Category Archives: som tum

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

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

Infatuation with Isaan

"Thum pa" in Udon Thani

There are certain ways people are supposed to talk about things. Like, unless you are a commie weirdo freakazoid, you have to say Tim Tebow is “inspiring”, or “great”, or at least “intriguing”. Or, as long as you aren’t one of those strange people who hates freedom and puppies and all things wonderful, you obviously think the “Game of Thrones” HBO series is the best thing EVAH and don’t feel any need whatsoever to read the books, instead harping on and on about how you can’t wait until the next installment airs so you can find out what happens next instead of picking up a book and, uh, actually reading it (no, it doesn’t bother me that much, why do you ask? I’m just plucking an example out of thin air, I say!)

There are also ways, it seems, to talk about whole groups of people. For example, when someone is Asian, they are invariably described as “technical” or “proficient” or, if you are really good at describing, “technically proficient” (read: good at violins and math). Asian food gets similar treatment.  If you write about Asian food, you have to make sure you are as reverent as possible. References to old recipes from the 17th century get you extra points (and more if, like, you can go back to the Bronze Age. Everyone wants to know what those guys were eating!) You should consider it a monolithic “whole” that never, ever changes in order to ensure as much “authenticity” as possible. And, for God’s sake, make sure to use a poncey know-it-all tone so that people who don’t know what you are talking about feel ashamed and bad about themselves. If you cook, everything has to come out properly; if you eat, everything has to be difficult to find and hard to consume.

I try as hard as I can to adhere to these rules. Sometimes it works out splendidly. But today, it might not work out so well, because, to tell you the truth, I don’t know all that much about Isaan food. Yes, you’d think I would, since I know a bit about Northern Thai food and, since Northerners also use sticky rice, then Northern Thai and Isaan foods are OBVIOUSLY ONE AND THE SAME CUISINE. But those uppity Northerners and Isaan-ers insist that their cuisines are completely different. What do they know, right? I just can’t wait for that next “Game of Thrones” episode.

So when I trekked up to the Northeast and had my first bite of thum pa (jungle som thum), I was blown away. Rice noodles instead of grated fruit or veggies? A fishy, earthy dressing, heavy on the fermented Thai anchovy? The inclusion of everything but the kitchen sink: some shards of bamboo shoot, a few stray strands of acacia, a handful of unripe tomatoes, a few lost snails, the occasional bashed-in green bean. Thum pa (also referred to as thum sua or thum mua, “confused thum“) incorporates what Isaan is all about — fire, earth, and even water (if you include those fermented fish) — with the relatively newfangled addition of kanom jeen “noodles”. I had to find some in Bangkok!

It was harder than I expected. Bangkokians really love their som thum Thai, what can I say? But finally, on Rachadapisek Road across from the Esplanade shopping center, Saab Wan (or “Yummy Day”, 081-751-3181, parking at the gas station next door), where thum sua (40 baht) is on the menu.

Saab Wan's thum sua

This is a nice melange of crispy bean sprouts and tiny deep-fried fish with the smooth slithery silk of noodles, papaya and bamboo shoots, spiked liberally with chili and pla rah (fermented anchovy). But even more startling is the so-called gai yang (80-150 baht), which turned out like this and, at a glance, explains the rampant popularity of this street food stall:

Saab Wan's gai yang and bamboo shoot salad

You and I know this is not Isaan-style grilled chicken. This is a lacquered Kim Kardashian of a chicken dish, a bastard child of American barbecue and Chinese sweet pork. This is sugary, sugary stuff — in spite of the fact that Isaan food is not supposed to have any sugar in it. No wonder this stand is packed at all hours of the day! Bangkokians are stuffing their pie holes with the saccharine-sweet oblivion that only sugar can provide.

Of course, this has inspired me to open my own Isaan food stall, using beer-butt chicken instead of gai yang, a grilled corn thum on the side, and maybe a white barbecue sauce alongside the jeao (Isaan-style spicy dipping sauce). Think I’m kidding? Watch this space.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, chicken, food, food stalls, Isaan, som tum, Thailand

Stuffed in Isaan

Lunch at Jay Gai Som Tum in Udon Thani

It’s 10 in the morning, and I am already stuffed. I cannot imagine what lunch holds in store for us.

Yes, I am starting this all over again. The first book, researched while I was pregnant with my second child, gave me … well, the joy of publishing my first solo effort, and 25 extra kilos. This second, well, who knows? I certainly don’t want 25 extra kilos, and I’m not sure if I could do it, even if I wanted to. My digestive system is screaming, What are you thinking?! even as I lurch my way through downtown Udon Thani. And this is only the beginning.

After landing in Udon Thani, our gracious hosts promptly whisk us off to VT Nam Nueng (www.vtnamnueng1997.com), a Vietnamese restaurant that, well into its second generation, is just about as big as any enterprise can get in Udon Thani. Every day, an assembly line churns out thousands of sticks of nam nueng (pork sausage wrapped in a flat rice noodle, lettuce and herbs and drizzled with a sweet-tart dipping sauce) and goong pan aui (shrimp mince wrapped around a sugarcane stick), later to be sold at either the restaurant, replete with air-conditioning and imposing Chinese-style furniture, or at the aggressively efficient take-out counter. There is even a hotline, where a motorcycle awaits your call should any nam nueng emergency arise. Not to mention the branches at the airport, or the various other Vietnamese-Thai restaurant chains in town, helmed by cousins or children of the original VT founder, who made his dipping sauces in a secret room so as to minimize infighting among his children.

The namesake dish at VT Nam Nueng

But Udon Thani isn’t all about Vietnamese food (though it does boast a sizable Vietnamese community, said to have fled the country during the French colonial era). Newcomers to the city jonesing for street food but unsure of where exactly to go should simply get themselves to Naresuan Road, which appears to be Street Food Central for the entire town. Here, you will get anything you could possibly want: toothsome Chinese-style rice porridge (jok) as well as the looser Thai kind (khao thom), boiled with pork cartilage to a porky mellowness; hunks of muu satay, pork slathered in coconut milk and grilled on bamboo skewers; winningly large portions of silky, golden, whisper-soft homemade egg noodles — what it must feel like to eat Jennifer Aniston’s hair, if her hair was delicious.

But the standout, for me, has to be the Isaan food — fiery, acidic, deep with the bass note of the fishy and fermented, without any fancy-fingers gimmickry or sugar. At Jay Gai Som Tum, you have to pick up a number and wait in line for a gander at one of the maestro’s artfully pounded concoctions: thum pa, a jimble-jamble of fermented rice noodles, some slivered green papaya, boiled snails, green pak grachet and bamboo shoots, perhaps? Maybe a thum lao, green papaya mixed with the bewitching brew of fermented Thai anchovies (pla rah) and pickled field crabs, or thum mamuang, julienned mango topped with tiny field shrimp and flavored with the juices of an especially large mashed field crab. Or maybe you’re a traditionalist and want to stick with thum Thai, in which case — why are you here again? The point is, there’s a lot of different kinds of som tum, from the traditional green papaya version to mango, to gratawn (the sweet-tart santol) to the rice noodle, or kanom jeen-based som tums that appear to be the default setting for the som tums here  — Thai fusion in action, a Central Thai ingredient getting the Isaan treatment.

Jay Gai's mango som tum

What perfectly sets off all that fire and acidity? A simply prepared bowl of snails, a mere 10 baht per dish, boiled with kaffir lime leaves.

Udon Thani is a great town that I must visit again, but I had to venture up to Khon Kaen, today one of Thailand’s biggest, fastest-growing cities. So we girded our stomach linings and made a special effort to go to Saeb Nua (Mitraphab Road across from Srinakarin Hospital), which ended up not being street food but special nonetheless, despite its factory cafeteria ambiance. Another long menu of som tums here, as well as delicious larbs (minced meat salads, including larb goy, or raw beef larb) and nam toks (grilled, rare meats in a spicy dressing). But the stars here are the gai yang, or whole chicken, pressed flat within the recesses of a wooden stick and grilled, and pla pow, freshwater fish encrusted in salt, stuffed with an herb parcel and also grilled. There is a lot of grilling in Isaan food.

Saeb Nua's grilled fish

At night, a meal of jaew hon (Isaan-style sukiyaki, with a chili-touched broth and strong, spicy dipping sauce that leaves every other sweet, cloying dipping sauce in the dust) at lakeside stall Tik Jaew Hon and we were done, clutching at our charcoal pills and glasses of water.  A “not spicy” salad of naem (cured pork sausage) arrives looking like a crime scene out of CSI, splattered with a lurid coat of smashed red chilies. If you haven’t noticed, Isaan food also likes its chilies. Alas, I do not. I will have to return to Isaan, later. After my stomach has a nice long rest.

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Filed under Asia, chicken, fish, food, food stalls, Isaan, restaurant, som tum, Thailand