I may not have the most sophisticated palette or possess the most extensive knowledge about food, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve been blessed with powerful restaurant sense. I can usually pass by a place and at a glance, get a relatively accurate feel for whether or not the food’s going to be interesting. I’ve been burned a few times, but would attribute these lapses to the existence of some kryptonite-like element (perhaps those deep-fried hot dogs that are ubiquitous on Bangkok’s streets?), and in general, my track record is pretty solid.
This was confirmed yet again at Hok Kee Phochana, a longstanding Chinese-Thai restaurant in an obscure corner of Bangkok. I’d passed by this desolate stretch of Thanon Banthat Thong a few times and noticed an intersection with a glut of restaurants selling haan phalo (ห่ารพะโล้), goose braised with five-spice powder. Curious, I recently returned to the area on foot for a closer inspection and was drawn to the old-school interior of one of the restaurants, Hok Kee Phochana. In fact — and providing the ultimate challenge for my senses — Hok kee has three interiors: the un-air-conditioned crusty one, an adjacent simple but air-conditioned dining hall, and rather brash modern restaurant.
Wherever you eat it, the highlight here is the braised goose. We ordered the mixed version (illustrated above), which in addition to tender goose breast, also includes intestines, wing, blood, liver, heart and other hard-to-identify giblets. In particular, the blood here is almost impossibly soft and tender — one of the best versions of the stuff I’ve encountered. The thin layer of braising broth just might be the most satisfying bit, and unlike elsewhere, is not overtly sugary, instead relying “sweet” spices such as star anise and cinnamon, which are countered by a salty, slightly peppery flavour. The goose is consumed with a tart/spicy dipping sauce that combines, vinegar, garlic and fresh chili.
On my second visit, I tried a couple other dishes, including deer fried with Chinese celery:
The deer meat was very tender and pleasantly singed, and any gaminess (there really wasn’t any) was countered by slivers of ginger, the fragrant Chinese celery and chili. The dish included salted black beans, a rarity here, even in Thai-Chinese cuisine. Excellent.
There was also fish head hotpot:
something that’s quickly becoming one of my favourite Chinese-Thai dishes. The fish head is served in a broth made tart with the addition of salted plum, and is served with a dipping sauce of fermented soybeans and garlic. Fish head doesn’t generally mean a lot of meat, and that which is found requires some effort to extract, but it really is some of the tenderest most flavourful part of the fish, and also has the benefit of adding a level of meaty depth to the broth.
Other recommended dishes at Hok Kee include or suan, a type of oyster omelet, and abalone fried with kai lan.
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Hok Kee Phochana
Soi Chula 34, Bangkok
02 214 2439
Most of Thailand’s floating markets are staged tourist traps, but the market at Tha Kha, located in a remote corner of Samut Songkhram Province, remains relatively authentic. It’s also stunningly beautiful, and in addition to buying food from the handful of land- and boat-bound food vendors:
visitors can do a 45-minute boat tour of the area’s pencil-thin canals:
which also includes a stop at a rural palm sugar producer. And Tha Kha has the added benefit of being close to Amphawa, a time-warp of a town where scenes like this:
are part of everyday life.
It’s a beautiful slice of rural Thailand that actually lives up to the tourist brochures, but the highlight for me was one of the tastiest versions of hoy thot, a type of mussel omelet, that I’ve encountered in a long time.
Like the other vendors at Tha Kha, Mae Khiaw sells her meals from a boat. But what really makes her dish unique is the fact that it’s fried in lard, over coals:
This results in a hoy thot that’s rich, gooey, salty and smokey. It’s a superior version of the dish by any reckoning, but eaten in the cool morning at the side of a palm-lined rural canal, to a soundtrack of chatting vendors and lapping water, it’s also an example of that rare junction of flavour and setting that can elevate a dish from a simple meal to an experience.
The Tha Kha floating market is held from 7am to 1pm on the “2nd, 7th and 12th day of waxing and waning moons”; if you’re not familiar with the lunar calendar, just call Amphawa’s TAT office (034 752 847), who can tell you when the next one will be held.
Tha Kha Floating Market, Samut Songkhram
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