At the closing party for the 9 Days… project I was fortunate enough to meet former National Geographic staff photographer and current Magnum Photos member David Alan Harvey for a brief moment. I was even more pleased when he revealed that he is also a fellow blogger. Check out his blog, At Home With David Alan Harvey, which currently features a few pics from his recent visit to Bangkok. If you’re not familiar with the man’s work, be sure to have a look at his online portolio at the Magnum website.
As mentioned previously, I recently worked as an assistant to Eric Valli, one of 55 photographers involved in the Thailand: 9 Days in the Kingdom book project. Back in 1990 Eric did a National Geographic article and film about the workers who gather swift nests in the caves of southern Thailand. The nests, pictured above, are made from the hardened saliva of the swifts, and are believed by the Chinese to have medicinal properties. The gathering of the nests, which are located deep inside island caves, is also very dangerous and they are thus extremely valuable. For the 9 Days project Eric wanted to go back to these caves to photograph a profession and world that very few outsiders have ever seen.
I’d love to post Eric’s pics here, but reckon the publishing company wouldn’t be too happy about that, so I’ll have to rely on the images that I took, which is too bad, as Eric’s images were simply amazing.
The man below is called Sahat and was the climber that Eric worked closely with nearly 20 years ago:
Sahat retired from gathering bird’s nests about 10 years ago, but is still very strong, and at 72, earns money by, among other things, climbing and cutting the tops off of coconut palms!
This time Eric worked closely with a young climber called Sun:
a super guy, and one of most talented natural athletes I’ve ever seen.
It’s hard to explain in words the work these guys do because even after seeing them do it myself, the reality is simply quite unbelievable. Basically the climbers rely on a complicated network of bamboo scaffolding to reach bird nests that are often found at the highest and most deepest corners of the caves. These towers of bamboo can sometimes be literally hundreds of feet high, and the climbers climb up them barefoot, jamming their toes in the knots like steps. In places where the use of bamboo is not practical, they rely on bunches of vines, and increasingly nowadays, rope, to pull themselves up. Although nowadays most of the climbers wear modern harnesses (introduced by Eric), the only time they use them is when they are stationary and lash themselves to something stable (typically bamboo) if they have to reach for a particularly far wall of nests. And the electric light that Sun is wearing in the pic above is also a relatively recent introduction; when Eric was here in the late ’80s the climbers still relied on fiber torches that they gripped in their teeth!
As if this doesn’t sound crazy enough, simply to reach the cave that we photographed involved an hour boat ride, a precarious climb up a sheer rock face, a long hike uphill and a 150 foot rappel, although the climbers simply chose to climb down the bamboo. Here is the cave seen from about halfway down:
Besides being dangerous, it was also very hard and dirty work, as this picture of Eric after a particularly difficult climb shows:
Here is Eric setting up a shot inside a relatively small cave on an island called Ko Li Pe:
As many of the caves are almost completely dark, we were limited to photographing in caves that had some natural light. This particular cave had quite a bit, and with the help of a flash, I was able to do these portraits:
Because of the value of the nests, each cave is protected by armed guards:
Although everybody assured us that there was little theft nowadays because “the thieves are all dead.”
Relaxing after a hard day’s climb:
and Eric and I on our way back to Ko Yao Noi, where we were based for the week:
In all it was a difficult and sometimes scary, but amazing experience. Because of the high stakes and security, Eric reckons we are probably among the only outsiders, Thai or foreign, to have climbed in these caves with these people, which is quite an honor. And in case you’re wondering how I feel about bird’s nest soup, frankly I find the stuff–basically a sweet, tasteless broth with strands of noodle-like bird spit–rather disgusting. But don’t tell the climbers I said that.
Food with friends always tastes better, especially if those friends happen to introduce you to really good restaurant you’ve never been to before. Such was the case when I was taken to the famous Soi Polo fried chicken joint by experienced diner and South China Morning Post editor Hal Lipper, and self-confessed “ace reporter” Ron Gluckman (check out his site for a plethora of wacky Asian reportage) and his wife Jolanda. These guys all live within a few minutes’ walk of Soi Polo and had eaten there several times. For me getting to this part of town is something of a minor expedition and it was my very first time.
This restaurant has been popular among locals for ages (40 years, according to the sign), but particularly caught the attention of Bangkok’s foreign community when it was featured in a New York Times article by RW Apple. On the day we visited the clientèle was overwhelmingly Thai (generally a good sign), and we began with som tam Thai:
The dish arrived within seconds, which made me fear that it might have been pre-made, but a taste proved the dish to be freshly pounded and really quite exceptional; sour and salty with hearty chunks of crisp papaya and unlike just about everywhere else, good-quality dried shrimp.
Everybody is familiar with laap, but I suggested ordering laap plaa duk, made from the meat of grilled catfish–something new to this group:
The catfish had a delicious smoky flavour that was accentuated, rather than overwhelmed, by the accompanying fish sauce, lime juice, powdered rice and chilies. And the dish wasn’t “mushy” as it often is at lesser restaurants.
Continuing on the fish theme, Hal ordered plaa chorn naam tok, a deep-fried snakehead fish served with a hearty Isaan-influenced dressing:
and Ron wanted us the try the restaurants thord man, fish cakes:
which were almost certainly the largest I’ve ever seen.
But everything else aside, this place is really all about the deep-fried chicken:
which was pretty amazing stuff, although, just to be picky, I found it a bit too meaty, myself preferring the scrawnier kai baan, free-range chicken. The chicken had been marinated in a dressing not unlike the famous deep-fried chicken from Hat Yai, and came with two good, but largely unnecessary dipping sauces. But I think everybody would agree with me that best bit was the copious crispy deep-fried garlic, which I’m sure I could eat by the handful, like popcorn.
Everything we ordered was great, and I was particularly impressed by the quality of the ingredients: big, flavourful mint leaves, tasty catfish, meaty shallots et al. This is a restaurant that really does seem to deserve all the praise shoveled upon it.
Kai Thort Jay Ki (Soi Polo)
137/1-2 Soi Polo (near Lumphini Park and the Suan Lum Night Bazaar)
02 655 8489
Not like this.
Eating Thai food with non-Thais always reminds me how different our eating habits are. Although you’re probably not going to offend anybody by holding your spoon the wrong way or taking to much yam wun sen, understanding how Thai people eat will undoubtedly smooth your way and maybe even provide a greater understanding of the food and people. And chicks love it. So here are a few tips on how to eat like the Thais do:
1. Order a balance of dishes. I know you all want to eat phat thai, but it’s actually a jaan diaow, a one-plate meal typically enjoyed by one person eating alone. When eating with others, try to order dishes that everybody can share (i.e. virtually everything except phat thai or any other noodle dish). Also, try to order a good balance of dishes. Ordering four coconut milk-based curries is a bad idea you’ll almost certainly regret later. I always try to order one fried vegetable dish, one sour soup and one uncooked dish, perhaps a yam (Thai-style salad), or a naam phrik (chili dip). Throw in a grilled or deep-fried fish and you’ve got yourself a phat meal. This is very easy to do in most restaurants, and allows you to truly sample the variety of Thai cooking.
2. Always eat your food with rice. Growing up, I recall my family ordering Chinese food and how the rice would always end up unopened, in its white container, until, several months later, it solidified and went sour and was eventually thrown away. Needless to say, I don’t do this any more. In fact, I can’t even imagine eating a spicy kaeng som or a phat fai daeng without rice. In Thailand, rice is the “base” of the meal, much like bread elsewhere. And since the flavours of Thai cooking are so strong, you’re going to want something to tone it down a bit anyway. There are many Thais who, in leaner times, have had little more to eat than a plate of rice and maybe a splash of fish sauce, but you’ll find very few, if any, who have ever scarfed down a bowl of kaeng phet sans riz.
3. Dishes are shared. This is one concept that foreigners seem to have a particularly difficult time with. If you dine with Thais, they’ll ask you to order one or two dishes that you fancy. However, when these dishes arrive, they are no longer “your” dishes to horde, rather they belong to everybody. On the same note, when serving yourself, you are expected to take one bite at a time, not one serving, from the central dish. Scraping a huge pile of food onto your rice can be seen as greedy here. And there are no “courses” per se in Thai food, so eat everything as it comes.
4. Use a fork and spoon. This is another big difference that has a couple dimensions. When dining informally, or with close friends, there often won’t be any serving spoons. Thais use the same spoon they’ve just shoved into their mouth to pick food from the central dish. This seemed very, very odd to me at first, but is just the way things are done here. And for those who are unsure about the mechanics of the fork and spoon, here’s how it’s done: with your right hand, use your spoon (or the communal spoon, if one is provided) to take the equivalent of one bite of food from the central dish. Put this directly on top of some of the rice on your plate. Holding the fork in your left hand, use it to push the now food-drenched mound of rice back onto your spoon. Shove the spoon in your gob. Repeat.
5. Tipping is not necessary or even expected in Thailand, but it sure is nice. The people who serve you your food in Thailand probably work 12 hours a day, six days a week, and earn very little. When paying, Thai diners typically leave their coin change, not so much as a tip, but more to avoid looking cheap. I try to leave 20 baht or so to look wealthy. Chicks love it.
I love Thai food, but after eating it day in day out sometimes I want something different, something a bit more exotic, something like… fish and chips. The Brits in the audience will no doubt laugh, but as a teenager growing up in Oregon, fish and chips seemed pretty exotic to me. Upon moving to Bangkok I was delighted to discover that fish and chips were quite readily available, and my usual (and now former) fish and chips haunt became a characterless room adjacent to a bar near Soi Cowboy, which, according Wikipedia is “perhaps Bangkok’s best known fish and chips shop”. This may be true, but in retrospect, a visit to this place is an exercise in mediocre food in desperate surroundings. (For an excruciatingly detailed, and sometimes impassioned discussion on the fish and chips scene in Bangkok, check out this forum.)
Thus I was overjoyed to discover Oh My Cod!, a relatively new fish and chips joint and a card-carrying member of the British Federation of Fish Fryers. Today I finally made the long trip down to Banglamphoo, and was fortunate indulge in one of my favourite foods with Newley Purnell,
fellow Oregonian, fish and chips aficionado, and the body and brains behind newley.com.
Apparently there are other food products for sale at Oh My Cod!, but Newley and I dove straight into the f & c. The restaurant offers a choice between red snapper or the more traditional cod, and being men of conscience we went for the not-yet-extinct snapper. As illustrated above, the dish takes the form of a mind-bogglingly puffy portion of fish accompanied by thick-cut chips (“French fries” for you American English speakers) and peas prepared either “garden” or “mushy” style. The fish batter was spot-on crispy and flaky, but the enclosed snapper was a tad soft and mushy.
The fish was followed by a right proper cuppa:
of PG Tips no less. And being “fully licensed to sell drinks” the menu at Oh My Cod! also includes some imported English beers and ciders, as well as the elusive Beer Lao. The restaurant also sports a pleasant outdoor dining area:
and what must be one of the most detailed websites in the history of fish and chip restaurant websites. The only bummer was our surly nose-ringed waitress, who refused to speak Thai with us, but who didn’t seem able to speak English either. Not sure exactly how she expected to communicate, as my sign language skills are pretty rusty. Regardless, I will doubtlessly be returning.
It’s Saturday, which means my neighbourhood’s talaat nat, or weekly market. It’s quite a big deal, and we even get shoppers from other nearby neighbourhoods. The market is a real family affair, and children are expected to help their parents:
and, in some cases, apparently also help with the shopping!
This guy was selling kai baan, free-range chickens:
and chicken boiled in a fish sauce-based broth was what made this stall so popular:
The variety of food at the market is pretty amazing. We have everything from northern Thai food:
to southern specialties:
and everything in between:
I reckon this dish–meat fried with a kind of basil leaf, garlic and chilies–is the closest equivalent to Thai “comfort” food. It’s quick, nourishing and delicious, and is available just about everywhere. You can make it with virtually any meat or seafood, although I’ve decided to use the ubiquitous (and delicious) squid.
A couple things to keep in mind when making phat kraphrao at home are that you’ll need bai kraphrao (holy basil, the dish’s namesake), not bai horaphaa, Thai basil. Bai horaphaa, although more familiar to most people, is almost only eaten raw, or as a garnish. Bai kraphrao, on the other hand, is always cooked, and it’s bitter-spicy flavour is a world apart from the sweet, anise-like taste of bai horaphaa.
Also, ideally you’ll want a hot, preferably gas or propane stove to make this dish. The idea with this dish is to cook it quickly and at a high heat to allow the ingredients to remain fresh and crispy. If you really know what you’re doing, you can also tilt the wok and “ignite” the dish while cooking in order to impart a delicious smoky flavour (shown below). If an electric stove is all you’ve got, then by all means go ahead, but the relatively low heat means that the dish will inevitably be slightly soggy and overcooked.
And as always, I’m not going to tell you how much seasoning you need to put into the dish. I recommend adding fish sauce a teaspoon (or small glug) at a time, tasting after each addition to make sure you’ve added enough. For reference, phat kraphrao should be slightly salty and spicy, so feel free to indulge. And if after cooking you’ve found it’s not spicy enough, you can always make a quick bowl of phrik naam plaa, sliced chilies and garlic in fish sauce, a typical accompaniment to this dish.
Here’s what you’ll need to make two dishes of phat kraphrao:
Squid (or other meat or seafood), 4 medium
Bai kraphrao, (holy basil), two large handfuls
Long bean, 4-5 beans
Garlic, about 4-5 large cloves
Chilies, to taste
Cooking oil, 2 Tbsp
Fish sauce, to taste
Oyster sauce, about 1 Tbsp
Sugar (optional), to taste
Rice (not optional), two plates
Fried egg (optional)
Prik naam plaa (optional)
Begin by cleaning and preparing your squid (if you’re not sure how this is done, go here). Slice into thick rings and set aside.
Wash bai kraphrao and remove the leaves:
Set aside. Wash long bean and cut into 1/2-inch pieces:
Set aside. In a mortar and pestle, grind up your garlic and chilies into a coarse mash (not a fine paste):
Prepare your mise en place: within reaching distance of your wok, place a bottle of fish sauce, a bowl of sugar and a bottle of water. Have all your ingredients close at hand, open and ready to throw in the wok. The entire cooking time of this dish should be no more than a minute, so you won’t have time to be hunting around for things once you’ve begun.
With the flame on med-high, heat 1 Tbsp of oil and add half of the mashed chilies and garlic. Saute about 10 seconds:
Increase heat to high and add half of the sliced long bean and a tablespoon or two of water. Fry until long bean is cooked but still crispy, about 20 seconds:
Add half of the squid, followed by a splash of fish sauce, oyster sauce and sugar (if using). Stirring constantly at very high heat, fry until squid is just done, about 10 seconds:
Add a tablespoon or two of water if mixture is beginning to dry out, and toss in a haldful basil (don’t worry if this looks like too much; the basil shrinks considerably when cooked). Stir thoroughly to combine, taste and add more fish sauce or sugar if necessary. Fry until basil is just wilted but not limp, about 15 additional seconds.
Serve phat kraphrao steaming hot over hot rice with a fried egg on top, if desired. Repeat with remaining ingredients.
Ever try to order food in a Thai restaurant only to be completely and utterly misunderstood, or even worse, ignored? Perhaps it’s because you just came in from Khao San Road and are not wearing shoes and shirt. But in most cases it’s probably because you’re not pronouncing the names of Thai dishes correctly. Thai is a picky language, and a misdirected tone, a shortened vowel or improperly articulated consonant can mean the difference between a hot meal and yet another bag of “Thai Basil” chips at 7-11. And not only are Thai words hard to pronounce, but,there is no commonly accepted method of transliteration from Thai to English, so a dish you saw spelled one way on a menu last week, could very well be spelled differently in the next place. To help you understand and make yourself understood, I’ve put together a basic guide to Thai pronunciation and transliteration.
I sometimes hear non-Thais pronounce the first consonant of the second word like our t in English (ie aspirated, with a puff of air). Generally, if you see something written with a t, it is probably referring to the unaspirated t sound (somewhere between a t and a d, and similar to the t in the English word “stand”). On the other hand, if you see a Thai word with th, it is never pronounced like the th in the English words “thin” or “this”, but is rather the aspirated (accompanied by a puff of air) t sound. The same goes for k, kh, p and ph. Sometimes the unaspirated t is also written as dt, which personally I find confusing.
Phat thai or phad thai?
In Thai there is no difference between a final t or d sound (or ph, p or b for that matter). However do keep in mind that ph is the aspirated p sound, and is not equivalent to f.
Larb vs. larp vs. laab vs. laap vs. lahp
The length of the vowel sound is very important in Thai, and to convey a long vowel sound, English transliteration often sticks an r (or sometimes an h) into the mix. Myself, I prefer just to double the vowel, as the Thai long vowel sound is not exactly like the English r sound. Regarding the words above, there is no “correct” spelling–just remember to pronounce a long vowel sound when you say the name of the dish.
Some sounds simply don’t exist in English
Obviously transliteration has its limits, particularly in the lack of tones (a whole other can of worms that I won’t get into here) as well as the various sounds that are common in Thai, but that aren’t found in English. A couple examples of this are the eu sound, found in the word for “one” (neung), which is made by smiling (as opposed to rounding the lips). Another sound that doesn’t have a real equivalent, and tends to be written any number of ways is the aw (like in the English word “law”) sound. Sometimes you’ll see this transcribed as o or or.
l and r
The written Thai language distinguishes between r and l, but in everyday speech, the r is almost always pronounced like an l (in Laos they’ve done away with the r sound altogether). This is why the dish raad naa, when said by a cook on a street corner in Bangkok, is going to sound more like laad naa.
A few words and phrases to help you along when ordering:
mii … mai? Do you have …?
mai kin … I don’t eat …
neua sat meat
khawp khun thanks
thao rai How much? (the easiest way of asking for the bill)
Taken in Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown, February 18, 2007.
Today I had lunch with the Lonely Planet’s Man in Japan, Chris Rowthorn. Chris trusts me enough to let me choose where we eat lunch, which, if you ask me, is the highest level of trust. Around noontime we found ourselves near the venerable Nang Loeng Market, and I decided to stop in at Ratana, a curry restaurant I had seen, but had yet to try. Like many of the places in the area, Ratana is simple, but oozes heaps of old-school Bangkok charm. The line of people out front is a sure-fire sign of good eats anywhere in Thailand. And as illustrated above, the amazing selection of curries, soups and fried dishes is a great introduction to Bangkok-style Thai cooking.
We began with green curry with beef:
which was more like a stir-fry than the soupy curry you’ll find in most places. It was also among the tastiest green curries I’ve ever sampled, the curry paste sporting a healthy dose of peppercorns. I was curious about this somewhat unusual flavour and asked the cook, who told me that the shop makes all of its own curry pastes, something quite uncommon nowadays.
This was followed by a Chinese-style stir-fry of veggies and shrimp:
a pretty common dish at Bangkok curry shops of this ilk, and a decent source of the green.
More interesting (but far less photogenic) was a bowl of tom yam with pork leg:
Unlike most tom yam, which are generally seafood-based and clear in broth, this one was bordering on stew like, but still tasted light thanks to the copious lime juice. The soup supported several chunks of hearty pork leg, including bone, skin, and even, if I remember correctly, a bit of meat. A truly wonderful dish.
And finally Chris was curious to try khao khluk kapi:
the dish of rice cooked in shrimp paste and served with a variety of toppings. Ratana’s version was very, very good, and also unusual in that they topped the dish with an herb called cha om, the long green leaves seen in the pic, which have a slightly pungent flavour.
Ratana Curry Shop
Nang Loeng Market
Nakhorn Sawan Road
02 281 0237