Category Archives: food stalls

Chicken rice for the articles

The full deal at Mongkolchai

The full deal at Mongkolchai

Chicken rice in Thailand can in many ways be a fraught affair. This is because a dish that supposedly leans so heavily on its essence — boiled, plain chicken meat and fluffy, white rice, stripped of any artifice — is being served in a country that has never heard of a food that couldn’t take another chili pepper or another dollop of shrimp paste. Thailand is about the grand gesture: great big flavors married to overwhelmingly pungent smells. Chicken rice is retiring, minimalistic, almost bare.

So, as with just about every dish of Chinese origin, chicken rice undergoes a little bit of a makeover every time it appears on a Thai plate. There is the chicken, breast or thigh meat, skin or no skin, of course. The rice, grains plumped by chicken broth, no duh. And finally, a tranche of cucumber slices with fresh coriander, paired with a cube of congealed chicken blood or two, and a clear soup in which a sad old hunk of winter melon or turnip swims, possibly with a coriander leaf or cut-up scallion for company.

But in Thailand, everyone who is anyone knows that the dipping sauce is the most important thing on that table. At least, according to my mother. “There is no good khao man gai without a good dipping sauce,” she says, echoing what every Thai has ever really thought: that there is no food on earth that cannot be complete without the perfect sauce. This is the basic premise behind what many consider the gold standard of Bangkok chicken rice dishes, what every khao man gai purveyor strives for: the plump pillow of chicken and rice at Montien Hotel over which not one, not two, not three, but FOUR sauces are meant to drape themselves. Khao man gai is supposed to be about the sauce. Or is it?

It took me a long time to get to Mongkolchai (314 Samsen Road, 02-282-1991). It’s not really about the location, because I will go that far for Sukhothai noodles, or Chinese-style roasted duck on rice, or pork satay. It’s not about the dish, either. I love chicken rice, because I love sauce — specifically, the inky salt sauce dotted with garlic, ginger and chilies that makes Thai chicken rice something beyond the ordinary. It’s how people invariably describe the attraction: this street food place far far away that serves boiled chicken on rice and, oh btw, their soup is really great. This brings on a great big WTF from me, because … come on, SOUP? That side dish you take sips of to help your real food along? These people are like the guys who read Playboy for the articles.

I went anyway. It’s predictably good, tender chicken breast with the option of skin on or off, the requisite Thai-spiked sauce that there is never enough of, the cube of blood and the cucumber. My soup was darker than the average clear broth, awash in pepper and sprinkled with pickled lime flesh. When I got home, I did a little research and read that my soup was probably twice-boiled duck broth.

The pillow and the cube

The pillow and the cube

Would I go back? Yes, because the service was fast and solicitous and friendly. Whether that was because they thought I was a tourist from Hong Kong doesn’t matter to me. But there is more chicken rice a few steps away on my street corner and another half a block away. And the one, the chicken rice that really speaks to me, with its battery of sauce and excess of flesh, awaiting me at the Montien Hotel coffee shop, should I really want to take that trip. I guess I am super Thai after all.

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Southern Thailand across the river

A quick lunch of khao yum, sator with shrimp and coconut milk soup at Chawang

A quick lunch of khao yum, sator with shrimp and coconut milk soup at Chawang

For years, I had heard about a magical neighborhood in Bangkok where southern Thai vendors congregated like college students on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. That is to say, there were a lot of them. The only problem was, it was too far away from me. How to go to this place, so far away, when I was so, so lazy?

Well, it takes another person, obviously — another person who is a friend, but not so close that she knows how much of a total and utter slob you are. That is what Chin is to me, and that is how she gets me to leave the house: a sense of shame, coupled with a underlying current of greed. I am always hungry, after all. And the promise of not one, but a handful of Southern Thai eateries, where curries and coconut milk flow thick and fast, and chilies blanket everything like a Biblical plague of deadly deliciousness, was too heady to be ignored.

Chin tells me she wants to take me to the Wang Lung neighborhood, which requires a Skytrain trip to Saphan Taksin, and then a boat trip to Wang Lung. Now, I know how much fun riding the “river bus” is for visitors to this lovely city, but I can confidently say I am totally over it. Just get me somewhere, quickly. Unfortunately, the quickest way to Chin’s favorite Southern Thai place in the Wang Lung market is on the water, which threatens to make me nauseated even before I take a single bite.

Banana stem curry at Pa Oun

Banana stem curry at Raan Aharn Pak Tai

Located on the market’s main thoroughfare, Raan Aharn Pak Tai (a very no-nonsense name that means, literally, “Southern Thai Restaurant”, 086-664-8472) offers a sprawling selection of Southern Thai curries, soups and stir-fries that dwarf the offerings at any other vendor in the area. We get what Chin likes: pla samunprai (deep-fried fish with lemongrass), kanom jeen with nam ya gati (fermented rice noodles with a coconut milk-based fishmeat curry) and something I’ve never had before: gaeng sai gluay, or a coconut milk-based curry made of banana stems.  It’s unctuous and slightly sweet — not what I expect of Southern Thai food, which is fierce and hot and uncompromising, but it is augmented by some flaked fish flesh, which in itself feels very Southern to me. I also love that it takes an ingredient that would otherwise probably be thrown away — banana stems — and forms an entire dish around it. Best of all, our order comes with a collection of different pickles and fresh vegetables and herbs to enjoy as we see fit, my favorite thing about eating at Southern Thai places.

Pork kua gling at Dao Tai

Pork kua gling at Dao Tai

Our Southern Thai-oriented explorations don’t end at the market. Next up: Phran Nok Road, which hosts a collection of Southern Thai khao gaeng (curry rice) vendors that have been around for decades. The most famous of these is Dao Tai (508/26 Phran Nok Rd., 02-412-2385), which has a reputation for fearsomely good Southern Thai food despite its relatively “remote” location all the way over in Thonburi.

The day I get there, I am starving, having saved room all morning for this very (series of) meal(s). Chin and I try to pace ourselves, so we only order my favorite Southern Thai dish, gaeng som pla grapong (sour curry with seabass and bamboo shoots), and kua gling moo, a “dry” curry of minced pork  dry roasted in a pan over low heat with a handful of herbs and an entire pantry’s worth of chilies. I find both dishes absolutely delicious, manna from heaven, especially when coupled with the shoots, leaves and cucumber slices that automatically come to our table once we sit down, an offering to the Hot Chili Spice Gods.

Sour curry at Dao Tai

Sour curry at Dao Tai

 

I am so ravenous I don’t even notice the chilies, ploughing through half of my plate of rice until I see Chin across the table from me, tears in her eyes. She is not verklempt over the beauty of our meal, or from having to watch me shovel rice with so-so accuracy into my mouth hole. No, it’s too hot. And there is, she suspects, an overabundance of MSG. The curries and stir-fries are too “dark”, the “wrong color”, she says. In short, Chin is not impressed with my selection of Dao Tai. It’s time to move, ideally to that place across the street that looks a little better.

That place is called Ruam Tai and it sits kitty-corner to Dao Tai, an arrangement I suspect was set up to accommodate overflow from the more famous restaurant. However, the food here may be just as good. We have hor mok (steamed, rubbery seafood curry topped with a disappointingly icing-like dab of coconut cream) and a far better coconut milk-based curry of snails which have to be plucked from the liquid and their meat extracted via toothpick. It’s far too fiddly for me. I NO LIKE EXTRA WORK! Chin, for her part, is charmed.

Snail curry at Ruam Tai

Snail curry at Ruam Tai

Now I am absolutely stuffed, and contemplating the ride home, after which I will be rewarded by passing out on my couch for two hours while pretending to edit my book. But there is one more place to check out, and that is Chawang, right next door to Ruam Tai. It’s a shame we leave it last, because it’s friendly, airy, and  full of food that is the most restrained (chili-, flavor- and MSG-wise) of the three. Here, I manage a few bites of khao yum (a “salad” of rice with minced veggies, toasted coconut and herbs in a light, sweet-tart dressing), and then groan and make faces while Chin tastes the sator (stinkbean) stir-fried with shrimp paste and shrimp, and gaeng gati, a coconut milk “soup” bulked up generously with shrimp and pakliang leaves.

The trip back home is a doozy.

 

 

 

 

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Glutton Abroad: All we do in KL is eat

A bowl of assam laksa from Penang Cuisine in Publika

A bowl of assam laksa from Penang Cuisine in Publika

Frequently, when one is comparing A to B, it’s always a case of either/or, or this versus that. It is never about both things being awesome. I think it is because we are bred to think of things in terms of conflict. But A can indeed be as good as B, if different, and it would be foolish to choose one over the other. I mean, who would choose between Loki and Thor if you can have both?

So I am here to say that — while I still love Thai cuisine — Malaysian food is absolutely, indisputably delicious. Not everything makes me want to rend my garments with how wonderful it is: for instance, Chinese-style laksa seems like an exercise in flavor layering  that is unnervingly similar to how a 3-year-old puts together a sundae (let’s have that, and then this, and then a little more of the other thing, and while we’re at it, more of that again). At the same time, there are dishes that are tear-out-your-heart, stomp-on-the-ground yummy. Malaysian food is varied and many-dimensional and complicated, sure. And I’ve only just scratched the surface! The verdict, after one short trip to Kuala Lumpur, is the one that I ultimately feared: I cannot believe I waited so long to eat here.

Chinese-style laksa with tofu, fried wontons, egg noodles and cockles

Chinese-style laksa with fried and fresh tofu, pork, fried wontons, egg noodles and cockles

I know our culinary “guide” May means business when she sends us a detailed food itinerary a couple of weeks in advance. She jokes about it being “gut busting”, but it really and truly is. There was once a time when I could eat like this, like when I was researching my first book only a few years ago — a handful of places, three times a day. The trick, you are supposed to tell yourself, is to remember to “graze” so that there is enough room for everything to fit.

This is truly easier said than done. Especially when you are presented with the delectable char siew (Chinese-style barbecued pork) at Restoran Meng Char Siew (13 Tengkat Tong Shin, 012-252-1943). Unlike the other versions I’ve tried, this pork is neither overly sugary nor brittle with glaze; it’s a soft, melting heft of meat lacquered with sweet and bitter from the makeshift drum-like “ovens” in the kitchen.

Malaysian barbecued pork

Malaysian barbecued pork

There is less worry about offsetting greasiness with something cleansing or tangy in Malaysia, so here you have your “oiled” rice (similar to the rice you get with chicken rice) or your rice vermicelli drenched in soy sauce and your freshly sliced cucumber and maybe a stir fry of lettuce or bean sprouts (ideally from Ipoh, because those are the best, says May from Ipoh). Then you call it a day. Or, in our case, we call it an hour, because it’s already time to head off to the next destination. But before we go, May stops to watch the pork meatball vendor at work next door. Unlike the Thai pork pellets that are skewered and then grilled over an open flame, these meatballs are golf ball-sized masses of pig, served with a burning hot pork broth and bits of green onion. They are small enough to trick you into thinking you can eat them in one bite, but big enough to turn that endeavor into a total disaster.

“You should try a couple,” May urges me, but it’s too much, and I am already thinking of the next restaurant.

“Oh no, I will die if we have any more food right now,” I say.

“Two meatballs!” May answers, before I am presented with a small plastic bag of balls that I am free to carry into the car to maybe nosh on later.

So no, I did not die, because I am sitting here writing this right now, duh. And my stomach did settle in time to sample the eye-opening bak kuh teh at Teluk Pulai (Claypot) Bak Kuh Teh (32 Jalan Batai Laut 5, 03-3344-5196). I am used to the Singporean and Thai-Chinese version of this dish, which is referred to as the “peppery” kind involving cooking greens and pork into a sort of vegetal sludge. I absolutely loathe this dish. It reminds me of Italian ribollita, which I also find revolting. Why ruin all the best parts of the vegetables? But here, they specialize in the “herbal” type of bak kuh teh, which means the greens are strewn over the top as the pot of pork is served at your table, alongside rice and cut-up deep-fried crullers (patongko) to soak up all the delicious pork broth.

bakkuhteh

There is also a “dry” kind of bak kuh teh, which was sort of a revelation for me: no broth, no greens, just a bunch of slowly braised pork bits, heavily coated with bah kuh teh spices, what appears to be the cooked-down broth, and dark soy sauce.

dry

The crullers go with the “wet” bak kuh teh. I didn’t know that when I took this photo.

As full as I was from the barbecued pork, I could not pass up this dish — a dish I had previously dreaded seeing on the dinner table. Another thing I remember dreading: Chinese food, the kind that my parents would drive two hours to Cleveland for. There, at a restaurant called “Bo Loong”, my parents would get their Asian food fix while we kids moped around like mourners at a funeral, eating plain rice and wishing ourselves at McDonald’s.

But even my parents, longtime Bo Loong boosters, would say that Restaurant Oversea (84-88 Jalan Imbi, +603-2144-9911) is a far superior restaurant. In fact, it is now my favorite Chinese restaurant in the world. There are a bunch of excellent dishes: things that are slow-cooked in pots, or freshly plucked from the fish tanks downstairs, or (this being Malaysia) coated in that black sauce that seems capable of covering just about anything edible here. But there real reason I am hoping to go back is this (order 24 hours in advance):

Roast piglet with gravy at Restaurant Oversea Imbi

Roast piglet with gravy at Restaurant Oversea Imbi

Now, I look at this and feel a twinge. This was a baby pig. I do feel bad about that. But do I respond by crossing my arms and not partaking, basically rejecting the gift that this piglet has given us? Or do I dig in and honor this pig’s sacrifice to my stomach as heartily as possible? You can guess my reaction. It is: thank you, baby pig. Your tiny squares of skin, paired with the fluffy Chinese-style steamed bread (man tou), or chunks of fatty, tender flesh drenched in pork gravy. Your sweet little trotters. And then, yes, the head, cleaved in two and presented to my neighbor at the dinner table and me, in an unspoken foodie dare.

I nibbled at the ear as my neighbor exhorted me to dig in with my bare hands, tearing the head apart at the jaw to release more of the meat buried under the cheekbone. “Try the eye,” she said, poking it out from underneath the skull to pop into her mouth. And, well, if she went to St. Andrews with Prince William and could chow down on half a piglet head like it was NBD, then I could do it too. It tasted like nothing, like a crunchy piece of gelatin. I had passed.

This is nowhere near all the food that I had. There are other highlights: fish head curry, Assam laksa (like noodles in a gaeng som broth), various stir-fried noodle dishes, yam rice with a light, slightly sour broth peppered with pig innards. But it’s not even close to the end of the road for all the dishes I want to try. I’m no fortuneteller, but I see … another trip to KL looming in my future.

Pan mee from Kin Kin: noodles with dried fish, minced pork, chili and a poached egg

Pan mee from Kin Kin: noodles with dried fish, minced pork, chilies and a poached egg

 

 

 

 

 

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Isaan on Sukhumvit

Pork shoulder on the grill at Pa Oun

Pork shoulder on the grill at Pa Oun

One of the things I love about the TV show “Hannibal” is, obviously, its treatment of food. Because it’s a show about a cannibal who is also a psychiatrist who is also, somehow, a ninja, it includes a lot of cooking scenes. But it is all very much the exact opposite of food porn. Instead, food is treated as something that is alien and repellant. That is hard to do for a person like me who will eat just about anything, but “Hannibal” manages it just fine. Honestly, I have no idea how this man gets people to dine at his home. The dishes he serves them — some kind of gelatin thing with octopus tentacles splaying from the top, or a whole heart encased in pastry, in a wacky take on Wellington — are things that would make anyone blanch and suddenly profess themselves a vegetarian. Yet these dodos regularly tuck in, week after week, oblivious to the mountains of brains and kidneys and offal-meat sausages they are stuffing down their face-holes (this is possibly because they really, really don’t want to offend their host).

Besides making humans the main protein, Hannibal does a lot of roulades, vols-au-vent and aspics — things that, again obviously, involve disguising the meat. They are cooking techniques that I don’t enjoy so much, because I don’t like thinking of my food being manipulated in that way. Of course, food is being handled in every possible way in a restaurant kitchen, but I don’t like it being so obvious. I prefer food cooked on the bone, sort of looking like it was quickly butchered before it promptly decided to jump through a fire and land onto a plate.

This is why I am so feeling Isaan food right now. It’s simple and straightforward and mostly revolves around a lot of quick cooking: grilling and boiling, whatever gets the food on your table in a half hour, tops. Sometimes the main ingredient is minced before it is cooked and mixed with toasted rice kernels, seasonings and herbs (larb), and sometimes it’s about food that’s simply being served as is (the raw veggies that go with som tum, a grilled beefsteak accompanied by a simple tamarind dipping sauce). In all respects, every ingredient in Isaan food plays a role of some kind, with nothing extraneous or fussy. It’s the complete opposite of Hannibal’s cooking.

Some people like to pooh-pooh the idea of finding a decent Isaan restaurant in the Sukhumvit area, but I think good food can be found anywhere people are willing to pay for it. Such is the case with classic Isaan standby Nomjit Gai Yang (Ekamai Soi 18, 02-392-8000), which also has a branch in Srinakarin. There is plenty of grilled chicken and pork, and much has been made of their selim (Thai dessert vermicelli in coconut milk), but their som tum (grated salads) are also surprisingly good for an area well-known for its Starbucks branches, Japanese sushi bars and pubs. Long story short: Thai yuppies gotta eat too.

Som tums are made in a mortar and pestle, and the best som tum cooks jealously guard their mortars and pestles for generations, much like a chef would guard his omelet pan, or a Japanese oden vendor guard his broth. My friend Chin tells me the very best mortars and pestles (krok) are made of tamarind wood, but that ceramic or stone are too hard on the delicate strands of vegetable or fruit, turning your salad into a gloppy mess. At Nomjit, som tum is made in a krok of mango wood by a Si Sa Ket native with 20 years of experience. The salads are flavorful and full-bodied, the exact opposite of the anemic versions you might expect to find in this neighborhood.

A som tum of green beans at Nomjit

A som tum of green beans at Nomjit

Another great find was completely unexpected. A short stroll about 50 m down Sukhumvit 18 yields a smoking grill attached to two humans on the left hand side, along with a cooler of soft drinks and, of course, a mortar and pestle. The humans who make up Pa Oun (089-760-6478) grill some of the best pork I have ever had the pleasure of eating, either simply sliced and served with a clump of sticky rice, or mixed with lime juice and fish sauce and rice kernels to form a moo nam tok (spicy pork salad). I would love to show you a photo, but my computer is misbehaving. Just know that this stuff is delicious, and that I had to work VERY VERY HARD to get it — i.e., stand in front of the grill, getting smoke into my hair and eyes, for a very long time. This was one of those cases where, no matter what, the vendor just didn’t want to serve me, for whatever reason (maybe this just happens to me). So it sort of deteriorates into a sort of smoky stand-off, a culinary game of chicken. Will she eventually serve me or won’t she? When that line of people that have come after me tapers out, what will she do then? Am I doomed to stand there forever, like a statue? Will I become a landmark? Will people eventually say, “Turn right at the chubby crying woman in front of the grill, and you will find parking. Enjoy the salsa club!” Will I die this way?

She did eventually serve me, after all the people who came after me finally left. I smelled like a chimney for the rest of the day. The end.

 

 

 

 

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Payday

Coconut milk-basted grilled chicken at Lang Ram Mieng Pla Pow

Coconut milk-basted grilled chicken at Lang Ram Mieng Pla Pow

The last Friday of every month is a guaranteed traffic nightmare in Bangkok, because it’s the day most people get paid. This means that everyone takes that monthly salary check, cashes it, and proceeds to blow their hard-earned money on stuff like karaoke and mixed whiskey drinks. It’s a night that, for fuddy-duddies like me, is better spent at home drinking red wine and watching “Orphan Black”.

But my friend Cha is having none of it. Last year while out on the interminable Camino de Santiago, we passed the time by talking about all the Thai food that we missed back home and where we would go the second we touched Thai soil. He talked about succulent grilled chicken and mieng pla pow, or skewered fresh fish cooking over open charcoal, sizzling flesh enveloped in cool lettuce leaves and slathered in a green chili sauce. He said he would take me to his places, a clutch of Isaan-inspired vendors worth waiting for after the gazillion-km trek to the far side of Spain. Then we got home and life intervened. Until that night. So there was no postponing this food journey, even if these vendors were located on the other end of town and it was payday.

We reached Lang Ram Mieng Pla Pow (located at the back entrance of the Rajamangala Stadium) after a 3-hour drive for Cha (and one measly hour for us). Despite being named after a grilled fish dish, Lang Ram had no mieng pla to offer us. It didn’t really matter, because this place is actually better loved for its incredible, luscious, tasty (insert more yummy adjectives here) chicken. This chicken is so good that I would actually go back to Ramkhamhaeng for it. And when paired with a battery of pounded Isaan-style salads (som tum) and Thai-style spicy yum, a plate of sticky rice or two, and a soda or three (no alcohol at this Thai Muslim-owned spot), you’ve got enough reason to spend three hours in traffic on payday. Include a big vat of tom sab (spicy Isaan-style soup) to be absolutely sure.

Cucumber som tum with fermented anchovy and pickled crab

Cucumber som tum with fermented anchovy and pickled crab

It’s easy to be full after a meal like that, but we are made of sterner stuff. All we had to do was go right next door for an actual shot at some mieng pla pow, since vendors selling similar things are frequently clustered together — as is the Thai way (are my words making any sense right now? That photo of grilled chicken up top is really distracting). What’s next door? Well, it’s called Racha Mieng Pla Pow Jay Goong, and its grilled fish are actually cooked over an open pit filled with flaming charcoal, which is deeply unpleasant to stand next to in the height of the hot season, but a great way to cook your grilled fish:

Hot to trot

Hot to trot

Racha is also staffed with a highly-efficient coterie of transgender servers dressed in pink air hostess outfits. They offer beer here as well as mieng pla, plus all the Isaan bells and whistles — som tum, sticky rice, eye-wateringly spicy soups — that one comes to expect from Northeastern Thai specialists. I dare you to find something better than a pla tubtim (red snapper) fresh off the grill, crusted lightly with salt and stuffed with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf, surrounded by a mountain of fresh greens and rice vermicelli. Even better, Racha offers two sauces: one, a tamarind base garnished with chopped roasted peanuts, and the second, a bewitching green chili sauce leavened with a dash of coconut milk that is out of this world. It was almost enough to make me forget that it was payday and there were even more hours of traffic awaiting us on the ride home. Almost.

Mieng pla pow at Racha Mieng Pla Pow Jay Goong

Mieng pla pow at Racha Mieng Pla Pow Jay Goong

 

 

 

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Community service

Shrimp paste fried rice at Sid Paak

Shrimp paste fried rice at Sid Paak

This morning, at a family gathering over breakfast, my husband’s aunt turned to me and whispered, “Are we the only two who aren’t wearing makeup?”

I was surprised because I almost never wear makeup, even when I do wear makeup, which always slides off about 10 seconds after I go outside. So I said, “Does it matter?”

She — this formidable lady who has a PhD and is a khunying, by the way — said, “I myself don’t mind at all, but other people might think we don’t care about them!”

And then I realized that OMG I LOOK LIKE CRAP ALL THE TIME. I go out with my hair tied into listing bun looking like the Asian female version of the Scarecrow in the “Wizard of Oz,” but only if that Scarecrow is fat and has mosquito bites on her face. NO WONDER NO ONE LIKES ME. I AM BEING RUDE TO THEM EVERY DAY.

And then I remembered when my mother would yell at me for LOOKING LIKE CRAP right before we were due to go out to dinner or church or something (and then I remembered that she still does that, and that now when she makes me turn back and change into something else, she is doing that to a 41-year-old mother of two). “You look like you work in a factory”, she’d say, or “You’re not one of those women who can get away without wearing makeup.” I used to think this was a crazy Tiger Mother thing, but this morning at breakfast, I realized it was a Thai thing. You belong to everyone. You are not on your own.

Looking nice is an expression of concern for how an individual’s actions may negatively affect other people. It’s saying, “I made this effort for you, because you are important to me.” It’s a way to show the beauty and harmony that Thais are known for loving. “Land of Smiles,” right? Even when you don’t feel like smiling? It also explains all the times Thais tell you “You’ve gained weight!” or when my parents criticized my na bung (grouchy face, which, like Jay-Z’s, is my default facial expression. That is the only thing Jay-Z and I have in common. The end).

It was deeply confusing to me as a child, because in the US we are constantly indoctrinated with the message that “It’s my life” and “You do you”. Here, it is not unusual to hear “I’m sorry I look so som (unkempt)” or feel embarrassed for not bothering to dress up. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a different way of looking at the world. And it made me think, is it really so different in the West? Especially for women? When we try to lose weight, try to look pretty, try to smile, are we really doing it for ourselves?

This is a roundabout way to get to talking about street food centers, I know. But I think they are an arrangement that fits in well with the Thai penchant for community and pitching in together. Food centers are the way Singapore’s street food is organized, but I have to admit I am not a big fan of them. I think they dampen creativity and competition, two very marked characteristics of Thai street food. However, I can see them being the future for a lot of street food in Bangkok. There are a lot of informal arrangements between friendly vendors: you sell duck noodles, I’ll sell stuffed noodles, he sells drinks, let’s share tables and maybe our customers will buy stuff from all of us.

And there are the full-on food courts, which are like what you get in the department store, only outdoors. These, too, are usually connected to a market of some kind. This is where I found myself after asking someone — at a Swiss restaurant, no less — where to find the best som tum in Bangkok. “Go to the end of Sukhumvit Soi 23, past Baan Khanitha,” they said, and so there I was, completely bewildered because there was nothing like green papaya salad to be found.

When in doubt, ask a security guard. He told me to turn left at the end of the road, right before you get onto the campus of a local university. There, past a sign reading “Petch Asoke” (Asoke Diamond), is an outdoor market selling all the types of clothes one would find at Siam Square (in all the same sizes: -2 to 2). Past those clothes, way inside, is a food court with a surprisingly wide range of Thai street food: southern Thai curries, Chinese deep-fried pork on rice, soup noodles, and, yes, som tum alongside yum (Thai spicy salad), which tells me you can’t be Bangkok’s best som tum vendor because you’re hedging your bets.

There is, however, this lady:

vendor

At Sid Paak (084-006-7597), she sells different types of nam prik (chili dips) along with all the different fixings, which are the best part of the dish: hard-boiled eggs, every fresh and blanched vegetable in Thailand, deep-fried whatever. Seeing this, I’m into it already, because I love nam prik, and I love piling my plate high with everything I can find. The most popular dips she sells are nam prik long ruea (shrimp paste and sweet pork chili dip), nam prik goong sieb (grilled shrimp chili dip) and of course the ubiquitous nam prik gapi (shrimp paste chili dip), which is my favorite here and super tasty.

Selection of chili dips

Selection of chili dips

 

That said, I cannot pass up the khao kluk kapi (fried rice with shrimp paste), which comes with dried chilies, julienned green mango, sliced raw shallots, dried shrimp, Chinese sweet sausage and, in some cases, thin strips of omelet. Here it’s a utilitarian, stripped-down mishmash, but it sure beats dragging yourself all the way to Banglamphu just for the street food version of this fantastic (and largely unsung) dish.

 

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My boyfriend

I haven’t told my husband yet, but I have a boyfriend. If he knew, he would be more bewildered than anything else. Actually, the boyfriend would be pretty bewildered too. Because he doesn’t know he’s my boyfriend.

I have never met the man. I have never even been in the same room with him. He plays the guitar. He is American. He is male. That is as far as I can get before I become embarrassed and can’t talk about him anymore. But I listen to him every day, while I’m running on the treadmill. That is our time.

You probably think I’m talking about John Mayer, because he is a big American guitarist who also happens to be male. No. I would rather gouge my eardrums out with rusty scissors than listen to that man on my beloved treadmill. John Mayer is greasy stir-fry left to cool on a dirty countertop while the waitress picks her toes. Sorry, if you are a John Mayer fan. Yes, I know you think he is talented.

I’m talking about this guy:

Jack White

(I did not add the photo directly to the post because Karen says that’s stealing. So you have to click on the link. Sorry).

I look through photos of him sometimes to calm me, when I am procrastinating from doing something vitally important. My editor is really pleased about that. Jack White is probably the reason why my book will never be published. That is OK with me. I have several “favorite” photos. One is my absolute favorite because he is staring at the camera with the same skeptical expression I imagine he would use if he ever actually met me. Like he is a heartbeat away from calling security.

But my friends do not share this love for Jack White. When I show Karen a particularly fetching one of him holding a red umbrella, I get this reply via text:

KAREN: He looks like he’s on his period.

Oh, Karen. Maybe it’s a good thing we have vastly different tastes on these matters. She is an aberration, an outlier. But then I show my friend Patrick a photo over dinner, because I am back to being 11 years old and boring my friends at the lunch table about Duran Duran.

Patrick puts on his best Miss Marple voice: “After my womyn’s studies seminar I’ll go pick up Lily in the Subaru and head to the kd lang concert,” he says. This is utterly baffling. Last time I checked, Jack White seemed very male. In fact, his complete lack of enthusiasm for wearing underwear is one of the things that bothers me about him, if for no other reason than the fact that we all now know that he dresses to the left (does that mean he is a liberal?)

I feel like we are in an Alice in Wonderland world where Justin Bieber is a real catch and Adam Levine is a major league heartthrob who is not creepy in the slightest. What is going on? Why are people going on about things that are obvious and completely, utterly simplified, the tom yum noodle versions of humanity? There is no subtlety in a bowl of tom yum noodles. It doesn’t really require a lot of extra work to do well. Sometimes, all you need are the tom yum seasonings from a pack of instant noodles added to a bit of pork broth, and there you have it. Britney Spears in a bowl.

For my money, when I go anywhere, it’s all about yen ta fo. If you read here regularly, you already know about my fondness for them, but they really are my favorite soup noodles in the world — more than snoretastic pho, more than tired old ramen, and don’t even get me started on those poseur minced pork noodles, the Fall Out Boy of street food. Yen ta fo is hard to describe: plain rice noodles dressed up in a pork broth-based sauce liberally touched with red fermented tofu and chilies, pork and fish meatballs, bits of squid and congealed pig’s blood, and a whole handful of blanched morning glories. The very best bowls have deep-fried bits of pork crackling and garlic as garnishes. Through some strange culinary alchemy, these ingredients should all combine into a melange that is somehow spicy-tart-salty, and only a little bit sweet. Every bite shows something different, depending on what you get. It’s not always perfect or even good, but then again it’s not about making choices that are easy or simple.

Yet this all gets described on most menus as “red seafood noodles” or “pink noodles in sauce.”

An exemplary bowl of yen ta fo

An exemplary bowl of yen ta fo

 

The best bowl, the one I go to the most frequently when I want this dish, is Guaythiew Pik Gai Sai Nampung on Sukhumvit 20/1 (the alleyway between Sukhumvit Sois 20 and 18). This place is actually known for its chicken wing noodles, which can be too salty for some (present-day Eddie Van Halen). I prefer the “red seafood”, which may not, at first glance, look like what you’ve been waiting for, like that thing that will see you through an hour and change on the treadmill every day. But that just means that there’s more for me.

 

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