Tag Archives: seafood

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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Glutton Abroad: Bongiorno Lampedusa

Tuna skewers and white mullet dusted with pistachio, garnish of the gods

Tuna skewers and white mullet dusted with pistachio, garnish of the gods

I have known The Italian for 22 years. During our freshman year at Bryn Mawr, she lived at the end of my hall in Pembroke West. Even then, she was an effortlessly chic little blond tornado, a glamorous chain smoker with an Italian-accented Stevie Nicks croak, a high-heeled aficionado of Valentino and Missoni at a time when I was still wearing red plaid pinafores from Talbots picked out by my mother.

So when the time came for The Italian’s 40th birthday party, I was on board. A shame it was at a place that the Italian embassy workers in Bangkok claimed didn’t exist. “Lampedusa?” they said. “No, that is not in Italy.”

We checked our birthday invitations again. “But it is Italian,” we said. “It’s an island that belongs to Italy.” But only a phone call from an actual Italian person would persuade them. Even then, they were skeptical. No one had ever heard of this little island before, including me.

It turns out Lampedusa is the southernmost part of Italy, a pebble skipping off the toe of the boot, landing somewhere between Tunisia and Sicily. The island spans nearly 8 miles, and is home to about 4,500 people, who speak “Lampedusan” — a mish-mash of Italian, French and Arabic that is incomprehensible to the regular outsider. The dry, rocky soil means vegetables can be hard to come by, as is most meat (although a herd of goats did live nearby, roaming the hills around our rented cottage in an area charmingly known as “the Bay of Death”). The only thing this place abounded in: seafood, and plenty of it.

While Lampedusans may be considered a breed apart, their cooking is purely Italian — Sicilian, to be exact. The mussels and clams that proliferate in the azure waters around the island are melded with scampi, garlic and tomatoes in a sauce for pasta. Sometimes, bits of tuna or red snapper are mixed with spaghetti and crowned in pistachio dust in the way a Roman would scatter grated Parmesan. Mullet and tuna are simply grilled, or, if it’s a fancy place, once again dusted with pistachio (and then grilled). Bits of octopus and/or scampi are marinated and served as a ceviche; rings of calamari are lightly breaded and deep-fried.

A photo of marinara sauce on the boat, blurred by the tossing waves

A photo of seafood marinara sauce on the boat, blurred by the tossing waves

As for the sweets, fuhgeddaboudit (I’m sorry. This is the last time I do that, I promise). There is a ton of gelato, of course (I am told the best “tests” of a gelato’s quality are the pistachio and banana flavors). There is Sicilian-style granite, or finely shaved ice (coffee is, inexplicably, the most popular flavor, it would seem). There are ice cream cakes mixing coffee, pistachio and strawberry flavors. So there are all these things, but only one thing matters to me, and that is cannoli: tubes of fried dough that are filled with a ricotta-augmented cream. They are super-sweet and occasionally delectable treats while eaten at a place like Veniero’s in the East Village; in Italy, they are the greatest things to have happened to the world since Michelangelo and da Vinci.

Sicilian-style cannoli at Pizzeria Dell'Amicizia

Sicilian-style cannoli at Pizzeria Dell’Amicizia

But all this fabulousness has a price, of course. Over the week, I hit a bit of a seafood wall — there is just too damn much fish. TOO MUCH FISH! Fish, everywhere, forever and ever, purple mountains of it, and fruited plains too. You see, Lampedusans love their seafood, especially their sgombro — a bonito-like fish of which they are inordinately proud that is eaten in everything including sandwiches, paired with capers and onions. Let me tell you how much they love their seafood: there are SEVERAL types of fish-based baby food. Mull(et) over that for a while.

Fish baby food on the supermarket shelf

Fish baby food on the supermarket shelf

Meanwhile, if the water is a little rough, ships can’t cross over, and you are left with a few heads of wilting romaine lettuce, a couple of withered Sicilian cucumbers, and the disheartening sight of NOTHING at the meat counter:

Karen, in line for nothing

Karen, in line for nothing

At a low point, my husband and I stop at Gerry Fast Food, where we are told we can get a fix of some sweet, sweet, meat. What we get: boiled beef lung and tongue, spritzed with lemon juice and enclosed in a plain hamburger bun. We eat all of it. But we never want to go back to that ever again.

 

 

 

 

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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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What’s Cooking: Jay Fai

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On the menu at Jay Fai

It was an interesting proposition: turn out some recipes inspired by my favorite street food stalls. Of course, I would never get the exact recipes from these folks, however lovely they are; in the street food world, recipes are family heirlooms, to be guarded as insurance for the next generation.  Instead, the recipes we end up with would be approximations, wild guesses, stabs in the dark — love letters to the originals in the hope that imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.

To aid my on my quest, I enlist the help of my friend Chris Schultz (http://christao408.xanga.com), one of the best home cooks I know. We would do a total of 15 dishes over the course of three months. Some would be simple, chosen for their (expected) ease. Others would take more work refining. All would, eventually, hopefully, fingers-crossedly, be delicious.

There is no question that Jay Fai (327 Mahachai Rd., 02-223-9384) is one of my favorite street food vendors. A middle-aged lady in a woven beanie and a slash of lipstick, Jay Fai plows through an extensive repertoire of made-to-order favorites, solo and with the help of two searing hot woks. Her fried noodle dishes are to die for: punters frequently argue over which is her best, wavering between her “drunken noodles” (guaythiew pad kee mow, so called because the grease and spice are good hangover remedies) and her crispy noodles in seafood gravy (guaythiew lard na talay). Her crabmeat omelet, currently holding at 900 baht/serving, is a Japanese-inspired eggy roll stuffed with mammoth chunks of white, juicy crabmeat; hers is the only kitchen in town to serve a “dry” congee (jok hang), a gelatinous splay of broken-in rice grains topped with a tumble of shredded ginger and scallion. I could go on.

But it’s possibly her spicy lemongrass soup with prawns (tom yum goong, priced at an astronomical 1,500 baht/bowl) that intrigues me most. It’s a dish that everyone knows, but I suspect few bother to tinker around with. Have you ever made a tom yum? I ask because, despite the “infusion”-style broth that simply calls for throwing a handful of bruised herbs into water at a rolling boil, this soup is hard to excel at.

Boil 6 cups water, toss in a handful of bruised galangal, 7-8 kaffir lime leaves, 4 bruised lemongrass stalks , a shallot or two, a couple of green peppercorn branches and 4 chilies; a few minutes later, throw in 3 Tablespoons fish sauce and at least 3 limes’ worth of juice, take your pan off the heat, and add your 8 cleaned and shelled jumbo shrimp; stir around in the muck until your shrimp blush a deep red, then garnish with coriander leaves — this is tom yum made the traditional way. Yet the flavor is … underwhelming, warmed-over Lean Cuisine after two days in the refrigerator. Where is the heat? Where is the tart? I was missing the fireworks, but without sticking an entire forest of dreck into the broth, what was I to do?

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Jay Fai’s tom yum goong

The verdict: I can’t hope to replicate even half of the flavor Jay Fai gets with her tom yum by doing a straight-up infusion. There is a chili paste in there somewhere. In the coming days, I will pound fresh chilies, garlic, shallots and herbs with my mortar and pestle and see where that gets me; I’ll also roast the chilies, garlic and shallots before pounding a second batch and compare the two. I’ll try another with roasted chili paste (nam prik pao), and in yet another, I might even add a dash of coconut milk. What do you think? There is a grocery store’s worth of places where this can go. 

Until then. The leftovers beckon.

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My tom yum

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