Category Archives: rice porridge

Fish Porridge, Again

The old man looked at us under a thatch of eyebrow hair that would move Frida Kahlo to tears.

“Just so you know — the fish porridge here is at least 250 baht,” he warned my mom.

I know I’ve written about Sieng Gi, the khao thom pla shop in Yaowaraj, before, but I can’t help but love this place. Every visit there is like entering a land where ancient beings stalk the tiny storefront dining area, flinging delicious bowls of porridge onto the marble-topped tables and bellowing at each other. @SpecialKRB, who loathes this place with a passion, said it was like spending a night at the Chinatown chapter of the AARP. But I take a more benign view; it’s a place conducive to happy accidents. That night alone was worth seeing the look on my mom’s face. 

Sieng Gi has seen a lot of competitors rise up and subsequently fall by the wayside. Yet no one can touch this place. The broth is ever so much more more, rich with a fish flavored muchness. And the brown bean dipping sauce, its deeply concentrated flavor worth three bowlfuls of its lesser rivals’. That’s not even getting to the fresh dollops of pomfret, seabass or oyster, garnished with cubes of batheng  or sweet pork, tiny dried shrimp and deep-fried garlic. If you are inclined toward soupy seafood rice (and not everyone is), there is nothing better. 

Oyster porridge with strips of deep-fried tofu

So find a way to go here. That is, as long as you have 250 baht.

(Sieng Gi, Trok Ma Geng, behind Grand China Princess Hotel)

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, Chinatown, fish, food, food stalls, rice porridge, seafood, Thai-Chinese

Back in the Old City

A rose vendor making a delivery at the flower market

 

I love the old part of town. The roughly square-shaped parcel of land along the Chao Phraya river and Phra Arthit Road on one side and the Chinese Swing, Rachadamnern Avenue and Tanao Road on the other is probably my favorite place to go in Bangkok — not least because this area has some of the city’s very best food.

Case in point: Khao Thom Bowon, a rice porridge vendor across from Bowonniwet Temple which has been serving up tasty bowls for the past six decades. This shop has mushroomed from a few tables in an alleyway to more than 50, some even grouped inside an air-conditioned room (locals gamely sweat it out; the a/c is for when you bring your parents). Its ownership has advanced into its second generation, but I like to think the old-fashioned feel and care for its food remains.

Featuring more than 30 kinds of side dishes

Khao tom is meant to be a sort of restorative concoction, which is why it is known as being particularly popular with the elderly. To facilitate digestion, the liquid in each bowl is meant to be sipped before the soggy rice is eaten with a type of side dish — be it spicy, salty, crispy or fatty, the better to go with the nursing-food blandness of the rice. That is why Thais eat rice porridge with a variety of sides, not just one: usually a crunchy pickled vegetable for its tartness; a fatty tranche of salted, dried fish; a sort of yum, or a spicy, tart salad; and a stir-fried green vegetable (indeed, Khao Tom Bowon claims to have been the first to stir-fry morning glory, or pad pak bung).

Poached prawns in a lime-chili sauce

But what sets Bowon apart are its dazzling variety of other sides — the fresh fish, the succulent crayfish, the range of gaeng jued (clear soups), the daily specials, and things like this: fresh sea prawns drizzled in a tart-spicy chili-lime sauce and dotted with mint leaves. Pillowy, sharp and green, all at once.

But the best part of Bowon, just like what sets the Old City apart from the rest of Bangkok, are the unexpected touches: solicitous, friendly service and a surprisingly beautiful canal-side view in back … a reprieve from the chaotic clamor of Banglamphu at nighttime. Stumbling across this view after dinner, we enjoyed a quiet moment in the breeze next to a dozing old man in a lawn chair listening to an iPod. The best part of Bangkok, compressed into a few seconds.

What sets Bangkok apart -- the unexpected

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

Thai comfort food

Everyone has a comfort food. For a lot of people, it’s something bland and baby food-like — khao thom gub (plain boiled rice porridge, traditionally served with sides like minced pork omelette, dried salty fish and stir-fried morning glory) is a popular one among Thais, the Thai version of mashed potatoes. For others, it’s something that reminds them of their childhoods. Personally, I have always turned to spaghetti bolognese in times of stress, because it reminds me of the Italian-American town where I grew up.

But as disparate as comfort food dishes usually are, they are almost all invariably one thing (er, two things): starchy and filling. For a lot of people, Thai Chinese-style rice porridge (jok) usually fits the bill. An old-style fusion between Thai and Chinese cuisines, Thai jok differs from its Chinese counterpart in terms of seasonings used, and is set apart from the more Thai-style khao thom by the smoother texture of the porridge and runnier rice grains. Thai jok almost always comes with slivered ginger, chopped scallions and chiffonaded coriander leaves, and is usually studded with pork meatballs, pork innards and, if you wish, the inclusion of a hot whole egg, added at the last minute and meant to poach gently in the hot porridge as it is brought to your table. The final touch: deep-fried dough squiggles for crunchy texture, or Chinese-style flat doughnuts (pathongo), for their extra-oomphy starch power.

Because variations on jok are fairly limited, it’s pretty hard to find a terrible jok vendor (but they do exist, they just have to work hard at being bad). It’s equally as difficult to find a truly outstanding one. Many Thais will say that the jok at the Greenhouse Coffee Shop at the Landmark Hotel is exemplary, simply because it is clean, air-conditioned, and hews most closely to the porridge found in Hong Kong (it’s also relatively expensive).

But another great vendor — found on a side-street off of Sam Yan wet market — is Jok Sam Yan (Chula Soi 11). What sets it apart? Tightly wound and reasonably hefty meatballs, made of pork so well-seasoned that this vendor does a brisk trade in minced pork sales alone (180 baht/kg).

Chinese-style rice porridge with pork meatballs and egg

Also drawing kudos is their version with preserved, or “century” egg ( Thais refer to it as kai yiew maa, literally “horse pee egg”, an especially apt name).

Chinese-style rice porridge with preserved egg

But don’t forget the best supporting actor: those lovely, pillowy cushions of deep-fried dough so soft, so comforting, that Thais often order them on their own, with a side of sweet custard, without the porridge. Among the best vendors is, inexplicably, Kanom, a poncey Thai cafe more known for its egg tarts. Their pathongo are rolled and cooked outside of their Sukhumvit 39 branch, and served hot and fresh from the wok with a choice of plain, green or pink custard dipping sauces. As you can see, they are hard to resist, especially by people with a penchant for deep-fried dough (and who doesn’t?).

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

On summertime rice

The past few weeks have been the height of summer, and it has been too hot for most people to even think about eating (that excludes me, of course).  In the olden days (but not so olden days, because we didn’t have refrigeration until the past century), people cooled off by putting ice in their bowls of rice. This gave birth to khao chae–variously described as “summertime rice” or “cool summer rice”, but never “a bowl of rice with a giant ice cube in the middle”, which is a shame, because that is what it actually is.

The dish, which has its roots in the rice-rich Central plains, has evolved over the years into something that has become quite elaborate, with side dishes that are considered necessary to the enjoyment of this iced bowl of rice. Balls of kapi, or shrimp paste, are deep-fried; sweetened beef is deep-fried and shredded; preserved cabbage is stir-fried and mixed with egg; salted eggs are also fried; Thai shallots are stuffed with minced fish and, uh, deep-fried; a banana pepper gets similar treatment with minced pork, plus a tempura-like batter coating. Khao chae connoisseurs (yes, they do exist) judge the proficiency of the cook by the intricacy of the tempura batter netting over the pepper, and the uniformity of the fried shrimp paste balls. It is a time-consuming dish, and only served during the hot season for lunch, which is why it is easy to be disappointed.

Done well, it’s a lovely dish all the same, all about harmony and the different parts working together, unusual in these politically troubled times: the rice water is perfumed with the scent of jasmine, and the accompanying vegetables–painstakingly carved to look like leaves–not only cool you down but freshen your breath, too. That is why I was slightly shocked to learn recently that some Thais have never tried this clever, and very central Thai, dish. A shame: the first rains fell today, which means summertime rice won’ t be on the menu for another year. 

Summertime rice with the accompaniments

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