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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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

Take a Big Bite out of …

... this sai oua?

It’s finally happening. Unless lightning strikes me down as I walk down the street (no, even then, it will still go on), the very first Big Bite Bangkok will be unfolding in front of Maduzi Hotel on Sunday, January 29, from 11-2. Yes, it will be in the blazing heat of midday, but there are umbrellas, and vendors will stage a fight to the death over the two berths in the leafy shade over on the balcony (not really). Speaking of vendors, we have some great ones: the yummy NY deli stylings of BKK Bagel Bakery, aromatic coffee from Roast, some toothsome smoked ham from Soul Food Mahanakorn, scrumptious goodies from Birds in a Row, the delicious bounty of Adam’s Organic, and (my mom’s really excited about this one) awesome stuff from Vietnamese & More. We’ve got great veggie Indian and intriguing Sri Lankan fare, donated (read: free) homemade beer (supplies limited, so hurry!) and, yes, even I am getting in on the action by selling sai oua (Northern Thai sausage) hot dogs.

There is no required entry fee, but we would love a donation of 200 baht if you can spare it. This will go to the charity In Search of Sanuk, a great organization helping families in need.

Parking is limited (think nonexistent), so take the Skytrain if you can. Make sure to bring your shopping totes too, and your own utensils and plates wouldn’t hurt either (although I am bringing some, so don’t worry about it bringing some sort of awful camping-style event where we make you reuse dirty napkins from 2009).

To get there: Get off at Skytrain Asoke exit and take exit 1 leading through True Building. Walk down Rachadapisek towards Benjakiti Park and Queen Sirikit Convention Center, past the entrance to Sukhumvit Soi 16. Once you pass soi 16 and the bus stop, look to your left for a wooden gate and painted “Maduzi Hotel” sign.

Hope to see you there!

 

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Glutton Abroad: Bali H’ai

The island of Moorea

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

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

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

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

Coconuts in Pape'ete

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

Sardines for sale at the local market

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

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

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

Orare at Restaurant Martinez

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Markets: The Train Market

A bar at Thalad Rot Fai

Life would be much easier if everyone just did what I say. Because I am the expert of everything forever! So when I heard the cool, fun Ratchada Market was being cleared against my innermost wishes and desires to make way for another iteration of the “Night Bazaar” (TM) — where Thai people smile Siamese smiles and coconut shell figurines can be had for a handful of coins — I was crushed. (By the way, that’s true, isn’t it? Because I haven’t checked, since everything that everyone says is always true, all the time! Santa Claus lives! All you need is love! Thailand is a democracy!) Update: The Ratchada Market exists! A couple of blocks down. At least, that’s what I heard!

I first heard about the Train Market (“Thalad Rot Fai” to those of us, uh, In The Know) from a guy from freaking New York who said, “Have you ever heard of the Train Market?” Because I am known for my witty repartee, I said: “Huh?” But it turns out the Train Market well and truly exists, on Saturday and Sunday nights from 8pm-1am, across from the Chatuchak Market (MRT: Kampheng Phet), and has existed since late last year. Kudos to me for discovering it last week!

The Train Market sells everything you expect to see at the Ratchada Market — sneakers, skinny hipster tees that only fit Japanese people, retro tchotchkes that would never look good anywhere — and then some: retro furniture that would never look good anywhere, and lots and lots and lots of alcohol. Lots. This appears to be the main point of the Train Market. You cannot go for long without bumping into a gaggle of people behind a table made out of an antique door, downing slushies smelling of fruit and gasoline. One of these places is called “I’ Tui Indy” which perfectly encapsulates all the values of the Train Market: irreverent rudeness and an independent spirit. Plus, their drinks are the strongest of the entire market, hints of moonshine with the special aftertaste of drain cleaner. This is truly a special place.

Ai Tui

You can characterize the Train Market as sort of L-shaped, with one side more devoted to actual buying (but both sides widely featuring alcohol). People who probably hold down office jobs during the week (I haven’t checked, but that’s what I heard!) spread their wares on the ground on a blanket, or if they are more serious, in little makeshift booths, and you are supposed to haggle (I, uh, forgot). If you look closely, you can come across little gems that will “pull the room together”, but I am not gifted at looking, or closeness. I did, however, come across some wildly inapprioriate t-shirts for babies, one of which I will share with you here:

Creepy baby's tee

Given that everyone at the Train Market is cool, young and good-looking, you are probably asking yourself, “What is Bangkok Glutton doing there?” I could very well ask myself the same question, especially after getting hungry (walking and looking is hard work), because, as everyone knows, cool, young and good-looking people don’t really eat (again, that’s what I heard!) So noshing options are limited, unless you are planning a “liquid dinner”. One bright spot is an aharn tham sung (made-to-order) stall called Raan Khao Khong at the far end of the “L”, with an especially pretty young cook whose picture I failed to get here:

Raan Khao Khong

Aside from that, there is the inevitable coconut drink:

Coconuts

And the hard-to-mess-up crispy pork:

Piggy porkiness, or is that porky pigginess?

What more could you ask for, really? At least, out of all the things that you’ve heard of.

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The other Chiang Mai

Rot duan at Suthep Market

Sometimes you don’t feel like treating Chiang Mai like a non-stop food safari. Sometimes, the usual parade of big names — Huen Phen, Lamduan Faham, Samerjai, OMG! — makes you feel all weary inside after thinking of the inevitable throng of people in line for a bowl of khao soy. And sometimes, you just want to eat where all the other jaded Chiang Mai-ers eat.

Because sometimes, Chiang Mai people are sick to death of aharn nuea (Northern Thai food), just like how Hua Hin people get sick of crab (unbelievable, I know, but it happens). And when that happens, they go to places like Yen Ta Fo Sri Ping on Suthep Road, where the chipped plastic bowls feature al dente thick, thin or glass vermicelli noodles liberally swimming with a garishly pink, chili-flecked seafood sauce crowned with a single, perfect fried wonton (35-40 baht).

Sri Ping's yen ta fo

There is also the requisite tom yum noodle (30-40 baht) and egg noodles with red pork and dumplings (40-50 baht), but nothing is as deliciously saucy as the namesake yen ta fo, a dish sure to get on your shirt and all over your face. And yes, I did rub my eyes after eating, and yes, severely regretted it for hours afterward.

I would argue that the namesake dish at Guay Jab Nam Khon Sam Kaset, right by the city’s monument to the three kings, is not the best dish here, although it is light and peppery and includes plenty of luk lok, a sort of soft porky sausage (50 baht). The gow low (broth without noodles) centers on a richer broth that tastes of beef and plenty of coriander (50 baht), and the khao moo krob is as good as anything you would find in Yaowaraj: a mix of crackle and fat, a thick sweet sauce enveloping the rice grains (50 baht). What can I say? I really like sauce.

Crispy pork rice at Guay Jab Sam Kaset

But if it’s something light and fresh you desire — Thailand via Hanoi rather than Hong Kong — there is always Raan Fer Wiengjan on Rachadamnoen Road. You have your choice of chicken (30-40 baht), fish (40-50 baht), tofu (30 baht), and the Northern delicacy moo yaw (30-40 baht), a pork “pate” originally created by Chinese-Thai chefs seeking to replicate French meat terrines.

Pho moo yaw

Vegetarians, don’t despair: Chiang Mai is thinking of you too. Or, specifically, Raan Jay Yai on Nimmanhaemin Road is. Anything on the regular menu can be made “jay” (a stricter Thai form of vegetarianism), including great versions of khao kluk kapi (rice fried with “shrimp paste”, 35 baht), guaythiew kua “gai” (noodles fried with a chicken substitute, 30 baht) and pad see ew (stir-fried noodles in soy sauce, 30 baht).

Jay Yai's pad see ew

This is all well and good, but did you really think I went to Chiang Mai without having ANY Northern food at all? What am I, an idiot? (Don’t answer that). Of course I went, and filled my face with nam prik ong and thum kanoon and sai oua and shrieked and gurgled as every Northern dish passed me by on the way to someone else, and wished myself stuffed full of everything that was good in the world. So that is how I found Haan Tung Jieng Mai (Northern dialect for Raan Tung Chiang Mai) on Suthep Road by the Chiang Mai University campus.

Khao pad nam prik num at Haan Tung Jiangmai

It’s a typical aharn tham sung (made-to-order) stall, but made achingly cool by the scraps of paper doodled by bored university students coating the tables and the kitsch-retro furnishings. That said, the food is solid, if slow, including rice fried with young green chili dip, pounded young jackfruit, and a nam prik ong that tasted suspiciously like shrimp paste (in the landlocked North, most recipes call for tua now — fermented beans, or nam pu — the juice of pulverized rice paddy crabs, instead of kapi).  Plus, there was a perfectly cooked kai ped yang matoom, a duck egg boiled just enough so that the yolk is “sticky”, like rubber sap.

No, our trip wasn’t all about food. I DO have other interests, you know. For instance, the PURCHASING of food. That is where the Saturday morning organic market off of Nimmanhaemin Road comes in. Organic producers of vegetables, fruit, rice and ready-made foods meet once a week to sell their bounty to the general public, and it’s a shame something comparable isn’t happening in much-bigger Bangkok.

Whole-wheat salapao at the organic market

Food for thought, maybe, for an organized and responsible food lover? (Not me). Maybe, just maybe, we can bring in something from Chiang Mai that doesn’t involve hastily-taped cardboard boxes and a few anxious moments by the baggage claim carousel.

Or maybe not.

@anuntakob and @aceimage caught haggling at Suthep Market

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Filed under Asia, food, food stalls, markets, noodles, Northern Thailand, pork, rice, shopping, Thai-Chinese, Thailand