Eating my words, chapter 1

Baked seabass in banana leaves, again, from Elvis Suki

After a rainy day, a stroll down the Bangkok sidewalk is less of a walk in the park and more of a studied advance, Indiana Jones-style, into an ancient temple guarding a magical figurine in the depths of a South American jungle. Any false step, and your fate will be sealed, but it won’t be a poisonous arrow through the eye or an enormous boulder ready to crush you. To some, this fate may possibly be even worse: a sudden, warm explosion of water that splashes up your shin, wetting your pant leg and getting between your toes. Yes, I’m talking about soi juice, and it seems to be a particularly Bangkok phenomenon, but if any other city can also lay claim to dirty body temp water lurking like a ticking time bomb underneath random loose sidewalk concrete tiles, please let me know.

But even the threat of a soi juice soaking isn’t enough to keep me away from Bantadthong Road in the Sam Yan neighborhood, my new favorite area for street food explorations. I passed by once while in a taxi and was immediately transfixed by the bounty of neon sign-fronted food outlets, many open-air, with a few old-school aharn tham sung (made-to-order) shophouses scattered throughout. From the back of a speeding taxi, it looked like 9th Avenue in New York, or a tantalizingly welcoming neighborhood that you pass through and can’t find again in a recurring anxiety dream (is this just me?) I made a pledge to myself to return one day.

It turns out, my friend Nong (@lovenongdesigns) made a similar pledge while zipping through the area in her own taxi one evening. So we both, with my sister Chissa and my friend Karen in tow, returned to the Sam Yan area one night with the express intent of exploring this area, newly sprouted from the ruins of the former Suan Luang market. I remember complaining loudly about Chulalongkorn University’s plans for this area after razing the former street food strip and displacing my beloved nam kang sai (Thai shaved ice) vendor to Saphan Lueang. When I returned after the razing, what remained was a sterile, questionably grammatically named shopping mall set next to a mostly-empty park and a collection of twee Chinese-style shophouses that would not have looked out of place in Epcot Center. Out of the former strip, only Nai Peng (now renamed Jay Fon), remained.

Now I am back to eat my words, literally. I mean, Suan Luang Square (the development that displaced the immediate vicinity of the former market) is not that interesting to me, exploration-wise, but the entire area around it is top-notch, ripe for a good long wander on an empty stomach. The shophouses have become lived in, even with their new-ish slicks of paint, and trees that look like they belong, not like confused out-of-town tourists, now line the alleyways that once housed car repair shops. Prime exploration fodder seemed to me to be the stretch of Bantadthong Road from Chula Soi 10 to the Centenary Park.

In fact, the only area that made me want to run away has the exact opposite effect on most people: the sidewalk in front of Jeh Oh, of the famous Mama noodle seafood bowl. This was the queue when we arrived at 5:30:

Needless to say, a quick bite there wasn’t happening. But a very patient and friendly group of Thai diners on the sidewalk who had yet to tuck into their seafood noodles did allow us to snap this photo, showing what these dozens of people were lining up in the street for:

But even without the brag-factor of getting to dine at the area’s most buzzy shophouse, we had options galore, and that included a clutch of secondary outlets for street food vendors that have begun living the dream and are expanding. One such outlet is Elvis Suki, a former favorite that I hadn’t been to for years after a disappointing visit to the original Yotse vendor with @tonedeafinbangkok.

Now you can ignore every bad thing that I said about this place before because Elvis Suki is awesome, and their delicious scallops — and more importantly, the baked seabass in banana leaves — are back to their former glory (eating my words, part 2). Like a handsome ex-boyfriend that you haven’t seen in a good long while, I’d forgotten about the bewitching mash of lemongrass, lime leaves, coriander and brown bean sauce that coated the skin, permeating the fish’s succulent white flesh. So one good thing about a second outlet for this vendor is that you can be sure that they will have the seabass in stock, which is a relief after years of hurrying to the original location at 5:30 because they only had 15 fish to sell a night. I was especially happy after hearing Karen say that she could eat this fish every day for the rest of her life.

Elvis Suki’s grilled scallops with pork

As delicious as it was, we tried as best as we could to limit our food so that we would be able to sample the other eateries that beckoned like sirens in the surf. So our next stop was Banthat Tong Roast Duck, a spot on Chula Soi 12 that lured us in with their vividly yellow shopfront and lingering aroma of grilling duck, which can be ordered in place of kai yang (grilled chicken) at this Isaan-style restaurant.

For this diner, at least, the duck was light on the meat but big on the bones, a winged version of present-day Kim Kardashian. Karen said eating a piece felt like flossing her teeth with duck bones. The som tum polamai (fruit som tum), however, was great, even if it made us cry.

By this point in the evening, we were well and truly fatigued, even though we had only eaten a couple of meals and walked a few blocks taking photos of other people’s food. In line for dessert at Ginger Soup, we decided to just call it a night. However, we do have a wish list for our next night of exploration, and it might include these places:

Kimpo fish rice porridge
The display at Yoko Donut and John’s Lemon
The shaved ice topping display at a coconut ice cream shop
Grilled toast with a selection of sweet toppings

Until then, I will have memories of the best thing Karen has had this trip, Elvis Suki’s seabass, juicy and sweet, pungent and herbal. With that in mind, we can consider this post a Chapter 1. I personally can’t wait to see how this particular book ends.


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Glutton Abroad: Maybe Mardin

The “Mesopotamia platter” at El Bagdadi in Mardin

The sky in Mardin is a stark, bright turquoise, and completely devoid of clouds. Unfettered by floating water crystals, amplified by the ancient yellow limestone of the city, the sun makes a walk down the street feel like 5 minutes in the microwave. It may be climate change, but it feels like the sun has been here forever. And if this was what the weather was like when the “cradle of civilization” was first crafted, I cannot believe that humanity got off the ground.

A selection of starters in Gaziantep, a culinary center in Turkey

Still, the beautiful Syrian brides lining up for photos on the walls around 3,000-year-old Mardin Castle are unbothered by the heat, even in their bead-encrusted white dresses and full makeup. They pose with the countryside in the background, overlooking the border with Syria 30 km away. It seems like an illustration of the cycle of life: against the background of a region where millions of people have lived and died since the paleolithic era, now we document the stirrings of new families, moved to come together even in this deeply shitty age.

A selection of olives in Bodrum

It was a rocky start for me, personally, in Mardin. After a 10-hour drive from Cappadocia, where gusty winds grounded our hot air balloon plans but aided our purchase of about 500 carpets, Mardin initially felt like a serotonin-free morning after a bachelor night bender. My husband refused to follow Google Maps’ directions, insisting on driving directly to the hotel “parking lot”, which ended up being whatever free space was available on a windy mountain road on which cars had to take turns to move forward. Once we park, there comes the issue of finding a way into the hotel, but all doors marked with the hotel’s name appear to be locked. My husband tells us to split up, heading down the mountain towards the lobby, while we search for an entrance uphill.

Rounding around the corner of the hotel (door-free), we bump into three young men heading up from a coffee shop. “Where are you going?” they ask in English that is far better than our Turkish. When we say we are trying to find an open door into our hotel, they offer their services. “We are Mardin,” they say. “You are NOT Mardin.”

They take us back up the path, and then when it splits, tell us to turn right into the unknown instead of left, where we would be heading back to our starting point. “This is hotel,” they say, and I think it’s clear that our objectives are diverging: us, to get into the hotel; them, to isolate and rob us.

“No,” I say, pointing at the structure that definitely has our hotel somewhere inside. Even though there are people around us, I no longer feel that safe. Unsure what to do, I walk back towards our car, where my husband’s septuagenarian parents and my 12-year-old son are waiting — to help in case there is a fight? To also get robbed? I’m not sure. “We are fucked,” I say to a horse, dressed up in finery and tied to a stone wall in the sweltering heat.

Like a deus ex machina in a movie, my husband pokes his head out of one of the previously closed doors. My mother-in-law had somehow gained entry earlier, seeking a bathroom. Bless this woman’s bladder! The youths disperse, us saying “thank you” as they depart. Later, my daughter tells me they simply wanted to show us some of the town’s famous sights, seeking a tip for their guide services. I’m not sure if I am being a shriveled up husk of a human being for casting aspersions on their intentions, or if I was actually right.

Candied pumpkin dessert in Cappadocia

Later that night, we get lost on the way to our restaurant. The glowing limestone, which gradually changes color as the sun sets, emits a luminescent moonstone sheen in the moonlight, and everything ends up looking the same. So when we finally stumble to the entrance of Leyli Muse Mutfak (, bordered with greenery and fronted by a tree-filled garden, it feels literally like Paradise.

Because everything in town is made of the same limestone, eating inside is cooler than outside. The interiors are outfitted with vintage radios, record players and clocks, exhibiting a design sensibility similar to Fred Sanford (no one will get this joke). The food, for its part, is excellent, even though it’s so hot I’m not even that hungry. We order a bottle of the local Shiraz and flatbread stuffed with minced meat, as well as minced meat shaped like flatbread, the Mardin version of meatloaf.

The next day, it’s also hot. We go to every museum in town, where we learn that Mardin is smack dab in the northern region of what used to be Mesopotamia, home of the birth of human civilization. At the better of the two museums (helpfully called “Mardin Museum”), we get the approximation of an ancient beef stew recipe from the Assyrian period:

“Chop/slice/dice (many) onions, shallots, garlic, chives, leeks, and scallions. Fry in oil until soft. Remove to bowl. In remaining oil, brown all sides of an eye round pot roast. Add reserved vegetables and season with salt. Turn down heat and simmer in small amount of water to which a half bottle of Guinness out has been added, turning once or twice during cooking. Remove meat. Reduce onion-beer mixture until it is a thick vegetable-rich gravy. Pour over meat, carve and serve.”

We manage to reward ourselves with a late lunch at swanky El Bagdadi, where, inspired by the museums, we get the sprawling “Mesopotamia platter”, comprising every single cold starter on the menu. It is beautiful and we ask for doubles of the artichoke bottoms, even though I have doubts that Mesopotamians actually ate any of this.

Turkish kahve break at Artukbey

As night falls, we sit on the hotel terrace, where we have great views of the sundown over the minarets of the mosque. This is the one great thing about our hotel and something that makes a stay here almost worth it…even in spite of the difficult doors and the poky bidet thing that stabs my butt when I am just minding my own business on the toilet. I will come back to Mardin, maybe. When they install escalators.

The remnants of a salt-encrusted seabass in Istanbul


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Jelly much?

Pork trotter jelly at S.B.L. Pattakarn

The first time I had pork trotter jelly (jelly ka muu) was at a family gathering of my husband’s. It was my first time meeting his family en masse, and it was a big deal: we had just been engaged in an odd ceremony in which his relatives had to bribe his way through various doorways in order to ask for my hand in marriage (my sister allowed him through the final door for a mere 20 baht). He now had to introduce me to the rest of his family. Needless to say, my husband’s family is very large — the descendants of 35 children birthed by seven wives — and there were many people to meet. It was an anxious night, and I didn’t really feel like eating.

The only thing that was easy for me to partake of without too much fuss was the gelatinous rectangle of pork meat in brown aspic right in front of me. It was cut in tranches like a meatloaf, and garlanded generously with fresh coriander leaves. Although there might have been a sauce to accompany it, everyone ate it with several furious dashes of Tabasco on top. It reminded me a lot of the jellied cubes that you get with a foie gras terrine in France, or the nice layer of gelatin on top of a high-quality pate. It was good enough, and I ate it without complaint at family gatherings for many years after.

I don’t know when it got to the point where I started looking forward to the jelly loaf of pig trotter meat, but, as with gravity on the jowls or gray hair in the eyebrows, that day just somehow emerged, as if in hindsight, a fait accompli. So when some family members of my husband’s invited us to a restaurant famous for its pork trotter jelly, I agreed to go without hesitation.

Jelly ka muu is a Teochew (or Chiu Chow) creation, common enough in Chinese restaurants in Thailand thanks to the fact that the majority of Thai-Chinese in Bangkok are Teochew. Out of all of the Teochew restaurants in the city, S.B.L. Restaurant is quite possibly the most famous. Yes, there is that time-consuming pork trotter jelly, accompanied by a bracing red chili sauce that beats Tabasco in terms of heat; but there is also its drunken chicken with two sauces, a garlicky green and a tangy chili-flecked brown; sautéed sea asparagus with bitter green Chinese kale stalks; a thick fried tranche of zero fish under a salt and pepper crust; two types of guaythiew lod, or stuffed flat noodles; and fried pigeon, drier than the European style but more aromatic. In short, this restaurant abounds in “signature dishes” and I haven’t touched them all. There were only 8 of us at the table, after all!

S.B.L.’s signature guaythiew lod, before I took the last one
Drunken chicken with two sauces, the alcohol poured over the chicken at the table

Do what you must to consume your way through the specialties, but make sure to keep room for S.B.L.s own “bua loy” (a Chinese dessert usually of black sesame-filled dumplings in a hot ginger soup). Here, the dumplings are deep-fried and rolled in sugar and sesame seeds, and they are delicious, quite possibly my favorite version of this old school dessert now. If you cannot stomach this dessert at the table, make sure to bring them back with you on your way home. You’ll thank me later.

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