Tag Archives: rice noodles

In praise of the porky

Rice vermicelli in pork broth with meatballs at Wor Rasamee

Rice vermicelli in pork broth with meatballs at Wor Rasamee

No one wants to be a pig. The very worst thing one can do is to eat like one, squeal like one, or sweat like one. Don’t even think about looking like one. That is the worst that bad can get.

But when cooked over a grill, crisped and sliced over a mound of fluffy white rice or minced and folded into an omelet, the pig becomes something that every Thai food lover wants a part of. Few dishes demonstrate this more than guaythiew moo, or pork noodles: a mix of pork meatballs, minced pork, stewed fatty pork and pork liver, simmered gently in a pork broth before a quick dunk in a plastic bowl with a handful of rice noodles, some blanched bitter greens, and a sprinkling of bean sprouts and deep-fried garlic bits.

Because many Thais refrain from eating beef for religious reasons — as followers of “Mae Kwan Im” (a Mahayana Buddhist Goddess of Compassion now popular among many Thai-Chinese Theravada Buddhists), they are encouraged to cut out beef in view of eventually going vegetarian — pork noodle joints are probably the most numerous of all the noodle vendor varieties scattered throughout the city. This means there is tons of competition, and more pressure to set oneself apart from the rest of the noodling fray (I’m not counting bamee, or egg noodles, with the rest of the pork noodle crowd because the emphasis there tends to be on the noodles and the toppings are different — that said, there’s lots of competition there too).

Some vendors bomb the crap out of your tastebuds with a plethora of chilis, and some are nam tok specialists who add a touch a pork blood to their broth. It’s the rare vendor who lets the pig stand on its own porky merits. That is Wor Rasamee (corner of Silom and Saladaeng roads), a longtime pork noodle shop run by a deeply efficient elderly man who is the Thai street food equivalent of Rene Lasserre. Every need is fulfilled quickly and with as little drama as possible, sometimes before you have even thought of it. And the time it takes for a bowl to get to your table? 10-15 seconds, tops. Really.

Not to say there’s no little gimmick to set this little stall apart. Here, it’s the unique sauce, set atop every table and served alongside the four-pronged usual condiment selection of sugar, chili flakes, chili-studded white vinegar and fish sauce. It has no name, but it does have ingredients: vinegar, garlic, chilies, palm sugar, and an irresistible hit of fermented tofu, my culinary Achilles heel, a quicksilver sweetness in a pork broth smelling faintly of Chinese 5-spice powder.

sauce

How can I say no? It is food crack. There are surely more ingredients in this sauce than were relayed to me, and I will try to spend the next few weeks ferreting them out. Until then, I will have to risk heading back to this crowded, busy neighborhood in the heart of the central business district in the hopes of snagging a seat in the midst of all the Japanese tart cafes and fast food chains.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, noodles, pork, Thailand

Yen ta fo for h8ers

Yen ta fo with rice vermicelli at Thi Yen Ta fo Rot Ded

Yen ta fo with rice vermicelli at Thi Yen Ta Fo Rot Ded

I write a lot about yen ta fo. It is my absolute favorite Thai noodle dish. What’s not to love? An unlikely but irresistible melange of textures and flavors, from squidgy blanched morning glory stems, rubbery squid, soft fish balls, crackly bitter deep-fried garlic and the crunch of a deep-fried wonton — and that’s before you even get to the sauce. Because it’s the sauce that makes or breaks it all: tart with distilled vinegar and pickled garlic, resonating from the heady boom of fish sauce, underneath which the slightest whiff of sweet fermented red tofu emerges like the flash of a red sole on an expensive shoe … that is what yen ta fo is to me. A very delicate balance that, at its best, is the stereotypical juggling act illustrative of the best of Thai cuisine.

At its worst, yen ta fo is something different. It’s all sweet, all pink, all sickly and flat, like Hello Kitty. So it gives people the wrong idea, that these noodles are something for people with a sweet tooth, that there is no complexity to it at all, that it’s Britney Spears when you want to be rocking the egg noodle-PJ Harvey special. I always put this down to people going to the wrong places for yen ta fo. There is such a thing as the wrong place for a certain dish. In fact, that is the whole point of this blog.

I’ve been to Thi Yen Ta Fo (084-550-2880, open 11-22 except Mondays) more times than I can count. I mean, it was always closed those other times, but it feels like second nature to me now to just head automatically to that street corner on Mahachai Road, just down the street from Thipsamai and next to Jay Fai. Usually, I just find a shuttered cart with a sign bearing the vendor’s name. But just a few days ago, it was all systems go: an entire corner and then some, littered with packed tables and the sort of flustered, harried waiters you would see at your nearest Fuji or Crystal Jade restaurant.

For a soup noodle dish that is so often dismissed as “those terrible pink noodles”, yen ta fo sure seems popular here. But there is a very good reason for this. When our bowls come to the table, it’s less about the pink sauce and fermented tofu and more about the veritable blanket of chopped chilies that coats our food like a suit of armor. If there was ever any doubt in my mind that a typical Thai fix-it involves just throwing a bunch of chilies on something to make it taste better, that doubt has long since been blasted from my head by the smoke coming out of my ears after a bite of these noodles. This stuff is SPICY. It changes the whole flavor profile of the dish. Here, it’s all tart and fiery, even slightly metallic. It’s yen ta fo for people who don’t like yen ta fo very much.

There’s other stuff too. The immense popularity of this place has necessitated the incorporation of a second cart, this one offering fried noodle dishes like guaythiew kua gai (pan-fried rice noodles with chicken and egg). That’s not to mention the pork satay place that also serves the customers here, and the other soup noodles offered by Thi, like the just-as-spicy tom yum egg noodles with fresh basil and minced pork:

Bring your tissues

Bring your tissues

I can’t say I don’t like these noodles, because that wouldn’t be true. Would they be my favorite yen ta fo? No, because they are barely yen ta fo at all. Would I go back? Absolutely. With a pack of tissues. And some Tums.

 

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, food, food stalls, noodles, Thailand, yen ta fo

Curry wishes and deep-fry dreams

Deep-fried pork belly and curry on rice at Mae Awn

Deep-fried pork belly and curry on rice at Mae Awn

Nearly every Thai food lover I know professes a deep affinity for Thailand’s street food. Never mind that it is frequently infuriating, with its occasional long waits, its heat and smoke, its intermittent inconsistencies. It’s the grime, the capricious grumps who serve as owners, the odd feral cat or two that turn street food from a sweaty, hurried interval spent pouring rice down your facehole into a quick “immersion in the Thai culture”, set in romantic, picturesque squalor.

I’m not saying the pursuit of street food is an exercise in culinary Orientalism — unless you think the locals are guilty of doing this too. Because, as much as some people think the fetishization of street food equals a food-centric depiction of the so-called “Noble Savage”, the truth is still very simple: much of Thailand’s best food is still on the street, and those plastic stools and dingy shophouses are still dominated by Thais. Thais love good Thai food. Visiting Thai food lovers want to eat what Thais eat. It is as easy as that.

Nothing quite captures the freewheeling, exuberant quality of Thai street food quite like khao gaeng (or khao gub gaeng, or khao raad gaeng, all of which mean “curry on rice”). These streetside “buffets” are actually excuses for people to act like frigging maniacs aka Lindsay Lohan in a jewelry store — a free-for-all where the ultimate reward is a pleasantly full tummy. A tableful of curries awaits; you pick up a plate of rice and choose anywhere from one to three curries … or more if your vendor is willing.

My friend Winner, who — despite his curious allegiance to the 49ers — knows Banglamphu street food better than anyone I know, is a huge fan of khao gaeng. His favorite: Raan Khao Gaeng Mae Awn, moored in the shadow of Saphan Lek and kitty-corner to the Mega Plaza. Its sign looks like this:

Look for this sign

Look for this 

Despite winning plaudits from various lady-cenric morning shows, this stall still retains its street cred — a credibly crabby lady doling out rice and curries, a handful of tables with plastic stools and a layer of grease, and the requisite crowd keen to jab you in the ear with their elbows as they pass by. Why Winner likes it: the superiority of their thom jeud (clear soup, because no Thai eats rice without some kind of soup), the popularity of its moo kem (deep-fried pork belly) and the sheer diversity of their daily offerings.

A (sort of) moveable feast

A (sort of) moveable feast

It’s a curry (and stir-fry, and deep-fried tidbits) bar, quite possibly the best kind. But no need to skulk off to Banglamphu to get some good curry action; there is an array of rice toppings (of varying sizes) at nearly every major intersection and street corner in the city. The one I frequent is next to Benjasiri Park, behind Emporium, while next to Emporium on Sukhumvit, a mammoth curry rice stand doles out food on Sundays. Find your own favorite.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, pork, Thailand

For appearance’s sake

Yumminess, unrestrained

Yumminess, unrestrained

I’ve been thinking about appearances lately. Not my own, quite obviously, because that is a one-way ticket to Sadtown. I’ve been thinking about the appearance of other things that have nothing to do with me, and how some things appeal and some don’t. For example, put me in a white sequined top and a black lace hoop skirt, and I look — not like the bag lady who got dressed out of the dumpster behind the Playboy Mansion, but like the weirdo who mugged the bag lady who got dressed out of the dumpster behind the Playboy Mansion.

Meanwhile, my friend Tutti looks like a fairy princess ever-so-slightly tweaked after a few shots of pure unicorn juice.

Tutti at Chez Pape

Tutti at Chez Pape

Tutti is, of course, a designer (those people tend to know how to put themselves together), so it may be a bit unfair to compare my dress savvy with hers. However, I — like everyone else in the world — do eat. And like many other eaters drawn to street food, I like to pretend that my focus on stuff cooked in a dingy shophouse by a crotchety old man, or slopped onto my streetside table in the sweltering midday heat, makes me a deep person able to see into the depths of whatever is on the plate in spite of my dire surroundings. The more pain, headache and heat I encounter in the pursuit of this meal, the better — I have truly earned it, this steaming, bowl-shaped reward that must be won from the clutches of the frowning dragon behind the fiery wok.

There is a special name for me, this mix of masochist and Indiana Jones wannabe. And it is called … Sucker.

Because, while I’m not drawn to white tablecloths, baby-faced waiters, and rolling trolleys heaving with sweets, and though I’m suspicious of buzzy loud dining rooms, dry ice, and long queues (except in Japan), I do have my own culinary Achilles heels. For example, I am a sucker for a grumpy old man who tells me how to eat his food. If he is wearing a stained apron and do-rag, and there is a tableful of hungry-looking customers cowering nearby on a bank of plastic stools, all the better. Some other things I love:

— Fire. Some place with big fires underneath hot woks that leap up into the sky as the chef — invariably in some sort of beanie — tosses his ingredients into the air. Smoke is a plus, but I draw the line at the surroundings and/or bystanders catching on fire.

— Geriatric servers. If a place has servers that are in the 65+ range, I am almost guaranteed to patronize it. If they yell at me when I ask questions regarding the menu, then they’ve got themselves a repeat customer.

— And last but not least, repurposed dining rooms. This is my biggest weakness of all. I remember going to the original Jay Ngor, and being shunted into a “dining room” still lined wall-to-wall with other people’s dry cleaning. Or a moving heaven and earth to find a Chinese seafood “restaurant” called Charoen Pochana, located all the way across the river and completely invisible save for a handwritten sign set directly in front of the door (hidden inside a residential courtyard).

Now, these places can step aside for my new favorite place to brag about, Vietnamese & More, which is located on the bottom floor of a condo deep in the bowels of Sukhumvit 16. What was once a living room is now a spruced-up little restaurant, complete with tidy tables and slippers for patrons who leave their shoes at the door. The twee bouquets of plastic flowers, the laminated menus — I love it all. The menu itself, a terse selection of Vietnamese favorites alongside more fusion-inspired creations, I like: not too unwieldy, tightly focused, but not full of cliches. So alongside the summer rolls and pho, you get noodle dishes inspired by places as far-flung as Korea, a “Gangnam-style” stew that resembles Spaghetti-Os but full of kim chi flavor.  And of course, there is the banh mi, a collection of cold cuts, moo yaw (steamed pork sausage) and gunchieng (Chinese-style sausage) encased in a good baguette, a handful of julienned carrot and radish, and slicks of mayo.

Try this

Try this

It’s open every day but Monday, and appears to serve all day long … but check first by calling 089-890-4890. Located on Soi Pai Sing To next to Monterey Place condo.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, noodles, restaurant, Vietnamese

Sukhothai, -ish

A bowl of Sukhothai noodles at Baan Kru Eiw

Do you ever find yourself in that situation where you recognize somebody across the room whom you haven’t seen for a while? What if they recognize you, too? What if you both sit, paralyzed, unsure of who is to get up and make that first stab at conversation? And if you lose this internal wrestling match and you do get up, what if you see that undeniable flash of resignation flit across his face, that “Oh crap, now I have to talk to this person I haven’t spoken to since my wedding in 2007” look? What if you catch that person desperately attempting to hide from you as your eyes lock onto his ear, trying to avoid the upcoming “Oh crap I said I’d call you back five years ago” conversation by suddenly becoming fascinated by the septuagenarian cashier near the entrance, the telltale hand coming up to shield his precious face from your gaze?

I admit it. I have nearly been run over by a bus in my haste to avoid an ex in San Francisco. So I know what it’s like to run away from someone like a bar of soap and stick of deodorant when faced with the likes of Johnny Depp in Full Hobo Mode.  But you can’t run away from me, Sukhothai. I admit, you nearly succeeded, what with my preoccupation with the north, and then Isaan, and that brief flirtation with Phuket over the summer. But there was no way I was not going to knock over every vendor in the city in my search for the best Sukhothai noodles — an ingenious dish that combines a Chinese base (rice noodles) with Thai seasonings (lime, fish sauce, chilies, palm sugar), topped with a signature flourish of julienned green beans.

Sukhothai likes its food sweet, and is fond of its coconut milk. This is why Sukhothai can be considered more of a central Thai city, and less northern Thai. Sukhothai noodles — usually built upon sen lek, or thin white rice noodles —  contain no coconut milk, but epitomize all the great things that characterize Sukhothai’s food: sweetness tempered by a bit of spice, a fondness for the pig in whatever iteration, and generous use of the region’s famously gorgeous cut lime. There is crunch from the blanched beans, crushed peanuts and tiny crumbs of pork crackling; there is a pork-bone broth flavored with tamarind juice and thick with slices of tender boiled pork. It’s hard to not like this particular hometown specialty.

The best place to have it may not be a street food stall. Instead, it’s a “comfort food”-style restaurant, what a diner would be like if it existed in Thailand. It’s called Baan Kru Eiw (www.bankrueiw-restaurant.com), located in downtown Sukhothai(ish) and named after the teacher who opened this restaurant out of her home a little over a decade ago. Teacher Eiw ran this restaurant in her spare time because she loves cooking and wanted to showcase Sukhothai specialties. That means you get other local favorites like naem nueng, a Vietnamese-derived do-it-yourself noodle dish featuring steamed pork “pate”, and gluey chuem, or boiled bananas in sugar syrup. Last but not least, there is pad Thai — a no-brainer for every Sukhothai noodle vendor in the city, since Sukhothai noodles are basically pad Thai in soup noodle form, with the same seasonings if not always the same protein (the pad Thai here usually involves pork instead of seafood). Kru Eiw wraps her stir-fried noodles up in a thin envelope of egg and crowns the result with a scattering of coriander leaves, with a side of bean sprouts, banana blossom and garlic chives (and of course, a cut of that big, juicy Sukhothai lime) to mop up any grease (Thais are very concerned about kwam lien, or greasiness in their food). At Kru Eiw, there is little grease to worry about. But if you see someone you recognize across the room, you’re on your own.

Kru Eiw’s pad Thai

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Filed under Asia, food, noodles, pork, restaurant, Sukhothai, Thai-Chinese, Thailand