Gone South Again

Snail green curry at Bang Cham in Phatthalung

One of the few good things about the global pandemic — and I mean, very few — is that we are now doing so many more road trips, discovering places we had never gone to before. One of those places is Phatthalung, a southern province in the “tail” of Thailand that gets less notice than its neighbors because it is landlocked.

Despite its landlocked location, it is still famous for its fishing and water attractions, thanks to the Songkhla lake it shares with Songkhla province to the east. One of the must-see things to do when you’re a tourist in Phatthalung is to take a sunrise tour of the traditional wooden fishing traps on the lake, built like oil rigs on spindly sticks (or in some cases, steel) and scattered at various intervals across the lake like leaves. When the fisherman pushes down on the lever, lifting the giant net up into the air, it is filled with freshwater fish that in a few hours will be deep-fried and slathered in a green mango slaw or steamed with lime and herbs. The fishermen do this all day, from sun-up to sun-down, in a bucolic setting where lily pads grow in chaotic profusion and the water is so calm that the long-tail boats leave a wake that resembles the creasing of a silk sheet.

But I’m here for the food. Not surprisingly, one of the major ingredients featured here are water lily stems, either stir-fried quickly with black peppercorns or oyster sauce, or tossed lightly in a spicy-tart salad.

Local lily stems with surimi, squid, tomatoes, Thai celery and chilies

The lily stems are light and refreshing in the summer heat, and perfectly soak up the broth or sauce of any curry or stir-fry that they are thrown into. They are like the best guests at any dinner party, able to get along with anyone, making everything feel less serious and weighty.

Another featured ingredient are the tiny dried fish, called “baer” fish in the local dialect, which are either deep-fried with turmeric or served in yet another spicy salad, a perfect accompaniment to a cold beer.

Tiny local fish with green mango and roasted peanuts

Don’t forget the snails, though, in case you were thinking of doing that. These homely gastropods may make you feel icky things when you watch them making their way slowly along the driveway, but when they find their way into a curry, they suddenly become Troy and Abed offering you a guest spot on their morning show.

Snails in a “gang kua”, or mild red curry

And finally, there are the ants. I did not have ants in Phatthalung, but I did have them — for the first time in a thin coconut curry called “gang kati” — along with their eggs and a generous portion of local “mieng” leaves in neighboring Krabi in a restaurant that we just happened upon en route to Phuket. Restaurants like these are all over the south, serving lovingly made home cooking with all local ingredients, and I wish I could have had more time with them.

Ant coconut soup at Raan Ruea Khao in Krabi

While the ant eggs are mostly tasteless, added for their springy texture, the ants themselves are quite tart, counterpoints to the sweet coconut broth. We had them with tiny fish deep-fried with turmeric, seabass stir-fried with holy basil and hella chilies, a turmeric soup with free-range chicken (“gai baan”), and a sour curry (“gang som”) of farm-raised frogs (called “gob lieng”. We were told that the wild-caught frogs, or “gob tong”, are tastier but not available). Of course, nearly everything was ear-ringingly spicy. It’s a small price to pay for the cost of admission, but a price nevertheless the morning after.

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

What’s Cooking: Crow’s poo

keega

Crow’s poo chili dip

Thai food sometimes has terrible names. Of course, there is always the prik ki nu, translated literally to “mouse shit chili”, but which in English goes by the far more urbane term “bird’s eye chili”. There are the kai luk kuey, known as “son-in-law eggs”, a delicious dish in which the main ingredient is boiled and then deep-fried before being smothered in a tamarind sauce; the story about the origins of this dish is probably untrue but entertaining nonetheless.

Then there is nam prik ki ga, translated literally to “crow’s poo chili dip”. The reason behind this name has never really been explained properly to me, except to emphasize that the colors in this dip are red, green and white, and that the ingredients are pounded roughly, just enough so that they stick together to form a paste. It is also usually served warm. This, apparently, is enough to make it resemble crow’s poo, but I honestly have not examined it enough to know for sure. I have only been shat on by pigeons, not crows. Pigeon poo is much more liquid and the colors are only black and white. It is, however, also warm.

This chili dip has become something of a family favorite. We always have it for lunch with grilled chicken and/or beef and some sticky rice, with a stir-fried vegetable dish or two. My mother-in-law makes huge batches at the end of the year to give out as New Year’s presents. The flavor is bright and bold, and ideal for people who are wary of the swampy quality that the typical shrimp paste can bring to the tastebuds.

Lauren and I are in the middle of testing this particular recipe; we are wondering whether jalapeño chilies, roasted and peeled, will make a good substitute for bird’s eye chilies. I made the above, which I loved when brightened up with extra lime juice at the end. It’s awesome simply with wedges of hard-boiled egg, some fresh cucumber, and rice, but you can also spruce it up with some blanched wing beans, knotted long beans and cabbage.

Nam prik ki ga (For 2-4 people)

– 10 small garlic cloves (Thai garlic really does lend a better flavor and aroma, but if you don’t have it, use 3-4 big cloves of Western garlic)

– 6 small shallots (again, the Thai ones are superior) or 4 big

– 3 big long green chili peppers (mildly spicy, the ones you use for nam prik num or Northern Thai young green chili dip)

– 5 small bird’s eye chilies (deseeded if concerned about spiciness, I did half-and-half)

 

Before roasting these ingredients, please prick chilies with a fork or they will explode. Roast at full whack in oven until blackened (or in pan without oil). When blackened, peel big peppers and cut into thirds.

With mortar and pestle, pound garlic and shallots until broken into pieces, and add chilies gradually. Add 1 tsp fish sauce and 2 tsps lime juice, and mix gently with pestle. Taste, then add palm sugar (up to 1 tsp) if the flavors are too aggressive.

Add half a piece of cooked chicken breast, shredding it into the mortar, and then mix into the dip with a spoon. Taste again and add another squirt of lime juice if the mix is not bright enough.

 

 

 

 

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Thai Fine Dining

Regular visitors to this website, like my dad, may notice that I am posting more frequently than usual. That is because I have no job. This, plus the fact that my book proposal has been sent back to me for revisions by my publisher, means that I will be doing everything I can to procrastinate from what little “work” I actually have. Hence, this blog post.

A few weeks ago, my friend Dwight sent me a PR story in the Bangkok Post exhorting tourists to try Thai fine dining. I knew he wanted to get me riled up. Alas, I was on vacation and happy, so his attempts to wind me up did not work.

However, I am now back from vacation and not as happy. So here we are. The PR story, which I think is pretty cleverly written, refers to the recent press enjoyed by Thai street food as the product of “well-meaning” but “foreign journalists”. The people who watch or read their coverage are “brain-washed” into thinking that this food is “the best that Thailand has to offer”. These people have been “misinformed” by the musings of foreign journalists who only write about the food they see while walking down the streets of Bangkok, presumably on their way to a Burger King or Hooters.

The point of the story is to say that these street food-championing dummies don’t really know Thai food. It’s a way to take the mantle of authenticity back from street food and “eating like locals” to elevated Thai fine dining, where it belongs. This is smart, as far as it goes, because average Thai people can’t afford this food on a regular basis, but tourists can. The foodie market that Thailand is seeking is no longer the market that carries their stuff around in a backpack and eats som tum off of a cart. They are looking to nab a more well-heeled crowd, preferably one that will support the burgeoning high-end local food scene.

I am all for this, and by this, I mean supporting local talent and reframing Thai food as a cuisine that requires work, skill and knowledge, something that is worth paying extra. No objections from me on that count. Too long have Western restaurants been able to price themselves above their Asian peers, even though equal amounts of work and dedication have been poured into the cuisine. Asian food is relegated to a bunch of “noodles” and “rice”, delivery food on par with pizza and subway sandwiches. That is actually why some Thai street food is so extraordinary, because it has been made with care and dedication under onerous conditions. But that is a discussion for another place and time.

Instead, let’s talk about me. Am I, by any chance, one of those “foreign” journalists who are “well-meaning” but dumb? If so, and only if so, because who would talk about me, calling me foreign is truly a *chef’s kiss* of covert bitchery that completely works in undermining my knowledge of Thai food. Well done!

giphy-1

via GIPHY

OK, let’s go back to Thai fine dining. In case you missed it, I am all for Thai fine dining. I am not only all for this, but I am all for fine dining restaurants which use the products of hard-working local farmers, breeders and fishermen and turn them into the extraordinary creations that these fruits, vegetables and animals deserve. I want to do everything I can to support this, but in a way that is sustainable, honest, and true to the chefs and farmers themselves.

Here are some of those restaurants that I love:

  1. Haoma 

haoma

I have written about this place before, but I just want to reiterate how much I am a fan of Chef DK and his concept. This restaurant’s idea — to use ingredients that are as local as possible, ie. from your own backyard — was among the first to take shape on the dining scene, at a time when it was still seen as “woo woo” and hippy dippy like Phoebe on “Friends”. Today, the idea that the best ingredients to use in good cuisine are also the most local — at a time when salmonella outbreaks and general hygiene concerns (hi coronavirus) reign supreme — is pretty much widely accepted.  Also, he has a charity called #NoOneHungry in which donations go to help feed the dependents of hospitality workers laid off by the COVID-19 crisis. You can donate here.

 

2. Taan

taan

I’ve never really written about this place — located at the Siam@Siam Hotel — but I have to say that it’s what I see the future of Thai food becoming. Like Chef Black at Blackitch Artisan Kitchen, Chef Thep crafts a seasonal menu depending on what he sees as appropriate to the moment; for example, sator or stink beans at the beginning of the rainy season, or ant’s eggs in the fall. Despite his obvious technical prowess, Chef Thep describes himself as merely a “custodian” for the products grown or raised by the farmers he champions, so much so that once a month he holds events in which the diners can meet the farmers themselves. That, to me, is *heart eyes emoji*.

 

3. Sorn

sorn

I have to contact Chef Ice for an upcoming professional event, and I am seriously worried that he will consider putting out a restraining order on me. Sorn is that kind of restaurant. It’s won a gazillion accolades, but when you go to its supposed “website”, you can’t even get in (or maybe I can’t even get in). It makes finally scoring a table inside its hallowed walls and being able to eat one of its menus that much more special.

But the main reason for all the hysteria is the food. It’s really, really good, a way to show off regional cuisine — not the Royal Court stuff, no fruit carver or pretty girl playing traditional instruments in sight — that is both true to the source while being inventive, elegant and delicious at the same time. This is a wildly difficult tightrope to walk. I am thisclose to holding a boom box up outside of the restaurant and blasting “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel in the rain, so hopefully Chef Ice will give me another reservation soon.

 

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized