The Slap

Vegan “egg noodles with red pork”

At the risk of being as disappointing as Will Smith and as unfunny as Chris Rock, I am going to bare all right now (metaphorically, don’t run away) and admit that the title to this blog post is just clickbait. I am not going to add to the literal mountains of hot takes and analyses that have erupted after the slap that shook the Twitterverse. But since I am all about service-y journalism, I will helpfully link to them instead (I must admit the funniest take, to me, might have been the one about Will Smith’s tailoring).

But, no. Alas, I am only here to talk about my diet. I am trying, as best as I can without estranging myself from my family and friends, to stick to a plant-based or at least pescatarian diet with I am not “working” (in parentheses, because I rarely get paid for said “work”). It is a challenge because, in Bangkok at least, it holds you to a particular type of food: heavy on the salads, stews and “bowls”, and light on the junky, deep-fried stuff that made me love Thai food in the first place. Not to mention the fact that plant-based diets are usually something you can pursue when you are privileged enough to do so. I got you. No need to go all Goop-y on me.

So when my friend Jon told me about a vegan street food spot, I was extremely psyched. Like, Kate-Middleton-playing-the-bongos level of psyched. I am as fond of “habibi bowls” and “zoodles” as the next person, don’t get me wrong, but I missed the soul-soothing satisfaction of a good slurped noodle, a light scattering of deep-fried garlic, the crunch of a fried wonton garnish, and the simple pleasures of adding your own chili powder and pickled pepper splashes to the mix.

“OG noodles” at Kaek Kao Kua

Which is what I got at Kaek Kao Kua (12 Sukhumvit Soi 27, 096-220-6587), a short-ish walk that’s long if you’re really hot down the road between the Radisson Blu Plaza and Carlton Hotels. There is a sign in the front that marks the restaurant/home that tells you to ring the bell and warns you off petting the dog (there is no need to ring the bell). If you miss the sign, don’t despair: there are usually Grab or Food Panda drivers waiting outside to show you the way.

When you make your way to the outdoor terrace that serves as the restaurant, you might need to poke your head into the front door to announce your arrival. There will likely be no one else there, unless Jon is hungry (say hi to Jon). I know it’s annoying and deeply lazy and cliched to say that this place is a “hidden gem”, but I have no other way to say it: this place is the very definition of a hidden gem. It reminds of the days when Jay Fai was empty because no one wanted to pay 350 baht for a bowl of guaythiew kua gai.

Which reminds me, this place also has vegan guaythiew kua gai:

It’s off the menu, you’ll have to request it or go with Jon

Unlike a lot of “street” vegan places in Thailand (read: not Broccoli Revolution-priced), the food here is truly thoughtful, made with a lot of care. Which surprises me, since the menu is quite large. Besides the “OG soup noodles” (mushroom, morning glory, bean sprouts, and tofu at 79 baht), bamee moo dang (marinated soy protein with egg-free name at 89 baht), and guaythiew kua gai (I unfortunately have no idea of the price, I went with Jon who is a VVIP there), there’s a “kaki kee kui” (noodles with peanut butter, 79 baht) and “shabobo” (spicy-sour noodles at 79 baht). They also serve vegan takes on Sukhothai noodles, tom yum noodles, moo ping, and khao soy. I suspect they have more stuff, but I haven’t gone enough times to check. It’s a substantial menu.

It doesn’t end there. You can also customize your own noodles with extras like morning glory, bean sprouts, long beans, snow fungus, Chinese kale, various types of tofu, and various iterations of meat replacements. I cannot emphasize how big the menu really is. Which is why I felt a bit conflicted about writing about it; I really do enjoy having the pick of the table with the fan in my face. But at the risk of ceding my seat to someone else, take my advice: go here if you like plant-based street food. And don’t slap anyone in the face.

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The Coffee Lady

Grandma Nang, who sold Thai coffee and tea on Soi Methi Nivet

One of the great things about living on my street was seeing Yai Nang, or “Grandma Nang”, on the corner every morning as I left the house. For as long as I could remember, she was there, offering enormous plastic cups of her super-sweet Thai coffee or tea concoctions, filled to the brim with life-saving ice on hot afternoons. My husband was partial to her orange-hued Thai tea and would ask her to fill up an entire 1 L glass measuring cup with it at lunch; my son would order one of her glasses of nom yen, iced milk with a drop of nam dang, or red sugar syrup, every day after school. As for me, it was simply a “sawasdee ka” to her every morning as I left the house, and, because I knew little else of what to say, a “sawasdee ka” every time I returned home. She was good-natured enough to humor me both times, raising her hands to rup (receive) my clumsy wais.

When people talk of someone who has become a fixture in their community, they mean someone like Yai Nang, who sold cold beverages on the corner since even before the soi was a real soi. Yai Nang was a person who could bear testament to the breezy, quiet canal that existed before the road, when the neighborhood was made up of people from one family and shopping malls and chain restaurants were but a gleam in a property developer’s eye. Houses lined the canal, with simple bridges set up to allow for easy navigating between households. Later, when the canal was filled in to make a road, the same family hired a guard to police the entrance to the soi. Yai Nang also saw that change, and continued to sell her drinks. And when family members started running out of money and began selling their plots of land to developers, and condos sprouted up from where the houses once stood, Yai Nang still was there in their shadows, selling her drinks to the security guards and tenants of those buildings.

All in all, Yai Nang was a fixture on our street for over 50 years, witness to a lot of Bangkok history: the quiet prosperity of the post-WWII years, the heady boom of the ’80s, the thom yum goong financial meltdown of 1997, and then the string of political crises to hit Thailand after. In the last few years, she quit selling her Thai tea and coffee, saying no one really had a taste for it anymore. Instead, she sold simple soft drinks, packets of instant noodles, eggs, and the occasional bunch of morning glory. Her daughter set up shop next to her, selling a tasty bowl of pork noodles; on the other side, an aharn tham sung (made to order) stall started operating. The pungent aroma of kaprao (holy basil stir-fry) became my wake-up call, sending me into sneezing fits; it seemed a small price to pay for the lunchtime embarrassment of riches that the busy corner provided. My favorite orders were the pork noodles, dry, or the stir-fried suki with seafood, or sometimes a pad se ew (soy sauce stir-fried noodles) with rice vermicelli and the bracingly bitter stalks of Chinese kale. I only had to take about 5 steps to get good street food.

I went away to the U.S. for a few months, and when I got back, the corner was quiet. I found out that Yai Nang had passed away from Covid only the week before I had returned. I asked about her funeral and when and where it would be; in the Thai way, her people said they would get back to me but then never did. It probably was more fitting that way, since no one wants a strange interloper at their relative’s funeral, gawking like a tourist. All I can do is say that my Bangkok shines less brightly without her.

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Glutton Abroad: Dude, where’s my curry

I believe in karma on a very personal level. When I say that, I mean that the rules of karma don’t apply to everyone — look at Donald Trump, or the expats who populate the Thai Visa forum — but they definitely apply to me. I am always met with an instance in which I criticize someone for something that I end up doing later on. That is hypocrisy, yes, but it is also karma: a lesson for oneself that they are not immune.

I like to think that I am fairly open-minded when it comes to Thai food; I say “fairly” because, in the immortal non-words of Prince, let’s not go crazy, I’m not going to order a green curry pizza anytime soon. But I believe in different expressions in the same vein, that authenticity is an illusion kept alive by gatekeepers, that time and surroundings must be allowed to shape the ways that food evolves. To illustrate this in another way: I have practiced yoga enough to have philosophies and opinions on it, and I firmly believe that there is no such thing as the “right” way to do an pose, since people’s bodies are all different. In other words, Iyengar yoga is the same thing as the Thai traditionalists railing against the passage of time — a joke.

This is why I have frequently and forcefully made fun of a past Thai government initiative to build a Thai food robot that would determine the “authenticity” of Thai dishes made abroad, in a vain attempt to bring people the gospel of “real” Thai food. Economics, different tastes, reality — all of those things are anathema to this aspiration, the culinary equivalent of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. After much derision from the international media, the food robot scheme fell silent, but I still bring it up often, because it is funny, and also, in a way, very Thai.

So imagine the internal struggle when I am seated at a very high-end and critically acclaimed Thai restaurant in the States and order gaeng som (sour curry), one of my favorite Thai dishes ever. And I get this:

This is gaeng som

I hope this video comes out, but if it doesn’t, it’s a type of thick sauce that appears to have been blitzed in a blender with cashew nuts and something that smells suspiciously like tomato paste. It is not gaeng som, or if it is, it is the type of gaeng som that makes me understand why the Thai government wanted a food robot.

In other words, it’s culinary karma.

I am appalled in both the gaeng and the visceral reaction that I myself am feeling, the fear that the people around me think that this is actually Thai food. I cannot believe that a Thai person is in the kitchen. And I realize that I have not heard a mortar and pestle at any time during the preparation of our meal.

Now, I know I’m not considered the greatest expert on Thai food. I have been around long enough to hear food journalists at other tables in overrated bars say that I’m not very good. I have made mistakes — even recently, like a couple of months ago when I went to Kate’s Place and didn’t understand that her mee krob was a specific version of mee krob sot (fresh “mee krob”, where the seasonings are layered on top of the noodles), which I later found on the menu of a restaurant in Kanchanaburi. So tell me if you think this is gaeng som.

But even if it’s a tweaked version, shouldn’t it taste good? I’ve happily eaten jasmine rice ice cream in Chef Ton’s reimagined version of khao chae, and reveled in Chef Saki’s interpretations of traditional Thai desserts. But maybe this is where my limits stretch. To gaeng som.

So here are some dishes I did enjoy, because I hate ending posts on negativity (except for you, gossiping food journalist, you suck).

A not-very-good photo of a vegetarian thali at Chaat House in Seattle
A fresh beef pho in a bowl the size of my head at Turtle Tower in San Francisco
A tricked-out spicy yuzu ramen at Afuri Ramen in Portland

In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to having some Thai food in Thailand next week.

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