Category Archives: curries

Mid-life crisis

Beef mataba (stuffed Thai-Muslim pancake) at Roti-Mataba

When people talk about having a mid-life crisis, they are thinking about something like a loss of identity or the mourning of things that have passed us by, never to return, like the opportunity to go braless. Or the ability to digest 1 kg of meat without any repercussions. Or a deep, uninterrupted sleep. Oh, so many things to mourn!

But there are other things, more insidious. Because I am all about listing bad stuff, over and over again, here’s another one: being taken for granted. Underrated. Your opinions rendered irrelevant. Low tide at sunset, and you the fish wriggling in the shallows, somewhere between a dead jellyfish and plastic bottle.

And it’s not just about getting annoyed by things that other people inexplicably LOVE, like that teacher on Glee, who, every time he opens his mouth, moves a part of me that wants to kick his face in, even though he hasn’t done anything to me ever (I’m not lying. He’s on TV now and I want to shoot myself. Yet I can’t change the channel. Is this the point of Glee?) It’s about being dismissed in spite of your successes. In this context, I am obviously not talking about me, sitting in front of the television on a butterfly chair borrowed from my grandma because I have no furniture. I’m talking about Greyhound Cafe.

Because, for whatever reason, Greyhound is not considered a serious place to eat, the “See Fah” of the contemporary Bangkok dining scene. But let me tell you a story about Greyhound. Once, 100 years ago, it didn’t exist. Emporium was new, rising up out of the rubble of the last Bronze Age. My friend Tutti and I were making the rounds of this new, glittering place and she got to talking to a gentleman hatching plans to open a new restaurant in the next few months. He said the menu would be a bit strange, a bit of this and that, a Thai-Italian mix. Being the wonderful people we are, we waited until we left him to laugh at his idea. Thai-Italian? Awful. Who would eat this dreck? Fusion suxx!

Today, this man is probably on a yacht in the Andaman Sea, snacking on “Sandwich in a Bowl”, in a T-shirt reading “Complicated Noodle 4Eva”. Spaghetti pad kee mao is commonplace, and cutesy versions of Thai food staples like fried rice, nam prik or khao pad are everywhere in the city. This place now has a gazillion branches. Yet it’s still “just Greyhound”, mired in the restaurant version of a mid-life crisis. It was the best sort of fusion — a look into the future, reflecting how Bangkokians really eat. But what have you done for me lately, Greyhound?

Roti-Mataba (136 Pra Arthit Rd., 02-282-2119, open 9am-10pm except Mondays) is not a fusion restaurant. But it’s also in a mid-life crisis.  Among the most popular places to try Thai-Muslim food in the city, this khao raad gaeng (rice and curry) standby is seen as touristy, a bit blah, ignored in favor of younger, newer Thai-Muslim places that are harder to find — hence, more “authentic”. Later, sometime in the evening when the rats are scurrying next to your table and your beef curry noodles are strangely flavorless, watered d0wn in a failed attempt to make them last longer, you think back to the cheery, well-lit shophouse that is Roti-Mataba, and the women who tirelessly make new roti throughout the day. Roti that would eventually be dunked into a peanut-strewn bowl of beef mussaman curry, or a green chicken curry, the surface flecked with fat and basil. Better yet, roti slathered in chocolate sauce, dotted with slices of ripe banana.

That’s when you start to feel regret. Roti-Mataba, I have been away for too long.


Filed under Asia, Bangkok, curries, food, food stalls, restaurant, Thai-Muslim, Thailand

So here goes

Jay Maew's giant pomfret with pickled plums

People sometimes ask me where I like to eat. I suspect this is so they do not have to worry about bumping into me somewhere. I’ve been asked this enough times that I have decided to write down a handy little list, detailing the places I make a serious effort to go to again and again.

You may notice there is a pattern. As I get older (I am 75), I get more set in my ways. You will never, ever catch me in a place with throbbing music, or packed with people, or outfitted with beds instead of chairs, unless Anthony Bourdain is there, in an outfit made out of sun-dried beef. I will try my very best to avoid a place that describes itself as fusion, unless it is something like Eskimo-Mongolian, because — well, who wouldn’t want to see that? I also steer clear of theme restaurants, unless they involve ninjas, or pirates. Or, uh, knights and jousting. Never mind. Just scratch what I said about theme restaurants.

1. Jay Maew
Just off of the highway in Samut Songkhram on the way to Hua Hin, this Thai seafood place is … about to close, because the owners want to retire and enjoy their lives. This is a shame (although I am all for the owners wanting to enjoy their lives), because their gaeng som is easily the best within 100 km of Bangkok. Also delicious giant pomfret, stewed with pickled plums or steamed with soy sauce and ginger; grilled crab, thick with eggs; freshwater shrimp, heads oozing, lightly blistered. Try not to miss it!

Before going over Mae Nam Tha Jeen, stick to left, go under bridge, U-turn, make first left, and it’s on your left hand side.

2. Jay Fai
Let me tell you a story about Jay Fai. I wrote a book about street food stalls, and although the bill at Jay Fai falls quite outrageously beyond the price limit of 100 baht per meal, I included it, because her cooking is incredibly delicious, more so once you find out she is self-taught.

Well, she didn’t like being included in a book with the pad thai guy down the street and the assorted noodle vendors here and there on the sidewalk. Her food is “on another level”, she said. Well, I can’t say I disagree with that. “Dry” thom yum (spicy lemongrass soup), festooned with prawns as big as a child’s hand; double-fried lard na, thick flat noodles paired with skinny yellow ones, topped with a flavorful seafood gravy; or, my favorite, a Japanese-inspired omelette stuffed with gigantic hunks of crab — this place is the first place I think of when someone I like wants to eat great Thai food.

Jay Fai's crabmeat omelette

327 Mahachai Rd.

3. Chesa
People are sometimes confused when I say this Swiss restaurant is my favorite Western restaurant in Bangkok. Who knew raclette could be so alluring? How could fondue be such a draw?

Truthfully, although I love cheese, raclette and fondue aren’t big draws to me either. Yet I come to Chesa every chance I get because nearly every item on its menu is well-cooked. I like that the chef includes seasonal menus — focusing on, say, white asparagus in late spring, chanterelles in the fall. I like the brisk, efficient service. I like that they don’t mind substitutions. I even like that it’s slightly fusty and quiet. Best of all, I love that this is a restaurant that does not shy away from offal — veal kidneys in a mustard sauce, liver with rosti, breaded fried sweetbreads, these guys have it all.

Kidneys with brussels sprouts

5 Sukhumvit Soi 20

4. Soul Food Mahanakorn
Every time I mention Soul Food Mahanakorn to anyone, I am invariably told one of a several things: 1. that it is their local; 2. that they have had the party for their book/exhibition/film/album there; 3. that they had a very interesting conversation about (insert something here) with the owner; and 4. to try the lamb grapao/Burmese-style stewed pork belly/spicy eggplant salad/excellent cocktails.

The point being, everyone loves this place. What started out as being a trendy new place with promise has turned into something that people genuinely love to go to, again and again. Everyone has picked out their favorite dish on the menu (mine is the Hat Yai fried chicken); everyone has had some sort of party there (including me); everyone has had an interesting conversation with Jarrett (boo, Eagles). This is because it is very easy to do all of these things, thanks to a smart menu, a convivial, homey atmosphere, and Jarrett’s genuinely warm personality. You feel like he could be your best friend: we could watch movies together, and do each other’s hair, and he could listen to me blather on about “Game of Thrones” for hours on end … right? Jarrett? Hey, where are you going?

56/10 Sukhumvit Soi 55

5. Bamee Slow
I travel more than I should, and this is the first place I always try to go to once I get home. I love bamee kai — I am a fool for eggs, and a boiled egg, cooked just enough so the yolk runs all over a silky, fragrant handful of egg noodles accented with red pork and fried garlic, is probably my idea of an edible heaven. Best/worst of all, the wait can take up to 25 minutes, ramping up the anticipation for your first bowl (I immediately order two, broth separate, to avoid unnecessary drama) that much more. It’s the very best street food, the slow kind.


Entrance to Ekamai Soi 19 (after 8pm)


Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, curries, fish, food, food stalls, noodles, restaurant, seafood, Thailand

What’s Cooking: Gaeng som

Shrimp gaeng som at Mamapapa Restaurant

The last time I went to Phuket, my husband took me to what looked like a secluded selection of shanties set over the water, accessible via a small dirt road. I was starving and, obviously, grumpy, but our beachside breakfast — gaeng som with rice — reminded me why I love Thai food, its strong clear flavors and its honesty, communicating everything that in regular conversation is all-too-often too nuanced for me to pick up.

I sought to recreate this experience — sans Phuket sand, glimmering ocean and dozing old man at the next table — in my own kitchen. With store-bought nam prik gaeng som (I know, I know), it was criminally easy, but if you want to make your own chili paste base, mix a handful of red bird’s eye chilies, shallots, garlic cloves, a pinch of salt and a few lemongrass bulbs, galangal and kaffir lime leaves into a paste. Some people add a dollop of shrimp paste as well.

Gaeng som (sour curry) (serves 4)

– 4 Tablespoons nam macaam piek (tamarind syrup)*

– 6 knobs of grachai (wild ginger)

– 1 Tablespoon palm sugar

– 1 firm, white-fleshed fish such as pomfret, boiled in half a pot of salted water (save cooking liquid)**

– 1 Tablespoon granulated sugar

– 4 Tablespoons fish sauce

– 2 bunches cha om (acacia leaves)

– 3 eggs

– 4 heaping Tablespoons gaeng som paste (see above)

1. Chop grachai into small pieces and pound into a paste with mortar and pestle.

2. Deflesh fish from the bone, add to mortar and pound further. Add your nam prik gaeng little by little, mixing carefully so that you don’t get any in your eye (again), which is very painful. It will look like this:

3. Add paste to fish cooking water on the stove along with palm and granulated sugars and fish sauce. Bring to the boil.

4. When boiling, add tamarind juice.

5. Add your white fish pieces. Do not stir, or gaeng will become “fishy”.

6. Taste to correct seasoning, adding if necessary more tamarind juice (for acidity), sugar (for sweet) and/or fish sauce (for salt) as you see fit.

7. Allow to boil for another 10 minutes. Your gaeng is finished!

8. As your soup boils, chop cha om with scissors into bite-sized pieces.

9. Heat 4 Tablespoons of cooking oil in a big frying pan.

10. Whip eggs as you would an omelette and add half the cha om. It will initially look like this:

11. Over medium heat, cook in hot oil until puffy, then turn over and cook until golden-brown. Take out and drain on a paper towel.

12. Serve omelette by cutting into squares, placing at bottom of bowl and ladling your gaeng som on top, accompanied with rice.

*You can make your own tamarind syrup by steeping a tamarind pod in hot water for at least 10 minutes. A tamarind pod looks like this:

 ** Obviously, you can substitute the fish for anything else you would prefer — shrimp, chicken, and/or some blanched mixed vegetables.


Filed under Asia, Bangkok, cooking, curries, fish, food, recipe, restaurant, seafood, Thailand