Category Archives: Southern Thailand

Strange combinations

O-tao in Phuket town

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

There are moments in everyone’s lives that are so strange, they might as well have been scripted. One of mine was a scant few years ago, during my second pregnancy. Well into my second trimester and approaching my third, I went to Macau with my husband, his family, and his family friends — getting one last plane trip in before airlines stopped letting me and my big belly on the plane.

Macau is an interesting place, full of an interesting history that seems to get shoved to the wayside somewhere in favor of the new thing in town: casinos. Lots of them. Like Las Vegas, it’s now a place built on dreams, full of places built to look like other places, and other places meant to spend lots of money. It was also something that, aside from the food, we were singularly unable to share in: never gamblers, we awkwardly gawked our way through the lobby every day, watching the strange dances of the dealers and the hopeful, window-shopping our way through this and everything else. And it was definitely not a place for 6-month-pregnant me: just a few weeks before getting relegated to a wheelchair because of my enormous weight, I could only walk a few minutes at a time before having to sit down and rest.

Not surprisingly, all that money changing hands tends to draw an interesting element, especially at night. There were an awful lot of beautiful girls milling around the shopping mall, looking like they were waiting for someone. Maybe they really were waiting, scanning the horizon for their friends, hatching plans to see a movie, getting ready to share some hot wings. I honestly don’t know. But when I sat down to rest my stretched pelvis for the umpteenth time on the long and arduous walk back to our hotel room, my husband sat next to me, and a girl sat next to him, and promptly laid her head on my husband’s shoulder.

Let me set this scene for you. Me, a gigantic bulbous mammoth with a huge protruding belly. My husband, next to me, sitting stock still. My husband’s parents and their friends, standing behind us. Girl, apparently very sleepy, with her head on my husband’s shoulder. No one says anything. Some female passersby look, cluck at this strange combination of people on a bench, and shake their heads: whether at me, a big ol’ fatso who cannot just stand up and ask someone/anyone what is going on; my husband, who cannot shrug his shoulder and walk away; or at the girl, who is very, very tired — I don’t know. What I do know is that it is appalling, but in the funniest possible way. If I ever, at that moment, harbored that question of Do I Look Fat in This? the answer was: oh, most definitely yes. Otherwise, why would that lady decide to sit there, cuddling with my husband? Was there a question of This Is Weird and What Should We Do? Well, certainly. This was a moment that required examining my own feelings: surprise, indecision, humiliation, check. Exhilaration? Yes, that too. What happens next? Call my bluff then, Life. Just do it. Maybe I am a gambler after all …

… (although not much of one, if your parents are just milling around, looking at bath salts close by. She eventually got up and walked away).

The point of this long and tedious story is, strange combinations excite similarly strange feelings. It might not make sense, but it somehow works. This is something the Hokkien Chinese in Phuket — a community largely responsible for Phuket’s street food scene today — have taken to heart. Want oysters slathered atop a mix of egg, flour and cubed taro and dressed in lashings of minced garlic, soy sauce, bean sprouts and pork rinds? Sure, why not? How about thick yellow noodles fried with pork, chicken, fish and crispy greens, topped with a raw egg yolk, raw slivered shallots and, again, pork rinds? Of course.

Hokkien fried noodles at Mee Ton Poe in Phuket

O-tao, the Hokkien-style oyster omelet dish, is best represented at Ji Piena stall that has been around for nearly 80 years in one location or another in downtown Phuket. Its current incarnation, over 40 years old, is at a nondescript stall along Soi Phoonphol 7, where the hardworking chef churns out plate upon plate of o-tao topped with oysters, shrimp and/or squid (there is also a vegetarian version), as well as a small roster of curries atop kanom jeen (fermented rice noodles).

Ji Pien in Phuket

For fried noodle lovers, there is also Mee Ton Poewhich enjoys two locations, but I always go to the one on Phuket Road. A vast range of fried noodle dishes awaits, many a variation of the mee pad Hokkien (Hokkien fried noodles) on nearly every menu in town, but the real treat here is, besides the amiable service, the curries the staff eat at lunch. I’m not kidding. They are homemade and delicious: fiery gaeng trai pla (Southern Thai fish entrail curry), or the milder and no-less-flavorful gaeng prik (chili curry).

And if you still haven’t had enough of strange combinations, Phuket has you covered on the dessert side of things too: o-aew, a shaved ice dessert laden with bananas, colored syrup, and a jelly made from soaking o-aew seeds in water and said to protect diners from getting ulcers. Where to get it? At the moment, it’s available at a place called — where else? — O-Aew, across from the entrance to Soi Sun Uthit.

O-aew in Phuket town

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

 

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Filed under Asia, bamee, dessert, food, food stalls, noodles, Phuket, seafood, Southern Thailand, Thailand

A very Phuket breakfast

Dim sum in Phuket

There are times when “research” means stuffing yourself with lots and lots and lots of food in a very short period of time. God help me, it was the kind of research I was doing today — namely, three promising stalls, all for breakfast.

Lured by the promise of “beef bamee”, I was excited by the prospect of Guaythiew Rab Arun, a small noodlery in the shadow of Bangkok Phuket Hospital. Alas, they were not as excited by our appearance, and, double-damn, a beefy variation of the popular egg noodles with barbecued pork was also not on the cards. No, this was your run-of-the-mill beef noodle shop: choice of rice vermicelli (sen mee), thin noodles (sen lek) and thick ones (sen yai), with broth that did or did not include cow blood (nam tok). The broth was as good beef broths are, cinnamon-y and sweet; the bowl an unashamed showcase for all sorts of innards — lungs, liver and tripe.

Beef noodles without broth

All very nice — except for the bizarre delay in letting us settle the bill — but nothing I wouldn’t find in Bangkok. On the other hand, I haven’t seen anything quite like the dim sum shop we visited next. When asked the name of the place, a two-room shophouse on Sam Gong Road serving kanom jeeb (Chinese-style steamed dumplings) and a wide variety of little bits, our waitress acts like I have just asked her ATM pin code. “Just ask, everyone knows the Dim Sum Place Down The Road From The Hospital,” she said (TDSPDTRFTH for short). A trayful of plates is deposited onto your table as you sit; you pick what you want, and you are charged, conveyor belt sushi-style, for whatever you choose. Small plates are 10 baht, “big” plates (which are almost the exact same size as the small plates) cost 15.

The tray of goodies at TDSPDTRFTH

Is it the best dim sum ever? Of course not. Is it crazy cheap? Well, that depends on you, but for the most part, why, yes it is. It is indeed cheap. And that is sometimes what I am looking for.

So, a question mark on the first stall, a possible “yes” on the second. The third? A resounding I WILL BE BACK. Pa Mai (at three-way intersection of Sagul and Dibuk roads near Wittaya School, 076-258-037) specializes in curry — curry, and the Mon fermented rice noodles known as kanom jeen, what some people mistakenly translate into “Chinese candy”. A plate of the stuff is handed to you at the front by this nice lady:

Dispenser of kanom jeen

Once you receive your blank canvas, an array of curries awaits your artistry: a trio of nam ya, crab, fish and “jungle” (without coconut milk); chicken green curry, made the old-fashioned way with globs of congealed pork blood; nam prik, a speckled chili-coconut milk concoction that, unlike its terrifying name, is actually quite sweet; gaeng tri pla, or the famous — and fierce — southern fish entrail curry; and because this is the south, nam prik kapi, or shrimp paste chili dip, made to go with the innumerable garnishes that greet you at every table:

A table at Pa Mai

Is there any sight more gladdening than this one? A platter bristling with greenery: tart mango leaves, chewy cashew ones, boiled jackfruit, cubed pineapple, bitter, spice-defying baby eggplants. Soft-boiled eggs for 7 baht. Dried fish. An ajad of thinly-sliced cucumber in a tart-sweet syrup. And a happy variety of pickles (I just love pickles): cabbage, bean sprouts, lotus stems, baby garlic.

My choice (at first): crab nam ya

Best of all, you are only charged 30 baht for the kanom jeen, meaning those curries can be added, mixed, or replenished as you see fit. Really. So I first took some fish nam ya, then some crab. Some green curry. Some nam prik. And then a little left for the fiery tri pla. Don’t judge me.

We have found kanom jeen nirvana, and it is open from 7 to noon.

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Filed under Asia, beef, Chinese, curries, food, food stalls, noodles, Southern Thailand, Thailand

The South lives on

More than a week after my trip down south, I am still infatuated with southern Thai food. Luckily for me, there are a handful of great food stalls in Bangkok featuring some truly tasty Thai-Muslim fare.

One that deserves a visit from any lover of the time-honored “chicken-and-rice” combo is the Khao Mok Gai stand on Convent Road, off of Bangkok’s central business thoroughfare, Silom. Literally translated as “chicken buried in rice”, khao mok gai is one of the more well-known Thai-Muslim dishes and usually features a succulent hunk of chicken (always on the bone), paired with a mound of yellow, cumin-colored rice and a sweet-spicy red sauce. A side of chicken broth spiked with shredded chilies, deep-fried shallots and sliced cilantro is the Robin to this Batman.

(Courtesy of pbinbkk)

Although this stand sells the soup separately, which I think is kind of a gyp, I still love how the chicken is always carefully prepared, the rice just-so, the soup brimming with fresh cilantro and sharp with lime juice. Despite the fact this stand is swarmed by lunchtime office workers on the go, everything comes out well-made and fresh-tasting — still green and spiky and warm. Alas, this stand is only open during the day.

A more around-the-clock type of proposition is Roti-Mataba, huddled at the curve of picturesque Phra Arthit Road along the Chao Phraya River. It’s a lovely site, and an even lovelier food stand, provided you can stand the smoke from the spitting roti (a flat bread like its Indian counterpart, but flakier) and mataba (stuffed flatbread) on the griddle next to your table (there are tables upstairs, but service is spotty — a flight of stairs separates you from the kitchen — and the view not as good).

Those aren’t the only temptations on offer here: aside from the expected chicken, the khao mok here includes beef, mutton, fish and prawn versions, and on our last visit there, it even looked like some sausage rolls (!) were being made — a sort of strange menu item for a Thai-Muslim restaurant.

"Hot dogs" and "burgers" -- a universal combination

But the main draws here are the irrespressible mataba and roti. While it’s the sweet-sour ajad (cucumber-and-chili dipping sauce) that makes a star of the mataba (also available with “sweet” pumpkin and banana stuffings), the roti — accompanying a slew of thick-gravied southern curries like massaman and the standard gaeng gari — are fresh, flaky charmers in and of themselves. The best: dessert versions including banana, chocolate syrup-and-condensed milk, and a combination of the two. How (very, very) sweet it is.

Banana, chocolate syrup and condensed milk roti

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, chicken, dessert, food, food stalls, rice, Southern Thailand, Thai-Muslim, Thailand

Down South

Stir-fried crab in black pepper sauce at the restaurant it's named for, "Pu Dum" (Black Crab)

As a native Northern Thai, I like to think that everything up north is gracious and everyone there good-looking. But I have to say, right now I am smitten with the South: its weather, its beatific scenery, its beaches, its food. Especially the food.

Heading southbound by car from Bangkok to Phuket offers a great perspective on what Thailand has to offer. Even better, you get to stop at reststops that feature some truly outstanding food courts, offering some of the most underrated food in the country. Now, it’s true I try to avoid most food courts in Bangkok (except for the ones at MBK and at Bangkok Hospital, which are excellent) because — let’s face it — better renditions of these dishes can be found elsewhere, we know about these places, and we have the time to go to them.

Boiling oxtails for oxtail soup, a southern food court standby

Food courts by the highway in the provinces are another story. I love how they offer dishes that are basically a culinary Cliff’s Notes of what you would be enjoying in that region, were you to stop there — a “greatest hits” of each area, food-wise. In the south, a lot of those hits mirror the region’s large Muslim Thai population and are deliciously “exotic” and Other (note the widespread absence of pork. In fact, if you see pork, chances are you’ve stumbled onto a community of Chinese, who settled down south in the 19th century). A great case in point: 

Chicken "mataba" with sweet cucumber salsa

Take the mataba, a sort of stuffed crepe with minced vegetables and chicken or beef, served with a sweet shallot and cucumber relish (achad). It’s savory, sweet and starchy, cut with the fresh, crunchy snap of the relish, a great snack on the go. Another thing I love about food courts in the south are the free (!) pepper dips provided at every table, which are served alongside some of the more exotic vegetables and leaves I have ever seen. I love travelling to the south of Thailand because every time I go, I encounter some new and unusual green that I have never tried before. On this trip: a nam prik gapi (shrimp paste pepper dip) accompanied by the likes of an asparagus-like long bean, tannic baby eggplants to counteract the spicy dip, and sator, the peppery, bitter legume (which is in season right now).

Shrimp paste dip with vegetables

Another current culinary obsession: highway-side food vendors. Notwithstanding how people manage to slow down enough to patronize any of these stalls, I love seeing the wide variety of things on sale depending on where you are in Thailand (and where you are in the season) — around Hua Hin, it might be limes and coconuts; in northeastern Isaan, probably grilled chicken and sticky rice; up north, you might encounter freshly pressed sugarcane juice. Even in parts of the south, you will find huge stainless steel steamers stuffed with steamed pork-filled dumplings (salapao) or steamed shrimp dumplings (kanom jeeb) for sale, more testament to the large Chinese communities here.

What you’ll also get is called roti sai mai — imagine a tortilla stuffed with cotton candy, and you’ve got a good approximation of what I’m talking about. It’s a popular southern streetside snack, and is chock-full of the double comforts of sugar and starch, all in one.

A typical highway vendor selling roti

But the best southern Thai food, for me, is all about the seafood. Homebound again through a torrential downpour, we stopped at Phang Nga for some good food-lovin’ at Pu Dum (Black Crab), ordering its namesake, a barely cooked cracked fresh crab smothered in a black peppercorn sauce; a handful of deep-fried Thai smelts; freshly steamed hor mok (steamed fish curry); stir-fried sator with shrimp and chilies; a piquant sour soup with coconut shoots and the plump midsection of a serpent head fish; and best of all, sauteed bai lieng (the leaves of a local tree, stir-fried with dried shrimp), a new discovery. It was delicious.

Stir-fried leaves with dried shrimp

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Filed under Asia, food, food stalls, restaurant, seafood, Southern Thailand, Thailand