Category Archives: pork

In praise of the porky

Rice vermicelli in pork broth with meatballs at Wor Rasamee

Rice vermicelli in pork broth with meatballs at Wor Rasamee

No one wants to be a pig. The very worst thing one can do is to eat like one, squeal like one, or sweat like one. Don’t even think about looking like one. That is the worst that bad can get.

But when cooked over a grill, crisped and sliced over a mound of fluffy white rice or minced and folded into an omelet, the pig becomes something that every Thai food lover wants a part of. Few dishes demonstrate this more than guaythiew moo, or pork noodles: a mix of pork meatballs, minced pork, stewed fatty pork and pork liver, simmered gently in a pork broth before a quick dunk in a plastic bowl with a handful of rice noodles, some blanched bitter greens, and a sprinkling of bean sprouts and deep-fried garlic bits.

Because many Thais refrain from eating beef for religious reasons — as followers of “Mae Kwan Im” (a Mahayana Buddhist Goddess of Compassion now popular among many Thai-Chinese Theravada Buddhists), they are encouraged to cut out beef in view of eventually going vegetarian — pork noodle joints are probably the most numerous of all the noodle vendor varieties scattered throughout the city. This means there is tons of competition, and more pressure to set oneself apart from the rest of the noodling fray (I’m not counting bamee, or egg noodles, with the rest of the pork noodle crowd because the emphasis there tends to be on the noodles and the toppings are different — that said, there’s lots of competition there too).

Some vendors bomb the crap out of your tastebuds with a plethora of chilis, and some are nam tok specialists who add a touch a pork blood to their broth. It’s the rare vendor who lets the pig stand on its own porky merits. That is Wor Rasamee (corner of Silom and Saladaeng roads), a longtime pork noodle shop run by a deeply efficient elderly man who is the Thai street food equivalent of Rene Lasserre. Every need is fulfilled quickly and with as little drama as possible, sometimes before you have even thought of it. And the time it takes for a bowl to get to your table? 10-15 seconds, tops. Really.

Not to say there’s no little gimmick to set this little stall apart. Here, it’s the unique sauce, set atop every table and served alongside the four-pronged usual condiment selection of sugar, chili flakes, chili-studded white vinegar and fish sauce. It has no name, but it does have ingredients: vinegar, garlic, chilies, palm sugar, and an irresistible hit of fermented tofu, my culinary Achilles heel, a quicksilver sweetness in a pork broth smelling faintly of Chinese 5-spice powder.

sauce

How can I say no? It is food crack. There are surely more ingredients in this sauce than were relayed to me, and I will try to spend the next few weeks ferreting them out. Until then, I will have to risk heading back to this crowded, busy neighborhood in the heart of the central business district in the hopes of snagging a seat in the midst of all the Japanese tart cafes and fast food chains.

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Northern Thai sausage kings

Grilled northern Thai sausages from Sai Oua Pa Nong in Chiang Rai

Grilled northern Thai sausages from Sai Oua Pa Nong in Chiang Rai

Everyone has a secret superpower, and I am no different. Some people are wonderful dancers. Some people can catch anything that is thrown at them. Some people can multiply large sums in their heads. And me? I can clear a 3-foot radius around me in about 10-15 minutes without even trying. When I tell people about this, they shake their heads and think, She’s at it again. Exaggerating her uselessness. But they’re not around to see it. I can guarantee that, if I sit on one side of a room before yoga class, everyone else will try to sit on the other side. At a large dining table, if no one is assigning seats and no one really knows me very well, one or both chairs to either side of me will remain empty. I have even had people switch seats at a movie theater in Thailand — where there is assigned seating — to move to an empty seat further away from me. I don’t know if it’s my smell or what. It certainly isn’t something I do on purpose. And it is almost never useful. It’s just something that happens, more often than not.

It’s a shame my secret superpower isn’t something useful, like languages. I am ashamed to say it, but I only have room in my head for 1.5 languages, as full as it is of Game of Thrones trivia and a detailed chronology of Jack White’s past haircuts. As you might have guessed, English makes up one of those languages. The other 0.5 is up to where I am living at any point in time. It used to be French, when I was studying cooking in Paris. Then it was Japanese, when I was working as a financial reporter in Tokyo. Now it is Thai, my “native” language, which makes it all the more pathetic when I open my mouth to order a meal or give directions or make small talk — whatever it is that people do to wile away the time until you get to go to sleep. People will frown and say, “Where are you from?” And I will smile and say, “The Philippines.”

Sometimes. Just sometimes. Other times I have to go into the whole rigamarole of how I moved to the States when I was a baby and came back and blah blah blah blah. It is the penalty that life exacts for speaking such terrible Thai. So it is no surprise when I find myself with a spare 10 minutes in Chiang Rai (the town of my birth) and head over to Sai Oua Pa Nong  (San Kong Noi Road, across from Chetupon Temple, 082-760-4813) for what a few locals said were the best sai oua (Northern Thai sausages) in town. That is hard for me to believe because 1.) the best Northern Thai cook I know is my Aunt Priew, who lives in Chiang Rai and 2.) I make my own sai oua too, and it is not bad. It might even be good, if you are my friend and you just spent an entire afternoon making sausages with me.

The minute I get there and ask for “50 baht of sausage” in Thai, the man in front waiting for his own sausage order to be grilled narrows his eyes at me. “Where are you from?” he says, and I’m still thinking if I should choose “Filipino” or “Japanese” when a sprightly little old lady carrying what looks like 1000 baht worth of sausages looks up at me and grins.

“Can I just get a little bit of this sausage?” I say. “I just want one or two bites,” and she says “Certainly!” with a great big smile.

“And what’s this?” I ask, pointing at a bunch of small plastic baggies filled with a thick green liquid.

“It’s nam prik nam pak (vegetable juice chili dip),” she says. “You should get it, it’s very good.”

I run over the rest of the menu with her, asking for recommendations and whatnot and it’s only when she turns to leave do I realize that this lady is a freaking customer and I’ve been running my mouth at the wrong person for something like 10 minutes.

“The smallest order of sausages for takeaway is 150 baht,” says a 20something man behind the counter.

“Do you work here?” I ask. He may or he may not, but he throws in the vegetable juice chili dip for free, just so I can try it out.

It turns out the sausages are thick, closely-packed and meaty, peppered liberally with big melting chunks of pig fat. They taste like they’re supposed to, salty and herbal but with a generous kick of chili spice, so I get why people like them. The real revelation, though, is the chili dip, which is fibrous and green, yes, tasting just like Claussen dill pickle juice. I love it.

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What’s Cooking: Bamee Slow

My stab at "bamee kai", or egg egg noodles

My stab at “bamee kai”, or egg egg noodles

It’s on. Stress has taken hold, and I am feeling overwhelmed. As deadlines loom and previously-unforeseen hitches suddenly rear their little heads, I find myself reacting in strange ways. Please don’t be alarmed. If you see me staring at you, I am not contemplating you for dinner. I don’t see you at all. If you are foolish enough to say something to me, do not be startled if I spout even more rubbish than usual. I am trying to work something out.

In my present state, I have discovered some people enjoy my company more than usual. These are twisted and strange people. They are also food lovers. Because, in an attempt to keep from creeping as many people out as I usually do, I have retreated to the kitchen, where I can be as weird as I want and as brave as I like. It’s all OK, you see. My inevitable failures here won’t be as heartbreaking. And the results, as pitiful as they are, can be shared by everyone.

Today, I am attempting to replicate one of my favorite comfort foods, the bamee kai (egg noodles with, um, egg) from Bamee Slow, officially referred to as  “Bamee Giew Moo Song Krueang” (open after 8pm at the entrance to Ekamai soi 19). Diners who like these noodles enough to queue up for them — and Thais have a hard time lining up for anything — affectionately call this place “Bamee Slow” because the khun lung (old “uncle”) manning the stall makes every bowl one by one, and it can take up to half an hour to get your order (for the record, the longest I have waited is 22 minutes). He has since stepped back from the soup vat and his daughter has taken over, and I am told she is a bit faster. But their noodles are as popular as ever.

What I love are the al dente, silky noodles, coated with the unctuous yellow yolk that eventually spills out of every unlucky egg plonked into each bowl. Slices of red pork, sturdy bits of Chinese kale, crumbled minced pork bits: none are immune from the reach of the yolk. This is what I am trying to capture, in my own small way.

Before starting, you need to make sure you have a big enough strainer that will hold all your noodles while ensuring that all the starch washes away, so that your egg noodles are not a smooshed-up Jack Sparrow-like bird’s nest, rendering your entire bowl a sad mess like the remnants of my career. Also, like the people at Bamee Slow, you should make up each bowl one-by-one: it really does make for better noodles.

I boiled a handful of pork soup bones in water with some garlic and white peppercorns for an hour, skimming periodically, and then flavored the broth with soy sauce and roasted chili paste (the ingredient that I think lends the toxic orange color to Bamee Slow’s broth). However, if you don’t have the time or inclination for this, pan-fry some minced pork with or without pork soup bones first, then cover with water and boil for a few minutes before starting. Or, simply get a couple of pork bouillon cubes into some hot water and proceed without delay. It’s all up to you.

Bamee Slow’s egg noodles (makes 2 servings)

– 200 g pork soup bones

– 500 ml water

-2 garlic cloves

– 5-10 white peppercorns, depending on how peppery you like it

– 1 tsp nam prik pow (roasted chili paste)

– 1 tsp salt

– 3 Tbs soy sauce

– 200 g minced pork

– 200 g fresh egg noodles

– 4 stalks Chinese broccoli or kale

– 2 eggs, soft-boiled (boiled for 3-4 minutes), cooled in an ice bath, and peeled

– Sugar, chili powder, fish sauce, white vinegar (for garnish)

To make:

1. Boil first four ingredients for an hour, skimming periodically.

2. Season with soy sauce, salt, roasted chili paste and more white pepper. Adjust to your taste.

3. Add minced pork and allow to boil for a few minutes until pork is cooked, skimming scum off of surface.

4. Add your greens.

5. Place half of your noodles in a strainer and immerse in the broth, skimming more off the surface if needed. Wait 2-3 minutes for noodles to “cook” and lose their starch.

6. Place in a bowl and ladle broth with minced pork (but without pork bones) over the noodles. Garnish with egg and greens and, if you have it, a few slices of Chinese-style barbecued red pork.

7. Serve alongside sugar, chili powder, fish sauce, white vinegar (with or without sliced or smashed chilies) and ground peanuts, if you like.

 

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What’s Cooking: Moo Jum

Image

Finally, a decent approximation

Isaan food is a celebration of simple things, put forth very directly and forcefully. Your finger-licking renditions of gai yang (grilled chicken) and nuea nam thok (spicy beef salad) aren’t content to sit mutely on your tabletop, requesting your appreciation; slightly smoky and full of heat, they practically shout I AM DELICIOUS as you cram morsel after succulent morsel down your throat. Paired with a hank of sticky rice and the battalion of condiments that Thais cannot resist pairing with everything, they are unstoppable, a food army that cannot be resisted, taking up all the valuable real estate in your gut that you have reserved for something useful, like beer.

Moo Jum (located at the entrance of Suan Luang Soi 3 after 6pm) specifically traffics in these very dishes, the ones that make you sorry you stuffed yourself silly. Like most great Isaan cooks, they focus on straightforward simplicity. The namesake dish, an Isaan-style sukiyaki, is a spicy-tart broth in which unwitting vegetables, sawtooth coriander, Thai basil, pork and an egg are dunked, creating an aromatic melange good enough to eat even on sweltering hot nights. A simple spicy squid salad, rings of flesh barely blanched, dressed in sharp shards of Thai celery stalk and chili. And of course, their famed kor moo yang (grilled pork collar): sweeter than up north to be sure, charred at the edges from the grill, lacquered like a freshly-baked pie, as brown as the skin of a dedicated bodybuilder.

For all its supposed simplicity, I have struggled with this recipe. The basic recipe (as outlined in Chef McDang’s “The Principles of Thai Cookery”) uses a basic marinade of mashed garlic cloves, pounded coriander root, 1/4 cup of soy sauce, and 10 white peppercorns that is then slathered onto the meat. Very traditional, but nothing to set hearts aflutter. I tried to build on that recipe by going back to the marinade’s roots, substituting fish sauce for soy and adding some palm sugar. The result: ho-hum. I then tried to add molasses paired with fish sauce: NO DO NOT DO THIS EVER. It appears that where modern versions of kor moo yang are concerned, it is best to stick to soy sauce and build on that.

So last night, alongside an odd pairing of roasted cauliflower and soba noodles, I made some more pork collar for unsuspecting victims-slash-guests who had come over expecting dinner. The result was not awful! This is the best iteration of Moo Jum’s kor moo yang so far.

Kor Moo Yang (serves 4, just barely)

– 400 g pork collar (or shoulder)

– 4 garlic cloves

– 2-3 coriander roots, washed

– 1/2 tsp white peppercorns

– 1/4 cup soy sauce

– 1 Tb brown sugar

– 1 Tb sweet soy sauce

To make:

1. As in Chef McDang’s recipe, mash garlic, peppercorns and coriander root into a paste with mortar and pestle. Add soy sauce and sweet soy sauce and mash that all together to form marinade. Add brown sugar.

2. In a large mixing bowl, pour marinade over pork and allow to infuse meat, ideally overnight, or at least four hours.

3. When ready, grill meat until brown and charred a bit at the edges. If you, like me, don’t own a grill (why are American males so into grilling?), heat up a nice heavy pan (I use a cast-iron one) that has been oiled beforehand, and brown the pork until it’s a nice caramel-ish color. Then stick this into the oven that’s been set at 180 degrees Celsius for about 15 minutes, or until the edges gain the same charred edges and sticky-looking exterior that you would have gotten via grilling.

4. Slice and serve with a tamarind or sweet chili sauce, along with some sticky rice.

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What’s cooking: Khao Soy Islam

Our pork and chicken satay

Our pork and chicken satay

(Photo by Christopher Schultz)

Real friends always, somehow, prove themselves to you. My friend Dwight is able to go an entire lunch watching me try to shove morning glory into my mouth and talk at the same time. My friend Karen is able to listen to me blather for hours on end about my aching foot, or the last conversation I had with my mother. And my friend Chris is able to stomach all manner of Thai “dishes” I manage to throw at him, no matter how repugnant.

(NOTE: Real friends also tell you when your entire post is wrong. Karen has gently reminded me that Khao Soi Islam is run by a Muslim family, so they don’t serve pork! Me no remember. I will either 1. Have to rejig this recipe to do beef and chicken satays, like they REALLY do it at Khao Soi Islam, or 2. try to emulate the satay at Samerjai or Lamduan Faham. Accuracy is so tiresome.  This is what happens when I write a post in half an hour before picking up my daughter from school. The sauce recipe for the pork satay below is still pretty good though).  

It is hard to make pork satay repugnant. While pork satay is a fine street food dish all on its own, served by vendors up and down and across the land, it is also, inexplicably, the go-to accompaniment for the Northern Thai curried noodles known as khao soy — indeed, no northern Thai vendor worth his or her salt would sell without it.

While the satays at Lamduan Faham and Samerjai in Chiang Mai are rightly praised, it’s the one at Khao Soy Islam in Lampang (Prasanuk Rd., 054-227-826, open 9-14.30 daily) that sticks with me most. Run by a husband and wife team who have served up this dish for the past several decades, Khao Soy Islam also serves a particularly “curry-like” bowl of noodles where they gradually add the coconut milk to the chili paste base bit by bit, over a period of time, instead of all at once at the end like Lamduan. The result is more intense and silkier, and possibly my favorite of all the exemplary bowls available up North.

Like most vendors, Khao Soy Islam is a family affair. The son grills up both chicken and pork satays, with freshly-made peanut dipping sauce and a slightly sweet-sour ajad of cucumber, shallot and chilies. It was this satay that Chris and I tasked ourselves with trying to replicate.

A brief note: We used kebab-style cubes of pork tenderloin here, because I am really lazy and just bought stuff from the grocer’s pre-cut. It’s fine, but doesn’t absorb the marinade as well as a thinly-sliced piece of meat would. We also made this in the oven, but if you have a grill, please use it by all means. Grill 5-7 minutes, or until meat bears a slight, delicious char.

Pork and chicken Satay (makes 4 servings)

– 300 g pork shoulder, sliced thinly

– 300 g chicken thigh, sliced

– 1 Tablespoon curry powder

– 1/2 cup coconut milk

– 1 Tablespoon honey

– 2 Tablespoons fish sauce

– 2 Tablespoons soy sauce

– 3 garlic cloves, smashed

– 2 shallots, smashed

– 1-3 red chilies, crushed

– Satay sticks

To make:

1. Soak satay sticks in water.

2. Setting meat aside, combine all other ingredients to make marinade. Pour half of marinade over pork and other half over chicken and set in refrigerator for at least an hour.

3. When ready to cook, turn oven on to full whack and thread meat onto sticks. Place sticks onto oiled baking sheet (or, ideally, a cooling rack set on top of a baking sheet) and set in position closest to heat. “Grill” for 5-7 minutes, or until meat is browned and even slightly charred at edges.

For Chris’s peanut sauce:

– 1 1/2 cup dry roasted peanuts (unsalted), or 3/4 cup smooth peanut butter

– 1/2 cup coconut milk

– 3 garlic cloves, minced

– 1 tsp soy sauce

– 1 1/2 tsp sesame oil

– 1 Tablespoon brown sugar (omit if using peanut butter)

– 1 Tablespoon fish sauce (or to taste)

– 2 tsp tamarind paste (or lime juice)

– 1 tsp Sriracha sauce or Thai chili sauce

– 1/4 cup water (if needed to thin mixture)

Process until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings until balance between tangy, spicy, sweet and salty is achieved.

For cucumber-shallot relish:

– 1 small cucumber, washed and sliced

– 3 red chilies, sliced

– 3 shallots, sliced

– 1/2 cup rice vinegar

– 1 Tablespoon white sugar

Combine all ingredients, making sure sugar dissolves in vinegar. Serve with satay, peanut sauce, and toasted white bread if you are so inclined.

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Curry wishes and deep-fry dreams

Deep-fried pork belly and curry on rice at Mae Awn

Deep-fried pork belly and curry on rice at Mae Awn

Nearly every Thai food lover I know professes a deep affinity for Thailand’s street food. Never mind that it is frequently infuriating, with its occasional long waits, its heat and smoke, its intermittent inconsistencies. It’s the grime, the capricious grumps who serve as owners, the odd feral cat or two that turn street food from a sweaty, hurried interval spent pouring rice down your facehole into a quick “immersion in the Thai culture”, set in romantic, picturesque squalor.

I’m not saying the pursuit of street food is an exercise in culinary Orientalism — unless you think the locals are guilty of doing this too. Because, as much as some people think the fetishization of street food equals a food-centric depiction of the so-called “Noble Savage”, the truth is still very simple: much of Thailand’s best food is still on the street, and those plastic stools and dingy shophouses are still dominated by Thais. Thais love good Thai food. Visiting Thai food lovers want to eat what Thais eat. It is as easy as that.

Nothing quite captures the freewheeling, exuberant quality of Thai street food quite like khao gaeng (or khao gub gaeng, or khao raad gaeng, all of which mean “curry on rice”). These streetside “buffets” are actually excuses for people to act like frigging maniacs aka Lindsay Lohan in a jewelry store — a free-for-all where the ultimate reward is a pleasantly full tummy. A tableful of curries awaits; you pick up a plate of rice and choose anywhere from one to three curries … or more if your vendor is willing.

My friend Winner, who — despite his curious allegiance to the 49ers — knows Banglamphu street food better than anyone I know, is a huge fan of khao gaeng. His favorite: Raan Khao Gaeng Mae Awn, moored in the shadow of Saphan Lek and kitty-corner to the Mega Plaza. Its sign looks like this:

Look for this sign

Look for this 

Despite winning plaudits from various lady-cenric morning shows, this stall still retains its street cred — a credibly crabby lady doling out rice and curries, a handful of tables with plastic stools and a layer of grease, and the requisite crowd keen to jab you in the ear with their elbows as they pass by. Why Winner likes it: the superiority of their thom jeud (clear soup, because no Thai eats rice without some kind of soup), the popularity of its moo kem (deep-fried pork belly) and the sheer diversity of their daily offerings.

A (sort of) moveable feast

A (sort of) moveable feast

It’s a curry (and stir-fry, and deep-fried tidbits) bar, quite possibly the best kind. But no need to skulk off to Banglamphu to get some good curry action; there is an array of rice toppings (of varying sizes) at nearly every major intersection and street corner in the city. The one I frequent is next to Benjasiri Park, behind Emporium, while next to Emporium on Sukhumvit, a mammoth curry rice stand doles out food on Sundays. Find your own favorite.

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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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