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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

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