What’s Cooking: Crow’s poo

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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!

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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.

 

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What’s Cooking: Help

mee-krob

Silom Pattakan’s old school mee krob

Because I am a die-hard horror fan who watches everything on Netflix under the “Horror” genre, I watched a Thai movie the other night called “The Maid” (top trending in Thailand, yo) that actually got me thinking. No, not about the “scares” (it’s scary if you think The Sixth Sense was scary. Actually, not even then.) It’s because the movie is basically a revolutionary manifesto calling for the taking of the country back from upper-class Thais who style themselves like foreigners, as well as farang and their Thai enablers. I would, clearly, be doomed in this scenario to (SPOILER ALERT) getting stabbed through the temple or injected with bleach by the homicidal namesake maid who is seeking revenge for her murdered sister. But all the same I feel like it’s unfair. Is it my fault I’m a colonized person?

My mother tongue is not really mine; I speak a foreign language more fluently. When my family meet up in a restaurant, we speak in a language from abroad even though our faces are local, sparking strange looks from surrounding tables. The songs I love are not mine; many of the movies I love — other than horror — are the same. Not even my comfort foods are not my own. When I think, I think in English. I am Thai, but I am American: through my mind, through my heart, through my stomach. Neither side claims me as their own. I have been colonized.

Thailand, famously, has never been colonized. But people rarely focus on the efforts Thailand made to keep itself from doing so, instead focusing on the wiliness of its officials or the luck of its location. In order to keep from being colonized, Thailand had to sort of do it to itself. Thais began incorporating Western, Victorian-style blouses into their outfits. Later the sabai, a one-shouldered shawl covering the torso, was actually banned in the mid-1900s in a bid to make national dress more modest.

Thai food changed, too. Grand households in the Rattanakosin era imported cooks from the Hokkien region, considered the best in the world for food. Those cooks created their own cuisine, influenced by both their native Chinese roots and Western aspirations. The grand houses and embassies entertained foreign dignitaries who could take heart in the comfortable surroundings and familiar-ish dishes — all requiring knowledge in how to use a knife and fork, of course. The descendants of these cooks set up restaurants of their own: Silom Pattakan, Agave, Meng Lee, and Florida Hotel Restaurant among them.

No one knows why mee krob (fried rice noodles in a sweet-sour sauce) always features prominently on those menus, but here we are. You can’t go to one of these old-school fusion-y places without encountering it on the menu. The dish itself has changed with the times — from a plateful of loose, dry noodles to something far more sculptured and sticky — but I prefer the old-fashioned version, as seen above at the old Silom Pattakan. The Florida Hotel one is pretty tasty though.

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Florida Hotel Restaurant’s mee krob

The recipe I’ve found, which I’ve inserted into my book proposal, comes from the funeral cookbook of my husband’s family: specifically, the funeral book of Longlaliew Bunnag, who used to be the F&B Manager at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club. Strangely, it doesn’t call for tamarind sauce, relying on plain old white vinegar for the tartness.

I sent the recipe to my friend Lauren Taylor in New Zealand, who is an accomplished cookin her own right. She made her own valuable alterations to a dish that really is far more difficult to make than it seems. This version is pasted below.

Now, before I send off my book proposal, I was wondering if anyone else has the time to try out this recipe and see how it works. Consider it the first in a series of test runs for a book that I am optimistically pitching as a Thai cookbook, made up mostly from funeral cookbook recipes from my attic. Any help is greatly appreciated!

Mee Krob for a dinner party where you are trying to avoid being colonized

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups rice vermicelli, pre-soaked in warm water until soft. Make sure the noodles are dry by draining them in a sieve or strainer.
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup pork loin, diced into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup fresh shrimp, diced into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup chicken breast, diced into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup crabmeat, boiled, shell picked out
  • 4 Tbsps red shallots, thinly diced
  • 2 Tbsp garlic, minced (6-8 cloves)
  • 1/2 cup hard tofu, patted dry with paper towel and diced into small cubes
  • 3 Tbsps white vinegar or to taste
  • 2 Tbsps fish sauce or to taste
  • 2-3 Tbsps palm sugar or to taste
  • 1 Tbsp tamarind paste
  • 2 Tbsps fermented brown bean sauce (tao jiew)
  • 7 Tbsps vegetable oil
  • 3 cups oil for frying noodles
  • Pickled garlic (for garnish)
  • Thai long chilies (prik chi faa, for garnish)
  • Bitter orange peel (som saa), or regular orange peel if not available
  • Fresh cilantro leaves
  • Raw bean sprouts
  • Fresh limes
  • Garlic chives

Method:

Make sure to prepare all ingredients before commencing frying.

Gently pull apart noodles and  rinse quickly in warm water. Make sure the noodles are dry by draining them in a sieve or strainer and pat dry. You want semi-flexible, but not fully rehydrated, noodles. Should yield approx 2 cups of rehydrated noodles. 

In a large pot or wok, heat 3 cups of oil until hot, (between 375 F and 400 F). Test the temperature by placing a noodle in the oil. The noodle should puff up right away. Make sure noodles are completely dry or else the oil will splatter. Place the vermicelli in small batches into the hot oil. Do not stir the noodles while they are cooking. As soon as oil stops sizzling, take out noodles.  Remove from oil and drain in a colander or on paper towels and set aside.

Next, remove all the oil except 2 Tablespoons. If you do not wish to handle hot oil, 2 tablespoons of the leftover oil from the pot may be placed in a separate large pan or pot.

Cook eggs in oil. Make sure the egg yolks are broken and scrambled. Once cooked, remove eggs and set aside.

Add 4 Tbsps of oil (this can be taken from the leftover frying oil) to the egg pan. Add shallots and garlic and cook until aromatic. Add brown bean sauce and pork and chicken and cook for 5 minutes, then add shrimp. Saute until cooked and then add fish sauce, vinegar, sugar and tamarind. Add crab and tofu and cook for a few more minutes. 

Taste for seasoning. Make sure it’s not too salty!  The sweet and sour tastes should come first.

Keep cooking until liquid evaporates, less moisture will result in a crunchier noodle. The  consistency should be dry and a little sticky, almost like a thick molasses. Add cooked eggs. Gently toss the noodles into the pan making sure not to overmix as to retain crispiness.

Serve on a plate immediately, garnishing with pickled garlic, julienned chi fa chilies, coriander leaves and julienned bitter orange peel (som saa). If available add as well: raw bean sprouts, slivered fresh limes and garlic chives. The bean sprout and lime add a nice freshness to the dish.

 

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