Category Archives: bamee

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

Food for thought

A bowl of Mama deluxe at the Khlong Toei market

When I first moved to Bangkok, about 100 years ago, I didn’t know so much about Thai customs. Not even Thai eating customs. I didn’t know what was considered good manners, or even nice. This caused some problems for me when I started dating.

In general, Thai manners aren’t that different from Western manners. Slurping the broth of anything to show your appreciation is still considered gross, and burping is definitively accepted as The Worst Thing You Can Do, aside from spitting your lungs out all over the restaurant floor. So there’s that. Shouting and chewing with your mouth open are also not done. Don’t even get me started with kicking off your shoes and sitting Indian-style.

But there are little nuances that you grow to learn after being told by someone else that they are the Polite Thing To Do. Because food is always served family-style, it’s nice to put a bit of each dish on your honey’s plate first before serving yourself, or, if you are the lowest-ranking person at the table (this is always me), putting a bit of each dish on everybody else’s plate before yours. Never sticking your germy, spit-encrusted spoon into the common soup or curry bowl is also a nice thing to do; you are supposed to use the chon glang (central spoon) to put a little of the broth or curry into your spoon, and delicately sip from that. Sure, it’s largely unsatisfying and will never get you full, but that is not the point. The point is not to get your disgusting cooties all up into everyone else’s mouth. And of course, there is never YOUR soup, or YOUR curry. Hugging that pot of ambrosia to your chest like it’s the last Snickers bar on Earth only makes you look like a selfish ignoramus, and will gross all the Thai people at the table out.

You all know this stuff, so I’m basically preaching to the Thai food choir. But there are gray areas. I am reminded of this every time I see a platter of Tandoori chicken. One night I was at Rang Mahal (on the top floor of the Rembrandt hotel) with my boyfriend at the time, who is not my husband now. What did he do? Take away the chicken breast I had put onto my plate, and attempt to replace it with a chicken leg.

Now, you know if there is something on my plate that someone is trying to mess with, that I WILL SHUT THAT SHIT DOWN. NO ONE TOUCHES MY PLATE — especially after I’ve had a few bites, gotten my digestive juices flowing, and am just starting to hit my stride (you know what I’m talking about, Eaters). I speared the retreating chicken breast with my fork, resulting in a great big THUNK on the table. He didn’t like that so much. He was only trying to replace my manky old slab of boring, tasteless white meat with a hunk of delicious dark meat on the bone, after all! Needless to say (obviously), that relationship didn’t last.  I am now with a man who knows better than to MESS WITH MY DINNER PLATE.

I’m miles away from where I’m supposed to be, but stay with me for a second here: Because I’ve learned about Thai eating habits since that night at Rang Mahal, I feel like I can criticize what I see happening now — telling people to get off my culinary lawn, so to speak. And, it may just be me, but I see an increasing number of instant noodle packets at noodle vendor stalls, instead of the dried rice noodles that have been de riguer for forever. More and more, I think “Mama” has become a legitimate noodle option alongside sen lek (thin rice noodles) and sen yai (thick rice noodles), instead of a junky afternoon snack that you hide in the farthest reaches of your pantry.

This troubles me because I don’t think that stuff is that particularly good for you. Sure, you say, I blab about street food all the time, with deep-fried this and coconut milk-slathered that. But, in my case anyway, it’s food that I think has been lovingly and thoughtfully made, even if it is food for convenience. It should be a convenience for us, but a pain in the ass for them. And more and more, we’re accepting conveniences for everyone — as loaded with sugar and MSG, and deep-fried and industrial as it is.

I understand the jones for some processed, double-fried wheat noodles flavored with the chemical tang of a spicy Cheetoh once in a while.  So if you must have it, have it right. There are stalls that stir-fry it with vegetables and, occasionally, sausages; others who blanch the noodles in a broth and serve it with seafood, veggies and a delicious yum-style salad dressing. I have even requested it made into a som tum, which … didn’t work, but I suspect that had to do with the tom yum (spicy lemongrass) seasoning, and less with the noodles themselves.

Or how about in a bona fide pork bone broth, blanketed under a layer of genuine spicy lemongrass seasonings, crushed peanuts, and fresh basil leaves? Head over to Khlong Toei market, turn the corner from Rama IV road onto Ratchadaphisek and plunge into the heart of it underneath the awning, past the Chinese “general” stores and rice shops, past the wet seafood section, out into the sunlight, and past the pork and chicken and vegetable stands that repeat every few intervals like some sort of code, until you see a small road leading off to your right. Take this road for about 50 m until you see a chicken rice stall on your right; behind that lurks the smiling noodle vendor, who specializes in pork tom yum and gow low (soup without noodles) dotted with winter melon, all based on a flavorful, fragrant pork bone-based broth.

Or just scrabble around in your pantry and have a junky afternoon snack.

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, food, food stalls, markets, noodles, pork, Thailand

Strange combinations

O-tao in Phuket town

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

There are moments in everyone’s lives that are so strange, they might as well have been scripted. One of mine was a scant few years ago, during my second pregnancy. Well into my second trimester and approaching my third, I went to Macau with my husband, his family, and his family friends — getting one last plane trip in before airlines stopped letting me and my big belly on the plane.

Macau is an interesting place, full of an interesting history that seems to get shoved to the wayside somewhere in favor of the new thing in town: casinos. Lots of them. Like Las Vegas, it’s now a place built on dreams, full of places built to look like other places, and other places meant to spend lots of money. It was also something that, aside from the food, we were singularly unable to share in: never gamblers, we awkwardly gawked our way through the lobby every day, watching the strange dances of the dealers and the hopeful, window-shopping our way through this and everything else. And it was definitely not a place for 6-month-pregnant me: just a few weeks before getting relegated to a wheelchair because of my enormous weight, I could only walk a few minutes at a time before having to sit down and rest.

Not surprisingly, all that money changing hands tends to draw an interesting element, especially at night. There were an awful lot of beautiful girls milling around the shopping mall, looking like they were waiting for someone. Maybe they really were waiting, scanning the horizon for their friends, hatching plans to see a movie, getting ready to share some hot wings. I honestly don’t know. But when I sat down to rest my stretched pelvis for the umpteenth time on the long and arduous walk back to our hotel room, my husband sat next to me, and a girl sat next to him, and promptly laid her head on my husband’s shoulder.

Let me set this scene for you. Me, a gigantic bulbous mammoth with a huge protruding belly. My husband, next to me, sitting stock still. My husband’s parents and their friends, standing behind us. Girl, apparently very sleepy, with her head on my husband’s shoulder. No one says anything. Some female passersby look, cluck at this strange combination of people on a bench, and shake their heads: whether at me, a big ol’ fatso who cannot just stand up and ask someone/anyone what is going on; my husband, who cannot shrug his shoulder and walk away; or at the girl, who is very, very tired — I don’t know. What I do know is that it is appalling, but in the funniest possible way. If I ever, at that moment, harbored that question of Do I Look Fat in This? the answer was: oh, most definitely yes. Otherwise, why would that lady decide to sit there, cuddling with my husband? Was there a question of This Is Weird and What Should We Do? Well, certainly. This was a moment that required examining my own feelings: surprise, indecision, humiliation, check. Exhilaration? Yes, that too. What happens next? Call my bluff then, Life. Just do it. Maybe I am a gambler after all …

… (although not much of one, if your parents are just milling around, looking at bath salts close by. She eventually got up and walked away).

The point of this long and tedious story is, strange combinations excite similarly strange feelings. It might not make sense, but it somehow works. This is something the Hokkien Chinese in Phuket — a community largely responsible for Phuket’s street food scene today — have taken to heart. Want oysters slathered atop a mix of egg, flour and cubed taro and dressed in lashings of minced garlic, soy sauce, bean sprouts and pork rinds? Sure, why not? How about thick yellow noodles fried with pork, chicken, fish and crispy greens, topped with a raw egg yolk, raw slivered shallots and, again, pork rinds? Of course.

Hokkien fried noodles at Mee Ton Poe in Phuket

O-tao, the Hokkien-style oyster omelet dish, is best represented at Ji Piena stall that has been around for nearly 80 years in one location or another in downtown Phuket. Its current incarnation, over 40 years old, is at a nondescript stall along Soi Phoonphol 7, where the hardworking chef churns out plate upon plate of o-tao topped with oysters, shrimp and/or squid (there is also a vegetarian version), as well as a small roster of curries atop kanom jeen (fermented rice noodles).

Ji Pien in Phuket

For fried noodle lovers, there is also Mee Ton Poewhich enjoys two locations, but I always go to the one on Phuket Road. A vast range of fried noodle dishes awaits, many a variation of the mee pad Hokkien (Hokkien fried noodles) on nearly every menu in town, but the real treat here is, besides the amiable service, the curries the staff eat at lunch. I’m not kidding. They are homemade and delicious: fiery gaeng trai pla (Southern Thai fish entrail curry), or the milder and no-less-flavorful gaeng prik (chili curry).

And if you still haven’t had enough of strange combinations, Phuket has you covered on the dessert side of things too: o-aew, a shaved ice dessert laden with bananas, colored syrup, and a jelly made from soaking o-aew seeds in water and said to protect diners from getting ulcers. Where to get it? At the moment, it’s available at a place called — where else? — O-Aew, across from the entrance to Soi Sun Uthit.

O-aew in Phuket town

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

 

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Filed under Asia, bamee, dessert, food, food stalls, noodles, Phuket, seafood, Southern Thailand, Thailand