A blog about food in Thailand
and elsewhere.


Monthly Archives: April 2012



Penang with Bee and CK

Posted at 8am on 4/12/12 | read on
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If you follow Asian cooking websites, you’re most likely already familiar with Rasa Malaysia, maintained by native of Penang, Bee Yinn Low. In fact, Bee and I started our respective blogs around the same time, and early on, she used to write me with questions about basic camera skills and Photoshop technique. Today, her website gets a bazillion hits a day and she’s even written and photographed a best-selling book. This obsession with food appears to be a family thing, as her brother, CK, although he hasn’t got into the blogging game, conducts food-based tours of Penang. With the kind help of these two more-than-capable guides, I was escorted around the restaurants, stalls, hakwer centres, factories, shops and farms of George Town and Penang. It was a virtual crash-course in Malaysian food, and as we ate at more places than I have space to go into here, I thought I’d share some of the highlights.

On our first morning we met at the busy morning market at Pulau Tikus, just east of George Town. There, we tried a whole lot of tasty stuff, but perhaps the most interesting to me were the dishes prepared by two friendly vendors selling Nyonya food:

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Nyonya is a blend of Chinese and Southeast Asian cooking styles and ingredients and is a cuisine I’d read about, but hadn’t yet tried myself. At one stall I tasted the famous curry kapitan (a rich chicken curry using coconut milk), a seriously tasty nasi ulam (a rice ‘salad’ similar to the southern Thai khao yam) and perut ikan (a thick soup using salted fish kidney — tai plaa in Thai) — dishes which seemed to vary in flavour between rich/salty and tart/herbal. I particularly liked one vendor’s gulai kiam hu kut, a rich curry that gets its salty flavour from fish bone.

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After tasting dishes at a few more stalls, we grabbed a table and Bee snagged a couple packets of rempah udang, an amazing Nyonya snack of grilled sticky rice surrounding a savoury, spicy (think pepper and coriander) and shrimpy centre:

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Moments later, a bowl of curry mee arrived:

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Like  other versions, the bowl held both rice and egg noodles, soft tofu, blood, cockles and shrimp, but this vendor’s version was among the spiciest dishes I’d encountered on Penang. CK explained that the shop’s broth is actually relatively bland, and the dish gets its spice and smoke from a generous dollop of chili paste, added at the last minute:

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Every good breakfast needs a dessert, so naturally we spent the remainder of our time at the market eating sweet stuff, including apom, a type of sweet pancake, from this cheeky vendor:

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Pulau Tikus Market
Jalan Burma, Georgetown, Penang


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In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by nearly all of the sweets I encountered on Penang, as they weren’t nearly as sugary as their Thai counterparts. In particular, George Town seemed to have a variety of slightly sweet pancake-like dishes such as apom balik, a soft, eggy, a slightly sweet Nyonya pancake filled with sliced banana or corn:

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Apom Chooi
Jalan Burma (near Union School), Georgetown, Penang
1.30-8pm Mon-Sat


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and ban chean kuih, a light, crispy pancake filled with ground peanuts and sugar, giving it a flavour and texture that reminded me of the Thai sweet, khanom tup tap.

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But it was really the savoury stuff I enjoyed the most. CK took me to Thin Seng Sauce Factory, a 100 year-old soy sauce factory in the middle of Georgetown:

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We were offered a taste directly from the vats, and far from being just salty, the soy sauce was virtually meaty, with just a touch of sweet:

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Thin Seng Sauce Factory
18, Kampung Malabar, George Town, Penang, Malaysia


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This was followed by a bowl of koay teow th’ng, rice noodles and fish balls in a clear broth (pictured at the top of this post), at Pitt Street Koay Teow Th’ng. A bowl here combines tender and delicious fish dumplings made on-site by hand, a rich duck-based broth, and to bring it all together, a splash of pork fat and crispy garlic. Quite possibly one of the standout bowls of noodles I’ve encountered in Southeast Asia.

Pitt Street Koay Teow Th’ng
Lebuh Carnarvon, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Breakfast & lunch


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And the lard didn’t stop there; virtually across the street is Kedai Kopi Seng Thor, where the crispy and delicious oyster omelet:

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like many old-school Chinese dishes in Georgetown, is fried in lard. Such rich lard, in fact, that the dish had an almost bacon-like flavour:

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Kedai Kopi Seng Thor
Cnr Lebuh Kimberley & Lebuh Carnarvon, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia


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If you find yourself in Penang, consider doing one of CK’s food-based tours of the island. Alternatively, if you want to recreate the dishes of Penang in your own home, check out this page at Rasa Malaysia.

Instagram

Posted at 10am on 4/14/12 | read on
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Shophouse, Georgetown:

Shophouse, Georgetown.

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Protestant cemetery, Georgetown:

Protestant cemetery, Georgetown.

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Hawker cart, Georgetown:

Hawker cart, Georgetown.

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I’ve been on the road a lot lately — Malaysia, Australia and Malaysia again — and although the eating’s been great, there are moments when I have missed Thai food. Luckily, during these brief stints at home I’ve come across a couple new places (new to me, at least) that have tided me over, and are worth sharing.

Khao phat pu (ข้าวผัดปู; fried rice with crab) and kraphoh plaa (กระเพาะปลา; a soup of fish bladder) are two dishes that are usually associated with touristy seafood palaces or flashy restaurants in Bangkok’s Chinatown. As such, they can also be quite expensive, yet often, not that great. Luckily there’s a cheap and tasty alternative on Th Tanao, an atmospheric street in old Bangkok with lots of low-key great eats.

The fried rice (pictured at the top of this post) at this no-name stall is slightly smokey and well-seasoned, and is packed with a generous amount of fresh crab. It’s also not oily or clumpy, and at 60B (about US$2), is a steal. I’m usually not a fan of kraphoh plaa — the somewhat slimy texture of the broth tends to put me off — but the version here was rich and tasty, if a bit thin, and included lots of fresh crab. I wouldn’t cross town for this dish alone, but for the both of them — particularly if I’ve been away — it’s a no brainer.

No-Name Stall
Cnr Th Tanao & Th Namchai, Bangkok
5-10pm


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Lots of people come to Thailand with visions of extravagant seafood meals. And the country’s seafood dishes are generally pretty tasty and satisfying. But having eaten a lot of these meals over the last decade, I have to admit that I’ve grown increasingly disillusioned. The low point probably came last summer, after I got back from my first visit to Barcelona, a place where I can honestly say that I really tasted seafood for the first time. After that trip, I finally began to realise what was wrong with much of the seafood in Thailand, specifically, the fact that it never tastes like much.

Much of Thailand’s seafood is farmed and the emphasis tends to be on quantity over quality — think huge but tasteless farm-raised prawns, the American chicken breast of seafood. To give the seafood dishes flavour, many Thai seafood restaurants compensate by serving dishes with heaps of lime juice and chili or bottled sauces. The inherent flavour of the seafood — if indeed there was any — never had a chance.

But occasionally one encounters a place in Thailand where the seafood is good and better yet, they treat it with respect.

Ruea Lae Le takes some effort to reach: it’s located about 60km from Bangkok, nearly straddling the border between Phetchaburi and Samut Songkhram. And when you finally get there, it will most likely be something of a letdown: the current dining room is a wonky open-air raft, next door to which the new dining room — a shockingly horrendous concrete ‘boat’ — is being constructed:

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Yet despite the questionable aesthetics, I can’t say that I’ve been to a better seafood-based restaurant in the Bangkok area.

Returning to the restaurant for the second time, we again ordered the restaurant’s simple but tasty hoy malaengphu op (หอยแมลงภู่อบ), mussels steamed with Thai herbs:

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The medium-sized mussels are steamed in lidded pots with a bit of broth, galangal and lemongrass until just cooked. This leaves them tender, and with the relatively light seasoning (relatively speaking — this is, after all, Thailand), actually tasting like mussels. (Alternatively, you can dip them in the restaurant’s excellent spicy/tart Thai-style seafood dipping sauce — I did, and this was tasty as well.)

Another re-run was kaeng khua pu bai chakhram (แกงค่ัวปูใบชะความ), a coconut milk curry with crab and chakhram, an aquatic vegetable associated with Samut Songkhram that Dylan told me is known in English as samphire:

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Kaeng khua is a popular vehicle for seafood, but more often than not, it is as bland and insipid as the fish it’s meant to carry. Ruea Lae Le’s version has a wonderful balance of herbal spice and coconut creaminess, not to mention lots of fatty (literally — there were chunks of bright red crab fat floating in the dish), meaty crab and crunchy samphire. An awesome dish.

Hoy siap phat chaa (หอยเสียบผัดฉ่า), briny little razor clams fried with Thai herbs (garlic, fresh peppercorns, chili, lime leaf) was one of my favourite dishes of the meal:

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I’d been on the lookout for a good version of this simple dish for the last few months, yet had been let down several times. The version here is pretty much exactly what I’d been looking for: spicy, pleasantly oily, herbal and including good-quality shellfish, although I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t include thin slivers of krachai (Chinese key).

The only dish I didn’t care for on this visit was tom som pla duk thale (ต้มส้มปลาดุกทะเล), a soup with saltwater catfish:

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The fish was tasty, but the broth, which is seasoned with slivers of young ginger and tamarind, was far too sweet for my taste.

If you’re feeling cholesterol deficient, they also do a great pla muek phat khai khem, thick rings of squid fried with the yolk of salted duck eggs — a dish encountered on my first visit.

As evidenced from the view from the Ruea Lae Le:

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one of fish and shellfish farms extending to the horizon, the restaurant is no doubt using some farmed seafood. But the seafood here had flavour and was prepared in a way that allowed these tastes to come through. It’s not quite Barcelona, but for Thailand, it’s not that far off.

Ruea Lae Le
Bang Tabun, Phetchaburi, Thailand
032 489 046
10am-9pm


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Derby King

Posted at 1am on 4/23/12 | read on
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Patpong, Bangkok’s famous red-light district, is not the most likely destination for good Thai food. Sanitation issues aside, many of the strip’s restaurants, with names like Madrid and Mizu’s Kitchen, are holdouts from the Vietnam War era, and offer an interesting glimpse into the Bangkok of the 1960s and ’70s:

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but continue to serve the same quasi-Western food menus they have for decades.

Yet there are exceptions.

Specifically, every Thursday at lunch, the longstanding restaurant Derby King serves bowls of khao soi, the famous northern Thai curry noodle soup (thanks, Nikky G, for the heads-up). It’s hard to find a good bowl of khao soi even up north, so I was skeptical, but on a recent day, gave it a try.

Derby King’s khao soi comes served with beef, chicken and less traditionally, pork, and seemingly different broths for each. I went with beef, which wasn’t as rich as some of the better versions in Chiang Mai, but that was made with a curry paste that seemed to compensate with lots of garlic and aromatic dried spice. Flat khao soi noodles are virtually non-existent in Bangkok, so the restaurant used the standard round egg-and-wheat bamee noodles. It’s not the most amazing khao soi in Thailand, but it’s solid and satisfying, and with Lamyai having closed and Lam Duan Fah Ham being too far for most people, it’s probably one of the better bowls you’re going to get in central Bangkok.

Derby King also do excellent deep-fried spring rolls — meaty, crispy and full of flavour — that are easily the best I’ve encountered in Bangkok.

Derby King’s khao soi is popular, and you’ll most likely have to call ahead to reserve a table — itself another novelty.

Derby King
70-72 Th Patpong 1, Bangkok
02 234 8354
7.30am-2am


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Instagram

Posted at 2pm on 4/23/12 | read on
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Pretty darn tasty Chinese: ร้านก๋วยเต๋ียวน้ำเงี้ยว, ห้วยขวาง

Pretty darn tasty Chinese: ร้านก๋วยเต๋ียวน้ำเงี้ยว, ห้วยขวาง.