Category Archives: Thai-Chinese

Sukhothai, -ish

A bowl of Sukhothai noodles at Baan Kru Eiw

Do you ever find yourself in that situation where you recognize somebody across the room whom you haven’t seen for a while? What if they recognize you, too? What if you both sit, paralyzed, unsure of who is to get up and make that first stab at conversation? And if you lose this internal wrestling match and you do get up, what if you see that undeniable flash of resignation flit across his face, that “Oh crap, now I have to talk to this person I haven’t spoken to since my wedding in 2007” look? What if you catch that person desperately attempting to hide from you as your eyes lock onto his ear, trying to avoid the upcoming “Oh crap I said I’d call you back five years ago” conversation by suddenly becoming fascinated by the septuagenarian cashier near the entrance, the telltale hand coming up to shield his precious face from your gaze?

I admit it. I have nearly been run over by a bus in my haste to avoid an ex in San Francisco. So I know what it’s like to run away from someone like a bar of soap and stick of deodorant when faced with the likes of Johnny Depp in Full Hobo Mode.  But you can’t run away from me, Sukhothai. I admit, you nearly succeeded, what with my preoccupation with the north, and then Isaan, and that brief flirtation with Phuket over the summer. But there was no way I was not going to knock over every vendor in the city in my search for the best Sukhothai noodles — an ingenious dish that combines a Chinese base (rice noodles) with Thai seasonings (lime, fish sauce, chilies, palm sugar), topped with a signature flourish of julienned green beans.

Sukhothai likes its food sweet, and is fond of its coconut milk. This is why Sukhothai can be considered more of a central Thai city, and less northern Thai. Sukhothai noodles — usually built upon sen lek, or thin white rice noodles —  contain no coconut milk, but epitomize all the great things that characterize Sukhothai’s food: sweetness tempered by a bit of spice, a fondness for the pig in whatever iteration, and generous use of the region’s famously gorgeous cut lime. There is crunch from the blanched beans, crushed peanuts and tiny crumbs of pork crackling; there is a pork-bone broth flavored with tamarind juice and thick with slices of tender boiled pork. It’s hard to not like this particular hometown specialty.

The best place to have it may not be a street food stall. Instead, it’s a “comfort food”-style restaurant, what a diner would be like if it existed in Thailand. It’s called Baan Kru Eiw (www.bankrueiw-restaurant.com), located in downtown Sukhothai(ish) and named after the teacher who opened this restaurant out of her home a little over a decade ago. Teacher Eiw ran this restaurant in her spare time because she loves cooking and wanted to showcase Sukhothai specialties. That means you get other local favorites like naem nueng, a Vietnamese-derived do-it-yourself noodle dish featuring steamed pork “pate”, and gluey chuem, or boiled bananas in sugar syrup. Last but not least, there is pad Thai — a no-brainer for every Sukhothai noodle vendor in the city, since Sukhothai noodles are basically pad Thai in soup noodle form, with the same seasonings if not always the same protein (the pad Thai here usually involves pork instead of seafood). Kru Eiw wraps her stir-fried noodles up in a thin envelope of egg and crowns the result with a scattering of coriander leaves, with a side of bean sprouts, banana blossom and garlic chives (and of course, a cut of that big, juicy Sukhothai lime) to mop up any grease (Thais are very concerned about kwam lien, or greasiness in their food). At Kru Eiw, there is little grease to worry about. But if you see someone you recognize across the room, you’re on your own.

Kru Eiw’s pad Thai

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Filed under Asia, food, noodles, pork, restaurant, Sukhothai, Thai-Chinese, Thailand

Pretty in its own way

Guay jab at Sukhumvit Soi 38

Growing up in a small Pennsylvania town 15 minutes from the Ohio border had its good points and bad points. Good points: a safe place where you could build forts in the woods and ride bikes with your friends all day long; living a short walk away from the school and park; great Italian-American food, Indian food, and Middle-Eastern food. Bad points: I was Asian. Not the only Asian, mind you — I was the Asian Girl. My friend KK who was also in my grade was the Asian Boy. Classmates would come up to me (and probably him) from time to time to ask “Why don’t you go out with KK? It would be SOOO perfect” like the world had rained for 40 days and nights and they were in charge of building some sort of Noah’s Ark with Asian people.

This sounds small, but it wasn’t. I was never a viable person that anyone in their right mind would ever consider going out with (and by “going out”, as this was 7th grade, I mean asking your mom to drive you to the Christmas dance in the junior high cafeteria while I wear a Talbots dress borrowed from my mom). I would never get to wear my “boyfriend’s” football jersey on Fridays before the game. I would never get to go to high school parties on the weekends. (I did, however, get to watch a lot of foreign films over sleepovers and play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, things that have actually helped me a bit later on in life).

I used to be sad that I wasn’t an Erin or an Amy or, best of all, a Jennifer. Instead, I was a Chawadee (aka Dog Chow aka Chow Time aka Choo Choo aka Chewbacca). But later, as I grew older, friends would tell me I was “pretty in my own way”. That could be bad, like “you are pretty in a way that no one recognizes”, but it could also be good, like “you are uniquely you”. Looking back, I choose to read it in the good way. I am me.

Guay jab — that Thai-Chinese street food dish featuring curled-up flat rice noodles, random bits of pork and either a thick soy sauce gravy (nam khon) or clear soup (nam sai) — might be considered “pretty in its own way”. It’s the least glamorous of all the noodle soups: the silky, savory voluptuousness of a bamee (egg noodles), the easy-to-eat immediacy of a guay thiew moo (pork noodles), the eager-to-please popularity of a guay thiew tom yum (noodles in spicy lemongrass broth). By comparison, guay jab is too challenging, too hefty, too porky — bits of lung, intestine and pig skin mingling with tenderly poached slivers of meat, noodles and, in the case of the thick broth, half a boiled egg. There is no mitigating flourish of lettuce, no handful of palate-cleansing greens. It’s Piggy with a capital P. What are you gonna do about it?

There are people who see guay jab for what it is — a celebration of the pig — and like it in their own ways. For the thick-bodied version, look no further than the stand on Sukhumvit Soi 38, the first stall on the left as you enter. Those who like it more in the Chinese style should go to Yaowaraj Road, where the clear, peppery version awaits at Guay Jab Oun Pochana. Either way you like it, you can’t go wrong.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, noodles, pork, Thai-Chinese, Thailand

Adventures in Thonburi

Hoy klang, or “blood cockles”, across the river

“Run,” he said. “If you want to leave, go now. Or you won’t be able to leave until closing time.”

For the last three hours, Christina and I had been sitting riverside, enjoying a beautiful sunset, and getting gently — but irretrievably — sloshed on a steady diet of designer cocktails with no food. Every move we made to leave was greeted with exhortations to “Stay! Enjoy!” by the bar’s disarmingly generous owner, cocktails turning into glasses of wine and then wine bottles as a silent young man smiled blankly next to her. It was like being held prisoner in a booze-filled tower by an especially charming sorceress. And the smiling sphinx at our table was our way out.

So we did what any person of honor would do in our situation. We ran. We ditched. We didn’t ask about money. We didn’t look back. Later, floating for what seemed like an eternity on the river, I thought of karma as the wine threatened to make a reappearance on the Chao Phraya, the boat bobbing its slow, aimless way to freedom. But we had more pressing things to think about. Like dinner.

Thonburi is often ignored, because it’s all the way over there, across the river, in the no man’s land also known as Collection of Big Places that are Hard to Get To. It’s the Queens of Bangkok. You have to really want to go. Tonight, Christina was giving me two good reasons to trek over from my safe place of cake shops and sushi bars.

Our shrimp, pre-baking, at Jay Piek

The first, called Jay Piek (Charoen Rat Road near Soi 1 at Wong Wien Yai, 086-613-0587) specializes in something of a rarity in Thai street food stalls — the Thai-Chinese dish known as goong ob woonsen, prawns wrapped in glass vermicelli and baked in a metal container, a method which ensures maximum juiciness and aroma. What sets the shrimp at Jay Piek apart is the seasoning: packed full of scallions and coriander roots, coriander seeds, shreds of pork fat, and a finishing dash of ground white pepper before it is sent over to your table.

The finished product, in half-light

There is also crab given similar treatment, grilled salt-encrusted seabass, baked mussels in herbs, and the Thai shellfish known as “blood cockles” because of the blood-like liquid they ooze when they are cooked. It’s a small menu, but a smart one, and Jay Piek — as its constantly-crowded tables attest — seems to do it the best.

But as awesome as Jay Piek is, we found something even better. I mean, people talk about things being a “revelation” a lot, and that’s when you know to turn off the computer and never go back, but I’m doing it now. Because this nameless ice cream place in the tent at Wong Wien Lek, fronted by satay and egg noodle vendors and flanked by a Chinese restaurant called Ah Gu, is my personal revelation, the best thing I’ve had in years.

Serving a type of old-style ice cream known as i thim kai dip (raw egg ice cream), this stall specializes in a dessert that has gone out of vogue for obvious reasons. The ice cream container must be very, very cold. The eggs must be very, very fresh, coddled right then and there. The vendor must be very, very sure that those yolks will be frozen.

“Raw egg ice cream”, pre-freezing

But when everything is right, the stars are aligned, and the vendor finally looks your way, the results are mind-blowingly delicious: vanilla-scented cream shot through with streaks of savory sunshine, an extra oomph and push to something that already has a whole lot of egg yolks. What’s one more, right? And when it’s dotted with look chid, or syrupy lotus seeds, and set in front of you after what seems like an eternity spent waiting for that yolk to freeze, it is hard not to consume the entire three or four scoops, all by yourself.

Streaks of sunshine

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, seafood, Thai-Chinese, Thailand, Thonburi

Mysterious alchemy

This is a story that has absolutely nothing to do with me. It, uh, happened to a friend. Let’s call her Shmangkok Shmutton*.

Anyway, she was at a party last night. She doesn’t get invited to many parties. So her default behavior at parties is either abject terror or overzealous socializing, with much European-style kissy-kissy and blithe misreading of obvious body language.  She was in the latter mode.

About halfway into the evening, it gradually dawned on me, I mean her: no one was coming up to me to talk. All my conversations were because of me coming up to other people, and with the exception of a couple of extremely heroic people, almost all conversations ended with pleas to go get beer/wine/noodles/haircut/lobotomy within the span of a few minutes. I was that person at the party. I was That Person At The Party! Oh, I mean She. Shmangkok Shmutton.

You know that person. Who goes up to talk to a group of people, and one person politely obliges, taking the flack for the benefit of the herd, who form their own self-protective little circle, leaving their friend out in the cold until the threat passes. You know what I’m talking about.

It takes a while, but she gradually gets it. They’re just not that into you. And when I say “you”, I mean “me”. And when I say “me”, I mean “she”. Things change, people change, and that mysterious alchemy that dictates alliances and connections: work, money, fat, success or lack of it — all of these things tinker with the balance of things, rearranging the world by degrees as the years press inexorably on. Some people will like you (I mean her. Is this tiresome yet?) Some people will not. It is supposed to be a natural thing, this liking and disliking, this shift that dictates one person is awesome while another is The Worst. Why fight it?

So I’ll come clean. Even though I like to think of myself as a “food person”, I thought I hated Chinese food. It was hard, because it is a big country and my parents are both the most gigantimongous fans of this food ever. Like most Thais, they see it as the epitome of cuisine, particularly Cantonese, the abalone and the shark’s fin, edible Louis Vuitton. But I was just not that into it, remembering the countless 2-hour journeys to Cleveland to a Cantonese restaurant called Bo Loong, sitting with my forehead to the table with dry rice on my plate as my parents ate their fill.

But that mysterious alchemy has since worked its magic. Now, I cannot get enough of it. I’m not talking gloopy canned asparagus and evil shark’s fin. I’m talking the Sichuan security blanket that is mabo tofu, garlicky long beans, the long list of dumplings that come in every possible variation.

Potstickers at Dalian

Because there is a blossoming of northern Chinese-style restaurants in Bangkok that shun the usual trappings — Cantonese prestige dishes, Peking duck (there must always be Peking duck), lobster sashimi. They are the anti-status restaurants: dingy, hole-in-the-wall places with no-nonsense service still redolent of the mainland, staff who barely speak Thai, and a menu brimming with dumplings, green beans, sweet lacquered eggplant “fries”, and, of course, tofu slathered in a black bean sauce studded with pork.

Boiled dumplings at Sun Moon Dumpling Restaurant

They all have basically the same menu. They are either off of Sukhumvit (Dalian behind Villa supermarket on Sukhumvit 33, or the suspiciously slick one off of Sukhumvit 39); on Rama IV (Longcheu near the entrance to Sukhumvit 22, or Sun Moon on Ngam Dumplee Road); or in the business district (Ran Nam Toahu Yung Her near Chong Nonsi BTS stop). And although those dishes are executed with varying degrees of skill and enjoy varying degrees of popularity, these restaurants are all delicious. In short: I am into them.

*Names are changed in this story.

Dalian’s green beans

 

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, Chinese, food, pork, restaurant, Thai-Chinese, Thailand

What it means to be underrated

This is the last post of 2011 for me, and because of that, I want it to be special. Many people are predictably rolling out the “Best of…Worst of…” lists to punctuate the end of this strange, strange year, but I want to devote my last post to something more special, more near and dear to my food-loving heart. And that is Jet Li.

I love Jet Li. I love him even though other people gawk and aah and ooh over the usuals, all somehow resembling that boy in high school who was so so useless but still managed to breeze through life intact and popular — you know these boys, they are infuriating. Empty vessel of man-meat Brad Pitt, or repository of broken dreams George Clooney, or — snore — Ryan Gosling — how did he happen again? — you get the picture. They are basically iterations on the same boy. They will always have a “Hi, how are you?” as they whiz past you in the hall, not bothering to listen to your reply. That guy. That one.

Jet Li is not that guy. He is little and quick and quiet. He does silly martial arts movies with strange co-stars, a la Jackie Chan, but he has the acting chops to do serious stuff, too. He is not what anyone would call “conventionally handsome”, or “handsome”, or even “quite good-looking”. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t even care if he is the bad guy. Unlike, again, Jackie Chan, he isn’t that desperate to be liked. This is what separates him from the other actors of his genre, like, uh, Jackie Chan … and, er … … … … … … ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Jet Li is underrated. Like hua pla restaurants (see what I did there? What a seamless transition!), which are grungy and dingy and not “charming”, “glitzy” or “stylish” in the least. They have the ambiance of an underground storage space, and clientele who are well past retirement age. And the dishes they offer — well, what do you expect from a genre of restaurant named for a “fish head”?

The namesake dish, bubbling in a "maw fai" (fire pot)

Yet these hua pla restaurants resolutely cling to life on the Bangkok dining scene, scattered here and there in the unfashionable sections of town. A subset of the Chinese-Thai restaurant, hua pla places also feature stir-fried seafood dishes, fried rice and noodles besides the namesake dish, a fresh fish (usually giant pomfret, or thao theuy) in either pickled plum or taro broth (pickled plum is better), bubbling contentedly in a metal pot set over a small flame.

Fried e-mee noodles at Hua Pla Maw Fai Nai Kwan

Of all the hua pla restaurants in town, the one I find most accessible is just beyond the Sam Yan subway stop, across the street from Chamchuri Square. Called “Hua Pla Maw Fai Nai Kwan”, this unassuming eatery is hidden in a soi behind the parking lot to the left of Wat Hualumpong on Rama IV Road. It boasts maybe six tables, creaky old Lazy Susans, and a kitchen in back that may have seen  World War II. It is also the perfect place for a quiet, no-fuss lunch on a relaxing Sunday with the day stretching ahead of you like an empty highway. And what could be better than that?

Stir-fried crab with peppers at Nai Kwan

 

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

Grumpalicious

N

Lunch at Silom Pattakarn

I try to write something here once a week, because life without forcing yourself to do something is a life far too enjoyable, but sometimes, things happen. Last week, and the week before that, and the week before that one, and, oh, this week too, that thing has been the Cold Monster. The Cold Monster rarely visits, so I had little idea what to expect, but it’s a stubborn creature, and pretends to leave only to show up in fuller force when you are at your most jaunty and hatching plans to make an ass of yourself in public again. So that’s what I’ve been up to. Fighting the Cold Monster.

Obviously, I have also been eating. Alas, the cold medication that I have tried all I can to avoid is the only thing between me and utter destruction at this point, but it renders everything I eat either tinny or tasteless. There are only a few things that have broken through this cold-medication curse, and sans further verbal tap-dancing, I have listed them below. Not surprisingly, they are from my favorite kinds of places: shabby, taciturn, and ancient. They are grumpalicious.

Pong Lee (10/1 Ratchawithi Soi 9, 02-644-5037, open 11am-9:30pm)

Why I like it: My grandfather, bless him, is no longer the gourmet he once was. But there was a time when he liked nothing better than to tell other people what or where to eat, and this was invariably one of his favorite choices. It’s changed little since we took him here last — the decor is the same (shabby unchic), as is the clientele (“vintage”). Not surprisingly, the menu has also undergone little renovation. Although people like to order the deep-fried duck, our family has our own little favorites.

What I like: Old-school Thai-Chinese versions of “Western” dishes are also represented on the menu by way of Pong Lee’s deep-fried pork chop, swimming in a thick tomato sauce and peas. It sounds kind of gross, and maybe is if you are not familiar with this very specialized subset of old-style fusion food, but it is the dish my brother invariably goes for. Steamed seabass and hae gun (Chinese-style deep-fried shrimp rolls) are standbys, as is the odd vegetable dish of what appears to be canned white asparagus garnished with a murky seaweed. Sometimes (only if I am there), we order the stewed goat. Pong Lee’s specialty, however, is said to be the Hokkien-style fried egg noodles, garnished with shredded pork floss.

Egg noodles with pork floss

Sanguansri (59/1 Wireless Rd., 02-252-7637, open 10am-3pm)

Why I like it: Is it habit? Is it the food? I can’t tell anymore. Sometimes I am absolutely appalled by the service (but cannot say anything because, let’s face it, some of the servers are my grammy’s age). And sometimes I am perfectly happy to sit there, ignored, serving myself water from the counter and fighting to pay my bill. All I know is that I first came here when, well, I first came to Thailand, and eating here makes me think of that time. Also, the food seems to have only improved since then (as illustrated by the growing and increasingly-ravenous lunchtime crowd).

What I like: What can I say? It’s all about the kanom jeen nam prik. Sure, some other places also have kanom jeen (Mon-style fermented rice noodles) with vaunted reputations, but Sanguansri deserves it. Their nam prik — a mellow, chili-flecked, coconut milk-based curry — is genuinely delicious, layered and complex, sweet and mild but with an earthy undertow. Noodles come pre-mixed with greens for convenience’s sake (theirs, not yours), and sometimes they forget silverware and/or dishes, but whatever. As for everything else, it … skews sweet. Another favorite is the gluay chuem (bananas cooked in syrup), which comes drizzled in coconut milk, a further play on the salty-sweet thing.

Kanom jeen nam prik

Silom Pattakarn (Soi Silom Pattakarn, the soi after Silom Soi 15, 02-236-4442, open 10am-9pm)

Why I like it: Among the oldest remaining examples of Thai-Western fusion food, Silom Pattakarn specializes in something that is increasingly in danger of becoming extinct (see: Restaurant, Carlton) — Thai-Chinese versions of “Western” dishes such as “stew” (tomato-based sauce, peas, and pork, oxtail or ox tongue), corn soup, Chinese-style “chicken curry” (the national British dish), and “steak” (here seared perfectly and cooked medium to medium-well — no bleu among germ-phobic Thais!) accompanied with a simple salad in a sweet vinaigrette. There are also “fancy” Asian dishes such as fish maw soup, either cooked dry or nam daeng (“red broth”) and mee krob boran (old-style crispy thin noodles), which, unlike the lacquered khunying hair-like confections atop so many “traditional” restaurant tables today, arrives simply and humbly, mixed with minced shrimp, touched only a bit with sugar.

Old-fashioned mee krob with garnishes

What I like: Uh, I think I went over that already. But honestly, I also just love the place: it’s breezy in the wintertime, the ladies are lovely, and everything comes with a fluffy tower of white bread and ginormous pat of butter. With the loss of the Carlton Restaurant on Silom (another “fancy” place frequented by blue-hair types who remember its heyday in the ’50s and ’60s), Silom Pattakarn has possibly become the remaining purveyor of this slice of post-World War II Thailand, when the country was young and budding and the future seemed bright (I remember this time vividly, you see). The restaurant is up for sale (granted, for the past 6-7 years), so this may be the last chance you get to see, and taste, progressive mid-century Thailand.

Chicken curry and the dining room

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, chicken, curries, food, noodles, restaurant, Thai-Chinese, Thailand

Stories we tell ourselves

Kai gata in Udon Thani

We all have our own little stories that we choose to believe, and this one is mine: We have Vietnam War-era American GIs to thank for two of the more beloved dishes in our culinary lexicon. One is a hastily-stirfried hodge-podge of sliced processed hotdog, ham, raisins, peas, and rice, lubricated with a generous dollop of ketchup and topped with a fried egg, sunnyside-up. This dish, a big ol’ smile on a plate, is generally known as “American fried rice” and can be found just about anywhere you can find a wok and a cook, and sometimes not even the cook. Just bring your two hands and a bottle of oil.

The other, because of its Vietnamese roots, is more prevalent in the Isaan region and known as “kai gata” (or “kai kata” or “kai gataa” or “kai kataa” … sometimes, you just have to close your eyes and point a finger and hope that it’s darn near close enough). Eggs are broken into a small metal pan and baked or cooked gently atop a grill, accompanied by sliced gun chieng (sweet Chinese sausage), veggies and  moo yaw (which, according to Chef McDang, was born as a Chinese cook’s approximation of European pate at the court of King Rama IV). And don’t forget the “bread” — usually a disarmingly sweet white bun, cleaved into two, buttered thickly and stuffed with ham, moo yaw and/or sausage. The story is that this dish was the closest an American GI could get to an American breakfast. What I see it as is 1960s-70s Asian-American fusion (just like me!): hearty and welcoming, pragmatic and resourceful, just what is needed sometimes to start what once threatened to be a deadly dull day.

Happily, you can find this dish in Bangkok. You just need to know where to look or, barring that, know who to pester. In my case, it’s my friend Winner, who knows the culinary ins-and-outs of Banglamphu like no one else. Gopi Hia Gai Gi (37 Siripong Rd., 02-621-0828. There is another one at the Wisut Kasat intersection), alongside stuff like Chinese-style flat stuffed noodles, dim sum and, uh, steak, serves up a mean kai gata, drizzled with minced pork and peas and, of course, accompanied by the mini white bread bun stuffed with moo yaw.  Best of all, it’s open from 7 am to 8:30 at night — a chance at kai gata at any time you think you might need to restart your day.

Banglumphu's version

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, Isaan, Thai-Chinese, Thailand