Category Archives: dessert

A day with Worapa

The finished product: our kanom yodmanee, under Khun Worapa's direction

The finished product: our kanom yokmanee, under Khun Worapa’s direction

Chin (www.foodtoursbangkok.com) is always full of surprises. A lot of the time, those surprises involve exerting oneself via a long, brisk walk and some elbow grease, so I always try to psyche myself up before our next excursion. This isn’t because days out with Chin are an ordeal. It’s because I need to hide the fact I am terribly lazy and would prefer to burrow myself into the faux-leather confines of my mother-in-law’s hand-me-down couch, pretending to watch “Outlander” for all the historical information on Jacobite Scotland, and not for a reason that rhymes with “Shmamie Shmaser’s shmass”.

But I’m excited for today, because @karenblumberg is with me and the surprise du jour involves trekking out to Samut Songkhram, where we will learn how to make a Thai dessert known as kanom yokmanee — “bundles” of cooked pearl tapioca flavored with pandanus leaf extract and rolled in fresh coconut flesh. Before we get there, however, we stop off at “Thalad Rom Hoop” at Maeklong, so named because an honest-go-God train runs through the center of the marketplace about four times a day. This necessitates display tables on retractable rollers and awnings that can be pulled back, hence the market’s name.

When the market is not busy hiding from the wrath of an onrushing train (that is traveling at roughly 5 mph), it is busy selling the stuff that most Thai wet markets sell, like the famously delicious Thai mackerel:

Steamed pla tu Maeklong

Steamed pla tu Maeklong

And offbeat snacks that I mistake for fish meatballs, like these rolled-up balls of potato and coconut, grilled just enough to form a thin crust over a fluffy, soft center like a sweetened, globe-shaped French fry:

Mun tip on the outskirts of the market

Mun tip on the outskirts of the market

But gradually, it becomes time to finally head over chez de Khun Worapaa Thai cook whom Chin discovered after sampling some of her wares at a nearby temple. Thai desserts are often a tricky proposition because they sometimes manage to incorporate a jarring, almost metallic sweetness that tends to set teeth on edge. Unfortunately, this becomes the only thing that people remember of them, instead of the fresh ingredients and old-fashioned methods of preparation (usually steaming and boiling, if they are old-fashioned central Thai sweets). Worapa’s desserts, however, come from 100 percent natural ingredients — most from her own garden — and as a result, bear natural, almost muted flavors and a delicate balance of sweet-salty that is the standard signature of any true Thai dessert.

Before we cook, though, we have to eat. Luckily for us, Khun Worapa has lunch covered, too, setting out a jungle curry flavored with fish entrails and Thai eggplant, a sour curry of maroom, a type of thick-skinned gourd broken open to reveal a soft, custardy flesh meant to be scraped from the peel like an artichoke leaf, and this flaked fish stir-fry that Worapa assures us is made entirely of fish, instead of being bulked up by breadcrumbs like at other vendors’:

 

Flaked fish stirfry with chili paste and lime leaf

Flaked fish stirfry with chili paste and lime leaf

Like any good cook, Worapa has control freak tendencies. This becomes obvious once she starts critiquing our eating technique (“Why are you piling everything on your plate at once? Why don’t you try everything one at a time? Your food isn’t going anywhere!” and “Why don’t you sit up straight? You will be able to fit more food into your stomach if you don’t slouch!”), but her friendly patter only enhances the dining experience, because we love being bossed around as long as it comes from a Thai person who cooks good grub.

Alas, the time to put us to work draws near and we begin to slow down. Karen confesses she is nervous, because we have just learned we will have to stir the tapioca mixture in a copper pot over the stove for a full hour in order to get it to the proper consistency. What kind of consistency? Think super glue, but stronger — something you can build a brick wall with. Worapa says this kind of back-breaking labor forms the heart of all Thai dessert-making: “The ingredients are cheap,” she says. “It’s the labor that makes up the value of a dessert.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself: first, you have to make the tapioca mixture. It’s a package of tapioca, mixed with 2 glasses of pandanus leaf juice (squeezed from a handful of julienned leaves that are steamed), a glass of coconut water, and 3 glasses of rose water steeped overnight from Worapa’s own pesticide-free roses (in summer, Worapa advises using jasmine instead):

Rosewater with steamed coconut flesh in the background

Rosewater with steamed coconut flesh in the background

This mix is earmarked for the copper pot, which conducts heat more evenly and acts as extra insurance from burning.  We take turns stirring this big pot of green, which is quickly taking on the appearance of Ghostbusters slime. Those of us not stirring our arms off are set to work on yet another backbreaking job, scraping gobs of shredded flesh from halved coconut shells:

Getting to work

Getting to work

Worapa has opinions on both work fronts: “Shave from the rim!” she instructs Chin, before telling me how I should place my hands on the wooden paddle as I stir. All of this must work, because before long we have a pot full of a thick, heavy, glutinous green mass and two trays full of coconut shavings to steam (steamed coconut keeps for longer than the fresh kind). After only 50 minutes (!), the tapioca is ready to be poured out and cooled, before it is hand-rolled and covered in coconut.

Pouring the tapioca out to cool

Pouring the tapioca out to cool

The taste is as it should be: slightly sweet, salty from the coconut and fragrant with the smell of pandanus and rose. We go home with our newly-made candies sticky in our bags and our bellies bulging with food, and we fall asleep in the car with our hands smelling of fresh leaves.

To learn more about cooking with Worapa, contact Chin of Chili Paste Tour at chilipastetour@gmail.com.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, dessert, food, food stalls, Thailand

Strange combinations

O-tao in Phuket town

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

There are moments in everyone’s lives that are so strange, they might as well have been scripted. One of mine was a scant few years ago, during my second pregnancy. Well into my second trimester and approaching my third, I went to Macau with my husband, his family, and his family friends — getting one last plane trip in before airlines stopped letting me and my big belly on the plane.

Macau is an interesting place, full of an interesting history that seems to get shoved to the wayside somewhere in favor of the new thing in town: casinos. Lots of them. Like Las Vegas, it’s now a place built on dreams, full of places built to look like other places, and other places meant to spend lots of money. It was also something that, aside from the food, we were singularly unable to share in: never gamblers, we awkwardly gawked our way through the lobby every day, watching the strange dances of the dealers and the hopeful, window-shopping our way through this and everything else. And it was definitely not a place for 6-month-pregnant me: just a few weeks before getting relegated to a wheelchair because of my enormous weight, I could only walk a few minutes at a time before having to sit down and rest.

Not surprisingly, all that money changing hands tends to draw an interesting element, especially at night. There were an awful lot of beautiful girls milling around the shopping mall, looking like they were waiting for someone. Maybe they really were waiting, scanning the horizon for their friends, hatching plans to see a movie, getting ready to share some hot wings. I honestly don’t know. But when I sat down to rest my stretched pelvis for the umpteenth time on the long and arduous walk back to our hotel room, my husband sat next to me, and a girl sat next to him, and promptly laid her head on my husband’s shoulder.

Let me set this scene for you. Me, a gigantic bulbous mammoth with a huge protruding belly. My husband, next to me, sitting stock still. My husband’s parents and their friends, standing behind us. Girl, apparently very sleepy, with her head on my husband’s shoulder. No one says anything. Some female passersby look, cluck at this strange combination of people on a bench, and shake their heads: whether at me, a big ol’ fatso who cannot just stand up and ask someone/anyone what is going on; my husband, who cannot shrug his shoulder and walk away; or at the girl, who is very, very tired — I don’t know. What I do know is that it is appalling, but in the funniest possible way. If I ever, at that moment, harbored that question of Do I Look Fat in This? the answer was: oh, most definitely yes. Otherwise, why would that lady decide to sit there, cuddling with my husband? Was there a question of This Is Weird and What Should We Do? Well, certainly. This was a moment that required examining my own feelings: surprise, indecision, humiliation, check. Exhilaration? Yes, that too. What happens next? Call my bluff then, Life. Just do it. Maybe I am a gambler after all …

… (although not much of one, if your parents are just milling around, looking at bath salts close by. She eventually got up and walked away).

The point of this long and tedious story is, strange combinations excite similarly strange feelings. It might not make sense, but it somehow works. This is something the Hokkien Chinese in Phuket — a community largely responsible for Phuket’s street food scene today — have taken to heart. Want oysters slathered atop a mix of egg, flour and cubed taro and dressed in lashings of minced garlic, soy sauce, bean sprouts and pork rinds? Sure, why not? How about thick yellow noodles fried with pork, chicken, fish and crispy greens, topped with a raw egg yolk, raw slivered shallots and, again, pork rinds? Of course.

Hokkien fried noodles at Mee Ton Poe in Phuket

O-tao, the Hokkien-style oyster omelet dish, is best represented at Ji Piena stall that has been around for nearly 80 years in one location or another in downtown Phuket. Its current incarnation, over 40 years old, is at a nondescript stall along Soi Phoonphol 7, where the hardworking chef churns out plate upon plate of o-tao topped with oysters, shrimp and/or squid (there is also a vegetarian version), as well as a small roster of curries atop kanom jeen (fermented rice noodles).

Ji Pien in Phuket

For fried noodle lovers, there is also Mee Ton Poewhich enjoys two locations, but I always go to the one on Phuket Road. A vast range of fried noodle dishes awaits, many a variation of the mee pad Hokkien (Hokkien fried noodles) on nearly every menu in town, but the real treat here is, besides the amiable service, the curries the staff eat at lunch. I’m not kidding. They are homemade and delicious: fiery gaeng trai pla (Southern Thai fish entrail curry), or the milder and no-less-flavorful gaeng prik (chili curry).

And if you still haven’t had enough of strange combinations, Phuket has you covered on the dessert side of things too: o-aew, a shaved ice dessert laden with bananas, colored syrup, and a jelly made from soaking o-aew seeds in water and said to protect diners from getting ulcers. Where to get it? At the moment, it’s available at a place called — where else? — O-Aew, across from the entrance to Soi Sun Uthit.

O-aew in Phuket town

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

 

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Filed under Asia, bamee, dessert, food, food stalls, noodles, Phuket, seafood, Southern Thailand, Thailand

Glutton-related matters: Out of the blue

Congee: it’s what’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

It happens — a reminder, out of the blue, that you are fallible, that nothing can be taken for granted. Not even eating. Not even for a Glutton.

Right now, I have TMJ issues. This happened, as you can imagine, out of the blue, while stuffing my face with Isaan food after a lengthy family trip in Hong Kong. Commonly referred to as simply “TMJ”, this affliction is also known as “lockjaw”, which results in a sharp, shooting pain while opening one’s mouth. Although hearing me talk less is surely a blessed thing for many, many people, anything that forces me to eat less is nothing less than a tragedy (for me).

The average person can open his or her jaw three fingers wide — a feat that I am sure we have all taken for granted. Without medication, I am stuck at a paltry one-and-a-half, and what food I do manage must be properly soft, sludgy and nursery-like, or pain in the temple and jaw joint will result. This leads to an interesting set of calculations every time I see a dish: without painkillers, the crunch of a raw vegetable, a steak, or a handful of nuts is absolutely excruciating — is it worth the pain? Do I love them that much? Sometimes, yes. More frequently, though, I veer towards fish, soft pasta, eggs, rice porridge, soup. I have become everyone’s least favorite great-aunt.

Suitably runny: a Thai dessert from Somsong Pochana

 

Now, I sometimes get shooting headaches and sudden bouts of dizziness. Meanwhile, the feeling that I have been fitted with someone else’s teeth is persistent, akin to, my doctor tells me, athletes who hurt their legs and experience a strange feeling in their muscles while running. I am like an injured athlete, guys. If eating counts as a sport. This somehow gives me comfort.

How does something like this happen? My doctor helpfully tells me that this is something almost 100 percent stress-related. This is funny to me, since I do absolutely nothing. Yet I still unconsciously clench my jaw, all the time — while writing on the computer, walking down the street, sleeping. I need to relearn how to keep my jaw from seizing up (apparently, the “correct posture” for my jaw is lips closed, teeth apart, tongue behind the front teeth like you are about to say “No”). I need to relax. I need a holiday after my holiday.

So I am taking it easy. I am swaddling my jaw in hot compresses, twice a day, 30 minutes at a time. I am doing my jaw exercises. I am trying not to yawn too widely. And, er, as for avoiding caffeine … well, let’s not go crazy. Baby bites. Eventually, I will get my way back to that double-decker sandwich. Fingers crossed. Wish me luck.

Someday I will be able to eat this BKK Bagel tuna melt, just like Kob

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

 

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, dessert, food, rice porridge, Thailand

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

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

Why Food

The unseasonably wet weather and ensuing traffic snarls have put me into a meditative mood. So indulge me for a moment as I blather on like your 84-year-old great-aunt, the one who doesn’t see people very often and puts SWAT-team-level preparation into “going out”.

Because that is how I feel nowadays. My Thai has never been the greatest — conversations frequently turn into an unwieldy catalogue of what has NOT been said, a litany of all that has NOT been communicated. I am literally two-dimensional; beyond initial remarks on the weather, what to eat and where to go, I am cashed out of words, making do by playing the role of the dim-witted auntie, a role I am getting unnervingly good at.

This is leeching into my English language communication, which is fast becoming a halting negotiation of what to express and what to leave out. Interaction is Thailand is an unspoken deal: say the expected things at the right time and you will have passed. Saying something different means you have not kept up your part of the bargain. This is something that has taken me years to learn, but is somehow understood by Thais who have grown up here — just like everyone knows you don’t eat durian with alcohol, or without mangosteen, or that you don’t transport it on the Skytrain because then people will look at you like you just took a baby, a kitten and a puppy and forced them to listen to the Black Eyed Peas’s latest album. All Thais somehow know these things.

So food is a wonderful oasis for me. When you are cramming your piehole with stuff, you don’t have to talk. When your table is groaning under the weight of tasty food, people around you are happy. When you venture to talk about this dish or that, people are invariably willing to discuss it — food is a fine, happy place, where everyone loves you, as long as your plate is still full.

It’s logical, then, that I would love Restaurants of Bangkok, which offers a nifty monthly program they call “Running Dinners”. Every course — appetizer, main, dessert — is offered at a different restaurant in the same area. Despite the logistical difficulties of herding up to 20 increasingly inebriated people to different places every hour or so, it’s surprisingly well-run, and a great way to feature restaurants that are new or easily overlooked. (In the interests of full disclosure: next month’s dinner includes dessert at Maduzi Hotel, which belongs to my husband’s family.)

Blurry photo of dessert course at Philippe, taken after fourth glass of wine

But I’m an equal-opportunity gobbler (uh, duh). I obviously like to go the opposite end of the spectrum too. Sometimes you need to work a little for your food fix, just sayin (don’t you hate it when people write “just sayin?” Like, didn’t you already just say it? I see it more and more frequently, and it is almost always preceded by something semi-obnoxious — “BLAH BLAH STUPID STUPID MOUTHFART MOUTHFART. JUST SAYIN.” Blech. Okay, rant over.)

So the beef noodles on Sukhumvit Soi 16, across from the Korean restaurant, are also a wonderful refuge for the socially impaired. Beloved by office workers and motorcycle taxi drivers alike, it is the “we are the world” food stall of that particular road, where people can set aside their various color allegiances or complete and total political apathy (I’m lookin at me, Bangkok Glutton) and jostle each other for bowls of delicious beef water instead.

Options are rice vermicelli (sen mee) or thick noodles (sen yai), or no noodles at all (gow low). Open 7am-1pm, closed on Sundays. Call 087-564-9469.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, beef, dessert, food, food stalls, French food, noodles, restaurant, Thailand

Glutton Abroad: Falling in Nagano

Apples, a Nagano specialty

Japan gets a lot of snow. Every year, we are re-surprised by the amount of snow awaiting us at Shigakogen, where we regularly go in a feeble attempt to look semi-athletic once a year (uh, in my case at least). Some people ski for the exhilaration of breezing down a mountain face, the sharp chill hitting their cheeks as they successfully navigate this or that mogul. I ski as payment for the reward that will come after:

Shigakogen, like the rest of the Nagano region, forms part of Japan’s “snow zone”, which makes up fully half of the country, according to the Japanese tourism board. Tons of snow are dumped on the country every year when the cold winds blowing across the choppy Sea of Japan meet the towering mountains that form a big part of the “spine” running through Japan’s islands. Hence, the knee-deep white bounty that transforms me into the flailing autobot that everyone must navigate around in the mornings. Chilly winter wind can be good for the complexion. Direct contact with a fluffy mound of snow, not so much. Perhaps with this in mind, the Japanese brew amazake during the colder months; the hot mix of rice and sugar is very warming — and exceptionally filling.

Amazake in the making

But when Nagano isn’t busy getting dumped on, it’s actually busy producing yummy things to eat with the fertile soil it hides underneath all that snow in the winter. Like Thailand’s Central plains, Nagano’s valley produces a veritable shopping cart of produce: apples, blueberries, mustard greens, mushrooms, mountain yams, buckwheat — all are readily harvested by Nagano-ites in greener times. That is probably why certain buckwheat products are considered specialties of Nagano — soba manjyu, a sort of steamed dumpling formed from buckwheat dough and stuffed with various fillings like meat or pickled greens, and of course soba, the hearty buckwheat noodle served either hot in a broth or cold with a dipping sauce, accompanied with a pitcher of the soba cooking water to drink afterwards so that none of the nutrients go to waste.

My favorite place to go, anywhere in the world, is the supermarket. It’s the best place I know of to figure out a place’s culture — or, at least, the way it views food. Are the shelves brimming with fat-free cakes and ready-made scrambled eggs and bacon, like in the States? Is there a gigantic, fresh-looking produce section, like in France? In Japan, there’s this: gargantuan, monstrous fruits and vegetables looking a little like something out of “Land of the Lost”; entire sections reserved for various types of dried fish; and unusual variations on commonplace things, like eggs.

Eggs for sale at Nagano's Tokyu Food Show

Almost everything is seasonal: mushrooms in the fall, shirako and uni in the winter, berries in the summer. But some things have become year-round staples: strawberries as big as a toddler’s fist and super-sweet “fruit tomatoes”, like tomato candy. These we had on our first meal there, sprinkled with a little Okinawa salt.

The Japanese are gifted in the art of naming — somehow, the English-language names they give are strange yet evocative, and always memorable. That’s how you get something like “Tokyu Food Show”, the best name I’ve seen yet for a supermarket; that’s also how you get “Ichigo no Musume”, or “strawberry daughter”, the name for a mochi (rice dough) dumpling stuffed with whipped cream instead of the usual red bean paste and anchored with a giant strawberry in the middle. I would show a picture, but I am not good enough to capture things in flight … in this case, the dumplings that were flying into other people’s mouths when my back was turned. Did I get a bite of these magical dumplings this year? No sirree, I did not.

I did not miss out on the apple beef, however. A certain breed of fatty cattle similar to Kobe, the Nagano cows are fed on the region’s special apples, which are supposed to impart a certain sweet flavor to the beef. I’m not sure if that is really the case, but the beef is extremely delicious — not too fatty to turn into a grease-fest, but tender enough to melt in the mouth. Our favorite place to try it: Sukitei (600 m SW of city center Nagano, +81 26-234-1123), as much of an annual pilgrimage as the snowy, ankle-twisting doom offered by Okushiga Kogen. Aside from steaks festooned with the local mushrooms, there is sweet sukiyaki, warm and healthy shabu shabu, and a handful of delicious beef-based appetizers like salt-crusted beef cubes grilled on a skewer, gently poached beef slices served cold in a pickled plum sauce, and various types of beef “sashimi”. Here, the fattiest, decorated with edible blossoms (the yellow one is NOT GOOD) and accompanied by grated wasabi, garlic and ginger:

Sukitei's fatty beef sashimi

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Filed under Asia, beef, dessert, food, Japan, markets, noodles, restaurant, rice