A blog about food in Thailand
and elsewhere.



Phrae, March 23, 2014

Posted at 6am on 4/14/14 | read on
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Backstage at a Chinese opera, Phrae, Thailand

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Most Thais are familiar with khanom jeen nam ngiaw (ขนมจีนน้ำเงี้ยว), the northern Thai staple of a pork- and tomato-based broth served over thin, fresh rice noodles. Yet few are aware of the variations the dish can take across the region. In Chiang Mai, nam ngiaw is often rich and oily, and is supplemented with the dried flowers of the cotton tree; in Chiang Rai the dish is hearty and meaty, and there’s even a variant made with beef; and in Mae Hong Son, khao sen, as it’s known there, tends to be thin and tart with very little meat.

Even Phrae, a relatively obscure province in northern Thailand, has its own version. On the surface, khanom sen nam muu (ขนมเส้นน้ำหมู), as the dish is known there, appears deceptively simple. But as served at Khanom Sen Paa Net, a 60 year-old restaurant in the eponymous provincial capital, it might be the most interesting and delicious version I’ve encountered — largely due to the broth:

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This is made by simmering a shocking amount of pork bones with coriander root, garlic, salt and a bit of fish sauce over very low coals for as long as six hours (allegedly they start making the dish at 3am). The result is one of the most amazing broths I’ve encountered in Thailand — virtually clear yet profoundly meaty without any of the funky “porky” odour that pork-based broths tend to have. Towards the end of the cooking process, they toss in a few halved plum tomatoes and cubes of steamed blood; the broth is served over khanom jeen noodles, drizzled with a mixture of crispy deep-fried pork fat and garlic. The tomatoes offer barely enough acidic tartness to counter the rich meatiness, and the dish is served with optional sides of ground chilies toasted in oil, lime slices, chopped coriander, shredded cabbage and bean sprouts.

Given the work that goes into the dish, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the folks here — the third generation to run the restaurant — are extremely proud of the food they serve, using the best ingredients and taking great care with them — practices one doesn’t always encounter in Thailand. I was told repeatedly that no MSG or stock powder were used in the broth; even the chili condiment is made from chilies sourced from Ubon Ratchathani (“They’re better than the local chilies,” I was told).

Typically served alongside khanom sen in Phrae is khao som, tomato-tinted rice topped with a mixture of deep-fried crispy pork fat and garlic:

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The tomatoes are steamed before being lightly fried with the rice and a bit of salt. The dish has a slightly sour (the som in the name) flavour, and upon request, they’ll scoop up some of the simmered pork bones to accompany it.

Other than som tam, Thai-style papaya salad, the only other dish served at Paa Net is dessert, which on the day I visited took the form of sago pearls and corn in barely sweet/barely salty coconut milk:

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which, like everything else, was utterly simple yet utterly delicious.

Khanom Sen Paa Net
Soi Muang Daeng, Phrae
054 620 056
9am-1.30pm


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Better than Bangkok

Posted at 4am on 3/17/14 | read on
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I had always avoided Bangkok/central Thai-style food up in Chiang Mai. The few dishes I’d had weren’t exactly great, and anyway, how could I not take advantage of all the wonderful local stuff?

But it appears that all I needed was a bit of pointing in the right direction, and recently I encountered two restaurants that do dishes traditionally associated with Bangkok, but, well, better.

Phat kaphrao, minced meat fried with chili, garlic and the eponymous holy basil, is available on just about every street corner in Bangkok. It’s always cheap, salty and spicy, but almost never exceptional; in recent years I’d begun exclusively making it at home rather than getting it outside.

Unless I’m in Chiang Mai, that is. Raan Kraphrao Samrap Khon Chorp Phet translates as “Phat Kaphrao Restaurant for People Who Like Spicy”:

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a slightly misleading name, as part of the deal here is that the customer chooses his preferred level of spiciness. I went for the pork version, medium spicy (shown at the top of this post). Unconventionally, the cooks here marinate the meat beforehand, and the resulting seasoning is spot-in. And I like that the holy basil (the eponymous kaphrao) is tossed into the wok at the very last second, so that it doesn’t wilt and disappear. Yet most of all, I was impressed by the texture of the dish, which emerges from the wok dry and concentrated, almost crumbly. This is an attribute I’d recognised in better versions of the dish, and something I’d always tried to recreate when making it at home.

Phat kaphrao is the obvious highlight, but they also do a daily selection of Chinese-Thai-style soups — perfect mild counterpoints to the spicy food — and full menu of central Thai dishes, including a really excellent phat khee mao.

Also putting Bangkok to shame is Pathom. This place specialises in khao tom, rice — steamed or boiled — served with various Chinese-influenced sides.

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The menu here spans no more than a dozen dishes, which over Pathom’s 30 years in business, they appear to have absolutely perfected. This isn’t sexy cuisine: the dishes aren’t exactly handsome, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find presentation or garnish, but you’ll also be hard-pressed to find better versions of these staples just about anywhere in Thailand.

On my most recent visit (shown above), I had eggplant, Thai basil and fermented soybeans expertly flash-fried until just milliseconds away from turning to mush; crispy, meaty deep-fried pork belly; jap chai, Chinese-style braised vegetables, which here includes lots of cabbage and pork skin; a really excellent tao huu phalo, firm tofu braised in five spice broth, where here is served with dip that’s a near-perfect intersection of spicy and tart; and of course rice. I generally opt for steamed rice, but most customers go for the eponymous boiled rice, which allegedly is given extra gluten by the addition of a bit of sticky rice

Everything is made in advance and staff are efficient, so you’ll be eating in seconds.

And like Raan Kraphrao Samrap Khon Chorp Phet, in addition to better-than-in-Bangkok Bangkok-style food, the other linking element is a dining room that has all the charm of airplane hangar:

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Bringing home the fact that, no matter where you’re eating Thailand, good food often involves a degree of compromise.

Raan Kraphrao Samrap Khon Chorp Phet/ร้านกระเพรา (สำหรับคนชอบเผ็ด)
Rte 1001, Chiang Mai
081 530 0380
11.30am-1pm & 4-9.30pm


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Pathom/ข้าวต้มปฐม
Th Chang Phuak, Chiang Mai
7am-2pm


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Tao huay & chao kuay

Posted at 1am on 3/15/14 | read on
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It’s heating up in Bangkok, and when this happens Thais have traditionally reached out to two very different sweet snacks of Chinese origin in an effort to cool down.

Tao huay (เต้าฮวยน้ำขิง), pictured above, is a unique combination of thin slices of a type of very soft bean curd pudding and a hot, spicy, ginger broth. The dish is garnished with crispy deep-fried bits of dough and a dash of raw cane sugar (น้ำตาลทรายแดง). Hot, spicy broth may seem a counter-intuitive snack choice in sweltering weather, but Chinese belief entails that eating hot, spicy things induces sweating, which ultimately cools one down.

Another cooling dish, usually sold at the same stalls that serve tao huay, is chao kuay (เฉาก๊วย), the somewhat medicinal-tasting black cubes known in English as grass jelly (for a description of how grass jelly is made, go here):

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In Thailand, the stuff is served with crushed ice and sprinkling of raw, fragrant cane sugar. The ice is an obvious cooling element, but in Chinese medicine, grass jelly is thought to inherently possess cooling properties, pushing the body’s balance towards the yin end of the spectrum.

These snacks are available just about everywhere, especially in the older parts of Bangkok, but lately I’ve been going to this streetside stall at the edge of Bangkok’s old town:

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where this vendor has been working the kettles for more than 50 years. He doesn’t make the ingredients himself, but they’re of good quality nonetheless.

Tao Huay & Chao Kuay Vendor
Cnr Soi Tha Kham & Th Maha Rat, Bangkok
Noon-7pm

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Good northern Thai-style food is hard enough to find in Bangkok. Yet a decent bowl of khao soi, the curry noodle soup that’s quite possibly the region’s most famous dish, is probably the most elusive thing of all.

There are a few places in town that serve passable versions of khao soi. But most of Bangkok’s bowls are creamy, bland approximations of the stuff up north. Those that do the best versions tend to have a direct link with Chiang Mai, which is the case with Khao Soi Chiang Mai. The original owner is a native of eponymous city, who, more than 40 years ago, started selling the mild Muslim-style khao soi associated with her hometown.

Chiang Mai’s Muslim-style khao soi is not as spicy, rich or fragrant as the coconut milk curry-based broth served at the city’s more famous Thai-Buddhist-run restaurants. Instead, the dish is comprised of two parts: a thick, rich, meat-based (beef or chicken) ‘stew’ and heated coconut cream that are combined to order. The result is a mix that, when done properly (such as that served at Chiang Mai’s Khao Soi Prince), is pleasantly mild, but not bland, with a consistency somewhere between watery and creamy, and with a subtle, almost indistinguishable flavour of dried spice.

Khao Soi Chiang Mai’s is the closest I’ve come to this version of the dish in Bangkok. Again, it’s worth reiterating that those expecting heaps of chili and spice will be disappointed; both the beef and chicken versions here are very mild, the former being slightly less so. Admittedly, a bit of seasoning is required, but once done, it’s on par with versions served up in Chiang Mai. Also as in Chiang Mai, the noodles here are smooth and dense, and here are made in-house. And the khao soi is served with sides of slices of lime, thinly-sliced shallots and good-quality pickled cabbage.

They also serve the other northern Thai noodle staple, khanom jeen nam ngiaw, thin rice noodles served with a pork- and tomato-based broth:

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Unfortunately the version here is neither particularly rich (as it is in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai) nor tart (as it is up in Mae Hong Son).

And like the Muslim-style khao soi restaurants up in Chiang Mai, they also do a few Thai-Muslim staples, including khao mok kai:

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chicken biryani, served here very Thai-style, ie the rice appears to be seasoned with little more than turmeric, and comes accompanied with a very sweet dipping sauce; chicken satay; and ‘Muslim’ salad: lettuce, eggs and tofu served with a sweet peanut-based dressing. All OK, but the main reason to come is that rarest of things in Bangkok, a real-deal khao soi.

Khao Soi Chiang Mai
283 Th Samsen, Bangkok
9am-4pm Sun-Fri


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Japanese-style sukiyaki has had a foothold in Bangkok for several decades now, with the restaurant laying claim to being the first to serve the do-it-yourself hotpot dish having opened back in 1955. This has seemingly left enough time for Thais to put their own unique spin on the dish, and today there are a couple unique variations on sukii, as its known in Thailand, ranging from a one-serving street stall version to my personal favourite, sukii haeng, a fried ‘dry’ version.

Selling both of these is Sukii Rot Kraba, a stall in Bangkok’s Chinatown. The concept here edges perilously close to novelty: the stall’s distinguishing characteristic is that the sukii is prepared in the back of a truck (rot kraba):

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But it’s a solid, if not outstanding version of the dish.

Like elsewhere, the dish takes the form of mung bean vermicelli wok-fried with napa cabbage, green onions, egg and meat — here chicken, pork or beef. The fried version comes from the truck somewhere between wet and dry, and the highlights here are the tender, marinated meat — the beef version in particular is great — and a savoury/spicy all-you-can-eat dip.

They do a couple other dishes here, including a mediocre kuaytiaw khua kai, wide rice noodles fried with chicken and egg, but the cleverest game plan is to stick with the sukii.

From a Thai television programme that featured the stall:

Sukee Rot Kraba
Soi 27, Th Charoen Krung
Bangkok
5.30-11.30pm


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How to make: Khao sen

Posted at 12am on 2/12/14 | read on
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As mentioned previously, khao sen (ข้าวเส้น), a thin, pork- and tomato-based broth served over khanom jeen noodles, is one of the most popular dishes in Mae Hong Son. It’s also a relatively easy dish to re-create if you live somewhere where you don’t have access to exotic ingredients. If you can’t get fresh khanom jeen noodles where you live, try rehydrating sen mee — the thinnest grade of Thai-style dried rice noodle (shown here). This recipe was told me by the second generation cook at Paa Jaang, a home-based restaurant that serves the dish. In Mae Hong Son, khao sen is eaten for breakfast or as an afternoon snack.

Khao Sen (Shan-style noodle soup)

Ingredients

-3 Tbsp vegetable oil
-100g (about 8) shallots, sliced
-50g (about 10 cloves) garlic, minced
-1 Tbsp shrimp paste
-½ can Three Lady Cooks Brand mackerel in tomato sauce (this stuff)
-500g tart cherry tomatoes, halved
-250g pork loin, coarsely chopped
-1.5l water
-500g pork bones
-1 Tbsp Knorr chicken stock powder
-Salt

-khanom jeen noodles
-Deep-fried garlic in oil
-Chopped coriander
-Chopped green onion
-Shredded cabbage
-Lime slices
-Salt
-Ground chili

Procedure

Heat oil in stock pot over a low flame and fry shallots and garlic until fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Add shrimp paste, mixing and pressing to combine, until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Add canned mackerel (including tomato sauce), mixing and pressing to combine, until fragrant and a thin layer of oil emerges, about 5 minutes.

Increase heat to medium and add tomatoes. Fry until somewhat reduced and oil re-emerges, about 20 minutes.

Add pork. Fry until oil re-emerges, 10 minutes.

Add water and pork bones. Increase heat to high; when mixture reaches a simmer, reduce heat to low and allow to simmer 20 minutes.

Add Knorr chicken stock powder and salt to taste, if necessary. Allow to simmer another 10 to 20 minutes until soup is slightly reduced and amalgamated. The finished soup should still be relatively thin, and should taste tart, savoury and salty (in that order).

Remove stock bones if they are too big to serve. Serve a generous amount of the soup over khanom jeen noodles topped with garnishes of garlic oil, coriander and green onion, along with optional sides of shredded cabbage, lime, salt and dried ground chili.

Paa Jaang/ป้าจ่าง
Off Th Khunlumprapat, Mae Hong Son
3pm-6pm Mon-Sat


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Where to eat in Mae Hong Son 2014

Posted at 5am on 1/15/14 | read on
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Mae Hong Son, a tiny town seemingly forgotten in Thailand’s northwesternmost corner, doesn’t have a reputation as a culinary destination. And honestly, most visitors would be disappointed by the town’s more apparent restaurant options. But if pointed in the right direction, there’s some quite interesting stuff to eat there.

I’ve been writing about the food in this town for a while now, yet quite a few of the restaurants and vendors I’ve mentioned in previous years have shut down or gone down in quality. So I thought it high time to do an updated summary of the city’s better places to get local food.

Northern Thai

Although most people in Mae Hong Son are Shan/Thai Yai, there’s a handful of places to get northern Thai-style food.

My personal fave is Lung Roen. It’s little more than wall-less, street-side shack, but the older family here do good laap and sides, in particular a really excellent — rich, fatty, eggy — aep (grilled banana leaf packets of meat and herbs) and a tasty tam som oh, a “salad” of pounded pomelo.

New to me, although it’s been around for a while, is Laap Pang Lor. Expect tiny dishes of cumin-heavy, rich northern-style laap:

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and great sides — the bamboo salad shown above was crunchy, spicy and savoury.

Another decent option for northern Thai is Laap Chiang Mai. The laap here tends to be heavy on the blood and light on the spice, but the various soups and sides, in particular the nam phrik taa daeng (a northern Thai-style “dip” of dried chili and fish), are pretty good. It’s also just about the only place in town to get relatively good local food come evening.

For khao soi, the northern Thai curry noodle soup, by far the best bowl is town is at Chom Mai Restaurant. The chicken version here is rich and spicy, with, unusually, a hint of tomato. They also serve a few OK Shan-style dishes.

And it’s not an acknowledged part of the northern Thai genre, but kai op faang, chicken “roasted” in rice hay is available — and delicious — at Chaay Thung, about 13km outside of town.

Thai Yai/Shan

The Shan (also known as Thai Yai or simply Tai) are an ethnic group related to the Thai, but who predominately live across the border in Myanmar. Much of their food has been influenced by Burmese-style cooking, and Mae Hong Son is the best place (in many cases, the only place) in Thailand to try these unique dishes.

Quite possibly the most ubiquitous Shan dish of all is khao sen, thin rice noodles in a light, tomatoey broth. Places that serve this dish also often serve khang pong, deep-fried fritters made from green papaya, shallots of banana blossom, and khao kan jin, rice kneaded with pork meat and blood. Khao sen is available at Mae Hong Son’s morning market, as well as all the places mentioned here; in particular, Paa Khon does an excellent bowl of khao sen, fortified with crunchy banana stalk (not to mention an amazing banana blossom khang pong):

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and Paa Jaang does excellent khao kan jin — both raw and steamed (pictured at the top of this post).

For Shan-style dishes with rice, the best choice is Mae Sri Bua. Her kaeng hang lay, a Shan curry of pork belly:

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has an awesome balance of salty, sweet and sour that reminds me of American-style barbecue sauce — if American barbecue sauce tasted about 100x better. The dishes available change on a day-to-day basis, but she usually always has jin lung, the Shan-style herbal meatballs, and oop kai, a Shan-style chicken curry.

And they’re take-away only, but amazing Shan-style sweets — honestly, some of the best traditional sweets in the country, as far as I’m concerned — such as alawaa:

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can be got at Paa Nii.

Chinese/Yunnanese

Ban Rak Thai, about 50km northwest of Mae Hong Son, was founded by KMT fighters who originally fled China in 1947. They took their cuisine with them, and today the village is home to a handful of restaurants serving Yunnanese-style Chinese food. The longest-standing, and my favourite is Gee Lee Restaurant. They do a dish called muu phan pii (thousand year-old pork), which takes the form of thin slices of braised pork belly over a pile of spicy pickled greens:

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I recently took chefs Andy Ricker and David Thompson here, and the latter was so taken with the dish that he took a kilogram of the pickled greens back to Bangkok!


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Mildly delicious

Posted at 10am on 10/25/13 | read on
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There’s a widespread perception that Thai food is spicy. And justifiably so. Thai people — women in particular — seem to relish in eating devastatingly hot dishes, and even have a repertoire of only marginally translatable words to express the equal parts painful and pleasurable sensation of doing so (example: เผ็ดจนหูอื้อ, phet jon huu eu, roughly “so spicy your ears ring”).

But it’s certainly not the case that everything in Thailand is spicy. In fact, many of the dishes sold on the streets or from the shophouses of Bangkok — particularly those of Chinese origin — tend to be quite mild, sometimes bordering on bland.

One of the more famous examples of this is satay. Although the dish is most likely Indonesian in origin and appears to have been brought to Thailand by Chinese immigrants, in the US, the peanut-based dipping sauce that accompanies the skewers of meat has somehow become synonymous with Thai food. Origins aside, in Thailand at least, I’d never cared for the stuff. Most versions are dry and relatively flavourless, and come served with an cloyingly sweet dipping sauce — a far cry from the delicate, fatty, spicy skewers and rich sauce one encounters in the dish’s country of origin or even in Malaysia.

But a recent discovery single-handedly changed my opinion about Thai-style satay. Chong Kee, a longstanding shophouse restaurant at the edge of Bangkok’s Chinatown, specialises in the dish — in fact, it’s the only dish they serve. Like elsewhere, the skewers have been marinated in a mixture of coconut milk, turmeric and dried spice. Unlike elsewhere, the skewers at Chong Kee are smoky and surprisingly tender. They use fattier cuts of pork (the staple meat for this dish in Thailand), which don’t dry as quickly, and are great at soaking up all that flavourful smoke (they also serve a somewhat unusual liver version). The accompanying peanut sauce is sweet, as it should be, but not overwhelmingly so, and also packs a tiny bit of chili spice and a pleasantly fragrant hint of coriander seed. Other sides include ajaat, sliced shallots, chili and cucumber in sweet/tart dressing, and thick slices of fluffy white toast.

Next door, another longstanding restaurant sells an equally mild but delicious dish: khao muu daeng, rice topped with roast pork.

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An ‘everything’ order here will get you a plate of rice topped with thin slices of bright red roast pork, crispy fingers of deep-fried pork belly and rich, fatty disks of Chinese-style pork sausage. The whole lot is topped with a slightly rich, somewhat sweet, very gloopy sauce:

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Soft-boiled eggs (made orange by the addition of food colouring) and a condiment of mild chilis in vinegar are optional sides.

The pork belly is great — rich, crispy, fatty — and the kun chiang (Chinese sausage) also good, but the roast pork is pretty mediocre — more red food colouring than flavour. Regardless, the whole thing comes together in a favourably mild way that will trick you into wanting a second dish.

In addition to pork and rice, they also do a few excellent Chinese-style soups. Duck in broth made tart with pickled lime is available every day, while pork rib and bitter gourd:

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and pork stomach with Chinese-style pickled vegetables are available intermittently.

Two solid options for spice-fearing and adventurous eaters alike.

Si Morakot/สีมรกต
80-82 Soi Sukon 1, Bangkok
11am-7pm

Chong Kee/ชองกี่
84 Soi Sukon 1, Bangkok
9.30am-6pm Tues-Sun, to 2pm Mon


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In Bangkok, if the restaurant you’re eating at has completely neglected the concept of interior design, and/or its clientele dress like they come from another generation (or province):

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you’re probably in for a good meal.

Khun Yah Cuisine, a restaurant in Bangkok’s Chinatown, has both of these going for it. Perhaps more importantly, it also came highly recommended by veteran Thai food writer Suthon Sukphisit. But somehow it avoided the radar of me or longtime Thailand resident and food writer, Ung-Aang Talay, and a few months back the two of us ate there for the first time.

The eponymous Khun Yah is the current owner’s grandmother (yah), herself allegedly a talented home cook originally from Nakhon Chaisri. It’s been nearly 60 years since she first opened it, a fact evidenced its rather archaic opening hours (to avoid the disappointment of all the best dishes being sold out, be prepared to eat lunch at 10.30am), the previously-mentioned lack of decor, classic old-school, central Thai curry shop dishes, and drinking water served with essence of nam yaa uthaithip, an old herbal medicine.

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Yet it’s not only about nostalgia; the food at Khun Yah Cuisine is exceptional. But I dare say that it’s not the type of place that will blow most diners away. In fact, newbies to Thai food expecting fire and fish sauce will likely be disappointed. The dishes here are exercises in restraint and balance, featuring nuanced and subtle flavours that evoke what food used to be like generations ago; indeed, many reminded Ung-Aang Talay of the dishes he ate in the early ’70s; (his Bangkok Post article about Khun Yah Cuisine can be seen here).

A good example of this is the restaurant’s green curry with beef (แกงเขียวหวานเนื้อ):

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We were told that, before it’s added to the curry, the beef is simmered in coconut milk until tender — a huge difference from the tough, grisly knots of beef one normally encounters in this dish. The resulting coconuty broth is then combined with coconut cream (fresh, not UHT) and curry paste (homemade, of course), lending the final dish an additional layer of meatiness. It’s also this broth that provides the dish its slightly watery — some would say soupy — consistency. Folks used to the creamy, sweet green curries that are the norm today might think something’s off here, but according to Ung-Aang Talay, this is what green curry used to be — and should be — like.

Another great dish is the plaa duk foo phat phrik khing (ปลาดุกฟูผัดพริกขิง), crispy catfish fried with a curry paste:

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Pleasantly crunchy — and remarkably un-oily — and featuring a delightful intersection of salty, sweet and spicy flavours.

Other dishes I’ve encountered here on subsequent visits include lon puu khem (หลนปูเค็ม), a creamy, herbal ‘dip’ with salted crab and ground pork; a rich, herbal and rather dry phanaeng kai (แพนงไก่); plaa thuu jian (ปลาทูเจี๋ยน), a rare dish of deep-fried mackerel topped with a savoury dressing of minced pork, slivers of ginger and salted soybeans; a tart salad of mackerel, Thai basil leaves and ginger; and nam phrik kapi (น้ําพริกกะปิ), a type of shrimp paste-based ‘dip’, which unusually here was given body by boiled and smashed eggplant.

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The restaurant also does a couple, often noodle-based, specials every day, and when we were there, on a Thursday, they were doing phat Thai:

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made with rich duck eggs, pork fat, and, well, because it was done in the past, a topping of crispy pork fat.

On another visit I ordered nam yaa plaa (น้ำยาปลา), a fish-based curry served over khanom jeen, thin rice noodles:

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an almost faultless union of creamy, herbal, salty, sweet textures and flavours.

Khun Yah Cuisine is concealed in what is essentially the car park of Wat Traimit; look for the large English-language sign.

Khun Yah Cuisine
661/2 Th Mittraphap Thai-Jeen
6.30am-1pm Mon-Fri


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