Category Archives: rice porridge

Glutton-related matters: Out of the blue

Congee: it’s what’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

It happens — a reminder, out of the blue, that you are fallible, that nothing can be taken for granted. Not even eating. Not even for a Glutton.

Right now, I have TMJ issues. This happened, as you can imagine, out of the blue, while stuffing my face with Isaan food after a lengthy family trip in Hong Kong. Commonly referred to as simply “TMJ”, this affliction is also known as “lockjaw”, which results in a sharp, shooting pain while opening one’s mouth. Although hearing me talk less is surely a blessed thing for many, many people, anything that forces me to eat less is nothing less than a tragedy (for me).

The average person can open his or her jaw three fingers wide — a feat that I am sure we have all taken for granted. Without medication, I am stuck at a paltry one-and-a-half, and what food I do manage must be properly soft, sludgy and nursery-like, or pain in the temple and jaw joint will result. This leads to an interesting set of calculations every time I see a dish: without painkillers, the crunch of a raw vegetable, a steak, or a handful of nuts is absolutely excruciating — is it worth the pain? Do I love them that much? Sometimes, yes. More frequently, though, I veer towards fish, soft pasta, eggs, rice porridge, soup. I have become everyone’s least favorite great-aunt.

Suitably runny: a Thai dessert from Somsong Pochana

 

Now, I sometimes get shooting headaches and sudden bouts of dizziness. Meanwhile, the feeling that I have been fitted with someone else’s teeth is persistent, akin to, my doctor tells me, athletes who hurt their legs and experience a strange feeling in their muscles while running. I am like an injured athlete, guys. If eating counts as a sport. This somehow gives me comfort.

How does something like this happen? My doctor helpfully tells me that this is something almost 100 percent stress-related. This is funny to me, since I do absolutely nothing. Yet I still unconsciously clench my jaw, all the time — while writing on the computer, walking down the street, sleeping. I need to relearn how to keep my jaw from seizing up (apparently, the “correct posture” for my jaw is lips closed, teeth apart, tongue behind the front teeth like you are about to say “No”). I need to relax. I need a holiday after my holiday.

So I am taking it easy. I am swaddling my jaw in hot compresses, twice a day, 30 minutes at a time. I am doing my jaw exercises. I am trying not to yawn too widely. And, er, as for avoiding caffeine … well, let’s not go crazy. Baby bites. Eventually, I will get my way back to that double-decker sandwich. Fingers crossed. Wish me luck.

Someday I will be able to eat this BKK Bagel tuna melt, just like Kob

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

 

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, dessert, food, rice porridge, Thailand

Comfort food, Ubon-style

Red rice porridge at Santi Pochana

Comfort food is different for everyone, but it usually involves what you know best. That is why what other people like to think of as comfort food says so much about that person. For one person it’s ice cream; for someone else it’s mapo tofu. Whatever it is, it says where and what that person thinks of first when they think of home.

For Thais, comfort food usually involves rice porridge (and of course, for a people who say “kin khao” when they mean “to eat”, it’s always rice-based). In Ubon Ratchathani, where @SpecialKRB and I found ourselves last week, the best place to kin khao thom (eat rice porridge) would have to be Raan Santi Pochana on Nikhonsaiklang Road, open from the early evening to about midnight.

Like many other rice porridge shops, Santi Pochana is a made-to-order stall; unlike many, the ingredients it offers for your perusal are top-notch. Ginormous bitter melons, sweet pumpkin shoots, crispy pork belly: all are available to tinker with as the cook — or you — see fit.

What you choose from

What ensues is full-on delicious, from the rice porridge itself (red rice laced liberally with bits of taro and barley) to sweet slivered scallions stir-fried with bits of crispy pork, or a yum (spicy salad) of pak grachet (acacia leaves) coated in pulverized preserved egg. A highlight: double-fried crispy pork spareribs, tart and oozing with flavor.

Spareribs with scallions, garlic and chilies

But sometimes, “comfort” means something else entirely — a dip into the fiery, meaty hinterlands of one’s youth. That is where Porntip on Saphasit Rd. comes into play, a wonderland of larb (minced salad), Isaan sausages and grilled chicken and fish. Above all else, however, Porntip pays homage to the power of the mortar and pestle: here, som tum (grated salad, usually papaya) reigns supreme.

Porntip’s kitchen

Yes, there is som tum Thai — the stuff you see in Bangkok that is like candied fruit floss festooned with dried shrimps and peanuts, the eager-to-please dish that everyone knows and loves. Far more interesting to me is the som tum Lao — drenched in fermented anchovy juice, prickly and unknowable: do I like it or don’t I? It takes the entire dish for me to decide, yes.

Som tum Lao at Porntip

But there’s so much more. Don’t forget the grilled meats — why is it the North and Northeast have embraced smoke so, leaving the Central and South regions to their infusions, stir-fries and curries? — accompanied by hulking mounds of khao niew (sticky rice).

Salt-encrusted fish on the grill

In the end, it’s what you know: whether it’s the nursery-like pablum of rice porridge, or the smoky heat of a proper Isaan meal, you will find what you are looking for in Ubon, if what you are looking for is comfort.

(Photos by @SpecialKRB)

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Filed under Asia, food, food stalls, Isaan, rice porridge, som tum, Thailand

Glutton Abroad: HK if you’re hungry

Yes, it happens. There are times when you just don’t wanna. So in an attempt to get back that elusive mojo, that ever-flickering desire to inflict myself onto the blogosphere again, to throw myself once again into that fathomless void of nothing — I went away. Specifically, to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong seems full of mojo. While Europe flounders and the U.S. seethes, Hong Kong appears to be soaring, buzzing, full of brio and activity. Sidewalks are teeming, hotels are fully booked, and, yes, restaurants are full. So, while I’ve seen my Hong Kong and my HK friends’ Hong Kong, I thought it was time to see the HK that my friends Cha and Nat (of the wildly popular website catandnat.com) like to see.

Of course, that involved a good helping of Cantonese food. Let me tell you about Cantonese food. I don’t know so much about it. All I know about it I gleaned from dozens of faceless Cantonese restaurants scattered across the American Midwest, at countless lacquered wooden tables where I cursed the gods and my fate and the people who invented this food. I know that’s a funny thing to think for a person who likes to go to Hong Kong so much. But HK is full of all types of great cuisines. Until now, it was something that was easy to avoid and dismiss as something that I just didn’t get. Just like I don’t get classical music. Or the Stone Roses. When some (inevitably British) person starts to wax nostalgic about the genius of the Stone Roses, and we actually have to listen to something by them, it’s like my brain goes “Okay, let’s find something interesting about thi-aw drat got me againzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz”. You know it’s supposed to be good, you know you should appreciate it, but damned if you can get through a couple of minutes of it. It’s like the musical equivalent of reading The Economist.

A lot of Cantonese food is also like The Economist. It’s full of finesse, and subtlety. Fresh ingredients are paramount, because there is nothing to hide bad stuff behind. It’s one of those cuisines that, like French food, require great technique. Except that French cuisine has butter. Cantonese food is a rich person’s food, where only the best will do. It doesn’t have to hide its protein behind a layer of chilies or coat it in a sauce mounted with a stick of butter or stuff it into sausages to carry it long distances. Cantonese food just is.

Green beans coated in egg yolks at Xia Mian Guan

Although I had only one night in Hong Kong (devoted mainly to a wine-soaked 11-course dinner at Caprice), we managed to snatch up some time to explore some great Cantonese dishes. Such as these fresh green beans sauteed with egg yolk, giving them a rich, hefty savor perfectly complemented by a bean-y crunch. Or this:

Crab congee at Chee Kei

A smooth, unctuous rice porridge dotted with crab meat, crab claws and — best of all — globs of crab roe, punctuated with bits of ginger and green onion and just the slightest hint of saltiness. I really, really wanted to add stuff to it — chili oil and black vinegar and whatever else I could get my hands on, the way a Thai would add condiments to his jok — but it ended up changing the flavor, obscuring what had been rich and even slightly sweet. Consider that a lesson learned. Next time, Hong Kong. I’ll be back.

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Filed under Asia, Chinese, food, Hong Kong, restaurant, rice porridge

Working for it: Sapporo

Smart people avoid generalizations, but I’ll just go ahead and wade on in there. Japan is a country of serious foodies. And it’s not just about the massive clusters of fine restaurants — Japanese, French, Czech, what have you — that lurk, barnacle-like, in every other basement or third floor in every big city in the country. It’s the Japanese commitment to all levels of food: the telltale chairs that stand outside popular eateries that don’t take reservations; the astronomically priced produce, swaddled like newborn babies in the supermarket; the long queues snaking through the department store basement, stacked with gourmets awaiting the next great fresh cream cake.

Sure, there is the strange-smelling beef bowl at Yoshinoya, cheap conveyor belt sushi and the bizarre affection for KFC for the holidays — but for every one of those things, there is the dazzling aging-beef display at the Tokyo Mitsukoshi, four different kinds of obscure Kentucky bourbons on sale, and mammoth albino strawberries the size of a child’s fist. Food in Japan is like Manolo Blahniks to a Carrie Bradshaw: aspirational. As with all aspirations, you have to work for it. This stuff doesn’t come cheap. And if it does, it doesn’t come easy.

Hokkaido in February for me is a whole different brand of Working For It. I don’t take to chilly temperatures; here, it’s -12 degrees Celsius in the daytime. The sky periodically drizzles snow — so much snow, in fact, that the sides of the roads loom skyscraper-like above the pedestrians, threatening avalanche at any moment.  Food, any kind of food, requires trekking out in that weather in your most unattractive snow boots, a balaclava shoved over your head to keep your nose from falling off your face.

But in Sapporo, there is plenty to make up for it. Big vats of nabe — DIY stews bristling with the freshest seafood or gently cooked slices of meat, studded with cubes of tofu and enoki mushrooms and crackly greens that somehow end up soft and sweet. One of the easiest kinds of nabe to obtain here is one featuring kani — snow, hairy or king crab, which hails from the region and is a genuine treat.

Crab and co., ready for the nabe pot

Restaurants specializing in crab — marked by a giant crab above the entrance — are scattered all over Japan, but the one we found in Sapporo, chosen solely on its proximity to the train station, was luckily also delicious: Kani Honke, which claims to be the first in Japan to focus solely on the mightily yummy crustacean. The many course menus are pretty epic: crab served as sashimi, in sushi, atop grated mountain yam, in stew, simply steamed, and finally, butter-roasted and grilled atop a hot stone. Best of all, the leftover broth from the nabe is eventually added to rice and reduced until a thick, sweet congee is formed — the best possible way to end a delicious crab menu.

Kani Honke's crab congee

Crab is not the only thing Hokkaido is famous for. Sapporo is also the lucky, lucky home to not one, not two, but THREE “ramen alleys” — small walking streets lined by all manner of ramen shops, which offer, in Sapporo at least, the ultimate street (or alley-side) food: quick, warming, filling and relatively cheap. You can get your very interesting ramen history here, but if you are like me and think clicking is far too onerous a task, I will attempt to summarize: ramen is delicious. Just kidding. Adapted from a Chinese noodle dish in the early 20th century, Japanese ramen has since branched out into basically three main types — the tonkotsu, or pork bone-based cloudy broth of Kyushu, the clear soy sauce-based broth populated with thick noodles, and the miso-based broth of Sapporo. We visited the original “Ramen Yokocho” (Ramen Alley) and found it charming, with just about any type of ramen on offer.

Inside Ramen Alley

Of course, we were there for the miso ramen, and so opted for a shop featuring a relatively basic menu of miso, soy sauce, salt, tonkotsu, spicy, extra pork or butter (with a miso base) ramen. You can probably guess which one I went for:

A bowl of butter ramen

It turns out I’ve found a new love. Few things are better than that extra-creamy Hokkaido butter. I will be searching for it in all the Japanese supermarkets I can think of in Bangkok.

 

 

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Filed under Asia, fish, food, food stalls, Japan, Japanese, noodles, restaurant, rice porridge

When Gluttony becomes a chore

Fish rice porridge at Sieng Gi

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

When the Popes lived in Avignon, they had a lot of visitors. That goes without saying, of course — what Pope doesn’t have a lot of visitors?  And visitors who are visiting always expect dinner.

Well, the Pope couldn’t just have any old dinner. When he entertained various and assorted important people in his cavernous grand hall-slash-dining room the size of a private airplane hangar, diners could expect to spend the next 4-5 hours with their butts firmly planted in their seats, enjoying, on average, 24 courses a night.

What did they have for dinner? Well, first and foremost, the higher the food was from the ground, the closer it was to God. So there was a lot of this kind of food — fruit, lettuces and veggies that grew up out of the ground instead of those nasty, dirt-burrowing root vegetables. There was, obviously, meat, but it had to be roasted; none of this boiling business was allowed, because boiling was for peasants. The kitchen responsible for these 24-on-average courses is surprisingly small, considering: the size of a generous living room as opposed to, say, a hotel lobby. But there are three ovens set up — obviously, roasting was a big deal.

As I listened to the tour guide as she wended her way through the upper reaches of the Pope’s Avignon palace, I couldn’t help thinking — how? How could he do it? I struggle with two big meals a day — yes, the old stomach is not what it used to be. While I am not immune to obsessing over gray hairs or wrinkles or sagging jowls or the Great Beyond that awaits us all, the thing that I miss most is my incredibly efficient, ever-elastic digestive system. Where did it go? Especially now that floodwaters are breaching the gates, and supermarket lines are as congested as the expressways where everyone has parked their cars, and spicy lemongrass shrimp Mama is worth its weight in gold … I find stuffing my face does not hold the allure it once did. Where did the beautiful past go? (I ask this as I look down at my own supermarket cart, the contents of which are: avocados, squash, and Betty Crocker French onion dip mix. Everyone else may be equipped for the floodpocalypse, but I will have a much easier time making dip, yo!)

Times like these call for drastic measures. Times like these call for khao thom (rice porridge). Boiling some rice with water sounds like a pitiful meal, but to me, right now, it sounds heavenly: the straight, almost sweet taste of watery rice, the purity of white porridge, amenable to anything you wish to pair it with — fish, omelet, stir-fried leafy vegetable, and even you, strange pickled shredded turnip, or you, weirdly pink fermented tofu glob, yes. Even you. What better to fix what (sort of) ails you, this ennui of the stomach that no grilled rib-eye something-or-other or braised pork belly this-and-that can fix?  What better to fortify you through this wait?

Good places for khao thom, if you can get to them:

1. Khao Thom Bowon — Across from the entrance to Wat Bowonniwet on Phra Sumen Road, this rice porridge shop is open from 4pm-late. They claim to be the originator of pad pak boong fai dang, or stir-fried morning glory with chilies.

2. Jay Suay — On Plang Nam Road, next to the famous shellfish omelets of Nai Mong Hoy Tod, this rice porridge shop is also open at night. It is especially known for its pork dishes; a personal favorite: pork meatballs in a clear soup flavored with pickled plums.

3. Khao Thom Polo — On the corner of Soi Polo and Wireless Road, this shop is almost perpetually packed for dinner. The dish that seems to get everyone fired up, despite the extreme spice factor, is their gaeng pa, or jungle curry.

 

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, rice porridge, Thailand

Useless election-pegged food quiz

Passing vans blare loud music, election posters mark every signpost. Thailand is officially in the throes of Election Fever, once again.

Some people seem to be unsure of who to vote for. But more pressing matters await our contemplation. Maybe, if you are like me, you need a little quiz to figure out whether your political allegiances dovetail with your food stall choices? After all, quizzes tell you everything you need to know! I once spent an entire afternoon taking a plethora of “Which Hogwarts House are You?” questionnaires (I am a Hufflepuff, of course).

So in honor of looming elections, here’s a quiz that pretends to sort out everything for you via highly inaccurate and gross generalizations, without really telling you anything! Remember, it’s all in good fun! *laughs nervously, then runs away*

 

1. When you were in grade school, you were known as:

a. The great big nerd who told on everybody and cried when I (I mean she! I mean you!) got a “B”

b. The daydreamer who frequently got caught staring off into space

c. A big ol’ bully

d. Sort of a rebel, like Judd Nelson in “The Breakfast Club”. No, I do not have more recent cultural references. Too bad for you, Person Born in the 1990s!

e. You were home-schooled

 

2. Who do you find more handsome?

a. P’Mark. He went to Oxford and everything!

b. Richard Gere. He is a Buddhist who still managed to make tons of money out of “Pretty Woman” and then, against all odds, “Runaway Bride”!

c. Russell Crowe, now

d. Russell Crowe, “Gladiator” era

e. Yourself

 

3. You most value:

a. Tradition and stability

b. Tolerance and kindness

c. Law and order

d. Equality and fairness

e. The right to dress animals in clothing. Oh wait, what?

 

If you answered mostly A’s, you like … 

BLUE

What does blue stand for again, aside from how I feel when I’m standing on the scale? I forget. Anyway, congrats! You like blue. And people who like blue can do worse than heading to the blue plates of Nai Peng (20, Chula Soi 20, Suan Luang market), where delicious guaythiew kua gai (chicken fried noodles) are the order of the day. You can even throw caution to the wind and order “taro” (processed squid strings) instead of noodles! It’s a crazy night out for you! Go insane!

Flat fried noodles with chicken and egg

 

If you answered mostly B’s, you like …

WHITE

With a color like white, you like everything and nothing. Because of this, who really cares what you eat? But if you must be pressed for a choice, then why not opt for the warm, comforting embrace of the Chinese-style rice porridge at Jok Samyan (245 Soi Chula 11)? It’s like a mother’s hug, only gooier. And that’s what you’ve been secretly yearning for all along, haven’t you?

Chinese-style rice porridge with preserved egg

 

If you answered mostly C’s, you like …

GREEN

Look, eating on a rickety stool while taking exhaust-fume farts in the face from passing buses is not your thing. There is nothing wrong with that. No need for any pretense otherwise. We are all non-judgmental here, to your face. So go ahead and spring for the panorama of deliciously stir-fried  greens at Nakorn Pochana (258-260 Chula Soi 11), where the crab fried rice and deep-fried crayfish are city-renowned, the beer flows plentifully, and the air-conditioning is on at full blast.

Garlic chives with pork liver

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

If you answered mostly D’s, you like …

RED

Red is the color of passion and of fire. It is also the color of hot, hot chilies. You know where I’m going with this, right? Of course you do!  Just two, er, three (or more) words: Hai Somtum Convent (2/4-5 Convent Rd., off of Silom).

Somtum Thai, with minced pork salad in background

 

If you answered mostly E’s, you like …

YELLOW

Yellow is the color of sunlight and (some) butterflies, and cookies. Also, snow that you shouldn’t touch or eat. Also, bananas. Yellow is such an all-purpose, useful color! Do you know what else yellow stands for? That’s right: bamee, or egg noodles. And where better to have some delicious egg noodles than on Sukhumvit 38, close to mom’s house? Make sure you arrive close to opening time (20.00) if you want a good parking spot for your luxury SUV. Haha, just joking! That’s the driver’s job!

Bamee at Sukhumvit Soi 38

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, chicken, food, food stalls, Isaan, noodles, restaurant, rice porridge, seafood, Thailand

Home in a Bowl

It’s been a hard transition back after three weeks of being a guest to other people’s lives. Now, it’s back to my own, and as great as it is, it also bears its own strange frustrations. For example, I’m working on a project that will never be finished. It just won’t. I have made a handful of sacrifices to edge it along to this point: throwing good money after bad, poisoning what used to be healthy relationships, transforming into a dyspeptic harpy. I have decided that these sacrifices are not worth it. I have moved beyond denial and anger to acceptance. TIT. This Is Thailand.

Is this bowl of comfortingly soggy rice, doused in pork broth and topped with a dusting of sliced scallions and indifferently poached egg, the taste of resignation? If so, resignation tastes pretty good to me. Located at the entrance to Charoen Krung Soi 16, this no-frills food cart employs a similarly Spartan approach to its rice porridges: good quality broth, stewed with pork bones for so long it has taken on an opaque, cloudy quality and a generous spoonful of bone-in pork pieces to guarantee a bowl full of piggy flavor.

Regular pork-rib porridge with egg

Regular (tamada) bowls are 35 baht, 40 baht with egg or for an extra-big serving of rice or pork (piset). And the guardian of this enterprise comes in the form of a gregarious gentleman, partial to form-fitting white tank tops, who is patient with questions and with giving directions. What more can you ask for? Thailand can confound and frustrate, yes, but it also harbors the path toward your own redemption. I am eagerly awaiting mine.

Khao Thom Gradook Moo, entrance to Charoen Krung 16. 089-682-0016.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, Chinatown, Chinese, food, food stalls, pork, rice porridge, Thai-Chinese, Thailand