Category Archives: Asia

Northern Thai sausage kings

Grilled northern Thai sausages from Sai Oua Pa Nong in Chiang Rai

Grilled northern Thai sausages from Sai Oua Pa Nong in Chiang Rai

Everyone has a secret superpower, and I am no different. Some people are wonderful dancers. Some people can catch anything that is thrown at them. Some people can multiply large sums in their heads. And me? I can clear a 3-foot radius around me in about 10-15 minutes without even trying. When I tell people about this, they shake their heads and think, She’s at it again. Exaggerating her uselessness. But they’re not around to see it. I can guarantee that, if I sit on one side of a room before yoga class, everyone else will try to sit on the other side. At a large dining table, if no one is assigning seats and no one really knows me very well, one or both chairs to either side of me will remain empty. I have even had people switch seats at a movie theater in Thailand — where there is assigned seating — to move to an empty seat further away from me. I don’t know if it’s my smell or what. It certainly isn’t something I do on purpose. And it is almost never useful. It’s just something that happens, more often than not.

It’s a shame my secret superpower isn’t something useful, like languages. I am ashamed to say it, but I only have room in my head for 1.5 languages, as full as it is of Game of Thrones trivia and a detailed chronology of Jack White’s past haircuts. As you might have guessed, English makes up one of those languages. The other 0.5 is up to where I am living at any point in time. It used to be French, when I was studying cooking in Paris. Then it was Japanese, when I was working as a financial reporter in Tokyo. Now it is Thai, my “native” language, which makes it all the more pathetic when I open my mouth to order a meal or give directions or make small talk — whatever it is that people do to wile away the time until you get to go to sleep. People will frown and say, “Where are you from?” And I will smile and say, “The Philippines.”

Sometimes. Just sometimes. Other times I have to go into the whole rigamarole of how I moved to the States when I was a baby and came back and blah blah blah blah. It is the penalty that life exacts for speaking such terrible Thai. So it is no surprise when I find myself with a spare 10 minutes in Chiang Rai (the town of my birth) and head over to Sai Oua Pa Nong  (San Kong Noi Road, across from Chetupon Temple, 082-760-4813) for what a few locals said were the best sai oua (Northern Thai sausages) in town. That is hard for me to believe because 1.) the best Northern Thai cook I know is my Aunt Priew, who lives in Chiang Rai and 2.) I make my own sai oua too, and it is not bad. It might even be good, if you are my friend and you just spent an entire afternoon making sausages with me.

The minute I get there and ask for “50 baht of sausage” in Thai, the man in front waiting for his own sausage order to be grilled narrows his eyes at me. “Where are you from?” he says, and I’m still thinking if I should choose “Filipino” or “Japanese” when a sprightly little old lady carrying what looks like 1000 baht worth of sausages looks up at me and grins.

“Can I just get a little bit of this sausage?” I say. “I just want one or two bites,” and she says “Certainly!” with a great big smile.

“And what’s this?” I ask, pointing at a bunch of small plastic baggies filled with a thick green liquid.

“It’s nam prik nam pak (vegetable juice chili dip),” she says. “You should get it, it’s very good.”

I run over the rest of the menu with her, asking for recommendations and whatnot and it’s only when she turns to leave do I realize that this lady is a freaking customer and I’ve been running my mouth at the wrong person for something like 10 minutes.

“The smallest order of sausages for takeaway is 150 baht,” says a 20something man behind the counter.

“Do you work here?” I ask. He may or he may not, but he throws in the vegetable juice chili dip for free, just so I can try it out.

It turns out the sausages are thick, closely-packed and meaty, peppered liberally with big melting chunks of pig fat. They taste like they’re supposed to, salty and herbal but with a generous kick of chili spice, so I get why people like them. The real revelation, though, is the chili dip, which is fibrous and green, yes, tasting just like Claussen dill pickle juice. I love it.

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Filed under Asia, food, food stalls, Northern Thai, pork, Thailand

Super chicken

The famous "gai super" at New Tiem Song

The famous “gai super” at New Tiem Song

There are a few things that I absolutely will not do, not even while in the pursuit of the culinarily fabulous. One of those things is eating with my hands. I absolutely loathe it. This is particularly strange for me, since a lot of Northern Thai and Isaan food involves sticky rice, which typically includes eating with one’s hands. The rice is rolled up into a little ball with the fingers and used to mop up whatever chili dip, soup or protein there is on your plate in a swift, neat little action called pun khao. The unfortunate thing about this is that all the crap that is on your hands — imaginary or real — ends up in your mouth. And that is really gross.

I know you are thinking, why don’t you wash your hands first then? which is something I do already. Or you could be thinking, but you stuff your face with potato chips and hot wings all day long, and aren’t bitching and moaning about getting your icky hand grossness all up in those tortilla chips heaving with guacamole. And this is true, mom! But it’s not the same as getting soft, soppy stuff all over your fingers. So, sorry Ethiopian restaurants and banana leaf curry stands.  I will never eat you the way you are meant to be eaten. I will always be asking for a spoon and fork. Because that is the way people should eat everything, always (except for potato chips, hot wings and tortilla chips with guacamole).

I like offal meats. You could even say I seek them out. I love kidneys, and sweetbreads, and liver, and grilled chicken gizzards sprinkled with sea salt. I don’t even mind brains, if they are battered and deep-fried, or grilled in a banana leaf. I enjoy shirako with ponzu sauce and a scattering of sliced chive, and I think a cube or two of congealed pig or chicken blood is the perfect touch for a great Thai noodle dish. That kind of thing doesn’t bother me at all.

Except when it comes to feet. Or anything with bones, pits or seeds in them, really. Because if I loathe eating with my hands, I absolutely HATE spitting anything out of my mouth. This is why I don’t eat mangosteens, and why I stay away from grapes, unless they’re seedless. The thought of regurgitating some little something that has to sit there as a reminder of all your salivary grossness is just unbearably vile to me. I would just rather swallow these things, if I can. This is probably why fishbones are so infuriating.

So chicken feet is a no-fly zone for me. It’s a shame, because the most important men in my life — Antonio Brown and Troy Polamalu (haha, jk) — really love them. It’s a street food dish called gai super (“super chicken”) which, when I first heard it, made me really excited because I thought it referred to either chicken wings or some sort of crispy, boneless chicken part, like deep-fried cartilage. Alas, it is a stewed mass of splayed, spidery chicken legs, plonked into a broth simmered from their cooking and accompanied by a mash of bird’s eye chilies.

Just another look at the same dish

Just another look at the same dish

The meat is supposed to be coaxed gently from the bones via the gentle suction usually meant for a milkshake through a straw, but HELL NAW. I’m sorry. I couldn’t do it. You can sue me now, or make me watch a Mark Wahlberg film. Instead, there was the broth, which was deeply chicken-y even without those gross-ass feet all over them, a slight twinge of coriander, and the metallic fire of a dozen pulverized chilies. All in all, it was MEH, unless you are really into the sort of masochistic task of getting those skimpy bits of flesh off of all those little bones. And some of you are like that, if the gigantic pile of toothpick-sized bones on my dad’s and husband’s plates are anything to go by.

So, no judgment. If you are headed to Dinsor Road close to the Chinese Swing, go over to New Tiem Song, which is the open-air shophouse across the street from Bangkok’s City Hall and only a couple of doors down from Mont Nom Sod — the wildly popular toast restaurant credited with being the first eatery to bring fresh milk to the Thai masses. Or, well, you could just go to Mont Nom Sod, and wait in a big long line with Thai teenagers for … toast. Either way, there is something awesome for you waiting on Dinsor Road, whichever way you choose to go.

 

 

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, chicken, food, food stalls, Thailand

Yen ta fo for h8ers

Yen ta fo with rice vermicelli at Thi Yen Ta fo Rot Ded

Yen ta fo with rice vermicelli at Thi Yen Ta Fo Rot Ded

I write a lot about yen ta fo. It is my absolute favorite Thai noodle dish. What’s not to love? An unlikely but irresistible melange of textures and flavors, from squidgy blanched morning glory stems, rubbery squid, soft fish balls, crackly bitter deep-fried garlic and the crunch of a deep-fried wonton — and that’s before you even get to the sauce. Because it’s the sauce that makes or breaks it all: tart with distilled vinegar and pickled garlic, resonating from the heady boom of fish sauce, underneath which the slightest whiff of sweet fermented red tofu emerges like the flash of a red sole on an expensive shoe … that is what yen ta fo is to me. A very delicate balance that, at its best, is the stereotypical juggling act illustrative of the best of Thai cuisine.

At its worst, yen ta fo is something different. It’s all sweet, all pink, all sickly and flat, like Hello Kitty. So it gives people the wrong idea, that these noodles are something for people with a sweet tooth, that there is no complexity to it at all, that it’s Britney Spears when you want to be rocking the egg noodle-PJ Harvey special. I always put this down to people going to the wrong places for yen ta fo. There is such a thing as the wrong place for a certain dish. In fact, that is the whole point of this blog.

I’ve been to Thi Yen Ta Fo (084-550-2880, open 11-22 except Mondays) more times than I can count. I mean, it was always closed those other times, but it feels like second nature to me now to just head automatically to that street corner on Mahachai Road, just down the street from Thipsamai and next to Jay Fai. Usually, I just find a shuttered cart with a sign bearing the vendor’s name. But just a few days ago, it was all systems go: an entire corner and then some, littered with packed tables and the sort of flustered, harried waiters you would see at your nearest Fuji or Crystal Jade restaurant.

For a soup noodle dish that is so often dismissed as “those terrible pink noodles”, yen ta fo sure seems popular here. But there is a very good reason for this. When our bowls come to the table, it’s less about the pink sauce and fermented tofu and more about the veritable blanket of chopped chilies that coats our food like a suit of armor. If there was ever any doubt in my mind that a typical Thai fix-it involves just throwing a bunch of chilies on something to make it taste better, that doubt has long since been blasted from my head by the smoke coming out of my ears after a bite of these noodles. This stuff is SPICY. It changes the whole flavor profile of the dish. Here, it’s all tart and fiery, even slightly metallic. It’s yen ta fo for people who don’t like yen ta fo very much.

There’s other stuff too. The immense popularity of this place has necessitated the incorporation of a second cart, this one offering fried noodle dishes like guaythiew kua gai (pan-fried rice noodles with chicken and egg). That’s not to mention the pork satay place that also serves the customers here, and the other soup noodles offered by Thi, like the just-as-spicy tom yum egg noodles with fresh basil and minced pork:

Bring your tissues

Bring your tissues

I can’t say I don’t like these noodles, because that wouldn’t be true. Would they be my favorite yen ta fo? No, because they are barely yen ta fo at all. Would I go back? Absolutely. With a pack of tissues. And some Tums.

 

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, food, food stalls, noodles, Thailand, yen ta fo