Category Archives: food stalls

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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In praise of the porky

Rice vermicelli in pork broth with meatballs at Wor Rasamee

Rice vermicelli in pork broth with meatballs at Wor Rasamee

No one wants to be a pig. The very worst thing one can do is to eat like one, squeal like one, or sweat like one. Don’t even think about looking like one. That is the worst that bad can get.

But when cooked over a grill, crisped and sliced over a mound of fluffy white rice or minced and folded into an omelet, the pig becomes something that every Thai food lover wants a part of. Few dishes demonstrate this more than guaythiew moo, or pork noodles: a mix of pork meatballs, minced pork, stewed fatty pork and pork liver, simmered gently in a pork broth before a quick dunk in a plastic bowl with a handful of rice noodles, some blanched bitter greens, and a sprinkling of bean sprouts and deep-fried garlic bits.

Because many Thais refrain from eating beef for religious reasons — as followers of “Mae Kwan Im” (a Mahayana Buddhist Goddess of Compassion now popular among many Thai-Chinese Theravada Buddhists), they are encouraged to cut out beef in view of eventually going vegetarian — pork noodle joints are probably the most numerous of all the noodle vendor varieties scattered throughout the city. This means there is tons of competition, and more pressure to set oneself apart from the rest of the noodling fray (I’m not counting bamee, or egg noodles, with the rest of the pork noodle crowd because the emphasis there tends to be on the noodles and the toppings are different — that said, there’s lots of competition there too).

Some vendors bomb the crap out of your tastebuds with a plethora of chilis, and some are nam tok specialists who add a touch a pork blood to their broth. It’s the rare vendor who lets the pig stand on its own porky merits. That is Wor Rasamee (corner of Silom and Saladaeng roads), a longtime pork noodle shop run by a deeply efficient elderly man who is the Thai street food equivalent of Rene Lasserre. Every need is fulfilled quickly and with as little drama as possible, sometimes before you have even thought of it. And the time it takes for a bowl to get to your table? 10-15 seconds, tops. Really.

Not to say there’s no little gimmick to set this little stall apart. Here, it’s the unique sauce, set atop every table and served alongside the four-pronged usual condiment selection of sugar, chili flakes, chili-studded white vinegar and fish sauce. It has no name, but it does have ingredients: vinegar, garlic, chilies, palm sugar, and an irresistible hit of fermented tofu, my culinary Achilles heel, a quicksilver sweetness in a pork broth smelling faintly of Chinese 5-spice powder.

sauce

How can I say no? It is food crack. There are surely more ingredients in this sauce than were relayed to me, and I will try to spend the next few weeks ferreting them out. Until then, I will have to risk heading back to this crowded, busy neighborhood in the heart of the central business district in the hopes of snagging a seat in the midst of all the Japanese tart cafes and fast food chains.

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

Northern Thai sausage kings

Grilled northern Thai sausages from Sai Oua Pa Nong in Chiang Rai

Grilled northern Thai sausages from Sai Oua Pa Nong in Chiang Rai

Everyone has a secret superpower, and I am no different. Some people are wonderful dancers. Some people can catch anything that is thrown at them. Some people can multiply large sums in their heads. And me? I can clear a 3-foot radius around me in about 10-15 minutes without even trying. When I tell people about this, they shake their heads and think, She’s at it again. Exaggerating her uselessness. But they’re not around to see it. I can guarantee that, if I sit on one side of a room before yoga class, everyone else will try to sit on the other side. At a large dining table, if no one is assigning seats and no one really knows me very well, one or both chairs to either side of me will remain empty. I have even had people switch seats at a movie theater in Thailand — where there is assigned seating — to move to an empty seat further away from me. I don’t know if it’s my smell or what. It certainly isn’t something I do on purpose. And it is almost never useful. It’s just something that happens, more often than not.

It’s a shame my secret superpower isn’t something useful, like languages. I am ashamed to say it, but I only have room in my head for 1.5 languages, as full as it is of Game of Thrones trivia and a detailed chronology of Jack White’s past haircuts. As you might have guessed, English makes up one of those languages. The other 0.5 is up to where I am living at any point in time. It used to be French, when I was studying cooking in Paris. Then it was Japanese, when I was working as a financial reporter in Tokyo. Now it is Thai, my “native” language, which makes it all the more pathetic when I open my mouth to order a meal or give directions or make small talk — whatever it is that people do to wile away the time until you get to go to sleep. People will frown and say, “Where are you from?” And I will smile and say, “The Philippines.”

Sometimes. Just sometimes. Other times I have to go into the whole rigamarole of how I moved to the States when I was a baby and came back and blah blah blah blah. It is the penalty that life exacts for speaking such terrible Thai. So it is no surprise when I find myself with a spare 10 minutes in Chiang Rai (the town of my birth) and head over to Sai Oua Pa Nong  (San Kong Noi Road, across from Chetupon Temple, 082-760-4813) for what a few locals said were the best sai oua (Northern Thai sausages) in town. That is hard for me to believe because 1.) the best Northern Thai cook I know is my Aunt Priew, who lives in Chiang Rai and 2.) I make my own sai oua too, and it is not bad. It might even be good, if you are my friend and you just spent an entire afternoon making sausages with me.

The minute I get there and ask for “50 baht of sausage” in Thai, the man in front waiting for his own sausage order to be grilled narrows his eyes at me. “Where are you from?” he says, and I’m still thinking if I should choose “Filipino” or “Japanese” when a sprightly little old lady carrying what looks like 1000 baht worth of sausages looks up at me and grins.

“Can I just get a little bit of this sausage?” I say. “I just want one or two bites,” and she says “Certainly!” with a great big smile.

“And what’s this?” I ask, pointing at a bunch of small plastic baggies filled with a thick green liquid.

“It’s nam prik nam pak (vegetable juice chili dip),” she says. “You should get it, it’s very good.”

I run over the rest of the menu with her, asking for recommendations and whatnot and it’s only when she turns to leave do I realize that this lady is a freaking customer and I’ve been running my mouth at the wrong person for something like 10 minutes.

“The smallest order of sausages for takeaway is 150 baht,” says a 20something man behind the counter.

“Do you work here?” I ask. He may or he may not, but he throws in the vegetable juice chili dip for free, just so I can try it out.

It turns out the sausages are thick, closely-packed and meaty, peppered liberally with big melting chunks of pig fat. They taste like they’re supposed to, salty and herbal but with a generous kick of chili spice, so I get why people like them. The real revelation, though, is the chili dip, which is fibrous and green, yes, tasting just like Claussen dill pickle juice. I love it.

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Super chicken

The famous "gai super" at New Tiem Song

The famous “gai super” at New Tiem Song

There are a few things that I absolutely will not do, not even while in the pursuit of the culinarily fabulous. One of those things is eating with my hands. I absolutely loathe it. This is particularly strange for me, since a lot of Northern Thai and Isaan food involves sticky rice, which typically includes eating with one’s hands. The rice is rolled up into a little ball with the fingers and used to mop up whatever chili dip, soup or protein there is on your plate in a swift, neat little action called pun khao. The unfortunate thing about this is that all the crap that is on your hands — imaginary or real — ends up in your mouth. And that is really gross.

I know you are thinking, why don’t you wash your hands first then? which is something I do already. Or you could be thinking, but you stuff your face with potato chips and hot wings all day long, and aren’t bitching and moaning about getting your icky hand grossness all up in those tortilla chips heaving with guacamole. And this is true, mom! But it’s not the same as getting soft, soppy stuff all over your fingers. So, sorry Ethiopian restaurants and banana leaf curry stands.  I will never eat you the way you are meant to be eaten. I will always be asking for a spoon and fork. Because that is the way people should eat everything, always (except for potato chips, hot wings and tortilla chips with guacamole).

I like offal meats. You could even say I seek them out. I love kidneys, and sweetbreads, and liver, and grilled chicken gizzards sprinkled with sea salt. I don’t even mind brains, if they are battered and deep-fried, or grilled in a banana leaf. I enjoy shirako with ponzu sauce and a scattering of sliced chive, and I think a cube or two of congealed pig or chicken blood is the perfect touch for a great Thai noodle dish. That kind of thing doesn’t bother me at all.

Except when it comes to feet. Or anything with bones, pits or seeds in them, really. Because if I loathe eating with my hands, I absolutely HATE spitting anything out of my mouth. This is why I don’t eat mangosteens, and why I stay away from grapes, unless they’re seedless. The thought of regurgitating some little something that has to sit there as a reminder of all your salivary grossness is just unbearably vile to me. I would just rather swallow these things, if I can. This is probably why fishbones are so infuriating.

So chicken feet is a no-fly zone for me. It’s a shame, because the most important men in my life — Antonio Brown and Troy Polamalu (haha, jk) — really love them. It’s a street food dish called gai super (“super chicken”) which, when I first heard it, made me really excited because I thought it referred to either chicken wings or some sort of crispy, boneless chicken part, like deep-fried cartilage. Alas, it is a stewed mass of splayed, spidery chicken legs, plonked into a broth simmered from their cooking and accompanied by a mash of bird’s eye chilies.

Just another look at the same dish

Just another look at the same dish

The meat is supposed to be coaxed gently from the bones via the gentle suction usually meant for a milkshake through a straw, but HELL NAW. I’m sorry. I couldn’t do it. You can sue me now, or make me watch a Mark Wahlberg film. Instead, there was the broth, which was deeply chicken-y even without those gross-ass feet all over them, a slight twinge of coriander, and the metallic fire of a dozen pulverized chilies. All in all, it was MEH, unless you are really into the sort of masochistic task of getting those skimpy bits of flesh off of all those little bones. And some of you are like that, if the gigantic pile of toothpick-sized bones on my dad’s and husband’s plates are anything to go by.

So, no judgment. If you are headed to Dinsor Road close to the Chinese Swing, go over to New Tiem Song, which is the open-air shophouse across the street from Bangkok’s City Hall and only a couple of doors down from Mont Nom Sod — the wildly popular toast restaurant credited with being the first eatery to bring fresh milk to the Thai masses. Or, well, you could just go to Mont Nom Sod, and wait in a big long line with Thai teenagers for … toast. Either way, there is something awesome for you waiting on Dinsor Road, whichever way you choose to go.

 

 

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Yen ta fo for h8ers

Yen ta fo with rice vermicelli at Thi Yen Ta fo Rot Ded

Yen ta fo with rice vermicelli at Thi Yen Ta Fo Rot Ded

I write a lot about yen ta fo. It is my absolute favorite Thai noodle dish. What’s not to love? An unlikely but irresistible melange of textures and flavors, from squidgy blanched morning glory stems, rubbery squid, soft fish balls, crackly bitter deep-fried garlic and the crunch of a deep-fried wonton — and that’s before you even get to the sauce. Because it’s the sauce that makes or breaks it all: tart with distilled vinegar and pickled garlic, resonating from the heady boom of fish sauce, underneath which the slightest whiff of sweet fermented red tofu emerges like the flash of a red sole on an expensive shoe … that is what yen ta fo is to me. A very delicate balance that, at its best, is the stereotypical juggling act illustrative of the best of Thai cuisine.

At its worst, yen ta fo is something different. It’s all sweet, all pink, all sickly and flat, like Hello Kitty. So it gives people the wrong idea, that these noodles are something for people with a sweet tooth, that there is no complexity to it at all, that it’s Britney Spears when you want to be rocking the egg noodle-PJ Harvey special. I always put this down to people going to the wrong places for yen ta fo. There is such a thing as the wrong place for a certain dish. In fact, that is the whole point of this blog.

I’ve been to Thi Yen Ta Fo (084-550-2880, open 11-22 except Mondays) more times than I can count. I mean, it was always closed those other times, but it feels like second nature to me now to just head automatically to that street corner on Mahachai Road, just down the street from Thipsamai and next to Jay Fai. Usually, I just find a shuttered cart with a sign bearing the vendor’s name. But just a few days ago, it was all systems go: an entire corner and then some, littered with packed tables and the sort of flustered, harried waiters you would see at your nearest Fuji or Crystal Jade restaurant.

For a soup noodle dish that is so often dismissed as “those terrible pink noodles”, yen ta fo sure seems popular here. But there is a very good reason for this. When our bowls come to the table, it’s less about the pink sauce and fermented tofu and more about the veritable blanket of chopped chilies that coats our food like a suit of armor. If there was ever any doubt in my mind that a typical Thai fix-it involves just throwing a bunch of chilies on something to make it taste better, that doubt has long since been blasted from my head by the smoke coming out of my ears after a bite of these noodles. This stuff is SPICY. It changes the whole flavor profile of the dish. Here, it’s all tart and fiery, even slightly metallic. It’s yen ta fo for people who don’t like yen ta fo very much.

There’s other stuff too. The immense popularity of this place has necessitated the incorporation of a second cart, this one offering fried noodle dishes like guaythiew kua gai (pan-fried rice noodles with chicken and egg). That’s not to mention the pork satay place that also serves the customers here, and the other soup noodles offered by Thi, like the just-as-spicy tom yum egg noodles with fresh basil and minced pork:

Bring your tissues

Bring your tissues

I can’t say I don’t like these noodles, because that wouldn’t be true. Would they be my favorite yen ta fo? No, because they are barely yen ta fo at all. Would I go back? Absolutely. With a pack of tissues. And some Tums.

 

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Isaan Road Trip

A coconut milk-based snail curry in Pak Chong

A coconut milk-based snail curry in Pak Chong

I am rubbish on road trips. I can’t drive, and I don’t like to read maps or mess around with GPS. I am good with the radio, but if it’s not Boston, or Led Zeppelin, or Rush, I will probably try to rush past your favorite song in pursuit of something from one of these three groups. My friend Karen (@karenblumberg) can tell you I’m rubbish on road trips, if you asked her (but she wouldn’t, because she’s loyal and kind and my best friend), but, for some reason, Chin (@chilipastetour) and Anne (@anneskitchen) are both willing to spend a whopping 6 days with me cooped up in a car!

In all seriousness though, it’s for a very good reason. We are going to be tasting Isaan, Chin’s home turf. Despite the huge popularity of Isaan food in Thailand — and its growing popularity abroad — Isaan as a region has yet to draw the kinds of tourist numbers that Northern Thailand and the South see. That boggles my mind, since its Laos- and Vietnam-influenced food — succulent meats on the grill, tart and spicy larbs (minced salads) thick with roasted rice kernels, som tum (grated salads) of every possible variation, eggs cooked in a pan with steamed pork sausage (kai kata) and sticky rice — are what a lot of Thai food lovers think of when they think of their favorite dishes. Why not go to the source?

Yet Isaan remains bewilderingly under-visited. Every national park and waterfall we visited had either just a handful of people or, in some dazzlingly lucky cases, was completely abandoned. Restaurants, if full, were full of locals. Hotels were populated with Thai tourists from somewhere close by. For travelers who want a slice of something truly “authentic”, an experience just like that of someone living right there where you are visiting, you really can do no better than Thailand’s northeast: the country’s most populous region, producing some of its most memorable food, yet still strangely underrated.

Our road trip started with a stop at Pak Chong, just a few hours’ drive from Bangkok but still seen as the gateway to Isaan. While there, we sampled the wares at the restaurant Mae Fai Pla Pow, where of course we had the namesake grilled fish which came stuffed with roasted eggplant and accompanied with a platterful of fresh vegetables served under a layer of ice cubes to keep them crunchy, plus six dipping sauces (nam jim).

"Pla pow", or grilled fish, at Mae Fai Pla Pow

“Pla pow”, or grilled fish, at Mae Fai Pla Pow

These fabulous sauces (Thais are all about the sauce, after all) included a nam prik gapi (shrimp paste chili dip); a tart/spicy seafood dipping sauce; a sweet tamarind dipping sauce to go with the sadao (a bitter river herb) served alongside the fish; and a dipping sauce flavored liberally with the essence of mangda (giant water beetle). These big critters feature in a lot of Isaan cuisine, either pounded into chili dips, deep-fried whole, or steamed. The taste is heavily floral, slightly cucumber-y, and even a little sweet. It’s just one of many examples of Isaan ingenuity.

Mangda at the market

Mangda at the market

At the Pak Chong market the next morning, we indulged in a couple of kafae boran (old-fashioned Thai coffees), sweetened with condensed milk and accompanied by a couple of glasses of Chinese tea to cut the sugary flavor.

borancoffee

We also came across a “sticky rice” stall, where you get your pick of toppings — most porky and/or deep-fried — which are then plopped onto a handful of sticky rice and wrapped in a banana leaf to stay warm:

Making a selection at the sticky rice vendor

Making a selection at the sticky rice vendor

Selections made

Selections made

Later on, we hit Korat, where a lot of the Mon-style fermented rice noodles known as kanom jeen are made. In fact, we were lucky enough to reach “kanom jeen row”, an entire aisle of rice noodle vendors featuring highly-spiced curries — usually including nam prik (sweet peanut curry), nam ya pa (fish curry without coconut milk), and/or nam ya (fish curry) — complete with the requisite toppings like shredded banana blossom, fresh bean sprouts and sliced green beans set conveniently in front of stools to sit on.

"Kanom jeen pradok" at a market in Korat

“Kanom jeen pradok” at a market in Korat

I ended up choosing a mix of the sweet peanut curry and nam ya, topping it with a scattering of bean sprouts, sliced and blanched morning glory stems, and the julienned banana blossoms:

kanomjeenbowl

 

Another noodle dish we saw frequently on our table was the Vietnamese-inflected dish guay jab yuan (Vietnamese-style Chinese noodles), which, despite its name, employs a boatload of Thai flavor embodied in the sweetness of deep-fried shallots and an armload of dried spice. The best town for this dish by far was Ubon Ratchathani. However, the version we had at Mukdahan was more photogenic.

guayjab

Of course, no trip to Isaan is complete without a sampling of each town’s best som tum. Whatever your views on the fermented Thai fish known as pla rah, every som tum we had felt like som tum as it is meant to be: fresh, juicy, and heavy with the deep bass note pungency of salty fish. Just about every street side vendor we encountered proved adept with the mortar and pestle, and every variation was available to us, including green banana leavened with yellow Thai eggplant and the standard green papaya. But one of our favorites was a version made with cucumber and tomato:

Cucumber som tum at a roadside stall

Cucumber som tum at a roadside stall

One of my favorite things about Isaan was the seasonality of the ingredients and the immediacy (read: simplicity) of the cooking. Many of the things we ate were foraged from nearby. In fact, taking a walk through the woods with Chin involved a “Hunger Games”-like cataloguing of all the plants and leaves that were edible (note: a lot of this stuff is edible). One great meal involved buying mountain mushrooms from a roadside vendor who had just plucked them from a hillside 5 km away that morning:

Fresh mountain mushrooms

Fresh mountain mushrooms

A few minutes later, those mushrooms were being cooked at a roadside stall down the road, replete with chilies, a bit of pla rah juice, and herbs gathered by Chin from the nearby forest:

mushroomstew

The best meal, though, was cooked by Chin’s parents who — amazingly — set up a makeshift outdoor kitchen over the course of three days expressly for our visit! It was a lesson in real Isaan cooking: food seasoned with pla rah, fish sauce, and salt, cooked simply over two charcoal braziers, with many of the ingredients — down to the mushrooms, peppercorns, fruits and herbs — gathered from the backyard. We ended up with a gargantuan Isaan feast, featuring shredded bamboo shoot salad with chilies and toasted rice kernels, sliced pork with rice vermicelli and a scattering of fresh herbs, a quick and tasty soup of locally reared chicken thick with fresh dill, a larb of chicken skin and livers, grilled pork belly, steamed mushrooms dipped in a chili-flecked fish sauce … I am sure I am forgetting something. It was a dizzying array of great food.

Feast at Chin's family home

Feast at Chin’s family home

Let’s focus on that great bamboo shoot salad (soup naw mai, one of my very favorite Isaan dishes) again:

So good

So good

The meal encompassed everything I’ve come to learn about Isaan: the generosity, the hospitality, and of course, the great, fresh, seasonal produce cooked simply and flavored with only a handful of different seasonings. I may be ruined for every other kind of food for a while now.

 

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Made to Order

The tabletop at Saenchai Pochana

The tabletop at Sangchai Pochana: a spicy salad of egg yolks, salad of pickled cabbage, stir-fried bitter melon shoots

I’m sitting by myself on the sidewalk waiting for my friend Dwight (www.bkkfatty.com). I am almost always early to these things, and almost always the first person to arrive. It can be a problem in a city like Bangkok, where everyone is always a little late. Including the restaurants. Sangchai Pochana (entrance to Sukhumvit Soi 32, 02-204-3063) is supposed to open at 5:30, but they are just getting set up and starting in on their own staff meal.

I text Dwight because even though it’s 5:45 and, aside from a couple of Japanese guys, I am the only customer here, I’m afraid he might miss me, even though he has eyes.

Me: Hey, the place I’m at is called Sangchai Pochana and I’m at a table outside.

Him: That place I’ve been before.

Me: Ok

Him: It’s MSG-delicious.

Me: Ok

Him: And hungover-maxing.

Me: Are you suggesting another place?

Him: No. I don’t think.

Him: Let’s see what you think.

Knowing my friends are going to be late and watching people slice shallots and chilies all by my lonesome on a busy Bangkok sidewalk when I could be at home watching Australian MasterChef makes me feel like this:

It makes me feel like this.

Situations like these call for beer. And if there is beer, there must be some food because we have standards here in Bangkok, we are not ravening beer-chugging animals. So I get a gigantic bottle of Heineken that makes me embarrassed because it is still not yet 6 and I am by myself, and a plate of grilled sea snails (hoy waan) that make me forget about how big the beer is. It comes with a dipping sauce of lime, fish sauce and chilies that are like AAAAAAHHHHHH on the tongue. And then I get what Dwight means by “MSG-delicious”.

snails

Sangchai is what I consider to be a traditional aharn tham sung, or made-to-order vendor. Like other wok-based purveyors that rely largely on stir-frying, vendors like Sangchai will make whatever you ask of them, provided they have the ingredients and it is within reason (anything fried and boiled and sometimes even grilled). Even if they have a set menu (and many do), they display the special ingredients of the day out in front to coax you into going crazy and requesting something off-piste. This is my favorite thing about the aharn tham sung stalls — that you can basically come up with a meal tailor-made for you.

Sangchai's shopfront with your choice of seasonal proteins and greens

Sangchai’s shopfront with your choice of seasonal proteins and greens

But they occupy a special niche, a sub-set of that standard aharn tham sung. Their dishes are meant to be served as accompaniments to Thai-style rice porridge (khao thom), the whole of which make up the Thai meal khao thom gub, or plain porridge served with an array of pickled, spicy, soupy and stir-fried dishes. This results in a tabletop of real, genuine bounty, a sight for sore eyes meant to greet diners after a wearisome ordeal. Maybe this is why Sangchai — and vendors like it — are so popular late at night, and why khao thom gub is considered an after-clubbing ritual.

This is food that, in a sense, thinks it knows its place. It’s the backdrop to what you are doing: picking yourself up after an evening of drinking maybe a little too much, or hashing over ideas, or mourning your lost youth, or simply waiting. When you are done, you forget about your meal and go your separate ways. This must be what food is like for most people who don’t think about food all the time. To me, that is an awful place to be in for too long. But it’s food that’s OK when your friends have finally arrived.

 

 

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