Category Archives: markets

Food for thought

A bowl of Mama deluxe at the Khlong Toei market

When I first moved to Bangkok, about 100 years ago, I didn’t know so much about Thai customs. Not even Thai eating customs. I didn’t know what was considered good manners, or even nice. This caused some problems for me when I started dating.

In general, Thai manners aren’t that different from Western manners. Slurping the broth of anything to show your appreciation is still considered gross, and burping is definitively accepted as The Worst Thing You Can Do, aside from spitting your lungs out all over the restaurant floor. So there’s that. Shouting and chewing with your mouth open are also not done. Don’t even get me started with kicking off your shoes and sitting Indian-style.

But there are little nuances that you grow to learn after being told by someone else that they are the Polite Thing To Do. Because food is always served family-style, it’s nice to put a bit of each dish on your honey’s plate first before serving yourself, or, if you are the lowest-ranking person at the table (this is always me), putting a bit of each dish on everybody else’s plate before yours. Never sticking your germy, spit-encrusted spoon into the common soup or curry bowl is also a nice thing to do; you are supposed to use the chon glang (central spoon) to put a little of the broth or curry into your spoon, and delicately sip from that. Sure, it’s largely unsatisfying and will never get you full, but that is not the point. The point is not to get your disgusting cooties all up into everyone else’s mouth. And of course, there is never YOUR soup, or YOUR curry. Hugging that pot of ambrosia to your chest like it’s the last Snickers bar on Earth only makes you look like a selfish ignoramus, and will gross all the Thai people at the table out.

You all know this stuff, so I’m basically preaching to the Thai food choir. But there are gray areas. I am reminded of this every time I see a platter of Tandoori chicken. One night I was at Rang Mahal (on the top floor of the Rembrandt hotel) with my boyfriend at the time, who is not my husband now. What did he do? Take away the chicken breast I had put onto my plate, and attempt to replace it with a chicken leg.

Now, you know if there is something on my plate that someone is trying to mess with, that I WILL SHUT THAT SHIT DOWN. NO ONE TOUCHES MY PLATE — especially after I’ve had a few bites, gotten my digestive juices flowing, and am just starting to hit my stride (you know what I’m talking about, Eaters). I speared the retreating chicken breast with my fork, resulting in a great big THUNK on the table. He didn’t like that so much. He was only trying to replace my manky old slab of boring, tasteless white meat with a hunk of delicious dark meat on the bone, after all! Needless to say (obviously), that relationship didn’t last.  I am now with a man who knows better than to MESS WITH MY DINNER PLATE.

I’m miles away from where I’m supposed to be, but stay with me for a second here: Because I’ve learned about Thai eating habits since that night at Rang Mahal, I feel like I can criticize what I see happening now — telling people to get off my culinary lawn, so to speak. And, it may just be me, but I see an increasing number of instant noodle packets at noodle vendor stalls, instead of the dried rice noodles that have been de riguer for forever. More and more, I think “Mama” has become a legitimate noodle option alongside sen lek (thin rice noodles) and sen yai (thick rice noodles), instead of a junky afternoon snack that you hide in the farthest reaches of your pantry.

This troubles me because I don’t think that stuff is that particularly good for you. Sure, you say, I blab about street food all the time, with deep-fried this and coconut milk-slathered that. But, in my case anyway, it’s food that I think has been lovingly and thoughtfully made, even if it is food for convenience. It should be a convenience for us, but a pain in the ass for them. And more and more, we’re accepting conveniences for everyone — as loaded with sugar and MSG, and deep-fried and industrial as it is.

I understand the jones for some processed, double-fried wheat noodles flavored with the chemical tang of a spicy Cheetoh once in a while.  So if you must have it, have it right. There are stalls that stir-fry it with vegetables and, occasionally, sausages; others who blanch the noodles in a broth and serve it with seafood, veggies and a delicious yum-style salad dressing. I have even requested it made into a som tum, which … didn’t work, but I suspect that had to do with the tom yum (spicy lemongrass) seasoning, and less with the noodles themselves.

Or how about in a bona fide pork bone broth, blanketed under a layer of genuine spicy lemongrass seasonings, crushed peanuts, and fresh basil leaves? Head over to Khlong Toei market, turn the corner from Rama IV road onto Ratchadaphisek and plunge into the heart of it underneath the awning, past the Chinese “general” stores and rice shops, past the wet seafood section, out into the sunlight, and past the pork and chicken and vegetable stands that repeat every few intervals like some sort of code, until you see a small road leading off to your right. Take this road for about 50 m until you see a chicken rice stall on your right; behind that lurks the smiling noodle vendor, who specializes in pork tom yum and gow low (soup without noodles) dotted with winter melon, all based on a flavorful, fragrant pork bone-based broth.

Or just scrabble around in your pantry and have a junky afternoon snack.

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

Take a Big Bite out of Bangkok

This is waiting for you from Pigwit.

Once in a blue moon, the planets align and good things come to those who wait and I can’t find another well-used cliche t0 convey that this doesn’t happen very often. “This” being the semi-annual gathering known as “Big Bite Bangkok”, where awesome vendors from all over the city (and me) meet up to sell every manner of delicious foodstuffs, all with the aim of charity and promoting excellent, local small-scale producers.

Local producer of delicious breads, Urban Pantry

So on Sunday July 15, we will all convene from 11am-2pm and stuff ourselves silly with waffles, sandwiches, salads, stir-fries and beer. We will forget silly stuff about how we had to use a site called “Cliche Finder” to write this post and may have also used this headline before and isn’t that a bad omen of where we are as a writer right now? (And that we refer to ourselves as “we”?) We will delight in the fact that we are helping out a worthwhile charity (In Search of Sanuk, check it out) while doing totally selfish things like wresting the last bagel from the table before Dwight gets to it first. We will do all these things, and hopefully the weather will cooperate, because this event will be awesome and the weather should respect that.  Work out for us, weather! For once!

Hmmm? Where was I? Oh yes, talking about a great event for charity!

What: Big Bite Bangkok July

Who: Great vendors like Bo.lan, BKK Bagel Bakery, Urban Pantry, Chu, Adams Organic, Vietnamese & More, Birds in a Row, Pigwit, Radiance and Manno.

Where: Parking lot, Maduzi hotel

When: Sunday, July 15, 11am-2pm

Please come join us!

Stir-fried squid from Bo.lan

 

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, charity, food, markets, Thailand

Glutton Abroad: Qatarific


Feeling nutty?

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

The message came as I was eating my second lunch of the day. James was unsure about the food options in Doha, where he works and where I’d be crashing for an entire week. “Maybe you should bring some protein bars with you and write about that,” he texted. “Ha ha!” I replied. “You know I can eat anywhere.”

Fast forward to the Jean-Georges restaurant at the W Doha, where @SpecialKRB — still in her TEDx NY t-shirt — James, and I are huddled around a small table groaning with crab, lobster, steak, burgers, and one or two other things I have completely forgotten about. I cannot taste a thing. My stomach feels like it’s trying to ‘asplode me from the inside, like the bad swarthy man in an episode of “24”. Is this what middle age has brought me: panic attacks on airplanes and a digestive system in revolt when I eat after 6pm Thai time? And what indeed am I to do here if this affliction does not go away?

The answer may be to eat something you don’t like all that much. We find this out the next day, after getting kicked out of a TEDx event on the waterfront at the Katara Cultural Village. We wander into Mamig (Armenian for “grandma”), which serves, of course, Armenian specialties and the Lebanese dishes that every Middle Eastern restaurant has to provide if they want to please any customer ever.

Beef "mortadella" with pickles at Mamig

We focus on Armenian, and the results are … different. Full of nuts, wholesome enough to be tree-hugger fodder, but big on citrus and sweet pomegranate flavors, this food gives you the sense you are eating something that is good for you, but if you have to keep reminding yourself that, something must be wrong. Along with a pistachio-studded beef “mortadella” and an entire bowl of pickled vegetables, we get these tiny little birds, like sparrows, coated in honey and pomegranate juice and lemon and full of little bones that crunch when you bite into them. It’s weird.

“This is like Game of Thrones food,” says James. Coming from a man who falls asleep once the opening credits stop running, this is not a compliment.

Maybe we’re not going authentic enough. We hit a restaurant called an “institution” by Time Out Doha magazine, Al Shami Home Restaurant (in case you don’t get it from the name, this is “home cooking”) and order all the dishes we should have ordered before, all the hummus and baba ghanouj and light, fluffy pitas that flop onto the plate. And it’s unmemorable, maybe marred by the clouds of smoke coming from every other table in the room. But I would like to report that it’s true: people can indeed set themselves on fire from the shisha set so perilously close to the table. A man’s sleeve caught on fire. You must watch your shisha, people.

Baba ghanouj and hummus at Al Shami

Do I want American food? Is that it? We head to Ric’s Kountry Kitchen (yes, really), where we order biscuits and gravy and get beef sausage and cheesy grits. We also get a pecan “pie”, set on a crust that is literally indestructible.

Me: “I can’t cut through this crust!”

James: “Maybe they want to reuse it for their next pie.”

Me: “It’s uncanny!”

James: “Is this the stuff they make the new Airbuses out of?”

And so on and so on.

Ric Kountry Kitchen's pekan pie

No. We’ve been relying on restaurants. The answer to our dietary malaise is, obviously, street food. At Souq Waqqib, we come upon an entire courtyard of ladies who make mankouche, or crispy, thin crepes that are slathered with either Nutella (sweet option) or labneh and a heavy sprinkle of za’atar (sesame seeds, thyme, sumac). We ambush an entire row of women who provide real home cooking: they make their food at home and haul it over to the souq at nightfall. We try everything, selecting harees, a creamy mix of chicken, wheat and ghee; keshari, a tomato-based stew ladled over a spaghetti-macaroni mix; madrooba, flaked fish in, again, a creamy sauce; malfouf, cabbage stuffed with meat; and waraganab, stuffed grape leaves. We discover that much of this is a whole lot like baby food, and that this may be the point: it’s hot in Qatar, there are a lot of people, you’ve got a lot of things to do. Maybe you need the ultimate comfort food when you get home.

Checking out the wares

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

So (barring a lunch at a secret restaurant that I can’t talk about), this is my vote for best meal of the week: cartons of take-away, eaten with plastic utensils on the sidewalk next to the neighboring Thai restaurant, shared with a stray cat. Somehow, my rebellious stomach stayed quiet that entire evening.

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Filed under chicken, food, food stalls, markets, Middle East