Tag Archives: street food

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

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“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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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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For simplicity’s sake

There is a lot to be said for doing as little as possible. As an officially Lazy Person, I am all for doing the absolute minimum necessary to get by, or, if that is not possible, getting someone else to do it. That philosophy is, in essence, what lies behind my house motto (THIS IS ALL YOU GET). So the concept of doing very little is something close to my own heart.

Although Isaan-ers (Thais living in the northeastern part of the country) work very hard and are known for doing so, they do very little with their food — perhaps because they are busy working. A little water, a few bits of meat, a barrage of chilies and a handful of crumpled herbs and you’ve got dinner on the table after maybe half an hour. Very easy and very simple, yet the results of this hurried labor remain delicious. Exhibit 1: an Isaan-style “mushroom soup” whipped up with water, fish sauce, lime juice, a tangle of Thai basil, and very little chili, resulting in something sharp, salty, slightly squidgy and utterly addictive:

Isaan-style mushroom soup

Isaan-style mushroom soup

But the Isaan region is not the only part of Thailand known for its tart, spicy soups. The soup hang wua (oxtail soup) of the deep South is another gem — meaty of course, but also sour with lime and toughened by a mini-explosion of spice. It’s the perfect complement to the khao mok gai (Thai-Muslim chicken biryani)  that it almost always accompanies, sweetened as it is with raisins and deep-fried shallots. It also makes for a hearty, substantial breakfast or lunch, when a slice of toast or a smidgen of rice porridge just won’t do. A good place to get this combo is at Amat Rot Dee, about 100 meters from the entrance to Thong Lor Road on the left hand side (02-319-6576, open weekdays from 8.30 am-noon), where the biryani is reliably fluffy and the soup a fragrant melange of oxtail, onion, tomato, coriander and, of course, chilies.

Amat Rot Dee's oxtail soup

Amat Rot Dee’s oxtail soup and chicken biryani

Simple, yes, but devoid of flavor, no.

Speaking of simplicity, nothing is simpler than the humble potato. But the myriad ways different people prepare this thing can prove surprisingly fascinating. For those curious about just how many ways that could be, please check out my friend Poh Sun Goh’s new blog “The Traveling Spud” (http://www.thetravellingspud.blogspot.com), detailing potato dishes everywhere from Bangkok and Singapore to Norway and Spain.

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What’s Cooking: Moo Jum

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Finally, a decent approximation

Isaan food is a celebration of simple things, put forth very directly and forcefully. Your finger-licking renditions of gai yang (grilled chicken) and nuea nam thok (spicy beef salad) aren’t content to sit mutely on your tabletop, requesting your appreciation; slightly smoky and full of heat, they practically shout I AM DELICIOUS as you cram morsel after succulent morsel down your throat. Paired with a hank of sticky rice and the battalion of condiments that Thais cannot resist pairing with everything, they are unstoppable, a food army that cannot be resisted, taking up all the valuable real estate in your gut that you have reserved for something useful, like beer.

Moo Jum (located at the entrance of Suan Luang Soi 3 after 6pm) specifically traffics in these very dishes, the ones that make you sorry you stuffed yourself silly. Like most great Isaan cooks, they focus on straightforward simplicity. The namesake dish, an Isaan-style sukiyaki, is a spicy-tart broth in which unwitting vegetables, sawtooth coriander, Thai basil, pork and an egg are dunked, creating an aromatic melange good enough to eat even on sweltering hot nights. A simple spicy squid salad, rings of flesh barely blanched, dressed in sharp shards of Thai celery stalk and chili. And of course, their famed kor moo yang (grilled pork collar): sweeter than up north to be sure, charred at the edges from the grill, lacquered like a freshly-baked pie, as brown as the skin of a dedicated bodybuilder.

For all its supposed simplicity, I have struggled with this recipe. The basic recipe (as outlined in Chef McDang’s “The Principles of Thai Cookery”) uses a basic marinade of mashed garlic cloves, pounded coriander root, 1/4 cup of soy sauce, and 10 white peppercorns that is then slathered onto the meat. Very traditional, but nothing to set hearts aflutter. I tried to build on that recipe by going back to the marinade’s roots, substituting fish sauce for soy and adding some palm sugar. The result: ho-hum. I then tried to add molasses paired with fish sauce: NO DO NOT DO THIS EVER. It appears that where modern versions of kor moo yang are concerned, it is best to stick to soy sauce and build on that.

So last night, alongside an odd pairing of roasted cauliflower and soba noodles, I made some more pork collar for unsuspecting victims-slash-guests who had come over expecting dinner. The result was not awful! This is the best iteration of Moo Jum’s kor moo yang so far.

Kor Moo Yang (serves 4, just barely)

– 400 g pork collar (or shoulder)

– 4 garlic cloves

– 2-3 coriander roots, washed

– 1/2 tsp white peppercorns

– 1/4 cup soy sauce

– 1 Tb brown sugar

– 1 Tb sweet soy sauce

To make:

1. As in Chef McDang’s recipe, mash garlic, peppercorns and coriander root into a paste with mortar and pestle. Add soy sauce and sweet soy sauce and mash that all together to form marinade. Add brown sugar.

2. In a large mixing bowl, pour marinade over pork and allow to infuse meat, ideally overnight, or at least four hours.

3. When ready, grill meat until brown and charred a bit at the edges. If you, like me, don’t own a grill (why are American males so into grilling?), heat up a nice heavy pan (I use a cast-iron one) that has been oiled beforehand, and brown the pork until it’s a nice caramel-ish color. Then stick this into the oven that’s been set at 180 degrees Celsius for about 15 minutes, or until the edges gain the same charred edges and sticky-looking exterior that you would have gotten via grilling.

4. Slice and serve with a tamarind or sweet chili sauce, along with some sticky rice.

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