And no, it’s no isaan (northeastern Thailand). A pretty easy challenge for most of you, I imagine…
Sorry blogs have been slow in coming, but I’m on the road at the moment and have little time to spend at the computer. When I’m a bit more stationary, I’ll be blogging on some of the interesting stuff I’ve seen and eaten in this country. In the meantime, be sure to check out the feature I’ve done on backpacker food at the Lonely Planet website.
Yes, I realize these fantastically delicious baguette sandwiches are Vietnamese/French in origin, but they’re virtually nonexistent in Thailand and are one of the things I look forward to eating when in Laos. More Things I Like About Laos to follow…
Known in these parts as khao niaow, I could eat this stuff all day. In Laos that’s easier done than said. And at the moment, I’m also fortunate enough to witness the first stage in rice production:
not to mention the last:
At Phonsavan’s evening market.
I recently spent two weeks in Laos, taking photos and gathering information for two separate articles on food and travel. I was primarily occupied with these two topics until while in Luang Prabang I happened to run into Magnum photographer Abbas. Talking to him about his work, I was inspired to go back through the pics I had taken that didn’t necessarily have to do with my work. There’s little in common with Abbas’ work (he’s doing a long-term project on Buddhism), and no single unifying theme, but rather the images below are simply those that I find interesting.
Watch repairman, Xam Nuea.
Mekong River, Luang Prabang.
Rice farmer outside Phonsavan.
Cooking, Luang Prabang.
At Xam Nuea’s evening market.
Takraw, Vieng Xai.
For a slideshow of the entire photoset of 19 images go here.
This may sound like a macabre title for blog post, but anybody who’s been to a Buddhist funeral in Southeast Asia knows the events take a decidedly different form here. For starters, funerals in this part of the world are more like family reunions, and are generally festive, rather than dour in atmosphere. They can often last several days, depending on the family’s budget. And most importantly, like much of life in Southeast Asia, they tend to revolve around food.
I learned this firsthand while walking the streets of Luang Prabang, in northern Laos. I was searching for images to illustrate an article on Lao food, when I came across a funeral entering its fifth day. A man of 82 had died, and directly in front of the house in which he grew up, his relatives and people who knew him had erected a tent and were busy cooking.
It truly was a communal affair, at least among the women, and everybody pitched in, including neighbours, neighbours’ relatives visiting from America, and sometimes people who just happened to walk by:
Those not able to help in the more physical parts of preparation simply dished out the final product:
in this case, a thick coconut curry called khua kai.
When a meal, usually consisting of four different dishes, sides of fresh herbs and veggies, and sticky rice, was completed, the dishes were put on trays then laid out to be consumed:
Between meals everybody snacked on miang laao:
A variety of toppings ranging from pork crackling to garlic that are put in a leaf, topped with a salty/sour sauce, and popped in the mouth.
Among the dishes made in the three days I visited the funeral were an herb-filled omelet, a laap-like pork dish, and because it was in season, several dishes revolving around bamboo, including a clear soup (pictured at the top of this post), and a delicious stir-fry of crispy bamboo, egg and ground pork:
Below is the recipe for saem, an eggplant and pork dish that I was able to watch being made from beginning to end. I was told by the people making it that the dish can only be found in Luang Prabang, and is among a repertoire of dishes often served at funerals and other occasions.
I’ve failed to include amounts here simply because the women themselves didn’t measure anything; like most recipes in this part of the world the cooking was done entirely by taste, feel and experience. The dish is pictured at the top of this post at about 4 o’clock, and below.
Saem: Pork and eggplant ‘salad’
-Boiled pork liver and belly, sliced thinly
-Lao fish sauce (paa daek)
-Rice cakes (khao khop)
-Young, round purple eggplants (ideally w/out seeds), boiled until soft and peeled
-Ground pork, boiled
-Salt, MSG, dried chili powder
-Green onion and cilantro, sliced finely
-Sides: fresh mint, watercress, leafy pak boong, long beans, chilies and small purple eggplants.
Slicing pork liver for saem
1. Simmer fish sauce with some of the broth left over from boiling the pork liver and belly until reduced and fragrant. Strain and reserve.
2. Pound rice cakes in mortar and pestle until very fine. Remove.
3. Pound eggplant and ground pork in mortar and pestle until well blended.
4. Season to taste with Lao fish sauce, salt, MSG and chili.
5. Add pounded rice cake powder, liver and belly. Blend well.
6. Garnish with green onion and cilantro.
7. Serve with sides and sticky rice.
It’s by no means the best coffee in the world, and often the amount of sweetened condensed milk is enough to give a diabetic nightmares, but the combination of product and place makes Lao coffee a mighty satisfying brew.
It’s particularly nice when consumed at Pasaneyom, a tiny family-run coffee shop in Luang Prabang:
Before the town’s morning market was moved a few blocks away, the place was very popular among tourists, and they often outnumbered locals. Today it’s a bit quieter and the locals have come back. The original owner died a few years back, but his son and daughter-in-law (pictured above) carry on the tradition of a caffeine-fueled breakfast next to the Mekong.
A curry dinner at Jek Pui, a popular stall in Bangkok’s Chinatown that has no tables.
18 of my Thai food images are currently on display at Pok Pok, the Portland restaurant that in 2007, was The Oregonian’s Restaurant of the Year. Andy, Pok Pok’s chef/owner was recently on a recon trip here in Thailand, and we were able to meet up and visit some of the places pictured. It is highly unlikely that I’ll be able make it over to Portland to witness this for myself, so I encourage anybody in the area to stop by on my behalf. I’ve heard the food’s pretty good too…
One thing I particularly love about eating out in Bangkok is the informality. I’ve witnessed firsthand the hoops that people have to go through simply to eat out (not to mention the prices associated with this) in most other big cities around the world, and love the fact that I can virtually waltz into just about any place in town on a whim. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever even had to make a reservation for a restaurant in Bangkok. Until now, that is.
That reservations are necessary at Jok, a tiny restaurant in a tiny alley in Chinatown, is not surprising, given that the restaurant only has four tables. This is actually a significant increase from the time when Jok was famous for having a single table. But despite the 400% increase in seating, a three-month wait is still the norm here, and according to Mr Jok himself, no amount of money or rank will influence this. Luckily I have friends with more connections than myself who were able to take advantage of a last-minute cancellation. So on a recent Saturday the five of us headed over to Chinatown for a particularly decadent lunch.
There’s no menu at Jok, and arriving at the restaurant, we were simply seated and told of what was available. We were begun with wontons:
which were generously stuffed with shrimp and topped with a delicious blanket of crispy deep-fried garlic. Almost dumpling-like, they appeared to have been steamed rather than boiled.
Possibly my favourite dish was a platter of smoked meats, including fatty pork, pork tongue and duck:
The meats had the slightest whiff of alcohol (Chinese cooking wine, we theorised), coupled with a favourable fattiness and a rich smokiness. The dish wasn’t necessarily indicative of the chef’s skills, but did show his talent for choosing high quality ingredients.
There were deep-fried snowfish steaks served on a bed of iceberg lettuce:
This was probably my least favourite dish of the meal. I’ve always found snowfish (plaa hima) impressive looking, but underwhelming in the flavour department. And if you ask me, iceberg lettuce belongs on Big Macs and not much else.
This was followed by steamed crab (pictured at the top of this post). In talking to chef Jok after dinner, we learned that his family had been in the crab business for 70 years. Indeed, it was while delivering seafood to Chinatown’s various restaurants, he explained, that he ‘learned’ many of the recipes that later became the basis of his restaurant. It goes without saying that Jok knows his crab, and this was by far the meatiest I’ve ever come across, although unfortunately it appeared to have been steamed long before reaching our table.
We loved the abalone stir-fried with dried musrhooms and Chinese kale:
Until, that is, Mr Jok matter-of-factly informed us that it was mock abalone (apparently made from squid). Regardless, for me at least, this took nothing away from the peppery spiciness of the sauce and the delicious mushrooms and kale–my favourite parts of the dish.
Next was a dish of prawns deep-fried with ginkgo nuts:
This also turned out to be slightly disappointing, as the prawns were overcooked. I did like the texture of the ginkgo nuts though, which were pleasantly rubbery, not floury as I expected.
I really enjoyed Jok’s ‘Old-fashioned fried rice’:
which contained more of that deliciously smokey pork (one of our group bought half a kilo to take home). According to one of the cooks, making the dish involved steaming rice, cooling it under a fan, refrigerating it overnight, separating the grains, and then slowly frying it, to allow the flavours of the various ingredients to penetrate the rice. It works, and the grains of rice were both rich, as well as separate and not overcooked.
Fried rice was followed by a delicious soup of grouper and pickled greens, and we assumed our meal was over at this point, but Mr Jok wanted us to try his most recent menu item, shrimp-and-fishcakes:
Part of the postprandial ceremony is the obligatory picture with Chef Jok himself:
And of course, if you’d like to come back, the reservation:
I suspect there’d be a minor catastrophe if this book was lost. Our next visit? Sometime in November.
Jok (Google Maps link)
23 Trok Issaranuphap
02 221 4075, 02 623 3921, 081 919 9468
Kuaytiaw khua kai, wide rice noodles fried with chicken and egg, is a dish found all over Bangkok’s Chinatown. I’ve had it a couple times, but have never been blown away, usually finding it often too bland or too oily. However a recent peek into a normally dark alleyway revealed the best take on the dish so far.
The dark alleyway in question, which also doubles as stall’s ‘dining room’, is Trok Issaranuphap (Charoen Krung Soi 14), the hectic market alleyway generally known as talaat mai:
The owner stations himself at the top of the alley near Th Yaowarat and painstakingly fries the dish on a small brass plate over hot coals with no more than a tablespoon. The noodles, fried with garlic-steeped oil, stick to the pan, which coupled with the coals, gives the dish a deliciously smoky flavour and an occasionally crispy texture. In addition to egg and chicken, crunchy pickled squid and chopped green onions are added, and the whole lot is served on a bed of lettuce:
With a sprinkle of salty fish sauce, a dash of chili, and accompanied by the stall’s sweet lamyai juice, kuaytiaw khua khai is one of Chinatown’s better noodle dishes.
Kuaytiaw khua kai (Google Maps link)
Trok Issaranuphap (corner Charoen Krung Soi 14 & Th Yaowarat)
Bang Saen, the nearest beach from Bangkok, was the topic of my first blog post. That was way back in 2005, and I think I’ve only been back once since then. It was high time for a re-run, so with Hock and Maytel and their mad wheelz, A, and all of our empty stomachs, we headed out on a recent Sunday.
Bang Saen is quintessentially Thai in that it’s a beach where people go to eat, not to swim. You’ll see a couple kids splashing around in the water, but the vast majority of people who go there plan to stay dry and eat all manner of seafood. All of Bang Saen’s eats are prepared at dozens of tiny but bulging portable stalls at the edge of the sand:
It’s been a mighty long time since I took part in good, old-fashioned yam khai maengdaa thale, horseshoe crab egg salad (shown at the top of this post), and I had plans to order this even before boarding the vehicle. Hock didn’t seem so keen on it, but I really liked the combination of the strips of sour mango and the weird crunchiness of the eggs.
It’s a given that somebody will order grilled prawns:
Maytel loved these. I’m not sure if I even got to taste one, but I did quite enjoy the garlicky seafood dipping sauce.
A ordered yam thua phloo, wing bean salad, which was a wise decision indeed:
mostly as there was no lack of crispy deep-fried shallots.
Somebody ordered po taek, a delicious variant on the ubiquitous tom yam:
which includes a variety of seafood and a generous handful of bai kraphrao, holy basil leaves.
And there was a grilled plaa kraphong:
which unusually, was stuffed with herbs, and less unusually, accompanied by more garlic-loaded seafood sauce.
A beautiful sunset was an appropriate end to our meal:
After which we left Bang Saen, feeling high from all the garlic.
The entire set of images can be enjoyed here.