Category Archives: fish

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.
034-713-911

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.
02-223-9384

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
02-261-6650

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
02-714-7708

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)

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

Glutton Abroad: Bali H’ai

The island of Moorea

Paradise is in the eye of the beholder, it’s true, but if there is any place that conjures up “South Pacific”-style images of tropical splendor, it’s French Polynesia. Maybe that’s why, post-snorkeling tour outside a hut in Taha’a, we are being treated to yet another rendition of “There is Nothing Like a Dame” by a group of middle-aged men waist-deep in the surf. They aren’t bad, but the waitstaff are rolling their eyes. They hear this song frequently, it would seem.

I am too busy grappling with my own problems to be taking in the show. On my plate are a buttered piece of white bread, an indifferently grilled hunk of tuna, a glob of mayonnaise-and-potato salad, heavy on the mayo, and an unpeeled banana. This is lunch, a meal I once loved and looked forward to. Now mealtimes are a chore, an opportunity to demonstrate my repertoire of socially awkward gaffes to strangers, where I must parade around in “country club casual” in order to get fed.

This trip has, in a sense, unmanned me. Where I once commanded legions of dishes, sowing destruction on restaurant tables near and far with my trusty fork and knife, striking fear into the hearts of servers everywhere, I now … I just am not up to it. Jewel-like rounds of poisson cru, diced and mixed with coconut milk, freshly steamed mahi-mahi, paired with slivers of lime, splinters of just-cracked fresh coconut, skin attached — I should be into this. But just as the tropical splendor about us is relatively untouched and left in its natural state, so, apparently, goes the local cuisine — steam, boil, mash, grill. Season with lime and/or coconut juice. Repeat.

Getting my grump on makes no sense, I know. Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, et al — this loose collection of mountainous islands must have looked like paradise on earth for the first settlers to reach their shores: Southeast Asians traveling via boat from Malaysia and Indonesia. No snakes could live in the dense jungly undergrowth, islands boasted a mix of fresh and seawater seafood, and the volcanic soil proved readily able to support any assortment of plants: chestnut, almond, banana, papaya, vanilla, pineapple.

Coconuts in Pape'ete

They steamed taro in underground pits and blanched the leaves like spinach. They ate coconut flesh and used its milk as seasoning. And then there was breadfruit. Known in Thailand as sake, it was a valued part of the local diet, but instead of being thinly sliced and boiled in syrup or used to adorn curries (as in Thailand), the Polynesians boiled and mashed it with coconut milk, or simply roasted it. And the fish — grilled with lime, there was nothing easier or better.

Sardines for sale at the local market

Unless, that is, you had it every day, in a sterile setting like the basement of the local town hall, a work event with acquaintances you barely know, your watch reminding you that life is slowly passing you by, but you are trapped, stuck in a prison on water, not able to do anything but take a deep breath and eat. That is what being on a cruise ship for 12 days is like for me. Every place is open to you — for 4 or 5 hours, within a carefully constructed tourist environment. Then it’s back to a ghostly existence, flittering neither here nor there, with food meant to appeal to everyone but moving no one. I realize then that eating something prepared by locals, discovered on one’s own, is travel, at least to me, and an untasted land is an uncolonized one. The frustration drives me batty.

I do better on my own. I escape, for a day, on Moorea, running like a fugitive with my octogenarian aunt from a “free” van meant to hustle us into one of those black pearl shops ubiquitous on the islands. We rent a bug rider, a noisy golf cart equipped with 4×4-type wheels. The locals ignore us, used to the buzzy spectacle, but the other tourists gape, and I realize we must look funny, a tall, slim elderly lady and a fat Asian one, folded inside a go-cart meant for a child.

Our reward is this: a sleepy little restaurant tucked into Pao Pao Bay, a blackboard proclaiming specials like moules frites and mahi-mahi with vanilla and run by a sweaty French man with a walrus moustache. Maybe it’s because we have escaped our excursion tour overlords for the day; maybe it’s because it’s just the two of us and we know each other; maybe it’s because we’re on land. But it’s the best meal we’ve had our whole trip — grilled orare, or sardines, lightly charred, reminding me of Thai platu, with a side of yellow rice smelling of coconut.

Orare at Restaurant Martinez

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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.

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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

Groupthink

I recently took a test called the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI, for people who are thisclose with this sort of stuff. BFF!), and discovered that I am an INFP. In case you aren’t well-versed in the alphabet soup-like murk that is the MBTI, allow me to illuminate you (because that is my leading function. No, it is really not): there are different kinds of people in the world. One group of people likes to go out and make friends and be happy, and the other likes to mope around in their rooms, listening to The Smiths and doodling “Mrs. Tom Colicchio” in their journals over and over again. Yes, they do! And one group likes to look at the world as it actually is, and the other likes go lala in lala-land with their fingers in their ears. And one group likes to think and be logical, and the other…you get the picture…they don’t like logic, no not at all.

So take all those characteristics that pretty much guarantee you will be misunderstood and socially awkward, and you get INFP. This makes it tricky for us (2.2 percent of the population, because I’m all about the numbers. No, I’m really not) to go out and socialize, but if there is a stonking big heap of deliciously grilled scallops, myriad bowls of fried noodles and a couple of plump sea bass(es…?) cocooned in a layer of banana leaves, there is enough distraction to ensure that no one will go away thinking you are a great big weirdo who says strange things.

That is why I like Elvis Suki (00/37 Soi Yodsae, Plabplachai Rd., 081-899-5533, 02-223-4979, open 17-23 daily. Now with an air-conditioned room!). Because there is a lot of food there. Also because it is delicious. Thai-style sukiyaki is a sort of hot-pot that a Thai-Chinese man claimed to have invented in the 1960s from a dream (no, seriously, I am not making this up…probably. His restaurant is on Rama IV road next to the “Galaxy No-Hands restaurant”, another great Thai contribution to the world).

The suki here comes ready-made and is not so purty, so there is a bit of disappointment for those ESTJ types who like to boss everyone around and do everything themselves (just kidding. No, I’m really not), but the delicious, sweet-tart sauce lightens the sting a bit. Another dish that completely wipes out that sting and replaces it with the food-inspired goosebumps that all people who love food know and chase, every day: a whole sea bass, slathered in a swampy mass of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, galangal, and some other stuff that the waiter is very wary of revealing, baked in a banana leaf — a dish so yummy it will solve everyone’s problems and bring about world peace. I did not take a photo because everyone ate the fish before I could get to it. The second one, too. Selfish bastards.

The namesake dish

But I did manage to take a photo of their unofficial specialty, hoy shell song krueang, a grilled scallop paired with a tiny chunk of pork — ingenious — which, when drizzled with a little of the sweet-tart seafood sauce, bring out the sweetness in each other. Really! What I’m talking about:

All kinds of yum

The only thing about eating here, and I’m sorry introverts, but it’s true — you need a big group. Bribe them with fish and scallops. Pretend that you’re a lot of fun to be around. Tell them about the ice cream in front, a great little stand scooping up freshly made sorbets of lime, coconut, lychee and zalacca, plus “off” flavors like beer, vodka Red Bull, and banana-cheese (tonguefun@gmail.com, 089-111-6836). If worse comes to worst, go find an ESFP. They’ll believe the best about anyone.

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What’s Cooking: Nam prik kapi

People have different opinions on things, even though they are all wrong. One of those opinions is that pad krapao (stir-fried meat with basil on rice), crowned with a fried egg, is the ultimate Thai “square meal”.

I don’t see it that way. Nutrition-wise (your protein, carb AND fiber), my money’s on nam prik kapi (shrimp paste chili dip), accompanied by fresh veggies, rice and a couple of nice plump Thai mackerel for good measure. THIS is what a lot of Thais think of when they think of nam prik. This — dare I say it? — makes it one of Thailand’s most iconic dishes.

Nam prik platu (for 2 people with semi-hearty appetites)

-2 Tbs small green eggplants (makuea puong)*

-3 Tbs dried shrimp, blanched to minimize fishy smell

-3 Tbs small chilies

-3 limes

-4 large garlic cloves

 -1 heaping Tablespoon shrimp paste

-1 heaping teaspoon palm sugar

-juice of one small orange (preferably of the kiew som variety)

-1/2 Tablespoon fish sauce

-2 Thai mackerel (see below)

For fresh veggie accompaniment:

-handful of white turmeric (cumin khao)

-handful of long beans, cut into 4-inch segments

-cucumber, peeled and cut on the diagonal

-2 Thai eggplants (makuea proh)

1. Pound shrimp paste, small eggplants and garlic with mortar and pestle until mixed.

2. Add chilies and pound. The peppery smell that begins to waft from the mortar means you are finally getting somewhere.

3. Add palm sugar and mix thoroughly. Now this is when Chef McDang, who believes in all-natural ingredients, would give me the side-eye, but: also add a teaspoon of granulated sugar, if you can. It will add to the flavor, I promise.  Mix well until the paste becomes glossy. It will look like this:

4. Add shrimp, fish sauce, 1 Tbsp lime juice and orange juice to mortar. Then add 1 Tbsp hot water so paste takes on a more liquid consistency.

5. Garnish with whole chilies, add more lime juice if needed, and accompany dip with fresh veg, rice and fried Thai mackerel.

(For Thai mackerel)

-Heat oil in wok or deep frying pan and fry until skin is brittle and slightly browned (10 minutes).

-Drain on paper towels and dab to get rid of excess oil.

Note: Instead of simply putting everything on separate plates, you can also take a dollop of the chili dip, flake some fish flesh off the bone, and fry it all with a bowl of rice. Add a little bowl of dip and fresh veggies on the side, and it becomes one of my favorite Thai meals!

* These little guys are frequently maligned by people who dislike their bitter taste, but their tannic quality offsets the spiciness of the chili dip perfectly, so try not to leave these out! Sometimes, hairy eggplants (ma uk) are used instead.

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What’s Cooking: Nam prik platu

Chili pastes, or nam prik, form one of the main pillars of a Thai meal, and of Thai cooking in general. As dip-like condiments, or krueng jim, they incorporate easily portable protein and vegetables, and are frequently the main protein source for a Thai during the day. As the base for a dish, or nam prik gaeng, they build the foundation to a curry, soup or stir-fry; they also make great de facto salad dressings and marinades. In fact, there are few savory dishes that do not incorporate some form of chili paste.

This is the condiment kind, a well-known chili dip that is the main meal for many Thai families. It is also very nutritious, using Thai mackerel (omega-3!), fresh and blanched vegetables (fiber!) and very little, if any, oil.

Nam Prik Platu (for four)

-2 pla tu, or Thai mackerel*

-4-5 red and yellow prik chee fa, chopped

-4-5 prik yuak, sliced

-10 garlic cloves

-16 halved shallots

-6 small red chilies

For fresh vegetable garnish:

-1 cucumber, peeled and sliced

-handful of savoy cabbage leaves, washed and trimmed

-2 Tbsp winged beans, cut into 1-inch sections

-3 Thai eggplants (makuea proh)

-2 Tbsp long beans, cut into 4-inch sections

For blanched vegetable garnish:

-1/2 nam thao, or green gourd, blanched, peeled and sliced

-handful of blanched morning glory (pak boong)

-handful of blanched long beans

-1 head cabbage, chopped and blanched

-1/2 head savoy cabbage, chopped and blanched

-1/2 cup chicken stock

-2 Tbsps fish sauce (plus more to taste)

-juice from 1 lime

1. Make chilies, garlic and shallots fragrant by dry-frying them (the process is called kua) in a wok or deep frying pan. Continue until the flesh begins to take on a “blackened” appearance. Take the opportunity to practice your flipping so you can show off to your friends later on and they will think you are a really great cook. (You can also kua by skewering your chilies, garlic and shallots and placing them in an oven at full whack until the flesh blisters and blackens a bit).

Your chili mixture will look like this:


2. Deflesh your fish with your fingers, taking care to catch the tiny bones in the tail section. Set aside fish flesh. It should look like this:


3. Once your chilies are fragrant, pound them in a mortar and pestle, in batches if necessary. Add fish flesh as you go along until everything is incorporated (of course, you can also whizz in the food processor, but it only serves to slice the ingredients, not crush them into oblivion. Also, why not get a great biceps workout while you’re at it?) When you are finished, the paste will look like this:


4. Add your chicken stock and 2 Tbsp fish sauce. Taste for seasoning and add more fish sauce if needed.
Your finished chili paste will look like this:


5. Just before serving, add juice of 1 lime, but if keeping for later, make sure to refrigerate (duh). Reheat and add lime juice just before serving, accompanied by fresh and blanched vegetables and rice.

*The best store-bought pla tu apparently must have a short face, crooked neck and (obviously) thick belly.

Next up: nam prik kapi, Thailand’s traditional square meal.

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