Category Archives: Bangkok

Southern Thailand across the river

A quick lunch of khao yum, sator with shrimp and coconut milk soup at Chawang

A quick lunch of khao yum, sator with shrimp and coconut milk soup at Chawang

For years, I had heard about a magical neighborhood in Bangkok where southern Thai vendors congregated like college students on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. That is to say, there were a lot of them. The only problem was, it was too far away from me. How to go to this place, so far away, when I was so, so lazy?

Well, it takes another person, obviously — another person who is a friend, but not so close that she knows how much of a total and utter slob you are. That is what Chin is to me, and that is how she gets me to leave the house: a sense of shame, coupled with a underlying current of greed. I am always hungry, after all. And the promise of not one, but a handful of Southern Thai eateries, where curries and coconut milk flow thick and fast, and chilies blanket everything like a Biblical plague of deadly deliciousness, was too heady to be ignored.

Chin tells me she wants to take me to the Wang Lung neighborhood, which requires a Skytrain trip to Saphan Taksin, and then a boat trip to Wang Lung. Now, I know how much fun riding the “river bus” is for visitors to this lovely city, but I can confidently say I am totally over it. Just get me somewhere, quickly. Unfortunately, the quickest way to Chin’s favorite Southern Thai place in the Wang Lung market is on the water, which threatens to make me nauseated even before I take a single bite.

Banana stem curry at Pa Oun

Banana stem curry at Raan Aharn Pak Tai

Located on the market’s main thoroughfare, Raan Aharn Pak Tai (a very no-nonsense name that means, literally, “Southern Thai Restaurant”, 086-664-8472) offers a sprawling selection of Southern Thai curries, soups and stir-fries that dwarf the offerings at any other vendor in the area. We get what Chin likes: pla samunprai (deep-fried fish with lemongrass), kanom jeen with nam ya gati (fermented rice noodles with a coconut milk-based fishmeat curry) and something I’ve never had before: gaeng sai gluay, or a coconut milk-based curry made of banana stems.  It’s unctuous and slightly sweet — not what I expect of Southern Thai food, which is fierce and hot and uncompromising, but it is augmented by some flaked fish flesh, which in itself feels very Southern to me. I also love that it takes an ingredient that would otherwise probably be thrown away — banana stems — and forms an entire dish around it. Best of all, our order comes with a collection of different pickles and fresh vegetables and herbs to enjoy as we see fit, my favorite thing about eating at Southern Thai places.

Pork kua gling at Dao Tai

Pork kua gling at Dao Tai

Our Southern Thai-oriented explorations don’t end at the market. Next up: Phran Nok Road, which hosts a collection of Southern Thai khao gaeng (curry rice) vendors that have been around for decades. The most famous of these is Dao Tai (508/26 Phran Nok Rd., 02-412-2385), which has a reputation for fearsomely good Southern Thai food despite its relatively “remote” location all the way over in Thonburi.

The day I get there, I am starving, having saved room all morning for this very (series of) meal(s). Chin and I try to pace ourselves, so we only order my favorite Southern Thai dish, gaeng som pla grapong (sour curry with seabass and bamboo shoots), and kua gling moo, a “dry” curry of minced pork  dry roasted in a pan over low heat with a handful of herbs and an entire pantry’s worth of chilies. I find both dishes absolutely delicious, manna from heaven, especially when coupled with the shoots, leaves and cucumber slices that automatically come to our table once we sit down, an offering to the Hot Chili Spice Gods.

Sour curry at Dao Tai

Sour curry at Dao Tai

 

I am so ravenous I don’t even notice the chilies, ploughing through half of my plate of rice until I see Chin across the table from me, tears in her eyes. She is not verklempt over the beauty of our meal, or from having to watch me shovel rice with so-so accuracy into my mouth hole. No, it’s too hot. And there is, she suspects, an overabundance of MSG. The curries and stir-fries are too “dark”, the “wrong color”, she says. In short, Chin is not impressed with my selection of Dao Tai. It’s time to move, ideally to that place across the street that looks a little better.

That place is called Ruam Tai and it sits kitty-corner to Dao Tai, an arrangement I suspect was set up to accommodate overflow from the more famous restaurant. However, the food here may be just as good. We have hor mok (steamed, rubbery seafood curry topped with a disappointingly icing-like dab of coconut cream) and a far better coconut milk-based curry of snails which have to be plucked from the liquid and their meat extracted via toothpick. It’s far too fiddly for me. I NO LIKE EXTRA WORK! Chin, for her part, is charmed.

Snail curry at Ruam Tai

Snail curry at Ruam Tai

Now I am absolutely stuffed, and contemplating the ride home, after which I will be rewarded by passing out on my couch for two hours while pretending to edit my book. But there is one more place to check out, and that is Chawang, right next door to Ruam Tai. It’s a shame we leave it last, because it’s friendly, airy, and  full of food that is the most restrained (chili-, flavor- and MSG-wise) of the three. Here, I manage a few bites of khao yum (a “salad” of rice with minced veggies, toasted coconut and herbs in a light, sweet-tart dressing), and then groan and make faces while Chin tastes the sator (stinkbean) stir-fried with shrimp paste and shrimp, and gaeng gati, a coconut milk “soup” bulked up generously with shrimp and pakliang leaves.

The trip back home is a doozy.

 

 

 

 

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Isaan on Sukhumvit

Pork shoulder on the grill at Pa Oun

Pork shoulder on the grill at Pa Oun

One of the things I love about the TV show “Hannibal” is, obviously, its treatment of food. Because it’s a show about a cannibal who is also a psychiatrist who is also, somehow, a ninja, it includes a lot of cooking scenes. But it is all very much the exact opposite of food porn. Instead, food is treated as something that is alien and repellant. That is hard to do for a person like me who will eat just about anything, but “Hannibal” manages it just fine. Honestly, I have no idea how this man gets people to dine at his home. The dishes he serves them — some kind of gelatin thing with octopus tentacles splaying from the top, or a whole heart encased in pastry, in a wacky take on Wellington — are things that would make anyone blanch and suddenly profess themselves a vegetarian. Yet these dodos regularly tuck in, week after week, oblivious to the mountains of brains and kidneys and offal-meat sausages they are stuffing down their face-holes (this is possibly because they really, really don’t want to offend their host).

Besides making humans the main protein, Hannibal does a lot of roulades, vols-au-vent and aspics — things that, again obviously, involve disguising the meat. They are cooking techniques that I don’t enjoy so much, because I don’t like thinking of my food being manipulated in that way. Of course, food is being handled in every possible way in a restaurant kitchen, but I don’t like it being so obvious. I prefer food cooked on the bone, sort of looking like it was quickly butchered before it promptly decided to jump through a fire and land onto a plate.

This is why I am so feeling Isaan food right now. It’s simple and straightforward and mostly revolves around a lot of quick cooking: grilling and boiling, whatever gets the food on your table in a half hour, tops. Sometimes the main ingredient is minced before it is cooked and mixed with toasted rice kernels, seasonings and herbs (larb), and sometimes it’s about food that’s simply being served as is (the raw veggies that go with som tum, a grilled beefsteak accompanied by a simple tamarind dipping sauce). In all respects, every ingredient in Isaan food plays a role of some kind, with nothing extraneous or fussy. It’s the complete opposite of Hannibal’s cooking.

Some people like to pooh-pooh the idea of finding a decent Isaan restaurant in the Sukhumvit area, but I think good food can be found anywhere people are willing to pay for it. Such is the case with classic Isaan standby Nomjit Gai Yang (Ekamai Soi 18, 02-392-8000), which also has a branch in Srinakarin. There is plenty of grilled chicken and pork, and much has been made of their selim (Thai dessert vermicelli in coconut milk), but their som tum (grated salads) are also surprisingly good for an area well-known for its Starbucks branches, Japanese sushi bars and pubs. Long story short: Thai yuppies gotta eat too.

Som tums are made in a mortar and pestle, and the best som tum cooks jealously guard their mortars and pestles for generations, much like a chef would guard his omelet pan, or a Japanese oden vendor guard his broth. My friend Chin tells me the very best mortars and pestles (krok) are made of tamarind wood, but that ceramic or stone are too hard on the delicate strands of vegetable or fruit, turning your salad into a gloppy mess. At Nomjit, som tum is made in a krok of mango wood by a Si Sa Ket native with 20 years of experience. The salads are flavorful and full-bodied, the exact opposite of the anemic versions you might expect to find in this neighborhood.

A som tum of green beans at Nomjit

A som tum of green beans at Nomjit

Another great find was completely unexpected. A short stroll about 50 m down Sukhumvit 18 yields a smoking grill attached to two humans on the left hand side, along with a cooler of soft drinks and, of course, a mortar and pestle. The humans who make up Pa Oun (089-760-6478) grill some of the best pork I have ever had the pleasure of eating, either simply sliced and served with a clump of sticky rice, or mixed with lime juice and fish sauce and rice kernels to form a moo nam tok (spicy pork salad). I would love to show you a photo, but my computer is misbehaving. Just know that this stuff is delicious, and that I had to work VERY VERY HARD to get it — i.e., stand in front of the grill, getting smoke into my hair and eyes, for a very long time. This was one of those cases where, no matter what, the vendor just didn’t want to serve me, for whatever reason (maybe this just happens to me). So it sort of deteriorates into a sort of smoky stand-off, a culinary game of chicken. Will she eventually serve me or won’t she? When that line of people that have come after me tapers out, what will she do then? Am I doomed to stand there forever, like a statue? Will I become a landmark? Will people eventually say, “Turn right at the chubby crying woman in front of the grill, and you will find parking. Enjoy the salsa club!” Will I die this way?

She did eventually serve me, after all the people who came after me finally left. I smelled like a chimney for the rest of the day. The end.

 

 

 

 

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Sit Eat Talk

Steamed fish with soy sauce, one of the many courses at Nang Gin Kui

Steamed fish with soy sauce, one of the many courses at Nang Gin Kui

We all have our biases. They are shaped from our individual life experiences and form a part of who we are. If, for example, James Franco opens his mouth to say something, I am going to be predisposed against taking it seriously in any way. Same if the opinion comes from a person who refers to Daenerys Stormborn as “Khaleesi”. Nope nope nope nope. Not going to pay attention.

I kind of feel the same way about TripAdvisor. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think it’s completely useless. It’s just that I don’t really know about the methodology. In fact, I don’t know about any methodology, because I can’t math. I can only listen to people I know and trust, who tell me where to eat (and what to do and where to go). If, however, they are James Franco or a person who calls Daenerys Stormborn “Khaleesi”, then I don’t want to hear their opinions on good restaurants. Because 1.) I am a huge Game of Thrones nerd, and 2.) I won’t believe them. How many James Francos and “Khaleesi”-lovers submit reviews to TripAdvisor? No one knows, right? This is something to consider, TripAdvisor. This is cause for concern.

Just last week, though, I got to try dinner at the top-rated Bangkok restaurant on TripAdvisor, Nang Gin Kui (aka Eat, Pray, Love. Haha. Just kidding. It stands for Sit, Talk, Eat). It’s actually the very first restaurant I’ve tried that is currently listed in TripAdvisor’s top 10 Bangkok restaurants. At #2 is Creamery Boutique Ice Creams (yes, an ice cream parlor is Bangkok’s number two restaurant), and #3 is Chef Bar, which I’ve heard good things about but haven’t tried yet. These are then followed by Sensi Japanese restaurant and The District (huh? Never heard of either), followed by G’s Restaurant (there’s another German place besides Bei Otto?), JP French Restaurant, Reflexions (at the Plaza Athenee? Really?) Old Town Cafe, and finally Le Petit Zinc (oh yeah, I have tried that place). Maybe you have been to all these places and found them excellent, or maybe you don’t know them from Jorah Mormont’s half-bear sister. It’s all subjective, isn’t it? Do you take a chance or not?

Maybe. Because, as much shade as I’ll throw on an ice cream parlor being the second-ranked restaurant in Bangkok, I do totally understand why Nang Gin Kui is TripAdvisor’s #1. It is charming, intimate, lovely and — for a certain type of outgoing, personable diner (not me) — a lot of fun. It is also really, really smart. Set on the 15th floor of the oldest apartment house in a quiet riverside section of Chinatown, Nang Gin Kui is the brainchild of architect Florian Gypser and his girlfriend, chef Goy Siwaporn, who open up their own home to grubby outsiders about four times a week. Evenings are either “meet and greets” (where a bunch of strangers gather together and try to find common ground for a few hours) or private dinners for a couple or group of people, and they serve set menus of 12 courses which change nightly, depending on what’s fresh at the market.

One of the reasons Nang Gin Kui works is that, well, very few people have a nice, cozy space with a stunning view of the Chao Phraya River. Besides Le Normandie, this probably has the best view of the river I’ve seen — in fact, it might be better, because it’s up higher. My photos don’t really do it justice.

Riverside view

Riverside view

Another thing is, it’s a lot of food, with a whole lot of space in between — European-level amounts of space — that allow for plenty of conversation and digestion. The fare is mostly Asian-ish: Thai, with a bit of Chinese or Japanese and some fusion-y touches, depending on Goy’s mood. There are plenty of little nibbles to go with your aperitif, like tofu-and-sesame salad or asparagus wrapped in salmon, as well as heartier stuff (curry, grilled seafood). The cooking smartly avoids getting too fancy, or too fussy, in favor of simplicity and flavor. And food is not the only thing in abundance here; Florian is very, very good at making sure your champagne and wine glasses are filled at all times.

The ultimate effect is like a dinner party spent at the home of very ambitious and efficient foodie friends whom you’re just starting to get close to, so you’re trying to be as polite as possible to their other friends in order to score more invitations to their house. The only problem for Florian and Goy is that all I have to do is call them up and reserve a table if I want another evening with them! Something to consider, Florian and Goy. Cause for concern (for them).

NOTE: Despite my offer to pay, Florian and Goy comped my dinner. Can I be bought off by a pleasant, boozy evening full of food? Why, yes. YES I CAN. However, I also thought it was a fun experience and would have happily paid. Plus, I am not James Franco and refer to Dany by her real name. You can trust my opinion! Or not. More food for me.

 

 

 

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