Tag Archives: Bangkok

Made to Order

The tabletop at Saenchai Pochana

The tabletop at Sangchai Pochana: a spicy salad of egg yolks, salad of pickled cabbage, stir-fried bitter melon shoots

I’m sitting by myself on the sidewalk waiting for my friend Dwight (www.bkkfatty.com). I am almost always early to these things, and almost always the first person to arrive. It can be a problem in a city like Bangkok, where everyone is always a little late. Including the restaurants. Sangchai Pochana (entrance to Sukhumvit Soi 32, 02-204-3063) is supposed to open at 5:30, but they are just getting set up and starting in on their own staff meal.

I text Dwight because even though it’s 5:45 and, aside from a couple of Japanese guys, I am the only customer here, I’m afraid he might miss me, even though he has eyes.

Me: Hey, the place I’m at is called Sangchai Pochana and I’m at a table outside.

Him: That place I’ve been before.

Me: Ok

Him: It’s MSG-delicious.

Me: Ok

Him: And hungover-maxing.

Me: Are you suggesting another place?

Him: No. I don’t think.

Him: Let’s see what you think.

Knowing my friends are going to be late and watching people slice shallots and chilies all by my lonesome on a busy Bangkok sidewalk when I could be at home watching Australian MasterChef makes me feel like this:

It makes me feel like this.

Situations like these call for beer. And if there is beer, there must be some food because we have standards here in Bangkok, we are not ravening beer-chugging animals. So I get a gigantic bottle of Heineken that makes me embarrassed because it is still not yet 6 and I am by myself, and a plate of grilled sea snails (hoy waan) that make me forget about how big the beer is. It comes with a dipping sauce of lime, fish sauce and chilies that are like AAAAAAHHHHHH on the tongue. And then I get what Dwight means by “MSG-delicious”.

snails

Sangchai is what I consider to be a traditional aharn tham sung, or made-to-order vendor. Like other wok-based purveyors that rely largely on stir-frying, vendors like Sangchai will make whatever you ask of them, provided they have the ingredients and it is within reason (anything fried and boiled and sometimes even grilled). Even if they have a set menu (and many do), they display the special ingredients of the day out in front to coax you into going crazy and requesting something off-piste. This is my favorite thing about the aharn tham sung stalls — that you can basically come up with a meal tailor-made for you.

Sangchai's shopfront with your choice of seasonal proteins and greens

Sangchai’s shopfront with your choice of seasonal proteins and greens

But they occupy a special niche, a sub-set of that standard aharn tham sung. Their dishes are meant to be served as accompaniments to Thai-style rice porridge (khao thom), the whole of which make up the Thai meal khao thom gub, or plain porridge served with an array of pickled, spicy, soupy and stir-fried dishes. This results in a tabletop of real, genuine bounty, a sight for sore eyes meant to greet diners after a wearisome ordeal. Maybe this is why Sangchai — and vendors like it — are so popular late at night, and why khao thom gub is considered an after-clubbing ritual.

This is food that, in a sense, thinks it knows its place. It’s the backdrop to what you are doing: picking yourself up after an evening of drinking maybe a little too much, or hashing over ideas, or mourning your lost youth, or simply waiting. When you are done, you forget about your meal and go your separate ways. This must be what food is like for most people who don’t think about food all the time. To me, that is an awful place to be in for too long. But it’s food that’s OK when your friends have finally arrived.

 

 

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Street food celebrities

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Deep-fried sea bass at Jay Maew Seafood in Samut Songkhram

Gordon Ramsay. Jamie Oliver. Anthony Bourdain. You know who these guys are, right? Everybody does. And, if you like reading about food, chances are you have your own favorite celebrity chef whom you hope to meet one day and become best fwends with forever and ever (mine is Martha Stewart. I know. But the lady looks like she wouldn’t shy away from a drink and likes to have a good time. What can I say? Love has no logic, okay?!) 

The relatively tiny little world of Thai street food (or, as tiny as hundreds of thousands of street food stalls in Bangkok can be, anyway) also hosts its own celebrities. Everybody who has lived in Bangkok for some period of time knows about the dude who sells moo ping (grilled pork on skewers) at the Convent/Silom intersection late at night, greasy sweet manna for the high school-age revelers who are just stumbling out of Soi 4 (and with that last sentence, I have officially entered Middle Age). Many know about the guy who plies customers at his cart just off of Saladaeng Road with great yen ta fo noodles and carefully selected snippets of abuse. And of course, there is Jay Fai. So there are Thai street food celebrities out there. And, it would seem, the grumpier they are, the bigger the accolades. 

Jay Maew seems to fit into this mold. I have written about this fantastic seafood place in passing before, but after a recent trip there I think they deserve their own post. Like many professional chefs — and I am only just getting this — Jay Maew is a control freak, happy to bust out of the kitchen with a schmatta on her head to direct your car to a new parking spot if she thinks your parking skills are subpar (which must make her a lot of friends). She likes to tell customers that she is going to close soon, or is close to retiring, or maybe she will serve lunch, but just for you, because she likes you that much. Then you show up at the restaurant and see that lots of other people are already there. Why you gotta toy with my emotions like that, Jay Maew? 

Her other regulars like to tell me that she does this whole song and dance every time you make a reservation because she is trying to limit the number of customers she has, otherwise she gets flustered and stressed out — which, for a professional cook, sounds batshit crazy. Isn’t that what cooks do for a living? Serve customers food that they’ve cooked? But once the food comes out, it doesn’t really matter what uncharitable thoughts you had before, because everything is genuinely that good. There are always the stews — the bright, pungent gaeng som, the slightly sweet and meaty tom som, and of course the all-star tom yum — all thick with deftly cut hunks of pomfret or whatever other fish is a specialty that day. The gaeng kai pu — full of crab shells encrusted with orange bits of crab egg — will bring a tear to your eye. 

There is more than just the stuff that is thom (boiled).  There’s also the stuff that is pad (fried): a whole battery of different greens, my favorite being the young pumpkin shoots and acacia leaves, and the Chinese-y fried shrimp or crab dumplings accompanied by a homemade plum dipping sauce, and plump bits of crab as big as the pad of your thumb, stir-fried with garlic and chilies. 

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Jay Maew’s stir-fried crab with scallions and onion

I’ve only ventured a little ways through the menu here because I always end up sticking to my favorites, and let’s face it, that is way too much food to order in one sitting. I haven’t even mentioned the grilled tiger prawns, or the simply steamed fresh crab, or the steamed Chinese-style fish with either lime and chilies or pickled plums or soy sauce, or the deep-fried anything that you can think of. Although it’s an hour-and-a-half trip out of Bangkok on most days, it’s worth it — as long as you can get Jay Maew to agree to seat you.

How to get there: Get on the expressway to Dao Khanong. From Dao Khanong, go towards Samut Sakhon. From Samut Sakhon, head towards Samut Songkhram. Look for the sign for the Maeklong River, and then exit towards Maeklong village, where Jay Maew is located. Go under the bridge, turn left at your first left, and it should be on the left hand side. If you or someone you know can speak some Thai, you can also call 034-713-911.

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What’s Cooking: Elvis Suki

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Scallops ready for the grill

(Photo by @karenblumberg)

Elvis Suki (Soi Yotse, Plabplachai Rd., 02-223-4979, open 17.00-23.00 daily) is one of my favorite places to take visitors from out of town. Its specialty — the Thai-style sukiyaki after which it is named — is an unglamorous but delicious goop of glass vermicelli, a blank canvas on which a yin-and-yang-likedrama is played out nightly: blanched seafood or meat versus the vibrant thrashings of a spicy-sweet-tart chili sauce, like the Meg underpinning a buoyant Jack.  That said, it’s still the Cleveland of street food dishes, solid but unlamented, probably a nice place to live but unlikely to haunt your dreams.

Their scallops, however, are another story. Other people make scallops like these: an unlikely pairing of scallops and a dab of pork, minced or otherwise, both doused liberally in a sweet, garlicky butter. Yet somehow no one can hold a candle to Elvis Suki’s version.  Maybe it’s the atmosphere? (no-nonsense open-air shophouse or, if you are fast enough, no-frills air-conditioned room?) Maybe it’s the people? (A mix of families and office workers). Or maybe it’s the service? (Probably not). In any case, few diners leave Elvis Suki without those scallops.

 

Elvis Suki’s grilled scallops with pork (makes 4)

What you’ll need:

–       4 large scallops

–       1 slice (about 60 g) pork neck

–       2 Tbs butter

–       2 large cloves garlic, finely minced

–       Salt and pepper (to taste)

–       Sugar

To make:

  1. Make garlic butter by mixing garlic with softened butter
  2. “Dry brine” pork by coating in salt for 15 minutes. Before using, pat dry.
  3. Clean scallops and place 1-inch-long piece of pork alongside scallop on the shell. Season both with salt and pepper.
  4. Dot with dollops of garlic butter and sprinkle both scallops and pork with ¼tsp of sugar.
  5. Grill or broil in oven for about 5 minutes, keeping a close eye so that the scallops do not burn.
  6. Take out and serve while hot.
The grilled scallops at Elvis Suki

The grilled scallops at Elvis Suki

 

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That time of year again

Big Bite Bangkok

The scene at last year’s Big Bite BKK

Like taxes, like school, like that rumble in your tummy … the time for Big Bite is coming ’round again like clockwork. This year promises to be at least as fun as last year — even without yours truly manning the chilli dog stand.

We will be enjoying the culinary stylings of folks like Appia, Opposite Mess Hall and Urban Pantry, as well as treats of a more liquid nature from Twist and The Alchemist. Even better, Monsoon Winery has agreed to sponsor us, so you can rest assured that there will be plenty of quality wine on offer too! Donations from the event benefit In Search of Sanuk.

What: Big Bite Bangkok

When: Sunday, July 14, 11am-2pm

Where: Maduzi Hotel

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Living to Eat

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The mieng pla at RBSC

It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that I love food, or that I am drawn to other people who love food. My friend Gwen is one such person. A constant whirlwind of activity, she touches place here or there long enough to, inevitably, pick up a friend or two and eat at this or that fabulous place. She is also invariably kind, which is probably why the most damning thing she can say about someone is that he or she “eats to live”. 

Look, everybody has to eat to live. But it’s a very particular type of person who lives to eat. This is the person who plans his or her travel itinerary around restaurants; who would rather go hungry than eat something that tastes bad; who considers life a series of meals, and every sub-par meal a missed opportunity. I am this type of person, which explains why I have no friends and no one will travel with me. I have also met other people like this, and it’s like meeting other people with strange obsessions or second lives — the guy who dresses up like Boba Fett at the occasional Star Wars-themed convention, or Bruce Wayne in his off-time. 

A person who eats to live might not find much to trumpet about when it comes to the Isaan dish mieng pla: there’s fish, and vegetables, sometimes noodles, and a dipping sauce. There is no interesting technique, no volcanically hot wok, no smoke, no fire to speak of. No welcoming waft of steam when you lift the lid off the bamboo steamer, no doughy dabs wrapped like tiny birthday presents, no glistening jewel-toned slabs of flesh arranged artfully on a platter like pieces of jewelry. This is all DIY work — it’s all up to you. All you need are the fish and the seasonings. Anybody can do it.

Except that not all mieng pla is made the same. It’s hard to screw up, that is true, but it’s also hard to make great. And that’s what Khun Sakol Boon-ek, the proprietor at the mieng pla tu stand at the Prajane Lumpini market, is able to do. Plump, fat (and deboned!) pieces of Thai mackerel; fat, juicy greens, and fresh, unblemished condiments (lime, shallot, peanuts, ginger, green mango, chilies, and, in her case, blanched thin rice vermicelli, or sen mee), this is everything you need for an afternoon snack, a light lunch, or, if you are a Hobbit like me, elevenses.

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K. Sakol’s mieng pla

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K. Sakol’s accompanying greens

Khun Sakol’s secret is ultimately her dipping sauce: a mixture of lime juice, fish sauce, garlic, sugar and a bountiful harvest of chilies, yes, but somehow the sum is greater than the parts. Obviously she won’t tell me her secret.

To contact her (they deliver!) call 084-944-6732. Or, if you are very lucky, she might be at the Prajane Lumpini market situated along the right-hand side of Polo Road (Soi Sanam Klee) if you are coming from Wireless, but I’m not sure how much longer she’ll be there. Sadly, some big changes appear to be planned for that road: Khao Thom Polo (they of the fire-and-brimstone jungle curry) are being asked to move, and even the mighty Polo Fried Chicken might have to follow suit. 

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