Category Archives: noodles

Mr. Right Now

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The khao soy vendor’s kanom jeen nam ngiew

Like a dog at a bone, I am constantly worrying at my love for the northern Thai dish kanom jeen nam ngiew, watching it fray at the edges as I sample dish after watered-down dish, chasing after the What when I don’t have the Where, Who or How. Because, you see, I live in Bangkok, where street food is wonderful, but northern Thai street food sometimes less so.

The Bangkok attitude to the north appears to be how Northeastern Americans view people living in the Southern US. They may be “charming” and “quaint” at best, or characterized as “rural” or “backward” at not-best. Both regions might house poorer residents and nurse chips on their shoulders about being looked down upon by the “educated elite”. The people of both areas might speak more slowly, in voices that might sound like sticky drawls. And both places certainly have incredible food where meat plays a major role, yet their cuisines might be looked at askance by the less adventurous as “weird” (please Google “The Ravenous Guide to Eating Like Elvis”) or just plain bad for you (ditto).

But the stomach-minded — and there are many of us out there — may see this food as achingly exotic. That is the case for me when I’ve been in Bangkok for a while. And although there is plenty of tried-and-true Isaan food to be had (the real stuff, not the sugary red candy posing as grilled chicken or pork shoulder at some Bangkok stalls) thanks to the city’s many Isaan residents, for some reason (and no, I don’t really know why this is), northern Thai food here is not as well represented.

So when a northern Thai food stall turns up just around the corner from the end of my street, in a barren expanse of concrete next to what appears to be a government compound, it’s exciting to me, the way a barbecue place in New York might be exciting to someone else. And it might not really be the same as what you’d find in its home setting (think of that NY barbecue place), but it’s good enough. Meet khao lad gang (curry rice) stall Khao Soy Chiang Mai (71 Ajnarong Rd., 02-672-7711) and its collection of northern Thai specialties like gang hang lay (Burmese-style pork stew), gang ho (northern Thai-style goulash), sai oua (northern Thai sausages), nam prik ong (pork-and-tomato chili dip), excellent larb moo kua (minced pork salad), and of course, khao soy and kanom jeen nam ngiew, without which northern Thai street food would be irreparably hobbled. Competent renditions all, with some green curry and shredded fish curry to go with your kanom jeen when you’re just not feeling the northern Thai food at the mo.

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The sign for Khao Soy Chiang Mai

It’s that little watering hole in the desert. The exit from a crowded dance floor. The guy who invites you out at 6:30pm on a Friday night. It’s not the end-all be-all. But it’s good enough for now.

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by | 02/22/2013 · 10:51 am

For appearance’s sake

Yumminess, unrestrained

Yumminess, unrestrained

I’ve been thinking about appearances lately. Not my own, quite obviously, because that is a one-way ticket to Sadtown. I’ve been thinking about the appearance of other things that have nothing to do with me, and how some things appeal and some don’t. For example, put me in a white sequined top and a black lace hoop skirt, and I look — not like the bag lady who got dressed out of the dumpster behind the Playboy Mansion, but like the weirdo who mugged the bag lady who got dressed out of the dumpster behind the Playboy Mansion.

Meanwhile, my friend Tutti looks like a fairy princess ever-so-slightly tweaked after a few shots of pure unicorn juice.

Tutti at Chez Pape

Tutti at Chez Pape

Tutti is, of course, a designer (those people tend to know how to put themselves together), so it may be a bit unfair to compare my dress savvy with hers. However, I — like everyone else in the world — do eat. And like many other eaters drawn to street food, I like to pretend that my focus on stuff cooked in a dingy shophouse by a crotchety old man, or slopped onto my streetside table in the sweltering midday heat, makes me a deep person able to see into the depths of whatever is on the plate in spite of my dire surroundings. The more pain, headache and heat I encounter in the pursuit of this meal, the better — I have truly earned it, this steaming, bowl-shaped reward that must be won from the clutches of the frowning dragon behind the fiery wok.

There is a special name for me, this mix of masochist and Indiana Jones wannabe. And it is called … Sucker.

Because, while I’m not drawn to white tablecloths, baby-faced waiters, and rolling trolleys heaving with sweets, and though I’m suspicious of buzzy loud dining rooms, dry ice, and long queues (except in Japan), I do have my own culinary Achilles heels. For example, I am a sucker for a grumpy old man who tells me how to eat his food. If he is wearing a stained apron and do-rag, and there is a tableful of hungry-looking customers cowering nearby on a bank of plastic stools, all the better. Some other things I love:

— Fire. Some place with big fires underneath hot woks that leap up into the sky as the chef — invariably in some sort of beanie — tosses his ingredients into the air. Smoke is a plus, but I draw the line at the surroundings and/or bystanders catching on fire.

— Geriatric servers. If a place has servers that are in the 65+ range, I am almost guaranteed to patronize it. If they yell at me when I ask questions regarding the menu, then they’ve got themselves a repeat customer.

— And last but not least, repurposed dining rooms. This is my biggest weakness of all. I remember going to the original Jay Ngor, and being shunted into a “dining room” still lined wall-to-wall with other people’s dry cleaning. Or a moving heaven and earth to find a Chinese seafood “restaurant” called Charoen Pochana, located all the way across the river and completely invisible save for a handwritten sign set directly in front of the door (hidden inside a residential courtyard).

Now, these places can step aside for my new favorite place to brag about, Vietnamese & More, which is located on the bottom floor of a condo deep in the bowels of Sukhumvit 16. What was once a living room is now a spruced-up little restaurant, complete with tidy tables and slippers for patrons who leave their shoes at the door. The twee bouquets of plastic flowers, the laminated menus — I love it all. The menu itself, a terse selection of Vietnamese favorites alongside more fusion-inspired creations, I like: not too unwieldy, tightly focused, but not full of cliches. So alongside the summer rolls and pho, you get noodle dishes inspired by places as far-flung as Korea, a “Gangnam-style” stew that resembles Spaghetti-Os but full of kim chi flavor.  And of course, there is the banh mi, a collection of cold cuts, moo yaw (steamed pork sausage) and gunchieng (Chinese-style sausage) encased in a good baguette, a handful of julienned carrot and radish, and slicks of mayo.

Try this

Try this

It’s open every day but Monday, and appears to serve all day long … but check first by calling 089-890-4890. Located on Soi Pai Sing To next to Monterey Place condo.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, noodles, restaurant, Vietnamese

Sukhothai, -ish

A bowl of Sukhothai noodles at Baan Kru Eiw

Do you ever find yourself in that situation where you recognize somebody across the room whom you haven’t seen for a while? What if they recognize you, too? What if you both sit, paralyzed, unsure of who is to get up and make that first stab at conversation? And if you lose this internal wrestling match and you do get up, what if you see that undeniable flash of resignation flit across his face, that “Oh crap, now I have to talk to this person I haven’t spoken to since my wedding in 2007” look? What if you catch that person desperately attempting to hide from you as your eyes lock onto his ear, trying to avoid the upcoming “Oh crap I said I’d call you back five years ago” conversation by suddenly becoming fascinated by the septuagenarian cashier near the entrance, the telltale hand coming up to shield his precious face from your gaze?

I admit it. I have nearly been run over by a bus in my haste to avoid an ex in San Francisco. So I know what it’s like to run away from someone like a bar of soap and stick of deodorant when faced with the likes of Johnny Depp in Full Hobo Mode.  But you can’t run away from me, Sukhothai. I admit, you nearly succeeded, what with my preoccupation with the north, and then Isaan, and that brief flirtation with Phuket over the summer. But there was no way I was not going to knock over every vendor in the city in my search for the best Sukhothai noodles — an ingenious dish that combines a Chinese base (rice noodles) with Thai seasonings (lime, fish sauce, chilies, palm sugar), topped with a signature flourish of julienned green beans.

Sukhothai likes its food sweet, and is fond of its coconut milk. This is why Sukhothai can be considered more of a central Thai city, and less northern Thai. Sukhothai noodles — usually built upon sen lek, or thin white rice noodles —  contain no coconut milk, but epitomize all the great things that characterize Sukhothai’s food: sweetness tempered by a bit of spice, a fondness for the pig in whatever iteration, and generous use of the region’s famously gorgeous cut lime. There is crunch from the blanched beans, crushed peanuts and tiny crumbs of pork crackling; there is a pork-bone broth flavored with tamarind juice and thick with slices of tender boiled pork. It’s hard to not like this particular hometown specialty.

The best place to have it may not be a street food stall. Instead, it’s a “comfort food”-style restaurant, what a diner would be like if it existed in Thailand. It’s called Baan Kru Eiw (www.bankrueiw-restaurant.com), located in downtown Sukhothai(ish) and named after the teacher who opened this restaurant out of her home a little over a decade ago. Teacher Eiw ran this restaurant in her spare time because she loves cooking and wanted to showcase Sukhothai specialties. That means you get other local favorites like naem nueng, a Vietnamese-derived do-it-yourself noodle dish featuring steamed pork “pate”, and gluey chuem, or boiled bananas in sugar syrup. Last but not least, there is pad Thai — a no-brainer for every Sukhothai noodle vendor in the city, since Sukhothai noodles are basically pad Thai in soup noodle form, with the same seasonings if not always the same protein (the pad Thai here usually involves pork instead of seafood). Kru Eiw wraps her stir-fried noodles up in a thin envelope of egg and crowns the result with a scattering of coriander leaves, with a side of bean sprouts, banana blossom and garlic chives (and of course, a cut of that big, juicy Sukhothai lime) to mop up any grease (Thais are very concerned about kwam lien, or greasiness in their food). At Kru Eiw, there is little grease to worry about. But if you see someone you recognize across the room, you’re on your own.

Kru Eiw’s pad Thai

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Filed under Asia, food, noodles, pork, restaurant, Sukhothai, Thai-Chinese, Thailand

Breakfast at Uncle Mustache’s

Khao piek at Lung Nuad in Udon Thani

The holiday season is fast approaching, and with it — fingers crossed — the end of the “research period” (aka eating my weight in street food) for my book. Isaan is now firmly in the rearview mirror, and Sukhothai awaits. And Bangkok … well, that’s still around, too, stubbornly defying all my efforts to check it off my “to do” list.

Amid all the som tum, grilled chicken, and crunchalicious deep-fried morsels of tilapia wrapped in betel leaves and garnished with bits of lime, chili and ginger was a special stall in the middle of the disarmingly clean “Tessaban 1” market in downtown Udon Thani. Across from a stand selling out-of-this-world yummy Isaan sausage, moo yaw (a Vietnamese-style pork “pate”) and Chinese sausage was a mustachioed slim man with an Asian Jack Sparrow look to him. On offer: khao piek, which translates to “wet rice” but actually refers to giem ee (fat, short rice noodles) served in the liquid leftover from cooking rice (hence its glutinous, opaque quality) and crowned with a slice of moo yaw and a brief shower of chopped green onion. This is the ultimate in comfort food: nursery-like, tasting and smelling of chicken, yet still springy and gummy in all the right places.

The vendor, Lung Nuad (which translates to “Uncle Mustache”), also serves gaeng sen (glass vermicelli in a pork bone-based broth thick with bits of pig). Both bowls cost 20-30 baht, depending on the size, and can be seasoned with fish sauce, white pepper, chili oil, sugar, chili-flecked vinegar, or chili powder. Mornings only, and perfect for when the kai kata (egg in a pan) vendor nearby is just too busy to see to your breakfast needs.

Uncle Mustache at his station

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Filed under Asia, food, food stalls, Isaan, noodles, Thailand, Udon Thani

Pretty in its own way

Guay jab at Sukhumvit Soi 38

Growing up in a small Pennsylvania town 15 minutes from the Ohio border had its good points and bad points. Good points: a safe place where you could build forts in the woods and ride bikes with your friends all day long; living a short walk away from the school and park; great Italian-American food, Indian food, and Middle-Eastern food. Bad points: I was Asian. Not the only Asian, mind you — I was the Asian Girl. My friend KK who was also in my grade was the Asian Boy. Classmates would come up to me (and probably him) from time to time to ask “Why don’t you go out with KK? It would be SOOO perfect” like the world had rained for 40 days and nights and they were in charge of building some sort of Noah’s Ark with Asian people.

This sounds small, but it wasn’t. I was never a viable person that anyone in their right mind would ever consider going out with (and by “going out”, as this was 7th grade, I mean asking your mom to drive you to the Christmas dance in the junior high cafeteria while I wear a Talbots dress borrowed from my mom). I would never get to wear my “boyfriend’s” football jersey on Fridays before the game. I would never get to go to high school parties on the weekends. (I did, however, get to watch a lot of foreign films over sleepovers and play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, things that have actually helped me a bit later on in life).

I used to be sad that I wasn’t an Erin or an Amy or, best of all, a Jennifer. Instead, I was a Chawadee (aka Dog Chow aka Chow Time aka Choo Choo aka Chewbacca). But later, as I grew older, friends would tell me I was “pretty in my own way”. That could be bad, like “you are pretty in a way that no one recognizes”, but it could also be good, like “you are uniquely you”. Looking back, I choose to read it in the good way. I am me.

Guay jab — that Thai-Chinese street food dish featuring curled-up flat rice noodles, random bits of pork and either a thick soy sauce gravy (nam khon) or clear soup (nam sai) — might be considered “pretty in its own way”. It’s the least glamorous of all the noodle soups: the silky, savory voluptuousness of a bamee (egg noodles), the easy-to-eat immediacy of a guay thiew moo (pork noodles), the eager-to-please popularity of a guay thiew tom yum (noodles in spicy lemongrass broth). By comparison, guay jab is too challenging, too hefty, too porky — bits of lung, intestine and pig skin mingling with tenderly poached slivers of meat, noodles and, in the case of the thick broth, half a boiled egg. There is no mitigating flourish of lettuce, no handful of palate-cleansing greens. It’s Piggy with a capital P. What are you gonna do about it?

There are people who see guay jab for what it is — a celebration of the pig — and like it in their own ways. For the thick-bodied version, look no further than the stand on Sukhumvit Soi 38, the first stall on the left as you enter. Those who like it more in the Chinese style should go to Yaowaraj Road, where the clear, peppery version awaits at Guay Jab Oun Pochana. Either way you like it, you can’t go wrong.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, noodles, pork, Thai-Chinese, Thailand

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

My favorite street food things

Fried wontons with homemade plum sauce at Bamee Gua

(Photo by @anuntakob)

If there’s one thing I’ve discovered from voraciously reading blogs and glossy weeklies, it’s that there are not enough lists out there posing as articles. To address this obvious imbalance, I’m going to try my hand at a few “list” stories, because I know that everyone, everywhere, is starving for more lists.

Such as: who do I blame first when something goes wrong?

1. My parents

2. My lost iPhone

3. Thailand

Or: What are my top three recurring nightmares?

1. Being chased by voracious man-eating crocodiles

2. Being chased by angry man with chainsaw

3. Going to a buffet and getting paralyzed by the immense variety of choice before finally coming to a decision, only to discover that I’ve lost your way back (OMIGERD SO AWFUL).

Or how about: Which successful eating spots leave me completely baffled? (aka I DON’T GET IT, YOU GUYZ)

1. Smith (I’m sorry)

2. Coffee Bean (it’s because of the cakes, right?)

3. MBK Food Court (this one most of all. If you must go a-food-courtin’, just amble on down the road to Platinum Mall, where it is MUCH BETTER. Really).

But why wallow in negativity? We should dispense with this talk of nightmares and food courts. What about my favorite three street food dishes right now? If you asked me about this a year ago, I would have said something along the lines of bamee kai (egg noodles with soft-boiled eggs), fried chicken, and, uh, bamee kai. But things change. What I can’t wait to eat now:

1. The minced pork noodles with egg at Bamee Gua (guaythiew moo san gub kai dip)

I’ve written about this fabulous noodle place before, but I want to emphasize how much I absolutely love this stand (sandwiched between the Vietnamese restaurant at Luxx XL hotel on Langsuan Rd). Everything here, down to the pickled turnip bits they use as garnish on their noodles, is homemade: the bamee, the wonton wrappers for their giew (dumplings), the plum dipping sauce for their fried wontons. While street food is, first and foremost, a convenience thing — “fast food” — it doesn’t necessarily mean everything should be some mass-produced whatever, all instant noodles, MSG and some processed squid strands. The food should be a convenience for the diner, but not for the vendor. The very best street food should be a labor of love (think In-n-Out Burger, not McDonald’s).

Bamee Gua embodies this, especially in a dish like the minced pork noodles, which are hard to find nowadays. Sort of like a Thai adaptation of spaghetti bolognese, it features thick rice noodles topped with a thick pork ragu, fragrant with curry powder and topped with a bright raw egg yolk for that extra somethin-somethin. I could go on and on, but I’ll just say: It is absolutely delicious.

2. Grilled fatty pork shoulder at Moo Jum on Suan Plu (kaw moo yang)

One of my editors put me onto this place (located at the entrance to Suan Plu Soi 3), which I had heard about for years but never went to. After writing a story that I thought pretty comprehensively listed all the places in Bangkok at which you could eat Thai food, he asked: “HAVE U HEARD OF THIS PLACE WITH THE FATTY PORK NECK? THE PHOTOGRAPHER TOOK SOME GOOD PICS THERE” and I was all: “NAH” while thinking mind yer own freakin beeswax, photographer guy. 

Despite the fact that Photographer Guy liked it first, Moo Jum is a great place, and not just because of the fatty pork neck, which is tender, meaty, saucy, even a little sweet. It’s got great service, a loyal clientele, and a super range of sides — the spicy squid salad comes to mind — as well as the Isaan-style sukiyaki that is the namesake dish. In short, it’s got everything, and I’m glad I finally made it there.

Fatty pork at Moo Jum

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

3. Yen ta fo noodles at a whole bunch of different places like Guaythiew Pik Gai Nam Pung on Sukhumvit)

There is nothing that says THAI FOOD to me more right now than yen ta fo (seafood noodles in a pink fermented tofu sauce), which is funny since this is a Chinese-Thai dish. Whatever. The mix of flavors and textures — tart, sweet, spicy, slithery and crunchy — tell you everything you want to know about the interplay of all the elements that come to hand in Thai food, from the lip-puckering tartness of the red sauce to the surprise savory crunch of the deep-fried pork rind garnish.

You must choose carefully though; yen ta fo made badly is a bad, bad dish, all insipid sweetness with no depth whatsoever, the Playmate of noodles. The worst one I’ve had was at (and here we come full circle) the MBK Food Court, but I’ve had far more bowls that were fantastic, all over the country. Like everything else that’s worth the effort, explore and find your own favorite.

A bowl of yen ta fo noodles

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

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