Category Archives: TV chefs

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

Caught in the culture wars

 

Thai food: a focal point of the culture wars

 

I vowed never to talk about this again, but Sunday’s “Bangkok Post” opinion piece about the state of Thai cuisine drove me, once again, to the keyboard (I don’t have many interests, and nothing else to talk about). Like a Katherine Heigl movie, it starts out reasonably enough, and then somehow turns crazypants somewhere in the middle.

The basic premise is, modern Thai food has atrophied as a result of the culinary shortcuts commercial cooks take today, resulting in processed dreck that bears little resemblance to the dishes they are supposed to be (while this is very true, it sounds a little to me like running into a McDonald’s and complaining, “Why do they only use cheap ingredients? Why is everything so poorly made? Where is the care and thought put into my hamburger?”)

The media also deserve blame for the commodification of Thai food, concerning themselves only with “tasting this or that dish” and on “atmosphere and decor rather than offering any real knowledge concerning the food” (Because NO ONE cares about that stuff! Silly journos. Tell me once again about how the Indians and/or Portuguese inspired coconut milk-based curries).

Because of these shortcuts, Thais DESERVE to lose their mastery of their own cuisine. Because we’re so stupid! Now David Thompson has blown into town and his place is packed and that sucks, because our lives suck and so his should too! But we’ve done this to ourselves, because we bear witness to culinary crimes like this:

“…pizza with a dry version of gaeng kiew waan luk chin pla or with dry tom yum goong. These combinations are a slap in the face to both the Thai and Italian cooking traditions.”

First of all, what’s with all the slaps in the face? Is there no other way for writers here to convey getting insulted? No tug on the ear, perhaps, or maybe a kick in the pants? Get a new rhetorical device!

Secondly, well, I am no fan of crap-topped pizza either. That said, I’m sure someone probably thought tossing spaghetti with pla kem (salted fish) and dried chilies was once a daft idea, too. Now you wouldn’t bat an eye seeing this dish on a menu. And how did Thais take to the first bowl of khao soy, a “fusion” creation of egg noodles and coconut milk said to be invented by cooks in Chiang Mai from a dish originated by the Chin Haw Chinese-Muslim minority group?

 

Khao soy at Khao Soy Islam

 

(photo by @SpecialKRB)

I was lucky enough to get the chance to help work on the first English-language cookbook by Thai TV chef McDang (“The Principles of Thai Cookery”, in case you’re interested — it’s very good! Not that I’m biased or anything …) In it, Chef McDang discusses quite clearly how all the different parts of a Thai meal fit together (a minimum of five elements: a clear soup, a curry, a fried dish, a stir-fried dish, and a kreuang jim, or chili dip with vegetables), why Thais use forks and spoons (in order to kluk, or mix the different elements of the meal together to your liking), and how all the ingredients in a Thai dish are supposed to interact. That’s why traditional Thais get all crazy about substitutions like onions for shallots, or adding spring onions instead of coriander leaves.

That said, Thai cuisine is also the beneficiary of a number of foreign influences that have seeped in from interaction with the rest of the world over the course of Thailand’s history. In the Sukhothai period (1238-1438), we were scarfing down fish, fruit and wild boar on rice flavored with peppercorns, cilantro roots and palm sugar. And then, in the Ayutthaya period (1351-1767) the Portuguese came along, and gave us this:

 

"Golden threads" and "golden drops": traditional Thai sweets that are also Portuguese

 

They also introduced us to eggs, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and sugarcane; co-introduced us to savory uses for coconut milk; and showed us a crazy new way to flavor our food with these things called “chilies”. They also found a way to form a curry custard by mixing fish and egg and steaming it; the result was called hor mok:

 

Steamed seafood curry at Aor Thor Kor

 

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

And then there were the Chinese. What to say about the Chinese? Without them, Thai food would not be “Thai food”. From them we got: shrimp paste, fish sauce, the use of duck meat in cooking, pans, stir-frying, and frying. Another innovation: an interesting alternative to rice in the form of long, thin strands of rice flour (and sometimes egg-based flour), which can be served in soup, blanched, fried, or even in desserts. They are popular in Thai street food, so keep your eyes peeled for this rare, strange delicacy:

 

Bamee at Sukhumvit Soi 38

 

So sometimes fusion isn’t so bad after…..zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzOh, sorry, you’re still here?

Thailand is at a point in its history where its future — like that of the rest of the world — is uncertain. Maybe people are unsure of where they stand and so long to return to a time when things seemed more secure. Food serves as a convenient stage on which to act out this current identity crisis. But that doesn’t mean we should shut out foreign influences, or, for that matter, a foreigner who is doing the exactly same thing as us.

 

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, celebrity chefs, Chinese, curries, food, food stalls, Japanese, noodles, Portuguese, restaurant, rice, Thai-Chinese, Thailand, TV chefs

Iron Chef hits Bangkok

Whose cuisine reigns supreme?

Chef Hiroyuki Sakai of “Iron Chef” fame (the one who cooked French food, as opposed to the “Chinese” and “Japanese” Iron Chefs) came to Bangkok to bring his love of delicate flavors and vegetable flans to food-loving Thais. Last night, he held the second of three dinners at Maduzi Hotel (full disclosure: my husband’s family owns this hotel, but that didn’t save me from having to shell out the 7,500++ baht like everybody else.) Needless to say, I was excited; this is the closest I will probably ever get to Iron Chef without donning a poufy wig and cape.

"Seriously, guys--is there something in my teeth?"

And Chef Sakai totally delivered. His persnickety attention to detail, illustrated by his high hygienic standards (the kitchen was cleaned after every single course), was reflected in a series of perfectly turned-out dishes despite his having to cook for 60 covers. This somehow didn’t affect the pacing of the dishes, which reached perfection at around the end of the meal.

It kicked off with a completely smooth crab flan, reminiscent in texture of Japanese chawanmushi (egg custard), paired with a deep-fried crispy scallop and wasabi sauce to cut the fattiness.

crab flan with leek and courgette soup, deep-fried scallop and wasabi sauce

A parcel of foie gras came encased in a mashed potato shell and deep-fried into a golf ball, served atop a pool of truffle sauce and topped with a parmesan tuile.

foie gras croquette with truffle sauce

Sakai’s “signature” dish turned out to be a Thai freshwater prawn tail (the Brittany langoustines shipped to the hotel for the event were unfortunately not up to snuff) wrapped in threads of blanched zucchini, braided Bottega Veneta-style over the lightly poached flesh. 

Langoustine wrapped in courgette

After that, grade 9++ Wagyu beef (apparently the highest grade there is, although I don’t understand why you can’t just suck it up and say “grade 10”) was smoked in the hotel kitchen and arrived to the table wrapped in bamboo skin like a Christmas present. 

Lightly smoked Wagyu beef baked in bamboo skin

Finally, a mango custard came layered with a green tea foam and accompanied by a salty chocolate crepe, garnished with a pinch of candied orange peel.

Mango blanc manger and green tea espuma with chocolate crepe

But the best part of the meal, for me at least, was a cold hors d’oeuvre initially described in a preliminary menu as a dreary-sounding “turnip mousse”. What came out of the kitchen was a beautiful mixed custard of Kabu turnip and sea urchin, topped with Alaskan king crab, abalone, fan lobster and scallop chunks, ringed by turnip rounds and topped with a dollop of caviar. It was among the best dishes I’ve had in a while.

This dish is the bomb.

Final verdict? Totally worth it, even if I have to snack on streetside noodles for the rest of the month. I mean, that’s what I’m supposed to be here for, isn’t it?

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, beef, celebrity chefs, food, French food, Iron Chef, Japanese, restaurant, seafood, Thailand, TV chefs