Category Archives: curries

A haven for the overlooked

Veggie curries and stir-fries at Raan Booniyom

I lost my iPhone a couple of weeks ago. It is hard for me to believe I have lasted this long without it. The one thing I clutch  at parties when there is no one to talk to, at restaurant tables when I am inevitably the first to arrive, at home just because — my iPhone was a personal lifesaver in a restless sea of social awkwardness and negative thought spirals.

I am now up to my neck in that sea. No one tries to contact me anymore. I feel like people like me less. Yes, I know, my phone is gone. Also, I hate talking on the phone. Don’t pester me with logic! The point is I feel cut off from everything, neglected, and lonely. Overlooked.

I think it’s easy for vegetarians who love food to feel overlooked here, as well. Thai food has never been known for being particularly meaty the way American food is, but it seems to be a lot easier finding a good vegetarian meal in the States than it is here. And the places that do exist in Thailand are often criminally ignored. I’ve been guilty of this myself. Even though I know there are tons of wonderful ways to cook non-meat ingredients, I don’t actively seek vegetarian places out (except for Rasayana Raw Food Cafe, which has wonderful soups. I’m not kidding). It has to be right in front of me.

That problem is compounded when you factor in street food. Perhaps it’s because Thais feel “authentic” Thai food must have fish sauce or shrimp paste in it, or because there are not enough Thai vegetarians around, but when people ask me about street food stalls that are also vegetarian, there are few places to recommend.  Does Lemon Farm count as street food?

Well, Ubon Ratchathani has its act together when it comes to this. Raan Booniyom (corner of Thepyothi and Srinaruad roads, 086-871-1580) — less a stall, more a cafeteria, to be honest — offers everything that any vegetarian in Thailand would be happy to try out. In business for the past decade or so, Booniyom is possible because of the efforts of a group of local volunteers who arrive daily to dish up stir-fries, curries, salads, noodles, desserts, and anything else you could think of that is vegetarian.

Veggie “shrimp chips”

khao lad gaeng (curries over rice) counter offers the choice of one curry over rice for 10 baht; 20 baht for three curries. An aharn tham sung (made-to-order) section cooks up stir-fries a la minute. A vegetarian guay thiew (soup noodles) stand costs 15-20 baht; veggie som tum for 15 baht is also on the menu. Possibly best of all are the different drinks available, ranging from nam macaam (tamarind juice) to taro milk and something called “mushroom juice”: need I mention they are homemade?

Homemade drinks on display

Is there something like this in Bangkok? Um … not that I know of. That’s not to say  that a volunteer-run vegetarian “cafeteria” couldn’t open its doors, somewhere (hopefully close to me), thanks to a group of enterprising food lovers. In fact, I’d be happy to be the first customer! Let me know! Just don’t try to call me.

(Photos by @SpecialKRB)

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Filed under Asia, curries, food, food stalls, Thailand, Ubon Ratchathani, vegetarian

A very Phuket breakfast

Dim sum in Phuket

There are times when “research” means stuffing yourself with lots and lots and lots of food in a very short period of time. God help me, it was the kind of research I was doing today — namely, three promising stalls, all for breakfast.

Lured by the promise of “beef bamee”, I was excited by the prospect of Guaythiew Rab Arun, a small noodlery in the shadow of Bangkok Phuket Hospital. Alas, they were not as excited by our appearance, and, double-damn, a beefy variation of the popular egg noodles with barbecued pork was also not on the cards. No, this was your run-of-the-mill beef noodle shop: choice of rice vermicelli (sen mee), thin noodles (sen lek) and thick ones (sen yai), with broth that did or did not include cow blood (nam tok). The broth was as good beef broths are, cinnamon-y and sweet; the bowl an unashamed showcase for all sorts of innards — lungs, liver and tripe.

Beef noodles without broth

All very nice — except for the bizarre delay in letting us settle the bill — but nothing I wouldn’t find in Bangkok. On the other hand, I haven’t seen anything quite like the dim sum shop we visited next. When asked the name of the place, a two-room shophouse on Sam Gong Road serving kanom jeeb (Chinese-style steamed dumplings) and a wide variety of little bits, our waitress acts like I have just asked her ATM pin code. “Just ask, everyone knows the Dim Sum Place Down The Road From The Hospital,” she said (TDSPDTRFTH for short). A trayful of plates is deposited onto your table as you sit; you pick what you want, and you are charged, conveyor belt sushi-style, for whatever you choose. Small plates are 10 baht, “big” plates (which are almost the exact same size as the small plates) cost 15.

The tray of goodies at TDSPDTRFTH

Is it the best dim sum ever? Of course not. Is it crazy cheap? Well, that depends on you, but for the most part, why, yes it is. It is indeed cheap. And that is sometimes what I am looking for.

So, a question mark on the first stall, a possible “yes” on the second. The third? A resounding I WILL BE BACK. Pa Mai (at three-way intersection of Sagul and Dibuk roads near Wittaya School, 076-258-037) specializes in curry — curry, and the Mon fermented rice noodles known as kanom jeen, what some people mistakenly translate into “Chinese candy”. A plate of the stuff is handed to you at the front by this nice lady:

Dispenser of kanom jeen

Once you receive your blank canvas, an array of curries awaits your artistry: a trio of nam ya, crab, fish and “jungle” (without coconut milk); chicken green curry, made the old-fashioned way with globs of congealed pork blood; nam prik, a speckled chili-coconut milk concoction that, unlike its terrifying name, is actually quite sweet; gaeng tri pla, or the famous — and fierce — southern fish entrail curry; and because this is the south, nam prik kapi, or shrimp paste chili dip, made to go with the innumerable garnishes that greet you at every table:

A table at Pa Mai

Is there any sight more gladdening than this one? A platter bristling with greenery: tart mango leaves, chewy cashew ones, boiled jackfruit, cubed pineapple, bitter, spice-defying baby eggplants. Soft-boiled eggs for 7 baht. Dried fish. An ajad of thinly-sliced cucumber in a tart-sweet syrup. And a happy variety of pickles (I just love pickles): cabbage, bean sprouts, lotus stems, baby garlic.

My choice (at first): crab nam ya

Best of all, you are only charged 30 baht for the kanom jeen, meaning those curries can be added, mixed, or replenished as you see fit. Really. So I first took some fish nam ya, then some crab. Some green curry. Some nam prik. And then a little left for the fiery tri pla. Don’t judge me.

We have found kanom jeen nirvana, and it is open from 7 to noon.

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Filed under Asia, beef, Chinese, curries, food, food stalls, noodles, Southern Thailand, Thailand

Grumpalicious

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Lunch at Silom Pattakarn

I try to write something here once a week, because life without forcing yourself to do something is a life far too enjoyable, but sometimes, things happen. Last week, and the week before that, and the week before that one, and, oh, this week too, that thing has been the Cold Monster. The Cold Monster rarely visits, so I had little idea what to expect, but it’s a stubborn creature, and pretends to leave only to show up in fuller force when you are at your most jaunty and hatching plans to make an ass of yourself in public again. So that’s what I’ve been up to. Fighting the Cold Monster.

Obviously, I have also been eating. Alas, the cold medication that I have tried all I can to avoid is the only thing between me and utter destruction at this point, but it renders everything I eat either tinny or tasteless. There are only a few things that have broken through this cold-medication curse, and sans further verbal tap-dancing, I have listed them below. Not surprisingly, they are from my favorite kinds of places: shabby, taciturn, and ancient. They are grumpalicious.

Pong Lee (10/1 Ratchawithi Soi 9, 02-644-5037, open 11am-9:30pm)

Why I like it: My grandfather, bless him, is no longer the gourmet he once was. But there was a time when he liked nothing better than to tell other people what or where to eat, and this was invariably one of his favorite choices. It’s changed little since we took him here last — the decor is the same (shabby unchic), as is the clientele (“vintage”). Not surprisingly, the menu has also undergone little renovation. Although people like to order the deep-fried duck, our family has our own little favorites.

What I like: Old-school Thai-Chinese versions of “Western” dishes are also represented on the menu by way of Pong Lee’s deep-fried pork chop, swimming in a thick tomato sauce and peas. It sounds kind of gross, and maybe is if you are not familiar with this very specialized subset of old-style fusion food, but it is the dish my brother invariably goes for. Steamed seabass and hae gun (Chinese-style deep-fried shrimp rolls) are standbys, as is the odd vegetable dish of what appears to be canned white asparagus garnished with a murky seaweed. Sometimes (only if I am there), we order the stewed goat. Pong Lee’s specialty, however, is said to be the Hokkien-style fried egg noodles, garnished with shredded pork floss.

Egg noodles with pork floss

Sanguansri (59/1 Wireless Rd., 02-252-7637, open 10am-3pm)

Why I like it: Is it habit? Is it the food? I can’t tell anymore. Sometimes I am absolutely appalled by the service (but cannot say anything because, let’s face it, some of the servers are my grammy’s age). And sometimes I am perfectly happy to sit there, ignored, serving myself water from the counter and fighting to pay my bill. All I know is that I first came here when, well, I first came to Thailand, and eating here makes me think of that time. Also, the food seems to have only improved since then (as illustrated by the growing and increasingly-ravenous lunchtime crowd).

What I like: What can I say? It’s all about the kanom jeen nam prik. Sure, some other places also have kanom jeen (Mon-style fermented rice noodles) with vaunted reputations, but Sanguansri deserves it. Their nam prik — a mellow, chili-flecked, coconut milk-based curry — is genuinely delicious, layered and complex, sweet and mild but with an earthy undertow. Noodles come pre-mixed with greens for convenience’s sake (theirs, not yours), and sometimes they forget silverware and/or dishes, but whatever. As for everything else, it … skews sweet. Another favorite is the gluay chuem (bananas cooked in syrup), which comes drizzled in coconut milk, a further play on the salty-sweet thing.

Kanom jeen nam prik

Silom Pattakarn (Soi Silom Pattakarn, the soi after Silom Soi 15, 02-236-4442, open 10am-9pm)

Why I like it: Among the oldest remaining examples of Thai-Western fusion food, Silom Pattakarn specializes in something that is increasingly in danger of becoming extinct (see: Restaurant, Carlton) — Thai-Chinese versions of “Western” dishes such as “stew” (tomato-based sauce, peas, and pork, oxtail or ox tongue), corn soup, Chinese-style “chicken curry” (the national British dish), and “steak” (here seared perfectly and cooked medium to medium-well — no bleu among germ-phobic Thais!) accompanied with a simple salad in a sweet vinaigrette. There are also “fancy” Asian dishes such as fish maw soup, either cooked dry or nam daeng (“red broth”) and mee krob boran (old-style crispy thin noodles), which, unlike the lacquered khunying hair-like confections atop so many “traditional” restaurant tables today, arrives simply and humbly, mixed with minced shrimp, touched only a bit with sugar.

Old-fashioned mee krob with garnishes

What I like: Uh, I think I went over that already. But honestly, I also just love the place: it’s breezy in the wintertime, the ladies are lovely, and everything comes with a fluffy tower of white bread and ginormous pat of butter. With the loss of the Carlton Restaurant on Silom (another “fancy” place frequented by blue-hair types who remember its heyday in the ’50s and ’60s), Silom Pattakarn has possibly become the remaining purveyor of this slice of post-World War II Thailand, when the country was young and budding and the future seemed bright (I remember this time vividly, you see). The restaurant is up for sale (granted, for the past 6-7 years), so this may be the last chance you get to see, and taste, progressive mid-century Thailand.

Chicken curry and the dining room

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, chicken, curries, food, noodles, restaurant, Thai-Chinese, Thailand