Category Archives: Thai-Muslim

Mid-life crisis

Beef mataba (stuffed Thai-Muslim pancake) at Roti-Mataba

When people talk about having a mid-life crisis, they are thinking about something like a loss of identity or the mourning of things that have passed us by, never to return, like the opportunity to go braless. Or the ability to digest 1 kg of meat without any repercussions. Or a deep, uninterrupted sleep. Oh, so many things to mourn!

But there are other things, more insidious. Because I am all about listing bad stuff, over and over again, here’s another one: being taken for granted. Underrated. Your opinions rendered irrelevant. Low tide at sunset, and you the fish wriggling in the shallows, somewhere between a dead jellyfish and plastic bottle.

And it’s not just about getting annoyed by things that other people inexplicably LOVE, like that teacher on Glee, who, every time he opens his mouth, moves a part of me that wants to kick his face in, even though he hasn’t done anything to me ever (I’m not lying. He’s on TV now and I want to shoot myself. Yet I can’t change the channel. Is this the point of Glee?) It’s about being dismissed in spite of your successes. In this context, I am obviously not talking about me, sitting in front of the television on a butterfly chair borrowed from my grandma because I have no furniture. I’m talking about Greyhound Cafe.

Because, for whatever reason, Greyhound is not considered a serious place to eat, the “See Fah” of the contemporary Bangkok dining scene. But let me tell you a story about Greyhound. Once, 100 years ago, it didn’t exist. Emporium was new, rising up out of the rubble of the last Bronze Age. My friend Tutti and I were making the rounds of this new, glittering place and she got to talking to a gentleman hatching plans to open a new restaurant in the next few months. He said the menu would be a bit strange, a bit of this and that, a Thai-Italian mix. Being the wonderful people we are, we waited until we left him to laugh at his idea. Thai-Italian? Awful. Who would eat this dreck? Fusion suxx!

Today, this man is probably on a yacht in the Andaman Sea, snacking on “Sandwich in a Bowl”, in a T-shirt reading “Complicated Noodle 4Eva”. Spaghetti pad kee mao is commonplace, and cutesy versions of Thai food staples like fried rice, nam prik or khao pad are everywhere in the city. This place now has a gazillion branches. Yet it’s still “just Greyhound”, mired in the restaurant version of a mid-life crisis. It was the best sort of fusion — a look into the future, reflecting how Bangkokians really eat. But what have you done for me lately, Greyhound?

Roti-Mataba (136 Pra Arthit Rd., 02-282-2119, open 9am-10pm except Mondays) is not a fusion restaurant. But it’s also in a mid-life crisis.  Among the most popular places to try Thai-Muslim food in the city, this khao raad gaeng (rice and curry) standby is seen as touristy, a bit blah, ignored in favor of younger, newer Thai-Muslim places that are harder to find — hence, more “authentic”. Later, sometime in the evening when the rats are scurrying next to your table and your beef curry noodles are strangely flavorless, watered d0wn in a failed attempt to make them last longer, you think back to the cheery, well-lit shophouse that is Roti-Mataba, and the women who tirelessly make new roti throughout the day. Roti that would eventually be dunked into a peanut-strewn bowl of beef mussaman curry, or a green chicken curry, the surface flecked with fat and basil. Better yet, roti slathered in chocolate sauce, dotted with slices of ripe banana.

That’s when you start to feel regret. Roti-Mataba, I have been away for too long.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, curries, food, food stalls, restaurant, Thai-Muslim, Thailand

Will it cut the mustard?

This is not to be confused with cutting the cheese — because of course I will cut the cheese. No, “cutting the mustard” is an old saying that implies something has passed muster, is deemed acceptable. The question here, as always on this blog, refers to food — the future children of my pots and pans.

I am going to be embarking on a cooking challenge, aided by inner voices supplied by Chef McDang and my aunt and Win’s grandmother and whomever else has written a Thai food recipe. I do this because, while I am a competent cook of English roasts and Italian pastas and French, uh, fries, frozen from the bag, I have never put my hand to a real Thai food recipe, not even once. And that bothers me.

That also places me in the realm of the “average-mediocre” in terms of cookery skill here; it won’t be as alienating as reading a cookbook by, say, Thomas Keller, but (hopefully) I won’t be a complete doodoohead either — I do know the difference between a beurre manie and a roux. Which won’t help me much in this case. Yet however.

There is also a post-Songkran bounty of recipes in my house, right at this moment. Win’s grandmother has two restaurant menus-full of them, laced with the Persian-Chinese-Thai influences that run though my husband’s family, who gather in Hua Hin every Thai new year to gorge on khao na gai (rice topped with chicken gravy) and khao buri, or “cigarette rice”, similar to the Thai-Muslim standard khao mok gai except more herbal.

Khao buri

I won’t start with that stuff though. That stuff is too hard.

So why not? It’s not like there is furious demand for my writing services. Somehow editors aren’t peeing themselves in ecstasy over my story ideas about exploring the little-known cuisine of the super-secret community of western Pennsylvanians in Bangkok (cheesy fries on cheese toast, with cheese) or an expose on noodle stalls helmed by cooks born to Cordon Bleu-trained pastry chefs moonlighting as doctors/lawyers/prime ministers on Thonglor. Somehow this gig isn’t working out for me right now. I have plenty of time.

But do I have the mustard? (For the record, I know I don’t need mustard to cook Thai food. At least I know that. I need ketchup).

Wish me luck!

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, rice, Thai-Chinese, Thai-Muslim, Thailand

The Far Side of Angst

Let me tell you a secret. Is it presumptuous of me to burden you with this so soon? It’s just that I feel such a bond, this far into our 30-second relationship — I feel like we’re two of a dust girdle kind, you and I.

It is a big surprise to all and sundry well-acquainted with my sunny personality, the privileged few who have been bombarded with my hemming and hawing, bitching and moaning, peanut butter and jelly-ing for the past 50-odd years, but: I am terrified of public speaking. Get me in front of a crowd of two or three and my knees start a-shakin’ and palms start a-sweatin’, the words in my mouth congealing into a mealy jumble that will make sense to no one, including myself.

Yet I continue to inflict myself upon unsuspecting bystanders because there is some sort of masochistic streak in me that says I MUST — somehow — persevere and someday — someway — emerge victorious. And I continue to fail, melting into a puddle of angst-ridden Robert Pattinson every time skeptical eyes lock onto me, daring me to say something of substance.

So it is with some trepidation that I said okay to the incredibly kind people at “Poh’s Kitchen”, a cooking show on ABC in Australia featuring Poh Ling Yeow, a chef/artist of Malaysian-Chinese heritage who got her start on “MasterChef Australia”. Aside from being beautiful and kind, Poh is a very knowledgeable cook, so it was a big surprise to get a call from her people suggesting that I might be able to show Poh around some of my favorite food spots and tell her something about Thai food.

I told myself I didn’t know anything about Thai food Poh didn’t already know herself. Envisioning a crowd of disappointed eyes compounded by the glare of the camera (and Lordy, am I familiar with that experience), I suggested a sheath of other names that they could use. I suggested I would be tied up with a possible trip abroad, a hair appointment, a heart attack. They were strangely insistent. I showed up, smudged from nausea and sleeplessness, having driven my husband crazy the night before with useless questions (“You’ll still be my friend, right?” was one of them).

For once, it wasn’t that bad. I did a lot of “uhs” and “absolutelys” (go ahead, down a shot every time I say one of those. I dare you.) I looked like Quasimodo next to Poh’s Esmerelda. But then I remembered that I would probably never, ever see this, and that realization was enormously freeing. As long as I could remain in my little bubble of denial, safe in the cocoon of the delusion that I was svelte and resembled the Asian Anouk Aimee, I would be OK.

Oh, are you still here? Did you think that I would be talking about food? Hahahahaha. Why would I do that, when I can blather endlessly about myself? But yes, it’s true: the day held yet another blessing. Hours spent roasting in a boat under the midday sun yielded — besides renewed exclamations of “Why are you so DARK?! You’re so DARK, isn’t she so DARK?!” — a sheltered Thai-Muslim community along Klong Saen Saep specializing in gorgeous fish-based nam prik, or so-called “chili paste”.

Readying ingredients for the camera

While the chili dips and nam prik gaeng that are used as the base for countless soups and curries form the bulk of what people think about when they think about nam prik, these are dried and used as a condiment, sprinkled over rice. Here, the most famous nam prik is the nam prik ruammit (mixed “nam prik”), incorporating little dried fish, dried shrimp, and grilled flaked fish with the requisite chilies (hand-roasted and pounded into a powder), palm sugar, tamarind paste, deep-fried shallots and garlic, fish sauce and lime juice.

Ingredients ready for a fresh nam prik

Not to get all earnest on you, but: it was eye-opening to see this beautiful community, self-sufficient (mosque, bank and houses are all canal-side and easily accessible via boat) and with an eye on sustainability (the waters are brimming with fish, and healthy gardens and pet cows are in abundance). Lunching on khao mok gai (Thai-Muslim chicken rice) and an especially fiery oxtail soup, I thought myself lucky, and my shriveled, withered old heart grew two sizes that day.

Glum Mae Baan Than Diew
Saen Saep, Minburi
Bangkok 10510
02-919-4777, 081-905-6974, 085-974-6791

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, celebrity chefs, fish, food, food stalls, rice, seafood, Thai-Muslim, Thailand, TV chefs

Two great food stalls

Beef noodles 'nam thok'-style at Nai Soi

There comes a time … when I actually have to talk about street food. Yes, I know. I know you actually want to hear about my day, and how my minders are making me eat cardboard for lunch, and how my life is a Jennifer Aniston movie if Jen put boot polish on her hair and gained 30 lbs. But I’m going to save all that good stuff for my widely anticipated TV movie screenplay for the Hallmark channel. All you get to read about are these two relatively undiscovered gems.

Emphasis on “relatively”. Because Nai Soi (100/2-3 T. Phra Arthit, 081-487-9359 or 086-982-9042) is well-known to any journalist who works for the Manager group or general traveler-in-the-know who makes Phra Arthit Road his or her base of operations. This Banglamphu standby is popular for its gorgeously amber-colored beef noodles — slightly chewy rice noodles bathed in a garnet-colored broth and tender, flimsy slices of freshly blanched beef. Unlike my other beef noodle favorite, Raan Anamai, the broth here is thickened with blood (known as nam thok, or “water falling”) and not crystal-clear; nonetheless, it doesn’t make it any less yummy.  OM NOM NOM NOM.

Making our beef noodles

Too bad I can’t eat there right now. Another place where I can’t eat is the incomparable Aisa Rot Dee (the beginning of Thanee Rd., 02-282-6378, 081-401-1326), purveyor of most things delicious and Thai-Muslim. Mounds of soft and fragrant yellow rice, perfumed with cumin, atop hunks of slightly charred barbecued chicken; bowls of aromatic beef noodles smelling slightly of star anise; comfortingly substantial oxtail chunks in a fiery broth; sweet-salty beef satay coated in coconut milk — the offerings here turn other Thai-Muslim eateries like the nearby Roti-Mataba into mere whispers of an afterthought. There is no way you would be able to leave this hole in the wall hungry.

Thai-Muslim yellow chicken

And I mean “hole in the wall”. The only suggestion that there is a bustling “restaurant” somewhere behind all the touristy knick-knack shops hawking fishermen’s pants and flip-flops is a sign on the sidewalk — in Thai — reading “Aisa rot dee” (Aisa good taste). In the narrow alleyway behind the sign, two forbidding faces manning a beef noodle stand, and as you approach the darkness, the hint of more. After passing the khao mok gai and tripping over two or three people on the way, the darkness becomes the light, and the alleyway opens into a substantial open-air courtyard, tables, chairs — even waiters.

Aisa is a leap of faith for a hungry Indiana Jones-type searching out answers in a culinary maze. Don’t let the darkness fool you.

(Photos by @SpecialKRB)

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, beef, chicken, food, food stalls, noodles, restaurant, rice, Thai-Muslim, 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