Category Archives: Bangkok

Made to Order

The tabletop at Saenchai Pochana

The tabletop at Sangchai Pochana: a spicy salad of egg yolks, salad of pickled cabbage, stir-fried bitter melon shoots

I’m sitting by myself on the sidewalk waiting for my friend Dwight (www.bkkfatty.com). I am almost always early to these things, and almost always the first person to arrive. It can be a problem in a city like Bangkok, where everyone is always a little late. Including the restaurants. Sangchai Pochana (entrance to Sukhumvit Soi 32, 02-204-3063) is supposed to open at 5:30, but they are just getting set up and starting in on their own staff meal.

I text Dwight because even though it’s 5:45 and, aside from a couple of Japanese guys, I am the only customer here, I’m afraid he might miss me, even though he has eyes.

Me: Hey, the place I’m at is called Sangchai Pochana and I’m at a table outside.

Him: That place I’ve been before.

Me: Ok

Him: It’s MSG-delicious.

Me: Ok

Him: And hungover-maxing.

Me: Are you suggesting another place?

Him: No. I don’t think.

Him: Let’s see what you think.

Knowing my friends are going to be late and watching people slice shallots and chilies all by my lonesome on a busy Bangkok sidewalk when I could be at home watching Australian MasterChef makes me feel like this:

It makes me feel like this.

Situations like these call for beer. And if there is beer, there must be some food because we have standards here in Bangkok, we are not ravening beer-chugging animals. So I get a gigantic bottle of Heineken that makes me embarrassed because it is still not yet 6 and I am by myself, and a plate of grilled sea snails (hoy waan) that make me forget about how big the beer is. It comes with a dipping sauce of lime, fish sauce and chilies that are like AAAAAAHHHHHH on the tongue. And then I get what Dwight means by “MSG-delicious”.

snails

Sangchai is what I consider to be a traditional aharn tham sung, or made-to-order vendor. Like other wok-based purveyors that rely largely on stir-frying, vendors like Sangchai will make whatever you ask of them, provided they have the ingredients and it is within reason (anything fried and boiled and sometimes even grilled). Even if they have a set menu (and many do), they display the special ingredients of the day out in front to coax you into going crazy and requesting something off-piste. This is my favorite thing about the aharn tham sung stalls — that you can basically come up with a meal tailor-made for you.

Sangchai's shopfront with your choice of seasonal proteins and greens

Sangchai’s shopfront with your choice of seasonal proteins and greens

But they occupy a special niche, a sub-set of that standard aharn tham sung. Their dishes are meant to be served as accompaniments to Thai-style rice porridge (khao thom), the whole of which make up the Thai meal khao thom gub, or plain porridge served with an array of pickled, spicy, soupy and stir-fried dishes. This results in a tabletop of real, genuine bounty, a sight for sore eyes meant to greet diners after a wearisome ordeal. Maybe this is why Sangchai — and vendors like it — are so popular late at night, and why khao thom gub is considered an after-clubbing ritual.

This is food that, in a sense, thinks it knows its place. It’s the backdrop to what you are doing: picking yourself up after an evening of drinking maybe a little too much, or hashing over ideas, or mourning your lost youth, or simply waiting. When you are done, you forget about your meal and go your separate ways. This must be what food is like for most people who don’t think about food all the time. To me, that is an awful place to be in for too long. But it’s food that’s OK when your friends have finally arrived.

 

 

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

Chicken rice for the articles

The full deal at Mongkolchai

The full deal at Mongkolchai

Chicken rice in Thailand can in many ways be a fraught affair. This is because a dish that supposedly leans so heavily on its essence — boiled, plain chicken meat and fluffy, white rice, stripped of any artifice — is being served in a country that has never heard of a food that couldn’t take another chili pepper or another dollop of shrimp paste. Thailand is about the grand gesture: great big flavors married to overwhelmingly pungent smells. Chicken rice is retiring, minimalistic, almost bare.

So, as with just about every dish of Chinese origin, chicken rice undergoes a little bit of a makeover every time it appears on a Thai plate. There is the chicken, breast or thigh meat, skin or no skin, of course. The rice, grains plumped by chicken broth, no duh. And finally, a tranche of cucumber slices with fresh coriander, paired with a cube of congealed chicken blood or two, and a clear soup in which a sad old hunk of winter melon or turnip swims, possibly with a coriander leaf or cut-up scallion for company.

But in Thailand, everyone who is anyone knows that the dipping sauce is the most important thing on that table. At least, according to my mother. “There is no good khao man gai without a good dipping sauce,” she says, echoing what every Thai has ever really thought: that there is no food on earth that cannot be complete without the perfect sauce. This is the basic premise behind what many consider the gold standard of Bangkok chicken rice dishes, what every khao man gai purveyor strives for: the plump pillow of chicken and rice at Montien Hotel over which not one, not two, not three, but FOUR sauces are meant to drape themselves. Khao man gai is supposed to be about the sauce. Or is it?

It took me a long time to get to Mongkolchai (314 Samsen Road, 02-282-1991). It’s not really about the location, because I will go that far for Sukhothai noodles, or Chinese-style roasted duck on rice, or pork satay. It’s not about the dish, either. I love chicken rice, because I love sauce — specifically, the inky salt sauce dotted with garlic, ginger and chilies that makes Thai chicken rice something beyond the ordinary. It’s how people invariably describe the attraction: this street food place far far away that serves boiled chicken on rice and, oh btw, their soup is really great. This brings on a great big WTF from me, because … come on, SOUP? That side dish you take sips of to help your real food along? These people are like the guys who read Playboy for the articles.

I went anyway. It’s predictably good, tender chicken breast with the option of skin on or off, the requisite Thai-spiked sauce that there is never enough of, the cube of blood and the cucumber. My soup was darker than the average clear broth, awash in pepper and sprinkled with pickled lime flesh. When I got home, I did a little research and read that my soup was probably twice-boiled duck broth.

The pillow and the cube

The pillow and the cube

Would I go back? Yes, because the service was fast and solicitous and friendly. Whether that was because they thought I was a tourist from Hong Kong doesn’t matter to me. But there is more chicken rice a few steps away on my street corner and another half a block away. And the one, the chicken rice that really speaks to me, with its battery of sauce and excess of flesh, awaiting me at the Montien Hotel coffee shop, should I really want to take that trip. I guess I am super Thai after all.

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

Back to the starting point

Chicken-bitter melon noodles at Guaythiew Gai Mara

Chicken-bitter melon noodles at Guaythiew Gai Mara

Chicken and bitter melon noodles can be tricky. They are the blind date that seems normal enough, but who rarely sets off very many sparks. “Sparky” is reserved for the Cristiano Ronaldos of this world, the tom yum noodles, the egg noodles with barely cooked egg threatening to break all over the strands at the slightest tap of the spoon. Meanwhile, chicken is boring and bitter melon is for old people. It is very, very hard to make alluring.

That is why I like to seek them out. I feel like they are one of the greater challenges of the Thai street food scene: how to make dumpy grandma Spanx something you would actively seek out? There are those aforementioned tom yum noodles sprawled out all over the street, after all. So I dip into street side bowls set atop tables on rickety sidewalks, or buy them from carts parked perilously close to oncoming traffic. There is always something wrong with them. Not to get too Goldilocks on it, but they are either bland, or sweet. Too much watery broth. Not saucy enough — not with the right kind of sauce. And almost never spicy enough.

It’s in the accoutrements. Not in the quality of the chicken itself, or on how young the bitter melon is. I feel like people who don’t really get chicken-bitter melon noodles emphasize those two main ingredients, like they are the end-all be-all of this dish. They really aren’t. Any old dead chicken will do, and as long as that bitter melon doesn’t come at you all moldy and dog-eared like present-day Vince Neil, you’ll do all right. No, it’s more about lashings of that dark sweet soy sauce, the bits of deep-fried garlic, the fresh basil and coriander strewn across the noodles, the pickled chili vinegar, and the chili oil. It should be — as you probably already suspected — a balance of sweet, salt, tart, spicy and bitter.

The bowls I ranged far and wide for were rarely good. It reminds me of that Survivor song — no, please give me a break here — about some dude who looked far and wide for a soulmate, only to find that she was there the whole time right in front of him. I know this song because of my mother, who would stop what she was doing anytime that song came on the radio. Now that former lead singer Jimi Jamison is gone, I bring it up again, in case you have a soft spot for arena rock ballads clearly written for the end credits of a movie. Go ahead and look it up. The soulmate was there all along. Clearly marked by a line like this:

line

To a normal person, this line is a bright red flashing sign reading “EAT HERE! EAT HERE!” But not to me. It was too close to my house. I needed to suffer for my noodles before I could sit down to them. So when I did finally deign to set my butt onto one of those little plastic stools, a Thai basil-heavy bowl of chicken and bitter melon in front of me, I had wandered through enough alleyways to realize that this bowl was the best of them all.

The stall is open most mornings at 8am until they sell out, at about 3pm — sometimes they take the day off on Mondays, but sometimes they aren’t here on a Tuesday or Wednesday. They are never here on a Sunday. The cart is located in the street between Emporium and the park, set across from Emporium garage, and run by a man wearing a Japanese ramen chef-type kerchief and his wife. If you come by at lunchtime, you will probably be able to find this stall by the long line of hopeful diners at the side of the road, the promise of a perfect bowl of chicken-bitter melon noodles right before their eyes.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, bitter melon, chicken, soup noodles