I’m off the the wilds of Mae Hong Song, Thailand’s northwest corner, and undoubtedly my favorite province in the country, to gather info and put together a sample chapter for a certain publishing company. If they like my work, I could be writing for them on a regular basis. Wish me luck, and see you in a week!
As previously mentioned, I’m on the road, currently in the hopelessly beautiful province of Mae Hong Son. Using a computer that somebody told me is known as a “PC”, along with software that another kind soul described as “Internet Explorer”, I decided to stop by RealThai, only to discover that all the contents of my right-hand bar have rudely been dumped to the bottom of the page! First of all, why didn’t anybody tell me this earlier? And what can be done to correct this? Muchly appreciated.
Oh, and by the way, can you tell I’m a Mac user?
This is going to be a long one. I just got back from a week in my favorite place in Thailand, Mae Hong Son. I’ve been there several times, and have even blogged about it previously, but this was the first time I’d been during the rainy season, and I couldn’t believe how green it was:
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mae Hong Son, it is found in the far northwestern corner of Thailand along the border with Burma. It’s Thailand’s most moutainous and remote province, and is home to a group of people known as Shan or thai yai. The Shan belong to the Tai ethnolinguistic group (the word Shan might possibly be a Burmese mispronunciation of the word Siam), and their language is similar, although not mutally comprehensible, to Thai. Their homeland is over the border in Burma, and they have their own distinct food and culture, and Mae Hong Son is really the only place in Thailand where you’ll find a lot of them.
I started out in Chiang Mai, where, before leaving, I stopped by my favorite temple there, Wat Paa Pao. This temple is associated with the Shan, and if you visit in the the morning or during a festival you can try their food:
From there I made my way over some very windy roads to Pai, sometimes referred to as the Khao San Road of the North. The whole backpacker scene there is a bit of a joke, but luckily the hippies haven’t yet ruined the town with all their free sex and dreadlocks. When I’m in Pai I tend to avoid the vegetarian tofu laap and drum circles and head straight for:
1. The evening market:
Where there’s raw ingredients:
traditionally dressed people:
and even fighting bugs:
2. Laap Khom Huay Pu (0 5369 9126). This is a restaurant just outside of town that serves the most amazing laap khua
and a katip of sticky rice, and pehaps a glass of the locally-produced passion fruit juice, this is a meal I could probably eat every day for the rest of my life.
Moving on, I spent the next night in neighboring Pang Ma Phaa district, where by the side of the road you’ll find hilltribe people selling vegetables and fruits they’ve grown:
And that night I ate, you guessed it, another dish of laap khua:
this specimen at a place called Laap Khom Phaa Toob. Of course inferior to that of Huay Pu, but only slightly so.
After two days I reached my destination, the provincial capital, Mae Hong Son. I love this city’s morning market, where in one corner, you’ll find a row of Shan women selling traditional breakfast dishes:
Many of these dishes revolve around soybeans, of which the Shan are very fond, but there’s also the previously mentioned noodle dish:
At the market you’ll also find deep-fried bamboo worms:
some marginally more normal deep-fried stuff:
and bunches of flowers meant to be given at temples:
This is Mae Hong Son as seen from the hilltop temple of Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu:
Somewhere down there is a shop, Panoon Khaw Soi (0 5361 2384; 9 Th Phadungmuaytor), that serves a pretty mean bowl of khao soi:
And in Baan Phaa Bong, about 10km south of Mae Hong Son, you’ll find this friendly lady selling sweets:
The thing she’s cutting into is called thamin suay, thamin being the Burmese word for rice. It’s a Shan “cake” of sticky rice sweetened with sugar and coconut milk, and was delicious.
Arriving back in Chiang Mai, I had some time to take photos of the 100+ year-old murals at Wat Phra Singh:
Which proves I’m not the only one obsessed with recording images food and eating!
For anybody visiting Mae Hong Son, in addition to the places mentioned above, I recommend the following restaurants:
Baan Phleng (look for yellow shop with sign reading ‘Local Northern Thaifood’; 0 5361 2522; 108 Th Khunlumpraphat) Located just south of ‘downtown’ Mae Hong Son, this popular restaurant is the best place to try northern Thai and Shan food. Come at lunch, when as many as 30 different dishes are on display; simply point to what looks interesting or refer to the English-language menu.
Mae Sri Bua (‘Local Shan Food’; 0 5361 2471; 51 Th Singhanatbamrung) Like the Shan grandma you never had, Auntie Bua prepares more than a dozen different Shan curries, soups and dips on a daily basis. I recommend the kaeng hang ley, a curry of pork belly with a flavor not unlike American-style barbecue sauce (but much better!).
Lang means “behind” in Thai, and Head refers the the Head Office of Thai Airways International. Put these together and you have the colloquial name of a large market located behind Thai’s head office on Vibhavadi Road. The market is primarily known for its clothes, as well as some other frivolous, useless things, but here at RealThai we will focus only on the important issues, ie food.
The Thai Airways Head Office is filled with prepetually hungry people who, every day at lunch, are let free en masse and run screaming out of the building in search of sustenance. Many of Thai Airways employees are upper middle class, and can afford slightly better eats than the average office slave. As a result, the food court at lang head is a bit better than most, featuring an amazing diversity of food from all over the country, as well as several takes on noodles, the staple food of most Bangkokians.
We arrived on a recent day at about 11:00 AM:
It was still pretty quiet when we got there, and I recommend going at this time, as at lunch it’s pretty mad and you’re liable to get a chili in your eye or worse during the feeding frenzy.
Although there weren’t yet many customers, the cooks were very busy, scrambling to get their food ready for the lunch hour:
serving up khao mok kai, chicken biryani:
and frying up roti:
After some initial scouting, I decided to trust my lunch with these people:
They serve a variety of nam phrik, Chili-based dips, that are accompanied by a fresh and deep-fried veggies and a fillet of deep-fried mackerel. I chose nam phrik khai pu, a nam phrik with crab eggs:
Starting at 11 o’clock you have the mackerel fillet, at 1 o’clock deep-fried veggies including battered eggplant and cha om khai, sort of an omelette of egg and a pungent herb, at 3 o’clock the nam phrik, and 6 o’clock par-boiled veggies, including carrot, cabbage, long bean and a kind of gourd. An excellent lunch for 40 baht (just over $1) my only gripe being that they were a bit skimpy on the nam phrik pu.
As lunch approached people started filing in, ordering noodles:
curry over rice:
and some other meaty food:
Thai Airways International Head Office is located on 89 Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road, and as mentioned previously, the market and food center is located on a small street directly behind the building. Just look for all the hungry Thai employees.
This the the second dim sum shop to spring up in my neighborhood as of late. And by spring up I mean that quite literally; one day this was an empty building and virtually the next it was a fully decorated, functioning restaurant. Shit happens fast in BKK.
After the surprisingly good grub at Chokdee Dim Sum I had somewhat high expectations for this new place. Unfortunatley it was not meant to be. For starters, rather than being able to choose your raw dim sum from a glass cabinet (thus giving you the opportunity to choose what looks fresh), at Shanghai you’re given a short menu with photos of the choices:
which inevitably never look so nice in real life.
We began with the standard Thai dim sum starter, a hot bowl of bak kut te:
Spicy with black pepper and chock fulla pork ribs, dried mushrooms and tofu skin, it was not bad, but wholly unremarkable. This was followed by salapao, steamed filled buns:
again, astonishingly mediocre, and somehow they managed to simultaneously over and undercook them. Marginally better was stuffed squid:
My personal fave of the day were the poh pia thod, deep-fried spring rolls:
which were actually surprisingly tasty, but not enough to rescue an achingly average meal.
So it looks like I’ll be driving the extra five minutes to get my dim sum fix at Chokdee. Shanghai Dim Sum is located at the far end of Soi Sena (near the Kaset-Navamin Highway), and looks like this:
And just in case there are any unemployed dim sum jockeys out there, the sign in front of the shop says they’re hiring and salary starts at 6,000 baht (about $200) a month. It doesn’t, however, mention anything about health care benefits or profit-sharing programs.
Today’s lunch was taken at, and I quote, Butterfly The Studio cafe. A bizarre name in many ways, as there was no discernable studio, and the place is more a restaurant than a cafe.
We ordered tom kha kai, a dish that’s pretty much tom yam with coconut milk:
Despite not looking like the picture in the menu, this was really quite good, even more so because we almost never order this dish (I don’t care for chicken, she doesn’t care for coconut milk). It was pleasingly sour, with a healthy dose of everybody’s favorite aromatic root, galangale (the khaa in the name), and with none of the cloying thickness of too much coconut milk.
The star of the meal was plaa muek phat khai khem, squid fried with salted preserved egg:
Sounds disturbing, I know, but was actually quite nice. The eggs, as the name suggests, are salted, so very little additional salt or fish sauce was needed. And the person who made it flash-fried the squid for just the right amount of time, leaving it tender and cooked, but only just so.
Conversely, the weakest dish of the day was khanaa phat nam man hoy, kai lan in oyster sauce:
On second thought, it wasn’t bad, but just lacked personality, which ironic, as it’s probably the easiest of the three to prepare!
Butterfly The Studio cafe looks like this:
and is located in a open-air shopping center called Plaza Lagoon (no lagoon here either, nor a plaza) in the Wang Hin area off of Soi Sena, northern Bangkok.
Tha Siam is a popular chain restaurant that serves kwaytiao ruea, “boat noodles”. This is a noodle dish that originated in central Thailand and which can be identified by its hearty brown/red broth, the result of copious spices and blood.
The importance of this last ingredient is made very clear on the menu:
where just below the evil pig logo it reads something like, “true Thai blood”.
Ironically, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten noodles here; I’m not a big fan of blood broth and actually the other menu items are all quite good. In particular, they have a short but great menu of isaan or NE Thai dishes. I ordered som tam laao, Lao-style papaya salad:
They do this dish just the way it should be done; with wide, irregular hand-cut chunks of crunchy unripe papaya, salted field crabs, plaa raa (unfiltered, unpasteurized fish sauce) and ma kok (a sour fruit). It’s extremely sour and satisfyingly salty, with none of the sweetness you’ll find in Thai-style papaya salad.
Everything was jolly until I received my khao phat naem, fried rice with naem, a kind of fermented pork sausage:
This was among the worst dishes I’ve ever been served in a Thai restaurant. It looked like it had been sloppily slapped together by the dishwasher and featured a barely-chopped clove of garlic, pinky-sized chunks of naem and an astonishing amount of oil. In his/her haste to prepare the crappiest fried rice dish ever, the dishwater also forgot the obligatory sliced lime and dish of sliced chilies in fish sauce.
I guess that’s what I get for ordering fried rice in a noodle restaurant.
We ate at Central Lad Phrao, but there are branches at Fashion Island and Siam Square, among others.
As the Thai food guy, am I really expected to comment on the current political situation? Well obviously I have some views on what’s happening in Thailand, but perhaps you would be better served by getting your information from a highly opinionated Thai foodblogger, the Thai newsblog of the moment, or failing all else, you could always turn to the BBC as a last resort.
As for the state of things here in Bangok, which I feel qualified to comment on, it’s really just rather…quiet. I was downtown this morning, hoping to get some interesting pics, but there was not much to see. Most of the last night’s tanks have been moved elsewhere and other than some machine gun weilding soldiers here and there, it really just felt like a random Sunday morning in Bangkok. This is in strong contrast with last night, which was characterized by extreme uncertainty, creepy TV messages and communication blackouts. Where all this will lead, nobody knows, but the general feeling one gets here is that nobody is sorry to see Thaksin go, and if these clowns follow through with their promise to relenquish power in a year, then it might actually be a change for the better, albeit by highly unsavory means.
Despite all this, we’ve still got to eat, and today I actually discoved a great restaurant near my house. The place is called Baan Chan, and specializes in the cuisine of the province of Chanthaburi, east of Bangkok near the Cambodian border. Today’s lunch was excelllent, and they have a very interesting menu, so I’ll definately be going back for a more detailed report. As a sneak preview, here’s what I had there today, kaeng paa nuea, “jungle curry” with beef:
Normally kaeng paa is more souplike, but apparently in Chanthaburi it takes the form of a stirfry and was absolutely delcious–spicy with the famous Cambodian pepper, hearty green chilies and chunks of soft gourd-like vegetable. Behind the jungle curry is s stirfry of pumpkin with pork and the same green chili (known as phrik yuak), good, but not as interesting as the kaeng paa. I can’t wait to try the beef curry with nutmeg and the crab fried with Chanthaburi’s famous rice noodles.
Known as sator in Thai, stink bean is the unfortunate English-language name of this podlike vegetable:
The “beans” are actually the large seeds found in the pod, and must be extracted and peeled beforehand. In Thailand, stink bean is mostly associated with southern Thai cooking, where it is eaten raw with dips, used in stir fries and even pickled. The name, although unnecessarily derogatory, is not all that innaccurate, as stink bean is probably one of the most pungent foods around.
Despite all this, I like it (as do many, many people in southern Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia), and find the flavor similar to an intense, but less biting, garlic. If you can get your hands on it, one of the easiest ways to prepare stink bean is this simple stir fry with some shrimp paste and seafood. I use squid in the recipe below, although you can replace this with shrimp or even pork if you like.
Squid Fried with Stink Bean
(Serves 2 as part of a southern Thai meal)
Cooking oil 3 Tbsp
Garlic 3 cloves
Shrimp paste 1 Tbsp
Onion 1/4, sliced thinly
‘Banana chili’ 2, sliced thinly
Water 1/4 cup
Halved stink beans 50 g
Fish sauce 1 Tbsp, or to taste
Using a mortar and pestle or a food processor grind garlic and shrimp paste together into a rough paste. Set aside.
Wash and slice squid into 1″ wide rings. Set aside.
In a wok over medium-high heat, heat cooking oil and add shrimp paste mixture. Stirring constantly, fry until fragrant, about two minutes. Add onions and and chili, fry briefly, and add most of the water. Allow mixture to simmer and reduce, stirring constantly, until it reaches a gravy-like consistency. Increase heat to high and add stink beans and squid, stirring constantly. Add fish sauce to taste and saute until squid is cooked, about two minutes.
Serve hot with rice and try to avoid talking to other people for at least three hours.
Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of Thai-Muslim cuisine. I like the dried spices, something that’s rarely found in “Buddhist” Thai cooking, I love khao mok, Thai-style biryani, and most importantly, I also live a mere couple kilos from one of the best Muslim restaurants in town. But I also like to make ahaan mussalim at home, and today I made sup haang wua, Muslim-style oxtail soup, for the first time.
The recipe below is taken from an excellent Thai-language cookbook called ahaan mussalim (“Muslim Food“, published by Sang Dad press), although I’ve altered it considerably (the original recipe called for 2 kg of oxtails!). One thing to keep in mind is that when making any kind of Thai food, don’t follow the seasoning directions to the last word. Season to reach a taste that you find favorable, or the primary flavor that the particular dish should have. For instance, this dish should be sour, followed by salty. This basic recipe could also be followed, with some obvious alterations, to make an excellent chicken soup as well.
Oxtail Soup Sup Haang Wua
Oxtails 1 kg
Butter 3 Tbsp
Cinnamon 2 small pieces
Onion, chopped 3 Tbsp
Garlic, chopped 2 Tbsp
Ginger, sliced 5 slices
Freshly roasted and ground
coriander seeds 3/4 Tbsp
Freshly roasted and ground
cumin 1/2 Tbsp
Turmeric powder 1/4 tsp
Water 2 l
Crispy fried shallots 100 ml
Salt 3 Tbsp
Coriander root 3
Onion 1/2 large, sliced
Tomato 2, seeded and sliced
Lime juice 100 ml
Small chilies 20, bruised
Coriander 1 bunch, chopped
Place oxtails in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, remove from heat and drain water. Set oxtails aside.
In another large saucepan, heat butter over medium-low heat and add cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, chopped onion, garlic and ginger. Saute over medium-low heat until onion is translucent, and add ground coriander, ground cumin, turmeric powder. Saute until ingredients are yellow and fragrant, about two minutes. Add oxtails, water and half of the crispy fried shallots and increase heat. When mixture has reached a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and add and coriander roots and salt. Allow to simmer until oxtails are soft and falling off the bone, at least 2 hours.
Add onion and tomato and half of the lime juice and chilies. Allow mixture to simmer an additional 10 minutes. Taste and add additional salt, lime juice or chilies if necessary. Remove from heat.
Garnish with coriander and remaining crispy fried shallots and serve with rice.