Category Archives: Chiang Mai

July’s Bangkok Diet

Mango pudding at Prince Restaurant in HK

There is a recurring feature in NY Magazine called “New York Diet” that I think is just brilliant (my favorite is this one). It’s basically the food equivalent of the “What’s in your purse?” stories that ladies’ magazines sometimes do (and that, of course, I also love). It’s people letting you become a voyeur inside their stomachs. You can tell some people are super-uncomfortable about it, and others are very honest — in every case, you get a very good glimpse into an unfamiliar life.

We don’t have an equivalent of that in Bangkok, although that would be a great idea. Looking over @SpecialKRB’s photos over the past month, I thought, why not just do it here? It’s not like the editor won’t like it! So here, from what I can remember, is what I ate over the past few weeks.

Monday, July 2

I help conduct a tour around Aor Thor Kor, which is mildly excruciating. I’m not a Great First Impression person. So this is sort of uncomfortable. Also, everybody knows everything already. Why am I there? I do meet some very nice people though. I hope to see them again.

When I get home, @SpecialKRB is there! It’s the beginning of a loooong holiday for her, when everything is wonderful and still full of promise. Of course, the first thing we do is go to Greyhound Cafe at Emporium. It’s a big favorite of hers and she always gets the same things: chicken wings, sandwich in a bowl, watermelon shake.

Greyhound’s fried chicken wings

Tuesday, July 3

I wake up and do stuff. It was a month ago, folks! What I do remember: dinner, with @SpecialKRB and our friend Annelie at my favorite Bangkok Isaan spot right now that’s not on Petchburi — Moo Jum at the entrance of Suan Plu soi 3. It’s been a favorite of food-loving types for ages because of its sticky, mouth-watering grilled fatty pork neck. However, I think the namesake dish — a sort of Isaan-style sukiyaki sometimes called jaew hon — deserves some love too.

Isaan-style sukiyaki at Moo Jum

Wednesday, July 4

How better to celebrate U.S. Independence Day than with a tabletop full of egg noodles with Tabitha and Akio at Rungrueang noodle shop on Sukhumvit 26?

Egg noodles from Rungrueang

Thursday, July 5

There was a time when it was next to impossible to get a bagel in Bangkok, and to sort of have one, you had to trek to Villa and get one of those Danish Bakery bagel approximations, which were not so great. Those times are over now, thanks to BKK Bagel Bakery. We order a whole mishmash of things; of course my Reuben comes last. Of course I eat it all.

BKK Bagel’s Reuben

And of course, I’m still hungry. So it’s on to the second lunch, at Din Tai Fung (yes. Really, yes) where we get pork xiaolongbao and dan-dan noodles, my absolute favorite noodles of anywhere.

Pork soup dumplings and lemonade at Din Tai Fung

Saturday, July 7

It’s hard to find things at the airport, I get it. Different airlines have different types of lounges, and Thai Airways doesn’t always have the best stuff. Things you can count on at a Thai Airways lounge: Chinese steamed dumplings, tuna sandwiches, and what is obviously @SpecialKRB’s favorite, Mama noodles, particularly tom yum goong flavor, which we agree is the best flavor for instant noodles, ever.

@SpecialKRB tries both “spicy lemongrass” and “minced pork” flavors, just to be sure.

Mama noodles at the Royal Orchid lounge in Suvarnabhumi airport

Later, we are in Chiang Mai, the City of Great Food. Really. We do not have a single bad meal there. What we have most of, naturally, since we are doing research for my next book: copious bowls of khao soy, some at the same place twice.

Chicken khao soy at Samerjai in Chiang Mai

Monday, July 9

Sometimes I consider adding a “level of difficulty” category to the food stalls in the book, because some stalls are a genuine pain in the ass to get to. Niyom Pochana in Lampang (in front of Muangsat temple, in case you were wondering) counts as one of those stalls, scoring a strong “9” on the “level of difficulty” scale. That said, it is still worth it if you like beef or pork noodles. It’s all in the meatballs.

Niyom Pochana’s meatballs

Tuesday, July 10

Back in Bangkok for a night. Unbelievably, while @SpecialKRB and my family are stuffing themselves silly at India Hut, I am at a “dinner” at the newly-opened Cabochon Hotel, where no food is readily apparent, anywhere. I do have 900 glasses of wine though. I’m sure that really impressed everywhere there.

Wednesday, July 11

In Ubon Ratchathani, where our first meal is a gigantic succession of Thai-Vietnamese dishes at Sabaijai. The northeast of Thailand is thick with great places like this started by Vietnamese who fled their homeland during the Vietnam War. Unlike the nearby Indochine, Sabaijai still retains a sense of humility; prices appear to be similarly down-to-earth.

The spread at Sabaijai in Ubon

Friday, July 13

We get back from Ubon in time for a fun pop-up dinner at Opposite (theme: “Crudo”, cooked by Chef Paolo Vitaletti). There is crabmeat risotto and a range of salads that run out far too quickly (but are rapidly replenished) and a scrum over the cured meats. But the standout for me is clearly the raw bar: oysters, a ceviche smelling of smoke, a single sweet raw scallop, dressed with olive oil and a garlic chive. I still think of that scallop sometimes, not in an OMG I WANNA NOM NOM NOM way, but intellectually, as a memory of what scallops should taste like. Ultimately worth all that scrumming.

Sunday, July 15

Big Bite Bangkok. It’s the second one we’ve done and @DwightTurner does all the heavy lifting, but I am still kind of a mess at the beginning. What if people have a terrible time? What if I poison someone with a rogue chili dog? What if no one knows what Sloppy Joes are?

In the end, everything turns out OK, thanks to Chris’s unshakeable calm, @SpecialKRB’s stellar salesmanship, and great contributions from the other vendors. I am sad the food runs out by the time I am ready to eat — at least someone snares me one of Quince’s black puddings, and I get a sip of the tom yum martini that everyone is lining up for.

At Big Bite Bangkok

Wednesday, July 18

Before we leave for Phuket, we go to Soul Food Mahanakorn with Chris for what will basically be our last dinner in Bangkok together (sniff sniff). We order all our personal favorites on the menu and then some — smoky tart eggplant salad with bacon and deep-fried shallots; a Masaman chicken curry; mieng kum with morsels of porkiness. While waiting, we pass the time by discussing how we would cast our movie selves: we decide Chris is Steve Carrell, @SpecialKRB is Tina Fey, and I am Lena Dunham. We are all secretly offended by these choices.

When the food does come, it is an enormous amount, enough to give us pause and take it all in and realize how enormously lucky we are. Jarrett (who we’ve decided is Joseph Gordon Levitt) also sends out a stuffed squid stir-fry with slivers of chili and basil, and a northern Thai-style duck larb that reminds me of what my dad used to make for us after he came home from work — in other words, it is meaty and savory and grounded, exactly as it should be. A nice taste of home before a long trip away.

(All photos by @SpecialKRB)

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, chicken, dessert, food, food stalls, noodles, Northern Thailand, restaurant, Thailand

Getting to the meaty part of Chiang Mai

Fish larb at Raan Larb Pa Than

Northern Thailand is a lovely place full of peace-loving people, but their food betrays a bloodthirstiness not readily apparent to the casual observer. There is the dish of light and butterflies known as khao soy and the barely perceptible calf muscle exercises called “Lanna dance”, yes, but there is also bile and blood and innards and raw meat, the stuff you see in the aftermath of a hyena attack, the stuff that people shy away from in the wet market. This is real northern food.

Raan Larb Pa Than, out past the Pa Than bridge, specializes in this type of food. Like everywhere else in the north, it’s full of fun-loving gentle northerners strapping on the feedbag big time; unlike everywhere else, this restaurant specializes in larb dee kom, or minced salad of anything considered delicious, like fish, pork, or beef (no chicken, and pork and beef also come in raw versions). A particular stand-out is their larb of freshwater fish, lighter and more delicate than its bloodier counterparts.

Our neighbor’s table

But larb is not the only thing they have. There is also saa, which, contrary to my earlier understanding, does not refer only to vegetables, but appears to be a term nearly interchangeable with yum — a spicy, tart salad made with chunks of stuff. There is lupia, yet another meat salad term that refers to combining the minced protein with blood and lemongrass to diminish any hints of gaminess. There is yaw (tripe) and jin nung (steamed bull, really) and sai tod (fried innards) alongside the usuals you would want to run to like a child to its mother like gaeng om (clear, tart soup) and som tum (minced vegetable or fruit salad). It’s a place of serious meat eaters AND drinkers — the Saeng Som was out in full force at lunchtime on a Tuesday. It’s food for people who work hard, flavored with dipping sauces and a nam prik tha dang (red-eye chili paste) spicy enough to blow steam out of your ears.

You might need this

Another spot for people who, at the very least play hard, is Midnight Fried Chicken (also somehow known as Midnight Sticky Rice, or Midnight Fried Pork, or likely anything else this place is good at) on Kamphaeng Din Road. As the name suggests, it is open like clockwork at the stroke of midnight, every day, until 5 in the morning.  The clientele reflects this accordingly: young, T-shirted hipsters out on dates or in groups, stuffing themselves with fried things right before bed, as the young frequently do. It is not a place for me, but I was here all the same, and would come again, if only for the heavenly fried pork which, in all fairness, should be the name of this food stall.

Midnight Chicken

You will probably be able to pick out this stall from the queue of hungry clubgoers waiting patiently outside; if you are lucky, as we were, you will get a table roadside instead of a table on a lower level in the back. You pick out your choices by checking the names of dishes you want (in Thai); you serve yourself water from a jug and bin of ice behind the partition. It is, to put it mildly, a down-at-home kind of place. That doesn’t mitigate the enjoyment of stuffing your face full of delicious fried meats with sticky rice and nam prik (chili paste), not one bit. So what if it’s a weeknight? Sleep in late tomorrow, and indulge tonight.

Stuff your face

(All photos by @SpecialKRB)

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Filed under Asia, beef, Chiang Mai, chicken, fish, food, food stalls, Northern Thailand, pork, restaurant, som tum, Thailand

Chiang Mai Diary

Aunt Tui's roses in bloom

When I decided to start research for a second book, this one for, basically, all of Thailand ex-Bangkok, I knew it would be a big undertaking. Nosing out Bangkok’s street food stalls took a year; this one … could take more. More months of 5 lunches and 3 dinners a day, more weeks registering a steadily rising number on the scale, more nights of clutching at my belly as I struggle to digest (I know, I know. Pity me! Pity me!).

Well, screw that. I’ll tell you now: I want this done by year-end. I’m no spring chicken, and I am no longer pregnant, so I can no longer hide all the extra poundage behind the “but I’m pregnant excuse!”. Maybe I don’t have that much time left before my digestive system finally rebels once and for all and explodes. Long story short: I will have to eat more, now.  What better place to start than Chiang Mai?

It’s obvious where out-of-towners eat when they come to the “capital of the North”: the usual suspects, Lamduan Faham (either branch), Samoerjai, Huen Phen. What they eat: khao soy, roasted young chili dip (nam prik num), deep-fried pork (moo tod). I decided I would do all I can to avoid that for the time being. You already know these places, right? There must be some culinary gems that all yinz guys have overlooked!

Apparently, “hidden culinary gems” means this:

Chicken rice at Khao Mun Gai Hailum

And this:

Chicken rice at Gied Ocha

Yes, I had a whole lot of khao mun gai. Inexplicably. Because, I think you all know this, chicken rice is not in any way a Northern Thai thing. It’s a “way north…er…east of Thailand” thing (my geography isn’t too good). In my defense, it’s a little different here in Chiang Mai: the rice is fluffier and less fatty, and, well, the chicken appears to be too. Two stand-outs were Khao Mun Gai Hailum (to the right near the entrance of Rotfai Road, 053-242-833) and Gied Ocha (41-43 Intawororos Road, 053-328-262-3); the former a bare-bones haven for chicken rice purists who are picky about both their rice and their chicken, the latter a sunny, welcoming favorite where the owner — a former lottery winner, yes really — still patrols the dining room, barking out incomprehensible orders to a beleaguered and obviously very clever Hainanese chicken rice-making station in front.

On the same road as Gied Ocha stands a fish noodle-and-rice porridge stand called Sa-Ard (33-35 Intawororos Road, 053-327-261) that, as full as I was, turned out to be among the most delicious fish noodle places I’ve been to (I am not a fish noodle fan). The broth, perfectly clear and a bright, fresh slick of seafood; an assorted array of fish meatballs of various shapes and degrees of deliciousness; a bowl heavy with lettuce and deep-fried garlic. What I’m talking about, when I came to and remembered to take a photo:

When I was done with my fish meatball gow low

Other good things: Isaan sausages, both stuffed with rice and with woon sen, or glass vermicelli; deep-fried bananas, encased in a lattice of batter and coconut flakes; som tum muang, or “Northern-style” grated green papaya salad, flavored with tamarind juice instead of lime (is that really what makes it Northern?); and thu-ka-ko, rounds of taro tossed in flour and deep-fried, a street snack you actually honest-to-God can’t get anywhere else, apparently.

But where’s the Northern Thai food? What am I, made of stone? Of course I had some. First, at a Disneyland-style “Northern Thai” restaurant where the food swung through some very un-Northernlike extremes of flavor to accommodate the Bangkokians who want their Northern food to be as highly spiced as Isaan; then, at a restaurant my dad directed me too, promising that the food would be just like what I would get from my Aunt Priew (this is very high praise).

Huen Jai Yong (near Sankumpang intersection, 086-671-8710, 086-730-2673) might be hard to get to, and it’s definitely a restaurant, not a street food stall, but it’s worth it to call and ask for those directions (I am useless at directions. Can you tell?) This is Northern food: flavorful yet a little mellow, yummy but not pandering  (too sweet, too spicy). Don’t miss out on the saa pak, a “salad” of minced vegetables that recalls salty and tart without overly favoring either, or the thum makuea, mashed Thai eggplant bearing a mellowness that defies its fierce appearance.

Mashed Thai eggplant at Huen Jai Yong

But as good as Aunt Priew? Sorry. No.

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Filed under Asia, Chiang Mai, chicken, fish, food, food stalls, Northern Thailand, restaurant, Thailand

Chiang Mai Redux

Chicken khao soy at Lamduan Faham

When people go to Chiang Mai, they usually want to eat the local food — aharn muang. Not all Chiang Mai-ers are as infatuated with northern Thai fare, of course, but as a resident of Bangkok — where good northern Thai cuisine is as hard to get as a pair of rubber boots — there was no way I would not hit all the typical places that one goes to for this food. Anything else would be a waste of time.

Now, I am a northerner. Yes, I grew up in Pittsburgh, and yes, my dad would make kanom jeen nam ngiew and call it “Thai spaghetti” in order to get us to eat it. But having grown up with a dad from Chiang Rai and a mom from Chiang Mai, I feel pretty qualified to figure out what is northern Thai food and what is not. What drives me crazy is that a lot of times, people do not know what northern food actually is. I hate this about myself, that this petty little thing drives me crazy. But it does.

So when a guy who is couched as a “northern Thai food expert” calls the central Thai dish yum samun prai (lemongrass spicy salad) northern, it drives me crazy. When some other dude asks me if, while on my trip up north, I ate mieng kum (a DIY central Thai appetizer of betel leaves, sometimes Chinese kale leaves, with dried shrimp, cubed lime, chilies, what have you), that drives me crazy. When yet another person asks me if khao chae (cold rice porridge with deep-fried sides eaten in the hot season) is northern I … you get the point. Many people don’t know what aharn muang is, Thai people included.

I think this is because northern Thai food — with the exception of khao soy — isn’t particularly friendly. It lacks the sweet-tart overtones that make central Thai food so appealing, or the in-your-face sour-fire that Isaan food boasts. It’s salty and heavy; it has weight and gravitas and a bitter backbone, echoed by all the lawn clippings and this-should-be-in-a-compost-pile tree leaves that usually accompany it. It’s flecked with blood and bile, fat and parts — we Northerners do love our pig parts. All this, because we live in the mountains where it is “cold” — the weather dips below 30 degrees C sometimes OMG!  The further north you go, the more “northern” food gets. Chiang Mai is actually aharn muang lite.

Yet I do love Chiang Mai. I have been there twice in the past three weeks: first, with @ChefMcDang, who was filming something I can only describe as an “unnamed chef competition series” (I was designated Shirt Holder); then, with my mother’s family, meeting up for the annual katin, which is essentially  an opportunity to “make merit” at the family temple. Both times were thinly-veiled grabs at eating as much northern Thai food as I could.

Making merit

Yes, I am that person: next to the food table at parties, hiding in the kitchen at big get-togethers, in the self-styled “market” next to the temple during prayers. But would you blame me?

Kanom toei at the "market"

Every year, there is khao soy and kanom jeen nam ngiew. There is pork on skewers grilling over an open flame, hunks of grilled chili dip (nam prik num) wrapped in banana leaves, soft, comforting bowls of fried noodles, garnished with purple orchids. Som tum, muang-style, flavored with nam pu, or the juice from pulverized field crabs. Yum pakkad dong, or a spicy salad made out of pickled cabbage. No, not everything is northern, but it is served with a gracious smile, ravenous cousins poking you from behind with their bamboo baskets, waiting for their turn. And it is FREE … as long as you are willing to wear a pa sin (old-fashioned sarong), and make awkward small talk at various intervals.

 

Sugarcane on a stick

So that was a place I would call very familiar. But I made a new discovery too, thanks to the New York Times story on “northern Thai food” in Chiang Mai. I am glad I read it (thanks @DwightTurner!), or I would not have found out that Krua Phech Doi Ngam (125/3 Moo 3, Mahidon Road) has some of Chiang Mai’s best northern food, better than (dare I say it?) even Huen Phen.

Not to mean that it’s perfect. There’s that lemongrass salad, which is award-winning, apparently, but, uh … not Northern. Nice recipe though! There is their insistence on calling what is basically a beef version of Northern gaeng om a gaeng jin hoom, which is a different dish entirely, usually made of fatty pork stewed with turmeric and lemongrass until the juices evaporate and all that is left is a salty and (you guessed it) fatty glob. There is the nam prik pla rah (chili dip with Thai “anchovies”), marred by the strange addition of cherry tomatoes.

But there is also everything else, which is pretty pretty good. In fact, it’s great, even the faux gaeng jin hoom, which I wish I had taken home on the airplane — stewed-til-tender slivers of thick, melt-in-the-mouth beef in a deliciously unctuous sauce. The chicken gaeng om (here, with the same base as jin hoom), pepped up with the addition of chicken livers. The fabulous thum kanoon (pounded young jackfruit), which makes Huen Phen’s version an anemic, sad little pretender.

Krua Phech Doi Ngam's jackfruit

So next time I go to Chiang Mai, there may be a new must-go-to in town, alongside Lamduan Faham and Aunt Ton’s house and, yes, Love At First Bite (I hate that I like this place, but what can I say? I love pie). Even better: the hordes snapping up all the food in front of your eyes at Huen Phen are, strangely, absent at Krua Phech Doi Ngam. All the more food for me.

Because I love pie: LAFB's coconut cream

 

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Filed under Asia, Chiang Mai, dessert, food, Northern Thailand, pork, restaurant, Thailand