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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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)