Tag Archives: street food

What’s Cooking: Jay Fai Take 2

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Jay Fai’s spicy lemongrass soup

(Note: spoilers for “Game of Thrones” viewers and A Storm of Swords readers, published in 2000)

(Note take 2: I already tried making this soup. What gives? Unhappy with the first version, I tried it again. I am happy to report that, like “A Song of Ice and Fire”, this soup gets better!)

There are rules to things. Although I’m all for culinary experimentation, and switching things up for almost everything, some rules are set in stone(heart), and the breaking of them renders you cursed in the eyes of gods and men. One such rule: the guest right. Once you have partaken of your host’s bread and salt, you are supposed to rest assured that your host won’t start taking his brand-new set of Wusthof knives to your internal organs.

Yes, the “Red Wedding” was tragic, the King in the North was killed through black treachery instead of on the battlefield, Robb is dreamy, yada yada yada. But what angered me most was the hosts’ callous violation of the guest right, this most important of all rules governing Westeros, more so than even kinslaying or having sex with your sister. THASS JUST PLAIN RUDE. What’s next? Forgetting to wipe your blade before moving on to your next hapless wedding guest-slash-victim? Allowing stray blood spatters to sully the mashed neeps and jellied calves’ brains? Starting the slaughter before anyone’s had even a bite of wedding cake? WHAT IS UP WITH THAT. One lesson learned: never, ever go to Argus Filch’s house for dinner.

Immutable rule no. 2: tom yum, the spicy lemongrass soup served at almost every Thai restaurant you know, is an infusion. That’s what makes it the most Thai of soups, unlike dishes like gaeng jued (clear broth soup), which is adopted from the Chinese and hence based on a broth. The base of tom yum is water. You add all your aromatics and seasonings to it after it comes to a boil.  

That’s probably part of the reason why it’s so easy to mess around with, and why modern-day cooks have started to play fast and loose with this poor soup, adding everything from nam prik pow (roasted chili paste) to milk and even sweetened condensed milk (I AM SHOCKED). The fact is, as great an invention as tom yum goong is, the contemporary tongue wants MORE. They want the drama, they want the spectacle, they want the gore. They want to be surprised. 

So it’s no wonder, then, that even “old-style” eateries like Chote Chitr are dressing their tom yums up to better fit in with the times. Here, Chote Chitr includes fat tiger prawns, yes, and a healthy dash of milk:

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Chote Chitr’s tom yum goong

The result is sweeter and fattier than the bracing, astringent herbal brew you (I) might have expected. It’s not really tom yum. It’s something else. How to make a proper rendition of this dish, but make sure it has enough flavor?

Well, you could take a cue from Jay Fai’s (1,500 baht) version, which caters to modern tastes while staying true to the spirit of the soup. In Jay Fai’s case, the difference is most certainly roasted chili paste. Although it is not strictly traditional, it adds the heat and flavor to an infusion without murking up all the flavors. Another thing: scraping the shrimp heads into the water, and allowing the heads to “infuse” alongside the kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass and galangal. This one hopes that — unlike breaking the guest right — these relatively newfangled additions will not curse you in the eyes of god and men.

Jay Fai’s tom yum goong (serves 4)

– 5 cups water

– 6 jumbo prawns with heads, deveined

– 6 large slices galangal

– 5-7 kaffir lime leaves (it’s a lot, but if you are cooking in the spirit of Jay Fai, you will want this soup to “go up to 11” — her personal motto.)

– 4 lemongrass bulbs (purple part), bruised

– 1 shallot, sliced

– 4-8 red chilies, bruised (this depends on your heat tolerance)

– 1 heaping tsp roasted chili paste

– 1 cup mushrooms (I used oyster, but straw or button mushrooms also fine)

– 1 cup young coconut shoots (if you can’t find these, you might want to use something else that is tender yet crunchy, like peeled white asparagus)

– 5 Tbs fish sauce

– juice of 2 limes

To make:

1. Bring water to a boil. Stir in roasted chili paste.

2. Add galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and chilies. Allow to infuse for about 5 minutes, then bring to a simmer.

3. Add shrimp heads, first scraping their contents into the soup. Wait 5 minutes, then season with fish sauce. Add mushrooms and coconut shoots.

4. Wait half an hour, or until shoots are tender. Skim gunk off of surface and discard shrimp heads.

5. Turn off heat, then add cleaned shrimp, and stir to turn the shrimp “pink”.  Season with lime juice. Taste and adjust seasoning accordingly.

6. Serve immediately, paired with rice and a Thai-style omelet, or in individual small bowls.

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My improved tom yum

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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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What’s Cooking: Jay Gai

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Two kinds of Isaan-style grated salads at Jay Gai

It is almost impossible to live anywhere in Bangkok that is not within walking distance of a som tum (grated fruit or vegetable salad) vendor. While street food lovers frequently rhapsodize over the best bowl of noodles or grilled hunk of meat, it’s som tum that most often finds itself at Thai tables.

And what som tum it is. Although the grated green papaya is the variety that is most popular in (and out of) Thailand, vendors display a wide range of fruits and vegetables with which to make this salad, from cucumbers and long green beans to tart gooseberries and green bananas. The truth is, anything with any sort of crunch is a good base for a grated spicy salad. It’s the dressing that usually stays constant.

 

Som tum Thai — the type most commonly eaten in Bangkok and abroad — is the kind we are exploring here, with a dressing made of lime juice, fish sauce, and a healthy dose of sugar (be it palm or granulated). A light dusting of roasted peanuts and dried shrimp and you’re done. But if you are the adventurous sort who does not shy away from fishiness (really, the essence of Thai food), there is som tum Lao, tinged with that extra oomph afforded by pla rah, or fermented Thai anchovies, or even som tum nuea (the northern Thai variety), flavored with a bit of nam poo doo (the juice of pulverized and fermented field crabs). I am not a fan of som tum Thai, which I find to be too sweet throughout much of the capital nowadays, but I do have plenty of time for the Isaan version, made with either crunchy fruits or vegetables, or mua (confused), which includes kanom jeen (fermented rice noodles).

The som tum Lao and som tum mua shown above hail from Jay Gai, also known as “som tum yib bat” (som tum where you must pick a number), such is the popularity of this stand on Naresuan Road in Udon Thani. Their som tum Lao is rich in anchovy flavor, with a nearly rancid tinge; the som tum mua includes green papaya, bamboo shoot, cherry tomatoes, long beans and snails alongside the kanom jeen. Both are what you expect Isaan-style som tums to be: thick, heady, uncompromising.

That’s not what we’re doing here. Chris and I are starting with the basics, by trying to emulate Jay Gai’s “Thai-style” som tum. With Western cooks in mind, we are using shredded carrot and daikon radish in place of green papaya. The only thing we may be copying from Jay Gai is its propensity (and everyone else’s propensity) for MSG (pong chu rot).

Som tum Thai, inspired by Jay Gai (makes 4 servings)

In the bowl of a mortar with a pestle, pound 3 cloves of garlic with 1-3 Thai chilies (vendors call each chili a “met” and ask customers how many “met” they want in their som tum. Answers usually range from none (“mai sai prik“) to five (“ha“). Mash into a paste.

Add 3 Tablespoons fish sauce, the juice of 2-3 limes, and a Tablespoon of palm sugar or granulated sugar.  Taste to correct seasoning. This is your last chance to fix the dressing before all the other ingredients are added to the mortar. 

Add a cup of granted carrot, half a cup of grated daikon radish, 3 inches of long beans cut into 5 cm pieces, and 3-5 cherry tomatoes. Mash gently with your pestle to ensure the strands get bruised (nothing is worse than too-crunchy pieces) while scraping the bowl with a large spoon with your other hand. 

It’s your decision to add Ajinomoto (to taste) or not, but every Thai I have spoken to insists that it is an essential ingredient, so there it is. We used a light sprinkling on our finished salad before garnishing with crushed roasted peanuts and dried shrimp (both to taste). A platter of fresh veggies — sliced green beans, a wedge of cabbage and some cucumber spears — accompanies the salad. If you want to be really traditional, serve alongside sticky rice and grilled chicken or pork shoulder or, if you want to be like Jay Gai, a bowl of boiled snails.

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Rediscovering the familiar

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Suki and seafood gravy noodles, courtesy of Krua Porn Lamai

I find it amusing when I hear someone say they don’t want to end up like the old married couple in the restaurant, eating their dinner in silence. I find this amusing because, in my opinion, THAT IS THE BESTEST THING EVER. Why do I have to talk all the time? The well-worn song-and-dance, the incessant thrum of pleaselikemepleaselikeme — all of this singing for our suppers … it’s just not my normal state. My normal state is that of a big old grump who thinks occasionally eating a restaurant dinner in silence IS THE BESTEST THING EVER. That’s because sometimes, I don’t want to talk. And sometimes I don’t want to listen. Sometimes these two desires meet up over the dinner table in front of my spouse. Whenever this happens, I call it RELAXING.

Of course, this doesn’t take into account the feelings of my long-suffering spouse. Maybe he wants to bare his soul over his salad caprese and dish over the little details of his day as we work our way through our oxtail stew. Something tells me I probably wouldn’t be married to this person, but once in a while my husband does want to talk, and it’s not the old refrain “When are you going to take care of the kids/clean the house/take a shower” that I usually hear coming out of his mouth.

So, in the interests of compromise, and against all my better instincts (I AM SO MUCH FUN), we talk, we discuss, we communicate. And in doing this, we find out more about each other, even as we soldier on through our 157th year of marriage. As many eons and eons (and eons) that we have been together, we discover that much more every day.

As many times as I’ve been down the main drag of Yaowaraj Road and explored its many offshoots (YES I AM EQUATING MY MARRIAGE TO A PART OF TOWN), I still find new vendors to get excited about — not every day, but often enough to make an hour-long Skytrain-then-subway-then-tuk tuk trek to Chinatown from my house worthwhile (I CANNOT WAIT for the subway extension into Chinatown to be finished. My life will BE CHANGED FOR THE BETTER. THEN I CAN STOP WRITING IN ALL CAPS).  

Enter Krua Porn Lamai (081-823-0397). Despite the suspicious likeness of its name to a made-up massage parlor in a future installment of “The Hangover Part 34”, this outdoor vendor specializes in kata ron, or “hot pan” — fried noodle dishes given the special oomph afforded by the sizzle and smoke of a heated plate. Part of a “cooperative” of vendors that share tables and help service each other’s customers (something I’m seeing more and more of nowadays), Porn Lamai is set right at the entrance to Soi Plang Nam, just as you turn right from Yaowaraj Road. All those tables with hot plates on them? That queue of excited-looking customers staring at other people’s food? That’s them.

The reason for all the excitement — despite the wait elicited by having to wash all those hot plates for new customers — is obvious. Take, for example, the guaythiew lard na talay (seafood gravy noodles), charred to a crisp on the bottom, just like the bottom layer of rice in a good paella. It arrives at the table still seething, emitting a slight hiss, but when the server upends a pitcher of gravy over the liquid, a giant plume of smoke and sound erupts:

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Krua Porn Lamai’s lard na noodles

This is food that fights back (seriously, watch you don’t burn the roof of your mouth off). This is food that you will remember (as you’re doing your laundry). This is food that will not go gently into that good night. Enjoy.

 

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What’s cooking: Aim Och

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“Egg in a pan” at Aim Och in Khon Kaen

There is nothing easier to make in all of Thai street food than kai kata, or “egg in a pan”. Still stinging from our inability to decode Jay Fai’s Byzantine fusion of herbs and spices masquerading as tom yum goong, Chris and I decided to give ourselves a break and do something that is, quite literally, fool-proof.

Kai kata is the Thai version of the Vietnamese version of the American breakfast, said to have been inspired by homesick American GIs during the Vietnam War. In an attempt to replicate the American breakfast standby “ham and eggs”, Vietnamese cooks cracked eggs into “personal-sized” pans, garnished them with Chinese sausages and Vietnamese steamed pork pate (moo yaw) in place of sausages and ham, and cooked them quickly on a stovetop until the whites set. Garnished with a splash of red chili sauce like Sriracha and fish sauce and accompanied by a toasted, buttered bun stuffed with more “sausage and ham”, this no-fuss breakfast combo is quick, easy — and unbelievably satisfying. Best of all, you can let your imagination run riot: anything, anything at all, will work with these eggs. Have a sweet tooth and want to drizzle some maple syrup on it, maybe with a garnish of crispy

bacon? A handful of peas? Maybe some pancetta and sliced fresh chilies? Or maybe a

splash of minced chicken and diced carrots, just like at King Ocha in Udon Thani:

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Kai kata and buttered bun at King Ocha in Udon Thani

There are no rules for this fusion-y adaptation of a Western favorite. Ironically, if you are in the West, you may need to make some substitutions for some hard-to-find ingredients, so you may have to re-substitute those substitutions. Hence our choice to use buttered ceramic ramekins instead of tiny pans, because we aren’t sure how many of those are available back West. If you don’t have an oven, you can make a bain-marie by putting your ramekins in a pan, filling with water up to the middle of the ramekin, and cooking your eggs on the stovetop. However you decide to make it, we have tried to cleave as closely to the “authentic” (circa 2013) basic Isaan-style kai kata as possible.

Kai kata a la Aim Och (makes 2 servings)

What you’ll need:

– 2 ramekins, well-buttered

– 2-4 eggs, depending on size of ramekins

– 1 link Chinese sausage (gunchieng), sliced

– 6 slices moo yaw (Vietnamese steamed pork pate) — baloney works in a pinch

– Two mini-baguettes or soft rolls (for real Thai street food flavor, they should be as sweet as possible)

– Butter (for toasting buns)

– Fish sauce with sliced chilies, Maggi, or Golden Mountain sauce (to taste)

– Sriracha sauce (to taste)

– Salt and pepper (to taste)

To make:

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit/180 degrees Celsius.

2. Place buns, slightly open and their insides buttered, into a casserole and toast in the oven until warm, edges are light brown and butter is melted. 

3. In a pan, warm slices of Chinese sausage and/or moo yaw until hot to the touch.

4. Crack 1-2 eggs into each buttered ramekin, depending on size. Cook in oven for 5-10 minutes (depending on how well your oven works), until whites are set when you jiggle them and start to pull away slightly from the sides of the ramekin. If you like your eggs more well done (I love runny yolks), wait at least 10 minutes.

5. Take eggs out of oven and garnish with sausages and “ham”. If you have cooked minced meat and/or vegetables, scatter those onto your eggs as well. Season with salt and pepper.

6. Fill toasted buns with slices of “ham” and “sausages”. Serve alongside eggs, and make sure to pass the fish sauce/Maggi and sweet chili sauce. Easy AND delicious.

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Our versions

 

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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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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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