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Isaan Road Trip

A coconut milk-based snail curry in Pak Chong

A coconut milk-based snail curry in Pak Chong

I am rubbish on road trips. I can’t drive, and I don’t like to read maps or mess around with GPS. I am good with the radio, but if it’s not Boston, or Led Zeppelin, or Rush, I will probably try to rush past your favorite song in pursuit of something from one of these three groups. My friend Karen (@karenblumberg) can tell you I’m rubbish on road trips, if you asked her (but she wouldn’t, because she’s loyal and kind and my best friend), but, for some reason, Chin (@chilipastetour) and Anne (@anneskitchen) are both willing to spend a whopping 6 days with me cooped up in a car!

In all seriousness though, it’s for a very good reason. We are going to be tasting Isaan, Chin’s home turf. Despite the huge popularity of Isaan food in Thailand — and its growing popularity abroad — Isaan as a region has yet to draw the kinds of tourist numbers that Northern Thailand and the South see. That boggles my mind, since its Laos- and Vietnam-influenced food — succulent meats on the grill, tart and spicy larbs (minced salads) thick with roasted rice kernels, som tum (grated salads) of every possible variation, eggs cooked in a pan with steamed pork sausage (kai kata) and sticky rice — are what a lot of Thai food lovers think of when they think of their favorite dishes. Why not go to the source?

Yet Isaan remains bewilderingly under-visited. Every national park and waterfall we visited had either just a handful of people or, in some dazzlingly lucky cases, was completely abandoned. Restaurants, if full, were full of locals. Hotels were populated with Thai tourists from somewhere close by. For travelers who want a slice of something truly “authentic”, an experience just like that of someone living right there where you are visiting, you really can do no better than Thailand’s northeast: the country’s most populous region, producing some of its most memorable food, yet still strangely underrated.

Our road trip started with a stop at Pak Chong, just a few hours’ drive from Bangkok but still seen as the gateway to Isaan. While there, we sampled the wares at the restaurant Mae Fai Pla Pow, where of course we had the namesake grilled fish which came stuffed with roasted eggplant and accompanied with a platterful of fresh vegetables served under a layer of ice cubes to keep them crunchy, plus six dipping sauces (nam jim).

"Pla pow", or grilled fish, at Mae Fai Pla Pow

“Pla pow”, or grilled fish, at Mae Fai Pla Pow

These fabulous sauces (Thais are all about the sauce, after all) included a nam prik gapi (shrimp paste chili dip); a tart/spicy seafood dipping sauce; a sweet tamarind dipping sauce to go with the sadao (a bitter river herb) served alongside the fish; and a dipping sauce flavored liberally with the essence of mangda (giant water beetle). These big critters feature in a lot of Isaan cuisine, either pounded into chili dips, deep-fried whole, or steamed. The taste is heavily floral, slightly cucumber-y, and even a little sweet. It’s just one of many examples of Isaan ingenuity.

Mangda at the market

Mangda at the market

At the Pak Chong market the next morning, we indulged in a couple of kafae boran (old-fashioned Thai coffees), sweetened with condensed milk and accompanied by a couple of glasses of Chinese tea to cut the sugary flavor.

borancoffee

We also came across a “sticky rice” stall, where you get your pick of toppings — most porky and/or deep-fried — which are then plopped onto a handful of sticky rice and wrapped in a banana leaf to stay warm:

Making a selection at the sticky rice vendor

Making a selection at the sticky rice vendor

Selections made

Selections made

Later on, we hit Korat, where a lot of the Mon-style fermented rice noodles known as kanom jeen are made. In fact, we were lucky enough to reach “kanom jeen row”, an entire aisle of rice noodle vendors featuring highly-spiced curries — usually including nam prik (sweet peanut curry), nam ya pa (fish curry without coconut milk), and/or nam ya (fish curry) — complete with the requisite toppings like shredded banana blossom, fresh bean sprouts and sliced green beans set conveniently in front of stools to sit on.

"Kanom jeen pradok" at a market in Korat

“Kanom jeen pradok” at a market in Korat

I ended up choosing a mix of the sweet peanut curry and nam ya, topping it with a scattering of bean sprouts, sliced and blanched morning glory stems, and the julienned banana blossoms:

kanomjeenbowl

 

Another noodle dish we saw frequently on our table was the Vietnamese-inflected dish guay jab yuan (Vietnamese-style Chinese noodles), which, despite its name, employs a boatload of Thai flavor embodied in the sweetness of deep-fried shallots and an armload of dried spice. The best town for this dish by far was Ubon Ratchathani. However, the version we had at Mukdahan was more photogenic.

guayjab

Of course, no trip to Isaan is complete without a sampling of each town’s best som tum. Whatever your views on the fermented Thai fish known as pla rah, every som tum we had felt like som tum as it is meant to be: fresh, juicy, and heavy with the deep bass note pungency of salty fish. Just about every street side vendor we encountered proved adept with the mortar and pestle, and every variation was available to us, including green banana leavened with yellow Thai eggplant and the standard green papaya. But one of our favorites was a version made with cucumber and tomato:

Cucumber som tum at a roadside stall

Cucumber som tum at a roadside stall

One of my favorite things about Isaan was the seasonality of the ingredients and the immediacy (read: simplicity) of the cooking. Many of the things we ate were foraged from nearby. In fact, taking a walk through the woods with Chin involved a “Hunger Games”-like cataloguing of all the plants and leaves that were edible (note: a lot of this stuff is edible). One great meal involved buying mountain mushrooms from a roadside vendor who had just plucked them from a hillside 5 km away that morning:

Fresh mountain mushrooms

Fresh mountain mushrooms

A few minutes later, those mushrooms were being cooked at a roadside stall down the road, replete with chilies, a bit of pla rah juice, and herbs gathered by Chin from the nearby forest:

mushroomstew

The best meal, though, was cooked by Chin’s parents who — amazingly — set up a makeshift outdoor kitchen over the course of three days expressly for our visit! It was a lesson in real Isaan cooking: food seasoned with pla rah, fish sauce, and salt, cooked simply over two charcoal braziers, with many of the ingredients — down to the mushrooms, peppercorns, fruits and herbs — gathered from the backyard. We ended up with a gargantuan Isaan feast, featuring shredded bamboo shoot salad with chilies and toasted rice kernels, sliced pork with rice vermicelli and a scattering of fresh herbs, a quick and tasty soup of locally reared chicken thick with fresh dill, a larb of chicken skin and livers, grilled pork belly, steamed mushrooms dipped in a chili-flecked fish sauce … I am sure I am forgetting something. It was a dizzying array of great food.

Feast at Chin's family home

Feast at Chin’s family home

Let’s focus on that great bamboo shoot salad (soup naw mai, one of my very favorite Isaan dishes) again:

So good

So good

The meal encompassed everything I’ve come to learn about Isaan: the generosity, the hospitality, and of course, the great, fresh, seasonal produce cooked simply and flavored with only a handful of different seasonings. I may be ruined for every other kind of food for a while now.

 

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Glutton Abroad: All we do in KL is eat

A bowl of assam laksa from Penang Cuisine in Publika

A bowl of assam laksa from Penang Cuisine in Publika

Frequently, when one is comparing A to B, it’s always a case of either/or, or this versus that. It is never about both things being awesome. I think it is because we are bred to think of things in terms of conflict. But A can indeed be as good as B, if different, and it would be foolish to choose one over the other. I mean, who would choose between Loki and Thor if you can have both?

So I am here to say that — while I still love Thai cuisine — Malaysian food is absolutely, indisputably delicious. Not everything makes me want to rend my garments with how wonderful it is: for instance, Chinese-style laksa seems like an exercise in flavor layering  that is unnervingly similar to how a 3-year-old puts together a sundae (let’s have that, and then this, and then a little more of the other thing, and while we’re at it, more of that again). At the same time, there are dishes that are tear-out-your-heart, stomp-on-the-ground yummy. Malaysian food is varied and many-dimensional and complicated, sure. And I’ve only just scratched the surface! The verdict, after one short trip to Kuala Lumpur, is the one that I ultimately feared: I cannot believe I waited so long to eat here.

Chinese-style laksa with tofu, fried wontons, egg noodles and cockles

Chinese-style laksa with fried and fresh tofu, pork, fried wontons, egg noodles and cockles

I know our culinary “guide” May means business when she sends us a detailed food itinerary a couple of weeks in advance. She jokes about it being “gut busting”, but it really and truly is. There was once a time when I could eat like this, like when I was researching my first book only a few years ago — a handful of places, three times a day. The trick, you are supposed to tell yourself, is to remember to “graze” so that there is enough room for everything to fit.

This is truly easier said than done. Especially when you are presented with the delectable char siew (Chinese-style barbecued pork) at Restoran Meng Char Siew (13 Tengkat Tong Shin, 012-252-1943). Unlike the other versions I’ve tried, this pork is neither overly sugary nor brittle with glaze; it’s a soft, melting heft of meat lacquered with sweet and bitter from the makeshift drum-like “ovens” in the kitchen.

Malaysian barbecued pork

Malaysian barbecued pork

There is less worry about offsetting greasiness with something cleansing or tangy in Malaysia, so here you have your “oiled” rice (similar to the rice you get with chicken rice) or your rice vermicelli drenched in soy sauce and your freshly sliced cucumber and maybe a stir fry of lettuce or bean sprouts (ideally from Ipoh, because those are the best, says May from Ipoh). Then you call it a day. Or, in our case, we call it an hour, because it’s already time to head off to the next destination. But before we go, May stops to watch the pork meatball vendor at work next door. Unlike the Thai pork pellets that are skewered and then grilled over an open flame, these meatballs are golf ball-sized masses of pig, served with a burning hot pork broth and bits of green onion. They are small enough to trick you into thinking you can eat them in one bite, but big enough to turn that endeavor into a total disaster.

“You should try a couple,” May urges me, but it’s too much, and I am already thinking of the next restaurant.

“Oh no, I will die if we have any more food right now,” I say.

“Two meatballs!” May answers, before I am presented with a small plastic bag of balls that I am free to carry into the car to maybe nosh on later.

So no, I did not die, because I am sitting here writing this right now, duh. And my stomach did settle in time to sample the eye-opening bak kuh teh at Teluk Pulai (Claypot) Bak Kuh Teh (32 Jalan Batai Laut 5, 03-3344-5196). I am used to the Singporean and Thai-Chinese version of this dish, which is referred to as the “peppery” kind involving cooking greens and pork into a sort of vegetal sludge. I absolutely loathe this dish. It reminds me of Italian ribollita, which I also find revolting. Why ruin all the best parts of the vegetables? But here, they specialize in the “herbal” type of bak kuh teh, which means the greens are strewn over the top as the pot of pork is served at your table, alongside rice and cut-up deep-fried crullers (patongko) to soak up all the delicious pork broth.

bakkuhteh

There is also a “dry” kind of bak kuh teh, which was sort of a revelation for me: no broth, no greens, just a bunch of slowly braised pork bits, heavily coated with bah kuh teh spices, what appears to be the cooked-down broth, and dark soy sauce.

dry

The crullers go with the “wet” bak kuh teh. I didn’t know that when I took this photo.

As full as I was from the barbecued pork, I could not pass up this dish — a dish I had previously dreaded seeing on the dinner table. Another thing I remember dreading: Chinese food, the kind that my parents would drive two hours to Cleveland for. There, at a restaurant called “Bo Loong”, my parents would get their Asian food fix while we kids moped around like mourners at a funeral, eating plain rice and wishing ourselves at McDonald’s.

But even my parents, longtime Bo Loong boosters, would say that Restaurant Oversea (84-88 Jalan Imbi, +603-2144-9911) is a far superior restaurant. In fact, it is now my favorite Chinese restaurant in the world. There are a bunch of excellent dishes: things that are slow-cooked in pots, or freshly plucked from the fish tanks downstairs, or (this being Malaysia) coated in that black sauce that seems capable of covering just about anything edible here. But there real reason I am hoping to go back is this (order 24 hours in advance):

Roast piglet with gravy at Restaurant Oversea Imbi

Roast piglet with gravy at Restaurant Oversea Imbi

Now, I look at this and feel a twinge. This was a baby pig. I do feel bad about that. But do I respond by crossing my arms and not partaking, basically rejecting the gift that this piglet has given us? Or do I dig in and honor this pig’s sacrifice to my stomach as heartily as possible? You can guess my reaction. It is: thank you, baby pig. Your tiny squares of skin, paired with the fluffy Chinese-style steamed bread (man tou), or chunks of fatty, tender flesh drenched in pork gravy. Your sweet little trotters. And then, yes, the head, cleaved in two and presented to my neighbor at the dinner table and me, in an unspoken foodie dare.

I nibbled at the ear as my neighbor exhorted me to dig in with my bare hands, tearing the head apart at the jaw to release more of the meat buried under the cheekbone. “Try the eye,” she said, poking it out from underneath the skull to pop into her mouth. And, well, if she went to St. Andrews with Prince William and could chow down on half a piglet head like it was NBD, then I could do it too. It tasted like nothing, like a crunchy piece of gelatin. I had passed.

This is nowhere near all the food that I had. There are other highlights: fish head curry, Assam laksa (like noodles in a gaeng som broth), various stir-fried noodle dishes, yam rice with a light, slightly sour broth peppered with pig innards. But it’s not even close to the end of the road for all the dishes I want to try. I’m no fortuneteller, but I see … another trip to KL looming in my future.

Pan mee from Kin Kin: noodles with dried fish, minced pork, chili and a poached egg

Pan mee from Kin Kin: noodles with dried fish, minced pork, chilies and a poached egg

 

 

 

 

 

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Sit Eat Talk

Steamed fish with soy sauce, one of the many courses at Nang Gin Kui

Steamed fish with soy sauce, one of the many courses at Nang Gin Kui

We all have our biases. They are shaped from our individual life experiences and form a part of who we are. If, for example, James Franco opens his mouth to say something, I am going to be predisposed against taking it seriously in any way. Same if the opinion comes from a person who refers to Daenerys Stormborn as “Khaleesi”. Nope nope nope nope. Not going to pay attention.

I kind of feel the same way about TripAdvisor. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think it’s completely useless. It’s just that I don’t really know about the methodology. In fact, I don’t know about any methodology, because I can’t math. I can only listen to people I know and trust, who tell me where to eat (and what to do and where to go). If, however, they are James Franco or a person who calls Daenerys Stormborn “Khaleesi”, then I don’t want to hear their opinions on good restaurants. Because 1.) I am a huge Game of Thrones nerd, and 2.) I won’t believe them. How many James Francos and “Khaleesi”-lovers submit reviews to TripAdvisor? No one knows, right? This is something to consider, TripAdvisor. This is cause for concern.

Just last week, though, I got to try dinner at the top-rated Bangkok restaurant on TripAdvisor, Nang Gin Kui (aka Eat, Pray, Love. Haha. Just kidding. It stands for Sit, Talk, Eat). It’s actually the very first restaurant I’ve tried that is currently listed in TripAdvisor’s top 10 Bangkok restaurants. At #2 is Creamery Boutique Ice Creams (yes, an ice cream parlor is Bangkok’s number two restaurant), and #3 is Chef Bar, which I’ve heard good things about but haven’t tried yet. These are then followed by Sensi Japanese restaurant and The District (huh? Never heard of either), followed by G’s Restaurant (there’s another German place besides Bei Otto?), JP French Restaurant, Reflexions (at the Plaza Athenee? Really?) Old Town Cafe, and finally Le Petit Zinc (oh yeah, I have tried that place). Maybe you have been to all these places and found them excellent, or maybe you don’t know them from Jorah Mormont’s half-bear sister. It’s all subjective, isn’t it? Do you take a chance or not?

Maybe. Because, as much shade as I’ll throw on an ice cream parlor being the second-ranked restaurant in Bangkok, I do totally understand why Nang Gin Kui is TripAdvisor’s #1. It is charming, intimate, lovely and — for a certain type of outgoing, personable diner (not me) — a lot of fun. It is also really, really smart. Set on the 15th floor of the oldest apartment house in a quiet riverside section of Chinatown, Nang Gin Kui is the brainchild of architect Florian Gypser and his girlfriend, chef Goy Siwaporn, who open up their own home to grubby outsiders about four times a week. Evenings are either “meet and greets” (where a bunch of strangers gather together and try to find common ground for a few hours) or private dinners for a couple or group of people, and they serve set menus of 12 courses which change nightly, depending on what’s fresh at the market.

One of the reasons Nang Gin Kui works is that, well, very few people have a nice, cozy space with a stunning view of the Chao Phraya River. Besides Le Normandie, this probably has the best view of the river I’ve seen — in fact, it might be better, because it’s up higher. My photos don’t really do it justice.

Riverside view

Riverside view

Another thing is, it’s a lot of food, with a whole lot of space in between — European-level amounts of space — that allow for plenty of conversation and digestion. The fare is mostly Asian-ish: Thai, with a bit of Chinese or Japanese and some fusion-y touches, depending on Goy’s mood. There are plenty of little nibbles to go with your aperitif, like tofu-and-sesame salad or asparagus wrapped in salmon, as well as heartier stuff (curry, grilled seafood). The cooking smartly avoids getting too fancy, or too fussy, in favor of simplicity and flavor. And food is not the only thing in abundance here; Florian is very, very good at making sure your champagne and wine glasses are filled at all times.

The ultimate effect is like a dinner party spent at the home of very ambitious and efficient foodie friends whom you’re just starting to get close to, so you’re trying to be as polite as possible to their other friends in order to score more invitations to their house. The only problem for Florian and Goy is that all I have to do is call them up and reserve a table if I want another evening with them! Something to consider, Florian and Goy. Cause for concern (for them).

NOTE: Despite my offer to pay, Florian and Goy comped my dinner. Can I be bought off by a pleasant, boozy evening full of food? Why, yes. YES I CAN. However, I also thought it was a fun experience and would have happily paid. Plus, I am not James Franco and refer to Dany by her real name. You can trust my opinion! Or not. More food for me.

 

 

 

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