Tag Archives: food

Glutton Abroad: Dyspeptic in Japan

Everyone always says Japan is a country full of food obsessives, and it feels true. In places like the US — full of work obsessives — and Thailand (where it is chic to pretend to be a work obsessive), it would be considered a complete waste of time to line up for two hours for the perfect soft cream (“fresh!”) cheesecake, or wait outside in the cold for a space at your favorite beef stew restaurant behind Kabuki-za (oh, OK, it’s MY favorite beef stew restaurant). In Japan, this is seen as completely normal behavior. It takes a special blend of desire and commitment to practice this kind of stick-to-itiveness for something many others would dismiss as frivolous.

In Japan, food is not frivolous, and its inevitable discovery is considered a special time in everyone’s life. This is probably why there is such a thing as the “food manga”, comic books which document a person’s first blossoming of culinary interest (a “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” for foodies). This usually takes the form of throwing over one’s job and/or parentally-approved educational plans in favor of a backbreaking, precarious life in the food business. In Thailand, this is typically called “having a nervous breakdown”.  In Japan, it is subverting your own ego to create more beauty in the world.

No great stretch, then, to learn that there are also “wine mangas”: comics which depict the deflowering of the protagonist’s innocence re wine. My friend Ritsuko says they usually fall back on the same narrative as the food manga, except that there are lots of porny shots of sexy wine labels and hot ‘n bothered talk of “terroir”. There is no burgeoning romance, no family drama to distract the reader from the main objective — the love of wine, ideally something French and expensive:

comic1

Here, a lady is discovering her first Burgundy. Whether she is shocked because of the wine’s deliciousness or the price tag, I dunno, my Japanese isn’t that good.

And here, dude is learning how a special set of characteristics manifests itself into the soil to create the best wine evah (aka “terroir”, aka “Only French people can make good wine”.)

comic2

I kid, because I love. I love Japan, and I am a Francophile, so this is a perfect storm of awesomeness for me. I also think France produces the best wine. Haha, who am I kidding. I will guzzle wine from anywhere.

I will also guzzle sake from anywhere, including Awaji Island. Now, Awaji is a special place for Japanese food lovers, because its close proximity to Kobe=wonderful Japanese beef, while its location as the biggest island in the Inland Sea on Japan’s eastern side=great seafood, particularly lobster, abalone and sea urchin. This pretty much would have equalled heaven on earth for me, were I not afflicted with %*&^#$ing GERD (medico-speak for really bad, constant heartburn). I am old.

I wasn’t so afflicted that I couldn’t eat anything, however. Awaji also specializes in red snapper, which I am told is the same thing as sea bream. Really? I see both on restaurant menus all the time, and have noticed how much Japanese people like sea bream. In any case, Awaji Island is Ground Zero for sea bream/red snapper. It’s no surprise that they serve it as sashimi as a first course. It does come as a surprise, however, when your dinner starts moving and gasping on the table as you are taking squares of flesh off its skeleton and dipping them in soy sauce. That is a surprise. If you are old enough to remember Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and the “Alice in Wonderland”-themed video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, where they start cutting pieces of Alice up and serving them as cake, you will understand what eating this sashimi was like.

This fish is still moving

This fish is still moving

If you stick around, you will be rewarded with cooked versions of this fish, grilled until white and juicy and served up alongside fragrant Japanese limes and cooked sakae, or Japanese sea snails (another specialty of the area).

Snapper and sea snails

Snapper and sea snails

As lovely as Awaji was, one could not stay there forever. There was more food to be had in Nagano, which is one of my favorite cities in Japan, no uso. Set almost smack in the middle of Honshu, Nagano acts like the country’s fruit basket — gargantuan apples, grapes, apricots, peaches, nectarines — but it also abounds in good sake, flour dumplings, grilled, miso-flecked rice cakes, and wild game. The region’s premier culinary specialty, however, might be this:

Nagano's #1 specialty, soba

Nagano’s #1 specialty, soba

Like Thais and their soup noodles, every person in this town will tell you a different place that makes the “best soba”, and they are totally prepared to fight to the death (OK, for the next five minutes) about it. In fact, when asked to go to one soba shop, our taxi driver in Nagano refused, taking us to a different one that he said was better. In the end, it really doesn’t matter where you go because (much like many of Bangkok’s more famous guay thiew shops), you’d have to work hard to find a really, really bad one in Nagano. Most are pretty good, unless you are the world’s most discerning gourmet of soba noodles ever (95% of Japanese people).

Another, far less lauded Nagano specialty is its “apple beef”, made from cows fed on, yes, the region’s famously sweet, juicy, and large apples. Like their more famous Kobe brethren, these cows are massaged regularly so that the fat is distributed throughout the flesh, like this:

Apple beef ready for the sukiyaki pan at Sukitei

Apple beef ready for the sukiyaki pan at Sukitei in Nagano

I’ve come to believe that Japanese-style beef may be that country’s most famous “fusion” food. Popularized during the Meiji Restoration when Japan was coming to grips with Western influence, beef (and “steak”) here have since taken on qualities that are uniquely Japanese. While American beef is about the beef itself — fibers, sinews, blood and all — the flavor characteristics prized by the Japanese are tenderness, fattiness, umami. It’s meat that’s been manipulated from day one, made to be cooked to medium or even medium-well to activate the fat buried within, and then (if served as a steak), grilled before its heady baptism with soy sauce and a dollop of wasabi to cut the greasiness. I’ll be honest: this meat is too much for me, especially in my old lady GERD state. This kind of meat is meant for lucky people with working digestive systems. I’ll be in the corner gnawing on a couple of medium-rare pieces of Porterhouse.

 

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Isaan Road Trip

A coconut milk-based snail curry in Pak Chong

A coconut milk-based snail curry in Pak Chong

I am rubbish on road trips. I can’t drive, and I don’t like to read maps or mess around with GPS. I am good with the radio, but if it’s not Boston, or Led Zeppelin, or Rush, I will probably try to rush past your favorite song in pursuit of something from one of these three groups. My friend Karen (@karenblumberg) can tell you I’m rubbish on road trips, if you asked her (but she wouldn’t, because she’s loyal and kind and my best friend), but, for some reason, Chin (@chilipastetour) and Anne (@anneskitchen) are both willing to spend a whopping 6 days with me cooped up in a car!

In all seriousness though, it’s for a very good reason. We are going to be tasting Isaan, Chin’s home turf. Despite the huge popularity of Isaan food in Thailand — and its growing popularity abroad — Isaan as a region has yet to draw the kinds of tourist numbers that Northern Thailand and the South see. That boggles my mind, since its Laos- and Vietnam-influenced food — succulent meats on the grill, tart and spicy larbs (minced salads) thick with roasted rice kernels, som tum (grated salads) of every possible variation, eggs cooked in a pan with steamed pork sausage (kai kata) and sticky rice — are what a lot of Thai food lovers think of when they think of their favorite dishes. Why not go to the source?

Yet Isaan remains bewilderingly under-visited. Every national park and waterfall we visited had either just a handful of people or, in some dazzlingly lucky cases, was completely abandoned. Restaurants, if full, were full of locals. Hotels were populated with Thai tourists from somewhere close by. For travelers who want a slice of something truly “authentic”, an experience just like that of someone living right there where you are visiting, you really can do no better than Thailand’s northeast: the country’s most populous region, producing some of its most memorable food, yet still strangely underrated.

Our road trip started with a stop at Pak Chong, just a few hours’ drive from Bangkok but still seen as the gateway to Isaan. While there, we sampled the wares at the restaurant Mae Fai Pla Pow, where of course we had the namesake grilled fish which came stuffed with roasted eggplant and accompanied with a platterful of fresh vegetables served under a layer of ice cubes to keep them crunchy, plus six dipping sauces (nam jim).

"Pla pow", or grilled fish, at Mae Fai Pla Pow

“Pla pow”, or grilled fish, at Mae Fai Pla Pow

These fabulous sauces (Thais are all about the sauce, after all) included a nam prik gapi (shrimp paste chili dip); a tart/spicy seafood dipping sauce; a sweet tamarind dipping sauce to go with the sadao (a bitter river herb) served alongside the fish; and a dipping sauce flavored liberally with the essence of mangda (giant water beetle). These big critters feature in a lot of Isaan cuisine, either pounded into chili dips, deep-fried whole, or steamed. The taste is heavily floral, slightly cucumber-y, and even a little sweet. It’s just one of many examples of Isaan ingenuity.

Mangda at the market

Mangda at the market

At the Pak Chong market the next morning, we indulged in a couple of kafae boran (old-fashioned Thai coffees), sweetened with condensed milk and accompanied by a couple of glasses of Chinese tea to cut the sugary flavor.

borancoffee

We also came across a “sticky rice” stall, where you get your pick of toppings — most porky and/or deep-fried — which are then plopped onto a handful of sticky rice and wrapped in a banana leaf to stay warm:

Making a selection at the sticky rice vendor

Making a selection at the sticky rice vendor

Selections made

Selections made

Later on, we hit Korat, where a lot of the Mon-style fermented rice noodles known as kanom jeen are made. In fact, we were lucky enough to reach “kanom jeen row”, an entire aisle of rice noodle vendors featuring highly-spiced curries — usually including nam prik (sweet peanut curry), nam ya pa (fish curry without coconut milk), and/or nam ya (fish curry) — complete with the requisite toppings like shredded banana blossom, fresh bean sprouts and sliced green beans set conveniently in front of stools to sit on.

"Kanom jeen pradok" at a market in Korat

“Kanom jeen pradok” at a market in Korat

I ended up choosing a mix of the sweet peanut curry and nam ya, topping it with a scattering of bean sprouts, sliced and blanched morning glory stems, and the julienned banana blossoms:

kanomjeenbowl

 

Another noodle dish we saw frequently on our table was the Vietnamese-inflected dish guay jab yuan (Vietnamese-style Chinese noodles), which, despite its name, employs a boatload of Thai flavor embodied in the sweetness of deep-fried shallots and an armload of dried spice. The best town for this dish by far was Ubon Ratchathani. However, the version we had at Mukdahan was more photogenic.

guayjab

Of course, no trip to Isaan is complete without a sampling of each town’s best som tum. Whatever your views on the fermented Thai fish known as pla rah, every som tum we had felt like som tum as it is meant to be: fresh, juicy, and heavy with the deep bass note pungency of salty fish. Just about every street side vendor we encountered proved adept with the mortar and pestle, and every variation was available to us, including green banana leavened with yellow Thai eggplant and the standard green papaya. But one of our favorites was a version made with cucumber and tomato:

Cucumber som tum at a roadside stall

Cucumber som tum at a roadside stall

One of my favorite things about Isaan was the seasonality of the ingredients and the immediacy (read: simplicity) of the cooking. Many of the things we ate were foraged from nearby. In fact, taking a walk through the woods with Chin involved a “Hunger Games”-like cataloguing of all the plants and leaves that were edible (note: a lot of this stuff is edible). One great meal involved buying mountain mushrooms from a roadside vendor who had just plucked them from a hillside 5 km away that morning:

Fresh mountain mushrooms

Fresh mountain mushrooms

A few minutes later, those mushrooms were being cooked at a roadside stall down the road, replete with chilies, a bit of pla rah juice, and herbs gathered by Chin from the nearby forest:

mushroomstew

The best meal, though, was cooked by Chin’s parents who — amazingly — set up a makeshift outdoor kitchen over the course of three days expressly for our visit! It was a lesson in real Isaan cooking: food seasoned with pla rah, fish sauce, and salt, cooked simply over two charcoal braziers, with many of the ingredients — down to the mushrooms, peppercorns, fruits and herbs — gathered from the backyard. We ended up with a gargantuan Isaan feast, featuring shredded bamboo shoot salad with chilies and toasted rice kernels, sliced pork with rice vermicelli and a scattering of fresh herbs, a quick and tasty soup of locally reared chicken thick with fresh dill, a larb of chicken skin and livers, grilled pork belly, steamed mushrooms dipped in a chili-flecked fish sauce … I am sure I am forgetting something. It was a dizzying array of great food.

Feast at Chin's family home

Feast at Chin’s family home

Let’s focus on that great bamboo shoot salad (soup naw mai, one of my very favorite Isaan dishes) again:

So good

So good

The meal encompassed everything I’ve come to learn about Isaan: the generosity, the hospitality, and of course, the great, fresh, seasonal produce cooked simply and flavored with only a handful of different seasonings. I may be ruined for every other kind of food for a while now.

 

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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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What’s Cooking: Soup makuea

Thai eggplant mash with shallots, fermented anchovy juice and toasted rice kernels

Isaan-style Thai eggplant mash with shallots, fermented anchovy juice and toasted rice kernels

I’m trying this thing where I eat less meat. In fact, I’m trying not to eat any at all, beyond fish. This is because I went on a two-week barbecue tour where my friend Karen and I stuffed ourselves on different variations of pork product 3-4 times a day. So I am turning pescatarian, but trying not to be too strict with it, because that is a surefire way to get me to stop.

I change the rules as I go along. It keeps things fresh (i.e. confusing). If I am at a dinner party, I will eat whatever the host is serving me, because I don’t want to mold other people’s stuff around my dietary whims. Also if I’m doing an assignment involving some sort of meat. I was also cutting out booze but I am back off the wagon because why make my life less awesome? I drink a glass of red wine a day and, if I am going out, I drink more than one glass. WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL GRANDMA? I hear it’s heart healthy.

The focus on non-meat food, and my abject laziness in the kitchen, means I am trying a lot of new places. There is the vegetarian restaurant Na Aroon at Ariyasom Villa, old favorite Rasayana Raw Food Cafe, and a longstanding vegetarian Italian place saddled with the Indian-ish name Govinda. And there is a lot of Japanese food: Hinata at Central Embassy and a lunch at the newly opened Sushi Ichi at the Erawan that was so good I booked another lunch for the following week. I sometimes don’t miss red meat, much. Then I sometimes count the days to when I can find an excuse to eat it again.

This is one of those recipes that, for me, put many of the meat cravings at bay. It’s also dead easy (I am reading a lot of Jamie Oliver, because his are the only recipes I can stand to make right now). As with any other dish, it sprang out of necessity: we didn’t have any bamboo shoots on that particular day, and an abundance of the gumball-sized Thai eggplants known as makuea proh. With its toasted rice kernels, pla rah, and scattered mint, it’s very Isaan-inspired. Eat with sticky rice and grilled chicken like you would a som tum, or serve it with lettuce leaves like a larb — it’s up to you.

Soup Makuea (makes 4)

6-8 Thai eggplants, boiled

4-5 shallots, peeled

2 Tbs dried chili powder

2 tsp mahgrood lime leaves, julienned

3 Tbs toasted rice kernels, ground

1-2 Tbs pla rah juice (or fish sauce, if you’re in a pinch)

Juice from one lime (optional)

Handful each of mint, coriander and sawtooth coriander, chopped

1. With your mortar and pestle, mash your shallots until they are like a jam. Add the eggplants, and mash until they are at the desired consistency.

2. Mix in your chili powder, lime leaves, and toasted rice kernels.

3. Flavor with pla rah or fish sauce. Add lime to taste if you like.

4. Add your chopped herbs and mix in well. Serve at room temperature.

makuea

 

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Chicken rice for the articles

The full deal at Mongkolchai

The full deal at Mongkolchai

Chicken rice in Thailand can in many ways be a fraught affair. This is because a dish that supposedly leans so heavily on its essence — boiled, plain chicken meat and fluffy, white rice, stripped of any artifice — is being served in a country that has never heard of a food that couldn’t take another chili pepper or another dollop of shrimp paste. Thailand is about the grand gesture: great big flavors married to overwhelmingly pungent smells. Chicken rice is retiring, minimalistic, almost bare.

So, as with just about every dish of Chinese origin, chicken rice undergoes a little bit of a makeover every time it appears on a Thai plate. There is the chicken, breast or thigh meat, skin or no skin, of course. The rice, grains plumped by chicken broth, no duh. And finally, a tranche of cucumber slices with fresh coriander, paired with a cube of congealed chicken blood or two, and a clear soup in which a sad old hunk of winter melon or turnip swims, possibly with a coriander leaf or cut-up scallion for company.

But in Thailand, everyone who is anyone knows that the dipping sauce is the most important thing on that table. At least, according to my mother. “There is no good khao man gai without a good dipping sauce,” she says, echoing what every Thai has ever really thought: that there is no food on earth that cannot be complete without the perfect sauce. This is the basic premise behind what many consider the gold standard of Bangkok chicken rice dishes, what every khao man gai purveyor strives for: the plump pillow of chicken and rice at Montien Hotel over which not one, not two, not three, but FOUR sauces are meant to drape themselves. Khao man gai is supposed to be about the sauce. Or is it?

It took me a long time to get to Mongkolchai (314 Samsen Road, 02-282-1991). It’s not really about the location, because I will go that far for Sukhothai noodles, or Chinese-style roasted duck on rice, or pork satay. It’s not about the dish, either. I love chicken rice, because I love sauce — specifically, the inky salt sauce dotted with garlic, ginger and chilies that makes Thai chicken rice something beyond the ordinary. It’s how people invariably describe the attraction: this street food place far far away that serves boiled chicken on rice and, oh btw, their soup is really great. This brings on a great big WTF from me, because … come on, SOUP? That side dish you take sips of to help your real food along? These people are like the guys who read Playboy for the articles.

I went anyway. It’s predictably good, tender chicken breast with the option of skin on or off, the requisite Thai-spiked sauce that there is never enough of, the cube of blood and the cucumber. My soup was darker than the average clear broth, awash in pepper and sprinkled with pickled lime flesh. When I got home, I did a little research and read that my soup was probably twice-boiled duck broth.

The pillow and the cube

The pillow and the cube

Would I go back? Yes, because the service was fast and solicitous and friendly. Whether that was because they thought I was a tourist from Hong Kong doesn’t matter to me. But there is more chicken rice a few steps away on my street corner and another half a block away. And the one, the chicken rice that really speaks to me, with its battery of sauce and excess of flesh, awaiting me at the Montien Hotel coffee shop, should I really want to take that trip. I guess I am super Thai after all.

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Back to the starting point

Chicken-bitter melon noodles at Guaythiew Gai Mara

Chicken-bitter melon noodles at Guaythiew Gai Mara

Chicken and bitter melon noodles can be tricky. They are the blind date that seems normal enough, but who rarely sets off very many sparks. “Sparky” is reserved for the Cristiano Ronaldos of this world, the tom yum noodles, the egg noodles with barely cooked egg threatening to break all over the strands at the slightest tap of the spoon. Meanwhile, chicken is boring and bitter melon is for old people. It is very, very hard to make alluring.

That is why I like to seek them out. I feel like they are one of the greater challenges of the Thai street food scene: how to make dumpy grandma Spanx something you would actively seek out? There are those aforementioned tom yum noodles sprawled out all over the street, after all. So I dip into street side bowls set atop tables on rickety sidewalks, or buy them from carts parked perilously close to oncoming traffic. There is always something wrong with them. Not to get too Goldilocks on it, but they are either bland, or sweet. Too much watery broth. Not saucy enough — not with the right kind of sauce. And almost never spicy enough.

It’s in the accoutrements. Not in the quality of the chicken itself, or on how young the bitter melon is. I feel like people who don’t really get chicken-bitter melon noodles emphasize those two main ingredients, like they are the end-all be-all of this dish. They really aren’t. Any old dead chicken will do, and as long as that bitter melon doesn’t come at you all moldy and dog-eared like present-day Vince Neil, you’ll do all right. No, it’s more about lashings of that dark sweet soy sauce, the bits of deep-fried garlic, the fresh basil and coriander strewn across the noodles, the pickled chili vinegar, and the chili oil. It should be — as you probably already suspected — a balance of sweet, salt, tart, spicy and bitter.

The bowls I ranged far and wide for were rarely good. It reminds me of that Survivor song — no, please give me a break here — about some dude who looked far and wide for a soulmate, only to find that she was there the whole time right in front of him. I know this song because of my mother, who would stop what she was doing anytime that song came on the radio. Now that former lead singer Jimi Jamison is gone, I bring it up again, in case you have a soft spot for arena rock ballads clearly written for the end credits of a movie. Go ahead and look it up. The soulmate was there all along. Clearly marked by a line like this:

line

To a normal person, this line is a bright red flashing sign reading “EAT HERE! EAT HERE!” But not to me. It was too close to my house. I needed to suffer for my noodles before I could sit down to them. So when I did finally deign to set my butt onto one of those little plastic stools, a Thai basil-heavy bowl of chicken and bitter melon in front of me, I had wandered through enough alleyways to realize that this bowl was the best of them all.

The stall is open most mornings at 8am until they sell out, at about 3pm — sometimes they take the day off on Mondays, but sometimes they aren’t here on a Tuesday or Wednesday. They are never here on a Sunday. The cart is located in the street between Emporium and the park, set across from Emporium garage, and run by a man wearing a Japanese ramen chef-type kerchief and his wife. If you come by at lunchtime, you will probably be able to find this stall by the long line of hopeful diners at the side of the road, the promise of a perfect bowl of chicken-bitter melon noodles right before their eyes.

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Color My World

Image

“Vegetable parade” Japanese curry at J-Curry

I want to say from the outset that in no way am I a Chicago fan. I am not a 65-year-old man, despite what you may have heard/seen. But I did recently give Chicago IX and Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers — recorded by two bands that the late great music critic Lester Bangs reportedly loathed — another listen and found that they were better than I remembered. I know this makes me hopelessly middle-aged.

I mean, I haven’t completely lost my mind; “Color My World” still makes me want to jump off the nearest cliff (RIP rock flute solos. RIP forever). But it’s nice to hear something sometimes that sounds like humans had actually put their hands to something and played it; that they had made mouth-noises which had been captured the way they had sung it. When compared to a lot of the popular music out today, it actually sounds like it has some sort of authenticity to it, in a way that it may not have had when it was actually released. Issue me that AARP membership card now.

A lot of the food in Bangkok is very good, but some of it also has this abnormally polished, blank quality, like it has emerged from the flagship restaurant of the nearest Aman resort. It’s engineered to be “good” and “tasteful”, the way Banana Republic clothes are engineered, or the stuff at Pottery Barn. Sometimes, if you go really upscale, you can get — oh, I don’t know — the culinary equivalents of Tory Burch and Restoration Hardware. The point is this food is designed to please as many people as possible, regardless of where they are from, what they really favor, or who they are. This renders it seamless and kind of neutered — sort of like what I imagine the Velvet Underground-loving Lester Bangs hated about Chicago. Maybe this means that this is the sort of food I’ll be missing in 30 years’ time.

This is why street food is so popular here. Although you do get the “tourist trap” places that specialize in sloppy fried rice and hot dogs on sticks, the very best ones take great care in their food despite their humble surroundings. That sincerity has translated so well that some Thais are just starting to accept that maybe, just maybe, non-Thais want to eat street food too. Street food vendors become more confident and begin to experiment with new things and new formats. This is how you get a place like J-Curry in the basement of the UBC II Building (591 Sukhumvit 33), a place my friend Chris (christao.net) first took me to a little while ago.

It might not strike you as street food, but I think it is: an open-air stand serviced by a couple of tables and chairs, but with backs on them and a neon sign because, hey, it’s Japanese food, so it’s a little fancy. A straightforward menu of different Japanese curries — from simple broccoli (110 baht) to beef, cheese and egg (195 baht) — is obviously the main focus here. And, this being Thailand where everyone reserves the right to re-season everything they are served because that’s just how it is, each plate arrives with your own personal shaker of curry powder, chili powder, black pepper and soy sauce — just like the condiment trays that arrive with your bowl of noodles.

 

 

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