taiwan’s supposedly ubiquitous fried chicken (I love fried chicken, did I ever mention that?). This magic stuff is like a half of a chicken pounded flat through sheer WTFery (bones be damned) and then lightly breaded, fried to a face-sized slab and cut into squares to allow for easy grazing from a paper bag. It comes in normal and “spicy” (which is a lot like Nashville’s “hot chicken” in flavor) and is so delicious that I forgot to take a photo until the very end, when I was finally able to stop myself from eating for long enough to snap a picture.

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Fried chicken on Hanzhong Street

Also delicious: bubble tea. I know we all say we’ve had bubble tea, but the fact is that no one has had bubble tea unless they’ve had it in Taiwan, the actual birthplace of bubble tea. The inventor of “pearl milk tea” is said to have been Chun Shui Tang, but count us as Tiger Sugar converts, thanks to the addition of dark brown sugar syrup to its signature drinks.

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Praise be Tiger Sugar

 

And then there are the bitter melon juice stands. Like Robert Smith’s hair, the sight of several rows of bitter melons lined up like soldiers at the front of a juice stall could appear intimidating. But these gourds are not the light green variety commonly adorning eggy stir-fries and pork broth-based clear soups elsewhere in Asia. Fortunately (unfortunately?), Taiwan’s produce is almost unparalleled (gorgeous guavas and rose apples, etc) and its fat white bitter melons — said to be milder than their green counterparts — are no exception. The juice is augmented with honey and ice cubes and is a bittersweet jolt to the senses, the Goth shadow to the ebullient lightness enjoyed by the happy and uncomplicated fangirls of the world. Just like The Cure (YAY I DID IT), bitter melon juice is the darkness by which all the sweetness of the world can be measured.

 

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A stitch in time

meekrob

Mee krob at the Florida Hotel

In my last few posts, I’ve been focusing a lot on weight, but I’m going to take the opportunity now to head on back to a golden oldie, age. I do this because only very recently — well after everyone else, it would seem — I discovered that beloved Thai-Chinese cookshop Yong Lee had closed down. The chef, second generation after the passing of her father, founder Keepong sae Dan, has developed diabetes, and decided to put her health first. It’s sad (for me), but a very wise decision. It’s just a shame since there were many times I passed by the open shopfront on motorcycle and failed to go in, thinking I would have time in the near future for a meal. Unfortunately, no. I will miss their nuea pla kapong pad prik dum (stir-fried seabass with black peppercorns) and hae gun tod grob (crispy fried shrimp dumplings), and a bunch of other stuff besides.

yonglee

Yong Lee now

Not that I would have been able to try the food in the past couple of weeks. While in Japan, I somehow managed to injure myself in what I have been told was an eating-related ailment … like an athletic injury, but for people who stuff their faces. What I thought to be an ear infection was actually a painful inflammation of the joint in my jaw, which my doctor says must have been triggered after chewing too enthusiastically on Nagano’s apple-fed beef. The pain was enough to cause a migraine that radiated all the way to the top of my head. So I was ordered to eat soup and rice porridge until the pain went away.

I imagined a future like this lady:

giphy

But luckily the pain went away after a few days, which was lucky for me because I went to Florida Hotel’s Tampa Coffee Shop (not to be confused with its Orlando Dining Room) for the first time a little while later. No one calls it by its coffee shop name though, preferring to simply call it “Florida Hotel Restaurant” (43 Phaya Thai Rd., 02-247-0991).

This is a restaurant that inspires a lot of questions. First and foremost, where have you been all my life, Florida Hotel Restaurant?

ribs

Pork ribs with barbecue sauce and the Florida Hotel salad

The answer: it’s always been there, since 1968, and my ignorance and laziness kept me from going sooner. My loss, because this is the Thai-Chinese-Western diner of my dreams, attached to a hotel that is abandoned-looking enough to plausibly be haunted (some Google reviews: “feels like no one stays there”, “old fashioned”) but bright and crowded enough inside to inspire comparisons to the diner in “Happy Days” or, if you’re too young for that, “the Peach Pit” in “Beverly Hills 90210” (RIP Luke Perry).

The original chef is said to have learned his recipes at the knee of Rama V’s own farang chef, but the menu doesn’t stick to the old cookshop favorites that most of those types of restaurants (like Yong Lee) featured. If you are too lazy to flip through the menu, specials are listed on the wall: there is a hamburger, and filet mignon, and a freaking club sandwich. The barbecued ribs, a photo of which adorns the menu’s front cover, are good enough to be found on a paper plate in any backyard in actual Florida, tender and smothered in a ketchupy sauce with a hint of spice. The special Florida Hotel salad comes with big chunks of canned white asparagus and unwrapped slices of processed cheese (please don’t cheese your dining companion). And there’s soup! Although …

soup

“French onion soup”

No, the reason why the place is so crowded isn’t the recommended Western-inspired specials. It’s because of their renditions of Thai-Chinese favorites, like the goy see mee (stir-fried egg noodles in gravy) and the mee krob (a tamarind- and citrus-touched noodle dish that I’ve just learned is Thai-Chinese, not pure Thai).

So I suppose there is plenty more I will have to try to really get to know Florida Hotel Restaurant. But when you are newly freed from a dependence on soup, gnawing on a pork rib with sauce is enough to remind you that you’re not dead yet.

 

 

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