My first view of Kamphaeng Phet was from a bus bound for Sukhothai. I was considering getting off to explore the small northern provincial capital, but when I finally saw the town—seemingly not much more than a highway bordered with a few utilitarian shops—I changed my mind and decided to continue to my original destination.
It was only later that I learned that Kamphaeng Phet’s bus station is located a few kilometers outside the town, and offers no suggestion of the city. Returning to Kamphaeng Phet recently for a closer look, I discovered that the city is both atmospheric and interesting, home to impressive Buddhist ruins, an attractive riverfront setting, and some excellent Thai food.
Kamphaeng Phet literally means “diamond wall”, a reference to the unbreakable strength of this formerly walled city’s protective barrier. This level of security was necessary, as the city previously helped to protect the Sukhothai and later Ayuthaya kingdoms against attacks from Burma or Lanna. Parts of the wall can still be seen today, and the former moat, which was used for irrigation as much as protection, is currently being rebuilt.
The Kamphaeng Phet of today has expanded far outside its former walls, but is still located on the banks of the Ping River. The riverfront area is a focus of the city, and is home to a vibrant night market and a recently remodeled promenade. Taking a walk one evening I saw joggers, couples cuddling under palm trees, and in what initially appeared to be some sort of trompe l’oeil, a group of teenagers playing soccer on a submerged island in the middle of the river.
I was fortunate to have my own vehicle, and a bit of exploring revealed that Kamphaeng Phet is pleasanter than most provincial capitals. Although Bangkok-style concrete architecture dominates, a surprisingly large amount of old wooden houses can be seen, of which Kamphaeng Phet even has its own architectural style, defined by a slightly peaked roof topped with terracotta tiles. The greatest concentration of wooden buildings can be found along the northern end of Tesa Road. Another architectural highlight of the city is the hor trai or manuscript depository of Wat Khuu Yang. Built during the 19th century, this graceful wooden building in the Rattanakosin style is located above a fish pond.
However the main attraction of the city, and indeed the province, are the impressive but relatively little-visited ruins. Begun in the 14th century, roughly the same time as the better-known kingdom of Sukhothai, Kamphaeng Phet’s Buddhist monuments continued to be built until the Ayuthaya period, nearly 200 years later. As a result, the ruins possess elements of both Sukhothai and Ayuthaya styles, resulting in a school of Buddhist art unlike anywhere else in Thailand.
The ruins of Kamphaeng Phet are found in two separate areas. Those located inside the city walls were inhabited by monks of the gamavasi (“living in the community”) sect, and are dominated by the remains of Wat Phra Kaew. This former Buddhist temple showcases some impressive Buddha statues and a stupa decorated by some modern but less attractive restoration work. The combination of Ayuthaya and Sukhothai styles is particularly evident here, with bell-shaped chedis reminiscent of Sukhothai and a reclining Buddha similar to that found in Ayuthaya.
Near these ruins is the Kamphaeng Phet National Museum, a small but decent collection of antiques mostly associated with the ruins. The highlight here is an ancient bronze sculpture of Shiva that was unearthed where the city pillar now stands.
The majority of Kamphaeng Phet’s ruins are found a few kilometers outside of the city walls in area previously home to monks of the arani (“living in forests”) sect. There are at least 40 temple compounds in this area, including Wat Chang Rop, named for its base that boasts 68 elephants, and remarkably, a few patches of relatively intact stucco relief work. Another standout is Wat Phra Si Iriyabot, which has a four-faced altar that once held a reclining, a sitting, a standing and a walking Buddha. Today the towering standing Buddha is the only one remaining, although elements of the graceful Sukhothai influenced walking Buddha can also be discerned.
Wat Phra Non, another temple in the area, is known for possessing the largest single laterite pillar in the world. Laterite, a clay-like material that is abundant in Kamphaeng Phet, hardens when exposed to light and air, and served as the primary building material for the majority of Kamphaeng Phet’s religious structures.
The historical park also boasts an excellent brand-new visitors’ center, which also doubles as Kamphaeng Phet’s tourist information office. The center, possibly the best of its kind in the entire country, offers films, interactive computer presentations and displays, all offering clear English. Like many of the attractions in Kamphaeng Phet, the ruins are best accessed by those who have their own transportation, although there are bicycles for rent at the visitors’ center.
After all this exploring I was hungry, and although Kamphaeng Phet is not known as a food destination, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. The city’s most famous contribution to Thai food is kluay khai, small sweet-tasting bananas. However much more interesting is Kamphaeng Phet’s famous egg noodles. At Bamee Chakangrao on Ratchadamnoen Road I ordered a bowl of bamee haeng, which contained at least six different preparations and cuts of pork (barbecued, par-boiled, stewed, skin, liver and deep-fried pork crackling), as well as sides of a slightly sweet broth and a bowl of par-boiled green beans and bean sprouts. The noodles used are reminiscent of smooth higher quality Chinese-style noodles, rather than the pasty yellow noodles found across much of the country.
If noodles aren’t your thing, Kamphaeng Phet is also home to an impressive night market. Located on Tesa Road near the banks of the Ping River, this covered area is open from about 5 PM to late, and features an enormous selection of food sold to go, as well as several basic restaurants. I sat down to an excellent phat phet muu paa, spicy boar stir-fry served on a heaping mound of rice and reflected on my luck. What at first appeared nothing more than a gritty bus stop turned out to be a worthwhile diversion, perhaps even a destination.
Tonight’s dinner was at a khao tom restaurant called Lerdthip. Khao tom literally means “boiled rice”, but can also refer to a restaurant that has Thai and Chinese-Thai style food made to order and eaten with watery rice served in bowls.
I began with kaeng paa look chin plaa kraay, “jungle” curry with fishballs made from a type of freshwater fish:
Although it looks pretty, I’ve et better. This one was a bit too bland and sight too salty.
I also ordered yam hoy naang rom, a “salad” of raw oysters:
I always order this dish, forgetting that I don’t really like this dish. Actually it’s not bad, but I don’t really care for yam that employ that sweetish, red sauce. I would much rather have the simple mixture of lime juice, chilies, fish sauce and sugar, as illustrated in painstaking detail here.
Khuat ordered pet phalo, duck stewed in Chinese-style spices:
For me this dish is like the Thai equivalent of steak; a big hunk of meat. Not bad, but boring.
She also ordered phat phak boong fai daeng, flash-fried morning glory:
God, I love this stuff. It’s everything I like in food: spicy, crunchy, garlicky, salty, and it’s veggies. I eat it so often I think it should constitute a whole other food group for me.
And finally in an moment of feeding frenzy that was later regretted, we also ordered ahaan thale luak, a variety of seafood par-boiled and served with two dipping sauces:
Not bad, but there are places that do this much better.
A rolling tour of the tastes of Khao Yai.
Despite being home to just two wine-producing vineyards, the area known as the Khao Yai Valley has gained a reputation as Thailand’s wine country. Although essentially accurate, the label is somewhat pre-emptive as it implies a degree of development and refinement that simply hasn’t been reached yet. As of now, much of the food and wine-based tourism is still in its early stages, but the basics are there, and being less than two hours from Bangkok, has the potential to be a unique weekend getaway.
With this in mind, I head north one morning with the aim of spending a weekend discovering and tasting what Thailand’s fledgling wine country has to offer. After a mere hour and a half, I stopped by Dairy Home (044 361 841), a small dairy/restaurant just off the main highway. Dairy Home is located in Muak Lek district, the site of yet another European-style food import: dairy farming. It was in this same area that Thailand’s dairy industry was started nearly 40 years ago, and not surprisingly, the restaurant offers fresh organic milk products, as well as a decent a breakfast set with homemade bread, sausage and butter and good coffee.
After breakfast I continue along the hilly roads that cut across the Khao Yai Valley to GranMonte Vineyards, a family-owned estate and one of the two wine producing vineyards in the region. Located in a secluded corner that owners have christened Asoke Valley, the vineyard has been growing grapes for nearly eight years. At Montino, the vineyard’s “cellar”, my companion and I sample four red wines, all of the shiraz/syrah varietal, the dominant grape of the Khao Yai valley. GranMonte’s 2002 “Celebration” vintage was for me the most balanced of the lot, featuring both full body and a strong but pleasant aroma.
Impressed by the gorgeous setting, we decided to have lunch at VinCotto, the vineyard’s attractive restaurant. VinCotto’s menu was designed by one of the estate’s owners, and features a relatively short menu of dishes meant to be taken with GranMonte’s wines. I begin with the soft shell crab salad, a plate of iceberg lettuce topped with an immense soft shell crab and oddly enough, several onion rings. Unfortunately even the winery’s decent but overpriced 2003 chenin blanc wasn’t enough to help this dish. Somewhat better was my main course, spiced shoulder of lamb sautéed with garlic and served over fettuccini. My companion made a better choice and enjoyed her spicy squid-ink spaghetti.
In general the weekend revealed that most attempts at Western-style food in the Khao Yai valley are forgettable, and the prices less so. A much better choice is, not surprisingly, Thai food, and one of the most popular restaurants in the area is Narknava (02 253 2455) a decidedly basic restaurant serving Thai-Muslim dishes. The restaurant is known for its 100-baht chicken biryani, which judging by the number of customers, is worth the price. We enjoyed a dish of spiced rice coupled with a fried fish and a bowl of piquant chicken soup, both spicy and delicious. Being a Muslim restaurant there’s not a drop of wine—or any other alcohol—to be seen.
From there we wound our way to PB Valley, the area’s largest vineyard, and our base for the weekend. PB Valley, whose grapes are used to produce wines under the Khao Yai and Pirom labels, is also home to a resort consisting of a few mock-Tudor “villas” perched on a hillside overlooking the vineyard as well as much of the valley. The rooms were basic but comfortable, and part of the fun lied in their almost remote location deep in the vineyard, and the scenic drive it took to reach them.
For dinner we visited the resort’s restaurant, The Hornbill Grill. Although the menu features a few German-style dishes, we decided to go Thai, and ordered a few of the recommended dishes. As most of Khao Yai’s wines are relatively high in alcohol and body, this is not a problem, as the wines are made to tolerate the heat of Thai cooking. We ordered deep-fried tapean fish in spicy Thai sauce, a dish that more closely resembled the Isaan dish laab than a fried fish. We also enjoyed the fried boar with baby pepper and the spicy enoki mushroom salad with shrimp. These dishes were helped along by a bottle of Pirom tempranillo 2004, a red wine from grapes of Spanish origin that is probably the region’s finest bottle.
Waking up early the next morning, we left the car behind and explored the vineyard on foot. Strolling among the seemingly endless rows of grapes, it took the occasional banana tree or tropical bird to remind me I was still in Thailand. The vineyard, like much of the surrounding area, takes the form of a rolling valley edged by forested mountains and gray limestone cliffs, a setting made even more beautiful by the rugged symmetry of rows of grape vines.
After breakfast I met with Prayut Piangbunta, a youthful native of Chiang Mai who is the Khao Yai Winery’s resident winemaker. Piangbunta also happens to be the country’s only Thai winemaker, and has agreed to show us his winery. We are taken from room to room while Piangbunta describes the wine making process and the functioning of the equipment. At one point we stop to taste the 2006 vintage, still being held in towering stainless steel tanks. Piangbunta gives me a glass of 100% colombard, which despite its cloudy appearance, is deliciously crisp and fruity, causing me look forward to its release in 2008. “I let the wine reflect the vintage,” explains Piangbunta of his winemaking philosophy. “I don’t add sugar or acid, I let the yeast make the wine.
Although at present, going behind the scenes at Khao Yai Winery is only possible by appointment, Piangbunta is working on plans to offer tours on a regular basis in the near future. For now, visitors will have to make due with the wine tastings that are given every weekend and the occasional tour.
With the end of our weekend drawing near, we reluctantly leave PB and stop for a light lunch at the Fabb Fashion Café. The restaurant is one of a growing number of Bangkok-based establishments opening branches in the area. I order an Italian sausage salad with balsamic vinegar, an odd combination that was oddly satisfying. Our waiter told us that the prices at Khao Yai are significantly cheaper than those of the restaurant’s Bangkok counterpart, which already seemed expensive given the rural setting.
Another import is the popular Bangkok-based chain, Cabbages and Condoms. Run under the auspices of the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), the leafy open-air restaurant features local ingredients such as mushrooms from a nearby mushroom farm and fresh herbs from the resort’s pesticide-free garden.
After a final drive through the hills, it was time to head back to Bangkok. Although the Khao Yai Valley wine district may not yet live up to its label, it is by all means a fun getaway and a beautiful destination, and possibly an early glimpse at what may in the future be a bona fide wine district.
Fiery Foods, August 2006
A lesson on Thailand’s nam phrik kapi.
The first Thai dish I ever learned to make is probably the simplest Thai dish of all: Using a mortar and pestle, grind up a few small chilies with a couple cloves of garlic, squeeze in the juice of a lime, add sugar and a heaping spoonful of the pungent shrimp paste known as kapi, and mash this mess together until a thick gray muck results. The result: nam phrik kapi, one of the most common dishes in central Thailand.
Nam phrik, literally “chili water”, is the name of a family of spicy dips or relishes from Thailand. Normally eaten with rice and fresh or parboiled vegetables, nam phrik are well known to all Thais, but rarely seem to make it out of the country, and can even be hard to find in Thai restaurants in Thailand. They are generally homemade, often prepared using a well-worn granite mortar and pestle, and the recipes are as numerous as the chefs who grind them.
Nam phrik are probably among Thailand’s oldest recipes, and along with a curry or soup and a fried dish, are one of the essential elements of a “complete” Thai meal. The dish has even penetrated into the vernacular; a Thai friend recently told me he was “kin nam phrik jaak thuay derm”, literally, always eating nam phrik from the same bowl, an oblique way of saying that he was bored in his relationship.
Stripped down to its most basic elements, a nam phrik will usually encompass all of the four Thai tastes: salty, sweet, spicy and sour, although the various ingredients added to produce these flavors vary greatly. In general though, chilies, especially the tiny but pungent phrik khii nuu (“mouse shit chilies”) are used to add the heat, fresh-squeezed lime juice to add the sour flavor, and sugar, especially a kind of raw palm sugar called nam taan piib, to add the sweet taste. Some nam phrik are even flavored with maengdaa, a type of insect that secretes a fruit-like essence that is not as entirely unpleasant as it sounds. There are also “dry” nam phrik, which usually incorporate shallots, garlic, dried chilies and dried shrimp, all fried in oil until crispy, then ground together, and possessing such evocative names as nam phrik narok (“Hell Chili Paste”).
Nam phrik are probably the most regionally variable of Thailand’s foods, and one can usually tell what area of Thailand one is in simply by looking at the nam phrik on the dinner table. Northern Thais, fond of their vegetables, take the slender dark green chilies known as phrik num, roast them along with garlic and shallots, and mash the results together in the dish known as nam phrik num. This nam phrik is traditionally served with parboiled vegetables and deep-fried pork crackling, another northern Thai specialty. In far southern Thailand, the aforementioned nam phrik kapi is an obligatory side dish in most restaurants, and because the southern version tends to be much spicier than in Bangkok it is usually served with “cooling” vegetables such as cucumber. And finally, in the northeastern region of Thailand, nam phrik is often made with plaa raa, a mud-like, unfiltered, unpasteurized fish paste with a smell and taste even more pungent than that of kapi. The most basic nam phrik of all is nam plaa phrik: a small saucer of fish sauce mixed with thinly sliced chilies, and sometimes sliced garlic and lime juice, a rough equivalent to the salt shaker in western countries.
Despite the variety, the single unifying element of nam phrik is in the manner in which they are eaten, and although some extravagant versions exist, the majority are eaten with a simple assortment of raw or parboiled vegetables. This typically ranges from cucumbers to long green beans or eggplants, but can also include different regional fresh herbs or roots, such as white turmeric or sawtooth coriander. In parts of Thailand where steamed rice is eaten, one or two vegetables are placed on a small amount of rice, the nam phrik spooned over this, and the entire package is consumed using a spoon. In other regions where people tend to eat sticky rice, such as the north and northeast of Thailand, the vegetables as well as the rice are individually dipped into the nam phrik by hand, and followed by a bit of sticky rice, also eaten using the hands.
Nam Plaa Phrik
This is the most basic form of the family of spicy relishes known as nam phrik in Thailand. Nam plaa phrik is spooned over one’s rice to spice up bland food, much the way salt is used in the west.
3 tablespoons Thai fish sauce (nam plaa)
3+ phrik khii nuu (very small Thai chilies), sliced in rings as thinly as possible
1 clove garlic, sliced
Put the fish sauce in a shallow dish, add chilies, garlic, and squeeze lime juice to taste.
Nam Phrik Kapi with Fresh and Fried Vegetables
Nam Phrik Kapi is probably the most well known nam phrik in Thailand. As the name suggests, it is made with kapi, a salted and fermented paste of fine shrimp known as khoei, and is always served with fresh and/or parboiled vegetables, as well as egg-battered deep-fried vegetables, as described below. The amount of ingredients listed below for the nam phrik are largely for reference; a Thai chef would virtually never use measuring instruments to cook, and a dish is usually made to taste, keeping in mind a desired balance of the four tastes: sour, spicy, salty and sweet.
3+ phrik khii nuu (very small Thai chillies)
1 tablespoon garlic
1 tablespoon sugar
1 squeezed lime (about 1 tablespoon of juice)
1/4 cup Kapi (Thai shrimp paste)
1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons makheua phuang (pea-sized Thai eggplant)
1 Chinese or Japanese eggplant, sliced into 1 cm thick rounds and put in a bowl of water mixed with 1 tablespoon of vinegar to prevent browning
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 bunch of cha om (a pungent vegetable sometimes available frozen in Thai grocery stores)
An assortment of fresh Thai vegetables, such as eggplant, cabbage, carrot, wing bean, long bean, all cut into long bite-size pieces
Using a mortar and pestle, grind the phrik khii nuu with the garlic until a rough paste is formed. Add the sugar and the lime juice and grind together. Add the shrimp paste and continue grinding until a paste forms. Add water. If the mixture is still too thick, add additional water, a teaspoonful at a time (nam phrik kapi should have the consistency of a slightly watery paste). Taste and add more chilies, lime or sugar, to taste. Add the makheua phuang, breaking slightly, but not grinding, with the pestle. Put nam phrik kapi in a serving bowl.
Beat eggs with a few drops of fish sauce or a pinch of salt, divide into two bowls and set aside. Drain eggplant and mix thoroughly with one of the bowls of egg. Heat cooking oil in a wok and taking two or three slices at a time, fry the eggplant in oil on both sides until crispy. Set on paper towels to drain. Remove the tender cha om leaves and blend with the eggs. Fry mixture in hot oil as a thick omelet or frittata, turning over to cook on both sides. Drain on a paper towel until cool then slice into bite-sized squares.
Arrange the fresh and fried vegetables on a plate and serve with rice and bowl of nam phrik kapi.
Nam Phrik Ong
Nam Phrik Ong is a dish that originates from the Tai Yai or Shan, a Thai ethnic group that lives in northern Thailand and Myanmar. Ong means to fry in the Tai Yai dialect, and the dish makes use of pork and tomatoes, both staples of Tai Yai cooking. Nam phrik ong is now eaten among all northern Thais, regardless of ethnicity.
7 large dried chilies, soaked in warm water until soft
3 peeled shallots
1 head of garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons chopped lemongrass (using only lower white part)
2 tablespoons of shrimp paste
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
2 large cloves of garlic, chopped
1/2 cup ground pork
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
Fresh, crispy vegetables such as cucumber, long beans, wing beans, cabbage, sliced or chopped into bite-size pieces
Using a mortar and pestle or food processor, blend curry paste ingredients together finely.
With the mortar and pestle, mash the tomatoes into the curry paste.
Heat oil in a wok over low heat. Add chopped garlic and fry until crispy. Add curry paste and tomato mixture and fry, constantly stirring, until the mixture begins to become fragrant, and oil begins to rise and accumulate, 5 to 10 minutes. Add pork and continue to stir until pork is fully cooked and the oil again begins to rise. If mixture seems dry at any point, add water, 1/4 cup at a time. Nam phrik ong should have the consistency and appearance of a thick, oily spaghetti sauce.
Serve in a bowl, sprinkled with cilantro, and serve with fresh vegetables, pork rinds, and sticky rice.
Nam Phrik Num
This is another northern style curry that has become popular among people all over Thailand. The main ingredient is phrik num, long slender green chilies that are almost exclusively used in this particular dish. Depending on the chilies used, the nam phrik can range from mild to mouth-searingly hot.
7 phrik num or other long green chili
10 cherry tomatoes
2 heads of garlic
1 teaspoon salt
8 bamboo skewers
Fresh vegetables, such as cucumber
Parboiled vegetables, such as cabbage, long beans, Thai eggplant, wing beans
Skewer the chilies, tomatoes, shallots and garlic and grill until charred. When done, put all grilled ingredients in a plastic bag for 10 minutes and peel off burnt outside layer.
Using a mortar and pestle, grind salt and grilled ingredients together until blended, but still chunky (phrik num should ideally be in long strands or strips).
Serve in a bowl, with fresh and parboiled vegetables, pork rinds, and sticky rice.
Exploring Saraburi, the country’s curry puff capital.
Travelers passing through the small town of Saraburi, about 100 km north of Bangkok, may have noticed the almost absurd abundance of a particular snack. Resembling a small round pocket of dough similar to an Indian samosa or a Mexican empanada, the dish is sold in countless shops in the town and is known in Thai as kalee pap. If this doesn’t ring a bell, it may help if I reveal that kalee pap is the Thai pronunciation of the English words “curry puff”, and is a snack with obscure origins that has become wholly associated with this otherwise unremarkable town.
Being one of the first major towns one reaches when driving north from Bangkok, the streets at the southern end of Saraburi are strategically lined with shops selling this deep-fried snack. On my way through the town one day I was astonished by the amount of curry puffs for sale, as well as the amount of people buying, and decided to stop by to learn about the origin of the snack and what it is that makes it so popular.
I stop in for a few curry puffs at Renu, one of the many shops selling the snack, and speak with the owner, Somjai Likhananusorn. “I’ve been making kalee pap for about six years,” explains Likhananusorn, who has been cooking all her life. Today she makes 13 varieties of curry puff, selling them every day from 5 AM to 9 PM. She estimates that she makes more than 1,000 a day. “Our best selling kalee pap are chicken and pork. After that it’s our fruit-flavored ones,” she explains.
I ask why curry puffs are so popular in Saraburi, and Likhananusorn says that the snack actually originates in nearby Muak Lek district of Nakhorn Ratchasima province. “Travelers liked the snack but complained that they had to go all the way to Muak Lek to buy it,” explains Likhananusorn. She describes how somebody got the idea of selling the snack in Saraburi, which is conveniently located along the main north-south highway. In typical Thai fashion, this person’s success inspired an almost overnight rush of people to start set up their own curry puff shops, and today kalee pap are now more associated with Saraburi than their original home just up the road.
Making curry puffs is a time-consuming process that I am able to witness first-hand at Likhananusorn’s tiny shop. She explains that the best method involves the cooperation of three people, the first of whom rolls out two discs of dough into a flat sheet about the size of a hand. By rolling two discs of dough on top of each other the snack obtains its characteristic layered look when deep-fried. Likhananusorn’s daughter then fills the dough with a heaping tablespoon of filling and folds the curry puff into its rough shape. Likhananusorn then finishes the process by deftly twisting its edges into something like a ropelike braid to seal it.
When a batch is ready, the curry puffs are then deep-fried for about 20 minutes in a specially designed deep fryer with two frying basins. Working as a team in this manner, Likhananusorn’s daughter estimates that they can make as many as 400 curry puffs in an hour.
I mention that that kalee pap are very similar to samosa, and that the majority of the vendors I saw selling the snack in Muak Lek were Muslim, which coupled with the name, seems to suggest that curry puffs are Indian or Muslim in origin. “I’ve been told that it’s a Muslim dish,” says Likhananusorn. “But their kalee pap are different, they use butter in the dough and they don’t eat pork.”
In any event, as the name suggests, Renu’s chicken kalee pap are seasoned with a liberal amount of curry powder. However, as a result of the intense competition in Saraburi, vendors have to be creative, and today kalee pap can be found with fillings diverse as pork and shitake musroom, and pineapple and raisin.
Upon leaving I am given a box of curry puffs to take home. Finding myself stuck in traffic on the way back to Bangkok, I can’t resist the urge to nibble on a few. Crunching through one, I realize that curry puffs really are the ideal road food. They’re small, savory, filling, and at five baht each, a terrific value. Now if they could only do something about the crumbs…
I was recently on Ko Samui. This was actually my first time there despite having lived in Thailand several years! I’m not much of a beach person and initially wasn’t very impressed by the island, but after renting a motorcycle and exploring for a few days, the place really grew on me. The native Ko Samui people are among the friendliest I’ve ever met in Thailand, and the islands local cuisine was simply amazing.
I was on the island to do a story on the local cuisine for ThaiDay. That report will follow in the next week or so, but I was so excited about the food that I wanted to give a bit of a preview. Surprisingly, local food is quite hard to come by on Ko Samui. There are countless restaurants selling Japanese, German, English, Australian and Italian food, but there are only about six or so restaurants where local Ko Samui dishes are available. The most famous of which is almost certainly Bangpo Seafood (077 420 010), a low-key restaurant in the Maenam area. This place makes use of the more interesting local ingredients on Samui such as waay, a small octopus that is used fresh, or when out of season, dried:
At Pangpo Seafood waay is made into a thick stir-fry with coconut milk and fresh herbs:
Another unusual ingredient used by the locals is the eggs of the sea urchin. The raw roe is mixed with sour mango, chili paste, chilies and lime to make a yam, or Thai-style salad:
Fish also plays a big role, and ranges from tiny little “anchovies” deep-fried and served as an appetizer:
to larger fish, such as the one below, which as been coated with a mixture of coconut milk, fresh turmeric, black pepper and salt before being grilled over coals:
Coconut is Samui’s largest crop and large stands of the tree can be found across the island:
The extracted milk from coconuts seems to find its way into nearly every local dish, as I learned when I met with Sermsi Thongrueang, a native of Samui and a woman with reputation as a good cook. She taught me how to make khao man thua khiaow, rice cooked with coconut milk, dried beans and salt:
And even grated a fresh coconut
to make khoei jii, a very unique appetizer of shrimp paste, shallots, garlic, coconut meat and chilies ground up, spread on a coconut shell and grilled:
Another good use of coconut was at Sabeinglae restaurant (077 233 083), near Malai. The restaurant serves a kaeng khua, a thick, rich coconut milk curry topped with fragrant cumin leaves:
The main ingredient in this curry was an acquatic creature called het loop:
Samui is also home to some fun markets:
The green pods above are known in English as “stink bean”, and are very very popular in southern Thai cooking.
Here’s the Muslim fishing village at Hua Thanon:
the source of much of the island’s seafood.
Off to Hanoi, Vietnam for a week. Will be sure to come back with lotsa food pics.
OK, this is going to be a big one. I just got back from six days in Hanoi, Vietnam and have a lot to share. I’ve been to Vietnam before, but never Hanoi, and found it to be one of the craziest and most intense, but also most photogenic places I’ve ever been. The food scene was definately interesting, but I think Graham at Noodlepie would probably agree with me if I said it wasn’t as diverse or delicious as Saigon’s. Nonetheless, it’s still Vietnam, which invariably means good eats.
Probably the most famous Vietnamese dish of all is in fact a Hanoi dish:
Yes, pho. This beef noodle soup is available almost everywhere, from shops:
to the streets:
It’s popular for breakfast, but I prefered this dish, which here in Thailand is known as khao kriap paak maw:
The dish is made by spreading rice flour and water mixture over a hot surface:
and the fresh “noodle” that results is then filled with pork and served with the dipping sauce and veggies seen above. Utterly delicious.
Other than pho, undoubtedly the most common dish in Hanoi is bun cha, grilled pork served with sides of rice noodles, fresh herbs and a sweet/sour dipping sauce. This dish can be found at virtually every corner in the city:
as well as at proper restaurants, this one in the Old Quarter:
A similar dish is made with chim, pigeon, this on Ta Hien street, which Graham refers to as “Pigeon Street”!
I love morning markets, and a unusual one could be found on Pho Hang Be in the Old Quarter. The weird thing about this market is that at exactly 7 AM, all of the vendors suddenly got up and ran away! Where they went and why I’m still not sure, but it made for some great photos:
Other things seen at this morning market were silkworm worms:
A more or less stationary market is the Dong Xuan market, north of the Old Quarter:
Or if you chose, the market simply comes to you:
If you’re thirsty after all this, then have a glass of freshly squeezed sugarcane juice:
Or a glass of beer at one of the many, many, many bia hoi (“draught beer”) joints:
Or if you’re hungry, have a dish of deep-fried eels:
or maybe some other seafood:
Southern city solves Thailand’s morning blues with its Chinese dim sum breakfast buffets.
Despite the diversity and ubiquity of its cuisine, breakfast in Thailand can often be a dreary sight. The old standby, rice soup, soon becomes tedious after the first couple starchy, stodgy bowls. The omnipresent “American breakfast” consisting typically of oily fried eggs, lighter-than-air white bread, curiously colored hot dogs and undercooked bacon is neither breakfast nor American. And the combination of instant coffee and the oily deep-fried dough known as pa thong ko are enough to send most foreigners running in the other direction. What’s a traveler to do? My suggestion: go to Trang.
Located in southern Thailand, the relatively little-visited city of Trang seems to thrive on breakfast alone. Populated mostly by Thais of Chinese origin, the residents of this city have made early morning eating a true delight with atmospheric cafés that haven’t changed in decades, great halls dedicated to dim sum, and old-fashioned coffee shop-slash-food courts combining both caffeine and food.
“There are at least 70 dim sum shops in Trang city,” estimates Ja, owner of Ruean Thai (075 219 342), one of the city’s best-known dim sum eateries. In his cavernous restaurant located slightly outside downtown Trang, early risers are blessed with a selection of more than 40 steamed dim sum items. “We make all our dim sum by hand,” he explains with evident pride. “Many other places just buy the frozen dim sum and steam it.”
Ruean Thai’s dim sum ranges from quail eggs wrapped in ground pork to plain tofu, and the protocol is much like other dim sum restaurants in the city. After choosing a seat, diners are presented with a large tray of deep-fried dim sum items. You choose what you want, then walk over to the steaming counter where you select your steamed dim sum, which are steamed to order in bamboo trays. Every order is accompanied by a bottomless pot of Chinese tea, and despite the dish’s Chinese origins, chopsticks are nowhere to be seen, the people of Trang favoring tiny forks.
Along with dim sum, many of Trang’s restaurants also feature another dish not normally associated with breakfast, roast pork. “Before people in Trang didn’t eat roast pork every day,” explains Prasert Namphut, owner of Trang Muu Yaang, a popular restaurant that sells the dish. “Before, it was only for special occasions, or given as an offering on Chinese holidays.”
Nowadays however muu yang, roast pork, is available every day, and in virtually every restaurant. The dish is prepared by marinating an entire pig for eight hours in a mixture of Chinese spices and sauces. “The recipe we use comes from China, it’s an old one that has been used here in Trang for a long time,” explains Prasert. After being marinated, the entire pig is roast for two hours in a giant oven. This relatively short cooking time gives Trang’s roast pork a crispy, nearly charred texture, much unlike the tender, juicy meat that most Americans would associate with barbecued pork.
Every part of the pig is sold, including the head and feet, but the most popular part is undoubtedly the delicious but fatty belly. This cut includes a crispy outer layer of skin, a tender layer of white meat, soft fat and a charred layer of dark meat. The belly is chopped into small bite-sized squares and is served plain along with dim sum, or over rice. Trang Muu Yaang’s roast pork was assertively oily, and the marinade had a sweetness associated with that of American-style barbeque sauce.
Other restaurants featuring similar selections of dim sum and roast pork are the popular Phong Ocha (075 219 918) and Ko Lan (075 222 925). The roast pork at Ko Lan was somewhat spicy, suggesting coriander and cumin, and had little of the barbeque sauce sweetness of its neighbor. However the skin was shatteringly crispy, and overall a bit too fatty to stomach for breakfast. Despite the grease, Trang’s roast pork is so popular that is has become a souvenir, and most shops sell the dish in decorative take-away boxes.
If all you need in the morning is a simple cup of coffee, then Trang is also well equipped with numerous old-world cafés. Known locally as raan kopi, the shops are almost exclusively owned by Thais of Chinese origin, and many seem suspended in time, sporting the same décor and selling the products they have for decades.
Perhaps the oldest surviving raan kopi, and undoubtedly the most atmospheric, is Yu Chiang, located on Praram 6 Road near the market. Although the owners aren’t exactly sure how old the shop is (one said 60, another 100 years old), it is obvious that the Yu Chiang has changed very little since the day it opened. Faded green paint from the restaurant’s last renovation (50 years ago?) is coupled with ancient marble-top tables and rickety wooden chairs. Adding to the atmosphere is the shop’s clientele of crusty old men of Chinese origin, aged monks, and laborers smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.
The coffee at Yu Chiang is still made the old way, using a sock-like filter filled with locally grown and roasted beans, and water from a charcoal-burning stove. The only thing that seems to have changed is the prices. “Coffee used to cost one baht a glass,” explains Yu Chiang’s friendly barista. “That seemed like a lot back then. Now it costs 10 baht, and that’s nothing today!”
For those seeking food with their atmosphere and coffee, there is no better choice than Asia Ocha. Located on Kantang Road, not far from the train station. Asia Ocha is a combination coffee shop and food center of the kind that is still found in Singapore and Malaysia, but hardly exists any more in Thailand. “The shop is no less than 50 years old,” explains Somlak Theekhasenee, the second-generation owner. “You can tell if a coffee shop is really old by looking at the tables. If they’re marble, then the shop is old,” he explains.
Asia Ocha’s tables are indeed both marble and old, however Somlak is proud of the shop’s original price list, a stained document stating that, at the time of its printing, coffee cost one baht per cup. He seems oblivious to the fact that his shop is in serious need of a paint job, something doesn’t which doesn’t seem the concern the numerous diners slurping noodles to the sound of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”.
Other unique coffee shop/restaurants include that of the Koh Teng Hotel (075 218 148), a building dating back to 1948 and located on Rama 6, and Sin Ocha (075 211 191), just steps from Trang’s railway station. The latter offers the usual combination of food and coffee, but without much of the old-world atmosphere. Sin Ocha was originally opened in 1967, but recently underwent a significant renovation and suggests little of its former self. This is made up for by the excellent coffee, which is probably the best in town. Served the traditional way, in short glasses with a dose of sweetened condensed milk, the coffee at Sin Ocha is made in a modern espresso machine, and even features a thin “crema” of foam at the top.
When asked why coffee shops are so popular in Trang, Sin Ocha’s second-generation owner, Sutus Chayankiat, explains that, “In the old days most people in Trang were involved in harvesting rubber. Going to a café after work was a way of exchanging news and info.” Although the people of today’s Trang are involved in a variety of jobs, the city’s raan kopi and dim sum restaurants still largely serve this purpose, and provide a convenient meeting place for locals, and more importantly for us, good coffee and a decent breakfast.
Good northern Thai food is very, very hard to find in Bangkok. By comparison, Isaan (NE Thai) is available on every corner, and southern Thai on every third corner, but one really has to search hard to find northern Thai eats here. Fortunately for me, a place opened not far from my house serving some pretty darn good ahaan meuang (“northern food”). Can’t remember the name, but it’s located in a quasi-yuppie shopping complex called, bewilderingly, Plaza Lagoon.
We started with northern hors d’oeuvres (that’s actually what it was called in Thai), a platter of several dishes associated with northern Thai cooking:
As seen from above:
in the center you have nam phrik num, a “dip” of roasted chilies, shallots and garlic, at 12 o’clock some par-boiled veggies that are meant to be eaten with the dip, at 3 o’clock we’ve got khor muu yaang, grilled pork collar, served here with a spicy dip (not really a northern dish per se, but done very well nonetheless), at 6 o’clock is one of the most famous northern dishes of all, the herb and pork grilled sausage known as sai ua, and finally at 9 o’clock, deep-fried pork rinds, another northern specialty, meant to be taken with the nam phrik num. The only loser in this lot was the nam phrik num, seemingly made a few days earlier and extremely limp and lifeless…
Next was kaeng phak waan plaa yaang, a soup/curry of phak waan (“sweet vegetable”, a leafy green that is significantly more green and leafy than it is sweet) and dried fish:
Very, very good. Actually one of the best Thai dishes I’ve had in a long time. Like many northern Thai dishes, this soup makes somewhat unusual use of noodles, and is laden with glass jelly noodles.
And finally, this slightly blurry pic (sorry) is of another famous northern Thai dish, kaeng hang leh:
This is essentially a Burmese dish (hang being the Thai pronunciation of hin, the Burmese word for curry) and employs hearty chunks of pork belly (including the skin and fat) in sweetish-sourish sauce that is eerily similar to US-style barbecue sauce. This is not the most flattering comparison, I know, but trust me, it tastes much better than it sounds (and looks). This dish is often made in great amounts for northern Thai festivals and religious ceremonies. This restaurant’s version was pretty good, but a bit thin and somewhat too sweet.
All in all a pretty good eat. Not as good of course as dinner in Mae Hong Son, but just about as good as it gets in Bangkok. I’ll be back.