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Disappearing Thailand

There are few things that people dislike more than whatever makes them feel old. So although Drake seems like a very nice guy with lovely taste in shoes, I have to say that I want to jump out a window every time I hear him on the radio (I would never voluntarily put him on (except for “Hotline Bling” (OK GRANDMA))) because I for the life of me cannot understand why anyone would enjoy listening to that. Does it seem to you that he’s just mumbling over the top of a track laid down by that band that played at your cousin’s bar mitzvah because they offered a 10 percent discount? Mumbling, but without his headphones on, so his words have nothing to do with the beat? Mumbling about his feelings, which you don’t care about, because you have things to do and just want to go about your day? I mean, what are people thinking? Is it just a case of dominos falling, like, oh since that person listens to Drake, I should too? To me, Drake’s music feels like that one friend you have who just will not get off the phone, no matter how many hints you drop about stuff boiling on the stove. Please get a therapist, Drake, who is surely reading this right now. For my own sake.

Something else that makes me feel old: remembering the Sam Yan area as it used to be. There used to be a real wet market there. There were street food vendors and restaurants who were worth the trek from Sukhumvit and driving around the block five times to try to find a parking space. Now, some of them are still there, clinging on by their fingernails to the clientele who have been coming to their shophouses for decades, but not for much longer — Chulalongkorn University, which owns this land, has given notice that the remaining eateries have 3 years to clear out. This makes me sad for two reasons, and those reasons are called Nakorn Pochana and Jok Samyan.

jok

Preserved egg congee at Jok Samyan

I don’t think there is a Thai person in Bangkok who hasn’t heard of Jok Samyan (245 Chula Soi 11, 02-216-4809), regardless of whether they are a Chinese-style congee fan or not. Jok Samyan is one of the most famous street food vendors in the city, period, up there with Polo Fried Chicken and Thipsamai. Unlike Polo Fried Chicken (which now has an indoor A/C room and delivery service) and Thipsamai (which now has a velvet rope and at least six line cooks), Jok Samyan hasn’t really changed much since when it first started out. They still stir their congee out in front of their shophouse every day, and still make their peppery meatballs (their real claim to fame) by hand before every service.

Thais get all “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” when you ask them what makes a good jok. They will tell you it’s all about “patience”, like they are Axl Rose or Will Smith in that golfing movie with Matt Damon. What they mean is, it’s about how smooth the porridge becomes, and how the rice grains get cooked into a nearly uniform whole. Although Jok Samyan is a street food place, their congee does get that silky, the individual grains broken down for the greater good. Put in a barely-cooked egg and you have one of the greatest street food dishes that Bangkok has to offer.

 

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Curry crab at Nakorn Pochana

(Photo by @karenblumberg)

Nakorn Pochana (or “Nai Hai” as regulars like my parents like to call it, 258-260 Chula Soi 11, 02-214-2327) is another eatery that has been in the Chula area for generations. Different people like different things here: for my mom, it’s the wide range of stir-fried greens, always crisp, always fresh,  never bogged down in oil. For my husband, it’s the khao pad nam lieb, or fried rice with Chinese olive, cooked in a claypot and brought to the table fluffy and aromatic with olive and garlic, accompanied by a plate of cubed lime, chilies and slivered shallots. For others, it’s the stir-fried crayfish, cooked until the shells are crispy and crack under the pressure of your thumbs to reveal juicy, sweet tail meat. For me, it’s probably the curry crab, probably my favorite (aside from Raan Pen) in the city. Like beauty, your favorite dish is in the eye of the beholder (or taster). Only the best restaurants can do that.

The reason for this is probably because of the cook, who has been working the woks since he was 19. He is now 53. Nakorn Pochana plans to move to the suburbs within the three-year timeframe, but the chef may not go along for the ride. Oh who am I kidding, the chef is married to the owner, Khun Chariya. All the same, “Thais today do not have the kwam od ton (determination or perseverance) to be good cooks today as they did before,” said Khun Chariya. It’s something only an old person would say.

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A day with Worapa

The finished product: our kanom yodmanee, under Khun Worapa's direction

The finished product: our kanom yokmanee, under Khun Worapa’s direction

Chin (www.foodtoursbangkok.com) is always full of surprises. A lot of the time, those surprises involve exerting oneself via a long, brisk walk and some elbow grease, so I always try to psyche myself up before our next excursion. This isn’t because days out with Chin are an ordeal. It’s because I need to hide the fact I am terribly lazy and would prefer to burrow myself into the faux-leather confines of my mother-in-law’s hand-me-down couch, pretending to watch “Outlander” for all the historical information on Jacobite Scotland, and not for a reason that rhymes with “Shmamie Shmaser’s shmass”.

But I’m excited for today, because @karenblumberg is with me and the surprise du jour involves trekking out to Samut Songkhram, where we will learn how to make a Thai dessert known as kanom yokmanee — “bundles” of cooked pearl tapioca flavored with pandanus leaf extract and rolled in fresh coconut flesh. Before we get there, however, we stop off at “Thalad Rom Hoop” at Maeklong, so named because an honest-go-God train runs through the center of the marketplace about four times a day. This necessitates display tables on retractable rollers and awnings that can be pulled back, hence the market’s name.

When the market is not busy hiding from the wrath of an onrushing train (that is traveling at roughly 5 mph), it is busy selling the stuff that most Thai wet markets sell, like the famously delicious Thai mackerel:

Steamed pla tu Maeklong

Steamed pla tu Maeklong

And offbeat snacks that I mistake for fish meatballs, like these rolled-up balls of potato and coconut, grilled just enough to form a thin crust over a fluffy, soft center like a sweetened, globe-shaped French fry:

Mun tip on the outskirts of the market

Mun tip on the outskirts of the market

But gradually, it becomes time to finally head over chez de Khun Worapaa Thai cook whom Chin discovered after sampling some of her wares at a nearby temple. Thai desserts are often a tricky proposition because they sometimes manage to incorporate a jarring, almost metallic sweetness that tends to set teeth on edge. Unfortunately, this becomes the only thing that people remember of them, instead of the fresh ingredients and old-fashioned methods of preparation (usually steaming and boiling, if they are old-fashioned central Thai sweets). Worapa’s desserts, however, come from 100 percent natural ingredients — most from her own garden — and as a result, bear natural, almost muted flavors and a delicate balance of sweet-salty that is the standard signature of any true Thai dessert.

Before we cook, though, we have to eat. Luckily for us, Khun Worapa has lunch covered, too, setting out a jungle curry flavored with fish entrails and Thai eggplant, a sour curry of maroom, a type of thick-skinned gourd broken open to reveal a soft, custardy flesh meant to be scraped from the peel like an artichoke leaf, and this flaked fish stir-fry that Worapa assures us is made entirely of fish, instead of being bulked up by breadcrumbs like at other vendors’:

 

Flaked fish stirfry with chili paste and lime leaf

Flaked fish stirfry with chili paste and lime leaf

Like any good cook, Worapa has control freak tendencies. This becomes obvious once she starts critiquing our eating technique (“Why are you piling everything on your plate at once? Why don’t you try everything one at a time? Your food isn’t going anywhere!” and “Why don’t you sit up straight? You will be able to fit more food into your stomach if you don’t slouch!”), but her friendly patter only enhances the dining experience, because we love being bossed around as long as it comes from a Thai person who cooks good grub.

Alas, the time to put us to work draws near and we begin to slow down. Karen confesses she is nervous, because we have just learned we will have to stir the tapioca mixture in a copper pot over the stove for a full hour in order to get it to the proper consistency. What kind of consistency? Think super glue, but stronger — something you can build a brick wall with. Worapa says this kind of back-breaking labor forms the heart of all Thai dessert-making: “The ingredients are cheap,” she says. “It’s the labor that makes up the value of a dessert.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself: first, you have to make the tapioca mixture. It’s a package of tapioca, mixed with 2 glasses of pandanus leaf juice (squeezed from a handful of julienned leaves that are steamed), a glass of coconut water, and 3 glasses of rose water steeped overnight from Worapa’s own pesticide-free roses (in summer, Worapa advises using jasmine instead):

Rosewater with steamed coconut flesh in the background

Rosewater with steamed coconut flesh in the background

This mix is earmarked for the copper pot, which conducts heat more evenly and acts as extra insurance from burning.  We take turns stirring this big pot of green, which is quickly taking on the appearance of Ghostbusters slime. Those of us not stirring our arms off are set to work on yet another backbreaking job, scraping gobs of shredded flesh from halved coconut shells:

Getting to work

Getting to work

Worapa has opinions on both work fronts: “Shave from the rim!” she instructs Chin, before telling me how I should place my hands on the wooden paddle as I stir. All of this must work, because before long we have a pot full of a thick, heavy, glutinous green mass and two trays full of coconut shavings to steam (steamed coconut keeps for longer than the fresh kind). After only 50 minutes (!), the tapioca is ready to be poured out and cooled, before it is hand-rolled and covered in coconut.

Pouring the tapioca out to cool

Pouring the tapioca out to cool

The taste is as it should be: slightly sweet, salty from the coconut and fragrant with the smell of pandanus and rose. We go home with our newly-made candies sticky in our bags and our bellies bulging with food, and we fall asleep in the car with our hands smelling of fresh leaves.

To learn more about cooking with Worapa, contact Chin of Chili Paste Tour at chilipastetour@gmail.com.

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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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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, Isaan, restaurant, Thailand