Category Archives: food

Glutton Abroad: Dyspeptic in Japan

Everyone always says Japan is a country full of food obsessives, and it feels true. In places like the US — full of work obsessives — and Thailand (where it is chic to pretend to be a work obsessive), it would be considered a complete waste of time to line up for two hours for the perfect soft cream (“fresh!”) cheesecake, or wait outside in the cold for a space at your favorite beef stew restaurant behind Kabuki-za (oh, OK, it’s MY favorite beef stew restaurant). In Japan, this is seen as completely normal behavior. It takes a special blend of desire and commitment to practice this kind of stick-to-itiveness for something many others would dismiss as frivolous.

In Japan, food is not frivolous, and its inevitable discovery is considered a special time in everyone’s life. This is probably why there is such a thing as the “food manga”, comic books which document a person’s first blossoming of culinary interest (a “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” for foodies). This usually takes the form of throwing over one’s job and/or parentally-approved educational plans in favor of a backbreaking, precarious life in the food business. In Thailand, this is typically called “having a nervous breakdown”.  In Japan, it is subverting your own ego to create more beauty in the world.

No great stretch, then, to learn that there are also “wine mangas”: comics which depict the deflowering of the protagonist’s innocence re wine. My friend Ritsuko says they usually fall back on the same narrative as the food manga, except that there are lots of porny shots of sexy wine labels and hot ‘n bothered talk of “terroir”. There is no burgeoning romance, no family drama to distract the reader from the main objective — the love of wine, ideally something French and expensive:

comic1

Here, a lady is discovering her first Burgundy. Whether she is shocked because of the wine’s deliciousness or the price tag, I dunno, my Japanese isn’t that good.

And here, dude is learning how a special set of characteristics manifests itself into the soil to create the best wine evah (aka “terroir”, aka “Only French people can make good wine”.)

comic2

I kid, because I love. I love Japan, and I am a Francophile, so this is a perfect storm of awesomeness for me. I also think France produces the best wine. Haha, who am I kidding. I will guzzle wine from anywhere.

I will also guzzle sake from anywhere, including Awaji Island. Now, Awaji is a special place for Japanese food lovers, because its close proximity to Kobe=wonderful Japanese beef, while its location as the biggest island in the Inland Sea on Japan’s eastern side=great seafood, particularly lobster, abalone and sea urchin. This pretty much would have equalled heaven on earth for me, were I not afflicted with %*&^#$ing GERD (medico-speak for really bad, constant heartburn). I am old.

I wasn’t so afflicted that I couldn’t eat anything, however. Awaji also specializes in red snapper, which I am told is the same thing as sea bream. Really? I see both on restaurant menus all the time, and have noticed how much Japanese people like sea bream. In any case, Awaji Island is Ground Zero for sea bream/red snapper. It’s no surprise that they serve it as sashimi as a first course. It does come as a surprise, however, when your dinner starts moving and gasping on the table as you are taking squares of flesh off its skeleton and dipping them in soy sauce. That is a surprise. If you are old enough to remember Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and the “Alice in Wonderland”-themed video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, where they start cutting pieces of Alice up and serving them as cake, you will understand what eating this sashimi was like.

This fish is still moving

This fish is still moving

If you stick around, you will be rewarded with cooked versions of this fish, grilled until white and juicy and served up alongside fragrant Japanese limes and cooked sakae, or Japanese sea snails (another specialty of the area).

Snapper and sea snails

Snapper and sea snails

As lovely as Awaji was, one could not stay there forever. There was more food to be had in Nagano, which is one of my favorite cities in Japan, no uso. Set almost smack in the middle of Honshu, Nagano acts like the country’s fruit basket — gargantuan apples, grapes, apricots, peaches, nectarines — but it also abounds in good sake, flour dumplings, grilled, miso-flecked rice cakes, and wild game. The region’s premier culinary specialty, however, might be this:

Nagano's #1 specialty, soba

Nagano’s #1 specialty, soba

Like Thais and their soup noodles, every person in this town will tell you a different place that makes the “best soba”, and they are totally prepared to fight to the death (OK, for the next five minutes) about it. In fact, when asked to go to one soba shop, our taxi driver in Nagano refused, taking us to a different one that he said was better. In the end, it really doesn’t matter where you go because (much like many of Bangkok’s more famous guay thiew shops), you’d have to work hard to find a really, really bad one in Nagano. Most are pretty good, unless you are the world’s most discerning gourmet of soba noodles ever (95% of Japanese people).

Another, far less lauded Nagano specialty is its “apple beef”, made from cows fed on, yes, the region’s famously sweet, juicy, and large apples. Like their more famous Kobe brethren, these cows are massaged regularly so that the fat is distributed throughout the flesh, like this:

Apple beef ready for the sukiyaki pan at Sukitei

Apple beef ready for the sukiyaki pan at Sukitei in Nagano

I’ve come to believe that Japanese-style beef may be that country’s most famous “fusion” food. Popularized during the Meiji Restoration when Japan was coming to grips with Western influence, beef (and “steak”) here have since taken on qualities that are uniquely Japanese. While American beef is about the beef itself — fibers, sinews, blood and all — the flavor characteristics prized by the Japanese are tenderness, fattiness, umami. It’s meat that’s been manipulated from day one, made to be cooked to medium or even medium-well to activate the fat buried within, and then (if served as a steak), grilled before its heady baptism with soy sauce and a dollop of wasabi to cut the greasiness. I’ll be honest: this meat is too much for me, especially in my old lady GERD state. This kind of meat is meant for lucky people with working digestive systems. I’ll be in the corner gnawing on a couple of medium-rare pieces of Porterhouse.

 

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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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What’s Cooking: Soup makuea

Thai eggplant mash with shallots, fermented anchovy juice and toasted rice kernels

Isaan-style Thai eggplant mash with shallots, fermented anchovy juice and toasted rice kernels

I’m trying this thing where I eat less meat. In fact, I’m trying not to eat any at all, beyond fish. This is because I went on a two-week barbecue tour where my friend Karen and I stuffed ourselves on different variations of pork product 3-4 times a day. So I am turning pescatarian, but trying not to be too strict with it, because that is a surefire way to get me to stop.

I change the rules as I go along. It keeps things fresh (i.e. confusing). If I am at a dinner party, I will eat whatever the host is serving me, because I don’t want to mold other people’s stuff around my dietary whims. Also if I’m doing an assignment involving some sort of meat. I was also cutting out booze but I am back off the wagon because why make my life less awesome? I drink a glass of red wine a day and, if I am going out, I drink more than one glass. WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL GRANDMA? I hear it’s heart healthy.

The focus on non-meat food, and my abject laziness in the kitchen, means I am trying a lot of new places. There is the vegetarian restaurant Na Aroon at Ariyasom Villa, old favorite Rasayana Raw Food Cafe, and a longstanding vegetarian Italian place saddled with the Indian-ish name Govinda. And there is a lot of Japanese food: Hinata at Central Embassy and a lunch at the newly opened Sushi Ichi at the Erawan that was so good I booked another lunch for the following week. I sometimes don’t miss red meat, much. Then I sometimes count the days to when I can find an excuse to eat it again.

This is one of those recipes that, for me, put many of the meat cravings at bay. It’s also dead easy (I am reading a lot of Jamie Oliver, because his are the only recipes I can stand to make right now). As with any other dish, it sprang out of necessity: we didn’t have any bamboo shoots on that particular day, and an abundance of the gumball-sized Thai eggplants known as makuea proh. With its toasted rice kernels, pla rah, and scattered mint, it’s very Isaan-inspired. Eat with sticky rice and grilled chicken like you would a som tum, or serve it with lettuce leaves like a larb — it’s up to you.

Soup Makuea (makes 4)

6-8 Thai eggplants, boiled

4-5 shallots, peeled

2 Tbs dried chili powder

2 tsp mahgrood lime leaves, julienned

3 Tbs toasted rice kernels, ground

1-2 Tbs pla rah juice (or fish sauce, if you’re in a pinch)

Juice from one lime (optional)

Handful each of mint, coriander and sawtooth coriander, chopped

1. With your mortar and pestle, mash your shallots until they are like a jam. Add the eggplants, and mash until they are at the desired consistency.

2. Mix in your chili powder, lime leaves, and toasted rice kernels.

3. Flavor with pla rah or fish sauce. Add lime to taste if you like.

4. Add your chopped herbs and mix in well. Serve at room temperature.

makuea

 

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Filed under Asia, food, pescatarian, Thailand

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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