I’m in the process of interviewing some locals for an upcoming Lonely Planet book and chose to profile Suthon Sukphisit, author of the Bangkok Post’s weekly Thai food column, Cornucopia. I’ve been reading Cornucopia for years, and always thought Suthon must be the closest thing to a living encyclopedia on Thai food. I wanted to pick his brain about Chinatown, an area known for its food, and he was kind enough to meet me and show me around for a few hours last night. I’ve been to Chinatown many times, but going with Suthon was a truly eye-opening experience. He seems to be familiar with literally every tiny alley and side street, and took me to and pointed out some of his favourite food-related places.
Our first stop was the subject of one of Suthon’s numerous articles; an ancient house where a man named Thot is the second generation of his family to make kun chiang, Chinese-style sausage:
Khut Thot still makes sausages by hand in the same place his parents did–an ancient Chinese shophouse on Thanon Plaeng Naam, the very house he grew up in:
After mixing “good quality” pork with spices, he stuffs the casings and hangs them in a locker over warm coals:
After a few hours of this, he’ll move them to another locker where they’ll dry for a day. The sausages are done at this point, but still need to be cooked before you can eat them. Khun Thot was kind enough to give me a bag of his kun chiang, which I’m really looking forward to trying.
Just a few steps away is a famous vendor selling khanom jeep, Chinese steamed dumplings:
This vendor has gained a reputation for making the dim sum-style snack by hand using a traditional recipe, something he claims to have done for 50 years! He starts selling at lunch, and will remain on the street until he’s sold everything:
Served with a light soy sauce and deep-fried crispy garlic, the khanom jeep were delicious, and a world away from the recently-thawed, oily, tasteless clumps you’ll find elsewhere. And later, in a backstreet scene reminiscent of medieval Europe, we even got a glance of how the dough wrappers are still made using traditional methods:
Khanom Jeep Wat Yuan
Thanon Plaeng Nam (sold from a cart in front of Chinese temple)
Heading up towards Thanon Mangkorn we passed by a famous curry shop called Jay Puy. On the surface, it looks like any other street side curry shop in Bangkok, and I’d walked by it several times without noticing anything in particular. However Suthon pointed out one quirky aspect:
Jay Puy has no tables–something that Suthon claims has no impact on the number of people who eat there. “In the rainy season they don’t have a roof or umbrella,” says Suthon, “but people still eat there!” The shop is known for kaeng karii, literally “curry”, but a Chinese take on the Indian/Thai dish. Suthon explained that the curries here aren’t as thick or as spicy as the Thai version, and that they are thickened with flour, as not to be so oily.
Jay Puy Curry Shop
Corner of Thanon Mangkorn and Charoen Krung
Our evening ended at a tiny, dark alley off of Thanon Plaeng Naam where Suthon wanted to take me to Jay Joo, one of his favourite restaurants in Chinatown, and a place he described as being more Chinese than Thai:
“Real Chinese food has to made over a very, very hot flame,” explained Suthon. As seen above, Jay Joo’s coal-burning stoves were indeed very hot, and Suthon ordered plaa kiam buay, a deep-fried fish served in sour broth of salted plums and ginger; tao hoo song khrueang, deep-fried tofu served in a thick sauce with veggies; and kung kap plaa muek phat nam phrik phao, fresh shrimp and pickled squid fried in chili paste:
Everything was outstanding, and coupled with the exotic atmosphere (a huge family eating nearby, rats underfoot) and a few cans of Singha, made a memorable meal that topped off a truly memorable evening.
Soi Phiphaksaa 2 (located roughly between Thanon Plaeng Naam and Thanon Phadung Dao)
A few months ago Swedish food journalist, food historian, editor, author and blogger (!) Göran Lager paid a visit to Bangkok. While here he interviewed me for the Swedish radio food program, Meny. I was honored to be involved in this, and we had a great time eating and talking about som tam. However I hate listening to my own voice, and the thought of my own voice stumbling over a language I haven’t spoken in 10 years, well… Anyway, to hear the program go the this page and click the speaker symbol near the phrase “torsdag 1 mars 2007″. Apparently our bit is towards the end. If you can’t understand a thing, consider yourself lucky. (And let me know how it went.)
(15 minutes later: OK, I couldn’t resist and listened to it, and other than a few cop outs into English, it wasn’t that bad. Göran is an amazing editor, apparently.)
Continuing on my Lonely Planet assignment, I spent yesterday morning at Kathmandu, a photography gallery owned by one of Thailand’s most lauded photographers, Manit Sriwanichpoom. Located in a restored Chinese shophouse on Thanon Pan (near the Hindu temple off of Silom), Kathmandu is one of the only galleries in Bangkok specifically dedicated to photography. It also happens to be located smack dab in the middle of one of Bangkok’s most eclectic food areas. Within steps of Kathmandu you have Burmese, Persian, southern Indian, northern Indian, and some well-known Thai restaurants. After I finished shooting, Manit’s wife was kind enough to supply us with thali from Mashoor, a northern Indian vegetarian restaurant located directly across the road:
They comprised of (starting at 12:00 and moving clockwise) a curry of peas and paneer (fresh cheese), curried okra, dhal, home made yogurt, fresh chappitis and pappadum, gulab jamun and rice. Everything was excellent, and I can’t imagine a better Bangkok Sunday outing than an exotic meal followed by a visit to the Hindu temple and a look at excellent photography on display at Kathmandu.
38 Pan Road
02 234 9305
Kathmandu Photo Gallery
87 Pan Road
02 234 6700
Exploring Chinatown the other day, Khun Suthon tipped me off to a tiny restaurant that he said made the best hoy tawt, fried mussels/oysters, in Bangkok. This caught my ear, as hoy thawt is a dish with such potential–who doesn’t love eggs, oysters and oil? But it’s also a dish that has disappointed me nearly every time I’ve ordered it (who likes ill-prepared eggs, oysters and oil?). Finding myself in Chinatown again recently, I made a point of stopping by.
The restaurant is called hoy thawt jao kao plaeng naam, meaning that it was previously located on Thanon Plaeng Naam. After 11 years at that location they moved directly across the street, where they’ve been for four years now.
The hoy thawt made here are of the crispy variety, which basically means they fry the crap out of them:
You have a choice between oysters or mussels, and I chose the latter. The plump, fresh-looking mussels were fried with egg, batter and lotsa garlic until bordering on burnt. This was then broken up and served on top of bean sprouts that had also been fried in oil. The result was predictably very, very oily, but undeniably delicious, and was served with a really nice spicy/sour sauce. Cholesterol issues aside, I think Khun Suthon just might be right.
Hoy Thawt Soi Plaeng Naam
Corner of Charoen Krung and Plaeng Naam roads (near the Cantonese shrine)
I’ve been doing restaurant reviews for a local listings mag as of late and have decided to include some of the more interesting places here. However, I should make it clear that for each of these, my visit has been arranged ahead of time and I’m not paying for the food. Despite this, I’ll do my best to be as objective as possible, and my goal is simply to spread the word of good eats in Bangkok, not to promote certain restaurants.
One of my first visits has to be one of the oddest restaurants in Bangkok. Big Mama describes itself as a pizzeria/Italian restaurant, but could be more accurately classified as Italian-American food with Thai accents as served to a Japanese and Korean clientele. Despite this geographical confusion, it works somehow, and I really enjoyed the majority of my meal.
Being a fan of salt and fish, I began with anchovy spaghetti:
Which was served in an earthenware container, topped with a dough lid and baked for a few minutes. Upon arriving at the table, the staff opens this ‘lid':
to reveal steaming pasta topped with anchovies, chilies and parsley. However the best part was found at the bottom of the bowl, and was a ‘sauce’ of garlic and shallots sauteed in olive oil until they reached an almost creamlike state. This dish, with its disparate Italian roots, hearty American serving size, and Thai flavours, somehow really worked.
The pasta was accompanied by Greek salad:
Which was just about perfect–a tasty, well-balanced dressing, delicious tomatoes and bell peppers (that I suspect come from the excellent Royal Project Foundation), and plenty of salty feta.
And this being a pizzeria, they encouraged me to try one of their pizzas, and provided a combo:
The pizza, really the only disappointment of the meal, was topped with a bizarre combination of hot dog-like sausage, lunch meat ham, enoki mushrooms, bell peppers and cheese. Despite being made in a custom-built wood-burning oven, the pie just couldn’t support the extreme variety of unrelated toppings and mostly went home in a doggie bag. A bit odd that they would choose this particular pie for me to sample. To be fair, the sauce was nice, and the dough OK, and I suspect a pizza of more subtle topping could very well be pretty good.
In addition to the colourful interior (first pic above), Big Mama also has a pleasant outdoor dining area:
If I lived closer, I would easily make Big Mama my local Italian/American/Thai restaurant.
Big Mama Pizzeria
139 Asok Soi 1
02 259 0232
Exploring Chinatown with Khun Suthon last week I was pointed in the direction of a curious streetside curry shop with no tables. As illustrated above (take a look at the guy in the white shirt), diners sit at tiny plastic chairs, holding a plate of rice and curry in one hand while they eat with the other. We didn’t have time to visit the shop that day, but I was back in the area again and made a point of stopping by.
As you can see above, things were a bit more “busy” this time. Fortunately for me the line was made up of those wanting to buy curry to take home. I wanted the entire table-less dining experience, and squeezed my way into the only free stool. A very loud gentleman shouted at me to order, and I timidly asked for a plate of green curry with fish balls over rice. In the meantime I was given a cup of weak iced tea, which the other diners and I put on an unoccupied stool. A moment later I was served, and like the others around me:
raised my plate and dug in.
After a few minutes I realized that I was virtually the only one who ordered green curry. All the others had ordered kaeng karii, literally “curry”, a Chinese take on the Indian-Thai-Anglo dish. This was served over rice with sliced phrik chii faa chilies and slices of the deep-fried Chinese sausage, kun chiang. My green curry was pretty good–a bit bland perhaps, but with excellent homemade fish balls–but the kaeng karii looked pretty amazing, especially with all those unusual toppings. Unfortunately I had some more eating to do that day and couldn’t risk a second dish. Next time though…
Jek Pui Curry Shop
Corner of Thanon Mangkorn and Charoen Krung
RealThai has been plugged at the National Geographic Traveler website.
And I should have a photo feature and a couple of blogs at the Lonely Planet website in the coming days.
(Update: “Food for Life”, my photo essay on the unique cuisine of the inhabitants of northern Pakistan’s Hunza Valley, can be seen here at the Lonely Planet website)
I was recently in the Thong Lor area of Sukhumvit Road and came across Boon Tong Kiat, a restaurant selling “Singapore chicken rice”. Despite having visited the country several times, I only recently became aware that chicken rice is Singapore’s ‘national’ dish and was curious to see how it differed from the Thai version. The shop was also highly recommended by a friend, so I stopped by.
From the get-go, Boon Tong Kiat’s khao man kai looks quite different than the domestic version of this Chinese dish. The rice had a slightly gold hue, which according to an extremely detailed sign inside the restaurant, was due to the use of “nine different spices”. In addition to this, the sign explained that the rice was also “the finest jasmine rice in the country”, and was first fried in a wok over high heat before being cooked over medium heat in a gas-powered rice cooker, before finally kept warm in a “Singaporean rice cooker”. There was an equal amount of information regarding the cooking of the chicken, the majority of which escapes me now.
Culinary mission statements aside, it took only a simple taste to realize that Boon Tong Kiat is doing something special here. The rice was was fragrant with the “nine spices”, galangal being the only one I could identify with some confidence, and was perfectly cooked, being both tender and toothsome. The chicken was also tender but not mushy, and was juicy and flavourful. This was the first time I’d seen this simple dish done to its full potential, and I loved it.
Halfway into the dish, I noticed that the restaurant also did rojak, a sweet/sour ‘salad’ of Indonesian origin known at Boon Tong Kiat as som tam singapore. I loved this dish from my visits to Singapore and couldn’t resist ordering:
Boon Tong Kiat’s version was pretty spot on and combined par-boiled morning glory, crunchy bits of cucumber, pineapple, apple and the deep-fried Chinese dough fritters known as you tiao. This was topped with the thick, sweet/sour sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The sauce wasn’t as profound or thick as that I’ve had in Penang, but tasted more or less as it should.
In addition to chicken rice and rojak, Boon Tong Kiat also prepares a variety of Sino/Singaporean-foods. And despite Singapore being virtually a neighbor of Thailand, this shop, as far as I know, is the only place in town where you can find such dishes. Very highly recommended.
Boon Tong Kiat Singapore Hainanese Chicken Rice
440/5 and 396 Sukhumvit 55
02 390 2508
In Bangkok nowadays you can find Sri Lankan, Korean, regional Japanese, southern Indian, Persian, Burmese and Lao restaurants, among others, but until recently, no Malaysian. Not a single restaurant. I find this exceedingly odd, as Malaysian food is undeniably delicious, and many of the ingredients and flavours of Malaysian cooking are identical to Thai. Not to mention the fact that Thai food (in particular tom yam) is very popular in Malaysia–why not the opposite?
This will probably remain a mystery, but I was delighted to come across Kopitiam, a Malaysian cafe/restaurant on Thong Lor. Kopitiam literally means coffee shop, but this tiny restaurant also serves a variety of Malaysian and Thai dishes. The owner, Georgette, is a native of Kuala Lumpur who has lived in Bangkok for 18 years. After several years of making Malaysian food for her friends, she decided to spread the love and open her own place, and the restaurant has been open about half a year now.
With her guidance, I began with nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut cream and served with a variety of side dishes:
Kopitiam’s version was served with the traditional accompaniments of crispy fish and peanuts, squid sambal, a boiled egg, and somewhat unusually, the owner’s savoury beef rendang. Nasi lemak is a simple dish, but very nice, and everything was excellent, the flavours just as I remember from breakfast in Penang or KL.
I also had rojak, the Indo-Malay-Singaporean salad of crispy fruits and veggies:
my second dish this week. I’m not enough of a rojak expert to authoritatively differentiate between this and Boon Tong Kiat’s, but will venture to say that I found Kopitiam’s dressing a bit richer. Georgette was kind enough to show me hae ko, the prawn paste that is the essential ingredient in this sauce.
Kopitiam also serves Malaysian favourites such as roti canai, a couple kinds of laska, and of course, teh tarik. If you live in Bangkok and you’re craving Malaysian you really don’t have any other choice, but it’s unlikely that you’ll be disappointed.
117/C Panjit Tower, Sukhumvit Soi 55
02 381 5881
In the course of doing some research for an upcoming Lonely Planet guide I recently came across a cool website with some traditional Lao recipes. Apparently they were originally written by Phia Sing, a former chef to the former Lao royal family, and later compiled and translated into a book by English food expert, Alan Davidson. I’ve actually heard of this book (it provides much of the basis for Ant Egg Soup, a Lao food-based travelogue), and it sounds fascinating, although I’ve never seen it in SE Asia. Regarding the 15 recipes shown on the site, I would particularly recommend stuffed bamboo shoots, or if you can get your hands on some water buffalo meat, the thick, vegetable-laden stew known as or lam, both dishes I’ve enjoyed very much in Laos.