Horror stories

tomyum

Tom yum pork noodles at Zaew Thonglor

Before I begin, I want to share with you what made my day today. It was this photo (via Jezebel via Getty):

bush

I think it’s the expression on his face, the trying-to-be-serious look of a toddler told to pose nicely with his great-aunt for the family photo. It’s the expression of someone trying to do his duty, fer serious this time. It’s the look I have on my face right now.

One of my favorite movies ever is John Carpenter’s “The Thing”. I don’t watch it too often because I don’t want to get sick of it like I did with “Clueless”. But it should be no surprise that I love it as a movie that’s ripe to use as an analogy for basically anything, ever. If you haven’t seen it already (and why not, what’s wrong with you), it’s about an isolated bunch of guys stuck in Antarctica for science-wonky work and what hijinks ensue when a super-cool discovery made by nearby Norwegians turns into something not-so-cool when it starts eating people and assuming their identities.

It’s not as scary as Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, because it doesn’t hide and attack when you’re not looking. It’s right there, in front of you, pretending to be somebody you know. It’s only later, when it shows itself, that you realize how truly horrifying it is: an amalgam of everything you recognize, combined and twisted into something monstrous. It’s the familiarity — and constant evolution with each entity that it absorbs — that is scary. Even more terrifying is the fact that no one knows who the monster is, possibly not even the monster itself. This is the most familiar detail of all.

Everyone has encountered “The Thing” at least once in their life. It’s that person seated next to you at a dinner party who suddenly starts spouting off about crime in Chicago without warning before alighting on opinions about American race relations that would make anyone with ears (i.e. me) want to jump out a window immediately. It could be the random man at a party who walks up to me only to ask if it is true that prostitutes hold a high social status in Thailand. It could be the friend who congratulates you on your scholarship, but that it was obviously granted because I am Asian (at Stanford, because there aren’t enough Asians there). I’ve met “The Thing” a gazillion times, and like MacReady, I have never vanquished it.

There are food equivalents of “The Thing” too, of course. A well-reviewed Thai fried chicken restaurant with the requisite surface dinginess (and a Green Bowl seal of approval to boot) to signal its authenticity, it ends up offering you a paltry handful of dried-up wings in a tiny bread basket, a bland som tum barely baptized by seasoning, a cold catfish stir-fry tasting of mud. The truth is, there is no way to protect yourself from encountering “The Thing”. The only thing you can do is to minimize the risk, like shutting yourself up in your room and ordering takeout for the rest of your life.

In terms of food, at least, Zaew has you covered. There are actually a couple of noodle joints named Saew or Zaew within walking distance of my house alone; who knows how many Zaew there are peppering the country. In any event, it’s a fairly safe bet that a noodle shop named “Saew/Zaew” will serve a decently good bowl of noodles, and Zaew Thonglor (Sukhumvit Road between Thonglor and Soi 57, 02-391-0043) is no exception.

Yen ta fo (of course, my favorite bowl of noodles ever) can be a hard sell, what with its pink color, fermented tofu base and frequently over-sweet sauce. The very best versions I’ve had walk the tightrope between sweet-salty and tart-spicy. Here at Zaew there’s not even any pretense: no sweetness, just a tart-spicy mix leavened with squidgy meatballs and the occasional bit of pork fat crackling, the best part of all. It’s delicious in a way that is different from my favorite bowls. It might even be better.

Zaew’s more popular options include tom yum noodles with minced pork and fish  meatballs, or noodles made of processed fish in tom yum broth, or egg noodles and … you get the picture. But be warned: the portions are not only gargantuan by street food standards, but possibly by Thai standards in general. No need to order those two bowls all at once unless you are absolutely sure.

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Zaew’s yen ta fo

 

 

 

 

 

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Lol forgot the title

soup

Tom yum soup at Siriporn Pochana

People have asked me why I bother to have a blog if I can’t be bothered to update it on a regular basis. My answer is that there are few other places where I can rant to my heart’s content without being interrupted by someone who has their own things to rant about. I don’t care about what is bothering them. I only want to focus on me.

My first rant today has to do with how people commonly mischaracterize George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series — *look, you can scroll to the bottom and figure out where to get the soup in the photo above, serious nerd stuff is going on right now zzzzzz* — as “nihilistic” and “dark”, a “real world” version of  a high fantasy world, replete with the grit and grime of our own terrible reality. These people are idiots.

These people are idiots because, um, maybe you haven’t heard, but the story isn’t finished yet. This would be akin to getting bummed out by “Cinderella” because her sisters ripped up her mother’s dress and now she’s crying and oh how sad is Cinderella, she never catches a break. How bleak this story is! How unnecessarily violent! I am disturbed by the unrelenting darkness! Also, I am outraged at the objectification of Cinderella in a tattered dress. Where is her sense of agency?

 

There’s a whole other half to this story that George R.R. Martin has yet to tell (some day). A whole bunch of other people are going to die, and secondary/tertiary characters have to come and go, the butterfly effects from their actions somehow resulting in some crazy and important repercussions that will end up getting edited out of the television series or ascribed to Bronn because he’s just so entertaining you guys. Can I go off on a sub-rant from the main rant? I am shocked at how many people don’t bother to read the books, and think that the television series is what really happens. “Oh, every one you care about dies unnecessarily and for shock value,” people invariably say. That really drives me up a wall. It’s a cascade of dumb opinions that are stoopid because they aren’t mine.

These pat responses to complicated things, these conclusions reached wholesale by committee, this is what is killing us. I get it: we are barraged with information every day, and we have to curate what stays in our brain. Vikings is on at 8? OK, stay. Pick up toilet paper because we have none left? Oops, you’re out. Examining things ourselves — even when we can’t even figure out what to have for dinner tonight, much less what to believe — is never easy. But by reflection and analysis, by thinking things through, we would be less likely to come up with stupid stuff. Like creamy tom yum soup.

Someone did it first, probably by doctoring their indifferent spicy lemongrass broth by adding condensed milk to the pot and calling it a day. The result was not only creamy and sweet, it also hid any problems with the soup itself. Score! Soon people were using regular milk, or splashes of coconut milk, or cream, or anything else that would ease the natural bite of the chili and lime and completely blanket over the flavor of the natural herbs. This is a soup that a lot of people like, but it is not tom yum soup. It’s something else, with a completely different flavor profile.

Tom yum soup is, to me, one of the most genuinely Thai dishes in the entire repertoire. You use a Thai cooking method — boiling — and infuse your water with herbs which not only smell great, but are supposed to have medicinal properties too. Later, when your “broth” is made, you throw in your protein and wait for it to cook. It sounds easy to do, but it’s not easy to pull off, because the result can be a bland, unappealing mess (trust me). It’s really hard to make a good tom yum. It’s even harder to make a great one.

Siriporn Pochana (152 Soi Mahannop, 02-224-1287) is known for its barbecued and crispy pork, but that’s only part of the reason why people stand in line for a table at lunchtime. Their tom yum soup (with nam sai, or clear broth) draws enough fans that it’s a matter of course that, when we sit down at our table, our server automatically assumes we will order a bowl. When it comes — obviously doctored with some roasted chili paste (nam prik pao) and based on a fish broth — it’s thick with chunks of sea bass and fish eggs, smelling of lemongrass and makrut lime leaves and seafood, steaming and welcome with a heaping plate of rice. Yeah, there are probably other things to think about after lunch. But it makes everything better at that moment, and that is what food is supposed to do.

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Chiang Mai Diet

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Beef khao soy at Lamduan Faham

It is commonly believed that men think about sex every 7 seconds — which amounts to about 8,000 times a day. This is actually not true. According to an Ohio State University study published in the Journal of Sex Research (?), men “only” think about sex about 19 times a day … just a little more than food (18) and sleep (11). Women, meanwhile, think about sex half as often as men, but apparently also think about food and sleep less as well, which begs the question: what are all these women thinking about? Actual work?!

Food takes up a lot of my own brainpower (sleep comes in second). It took me a long time to realize that people aren’t thinking of their next meal as they are eating their current one. I don’t think the preoccupation with food is out of some misplaced sense of duty. Food keeps me from focusing on all the other stuff, like whether I’m a bad mother, or why does the world seem like it’s imploding, or what am I doing with my life. It’s the filter through which I’d prefer to interact with the world. Eating my feelings is my happy place.

Friday

Chiang Mai is one of my favorite places in the world to eat my feelings. So when I arrive late on a Friday, the first thing I do is head into town for something delicious, easy, not too filling, and, most importantly, quick. This usually means khao tom, or rice porridge. One of the more popular fish porridge places in Chiang Mai is S. Sriracha (186/2-3 Kampangdin, 053-449-149), just a few doors down from perennial favorite Midnight Fried Chicken (or Sticky Rice, or Fried Pork) on a road once known as Chiang Mai’s red light district. As is the case with most Thai-style fish porridge, the fermented brown bean dipping sauce is the most important component, and here it doesn’t disappoint: bags of salty flavor, but with a  chili kick.

porridge

Saturday

The next day, I am desperate to have some bona fide Northern Thai food, so we trek to Huen Jai Yong (64 Moo 4, San Kamphaeng Road, 086-671-8710), which I’ve eaten at and written about many times before, but why experiment when you know what you want? I get almost giddy when the food comes to the table: deep-fried bits of pork belly accompanied by grilled green chili dip, homemade fermented sour pork sausage, a pickled mustard greens stew flavored with tamarind juice, sort of like the Northern Thai version of collard greens (pak gad jaw), a minced, pounded salad of fresh Northern vegetables (saa pak), succulent stuffed Northern Thai sausages (sai oua) thick with turmeric, and of course mounds of sticky rice.

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There was also a special of the day, a chili dip of freshwater fish, cooked and then shredded:

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Sunday

We finished off the trip the day after with the requisite stop for khao soy — probably Chiang Mai’s most famous dish, and the dish with the most muddied history. Some people will say it is adapted from a Burmese dish, while others say it’s a Chinese-Muslim specialty, and still others (mostly Malaysians and Singaporeans, I suspect) who believe it is derived from laksa. If you ask the people at Lamduan Faham (the original, at 352/22 Charoen Rat Road, 053-243-519), they will say their ancestor (the restaurant’s namesake) invented it by simply tipping fresh coconut milk into a bowl of noodles before serving it to her coconut-loving customers from Bangkok. Whatever its origin, the dish at Lamduan is still my very favorite, thanks to its flavorful, rich broth, stewed for hours from pork bones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jumbo shrimp in the old capital

shrimp

Grilled river prawns Ruanthai Goong Pao

For whatever reason, I’ve been going through all my old things, combing through high school and college mementoes for no reason other than to delay doing real work. Aside from the occasional wince-inducing photo with Ill-Chosen Boyfriends 1-5, I stumbled on a treasure trove of music — or, at least it would be a treasure trove if I still had a cassette player, because I don’t have one, and haven’t seen one since about 1999.

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Tapes. Lots and lots of tapes, in a blue zip-up Case Logic container, remember those? Mix tapes, too, because that was how people showed their love back then. It was the music I listened to from roughly 13-17 — the best music of our lives, at a time when it mattered most to us, before we got really busy or our tastes corrupted by boyfriends who preferred classic rock. I would argue that the music of 13-17 is the music we love most. Even if it is New Kids on the Block, or Spice Girls, or whatever else you are too cool to admit to now. You will always secretly love this music most.

Finding those tapes was a blessing and a curse, because it inevitably led to … where the hell are the rest of my tapes?! Where is my Kate Bush “Hounds of Love,” or my XTC “Skylarking”, or even my China Crisis — stuff I listened to nonstop along with the Replacements and my “Pretty in Pink” soundtrack. What happened to REM’s “Murmurs”? Who took my Bauhaus? And how the f#$k did I get four copies of Pearl Jam’s “Ten”?!

River prawns are the mix tapes of Thai cuisine. Bear with me here. They are like foie gras to French food, caviar to the Russians, hamburgers to the USA. They are, inevitably, the favorite food of Thais, secretly or not: big, juicy, flavorful, adaptable to nearly every Thai treatment and ubiquitous if you aren’t too picky.

That’s the bad thing about them, too. Because, while you can get them anywhere, even Chiang Rai, even down the road from your house at the corner next to the gas station, it’s not the best. No, the best you can get is in Ayutthaya. Really. Every Thai knows this. The best grilled river prawns in the country are in Ayutthaya, the old capital of Siam before Bangkok, and still the unofficial capital of all that is prawn-related. And, in Ayutthaya, the best grilled prawn restaurant is arguably Ruan Thai Goong Pao (1/2 Moo 4, Wat Cherng Lane, Tambon Ratchakram, 035-367-730). So when my friends Nat and Cha invite me for a lunch a mere 18 songs’ ride away, of course I will say yes.

pakboong

Stir-fried morning glory with garlic and chilies

It’s easy to say that anything tastes good as long as the dipping sauce is decent, and that saves a lot of Thai seafood restaurants all over the country. But when the prawns (and I use the word “prawns” because “shrimp” doesn’t really convey the size of these things) don’t really need the dipping sauce, that is something special. They come to the table hot, halved, and barely opaque, meant to be pried — with difficulty — from their shells in a way that makes it impossible for you not to splatter your neighbor. The orange goo in the head, meanwhile, is supposed to be mixed, painstakingly, with each grain of rice on your plate, so that everything is coated in shrimp head. Nat and Cha look askance at my attempts to dab the top of my rice with the goop like butter on a cobbler, but I can’t help it: shrimp goo is just not my thing. But if you are Thai, or truly know Thai food, that is the way you are supposed to eat all your river prawns.

It’s not just about river prawns: there is the obvious tom yum, or spicy lemongrass soup with seafood, and shrimp baked, Chinese-style, in a pot with glass noodles

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along with thick, juicy lotus stems stir-fried with surprisingly plump prawn legs.

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But if you go without having a single grilled river prawn, just go ahead and buy the ticket out of Thailand right now. Because that is ridiculous, the equivalent of owning four copies of Pearl Jam’s “Ten”.

 

 

 

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Glutton Abroad: Tsukiji Slam

urchindon

Uni don, topped with 5 kinds of Japanese sea urchin

My first concert was the Ramones in Cleveland. I was 16 years old and I went with my friends Tanya, Jen, and Jen’s dad, who was not a Ramones fan. Tanya wore an old prom dress ironically. I, having never been asked to a dance, wore a black miniskirt and a camo t-shirt from Kmart. Since this was our first concert, Tanya and I tried to fight our way to the front of the stage in a vain attempt to catch Joey Ramone’s eye, only to be thwarted by a mosh pit that formed an impenetrable barrier to our groupie aspirations. I mention this because the Cleveland mosh pit was nothing in comparison to the throng awaiting us at Tsukiji market on the day before New Year’s Eve.

Tsukiji market was supposed to have left us by now, but hasn’t, because its new home is not quite ready. I also imagine the original architects of the scheme have, in a Brexit-like fit of remorse, lost enthusiasm for the move. In any case, Tsukiji is with us for a little while longer, a fact that both Japanese and tourist gourmets sought to take advantage of in the last gasp of 2016.

Have you ever been propelled forward without any help from your arms or legs? This was the feeling that day, like a salmon rushing inexorably upstream. Have you ever been hit on the back by an old lady wielding an umbrella? I can now say I have, twice. Old Japanese ladies, freed from the societal constraints of having to make nice for 60+ years, like nothing better than to aggressively tap on the small of your back with their umbrella handle when they feel you aren’t moving as briskly as you should. So why put yourself through this? The answer is obvious.

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Sea urchin buffet, walkway-side

If you have the fortitude and patience to stick out the career mosh-pitters and Japanese grannies, a feast awaits you anywhere you choose to walk. We started our breakfast with a couple of rice bowls at a spot tucked into the second floor off the walkway — a spot just like many others peppering Tsukiji that offer a choice between three types of bluefin tuna or five kinds of domestic uni.

Indeed, uni has become kind of a big thing: next to the kanimiso (crab innards) stand, another vendor grilling fist-sized meaty scallops topped with dollops of the stuff, rendering the chewiness of the scallops almost negligible. Yet another, making up for its dearth of sea urchin by serving up freshly shucked Japanese oysters the length of one’s hand, with nothing to season them but hope and greed. More uni, simply sliced open and served on ice with a spoon. Somewhat improbably, soft wah-wah mochi (cloud-like rice cakes) dusted with powdered sugar, stuffed with cream and topped with a single giant white strawberry. And always a place set aside to eat all these things, because walking while eating in Japan is so gauche.

But if you hate the state fair-ness of it all, there is also the actual, bona fide sushi bar. Like Bangkok and its wok cooks, every neighborhood in Japan has one: the eatery that considers itself a step above the rest, with a chef that rivals Kyubey’s. You seat yourself in front of the chef and your banana leaf, take what they offer to give you, dampen any expectations of American-style spicy tuna rolls, and for God’s sake, don’t ask for salmon (unless they are these gorgeous almost-eggs):

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A morsel of almost-ikura, on a bed of sushi rice

Sushi is supposed to be the main event here, but a lot of times, it feels almost like an afterthought, like the rice at the end of a meal in Shanghai. The real soldiers that fight your battle against hunger for you are the appetizers: usually sashimi and then a parade of grilled or fried whatsits and whatnots, whatever is in season, whatever will impress. This is how I manage to encounter something new on every trip: one year, live baby fish, in season for only two weeks out of the year as the snows from the Japanese Alps thaw. Two years ago, I had cod sperm sacs grilled on a slab of Himalayan sea salt, an experience I repeated this time with my daughter:

sperm

There were more oysters, fresh, and a steamed kinki (orange roughy) in a Chinese-style sauce, but the most memorable thing for me was the sea cucumber — the meat of which was sliced and served in a ponzu sauce (anything in ponzu is delicious), the guts of which were dropped into very hot sake and drunken like Jagermeister shots at a frat party. This was a personal first.

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Sea cucumber in ponzu

This is all heavenly, of course, unless you don’t like sushi. If you are my 6-year-old son, you don’t like it very much at all.

knup

NO SUSHI

 

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Noodle Buoy

noodles

Specialty of the house: egg noodles with broth on the side at  Buoy

I am supposed to be a writer, but it’s been a long time since I’ve really written. I no longer tell people that I do anything for a living, and I no longer think of writing as part of my identity. If I were to tell the truth about what it is that I do, a calling which gives my life real meaning, I would say that I watch television.

I watch a lot of TV. It’s like my job that I haven’t been paid for yet, but that I still do because someday I expect a check to show up in the mail. I am as rigorous about it as doctors who check in on their patients, or accountants who do stuff with numbers. Here’s my day: I wake up and watch CNN until I absolutely cannot bear it (about 45-50 minutes), then I switch to Ellen DeGeneres. I try to catch “Veep” and/or “Silicon Valley” if I can. Maybe some “Hoarders” or “Love at First Sight”. Then I take a lunch break, and then I watch the “Sopranos”. The rest of the day is devoted to Netflix. If it’s Monday or Tuesday, I can watch American football all day long and not have to change channels. It’s a pretty full schedule.

Sometimes, I go to the gym. It’s the only thing that consistently gets me out of the house. I have not one, but two personal trainers, both of whom are named Champ. One is “Big Champ” even though he is little, while the bigger one is “Even Bigger Champ” (just kidding. He’s “Little Champ.”) Both like to give me advice on where to eat, probably because it is the only thing I like to talk about while working out.

Some of their advice is terrible. I can say this because they like to make fun of me, and I only realize they are making fun of me after I have been humiliated. Like when they tell me that the “chicken at Lumpini Park is delicious.” Now let me give you some advice: don’t go to Lumpini Park and ask people about where to get good chicken. You aren’t going to end up with chicken (see: som tum at Hualumpong Station). Just take my word for it.

But because they are Thai, some real advice slips out occasionally. For a while now, everyone has been telling me about a killer bamee egg noodle place called “Hia Buoy” (or “Uncle Pickled Plum”, named after the owner, 10/2 Soi Polo, 081-629-5231). He offers a few soup noodle dishes like yen ta fo (pink seafood noodles), but the real standout is, of course, the egg noodles with pork and tom yum seasonings, silky and full of flavor. The servings are decently big (though not so big that I can’t eat two), and when I order hang (dry), as I am wont to do, I get a little bowl of aromatic pork broth on the side, because it’s the right thing to do. There was a time when Thais expected you to eat dry rice and noodles with a side of soup, you know, because it would help the rice kernels and noodle strands go down. Now when I go to a noodle stand and order hang, vendors usually don’t give me anything on the side, and I end up feeling like when I see a playlist of “Greatest Punk Songs of All Time” that includes Green Day and Blink 182 and then I make a face like:

sadjack

I will never stop using this photo

Like, why not just go whole hog and include Avril Lavigne while you’re at it? Oh, Offspring, never mind. LOL Elvis Costello.

All the same, I will probably end up downloading it, because I have no standards or pride. Also, I need something to listen to while I’m on the road in Japan. I will be there for 3 weeks, sans television! Wish me luck.

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Chickening out

chicken

Grilled chicken at Gong Thui Gai Yang Bang Than

My friend Noy brought my attention to an interview with Andy Ricker in Eater Los Angeles published earlier this month. It was thoughtful and interesting, and because it was mostly in Q&A format, wonderfully straightforward, allowing a glimpse not just into the U.S. Thai food scene, but into the restaurant business in general. It’s hard, y’all. Unless you are wildly lucky, it seems a lot like being on a restrictive diet for the rest of your life, only your body keeps trying to find ways to trick you into stuffing your mouth hole with more delicious fat. People who open successful restaurants over and over again aren’t flukes. As much as I like to eat and then complain about it afterwards, nothing I could ever do would match up to maintaining even one food outlet.

And even if your family has managed to successfully steer your street food eatery for nearly six decades, you may still find yourself facing an uncertain future. Gong Thui Gai Yang (Chula Soi 11, 086-166-2084) has served millions of Thais its delectably juicy grilled chicken for three generations, even sending over 3,000 boxes to the royal palace almost every month. The marinade is the usual Thai-style: crushed coriander root, garlic, two types of peppercorn, fish sauce and palm sugar, but the secret lies in the amounts — Gong Thui isn’t stingy, and they go through 60 kg of garlic a week (i.e. my weight, post-election). The chicken meat — split thighs, breasts, gizzards, livers, and best of all, butterflied chicken halves — is tied into bamboo “skewers”, placed over a low open flame and then fanned continuously for about 15 minutes until the meat is juicy and tender and the skin takes on the smoky scent of peppery barbecue. The finished product is intensely flavored and reminiscent of a chicken custard, absent the kind of tough fibers that find their way between your teeth and torment you while in polite company.

That’s not to mention the ubiquitous grilled papaya salad (som tum), pounded to order. Oh, and they also have grilled pork shoulder, cooked to a mahogany sheen in a soy sauce-based marinade. I haven’t gotten to that yet, but I’m sure it’s good, if the lines on weekend mornings are any indication.

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Gong Thui’s fresh som tum

Unfortunately, like its neighbor Nakorn Pochana (and, incredibly, Joke Samyan, which, alongside Polo Fried Chicken and Chicken Rice Pratunam, is probably the most famous street food vendor in Bangkok), Gong Thui may find itself kicked out of its digs in three years’ time, as landlord Chulalongkorn University develops the area further. Progress is a fact of life, yet I have to say it saddens me, since much of this neighborhood’s street food scene has already been decimated over the past two years alone. Rush, rush to Samyan while you can.

And while you’re at it, stop by Raan Aharn Nuea Pa Porn (Chula Soi 50), where — wonder of wonders — she serves khao soy (curried Northern Thai noodles) with beef or chicken and kanom jeen nam ngiew (fermented rice noodles with Northern-style pork stew), along with a rotating roster of daily specials including sai oua (Northern Thai sausage, available Mondays), gang hang lay (Burmese pork belly curry) and the ever-elusive thum kanoon (pounded young jackfruit salad, both served on Tuesdays).

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Pa Porn’s khao soy and kanom jeen with garnishes

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