Intro to Southern Thai Food

January 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

southern thai food

Kathy is almost weepy with bliss.

Phuket Town on Thong Lor could almost be a hidden treasure in the East Village of NYC: it’s tiny, with no more than ten tables; it’s a bright and kitschly-decorated place, with a giant mural of Phuket’s old city, and lots of old Chinese bric a brac on the walls. It’s almost always packed and you have to wait a few minutes for a table to free up, and in the meantime, you constantly study other people’s tables, wondering what they ordered that looks so good.

It might be kind of masochistic of me, but I love restaurants where you have to make a reservation, or where there is a requisite 20-40 minute wait, especially when they’re un-fancy places with long lines of connoisseurs, or at least people who will not tolerate a ho-hum meal and will travel, plan in advance and/or wait to eat a memorable one.

On Tuesday, I had a fantastic reunion at this fantastic southern Thai restaurant.  I’ll confess from the get-go that fermented shrimp paste (kapi) is a taste I have yet to acquire, much to my shame and chagrin.  And much of southern Thai food involves this ingredient in vast amounts.  On this night, though, we were able to successfully avoid shrimp paste without sacrificing variety and deliciousness.

pak mieng khai

Pad pak mieng sai khai

Pak mieng is a slightly bitter regional leafy green from southern Asia, and as far as I know, it doesn’t have a common English name. It’s not, however, to be confused with mieng kham, a leaf roll-up kind of Thai dish.  Our pad pak mieng was stir fried with eggs that mellowed out the bitterness, and topped with dried shrimp and crispy fried-dried onions. « Read the rest of this entry »

Kway Teow Tom Yam

December 17, 2010 § 1 Comment

kway teow tom yam

Half-eaten bowl, taken with my phone

Soi Convent, near the offices of BK Magazine, is choked with street stalls on both sides, many with full table-and-stool setups for office workers to sit down to lunch at. It makes for difficult walking, especially when you’re in a hurry and especially when crowds are waiting around the popular stalls, eyeing tables about to vacate (but take their own sweet time).

But when you’re on the other side, one of the impatient and the hungry privately clamoring for your bowl of something good at a disastrously popular stall—well, it’s equally frustrating. This was the plight of my co-workers and I couple of days ago. We had decided to finally brave the crazy-busy noodle stall we’d always been fighting to move past in weeks past, secretly eyeing their extra-large bowls of noodles, one and a half times the size of the usual ones. Also impressive has been the giant pile of lime rinds collecting beside their makeshift operation. Nothing like fresh lime in your tom yam broth. This time, we waited under the canopy of mismatched parasols, which created a sort of greenhouse effect on an already hot and humid day, shirts sticking to our backs.

But oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!  Once we got a bite of this kway teow tom yam, there was no looking back. For those unfamiliar with this dish, kway teow tom yam is not just noodles in tom yam soup. The broth here is a lot lighter (though some places give you a creamier option), but has similar elements: a lot of sweet, a lot of lime-sour, a lot of spice and a bit of savory. (If you like a bit of creamy, ask for a boiled egg and, seriously, stir the yolk into your broth.  It’s umami up the whazoo.)

Of course, you have your choice of noodles. I went for the bamee (Chinese wheat and egg based) because I like that extra bit of body and egginess. This place, called Kway Teow Khae, also offers a wide range of meat balls: look chin moo (pork), look chin tauhoo (fishy tofu), look chin koong (shrimp with herbs, pre-fried with deep-brown crust—mmm!).  The balance of sweet, freshly-sour (as opposed to vinegary sour) and the earthy meatiness of the balls is a lovely combination. I love that when I’m done eating, there’s still the (now extra-seasoned) soup to get through.

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Homemade Granola

December 13, 2010 § 1 Comment

It was hard to find a mixing bowl large enough.

For over a month now, almost every morning, I’ve been tirelessly pouring myself breakfast out of a gallon-sized Ziploc bag.  I’ve grown to love the tinkling sound of the crispy-toasted oats falling into the bowl, along with seeds, crushed nuts and the occasional raisin, the latter a sweet, chewy treasure that I ration out, one in each bite.  Then, towards the end of the bowl, when there is still plenty of granola left, but only a last, lone raisin, I play a game in delaying gratification, where I eat the excess granola first, and then compose the last, shining bite with the right ratio of granola to raisin.

And while I only had a gallon-sized bag, I actually made two gallons with the help of S., who is the proud owner of the other bag.  We went crazy one weekend, spent nearly a week’s worth of a paycheck on vast quantities of good ingredients and nearly two hours in front of the little oven at my parents’ house, toasting the honey-sticky concoction just right, taking it out every few minutes to turn it before sticking it back in.

The recipe came from my friend Robert S. of Vermont, joyful cook and crackerjack Scrabble player, whose granola used to arrive in the mail for two of the years I lived in New York.  Many a winter morning were spent sitting on a Brooklyn kitchen floor, eating the filling and fulfilling granola out of shabby-chic ceramic mugs with broken handles.  When I moved back to Bangkok, it was the other thing, in addition to good bagels, that I missed the most and took upon myself to recreate.  My hope is that when Robert retires, he’ll incorporate himself—too bad The Green Mountain Gringo is already taken—and supply his unparalleled, healthy granola to food cooperatives around the world, and supermarkets whose shelves sag with boxes of miserable industrial cereals full of sugar and corn syrup and nary a fresh ingredient to be found. « Read the rest of this entry »

A Few Things about Wine

September 8, 2010 § 2 Comments

Mika at PB Valley vineyard

I.

I recently wrote a story about the rise of wine drinking in Bangkok for BK Magazine, during which I asked the business manager of Siam Winery why they bothered to have such a resort-like vineyard with holiday packages and stuff.  He said, “Because the impact of a wine is not just what’s in the bottle. It’s also where you are, who you are with, what occasion you’re celebrating.”

II.

I’ve drank countless bottles of wine since I started drinking at age 18, many of those bottles being those 2-litre Yellowtail monsters and those from Trader Joe’s lovingly called two-buck Chuck.  But these are the ones I will never forget:

- One night in July 2005, G. and I drank a bottle of a cheap Pinot Grigio on my rooftop in Boston.  It was the first time I’d heard the name.  The night also involved Nina Simone, a makeshift waltz, Thai papaya salad and becoming a woman, as they say.

- In the summer of 2007, in New York, on a Tuesday, I went to the Clinton Street Baking Company with C.  We’d just become friends again after a long hiatus.  The restaurant had a cheap wine promotion, and we got a bottle of Rioja Crianza and drew all over the butcher paper tablecloth. On our way home, standing on the corner outside Katz Deli, it started to rain.

- This past June, I split a bottle of Great Western Pinot Noir 2006 with S., on the bizarre porch swing that sits on the concrete 30th floor rooftop of my apartment building in Bangkok.  I had just turned 26, and we didn’t know each other very well yet.

And earlier this year, I had what I think was the experience that caused me to actually take notice of wine.  I’m told all wine enthusiasts have one, the gateway.  For me it was a work thing, a press dinner to sample the Valentine’s Day set menu at Bo.lan. I sat across the super cute winemaker from Siam Winery and beside a jolly old Belgian man, and every delicious course was paired with a wine from Siam Winery. I had been very sad, recently returned from New York, but by the time we got to the Monsoon Valley Muscat 2008, I was ecstatic.  I didn’t know a wine could taste like lychee.

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Two Things I Eat for Lunch

September 5, 2010 § 3 Comments

Khao mok kai

In the weekends since my last post, I have taken a wine class, gone on a vineyard and winery tour to beautiful Khao Yai, visited a friend in a remote province of Thailand that had never been on my radar before, commenced a slightly hokey “creative recovery” course by Julia Cameron that makes me cringe and blows my mind at the same time, been to a rum tasting and checked out several nice restaurants in Bangkok.  So now my big challenge is to gradually turn these experiences into posts after a ridiculously long and unwarranted hiatus.

I’ll start with something small rather than something big.  I’ll avoid making this a This is What I Ate Today kind of blog, but if you’re reading this, chances are that you either don’t live in Bangkok/Thailand and this is going to sound pretty exotic, or you live in Bangkok and should go get these dishes right away.

I work in Silom, the business district of Bangkok, where lunchtime is an insane affair, as thousands of employees from all the high rises set off to find good, affordable food located nearby.  So naturally, Silom is bursting with all kinds of eateries, from fancy French restaurants to shopping mall food courts to sidewalk-choking street stalls.

One of the places I go to with my two editors, Greg and and Nick, is a street operation on Soi Convent, a few steps up from the Starbucks, that sells nothing but khao mok kai, or Muslim-style chicken and rice (pictured above).  A plate of this comes with rice, yellow with turmeric and other spices, and a leg of chicken, tender as hell, with the skin still on, all topped with crispy fried onions and a sweet chilli sauce on the side.  It costs 30 baht, which is just under a dollar.  Also on the side, you can get a bowl of broth, made with chicken bones and lots of green chillies.  When we’re done with our khao mook kai, we turn our attention to the soup, slurping away, and, in my case, nose running from the spice.

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Egg Noodles and WTF

June 27, 2010 § 6 Comments

Jay Pui at Klong Toey Market

I’m sort of nervous about having returned from France, where regular writing on this blog actually took off, and now trying to blog about food experiences at home.  For one, I don’t have free reign in my kitchen in Bangkok.  And though I am constantly out and about having food adventures on pretty much every weeknight and weekend, are they going to interest you as much as French food adventures?

Then again, I am, of all things, a food writer in this city, and it is, of all places, BANGKOK.  Sights like these happen ten times a minute.  The above is a famed khao kaeng (rice and curry) stall in Klong Toey market.  Most khao kaeng stalls have ten or twelve offerings tops, but this one is staggering.  A plate of rice and a ladle of one or two curries on top are B35 (just over $1), and if you come after 5pm, when they’re looking to start closing up, the same will cost you B10, and I can’t even do the math for the dollar amount.

Streetside whole fish.

I don’t know the name of this fish, but a lady grills them up in large batches on the side of the street where my apartment building is.  They are salt-crusted and stuffed with what looks like pandanus or betel leaves and probably some other herbs.  I’m also very impressed by the low-key grilling apparati used by street stall cooks.  It’s very DIY and very smokey, making the meat very charred and smokey, something you probably can never get in a home kitchen smokeless grill.  I must investigate this dish further on my next traipse around the neighborhood.  In fact, I’m in the process of devising a systematic plan to master all the culinary offerings of Bangkok streets.  More on that soon.

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Paris (and what I ate there)

June 20, 2010 § 3 Comments

The Louvre.

I’ve been back from France for over two weeks now, and have been swept up in an on-again-off-again cold, my birthday (!!!) celebrations and back-to-work malaise (then bliss, then malaise), hence the long gap between my last post and this one.  Since I’ve been back, already a million food and drink adventures have happened, but before I get into any of that, I should say something about my week in Paris at the beginning of June.

Not to over-romanticize or anything.  It did rain the whole time we, my pal Amitha and I, were there, and tourist high season was just beginning, and it was impossible to know ahead of time if we were headed for a disappointing meal or an earth-shattering one. But all in all, Paris was wonderful, breathtaking at times, and I ate some amazing things and met some amazing people.

Doner kebab with frites.

On our first night in Paris, in a rush to make the most of the extended Friday night hours at the Louvre, we got a quick (and very filling) dinner on the street.  Not the most traditionally Parisien meal in the world (although that’s not really true anymore), the sandwich doner kebab is ubiquitous — essentially shawarma, hot and very thinly sliced into a tall heap, stuffed into a pita (or a baguette) with the most consistently well-made fries ever, crispy on the outside, soft in the middle, not at all greasy.  I ate a lot of these, and didn’t feel guilty in the least. The one above was eaten sitting cross-legged at the Pont des Arts, across from the Louvre, watching babes go by, wishing I had a beer to wash it down with.

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