Mea Culpa

Larb kua at Raan Larb Pa Tan

Back when it was safe to wander around town, maybe a month ago, I was in the Pratu Pii (Ghost Gate) area, taking my daughter, sister and son on a little walking tour around the Old Town. We had had a lovely kai kata (egg in a pan) breakfast at the second branch of the beloved cafe Kopi Hya Tai Gi and had just half-heartedly wandered around the entrance to the Golden Mount without walking up (note: you should walk up if you haven’t before, it’s a beautiful view at the top). It was very, very hot, which is why we were in a hurry to get away to our next spot, slurping up cold drinks on Dinsor Road.

But to get there, we had to double-back to Mahachai Road from the Golden Mount exit. Right at the exit was an aharn tham sung (made to order) stall set up with a few tables, all packed with customers (those were the days). So color me confused when I saw my son, in his all-navy get-up, leaning over a table and talking to a tableful of ladies of a certain age. Convinced he was flirting (again), I slapped him on the butt as I passed.

So I was surprised to see my son up ahead of me on the road, walking with his aunt. I had not tapped my son on the butt as I passed. I had slapped the ass of a stranger, dressed in all navy, with the same short haircut and slim build. I presume they were a waiter, taking an order. However, I did not linger to check. I did as all people of strong moral fiber do and ran far, far away.

Here I am today, saying “I’m sorry” to the poor waiter. Mea culpa. Honestly they looked very much alike from the back. But still, my mistake. My sincere apologies.

Of course, it’s not the first time I’ve made a mistake. Years ago, I posted a recipe for “Northern Thai-style beef larb” that was actually an Isaan recipe, replete with toasted rice kernels and mint leaves. That is the Northeastern larb, which, while delicious and certainly very popular, is not the larb muang or larb that you get in the North. That is larb kua, and it is a more complicated dish with complex, heavy flavors, not for the faint of heart. The meat is mixed with blood to lend it a dark mahogany color and the spices — a mix of cinnamon, star anise and Northern Thai peppercorns called makwaen — recall something out of Western China.

So to make up for this, and in the spirit of making amends to the hapless waiter next to the Golden Mount, I am posting our recipe for larb kua, the one that will appear in our upcoming book (yes that’s still happening). I sincerely hope you enjoy!

Larb Kua (Northern Thai-style larb) (for 4-6)

— 2 kg pork or beef, minced

— 10 dried chilies, chopped

— 3 red shallots

— 2 lemongrass bulbs

— 10 garlic cloves

— 1 tsp coriander seeds

— 1 tsp fennel seeds

— 2 bay leaves

— 2 star anise 

— 1/2 stick cinnamon

— 4 cardamom pods

— 1 tsp makwaen (a type of Northern Thai peppercorn)

— 10 slices galangal, peeled

— 1/2 tsp shrimp paste

— 2 Tbsp cleaned and boiled pig intestine (if using pork) or beef tripe (if using beef)

— 100 g pork liver (if using pork) or calf liver (if using beef)

— 1-2 Tbsp vegetable oil

— 1-2 tsp fish sauce

— 1-2 Tbsp pork blood (if using pork, optional)

Garnish: chopped mint and cilantro leaves, whole sprigs of mint

Lettuce leaves, savoy cabbage leaves, sliced cucumbers

Dry roast spices (coriander seeds, fennel seeds, bay leaves, star anise, cinnamon, cardamom pods and peppercorns) in wok.

Roast garlic, shallots, chilies, shrimp paste, galangal and lemongrass and pound in mortar and pestle into a paste. Set aside.

Add roasted spice mixture to mortar and pound into a paste. Set aside.

Further mince pork or beef on chopping block with butcher’s knife. If using pork blood, sprinkle 1-2 Tbsps of the blood onto the pork as your are mincing it, adding to the deep red color of the meat. This helps to develop both the flavor and the color of the pork.

Add spices and paste to wok and mix over medium heat. Add 1 Tbsp vegetable oil and meat and mix everything together, cooking until meat is brown. Add 1 Tbsp water to wok midway through cooking.

Add liver and intestines or tripe to the wok. Add more oil if needed. Add fish sauce to taste. If too dry (the juices should collect at the bottom of the wok like the dressing for a very juicy salad), add more water. The flavor should be salty, spicy and intense.

When the taste is to your satisfaction, add fresh chopped mint and cilantro leaves and mix. Serve at room temperature with sticky rice and fresh lettuce, cabbage and cucumbers.

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Rolling with the times

One of the great things about Thai street food is the constant reinvention that occurs, naturally, as vendors try to stand out in a crowded field. This is what happened with Yai Krieng, a Sukhothai noodle vendor who hit upon the idea of khao perb, a type of pork broth-based dumpling that can’t be found anywhere outside of the region. The dumplings are made in a style reminiscent of khao kriab pak mor, a type of rice dumpling made by steaming the batter over a pot of water with cheesecloth stretched over it. The filling inside is fresh cabbage and aromatic basil. To make it even more interesting, the batter is made of fermented rice, in the manner of kanom jeen. Then to finish it off, the dumpling is placed in a bowl of pork broth and crowned with a steamed egg and red pork.

Khao perb

The khao perb is the namesake dish here, but it’s not the dish that’s most at risk of running out if you arrive too late in the afternoon. That honor probably goes to the mee pun, crepes made, once again, out of fermented rice batter flavored with your choice of either pork broth, chilies, or original herb seasonings. My personal favorite is the pork broth. Once again, these items are steamed. Yai Krieng is big on steaming.

Mee pun

But while mee pun is popular, it’s not my total favorite dish at this noodle shop. That honor would go to guaythiew bear, made of thin rice noodles that are absolutely smothered in a tangy tamarind sauce and blanketed in a square of red pork and fried pork cracklings. Like pad Thai, it’s a bit of a take on Sukhothai noodles, what with the tamarind, fish sauce, peanuts, lime and pork. I’m not sure if the noodles in this dish are made from fermented rice, but yes, once again, they are steamed.

Guaythiew bear

I’ve been to this place a few times now, but one of my favorite things about my latest trip was meeting Yai Krieng herself, and realizing that, like Jay Fai and me, Yai Krieng has her own groupie too. In fact, this woman took me on a little tour of the premises, showing me the containers with the fermenting rice batter and telling me about Yai Krieng’s whole history as a single mother of five (!) Apparently, there are now other stalls selling khao perb in Sukhothai, but none of them hold a candle to the original. Seeing how exponentially Yai Krieng’s business has grown since my first visit to this spot years ago, I am happy that she has found such success.

But hey, why take my word for it? Why not see for yourselves, in this video painstakingly put together by my friend @christao408? Catch it below:


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The Art of Making Lists

Once again, I did not sit down at my computer today with the intention of writing about lists (sorry forever, pending larb recipe post!) But a list that was released recently made a huge splash, and I felt like it would be hugely remiss of me to not address it, as a food blogger based in Thailand. For you see, it was an outrageous list, and injustices like this list cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.

It’s this list: In this “list”, if we indeed are going to continue calling it that, a toe with eyes is declared to be the best looking “bald” man in the world, if by “bald” we mean “thinning on top but trying not to make a big deal out of it by attempting a combover”. And who, you may ask, is in “second” place on this list (yours truly will be making much use of “quotation marks” in this post)? Why, it is the Adonis known as Mike Tyson, noted champion boxer, facial tattoo aficionado and convicted rapist who made a stirring “comeback” in the “classic” movie “The Hangover”. And then Jason Statham limps in at third. Other famous honorees: Vladimir Putin, he of the temper tantrum after being called a “murderer” by Joe Biden (ATTN ALL: if I am to pass away soon after drinking tea, please refer the police to this post). Who else? No doubt Lord Voldemort, Karl Rove and and Moby. A stellar list, this. Not questionable at all.

You see, there is an art to making lists. If there is an entry that is ridiculous or, at the very least, controversial, you have to buttress it with choices that can be characterized as “safe”. In this vein, you do not follow up Prince Baldemort (thank you, random commenter on with Mike Tyson. You have to throw a Stanley Tucci or LL Cool J in there or at least, someone like Patrick Stewart or Common, someone everyone with a brain likes. You cannot follow up “huh?” with “OMG what?”. That’s just bad list-making. And then to fill that list out with scary people who might sprinkle poison powder in my underwear, yikes, no way, what are you thinking? This is why the list has generated so much publicity (much of it negative), with actual articles devoted to the methodology (number of Google mentions) so as to make sense of how this list could possibly have come to be.

It’s no wonder, then, that at closer inspection, the list is discovered to have been compiled by a plastic surgery clinic, no doubt offering hair transplant procedures. OF COURSE it is. When faced with a list like that, no wonder people would be Googling “how do i not look like prince william?” It’s like if you chanced upon a list of “best public restrooms in Tibet”, and the list ended up being compiled by a colostomy bag maker. Of course you would go with the colostomy bag. Anyone would.

So I’m here to dive into what it takes to make a good list. Number one, you have to know what you are talking about. No one would trust me to compile a list on the best haberdasheries in Bangkok. I don’t even know what a haberdashery is. Number two, you must be sincere. I suppose I could write up a list about where best to take an Instagram pic of your bikini bod, but you had better believe that I would be doing that from Google searches and not from personal experience. In other words, I would be doing it the way 90 percent of travel and food journalism is done.

And … those are the two criteria. So with that in mind, I — a food blogger based in Thailand — will be writing about the five most recent places where a bite of something gave me goosebumps. This is a good, focused topic, unlikely to be challenged (how do you know I didn’t get goosebumps?) Now, a caveat. I read recently that not everyone gets a goosebump reaction when moved by a piece of music, or a movie, or a good dish. To those people, I say, I’m sorry. I love getting that goosebump feeling, and there are times when I deliberately search it out, like when I get to the final part of “Bullet in the Head” by Rage Against the Machine (a band that does NOT support Trump, OMG listen to the lyrics, people) and I’m running on the treadmill (RIP treadmill) and the chill climbs up into the back of my skull and spreads out through my chest and arms.

Well, I get that feeling from food, too. Here are the five most recent places:

  1. Bankara Ramen (The Manor 32/1 Sukhumvit 39) — There was a time when I could get into this place with no wait because not that many people came to this restaurant. That time has come and gone. There is almost always an Isao-style wait here now, and staff are only just adjusting to it. In any case, it’s still my favorite ramen shop in Bangkok, one of my very own “happy places”. My fave dish to order is the Taiwanese-style maze soba, which, yes, is not strictly Japanese. It’s a soupless spicy noodle dish, a la dan dan noodles. And it gives me goosebumps.
With a sprinkling of sesame noodles and a side of “beni shoga” (I know it’s only supposed to go with tonkotsu, don’t @ me)

2. Lai Ros (120/4 Sukhumvit 49 across from Samitivej Hospital) — This restaurant serves the summertime dish khao chae all year round, so it’s usually thronged with people looking for this dish, especially if it’s lunchtime in March-April. However, this place serves plenty of other great dishes that you don’t always come across at every Thai restaurant: for example, guaythiew nuea/moo sub (noodles with minced beef or pork, stir-fried in curry powder), or khao mun somtum, a Central Thai spin on the Isaan grated salad with the addition of green curry and coconut rice on the side (only on weekends). For me, the can’t-say-no dish is sen mee pad pak krachate, rice vermicelli stir-fried with shrimp, chilies, garlic and water mimosa, a vegetable that recalls grassy green young asparagus shoots. Here, they also include shrimp roe. It is irresistible.

3. Appia (20/4 Sukhumvit 31) — Speaking of irresistible, I’m loving that Appia is now open for lunch, which is the meal that I can safely pig out on guilt-free (I’m old). I came across this “troccoli” dish by accident, when expecting a broccoli pasta. It’s better than broccoli pasta; it’s handmade ropey udon-like noodles slathered in a cheese sauce punctuated with a hint of anchovy, then freckled with a shower of summer truffle. It is SO GOOD.

4. Samsara Cafe & Meal (1612 Songwad Road) — I’m always surprised when I’m told I didn’t take everyone to this riverside place yet; I’d always assumed they had discovered it already. In any case, my most recent visit was with my friends Chris and Tawn, after a long slog through Chinatown that also delivered dish number 5 (it was an evening of goosebumps). Maybe it was the setting, maybe it was the sunset, but this eggplant salad — replete with a garnish of bacon, just like at the much-lamented Soul Food Mahanakorn — came to the table, cut like nasu dengaku but awash in Thai yum dressing, and was the perfect bite in the perfect setting.

5. Nai Mong (539 Pháp Phla Chai Road) — I can’t finish off this list without a shout-out to one of my own personal street food faves, this oyster omelet stall on the outskirts of Chinatown. I love that they are experiencing success, I love that they are crowded, I understand why they have had to size down their portions. I also love that they remember my order: hoy nangrom (oysters), grob grob (extra crispy) all the way.


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