A blog about food in Thailand
and elsewhere.


Monthly Archives: August 2010



Suga

Posted at 3am on 8/3/10 | read on
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A sugar palm sap gatherer, Samut Songkhram, Thailand

First of all, allow me to apologise for not having blogged for such a long time. I had back surgery in early July and since then have been recovering, admittedly with enough time to blog, but unfortunately little in the way of content or desire. I’m more or less mobile now and am ready to jump…er carefully lower myself back into blogging again.

Before white sugar crystals became ubiquitous, Thais generally sweetened their food with sugar made from the sap of the sugar palm or coconut tree. I had a general idea of what was involved with making this type of sugar but had never witnessed it being produced firsthand, so I jumped at the chance when invited to go on a sugar run with Dylan and Bo of Bangkok’s best upscale Thai restaurant, Bo.lan. With the help of a Thai academic, they were able to source a producer of coconut sugar in Samut Songkhram, about two hours from Bangkok. The sugar, which they use in their restaurant (and which can also be purchased there), is produced traditionally and naturally, and isn’t adulterated with white sugar, as is allegedly often the case these days.

The process begins by tapping the young flowering buds of the coconut tree. The woman pictured at the top of this post (who, incidentally, is in her 50s) does this by climbing a tree, armed with a machete and a few long can-like tubes slung over her shoulder:

A sugar palm sap gatherer, Samut Songkhram, Thailand

She shaves the tip off a fruiting bud and after the sap begins to flow, hangs the tube below it to collect the liquid. Depending on how much the trees are producing, it can take a few hours to fill the tube, which also contains wood chips that naturally prevent the sap from fermenting. We were offered some of the freshly gathered sap and it was watery  and sweet, and had a slightly musty, yeast-like odour. The sap is gathered twice a day, and if the trees are neglected for too long, the buds will flower instead, eventually resulting in coconuts.

After all the cans are collected (they have more than 100 trees), the sap is filtered through a cloth into large woks positioned above a long stove:

Producing palm sugar in Samut Songkhram, Thailand

A fire is lit, which in a tidy cycle is fueled by sugar palm leaves, and the sap is left to boil for about an hour until its volume has been reduced by approximately two-thirds. The constantly evaporating water carries the yeasty odour of the sap, making the work area smell not unlike a brewery.

After about an hour and a half the once watery sap had stopped foaming and had changed in form to a simmering liquid the consistency and colour of a dark syrup. It was poured into another nearby wok where, using a special tool, it was stirred and eventually whipped for about five minutes:

Whipping palm sap to make palm sugar, Samut Songkhram, Thailand

According to Dylan, this process introduces air into the sap, effectively crystallising the sugar and providing it with a pale colour and a slightly gritty paste-like texture.

The sugar is then scraped into small metal bowls or a large metal tin known as a peep (a colloquial Thai name for this type of sugar is nam taan peep, ‘tin sugar’) where it’s allowed to cool and solidify even more. If kept relatively cool, the sugar will maintain its solid state, otherwise it will gradually melt back into a thick syrup. The final product has an attractive blond colour and a fragrant smell, and is not overwhelmingly sweet, with a savoury and even slightly salty flavour:

Palm sugar

Both the sugar and excellent Thai food are available at Bo.lan.

Bo.lan
42 Soi Phichai Ronnarong, Soi 26, Th Sukhumvit, Bangkok
02 260 2962
www.bolan.co.th
6.30pm-midnight Tues-Sun


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Pantip’s khao soi

Posted at 8am on 8/16/10 | read on
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Khao soi, a northern-style curry noodle dish, is quite possibly the Thai dish that I get the most inquiries about. Foreigners in particular seem to love it, and understandably; with khao soi you’ve got meaty, rich, oily spicy, crunchy, soft, salty and sour all in one bowl. Unfortunately, given its northern origins, khao soi is relatively hard to come by in Bangkok, and I suspect that Pantip, the IT mall in central Bangkok, was for a long time one of the handful of places here where the dish was available. People had been mentioning this vendor’s khao soi to me for years, but I’d never investigated until today.

The khao soi is served from a stall at Pantip’s nondescript food court, and despite all the signs indicating otherwise — pre-cooked noodles, scant and ragged-looking condiments, not to mention the fact that you’re dining in what is probably the most unpleasant shopping centre in Bangkok (your noodles are accompanied by a constant and irritating soundtrack of vendors hissing ‘DVD sex? DVD sex?’) — I have to admit that I found the Pantip food court’s khao soi OK. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly isn’t amazing; the broth lacks the dried spice complexity of a solid northern-style bowl of khao soi, and was served with huge chicken thighs, which basically overwhelmed the dish. But it was spicy and even somewhat rich, unlike the bland and gloopy bowls one normally encounters in Bangkok. It’s definitely not worth going out of your way for, but if you find yourself at Pantip, buy a bowl.

Pantip’s khao soi
3rd fl, Pantip Plaza, Th Phetchaburi, Bangkok
9am-9pm


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Lamyai

Posted at 2am on 8/19/10 | read on
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It figures that, just as soon as I mention in a public forum that khao soi in Bangkok is rare and generally not very good, I’m told of a tasty and conveniently-located vendor.

Lamyai, about which I was told by my buddy R, is a lunchtime open-air stall that serves khao soi and kuaytiaw muu tun (noodles with braised pork) just off Thanon Lang Suan in central Bangkok:

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Arriving recently with Andy Ricker, chef/owner of Portland, Oregon’s Pok Pok and accredited khao soi assessor, it was soon clear to us that, for Bangkok at least, this is a khao soi worth seeking out. Served with chicken, pork or beef (the latter of which is pictured above), we both found the broth satisfyingly rich and hearty, although Andy pointed out that it lacks the dried spice complexity of a truly great bowl. Lamyai appears to make for this in volume and good quality noodles and condiments, and I reckon you’d be hard-pressed to find a bowl of khao soi this solid anywhere in central Bangkok.

Lamyai
Soi 6, Thanon Lang Suan
9am-2pm Mon-Fri


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Pheng Phochana

Posted at 2am on 8/20/10 | read on
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Pheng Phochana, a longstanding restaurant in the Suan Luang Market area behind Chulalongkorn University, is quite possibly Bangkok’s most popular destination for kuaytiaw khua kai, rice noodles fried with chicken and egg:

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This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best bowl in town, but there are a couple things that make the dish unique here. Firstly, the noodles are positively encouraged to ignite and flame during the frying process:

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providing the dish with an intensely smokey flavour and scent. But, as my dining companion pointed out, because they’re using palm oil this singeing also provides the dish with an unpleasant, almost petrol-like aftertaste. This is in stark contrast to the vendor at Nay Hong, where the choice of fat (pork fat, in this case), provides the dish with a savoury, meaty depth. And rather than scrambling the eggs with the noodles as is done elsewhere, at Pheng Phochana the eggs are saved for last and are wrapped around the noodles in the form of a thin omelet. Another unusual aspect of the dish is that it’s garnished with tiny pa thong ko, deep-fried bits of dough. This provides the dish with pleasant crunchy element that’s otherwise lacking. And lastly, they do a couple unique spins on the dish including kuaytiaw khua thaleh, a seafood version, and kuaytiaw khua tharo, in which the protein element is Taro, the popular squid-flavoured fish snack.

Pheng Phochana
Cnr Soi Soi Chulalongkorn 20 & 5
081 899 2173
3-11pm


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Lam Duan Fah Ham

Posted at 7pm on 8/22/10 | read on
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Still hot on the Bangkok khao soi trail, I recently decided to go back to a vendor that I’ve long felt does the best khao soi in Bangkok. Lam Duan Fah Ham is the only Bangkok branch of the similarly-named, longstanding Chiang Mai institution. The original restaurant, located in Chiang Mai’s Fah Ham area, serves what’s arguably the best bowl in town, and the people who run it even claim to have ‘invented’ khao soi.

Dubious origin myths aside, the Bangkok branch of Lam Duan Fah Ham maintains the quality of the original, and is arguably the best bowl in Bangkok. The only real fault here is location: the restaurant is located in extreme northern Bangkok, not far from the former airport. Because of this, I hadn’t been back here in at least a year, and upon arriving and receiving my bowl of beef khao soi (pictured above) felt a twinge of disappointment: the broth at Lam Duan Fah Ham can appear deceptively thin, almost watery. But a taste revealed that it’s actually quite rich, with virtually zero bland/sweet coconut milk cloyingness and more dried spice complexity than any other bowl I’ve encountered in Bangkok. The noodles and condiments are of pretty good quality, and the serving size is also authentically northern (i.e. one bowl is never enough, two is more than enough).

Also laudable is the restaurant’s khanom jeen nam ngiaw:

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Although not quite as meaty and rich as the bowl at Kuaytiaw 12 Panna, the broth here is tart and spicy, with hearty chunks of both pork and tomato.

Lam Duan Fah Ham also serve a few non noodle-based northern Thai dishes.

Lam Duan Fah Ham
Soi 58, Thanon Vibhavadi Rangsit
8.30am-3pm (closed last Sun of the month)
02 579 6403


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Coming soon

Posted at 6pm on 8/23/10 | read on
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This certainly isn’t breaking news at this point, but David Thompson, the Michelin-starred chef of London’s nahm, is opening an outlet here in Bangkok. The restaurant, also set to be called nahm, will be located in the Metropolitan Hotel, and is expected to open near the end of the month.

I’ve been to a couple test run dinners over the last few weeks and on both occasions was thoroughly blown away. The dinner pictured above was probably the best Thai meal I’ve had in years. Some of the more interesting dishes included a lemongrass salad of prawns, squid and pork with toasted coconut, a dish I first encountered with David in Singburi; cured fish and pork simmered in coconut cream; and pictured front-centre, a wonderfully spicy jungle curry of minced catfish with basil, green peppercorns, shredded white turmeric and grachai. In fact, I’ve been genuinely surprised (and equally delighted) by just how full-flavoured and spicy some of the dishes have been. David’s also been experimenting with some more rustic, full-flavoured dishes such as sai ua, the northern-style grilled sausage, perhaps suggesting something of a departure from the refined Thai cuisine he’s normally associated with.

Stay tuned for more details…

My fave Bangkok dishes

Posted at 8pm on 8/25/10 | read on
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I’m often asked about my favourite places to eat in Bangkok. This is a hard question to answer, not necessarily because I have trouble deciding, but rather because I’d say there are very few all-purpose menu-toting restaurants here that I truly enjoy. In my opinion, eating in Bangkok is all about the dishes, not the restaurants. So in no particular order, here are some of my favourite plates and bowls in Bangkok:

The oyster omelet at Nay Mong. Whether you order the crispy (or lua, pictured above) or soft (or suan) version, you’re getting a brilliant intersection of seafood and egg; smoky, rich and cooked to perfection. Quite possibly my favourite dish in Bangkok.

The kuaytiaw khua kai at Nay Hong:

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This is a relatively recent discovery, but after five or so visits, the smokey, crispy noodles here have quickly made it onto my list.

Khao mok phae, goat biryani, at Naaz:

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I’m a huge fan of Thai-Muslim food, but this unusual and delicious biryani is probably closer to the dish’s Middle Eastern origins than anything found in Thailand.

The khao man kai, Hainanese chicken rice, at Boon Tong Kiat:

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Fragrant, perfectly cooked rice and impossibly tender steamed chicken combine to form this nearly perfect one-dish meal.

Khanom tup tap during the annual vegetarian festival:

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This peanut based snack is fleetingly available year round in some bakeries in Chinatown, but is at its peak when warm and freshly pounded.

Laap plaa duk at Nong Khai:

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Served with freshwater snails and phak khayaeng, a hard-to-find fresh herb, this ‘salad’ of grilled catfish is equal parts obscure and tasty.

The oxtail soup and khao mok plaa, fish biryani, at Yusup:

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This Thai-Muslim place north of Bangkok is probably the closest thing to my favourite all-around restaurant in Bangkok. Their unusual fish biryani is fragrantly spicy and the oxtail soup is a satisfying combination of tartness and richness.

The phat see iw at Nay Lao:

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Yet another smokey noodle dish, this one benefits from the addition of my favourite veggie and tender marinated pork.

Mee krob at Chote Chitr:

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This restaurant gets heaps of press, not all of it justifiable, but the crispy noodles, aromatic with the addition of som saa, a type of citrus, are always delicious.

The yen ta fo at Coke Chuan Chim:

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The guy who runs this popular noodle stall is Bangkok’s equivalent of the Soup Nazi, but it’s worth the fuss.

The kaeng karee plaa, fish curry, at Roti Mataba:

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I have to admit that it isn’t probably as good as it used to be, but I still have a soft spot for the hearty tartness of this Thai-Muslim curry.

Hoy Thot Chao Ley

Posted at 12am on 8/31/10 | read on
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Hoy thot, literally ‘fried oysters’, is one of the more emblematic Thai street hawker dishes. Consisting of mussels (or oysters) fried with egg in a batter of rice and mung bean flours, and served on a bed of soft bean sprouts, its simple, rustic nature lends itself to streets and stalls, and you’ll rarely find the dish in any indoor restaurant.

Hoy Thot Chao Ley, a longstanding vendor of the dish on trendy Thanon Thong Lo, has compromised somewhat on hoy thot’s streetside status. Located in a covered alleyway, the place almost gives the impression of being indoors, but in keeping with the dish’s street origins, the hoy thot here is simple, tasty, crispy and satisfying. Admittedly, the dishes aren’t rich or expertly-prepared as those of Nay Mong, but are better than most you’ll find around town, and are worth checking out.

In addition hoy thot, pictured above, which incidentally they call hoy malaengphu thot krob (‘crispy fried mussels’), they also do thaley thot krob (a seafood version that includes shrimp and squid), phat Thai, or suan (a soft oyster omelet) and or lua (crispy oyster omelet).

All of these dishes are prepared on a vast round skillet:

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and are a lot less oily/greasy than you’d expect.

I’m heading up to Chiang Mai tonight and will be quiet for a few days, but hope to come back with some posts on northern food.

Hoy Thot Chao Ley
Soi 55 (Thanon Thong Lo), Thanon Sukhumvit
085 128 3996
9am-9pm


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