What’s Cooking: Yum pla krapong

I had every intention of writing about something else this week, but I admit, I have fallen under the thrall of not one, but two obsessions. One is the saga known simply as “Olivia Wilde’s salad dressing”. Oh, you don’t know what I’m talking about? Don’t worry, this link has you covered. Or maybe you’d prefer this one. What’s that, too long? Maybe you prefer this one or this one. Honestly, anything that even hints at a very special salad dressing — no matter how simple — will catch my attention, because I fancy myself a great salad maker. Really. I don’t throw that word around cavalierly when it comes to describing myself. I am very good at salad dressings. When I’m feeling lazy (which is most of the time), I just mix it up in the bowl. Occasionally, I will stretch myself and make a real dressing in a separate container. They are both good. I’ll use whatever ingredients come to hand, but I prefer tart flavors. You can put almost anything into a salad dressing and it will taste good. The secret is: salt. Also, that old rule of thumb where you add two tablespoons of oil for every one tablespoon of vinegar is garbage. It’s more like half and half. Ultimately, like all other cooking, it’s all about intuition and feel. I make a lot of salads. And a good hand with the salt fixes most mistakes.

All of the stories about this particular salad dressing pumped me up enough to go to the grocery store in order to search out a nice pungent bunch of wild arugula (endive is far too expensive in Thailand) in order to whip out a correspondingly sturdy mustard vinaigrette. But that’s when my second recent obsession took over. And that obsession is all about canned sardines.

I guess it started when I went to Paris this past summer, and our hotel ended up being next to a shop devoted entirely to sardines. Unsure of which types of sardines I would enjoy, I ended up buying a random selection of them.

I initially bought these with the intention of simply plopping them on top of a toasted slice of good sourdough, but then my culinary ambitions — stunted as they usually are — took over, courtesy of Olivia Wilde’s salad dressing. Inspired by a recent meal I had at Err, I decided to instead make a yum of canned sardines, or yum pla krapong (not to be confused with seabass, which has a similar name). For my purposes, I chose this can:

Traditionally, not so salad-y, I decided to mix it in with a lot of leafy romaine and a tomato. I made a standard lime-fish sauce yum dressing and added a whole lot of lime leaves, slivered, from the garden, a handful of Thai shallots, and a handful of sliced bird’s eye chilies. I julienned some lemongrass bulbs left over from a recent Sansa salad (very good, if you like salads). And I mixed it all together for my lunch.

It was good, satisfying most of what I had been craving. But then I wondered if the traditional version of this “salad” was what I had been wanting all along. So the very next day, I went back to the grocery store specifically to buy the canned sardine that all Thais say must be used for this dish.

This fish is meatier than the French stuff, and obviously not as tart. I also made sure to use a “good quality” fish sauce, to echo Nora Ephron’s (Olivia Wilde’s, if you don’t like to read links) suggestion of using “good quality” red wine vinegar for her dressing. Ultimately, this dish is meant to be eaten with a good hot bowl of rice, just like Thais intended it.

Yum pla krapong (serves 2, or 1 if it’s me)

  • 1 can of sardines of whatever persuasion
  • 10-20 lime leaves, the spines taken out and the leaves julienned (I like as many as possible, so that my yum resembles a squashed green sea urchin)
  • A handful of Thai shallots (or one medium-sized banana shallot), sliced thinly
  • 10-20 Thai chilies (bird’s eye or goat peppers), sliced
  • 3 lemongrass bulbs, sliced
  • The juice of one lime
  • 2 Tbsps of good quality fish sauce like this
  • 1 pinch of MSG (optional. My housekeeper insists this is the magic ingredient)

Mix well together and taste to adjust seasonings to your liking. Add in some torn sturdy lettuce leaves like romaine and a sliced tomato if you like. Serve with some good hot Thai rice on the side to soak up all that chili.

It’s satisfying.

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Dusit Food Crawl

Wild boar jungle curry at Gaeng Pa Sriyan

For whatever reason, I don’t really go to Dusit to even sightsee, much less eat (unless it’s to Krua Apsorn). I don’t really know why that is — Dusit is, after all, a picturesque part of town, as Bangkok’s administrative hub; it has a lot of pretty temples and of course there is the Dusit Palace Park. The only excuse I have for it not really crossing my radar is that I’m not a government official.

Luckily for me, Adam of @otr.offtherails invited me to a mini-food crawl in the neighborhood, and, since I knew almost nothing about where or what to eat there, I was only too happy to tag along. He asked me to meet at a vendor called Hor Mok Mae Boonma, who of course sells the steamed coconutty mousse to a hungry queue of diners daily.

Hor mok from Mae Boonma

If I had to choose my top three Thai food dishes, I would definitely put hor mok somewhere up there, and the other two would change periodically, depending on my mood. I’m used to the seafood kind, but Mae Boonma isn’t satisfied with just making seafood versions; she does a scrumptious pork hor mok alongside her catfish and pla grai (a type of freshwater fish). Each of the three versions take their turns getting ladled into their banana leaf cups and spending a few minutes in the steamer before they are snapped up by whoever is next in line. Surprisingly, for Thai customers, no one is picky; any version goes quickly, and when you’re extra hungry, tod mun pla made from the freshwater fish is also available.

But one of my top three Thai dishes (OK, I’ll admit it, it’s the top) wasn’t all that Dusit had to offer. Passing along the way to our next destination, we saw a vendor selling pancake-like “kanom babin”, which I’d never seen before. Turns out, it’s modeled after a Chinese snack, and is made of black sticky rice and coconut, and not taro like we’d originally surmised. In any case, it’s delicious when hot off the griddle and cut into little squares: slightly crunchy on the outside, oozy on the inside, and only slightly sweet.

Kanom babin

All the same, it wasn’t our original destination. No, that was the large, two-story restaurant that turned my head on the way to Mae Boonma: Gaeng Pa Sriyan, considered a culinary institution for all things that have to do with jungle curry. You can make do with the usual, like beef or chicken or fish cake, or you can splash out with your freaky self and opt for frog, snail or wild boar. Whichever you choose, it is guaranteed to be delicious, because who calls themselves a “jungle curry specialist” if they can’t back that up?

Only a fraction of the options

Now, jungle curry heads are a weird bunch. There’s nothing there to distract you, not like with my beloved hor mok. There’s no soothing coconut milk to mitigate anything, no jiggly texture with which to delight the eye or the palate. It’s full on, undiluted SPICE, with a few herbs (added to amp up that spice), veg, and whatever meat you have on hand to get in the way of the spice, occasionally. You’re fishing galangal out of your maw, you’re getting holy basil in your teeth. You are definitely, most certainly, going to feel some pain. But that’s what jungle curry heads love about this dish, the deep forested-ness of it all. It’s a deep-seated form of masochism, posing as Bourdainesque adventurism. Not to say I disagree; after all, I am a Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

That masochism is multiplied xx times once you get to dessert. If you go with the flow and order what everyone else is ordering, you are presented with three generous scoops of durian ice cream over sticky rice. Now, I’ve had plenty of durian ice cream, and it just gives off a whiff of “eau de cologne” durian, as opposed to the more concentrated “extrait de parfum” durian. Here, it tastes like you are actually having a full-on durian pod stuck on your face, and you are in some sort of Saw movie trying to eat your way out of it before the guy across the table does it and you end up dying. What I’m trying to say is, this ice cream is extreme durian realness, and I’m sad to say it’s all beyond my admittedly limited abilities. I’m happy with eau de cologne.

When I go again (because I am definitely going again), I will branch out into more of the non-jungle curry offerings on the menu. Get the stir-fried catfish in curry paste, like everybody else in the building. Maybe get the shrimp paste chili dip. And definitely, definitely ordering the ice cream “ruam mit” (mixed coconut milk) instead of the durian.

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Curry rice bonanza

Honestly, this is a shot of just half of our lunch at Mae On’s Curry Rice, before they put the rest of the dishes that we ordered on the table

I have probably written about this before, but I am now officially at the age where I repeat myself over and over, forgetting that I have already told you the thing that I am currently telling you. So you will have already probably read before that one of my recurring nightmares is going to a gorgeous buffet, being unable to decide what I really want, and then upon deciding, being unable to find the thing that I wanted in the first place. Luckily for me, the buffets of my reality are much, much simpler, and I am more than capable of making decisions in the moment (although those decisions ruin me later, when I am unable to finish all of the food that I’ve ordered).

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that the Thai street food tradition of khao gang (or curry rice, in which you are given a plate of rice on which to adorn any number of already-prepared dishes) is one of my favorite things about Thai street food. When set out on the sidewalk or in front of the shophouse, the flurry of dishes on display — stir-fries, relishes, curries, even the occasional baked item — are indescribably, heartbreakingly beautiful, and that moment of pointing at exactly all it is that you want is, for me at least, one of the happiest moments I can imagine.

So I was overjoyed to be invited along with Adam, Daria, and Jasper of the @otr.offtherails team to sample one of Adam’s favorite khao gang spots, The Originals Mae On’s Curry Over Rice at Saphan Han. In business for over 50 years total (and over 20 years in its current location on Chakkrawat Road), the plethora of dishes available in the morning are an edible treasure trove of Thai favorites and hard-to-find gems like the kai khem puu jaa, or salted egg yolk planted like a giant staring eye into a mince of deep-fried pork and crab (I’m making it sound less tasty than it really is, but it is a visually striking dish).

Don’t forget the tart-spicy sauce, which I always end up doing

While the puu jaa and gang khi lek (cassia leaf curry) are hidden gems, the sweet pork and salted pork (moo waan and moo khem) are ordered by virtually everyone, as is one of the two (!) nam prik (chili dips) pounded daily. I was once told by a customer at a now-defunct khao gaeng vendor on my street that a nam prik option was the sign of a great cook, as chili dips are ponderous and labor-intensive; the presence of two of them, by that logic, means we are dealing with a formidable Thai food cook indeed. And that cook is one woman, a native of Phichit, who makes this veritable blanket of food from 4 in the morning to when the shophouse opens at 7:30 every morning. Such is the amount of food that she makes daily that the next time I complain about making a main, a cheese tray and a couple of side dishes for guests, I will conjure up this woman’s face as inspiration and remember that some people are far, far, far busier at far, far, far earlier in the day.

People like to think that Thai breakfasts are all eggs and/or congee of some kind, but this is the real way most Thais start their day: with a curry, stir-fry and rice (maybe even with a clear soup of bitter melon stuffed with minced pork!). And if they miss their curry rice hit in the morning, they make sure to have it at lunchtime. Hell, they may even pick up a plastic baggie or two of nam prik macaam and green curry for dinner at home, where the rice is already warming in the rice cooker. Curry rice is the lifeblood coursing through the veins of Bangkok. Taking a plastic stool and hunkering down with some son-in-law eggs and a ladleful of massaman curry is the simplest way to continue on in one of the grandest of Thai street food traditions.

For an in-depth look at Bangkok’s best curry rice spots, check out Adam and the gang here.

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