Glutton Road Trip: The Twin

Gang som with volcanic local chilies and holy basil at Sopha Seafood in Hua Hin

I can only recall snatches of what transpired on the morning that I found her. Even the days-long road trip, interspersed with Southern Thai meals so spicy they left a metallic tang in the mouth, receded into a half-forgotten dream left more remote the more I tried to remember.

The boat ride to our final destination was longer than expected. Along the way, what I can recollect: Vertiginous crumples of limestone furred by trees that clung to life through cracks in the stone. Opaque, secretive water, the color of malachite. A great clouded sky that could turn on a dime from blue to black with rain.

But after more than an hour, we were there. Known as 500 Rai, this self-described “floating resort” sits like a great ornamental chain of rubber ducks on Chiew Larn Lake, which is ringed by a jagged array of mountains picturesque enough to earn it the nickname of “Thai Guilin”. On the way to the resort, tourists get a breathtaking tour of the Khao Sok National Park, where Thai bison cavort at the edge of the water and elephants are said to feed on bamboo amid the trees, far from the prying eyes of humans.

But legend has it that Khao Sok has its own dark history, my husband told us on the night before departing for 500 Rai. Sounding like a grizzled old gas station attendant warning teenagers away from the local summer camp, he said that the area got the name “Khao Sok” or “Body Mountain” after the mysterious death of an entire village. When asked about this story a few days later, my husband claimed to have not remembered telling us anything. But by then, it was too late. Everything had changed.

One of the things about 500 Rai (motto: “Disconnect to reconnect”) is that there is no cell phone reception, and that WiFi is deeply discouraged. More than an hour away from the mainland, the resort is that rare thing, a secluded little patch of planet, where isolation reigns over the outside world. I had been looking forward to finishing my book, Tana French’s “The Likeness”. I had even entertained ideas of taking the free kayak out for a spin, or partaking in the early morning boat tours in the mist that shrouds the lake every dawn. Those things soon fell by the wayside, once the food — included in the price of the stay — intruded upon our little bubble of complacency.

Pig trotter with chamuang leaves

We could not help ourselves — we partook. We partook of it all. Happy hour at sundown; chilled midday champagne with yoga. A kanom jeen (fermented rice noodle) buffet with curries for breakfast, or a do-it-yourself feast of khao yum (Southern rice salad). Serving upon serving of soups and stir-fries, local catfish smothered in chili paste and prepared in various ways, even a buffet of fresh Surat Thani crab. All you can eat, of course.

And yet, it was still a surprise to find her, crumpled along the edge of the lake, clothed in an orange muumuu that I counted as among my very own favourites. It was just after daybreak and the mist had just started lifting from the water, the sky already glowering, bruised on the edges, threatening to pour. My husband, his voice choking, implored me to leave my coffee at the dining table as he led me back to our bungalow.

Her face was turned to the mountains, which resembled an old Chinese painting, sharp and verdant; in contrast, her skin was grey, her stomach grotesquely distended. I could not help myself, turned her head, and gasped. The face that looked back resembled my own.

“I thought it was you,” my husband cried. “Thank God you are alright.”

But was I alright? Who was this woman who looked just like me? Did she also love food? Could she also do a tripod headstand, or almost put her leg behind her head? Was she also working on a Thai food cookbook? Who was this woman, if not me?

Khao yum from the breakfast buffet

Because of the remote location of the resort, it took hours for the police to come. When they did, they came as a duo, in plain clothes instead of in uniforms. One, a dark, petite woman with a cap of curls, was strangely silent, but the other, a red-headed tall man in aviator sunglasses, spoke enough for the both of them. They took me to a side room to take me through the discovery, solicitously fetching coffee, offering to bring me my book as they left me for hours on end, returning with bowls of stewed local banana enrobed in thick salted coconut milk.

It took me the entire day to figure out that I was in fact suspect number one. By that time, it was almost the end of our intended stay, and 36 hours since the body had been found. Despite their best efforts, the insistent, probing questions — it turned out he was the bad cop, she was the good cop — nothing could be traced back to me, nothing at all. As I got on the boat to return to the mainland with my bags, I could not help but feel like I was getting away with something, even if there had been nothing to get away with.

“Chalk this up as an unsolved mystery,” the red-headed detective said of the woman’s real identity. “But we all know what did her in. When you don’t have wifi, you can only read so much of your book before you go crazy. Food was the only alternative available.”

As the closing strains of the Who’s “Won’t be Fooled Again” sounded over the loudspeaker, temporarily displacing the electronic dance music that had been the daily soundtrack of the resort, the detective removed his glasses. “This woman literally ate herself to death,” he pronounced, powerless to stop us as we beat a hasty retreat back to civilisation.

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What’s Cooking: Coconut ice cream

Homemade coconut ice cream in a homemade Hawaiian bun with sticky rice and roasted peanuts

I love to complain on this blog, but I feel like I have not been complaining enough lately. It is not for lack of things to complain about; one need only look at the newspaper headlines to see for sure. When everything is going to shit out there, I suppose it’s best to keep things buzzing in harmony in the places over which I exert complete control, ie. this blog.

So the one thing I will say is that foie gras burgers ruin both foie gras and burgers, a duo that, when left to their own devices, can shine, but when combined, serve to ultimately cancel each other out (also see: tempura-fried sushi. I like tempura? I like sushi? Why do that to tempura and to sushi?)

I used to feel the same way about ice cream served in a hot dog bun, the ice cream sandwich in its most literal embodiment. This is something that I did not grow up with in the States, where we had ice cream on waffle cones or in cups like the ice cream gods intended.

I did not know then that the ice cream gods were Chinese gourmands who, in 200 BC, mixed milk and rice and froze it, creating the world’s first rudimentary scoops. It is Marco Polo who is credited with bringing those ice cream recipes back home to Italy where they took on entirely new flavors. I’m not sure when ice cream reached the blessed shores of Siam, but I can say that the iterations that have seized hold of menus here are just as delicious, if not more so, than anything I have tasted in the gelato parlors of Europe.

Young coconut ice cream topped with palm seeds in syrup at Nuttaporn Ice Cream

However, I must say that I’ve had a problem in the past with the combo of ice cream + soft bun. This is because they are essentially the same to me: comfort + comfort, as opposed to ice cream + cone (comfort + hollow crunch) or even Western ice cream sandwich (comfort + less delicious comfort). I realize now that I think this because of my colonized mind, and that ice cream + soft bun is a genius flavor combo, especially if that bun is soft, sweet and salted all at once like a Hawaiian bread roll or hunk of Portuguese sweet bread. If a smudge of sticky rice can be found underneath your scoop like a cat hiding underneath the bed after he’s shredded all your toilet paper, all the better. Scatter some roasted peanuts on top right before you’re ready to dig in and you’ve got it made.

If you’re in Bangkok, these sweet buns can be found in traditional Thai bakeries like the “butter bun” at Patum Cake or, of course, at S&P. Villa Market sells a nice soft sweet-and-salted bun made from a company named LA Bakery. But when I had this ice cream made at home, my overachieving friend Chris made both the ice cream and his Hawaiian-style buns (pictured up top) from scratch. The following ice cream recipe is his — thank you Chris! Chris has plenty of other great recipes on his own blog christao.net.

For 6 people

Prep time: 10 hours (including freezing time), 1 hour active prep

Ingredients:

– 500 ml coconut milk (canned)

– 2 heaping tsp cornstarch

– 75 g sugar

– 3/4 tsp salt

– 2 tsp vanilla

– 6 sweet dinner rolls or hot dog buns

– roasted peanuts (garnish)

– sticky rice (optional)

– coconut milk (optional)

Separate out 1/2 coconut milk in order to make a slurry with cornstarch. Mix remaining coconut milk, sugar, salt and vanilla in saucepan and heat over medium heat (do not bring it to a boil). Take off heat and add cornstarch slurry. Stir until thickened (it only gets thickened slightly). Cool to room temperature. Put in airtight container and freeze for at least 3 hours. Take out, break into chunks, and put into blender. Blend to the consistency of a milkshake, then put back into freezer for another 6 hours or until firm. Serve with sweet dinner rolls or hot dog buns, preferably topped with roasted peanuts. You can also serve on top of sticky rice, or on top of sticky rice inside the bun. Drizzle with coconut milk if you wish.

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The Comfort Bowl

Rice noodles smothered in pork gravy at Rot Thip Yod Pak

I was hospitalized recently for salmonella and I gotta say, it’s like restaurants are taking revenge on me for writing about street food so much. It is the second time I’ve gotten seriously ill from food — not on the street, mind you, but in an air-conditioned dining room with a dress code and old aunties who look askance at your Uniqlo/Marimekko muu muu because hey, you just want to live your life. This time, it was guay thiew nuea sub (rice noodles with minced beef) topped with a nice raw egg that felled me. I spent the rest of my week eating plain rice porridge in a hospital room and feeling sorry for myself.

Needless to say, when I was finally discharged, I wanted to be really careful, because I was not eager to relive that experience. It wasn’t spending the whole day in the hospital that got me down, or even the loneliness, since nurses are bustling in at all hours to take your heart rate and oxygen levels. It was the gloom that descended when it got dark, and even though my husband was staying with me, I still dreaded falling asleep in that hospital bed. I don’t want to repeat my stay in the hospital any time soon. Time to head back out onto the street.

I am going over final edits on the third iteration of my Thai street food book. This was a book that was supposed to have come out earlier this year, but, as with most plans that were hatched for 2020, it was inevitably delayed. Going over the entries, I was struck once again by how many great places there are in Thailand still (and how many more could have been named). One such place that I had not been to for several years now is Rot Thip Yod Pak in Baan Mor (02-223-4562, open 8.30-17.00 daily).

Baan Mor is the old center for electrical appliances and car parts in Bangkok, and it still has that same chaotic, anything-goes vibe. Multi-colored wires hang into the street, pirated DVDs lurk past open doorways and bad techno music pounds the eardrums. It is like the Asian equivalent of Mos Eisley, but without any cool jazz bands or decent drinks. You can, however, find a vibrator and all the lady-focused porn your heart could ever desire. To get here, you simply need to exit the Old Siam shopping center from the McDonald’s side, cross the street, walk through the market for 50 meters, and turn left into the open shophouse room with the light blue walls.

Here at Rot Thip Yod Pak, the Chinese-inspired dish guaythiew lard na (rice noodles with gravy) is the typical calling card, although their khao na moo grob (rice with crispy pork) is also popular. The last time I went here, I focused on the lard na with crispy egg noodles (sen mee grob), but today, I want what would amount to comfort in a bowl. I order the lard na sen yai (thick rice noodles in gravy) instead. This is my comfort in a bowl, the thing I used to get when I was by myself in college and needed a taste of home in the only Thai restaurant near campus.

It arrives to the table like a soup, murky and gelatinous, a single slab of pork visible, obscuring the green fronds of Chinese kale beneath. Set out in front of me, it visibly jiggles. It resembles a nightmarish caricature of the Blob, only edible. Luckily, with a judicious sprinkle of pickled red chilies in vinegar, it tastes a lot better than it looks.

“The Coffin Dance” is blasting in the alleyway as I depart, but I don’t care. I leave in a better mood than when I arrived. I don’t even feel like I need to go to the hospital. Isn’t that all any of us ask for?

Winner’s crispy pork on rice with a dash of dark soy sauce and hard-boiled egg

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