Category Archives: pork

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

Just Delish

Something different: naem tod

It will probably not surprise you when I tell you I think Bangkok street food is the best in the world. It’s not just the flavors or the “above-the-title” dishes: the pad thai, the som tum, the I’m-gonna-kill-you spices or soothing coconut cream. It’s the sheer breadth of it, the mind-boggling variety — from soups and salads to grilled hunks of meat to curries to porridges to desserts and everything in between; even the formats change, from shophouses to mobile vendors to cafeteria-like khao gub gaeng (curry rice) to aharn tham sung (made-to-order). There is so much variety that sometimes people argue over whether something is even actually “street food” or not. Having been to a few countries over the past few year, I can tell you that this is a great luxury, to get to argue over what category So-and-So place actually falls into. Thailand is very blessed, food-wise.

To me, naem tod is an example of the awesomeness of Thai street food: a recent discovery that I now can’t help seeing everywhere I go. Naem, the beloved sour fermented sausage originating from both the North and Northeastern regions of the country. Usually made from a mix of pork, crunchy piggy bits like cartilage or skin, chilies, garlic and a bit of sticky rice, naem is wrapped up and “cooked” by leaving it to ferment for a few days, lending the meat its characteristic tang (for the record, my mother’s favorite naem maker is “Naem Anchan” in Chiang Mai).

Thais like to make sure everything is presented in its own special way, and naem is no different. The “proper” way to serve it — the best way to offset its acidity and slightly gummy texture — is with whole fresh bird’s eye chilies, fresh ginger, bits of rind-on lime,  slivered shallots, roasted peanuts and fresh cabbage. What naem tod does is to basically combine the shredded sour sausage (or, in some vendors’ cases, pork skin or cartilage) with its accompaniments, chopped salad-style, and top it with Northeastern Thai-inspired “croutons”: shredded bits of deep-fried sticky rice. The ensuing salad is then tossed lightly in a spicy yum-like dressing (a mix of fish sauce, lime juice, chilies and sugar).

Naem tod vendors can be spotted by the glimpse of croquette-like deep-fried sticky rice balls they usually place on their carts — these vendors are almost always ambulatory. The fixings that go with naem are also included, alongside “fresh” veggies like the aforementioned cabbage, sawtooth coriander and/or betel leaves. As for the name, well, the naem is occasionally wrapped in the sticky rice and deep-fried, which I think is ingenious. But sometimes it’s just shredded, or there is an approximation of it via just using the crunchy pig bits, and that’s ok, because the flavors and textures are all still there: fiery hot and tart, mitigated by some crunch and a bit of bounce.

The vendor I photographed here is in front of the Kasikornbank near Sukhumvit 33; he is on Sukhumvit 23 in the afternoons. There is another one at the entrance to the shortcut to the Polo Club from Rama IV Road, next to the Esso gas station by the muay Thai stadium there. My favorite, though, is at the entrance to Petchburi Soi 14.

The naem tod vendor’s typical wares

 

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

Misson: Sort of possible

Beef noodles at Niyom Pochana in Lampang

It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me when I say that I’m terrible at directions. No matter how hard I try, my mind sort of switches off as the landscape flashes by, and before I know it, I’m where I need to be through no effort of my own.

So maybe it was a bad idea to go to Lampang for the express purpose of trying out some beef noodles I had eaten a few years earlier that I remembered were pretty good. My directions to the hapless, Chiang Rai-born driver we hired for the day: “There are some famous beef noodles at a stall near a temple in town. There is lots of greenery around it.” If we were lucky, this would be enough. How big can Lampang be, amirite?

Not a surprise, then, that we got lost. Many times. It turns out there are lots of temples in Lampang, the third-largest town in Northern Thailand and home to a large deposit of lignite. Go Lampang!

There are also lots of different definitions on “famous beef noodles”. Whereas I meant “delicious noodles with beef in them”, other people took it to mean “the closest noodle shop to where I am right now at this moment”, “that place that I heard might have noodles across town”, and “the barbecued pork on rice place”.

We bulled our way onto various temple grounds, disturbing monks doing their laundry and workers eating their lunches.  We squeezed our van into various dead-end alleys and one-way thoroughfares. Worst of all, we walked — from one end of a road to another, up and down sidewalks, investigating every sign. Let me tell you (please! Let me!), it’s not cool in Northern Thailand’s third-largest town at the moment. It’s not even a little breezy. More than once, we thought: maybe these noodles aren’t that good? Maybe we’ll eat somewhere else? Somewhere close and convenient?

But that’s not what we’re about. The whole point of our existence is to find that One Special Place that will serve us something good and/or do it in an interesting way. It took about three hours to chance upon the one man — a driver of the horse-drawn carriages for which charming little Lampang is known, if Lampang is known for anything at all — who told us to go straight, turn left, turn right, and then left again. Simple! Beef noodles were to be ours, after only half a day spent searching.

Niyom Pochana shopfront

Niyom Pochana — known also as “Oyo” (I don’t know why) — is actually located in the shadow of Muangsat Temple (I knew there was a temple somewhere) on Charoenmuang Road. Its specialty is actually its meatballs, both beef and pork, as well as its generous additions of boiled pork, freshly-blanched beef slices and stewed beef atop soft rice noodles, a clear pork bone broth and a handful of shredded cabbage leaves.

Niyom Pochana meatballs

Don’t be late, because the meatballs can and do run out. Perhaps, next time, barring any more delays (I mean, I can’t get lost again, right? Right?) I will get as many brimming bowlfuls of beef meatballs as I can possibly eat. At least we found the place, and I can rest easy and sated knowing that our hours-long search was worth it.

(All photos by @SpecialKRB)

 

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Filed under Asia, beef, food, food stalls, noodles, Northern Thailand, pork, Thailand

Getting to the meaty part of Chiang Mai

Fish larb at Raan Larb Pa Than

Northern Thailand is a lovely place full of peace-loving people, but their food betrays a bloodthirstiness not readily apparent to the casual observer. There is the dish of light and butterflies known as khao soy and the barely perceptible calf muscle exercises called “Lanna dance”, yes, but there is also bile and blood and innards and raw meat, the stuff you see in the aftermath of a hyena attack, the stuff that people shy away from in the wet market. This is real northern food.

Raan Larb Pa Than, out past the Pa Than bridge, specializes in this type of food. Like everywhere else in the north, it’s full of fun-loving gentle northerners strapping on the feedbag big time; unlike everywhere else, this restaurant specializes in larb dee kom, or minced salad of anything considered delicious, like fish, pork, or beef (no chicken, and pork and beef also come in raw versions). A particular stand-out is their larb of freshwater fish, lighter and more delicate than its bloodier counterparts.

Our neighbor’s table

But larb is not the only thing they have. There is also saa, which, contrary to my earlier understanding, does not refer only to vegetables, but appears to be a term nearly interchangeable with yum — a spicy, tart salad made with chunks of stuff. There is lupia, yet another meat salad term that refers to combining the minced protein with blood and lemongrass to diminish any hints of gaminess. There is yaw (tripe) and jin nung (steamed bull, really) and sai tod (fried innards) alongside the usuals you would want to run to like a child to its mother like gaeng om (clear, tart soup) and som tum (minced vegetable or fruit salad). It’s a place of serious meat eaters AND drinkers — the Saeng Som was out in full force at lunchtime on a Tuesday. It’s food for people who work hard, flavored with dipping sauces and a nam prik tha dang (red-eye chili paste) spicy enough to blow steam out of your ears.

You might need this

Another spot for people who, at the very least play hard, is Midnight Fried Chicken (also somehow known as Midnight Sticky Rice, or Midnight Fried Pork, or likely anything else this place is good at) on Kamphaeng Din Road. As the name suggests, it is open like clockwork at the stroke of midnight, every day, until 5 in the morning.  The clientele reflects this accordingly: young, T-shirted hipsters out on dates or in groups, stuffing themselves with fried things right before bed, as the young frequently do. It is not a place for me, but I was here all the same, and would come again, if only for the heavenly fried pork which, in all fairness, should be the name of this food stall.

Midnight Chicken

You will probably be able to pick out this stall from the queue of hungry clubgoers waiting patiently outside; if you are lucky, as we were, you will get a table roadside instead of a table on a lower level in the back. You pick out your choices by checking the names of dishes you want (in Thai); you serve yourself water from a jug and bin of ice behind the partition. It is, to put it mildly, a down-at-home kind of place. That doesn’t mitigate the enjoyment of stuffing your face full of delicious fried meats with sticky rice and nam prik (chili paste), not one bit. So what if it’s a weeknight? Sleep in late tomorrow, and indulge tonight.

Stuff your face

(All photos by @SpecialKRB)

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Filed under Asia, beef, Chiang Mai, chicken, fish, food, food stalls, Northern Thailand, pork, restaurant, som tum, Thailand

Breakfast in Hua Hin

Congealed pig’s blood in soup — a common Thai breakfast dish

It doesn’t happen very often, maybe, but it might — somehow, for no reason at all, you wake up at 6 in the morning with an empty stomach, having picked at a watermelon salad at the neighboring hotel the night before. You are starving. You need food, pronto.

Luckily, Hua Hin has it all covered. This once-sleepy seaside town — the traditional weekend getaway of time-pressed Bangkokians everywhere — may be an amateur when it comes to approximating any sort of nightlife, but is everything a morning person with a love of food could possibly want. By 6, it’s already buzzing: steam rising from curry-filled pots; dough rolled out for the morning’s first patongko (Chinese fried bread) order; monks out strolling the market, bowls in hand.

When I get to Pa Choung (4/3 Amnuaysin Rd., 082-212-4490, open 6-noon), she is in the middle of making merit. On the hob: a fiery gaeng som full of little shrimp and dok kae (what I’ve seen referred to on some menus as cowslip blossoms), pad ped moo pa (stir-fried curried wild boar), dried and butterflied fish, sun-dried beef, deep-fried pork cutlets and a green curry full of slivered bamboo shoots.

Green curry and deep-fried pork: breakfast of champions

This isn’t all of it. She says she is finished making all of the food at 8. But it’s usually gone by 8:30. I’m happy with the smattering of curries already there.

But while Pa Choung is a one-woman curry-making machine, Raan Kafae Jek Pia (intersection of Naebkehardt and Dechanuchit Roads, open 6:30-1:30pm) is clearly Breakfast Central for the entire town. Every table is occupied, and on nearly every tabletop is a mug of sludge-like kafae boran (old-fashioned coffee), flavored with a layer of condensed milk. But this is not the main attraction. Instead, it’s the collection of stalls that service Kafae Jek Pia’s customers: jok moo (Chinese-style rice porridge with minced pork); khao thom pla (rice porridge with fish); guaythiew (noodles in soup); and, most intriguing of all, gow low lued moo (pig’s blood in soup), traditionally served for breakfast here, in a country not really known for its breakfast foods.

Cubes of pig’s blood blanched in broth

Pig’s blood cubes are taken from a chilled bowl and blanched in boiling broth for a few minutes. They are then added to slices of pork, blanched Thai watercress, some Thai celery for freshness, and a dash of deep-fried garlic for bitterness and punch. There are bits of innards too: intestine and liver and slices of heart. It’s a one-stop shop for piggy flavor. Sometimes, if you pair it with a plain bowl of rice, you can drop some of that in there too, or take a spoonful and dunk it, watching the grains soak in the broth, a bite at a time. It’s the best antidote to thinking too much that, well, I can think of. What else is breakfast for, if not that brief reprieve before the start of the day?

 

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Filed under Asia, food, food stalls, Hua Hin, pork, rice, Thailand