Category Archives: Chinatown

Golden Oldie

Soft oyster omelette, or aw suan, at New Kwong Meng

Getting old sucks. Granted, there are some people who rhapsodize about how it brings a new maturity, a deeper understanding of life, and some other useless blahbadiblah that no one really ever wants, but these people are usually young (and therefore stupid. I can say this because I am old, and jealous). Age announces itself in a series of sharpening steps: first, the twinges and inexplicable aches upon waking; the stuttering metabolism that thickens the waistline; the sudden urge to pee in the middle of the night; the inability to sleep beyond 7 in the morning; the face that suddenly, startlingly, turns into your Grandma’s one morning.

Before you know it, you are sitting over beers with another old fart, reminiscing over that one time Digger lost his satellite phone in the Khyber Pass and when Scoop got tipsy at lunch and threw tomatoes at the bureau chief. Who is this person? How did this happen? Where was I this whole time? These are questions that will never get any satisfying answers.

New Kwong Meng Restaurant (4-8 Padsai Road, or Yaowarat Soi 19; 02-224-2201, 02-224-2170, open 11-2, 5:30-9) is a whole five years older than me, but it seems to be wearing its middle age well, the bitch. Part of a string of excellent Teochew restaurants (I’m told most Chinese-Thais are Teochew, or Chaozhou) tucked into the Old Market side of Yaowarat Road, New Kwong Meng reminds our parents of the days when they were young and sprightly. This is probably why it is packed with, uh, our parents and all their friends. Young, hip and happening, this is not, but is that the point?

It is not when you are confronted with a soft, silky aw suan (soft oyster omelette) studded with succulently large oysters, a heartbreakingly tiny suckling pig enveloped in a crackly sheen, and slivers of finely sliced raw — is that sea bream? — strewn with sesame seeds and accompanied by a sweet soy dipping sauce.

Thai-Chinese "sashimi"

There is goat “ham”, festooned with white asparagus that looks suspiciously like it came out of a can, but a big favorite are what look like razor clams, sauteed with Chinese kale and shiitake mushrooms. Actually, they look like something else, but I’m not sure what that would be, really I’m not.

Clams, greens, mushrooms

And since every Chinese meal must end with some sort of starch, New Kwong Meng sends out a whopper: a delicately pan-fried sheaf of e mee (fried egg noodles), crispy outside and buttery within, topped with strips of ham and accompanied by a sour black vinegar Thais call “zisho”. This version is as good as the e mee anywhere in Bangkok.

New Kwong Meng's e-mee

I could go on, and talk about what we had for dessert, and how I drank too much strange Chinese whisky, and how we stumbled down the stairs into the night, where it wasn’t as hot as we expected it to be. There were wrong turns taken down winding Chinatown roads, and promises to not lose touch ever, and BFF presents exchanged that didn’t get opened. I could go further, but I’m tired, and late for my nap.

 

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, Chinatown, Chinese, fish, food, noodles, seafood, Thai-Chinese, Thailand

Eating in the Year of the Rabbit

Tan Jiao Sua, ancestor to the Chinatown Bunnags

Every Chinese New Year, I look forward to coming to Yaowaraj, or what Thais call their Chinatown. I am not of Chinese descent, so every little ritual —  the burning of mini-replicas of cars and money, the praying to the ancestors, the giving and receiving of tiny little envelopes — holds a particular fascination for me. How did I go through my 70+ years without ringing in the year of the dragon or tiger or pig? How could I have missed out on those years of silky noodles, wobbling pork legs, glistening oranges?

New Year's offerings

So at the crack of dawn we bundle up and make our way down to Chinatown in the hopes of reconnecting with other family members and paying homage to Tan Jiao Sua, the ancestor of my husband’s particular branch of the Bunnag family, descended from Somdet Chao Phraya Pichaiyat. The Bunnags are a very large family with a gigantimongous number of branches, but all historical accounts point to Persian merchant Sheikh Ahmad, who moved to then-Siam in the 17th century, as the first Bunnag ancestor.

Now, the various branches are designated by where they come from: there are Thonburi Bunnags, Ayutthaya Bunnags and Chinatown Bunnags, descended from  Tan Jiao Sua, a former bottle seller in Chinatown who made his fortune after siding with the government during the Chinese uprising. He eventually saw his only daughter married to a Bunnag, and the Pichaiyat branch was born. At the height of their wealth, this family’s holdings included half of Yaowaraj; today, the “company” is all that is left.

But while the history is interesting, what really brings me here is the prospect of stuffing my face. Every year, at the “company” — what my husband’s family  members call their building in Yaowaraj — stands are set up offering oyster omelettes, chicken noodles, Chinese-style rice porridge and braised fatty pork leg. Later in the day, the family elders throw fist-sized gold coins into the air, sending all us “young” people scrambling, abandoning all pretense at dignity as we elbow three-year-olds out of the way to our booty. Later, as those crybabies weep into their baby formula, we gloat and hoot and let the heavy, shiny coins slide through our fingers, counting as we go.

I might be kidding about the last part. Really I am looking forward to the food. But this year, we arrive too early to get at the stands and their bounty. Instead, we are met by a bitter, harassed cleaning lady who says she is working all alone and needs help to get everything ready. So we do what any responsible adult would do and run far away, hiding in the second-floor cafe where we gorge on buttered, white toast and sausage of indeterminate origin, squealing at the occasional cockroach.

Later we go home before most of the family members arrive and are met with a welcome sight: the kind delivery of a vat of braised fatty pork leg, some bowls of clear bamboo shoot soup, and rice. So that is what we have, thinking that the Year of the Rabbit, so far, isn’t so bad after all.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, Chinatown, Chinese, food, pork, rice, Thai-Chinese, Thailand

Things to be Thankful For

Yes, I know. “You’re late, beeyotch”, you say. I am indeed a day late, but last night, sitting among friends and a table groaning under the weight of delicious food, I found myself, for once, momentarily forgetting to complain about my sad-Jen-Aniston-dust-bunny-in-a-girdle existence. Instead, I found myself feeling thankful. And I don’t want to let go of that feeling just yet.

So here, in no particular order, are Things to Be Thankful For:

Pumpkin danish from La Creation de Gute in Hong Kong

Pastries. Need I say more? This is the entire reason people still get up for me on the Skytrain (cuz pregnant ladies be needin assistance!)

Geoduck sashimi in Shenzhen

Travels. Going anywhere new gives you (and by you I mean me) the golden opportunity to 1). meet great people, 2). try things you’ve never tried before, like this geoduck sashimi in China, and 3.) blather on about it endlessly in blog posts that make no point. How lucky is that?

Rambutan in Chantaburi

Thai fruit. It’s the best in the world. Really! The range and variety of fruits in this country are dazzling. And they are all delicious, in their own different ways and in their own various seasons.

Thalad Gow in Chinatown

Outdoor markets. Is there a more fascinating place to explore? From France and Hungary to Vietnam and Japan, outdoor markets are my favorite place to go to find out about a place. Someday, I may even work up enough courage to try out this pickled crab stand in front of the Old Market in Chinatown.

Tamarind chili dip with purple long beans in Sukhothai

Chili dips. They are my favorite part of a Thai meal. And they are so criminally underused, especially in Thai restaurants abroad! Tamarind, shrimp paste, crab eggs, lohn (coconut milk-based dips) — krueang jim are the dish that packs in a significant amount of protein and a wide variety of veggies, making it (and a bowl of rice) a complete, nutritionally balanced meal for millions of Thais, every day.

Chicken wings in kajorn blossom broth at Guaythiew Pik Gai Sainampung

How could I go this long without mentioning street food? Thailand, obviously, has some of the best in the world. People may be up in arms about farangs taking to their own mortars and pestles in restaurant kitchens, but Thai food’s real heart comes from the street.

Family. In a fit of earnestness (which will die at the end of this sentence), I am actually posting a real family picture and not a shot of the Kardashians. Of course, I am not in it.

Other things for which to be thankful: great wines (I would include a picture, but let’s face it, when I start being thankful for wine is the exact moment when I start being incapable of taking a picture); good friends; air-conditioning; the Steelers (haterz gonna hate!); people who are bored enough to occasionally read this blog (thanks, really); and the fact that my infant son is so readily diverted by a tissue.

Oh, and this:

Nam ngiew

I’m off to Chiang Rai next week for even more. Enjoy the start of your holiday season!

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, Chantaburi, chicken, Chinatown, dessert, food, food stalls, Hong Kong, markets, noodles, Northern Thailand, restaurant, Thailand

Home in a Bowl

It’s been a hard transition back after three weeks of being a guest to other people’s lives. Now, it’s back to my own, and as great as it is, it also bears its own strange frustrations. For example, I’m working on a project that will never be finished. It just won’t. I have made a handful of sacrifices to edge it along to this point: throwing good money after bad, poisoning what used to be healthy relationships, transforming into a dyspeptic harpy. I have decided that these sacrifices are not worth it. I have moved beyond denial and anger to acceptance. TIT. This Is Thailand.

Is this bowl of comfortingly soggy rice, doused in pork broth and topped with a dusting of sliced scallions and indifferently poached egg, the taste of resignation? If so, resignation tastes pretty good to me. Located at the entrance to Charoen Krung Soi 16, this no-frills food cart employs a similarly Spartan approach to its rice porridges: good quality broth, stewed with pork bones for so long it has taken on an opaque, cloudy quality and a generous spoonful of bone-in pork pieces to guarantee a bowl full of piggy flavor.

Regular pork-rib porridge with egg

Regular (tamada) bowls are 35 baht, 40 baht with egg or for an extra-big serving of rice or pork (piset). And the guardian of this enterprise comes in the form of a gregarious gentleman, partial to form-fitting white tank tops, who is patient with questions and with giving directions. What more can you ask for? Thailand can confound and frustrate, yes, but it also harbors the path toward your own redemption. I am eagerly awaiting mine.

Khao Thom Gradook Moo, entrance to Charoen Krung 16. 089-682-0016.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, Chinatown, Chinese, food, food stalls, pork, rice porridge, Thai-Chinese, Thailand

A quick word on satay

Yummy grilled pork on skewers with cucumber relish and peanut sauce

Satay is an iconic dish in Thailand, but may have gotten its start in Indonesia following an influx of Arab traders there, according to food researchers. Whatever its origins may be, this dish has fully incorporated itself into the culinary fabric of Southeast Asia, burrowing into the food cultures of Malaysia and of course, Thailand (what else is in Southeast Asia? Ha ha. Just kidding. Sort of.)

There are tons of great satay places out there, but I think any satay-lover worth his or her stick would naturally gravitate toward the great vendors of Chinatown, where cooks manage that delicate balancing act between art and commerce, churning out thousands of bamboo skewers of grilled pork (it’s almost always pork, although apparently the skewer started out as a vehicle for beef or mutton) a night.

Jay Eng, on the corner of Plang Nam next to the Canton Shrine, is a favorite of my parents’ and I understand why — it’s grilled porky perfection with a spicier version of the peanut dipping sauce and quick, efficient service. But such dinky little pieces of pork! You know that’s not enough for Glutton queens like moi.

Which is why I prefer Chongki (84-88 Soi Suthorn, 081-615-8733), on the border between Chinatown and Hua Lumphong, and purveyor of the meatiest pork skewers around. Each order comes with a plate of peanut sauce and a bowl of ajad (cucumber-shallot relish with peppers), and slices of freshly grilled bread for just a little extra.

Even better, diners can order from the khao moo daeng (barbecued pork rice) vendor next door for a full-sized meal (but not the chicken rice vendor down the road; apparently the servers won’t walk that far…)

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

Fish Porridge, Again

The old man looked at us under a thatch of eyebrow hair that would move Frida Kahlo to tears.

“Just so you know — the fish porridge here is at least 250 baht,” he warned my mom.

I know I’ve written about Sieng Gi, the khao thom pla shop in Yaowaraj, before, but I can’t help but love this place. Every visit there is like entering a land where ancient beings stalk the tiny storefront dining area, flinging delicious bowls of porridge onto the marble-topped tables and bellowing at each other. @SpecialKRB, who loathes this place with a passion, said it was like spending a night at the Chinatown chapter of the AARP. But I take a more benign view; it’s a place conducive to happy accidents. That night alone was worth seeing the look on my mom’s face. 

Sieng Gi has seen a lot of competitors rise up and subsequently fall by the wayside. Yet no one can touch this place. The broth is ever so much more more, rich with a fish flavored muchness. And the brown bean dipping sauce, its deeply concentrated flavor worth three bowlfuls of its lesser rivals’. That’s not even getting to the fresh dollops of pomfret, seabass or oyster, garnished with cubes of batheng  or sweet pork, tiny dried shrimp and deep-fried garlic. If you are inclined toward soupy seafood rice (and not everyone is), there is nothing better. 

Oyster porridge with strips of deep-fried tofu

So find a way to go here. That is, as long as you have 250 baht.

(Sieng Gi, Trok Ma Geng, behind Grand China Princess Hotel)

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, Chinatown, fish, food, food stalls, rice porridge, seafood, Thai-Chinese

Love letter to Bangkok

Platu, a staple of the Thai diet

Dear Bangkok,

It’s been a while since I’ve written. It’s not for lack of thinking about you. To tell you the truth, I think about you all the time — what you’ve been up to, what’s been happening to you, where you’re going. Especially where you’re going.

There was a time I was completely infatuated with you. Who wouldn’t be? You were charming, open, sunny, a little dirty, unexpectedly seductive. You showed me things I’d never seen before and were completely accepting of all my little ignorances and idiosyncracies. You made me the person I am today.

But things gradually changed a few years ago. You started getting demanding and even, at strange times, a little prudish. You started not making any sense, closing some places, keeping others open, contradicting yourself at irritating times. And then you started on that self-righteous streak where you became a teetotaller at strange times of the day. We thought it might be a phase. But it wasn’t. Gradually, more and more, you became more restrictive and self-conscious. It wasn’t a pretty sight. It was like you wanted to deny who you really were.

And then this happened. It’s sad to see you this way. You didn’t deserve this, no matter how cray-cray you were getting. But I know you will eventually prevail. And whatever it is that you need, you know you can ask me. You can ask anyone. You have tons of friends who will do anything for you at the drop of a hat (for more info on this, check out www.sathira-dhammasathan.org or call +662-510-6697).

I’d like to remember the best parts of you, the best parts that are still there. gleaming in the rubble, indestructible and obvious to anyone who looks. If people are the reflection of the place in which they live, food is the mirror to those people (you don’t want to follow me all the way out on this limb? Come on). And there is nothing more expressive of Bangkok’s freewheeling stylishness than its food.

A typical made-to-order food stall counter

What most reflects Bangkok’s spirit? To me, it is its myriad made-to-order food stalls (aharn tham sung), tiny and not-so-tiny stands armed with the best produce of the day and great cooks able to do anything you ask of them. Although some have menus in an attempt to control costs and ensure quality control (not all chefs know every dish), the real, bona fide tham sung food stalls have no menus and no rules — just fresh meat, fowl, seafood and veggies, plucked from the rivers and fields and cooked a la minute to accompany your rice, Thai rice porridge, and beer. Unsure of what you want? Just point to an ingredient — I picked out a gelatinous bowl of pork tendon that was eventually stir-fried with red pepper, shrimp and scallions — and the chef will simply make something up, on the spot.

Stir-fried pork tendon from Jay Suay in Chinatown

To me, this is real cooking and real “Bangkok”: the opposite of the frozen perfectionism and manicured sterility associated with Cook’s Illustrated and Singapore, a creative burst of self-expression that is all about … well, life, its good parts (the “glitzy” hotels and high-rises) as well as the gritty (everywhere else). Life has its highs and lows, dramas and comforts, and nowhere illustrates those extremes more thoroughly than you, Bangkok.

So take your life back by the reins and get ready to welcome people like me, eager for the best of what you have to offer, even with banks burnt to a crisp and the streets cratered with holes like a concrete teenager.  Life (and stomachs) won’t be held back, and neither will the people who supply Bangkokians — red, yellow and rainbow-colored — with what they need (good food). Baby mussels, jewel-like greens ready for the stir-fry pot, braised pork spare-ribs: bring it on. We’re getting hungry.

Love,

Bangkok Glutton

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