Category Archives: seafood

Confessions

The ultimate Thai fast food

It’s a painful thing to admit, but what better place to bare one’s soul than on the Internet, where anonymous identities and remote locations encourage people to be polite and kind and lovely? So here goes: I have a problem. It’s been taking up more and more of my time. I used to use it as a reward — if I finished writing a paragraph or two of something, then I would get my fix of it. I would promise myself that it would only be for a little while. Invariably, four hours later, dusk gloaming on the horizon, I would find the day has completely passed me by.

My problem is this website: http://www.towerofthehand.com/ I am obsessed with it. I cannot go a day without visiting it. And it appears I am not the only one. Trawling through other people’s comments, I am struck by the other people who visit daily — and have done so for the past 5 years (!) That is some serious dedication to this mind-crack that they call “Game of Thrones” (OK, they don’t really call it that. That’s the TV series. The books, collectively, are “A Song of Ice and Fire”, but I cannot bring myself to admit that this is what I am addicted to, because that makes it even dorkier than it already is.)

Why, pray tell, am I so enamored with this series (OK, ASOIAF, guys, that’s how fans refer to it in shorthand. It is known. Please, someone, shoot me with a crossbow!)? Am I having a mid-life crisis, and instead of morphing into the cool late-adolescence-early-twenties-era me-that-could-have-been (speaking of could-have-been, what if what’s-his-face had lived? Oops, SPOILER ALERT. But then again why are you here? Mom’s calling you to dinner!) I have relapsed into 13-year-old real-me, with glasses, braces and a mullet, playing Dungeons & Dragons in Josh Lamancusa’s basement (is it any wonder why I have a soft spot for Brienne of Tarth?)

I think “Game of Thrones” (I’m just calling it this, OK? Go back to teasing out clues over R+L) is one of the foodiest book series out there. Seriously. I am not the only one to think this. My husband, Tom Colicchio, appears to be a big fan of the George RR Martin books, creating a food truck serving dishes from the book (black fish stew for the Wall; Sansa’s favorite lemon cakes) in the run-up to the HBO series premiere last April. Who knew Chef Tom was so adorably nerdy?

Food is used as a major descriptor in the book, for both place and character. A distracted prince dines on bean paste, flatbread and olives; a tense wedding feast features mashed turnips and jellied calves’ brains; street food in another city showcases unborn puppy and honeyed locusts; and some characters have to make do with grilled horsemeat, mashed acorn paste, or worse. What kinds of places are these? Who are these people? What’s in those pies? The food always illuminates this, and is sometimes a big plot point.

This got me to thinking about Bangkok. Not the food that characterizes Amazing Thailand (or is this Miracle Thailand?) — gem-like sweet dumplings in coconut milk, hot spicy noodles in an intricate egg net — but the food that really puts a mirror up to us, showing us for who we really are.

That food is this: yum Mama. Obvious to passers-by from the boxes of Mama noodles (almost always shrimp tom yum flavor) slung to the side, these street carts blanch Mama noodles from the package, toss them with the included seasonings, lime juice, fish sauce and sugar, and mix them with a handful of assorted seafood, nitrate-rich sausages and greens. The result is tangy, cheap (30 baht) and most of all, quick (a little over a minute from start to finish) — a requisite for people who have little time to moon over pesky details like nutrition and who frankly don’t care, people in an easy land who pretend they will live forever. It’s processed, it’s sloppy, it’s not-so-good for you … but it’s still satisfying, the way a Big Mac is, or a nice big glass of fermented mare’s milk. Or a book ending where ALL YOUR QUESTIONS ARE FINALLY ANSWERED AND YOU CAN STOP TROLLING WEBSITES.

A sign of the times

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, noodles, seafood, Thailand

So here goes

Jay Maew's giant pomfret with pickled plums

People sometimes ask me where I like to eat. I suspect this is so they do not have to worry about bumping into me somewhere. I’ve been asked this enough times that I have decided to write down a handy little list, detailing the places I make a serious effort to go to again and again.

You may notice there is a pattern. As I get older (I am 75), I get more set in my ways. You will never, ever catch me in a place with throbbing music, or packed with people, or outfitted with beds instead of chairs, unless Anthony Bourdain is there, in an outfit made out of sun-dried beef. I will try my very best to avoid a place that describes itself as fusion, unless it is something like Eskimo-Mongolian, because — well, who wouldn’t want to see that? I also steer clear of theme restaurants, unless they involve ninjas, or pirates. Or, uh, knights and jousting. Never mind. Just scratch what I said about theme restaurants.

1. Jay Maew
Just off of the highway in Samut Songkhram on the way to Hua Hin, this Thai seafood place is … about to close, because the owners want to retire and enjoy their lives. This is a shame (although I am all for the owners wanting to enjoy their lives), because their gaeng som is easily the best within 100 km of Bangkok. Also delicious giant pomfret, stewed with pickled plums or steamed with soy sauce and ginger; grilled crab, thick with eggs; freshwater shrimp, heads oozing, lightly blistered. Try not to miss it!

Before going over Mae Nam Tha Jeen, stick to left, go under bridge, U-turn, make first left, and it’s on your left hand side.
034-713-911

2. Jay Fai
Let me tell you a story about Jay Fai. I wrote a book about street food stalls, and although the bill at Jay Fai falls quite outrageously beyond the price limit of 100 baht per meal, I included it, because her cooking is incredibly delicious, more so once you find out she is self-taught.

Well, she didn’t like being included in a book with the pad thai guy down the street and the assorted noodle vendors here and there on the sidewalk. Her food is “on another level”, she said. Well, I can’t say I disagree with that. “Dry” thom yum (spicy lemongrass soup), festooned with prawns as big as a child’s hand; double-fried lard na, thick flat noodles paired with skinny yellow ones, topped with a flavorful seafood gravy; or, my favorite, a Japanese-inspired omelette stuffed with gigantic hunks of crab — this place is the first place I think of when someone I like wants to eat great Thai food.

Jay Fai's crabmeat omelette

327 Mahachai Rd.
02-223-9384

3. Chesa
People are sometimes confused when I say this Swiss restaurant is my favorite Western restaurant in Bangkok. Who knew raclette could be so alluring? How could fondue be such a draw?

Truthfully, although I love cheese, raclette and fondue aren’t big draws to me either. Yet I come to Chesa every chance I get because nearly every item on its menu is well-cooked. I like that the chef includes seasonal menus — focusing on, say, white asparagus in late spring, chanterelles in the fall. I like the brisk, efficient service. I like that they don’t mind substitutions. I even like that it’s slightly fusty and quiet. Best of all, I love that this is a restaurant that does not shy away from offal — veal kidneys in a mustard sauce, liver with rosti, breaded fried sweetbreads, these guys have it all.

Kidneys with brussels sprouts

5 Sukhumvit Soi 20
02-261-6650

4. Soul Food Mahanakorn
Every time I mention Soul Food Mahanakorn to anyone, I am invariably told one of a several things: 1. that it is their local; 2. that they have had the party for their book/exhibition/film/album there; 3. that they had a very interesting conversation about (insert something here) with the owner; and 4. to try the lamb grapao/Burmese-style stewed pork belly/spicy eggplant salad/excellent cocktails.

The point being, everyone loves this place. What started out as being a trendy new place with promise has turned into something that people genuinely love to go to, again and again. Everyone has picked out their favorite dish on the menu (mine is the Hat Yai fried chicken); everyone has had some sort of party there (including me); everyone has had an interesting conversation with Jarrett (boo, Eagles). This is because it is very easy to do all of these things, thanks to a smart menu, a convivial, homey atmosphere, and Jarrett’s genuinely warm personality. You feel like he could be your best friend: we could watch movies together, and do each other’s hair, and he could listen to me blather on about “Game of Thrones” for hours on end … right? Jarrett? Hey, where are you going?

56/10 Sukhumvit Soi 55
02-714-7708

5. Bamee Slow
I travel more than I should, and this is the first place I always try to go to once I get home. I love bamee kai — I am a fool for eggs, and a boiled egg, cooked just enough so the yolk runs all over a silky, fragrant handful of egg noodles accented with red pork and fried garlic, is probably my idea of an edible heaven. Best/worst of all, the wait can take up to 25 minutes, ramping up the anticipation for your first bowl (I immediately order two, broth separate, to avoid unnecessary drama) that much more. It’s the very best street food, the slow kind.

 

Entrance to Ekamai Soi 19 (after 8pm)

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, curries, fish, food, food stalls, noodles, restaurant, seafood, Thailand

Glutton Abroad: Bali H’ai

The island of Moorea

Paradise is in the eye of the beholder, it’s true, but if there is any place that conjures up “South Pacific”-style images of tropical splendor, it’s French Polynesia. Maybe that’s why, post-snorkeling tour outside a hut in Taha’a, we are being treated to yet another rendition of “There is Nothing Like a Dame” by a group of middle-aged men waist-deep in the surf. They aren’t bad, but the waitstaff are rolling their eyes. They hear this song frequently, it would seem.

I am too busy grappling with my own problems to be taking in the show. On my plate are a buttered piece of white bread, an indifferently grilled hunk of tuna, a glob of mayonnaise-and-potato salad, heavy on the mayo, and an unpeeled banana. This is lunch, a meal I once loved and looked forward to. Now mealtimes are a chore, an opportunity to demonstrate my repertoire of socially awkward gaffes to strangers, where I must parade around in “country club casual” in order to get fed.

This trip has, in a sense, unmanned me. Where I once commanded legions of dishes, sowing destruction on restaurant tables near and far with my trusty fork and knife, striking fear into the hearts of servers everywhere, I now … I just am not up to it. Jewel-like rounds of poisson cru, diced and mixed with coconut milk, freshly steamed mahi-mahi, paired with slivers of lime, splinters of just-cracked fresh coconut, skin attached — I should be into this. But just as the tropical splendor about us is relatively untouched and left in its natural state, so, apparently, goes the local cuisine — steam, boil, mash, grill. Season with lime and/or coconut juice. Repeat.

Getting my grump on makes no sense, I know. Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, et al — this loose collection of mountainous islands must have looked like paradise on earth for the first settlers to reach their shores: Southeast Asians traveling via boat from Malaysia and Indonesia. No snakes could live in the dense jungly undergrowth, islands boasted a mix of fresh and seawater seafood, and the volcanic soil proved readily able to support any assortment of plants: chestnut, almond, banana, papaya, vanilla, pineapple.

Coconuts in Pape'ete

They steamed taro in underground pits and blanched the leaves like spinach. They ate coconut flesh and used its milk as seasoning. And then there was breadfruit. Known in Thailand as sake, it was a valued part of the local diet, but instead of being thinly sliced and boiled in syrup or used to adorn curries (as in Thailand), the Polynesians boiled and mashed it with coconut milk, or simply roasted it. And the fish — grilled with lime, there was nothing easier or better.

Sardines for sale at the local market

Unless, that is, you had it every day, in a sterile setting like the basement of the local town hall, a work event with acquaintances you barely know, your watch reminding you that life is slowly passing you by, but you are trapped, stuck in a prison on water, not able to do anything but take a deep breath and eat. That is what being on a cruise ship for 12 days is like for me. Every place is open to you — for 4 or 5 hours, within a carefully constructed tourist environment. Then it’s back to a ghostly existence, flittering neither here nor there, with food meant to appeal to everyone but moving no one. I realize then that eating something prepared by locals, discovered on one’s own, is travel, at least to me, and an untasted land is an uncolonized one. The frustration drives me batty.

I do better on my own. I escape, for a day, on Moorea, running like a fugitive with my octogenarian aunt from a “free” van meant to hustle us into one of those black pearl shops ubiquitous on the islands. We rent a bug rider, a noisy golf cart equipped with 4×4-type wheels. The locals ignore us, used to the buzzy spectacle, but the other tourists gape, and I realize we must look funny, a tall, slim elderly lady and a fat Asian one, folded inside a go-cart meant for a child.

Our reward is this: a sleepy little restaurant tucked into Pao Pao Bay, a blackboard proclaiming specials like moules frites and mahi-mahi with vanilla and run by a sweaty French man with a walrus moustache. Maybe it’s because we have escaped our excursion tour overlords for the day; maybe it’s because it’s just the two of us and we know each other; maybe it’s because we’re on land. But it’s the best meal we’ve had our whole trip — grilled orare, or sardines, lightly charred, reminding me of Thai platu, with a side of yellow rice smelling of coconut.

Orare at Restaurant Martinez

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Filed under fish, food, markets, restaurant, seafood

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

Voting with my stomach

Stir-fried squid noodles at Sukiyaki Maverick

If you live in Thailand, you would be hard-pressed to ignore the run-up to a long-awaited election on July 3. Some parties preach swerving abruptly to one side of the political spectrum, some advocate swinging far to the other side. And some, of course, pledge allegiance to a unifying middle way.

If street food dishes could run for office (because, quite frankly, that is what I would vote for at this point), the offerings at Sukiyaki Maverick would call for a Zen-like commitment to unity. Nestled among the Japanese noodle shops on a sub-soi between Sukhumvit 24 and 26, this lunchtime hotspot is as known for its kua (stir-fried) noodles, studded with morsels of chicken or squid, as it is for its namesake Thai-style suki.

This — a steamy jumble of starch, greens and proteins — is the dish I would back for office. Featuring almost all the colors of the Thai political rainbow, it includes the green of the sweet lettuce and spring onion slivers; the yellow of the body-enhancing egg and tart pickled chilies; the red of the indispensably sweet, sticky sauce; and of course, the white of the soft, yielding noodles and buoyant, bouncy squid (or chicken). Even better, who can resist its myriad charms, regardless of political affiliation? Certainly not me.

The other dish at Sukiyaki Maverick, mid-bite

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What’s Cooking: Gaeng som

Shrimp gaeng som at Mamapapa Restaurant

The last time I went to Phuket, my husband took me to what looked like a secluded selection of shanties set over the water, accessible via a small dirt road. I was starving and, obviously, grumpy, but our beachside breakfast — gaeng som with rice — reminded me why I love Thai food, its strong clear flavors and its honesty, communicating everything that in regular conversation is all-too-often too nuanced for me to pick up.

I sought to recreate this experience — sans Phuket sand, glimmering ocean and dozing old man at the next table — in my own kitchen. With store-bought nam prik gaeng som (I know, I know), it was criminally easy, but if you want to make your own chili paste base, mix a handful of red bird’s eye chilies, shallots, garlic cloves, a pinch of salt and a few lemongrass bulbs, galangal and kaffir lime leaves into a paste. Some people add a dollop of shrimp paste as well.

Gaeng som (sour curry) (serves 4)

– 4 Tablespoons nam macaam piek (tamarind syrup)*

– 6 knobs of grachai (wild ginger)

– 1 Tablespoon palm sugar

– 1 firm, white-fleshed fish such as pomfret, boiled in half a pot of salted water (save cooking liquid)**

– 1 Tablespoon granulated sugar

– 4 Tablespoons fish sauce

– 2 bunches cha om (acacia leaves)

– 3 eggs

– 4 heaping Tablespoons gaeng som paste (see above)

1. Chop grachai into small pieces and pound into a paste with mortar and pestle.

2. Deflesh fish from the bone, add to mortar and pound further. Add your nam prik gaeng little by little, mixing carefully so that you don’t get any in your eye (again), which is very painful. It will look like this:

3. Add paste to fish cooking water on the stove along with palm and granulated sugars and fish sauce. Bring to the boil.

4. When boiling, add tamarind juice.

5. Add your white fish pieces. Do not stir, or gaeng will become “fishy”.

6. Taste to correct seasoning, adding if necessary more tamarind juice (for acidity), sugar (for sweet) and/or fish sauce (for salt) as you see fit.

7. Allow to boil for another 10 minutes. Your gaeng is finished!

8. As your soup boils, chop cha om with scissors into bite-sized pieces.

9. Heat 4 Tablespoons of cooking oil in a big frying pan.

10. Whip eggs as you would an omelette and add half the cha om. It will initially look like this:

11. Over medium heat, cook in hot oil until puffy, then turn over and cook until golden-brown. Take out and drain on a paper towel.

12. Serve omelette by cutting into squares, placing at bottom of bowl and ladling your gaeng som on top, accompanied with rice.

*You can make your own tamarind syrup by steeping a tamarind pod in hot water for at least 10 minutes. A tamarind pod looks like this:

 ** Obviously, you can substitute the fish for anything else you would prefer — shrimp, chicken, and/or some blanched mixed vegetables.

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Golden Oldie

Soft oyster omelette, or aw suan, at New Kwong Meng

Getting old sucks. Granted, there are some people who rhapsodize about how it brings a new maturity, a deeper understanding of life, and some other useless blahbadiblah that no one really ever wants, but these people are usually young (and therefore stupid. I can say this because I am old, and jealous). Age announces itself in a series of sharpening steps: first, the twinges and inexplicable aches upon waking; the stuttering metabolism that thickens the waistline; the sudden urge to pee in the middle of the night; the inability to sleep beyond 7 in the morning; the face that suddenly, startlingly, turns into your Grandma’s one morning.

Before you know it, you are sitting over beers with another old fart, reminiscing over that one time Digger lost his satellite phone in the Khyber Pass and when Scoop got tipsy at lunch and threw tomatoes at the bureau chief. Who is this person? How did this happen? Where was I this whole time? These are questions that will never get any satisfying answers.

New Kwong Meng Restaurant (4-8 Padsai Road, or Yaowarat Soi 19; 02-224-2201, 02-224-2170, open 11-2, 5:30-9) is a whole five years older than me, but it seems to be wearing its middle age well, the bitch. Part of a string of excellent Teochew restaurants (I’m told most Chinese-Thais are Teochew, or Chaozhou) tucked into the Old Market side of Yaowarat Road, New Kwong Meng reminds our parents of the days when they were young and sprightly. This is probably why it is packed with, uh, our parents and all their friends. Young, hip and happening, this is not, but is that the point?

It is not when you are confronted with a soft, silky aw suan (soft oyster omelette) studded with succulently large oysters, a heartbreakingly tiny suckling pig enveloped in a crackly sheen, and slivers of finely sliced raw — is that sea bream? — strewn with sesame seeds and accompanied by a sweet soy dipping sauce.

Thai-Chinese "sashimi"

There is goat “ham”, festooned with white asparagus that looks suspiciously like it came out of a can, but a big favorite are what look like razor clams, sauteed with Chinese kale and shiitake mushrooms. Actually, they look like something else, but I’m not sure what that would be, really I’m not.

Clams, greens, mushrooms

And since every Chinese meal must end with some sort of starch, New Kwong Meng sends out a whopper: a delicately pan-fried sheaf of e mee (fried egg noodles), crispy outside and buttery within, topped with strips of ham and accompanied by a sour black vinegar Thais call “zisho”. This version is as good as the e mee anywhere in Bangkok.

New Kwong Meng's e-mee

I could go on, and talk about what we had for dessert, and how I drank too much strange Chinese whisky, and how we stumbled down the stairs into the night, where it wasn’t as hot as we expected it to be. There were wrong turns taken down winding Chinatown roads, and promises to not lose touch ever, and BFF presents exchanged that didn’t get opened. I could go further, but I’m tired, and late for my nap.

 

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, Chinatown, Chinese, fish, food, noodles, seafood, Thai-Chinese, Thailand