Category Archives: Thailand

Isaan Road Trip

A coconut milk-based snail curry in Pak Chong

A coconut milk-based snail curry in Pak Chong

I am rubbish on road trips. I can’t drive, and I don’t like to read maps or mess around with GPS. I am good with the radio, but if it’s not Boston, or Led Zeppelin, or Rush, I will probably try to rush past your favorite song in pursuit of something from one of these three groups. My friend Karen (@karenblumberg) can tell you I’m rubbish on road trips, if you asked her (but she wouldn’t, because she’s loyal and kind and my best friend), but, for some reason, Chin (@chilipastetour) and Anne (@anneskitchen) are both willing to spend a whopping 6 days with me cooped up in a car!

In all seriousness though, it’s for a very good reason. We are going to be tasting Isaan, Chin’s home turf. Despite the huge popularity of Isaan food in Thailand — and its growing popularity abroad — Isaan as a region has yet to draw the kinds of tourist numbers that Northern Thailand and the South see. That boggles my mind, since its Laos- and Vietnam-influenced food — succulent meats on the grill, tart and spicy larbs (minced salads) thick with roasted rice kernels, som tum (grated salads) of every possible variation, eggs cooked in a pan with steamed pork sausage (kai kata) and sticky rice — are what a lot of Thai food lovers think of when they think of their favorite dishes. Why not go to the source?

Yet Isaan remains bewilderingly under-visited. Every national park and waterfall we visited had either just a handful of people or, in some dazzlingly lucky cases, was completely abandoned. Restaurants, if full, were full of locals. Hotels were populated with Thai tourists from somewhere close by. For travelers who want a slice of something truly “authentic”, an experience just like that of someone living right there where you are visiting, you really can do no better than Thailand’s northeast: the country’s most populous region, producing some of its most memorable food, yet still strangely underrated.

Our road trip started with a stop at Pak Chong, just a few hours’ drive from Bangkok but still seen as the gateway to Isaan. While there, we sampled the wares at the restaurant Mae Fai Pla Pow, where of course we had the namesake grilled fish which came stuffed with roasted eggplant and accompanied with a platterful of fresh vegetables served under a layer of ice cubes to keep them crunchy, plus six dipping sauces (nam jim).

"Pla pow", or grilled fish, at Mae Fai Pla Pow

“Pla pow”, or grilled fish, at Mae Fai Pla Pow

These fabulous sauces (Thais are all about the sauce, after all) included a nam prik gapi (shrimp paste chili dip); a tart/spicy seafood dipping sauce; a sweet tamarind dipping sauce to go with the sadao (a bitter river herb) served alongside the fish; and a dipping sauce flavored liberally with the essence of mangda (giant water beetle). These big critters feature in a lot of Isaan cuisine, either pounded into chili dips, deep-fried whole, or steamed. The taste is heavily floral, slightly cucumber-y, and even a little sweet. It’s just one of many examples of Isaan ingenuity.

Mangda at the market

Mangda at the market

At the Pak Chong market the next morning, we indulged in a couple of kafae boran (old-fashioned Thai coffees), sweetened with condensed milk and accompanied by a couple of glasses of Chinese tea to cut the sugary flavor.

borancoffee

We also came across a “sticky rice” stall, where you get your pick of toppings — most porky and/or deep-fried — which are then plopped onto a handful of sticky rice and wrapped in a banana leaf to stay warm:

Making a selection at the sticky rice vendor

Making a selection at the sticky rice vendor

Selections made

Selections made

Later on, we hit Korat, where a lot of the Mon-style fermented rice noodles known as kanom jeen are made. In fact, we were lucky enough to reach “kanom jeen row”, an entire aisle of rice noodle vendors featuring highly-spiced curries — usually including nam prik (sweet peanut curry), nam ya pa (fish curry without coconut milk), and/or nam ya (fish curry) — complete with the requisite toppings like shredded banana blossom, fresh bean sprouts and sliced green beans set conveniently in front of stools to sit on.

"Kanom jeen pradok" at a market in Korat

“Kanom jeen pradok” at a market in Korat

I ended up choosing a mix of the sweet peanut curry and nam ya, topping it with a scattering of bean sprouts, sliced and blanched morning glory stems, and the julienned banana blossoms:

kanomjeenbowl

 

Another noodle dish we saw frequently on our table was the Vietnamese-inflected dish guay jab yuan (Vietnamese-style Chinese noodles), which, despite its name, employs a boatload of Thai flavor embodied in the sweetness of deep-fried shallots and an armload of dried spice. The best town for this dish by far was Ubon Ratchathani. However, the version we had at Mukdahan was more photogenic.

guayjab

Of course, no trip to Isaan is complete without a sampling of each town’s best som tum. Whatever your views on the fermented Thai fish known as pla rah, every som tum we had felt like som tum as it is meant to be: fresh, juicy, and heavy with the deep bass note pungency of salty fish. Just about every street side vendor we encountered proved adept with the mortar and pestle, and every variation was available to us, including green banana leavened with yellow Thai eggplant and the standard green papaya. But one of our favorites was a version made with cucumber and tomato:

Cucumber som tum at a roadside stall

Cucumber som tum at a roadside stall

One of my favorite things about Isaan was the seasonality of the ingredients and the immediacy (read: simplicity) of the cooking. Many of the things we ate were foraged from nearby. In fact, taking a walk through the woods with Chin involved a “Hunger Games”-like cataloguing of all the plants and leaves that were edible (note: a lot of this stuff is edible). One great meal involved buying mountain mushrooms from a roadside vendor who had just plucked them from a hillside 5 km away that morning:

Fresh mountain mushrooms

Fresh mountain mushrooms

A few minutes later, those mushrooms were being cooked at a roadside stall down the road, replete with chilies, a bit of pla rah juice, and herbs gathered by Chin from the nearby forest:

mushroomstew

The best meal, though, was cooked by Chin’s parents who — amazingly — set up a makeshift outdoor kitchen over the course of three days expressly for our visit! It was a lesson in real Isaan cooking: food seasoned with pla rah, fish sauce, and salt, cooked simply over two charcoal braziers, with many of the ingredients — down to the mushrooms, peppercorns, fruits and herbs — gathered from the backyard. We ended up with a gargantuan Isaan feast, featuring shredded bamboo shoot salad with chilies and toasted rice kernels, sliced pork with rice vermicelli and a scattering of fresh herbs, a quick and tasty soup of locally reared chicken thick with fresh dill, a larb of chicken skin and livers, grilled pork belly, steamed mushrooms dipped in a chili-flecked fish sauce … I am sure I am forgetting something. It was a dizzying array of great food.

Feast at Chin's family home

Feast at Chin’s family home

Let’s focus on that great bamboo shoot salad (soup naw mai, one of my very favorite Isaan dishes) again:

So good

So good

The meal encompassed everything I’ve come to learn about Isaan: the generosity, the hospitality, and of course, the great, fresh, seasonal produce cooked simply and flavored with only a handful of different seasonings. I may be ruined for every other kind of food for a while now.

 

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Made to Order

The tabletop at Saenchai Pochana

The tabletop at Sangchai Pochana: a spicy salad of egg yolks, salad of pickled cabbage, stir-fried bitter melon shoots

I’m sitting by myself on the sidewalk waiting for my friend Dwight (www.bkkfatty.com). I am almost always early to these things, and almost always the first person to arrive. It can be a problem in a city like Bangkok, where everyone is always a little late. Including the restaurants. Sangchai Pochana (entrance to Sukhumvit Soi 32, 02-204-3063) is supposed to open at 5:30, but they are just getting set up and starting in on their own staff meal.

I text Dwight because even though it’s 5:45 and, aside from a couple of Japanese guys, I am the only customer here, I’m afraid he might miss me, even though he has eyes.

Me: Hey, the place I’m at is called Sangchai Pochana and I’m at a table outside.

Him: That place I’ve been before.

Me: Ok

Him: It’s MSG-delicious.

Me: Ok

Him: And hungover-maxing.

Me: Are you suggesting another place?

Him: No. I don’t think.

Him: Let’s see what you think.

Knowing my friends are going to be late and watching people slice shallots and chilies all by my lonesome on a busy Bangkok sidewalk when I could be at home watching Australian MasterChef makes me feel like this:

It makes me feel like this.

Situations like these call for beer. And if there is beer, there must be some food because we have standards here in Bangkok, we are not ravening beer-chugging animals. So I get a gigantic bottle of Heineken that makes me embarrassed because it is still not yet 6 and I am by myself, and a plate of grilled sea snails (hoy waan) that make me forget about how big the beer is. It comes with a dipping sauce of lime, fish sauce and chilies that are like AAAAAAHHHHHH on the tongue. And then I get what Dwight means by “MSG-delicious”.

snails

Sangchai is what I consider to be a traditional aharn tham sung, or made-to-order vendor. Like other wok-based purveyors that rely largely on stir-frying, vendors like Sangchai will make whatever you ask of them, provided they have the ingredients and it is within reason (anything fried and boiled and sometimes even grilled). Even if they have a set menu (and many do), they display the special ingredients of the day out in front to coax you into going crazy and requesting something off-piste. This is my favorite thing about the aharn tham sung stalls — that you can basically come up with a meal tailor-made for you.

Sangchai's shopfront with your choice of seasonal proteins and greens

Sangchai’s shopfront with your choice of seasonal proteins and greens

But they occupy a special niche, a sub-set of that standard aharn tham sung. Their dishes are meant to be served as accompaniments to Thai-style rice porridge (khao thom), the whole of which make up the Thai meal khao thom gub, or plain porridge served with an array of pickled, spicy, soupy and stir-fried dishes. This results in a tabletop of real, genuine bounty, a sight for sore eyes meant to greet diners after a wearisome ordeal. Maybe this is why Sangchai — and vendors like it — are so popular late at night, and why khao thom gub is considered an after-clubbing ritual.

This is food that, in a sense, thinks it knows its place. It’s the backdrop to what you are doing: picking yourself up after an evening of drinking maybe a little too much, or hashing over ideas, or mourning your lost youth, or simply waiting. When you are done, you forget about your meal and go your separate ways. This must be what food is like for most people who don’t think about food all the time. To me, that is an awful place to be in for too long. But it’s food that’s OK when your friends have finally arrived.

 

 

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What’s Cooking: Soup makuea

Thai eggplant mash with shallots, fermented anchovy juice and toasted rice kernels

Isaan-style Thai eggplant mash with shallots, fermented anchovy juice and toasted rice kernels

I’m trying this thing where I eat less meat. In fact, I’m trying not to eat any at all, beyond fish. This is because I went on a two-week barbecue tour where my friend Karen and I stuffed ourselves on different variations of pork product 3-4 times a day. So I am turning pescatarian, but trying not to be too strict with it, because that is a surefire way to get me to stop.

I change the rules as I go along. It keeps things fresh (i.e. confusing). If I am at a dinner party, I will eat whatever the host is serving me, because I don’t want to mold other people’s stuff around my dietary whims. Also if I’m doing an assignment involving some sort of meat. I was also cutting out booze but I am back off the wagon because why make my life less awesome? I drink a glass of red wine a day and, if I am going out, I drink more than one glass. WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL GRANDMA? I hear it’s heart healthy.

The focus on non-meat food, and my abject laziness in the kitchen, means I am trying a lot of new places. There is the vegetarian restaurant Na Aroon at Ariyasom Villa, old favorite Rasayana Raw Food Cafe, and a longstanding vegetarian Italian place saddled with the Indian-ish name Govinda. And there is a lot of Japanese food: Hinata at Central Embassy and a lunch at the newly opened Sushi Ichi at the Erawan that was so good I booked another lunch for the following week. I sometimes don’t miss red meat, much. Then I sometimes count the days to when I can find an excuse to eat it again.

This is one of those recipes that, for me, put many of the meat cravings at bay. It’s also dead easy (I am reading a lot of Jamie Oliver, because his are the only recipes I can stand to make right now). As with any other dish, it sprang out of necessity: we didn’t have any bamboo shoots on that particular day, and an abundance of the gumball-sized Thai eggplants known as makuea proh. With its toasted rice kernels, pla rah, and scattered mint, it’s very Isaan-inspired. Eat with sticky rice and grilled chicken like you would a som tum, or serve it with lettuce leaves like a larb — it’s up to you.

Soup Makuea (makes 4)

6-8 Thai eggplants, boiled

4-5 shallots, peeled

2 Tbs dried chili powder

2 tsp mahgrood lime leaves, julienned

3 Tbs toasted rice kernels, ground

1-2 Tbs pla rah juice (or fish sauce, if you’re in a pinch)

Juice from one lime (optional)

Handful each of mint, coriander and sawtooth coriander, chopped

1. With your mortar and pestle, mash your shallots until they are like a jam. Add the eggplants, and mash until they are at the desired consistency.

2. Mix in your chili powder, lime leaves, and toasted rice kernels.

3. Flavor with pla rah or fish sauce. Add lime to taste if you like.

4. Add your chopped herbs and mix in well. Serve at room temperature.

makuea

 

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Chicken rice for the articles

The full deal at Mongkolchai

The full deal at Mongkolchai

Chicken rice in Thailand can in many ways be a fraught affair. This is because a dish that supposedly leans so heavily on its essence — boiled, plain chicken meat and fluffy, white rice, stripped of any artifice — is being served in a country that has never heard of a food that couldn’t take another chili pepper or another dollop of shrimp paste. Thailand is about the grand gesture: great big flavors married to overwhelmingly pungent smells. Chicken rice is retiring, minimalistic, almost bare.

So, as with just about every dish of Chinese origin, chicken rice undergoes a little bit of a makeover every time it appears on a Thai plate. There is the chicken, breast or thigh meat, skin or no skin, of course. The rice, grains plumped by chicken broth, no duh. And finally, a tranche of cucumber slices with fresh coriander, paired with a cube of congealed chicken blood or two, and a clear soup in which a sad old hunk of winter melon or turnip swims, possibly with a coriander leaf or cut-up scallion for company.

But in Thailand, everyone who is anyone knows that the dipping sauce is the most important thing on that table. At least, according to my mother. “There is no good khao man gai without a good dipping sauce,” she says, echoing what every Thai has ever really thought: that there is no food on earth that cannot be complete without the perfect sauce. This is the basic premise behind what many consider the gold standard of Bangkok chicken rice dishes, what every khao man gai purveyor strives for: the plump pillow of chicken and rice at Montien Hotel over which not one, not two, not three, but FOUR sauces are meant to drape themselves. Khao man gai is supposed to be about the sauce. Or is it?

It took me a long time to get to Mongkolchai (314 Samsen Road, 02-282-1991). It’s not really about the location, because I will go that far for Sukhothai noodles, or Chinese-style roasted duck on rice, or pork satay. It’s not about the dish, either. I love chicken rice, because I love sauce — specifically, the inky salt sauce dotted with garlic, ginger and chilies that makes Thai chicken rice something beyond the ordinary. It’s how people invariably describe the attraction: this street food place far far away that serves boiled chicken on rice and, oh btw, their soup is really great. This brings on a great big WTF from me, because … come on, SOUP? That side dish you take sips of to help your real food along? These people are like the guys who read Playboy for the articles.

I went anyway. It’s predictably good, tender chicken breast with the option of skin on or off, the requisite Thai-spiked sauce that there is never enough of, the cube of blood and the cucumber. My soup was darker than the average clear broth, awash in pepper and sprinkled with pickled lime flesh. When I got home, I did a little research and read that my soup was probably twice-boiled duck broth.

The pillow and the cube

The pillow and the cube

Would I go back? Yes, because the service was fast and solicitous and friendly. Whether that was because they thought I was a tourist from Hong Kong doesn’t matter to me. But there is more chicken rice a few steps away on my street corner and another half a block away. And the one, the chicken rice that really speaks to me, with its battery of sauce and excess of flesh, awaiting me at the Montien Hotel coffee shop, should I really want to take that trip. I guess I am super Thai after all.

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Southern Thailand across the river

A quick lunch of khao yum, sator with shrimp and coconut milk soup at Chawang

A quick lunch of khao yum, sator with shrimp and coconut milk soup at Chawang

For years, I had heard about a magical neighborhood in Bangkok where southern Thai vendors congregated like college students on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. That is to say, there were a lot of them. The only problem was, it was too far away from me. How to go to this place, so far away, when I was so, so lazy?

Well, it takes another person, obviously — another person who is a friend, but not so close that she knows how much of a total and utter slob you are. That is what Chin is to me, and that is how she gets me to leave the house: a sense of shame, coupled with a underlying current of greed. I am always hungry, after all. And the promise of not one, but a handful of Southern Thai eateries, where curries and coconut milk flow thick and fast, and chilies blanket everything like a Biblical plague of deadly deliciousness, was too heady to be ignored.

Chin tells me she wants to take me to the Wang Lung neighborhood, which requires a Skytrain trip to Saphan Taksin, and then a boat trip to Wang Lung. Now, I know how much fun riding the “river bus” is for visitors to this lovely city, but I can confidently say I am totally over it. Just get me somewhere, quickly. Unfortunately, the quickest way to Chin’s favorite Southern Thai place in the Wang Lung market is on the water, which threatens to make me nauseated even before I take a single bite.

Banana stem curry at Pa Oun

Banana stem curry at Raan Aharn Pak Tai

Located on the market’s main thoroughfare, Raan Aharn Pak Tai (a very no-nonsense name that means, literally, “Southern Thai Restaurant”, 086-664-8472) offers a sprawling selection of Southern Thai curries, soups and stir-fries that dwarf the offerings at any other vendor in the area. We get what Chin likes: pla samunprai (deep-fried fish with lemongrass), kanom jeen with nam ya gati (fermented rice noodles with a coconut milk-based fishmeat curry) and something I’ve never had before: gaeng sai gluay, or a coconut milk-based curry made of banana stems.  It’s unctuous and slightly sweet — not what I expect of Southern Thai food, which is fierce and hot and uncompromising, but it is augmented by some flaked fish flesh, which in itself feels very Southern to me. I also love that it takes an ingredient that would otherwise probably be thrown away — banana stems — and forms an entire dish around it. Best of all, our order comes with a collection of different pickles and fresh vegetables and herbs to enjoy as we see fit, my favorite thing about eating at Southern Thai places.

Pork kua gling at Dao Tai

Pork kua gling at Dao Tai

Our Southern Thai-oriented explorations don’t end at the market. Next up: Phran Nok Road, which hosts a collection of Southern Thai khao gaeng (curry rice) vendors that have been around for decades. The most famous of these is Dao Tai (508/26 Phran Nok Rd., 02-412-2385), which has a reputation for fearsomely good Southern Thai food despite its relatively “remote” location all the way over in Thonburi.

The day I get there, I am starving, having saved room all morning for this very (series of) meal(s). Chin and I try to pace ourselves, so we only order my favorite Southern Thai dish, gaeng som pla grapong (sour curry with seabass and bamboo shoots), and kua gling moo, a “dry” curry of minced pork  dry roasted in a pan over low heat with a handful of herbs and an entire pantry’s worth of chilies. I find both dishes absolutely delicious, manna from heaven, especially when coupled with the shoots, leaves and cucumber slices that automatically come to our table once we sit down, an offering to the Hot Chili Spice Gods.

Sour curry at Dao Tai

Sour curry at Dao Tai

 

I am so ravenous I don’t even notice the chilies, ploughing through half of my plate of rice until I see Chin across the table from me, tears in her eyes. She is not verklempt over the beauty of our meal, or from having to watch me shovel rice with so-so accuracy into my mouth hole. No, it’s too hot. And there is, she suspects, an overabundance of MSG. The curries and stir-fries are too “dark”, the “wrong color”, she says. In short, Chin is not impressed with my selection of Dao Tai. It’s time to move, ideally to that place across the street that looks a little better.

That place is called Ruam Tai and it sits kitty-corner to Dao Tai, an arrangement I suspect was set up to accommodate overflow from the more famous restaurant. However, the food here may be just as good. We have hor mok (steamed, rubbery seafood curry topped with a disappointingly icing-like dab of coconut cream) and a far better coconut milk-based curry of snails which have to be plucked from the liquid and their meat extracted via toothpick. It’s far too fiddly for me. I NO LIKE EXTRA WORK! Chin, for her part, is charmed.

Snail curry at Ruam Tai

Snail curry at Ruam Tai

Now I am absolutely stuffed, and contemplating the ride home, after which I will be rewarded by passing out on my couch for two hours while pretending to edit my book. But there is one more place to check out, and that is Chawang, right next door to Ruam Tai. It’s a shame we leave it last, because it’s friendly, airy, and  full of food that is the most restrained (chili-, flavor- and MSG-wise) of the three. Here, I manage a few bites of khao yum (a “salad” of rice with minced veggies, toasted coconut and herbs in a light, sweet-tart dressing), and then groan and make faces while Chin tastes the sator (stinkbean) stir-fried with shrimp paste and shrimp, and gaeng gati, a coconut milk “soup” bulked up generously with shrimp and pakliang leaves.

The trip back home is a doozy.

 

 

 

 

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Isaan on Sukhumvit

Pork shoulder on the grill at Pa Oun

Pork shoulder on the grill at Pa Oun

One of the things I love about the TV show “Hannibal” is, obviously, its treatment of food. Because it’s a show about a cannibal who is also a psychiatrist who is also, somehow, a ninja, it includes a lot of cooking scenes. But it is all very much the exact opposite of food porn. Instead, food is treated as something that is alien and repellant. That is hard to do for a person like me who will eat just about anything, but “Hannibal” manages it just fine. Honestly, I have no idea how this man gets people to dine at his home. The dishes he serves them — some kind of gelatin thing with octopus tentacles splaying from the top, or a whole heart encased in pastry, in a wacky take on Wellington — are things that would make anyone blanch and suddenly profess themselves a vegetarian. Yet these dodos regularly tuck in, week after week, oblivious to the mountains of brains and kidneys and offal-meat sausages they are stuffing down their face-holes (this is possibly because they really, really don’t want to offend their host).

Besides making humans the main protein, Hannibal does a lot of roulades, vols-au-vent and aspics — things that, again obviously, involve disguising the meat. They are cooking techniques that I don’t enjoy so much, because I don’t like thinking of my food being manipulated in that way. Of course, food is being handled in every possible way in a restaurant kitchen, but I don’t like it being so obvious. I prefer food cooked on the bone, sort of looking like it was quickly butchered before it promptly decided to jump through a fire and land onto a plate.

This is why I am so feeling Isaan food right now. It’s simple and straightforward and mostly revolves around a lot of quick cooking: grilling and boiling, whatever gets the food on your table in a half hour, tops. Sometimes the main ingredient is minced before it is cooked and mixed with toasted rice kernels, seasonings and herbs (larb), and sometimes it’s about food that’s simply being served as is (the raw veggies that go with som tum, a grilled beefsteak accompanied by a simple tamarind dipping sauce). In all respects, every ingredient in Isaan food plays a role of some kind, with nothing extraneous or fussy. It’s the complete opposite of Hannibal’s cooking.

Some people like to pooh-pooh the idea of finding a decent Isaan restaurant in the Sukhumvit area, but I think good food can be found anywhere people are willing to pay for it. Such is the case with classic Isaan standby Nomjit Gai Yang (Ekamai Soi 18, 02-392-8000), which also has a branch in Srinakarin. There is plenty of grilled chicken and pork, and much has been made of their selim (Thai dessert vermicelli in coconut milk), but their som tum (grated salads) are also surprisingly good for an area well-known for its Starbucks branches, Japanese sushi bars and pubs. Long story short: Thai yuppies gotta eat too.

Som tums are made in a mortar and pestle, and the best som tum cooks jealously guard their mortars and pestles for generations, much like a chef would guard his omelet pan, or a Japanese oden vendor guard his broth. My friend Chin tells me the very best mortars and pestles (krok) are made of tamarind wood, but that ceramic or stone are too hard on the delicate strands of vegetable or fruit, turning your salad into a gloppy mess. At Nomjit, som tum is made in a krok of mango wood by a Si Sa Ket native with 20 years of experience. The salads are flavorful and full-bodied, the exact opposite of the anemic versions you might expect to find in this neighborhood.

A som tum of green beans at Nomjit

A som tum of green beans at Nomjit

Another great find was completely unexpected. A short stroll about 50 m down Sukhumvit 18 yields a smoking grill attached to two humans on the left hand side, along with a cooler of soft drinks and, of course, a mortar and pestle. The humans who make up Pa Oun (089-760-6478) grill some of the best pork I have ever had the pleasure of eating, either simply sliced and served with a clump of sticky rice, or mixed with lime juice and fish sauce and rice kernels to form a moo nam tok (spicy pork salad). I would love to show you a photo, but my computer is misbehaving. Just know that this stuff is delicious, and that I had to work VERY VERY HARD to get it — i.e., stand in front of the grill, getting smoke into my hair and eyes, for a very long time. This was one of those cases where, no matter what, the vendor just didn’t want to serve me, for whatever reason (maybe this just happens to me). So it sort of deteriorates into a sort of smoky stand-off, a culinary game of chicken. Will she eventually serve me or won’t she? When that line of people that have come after me tapers out, what will she do then? Am I doomed to stand there forever, like a statue? Will I become a landmark? Will people eventually say, “Turn right at the chubby crying woman in front of the grill, and you will find parking. Enjoy the salsa club!” Will I die this way?

She did eventually serve me, after all the people who came after me finally left. I smelled like a chimney for the rest of the day. The end.

 

 

 

 

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Sit Eat Talk

Steamed fish with soy sauce, one of the many courses at Nang Gin Kui

Steamed fish with soy sauce, one of the many courses at Nang Gin Kui

We all have our biases. They are shaped from our individual life experiences and form a part of who we are. If, for example, James Franco opens his mouth to say something, I am going to be predisposed against taking it seriously in any way. Same if the opinion comes from a person who refers to Daenerys Stormborn as “Khaleesi”. Nope nope nope nope. Not going to pay attention.

I kind of feel the same way about TripAdvisor. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think it’s completely useless. It’s just that I don’t really know about the methodology. In fact, I don’t know about any methodology, because I can’t math. I can only listen to people I know and trust, who tell me where to eat (and what to do and where to go). If, however, they are James Franco or a person who calls Daenerys Stormborn “Khaleesi”, then I don’t want to hear their opinions on good restaurants. Because 1.) I am a huge Game of Thrones nerd, and 2.) I won’t believe them. How many James Francos and “Khaleesi”-lovers submit reviews to TripAdvisor? No one knows, right? This is something to consider, TripAdvisor. This is cause for concern.

Just last week, though, I got to try dinner at the top-rated Bangkok restaurant on TripAdvisor, Nang Gin Kui (aka Eat, Pray, Love. Haha. Just kidding. It stands for Sit, Talk, Eat). It’s actually the very first restaurant I’ve tried that is currently listed in TripAdvisor’s top 10 Bangkok restaurants. At #2 is Creamery Boutique Ice Creams (yes, an ice cream parlor is Bangkok’s number two restaurant), and #3 is Chef Bar, which I’ve heard good things about but haven’t tried yet. These are then followed by Sensi Japanese restaurant and The District (huh? Never heard of either), followed by G’s Restaurant (there’s another German place besides Bei Otto?), JP French Restaurant, Reflexions (at the Plaza Athenee? Really?) Old Town Cafe, and finally Le Petit Zinc (oh yeah, I have tried that place). Maybe you have been to all these places and found them excellent, or maybe you don’t know them from Jorah Mormont’s half-bear sister. It’s all subjective, isn’t it? Do you take a chance or not?

Maybe. Because, as much shade as I’ll throw on an ice cream parlor being the second-ranked restaurant in Bangkok, I do totally understand why Nang Gin Kui is TripAdvisor’s #1. It is charming, intimate, lovely and — for a certain type of outgoing, personable diner (not me) — a lot of fun. It is also really, really smart. Set on the 15th floor of the oldest apartment house in a quiet riverside section of Chinatown, Nang Gin Kui is the brainchild of architect Florian Gypser and his girlfriend, chef Goy Siwaporn, who open up their own home to grubby outsiders about four times a week. Evenings are either “meet and greets” (where a bunch of strangers gather together and try to find common ground for a few hours) or private dinners for a couple or group of people, and they serve set menus of 12 courses which change nightly, depending on what’s fresh at the market.

One of the reasons Nang Gin Kui works is that, well, very few people have a nice, cozy space with a stunning view of the Chao Phraya River. Besides Le Normandie, this probably has the best view of the river I’ve seen — in fact, it might be better, because it’s up higher. My photos don’t really do it justice.

Riverside view

Riverside view

Another thing is, it’s a lot of food, with a whole lot of space in between — European-level amounts of space — that allow for plenty of conversation and digestion. The fare is mostly Asian-ish: Thai, with a bit of Chinese or Japanese and some fusion-y touches, depending on Goy’s mood. There are plenty of little nibbles to go with your aperitif, like tofu-and-sesame salad or asparagus wrapped in salmon, as well as heartier stuff (curry, grilled seafood). The cooking smartly avoids getting too fancy, or too fussy, in favor of simplicity and flavor. And food is not the only thing in abundance here; Florian is very, very good at making sure your champagne and wine glasses are filled at all times.

The ultimate effect is like a dinner party spent at the home of very ambitious and efficient foodie friends whom you’re just starting to get close to, so you’re trying to be as polite as possible to their other friends in order to score more invitations to their house. The only problem for Florian and Goy is that all I have to do is call them up and reserve a table if I want another evening with them! Something to consider, Florian and Goy. Cause for concern (for them).

NOTE: Despite my offer to pay, Florian and Goy comped my dinner. Can I be bought off by a pleasant, boozy evening full of food? Why, yes. YES I CAN. However, I also thought it was a fun experience and would have happily paid. Plus, I am not James Franco and refer to Dany by her real name. You can trust my opinion! Or not. More food for me.

 

 

 

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, restaurant, Thailand