A blog about food in Thailand
and elsewhere.



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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Pok Pok preview #3: Laap Meuang

Posted at 9am on 10/18/13 | read on
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Austin Bush © 2013

In late 2007, I was pointed in the direction of a New York Times piece on the dining scene in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. Among the restaurants highlighted was a place called Pok Pok. Unlike most restaurants in the US doing Thai food, Pok Pok wasn’t serving green curry with bell peppers or phad Thai with beef, but rather, stuff that Thai people actually eat: yam khai dao, hearty soups, obscure chili-based ‘dips’ and other rustic, regional Thai dishes. My interest was piqued, and I shot off an email to the restaurant’s chef/owner. He replied almost immediately, and to my surprise, was familiar with the very blog you’re reading now. He was coming to Thailand in a few months, and we arranged meet up.

Six years later, that guy and I are friends and collaborators.

I’m terribly excited for Andy’s success. Yet I dare say that his soon-to-be-released book, Pok Pok  (currently available for pre-order here or here), may endure longer than his restaurants. Simply put, unless you can read Thai, there’s no other comparable resource for regional Thai recipes. And best of all they’re good, real recipes: Andy learned them from talented home and professional chefs in Thailand, and from decades of eating and cooking across the country, and over the years has subsequently honed them in his restaurants. At this point he’s a pro at introducing obscure ingredients and dishes both to diners and to his staff, and it’s this unique sensibility and authority that he brings to the book. I recently asked Andy a few questions about the process of writing Pok Pok:

-Many of the recipes in Pok Pok can appear pretty time-consuming and/or involve obscure techniques and ingredients. At the same time it’s quite readable and has an engaging narrative flow. Did you approach it as a functional cookbook that people will actually cook from, or more as a reference (or perhaps even entertainment)?

Both; these days cookbooks need to be more than a volume of recipes, they also need to have a story and lots of pretty pictures to sell well. Having said that, it was really important to me that this be a working cookbook, something that you could get dirty.

-For those familiar with Thai food, a glance at the list of recipes alone seems to indicate that Pok Pok doesn’t pull any punches. In a general sense, what kind of allowances did you have to make for an American audience?

Very few. Basically, we left out recipes that had ingredients that are hard or impossible to find in the West.

-Are these Thai recipes or your recipes?

These are recipes I have learned over 20 years of traveling, eating and cooking in Thailand. Most are my attempt to make a version of the dish that would be acceptable to the folks who come from the region the dish originates in.

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Austin Bush © 2013

-Quite a few of the recipes have their origins in northern Thailand. What is it about this region’s food that appeals to you so much?

It’s my first true love when it comes to the food of Thailand. There is just something about the flavor combinations and style of cooking that appeals to me more than any other region’s.

-You chose to profile the recipe for northern-style laap. It’s also one of my favourite Thai dishes, but at its core it’s essentially just minced meat and spice. What is it that’s so special about this dish?

To me it is emblematic of the cuisine of northern Thailand. It is highly fetishized in the north, with variations in every province, city, town and even house to house. The way it is eaten, shared with lots of fresh herbs and vegetables along with sticky rice, often alongside beer or booze in a convivial atmosphere is at the core of of how Thai people eat: it’s not just what you eat, it’s how and (maybe most important) why you eat.

-Any tips for people who want to make it?

Have patience, try it more than once, and do not skip the fresh herbs and vegetables, nor the sticky rice; they are an essential part of the dish.

Laap Meuang/Northern Thai Minced Pork Salad

Reprinted with permission from Pok Pok by Andy Ricker with J.J. Goode, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

Serves 6 to 12 as part of a meal

Naam phrik laap (laap seasoning paste)
1 ounce stemmed dried Mexican puya chilies (about 12)
1 tablespoon makhwaen, black Sichuan peppercorns, or whole black peppercorns
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground dried galangal
1/2 teaspoon ground dried lemongrass
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 cloves
2 dried Indonesian long peppers (called pippali in Indian and Malay markets, dippli in Thai markets, tiêu lớp in Vietnamese markets)
1 star anise
1 whole mace
1 cardamom pod, preferably the white, rounder Thai variety
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ounce peeled garlic, halved lengthwise
2 ounces peeled Asian shallots, thinly sliced against the grain
1 tablespoon Kapi Kung (Homemade shrimp paste)

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Austin Bush © 2013

Offal
1 ounces pork small intestine, cut into a few pieces
2 ounces pork skin, cut into a few pieces
1 (2-ounce) piece pork liver
1 teaspoon Kapi Kung (Homemade shrimp paste)
1 (14-gram) piece unpeeled fresh or frozen (not defrosted) galangal, coarsely sliced
1 large stalk lemongrass, outer layer removed, halved crosswise, and lightly smashed with a pestle, pan, or flat part of a knife blade
3 1/2 cups water

Pork
1 large stalk lemongrass, outer layer removed, halved crosswise, and lightly smashed with a pestle, pan, or flat part of a knife blade
2 cups fresh or defrosted frozen raw pork blood
1 pound boneless pork loin, trimmed of any large fat deposits if necessary and cut against the grain into approximately 1/2-inch-thick slices

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Austin Bush © 2013

To prepare the laap for cooking
1/2 cup reserved offal cooking liquid
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onions, lightly packed
2 tablespoons thinly sliced sawtooth herb, lightly packed
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro (thin stems and leaves), lightly packed
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped Vietnamese mint leaves, lightly packed
2 tablespoons fried shallots
1 tablespoon fried garlic

To serve the laap
2 tablespoons fried-shallot or fried-garlic oil
1 1/2 cups reserved offal cooking liquid
3 tablespoons thinly sliced green onions, lightly packed
3 tablespoons thinly sliced sawtooth herb, lightly packed
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro (thin stems and leaves), lightly packed
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped Vietnamese mint leaves, lightly packed
3 tablespoons fried shallots
3 tablespoon fried garlic
3 tablespoons very coarsely chopped (about 1/4-inch pieces) unseasoned pork cracklings, preferably with some meat attached

Make the naam phrik laap (laap seasoning paste)
Put the chiles in a small dry pan or wok, increase the heat to high to get the pan hot, then decrease the heat to low. Cook, stirring and flipping them frequently to make sure both sides of the chiles make contact with the hot pan, until the chiles are brittle and very dark brown (nearly black) all over, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the chiles from the pan as they’re finished. (Discard any seeds that escape the chiles, because they’ll be burnt and bitter.) Set the chiles aside.

Combine the makhwen, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, ground galangal, ground lemongrass, black peppercorns, cumin seeds, nutmeg, cloves, long peppers, star anise, mace, and cardamom in a small pan, set the pan over low heat, and cook, stirring and tossing often, until they’re very fragrant, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir for another minute. Grind them in a spice grinder (or pound them in a granite mortar) to a fairly fine powder.

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Austin Bush © 2013

Combine the dried chiles and salt in a granite mortar and pound firmly, scraping the mortar and stirring the mixture once or twice, until you have a fairly fine powder, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and pound, occasionally stopping to scrape down the sides of the mortar, until you have a fairly smooth paste, about
2 minutes. Do the same with the shallots. Next, add the ground spice mixture and pound until it’s well incorporated into the paste, about 2 minutes. Finally, pound in the shrimp paste until it’s fully incorporated, about 30 seconds.

You’ll have about 1/2 cup of paste. You can use it right away, or store the paste in the fridge for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 6 months. It helps to freeze the paste in small portions. You’ll need about 6 tablespoons of paste for enough laap to serve 6 to 12 people.

Cook the offal
Combine the intestines, skin, liver, shrimp paste, galangal, lemongrass, and water in a small pot. Set the pot over high heat and bring the water to a strong simmer. Check the pork liver. Once it’s cooked through (firm and just barely pink in the center), transfer it to a cutting board. Decrease the heat to maintain a gentle but steady simmer, skimming off any surface scum.

Keep cooking until the skin is translucent and soft enough to easily slice, about 20 minutes. Transfer the intestines and skin to the cutting board with the liver and reserve 2 cups of the liquid. When they’re all cool enough to handle, slice the intestines and liver into small bite-size pieces. Slice the skin into thin 2-inch- long strips.

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Austin Bush © 2013

Chop (“laap”) the pork
Clear your appointments for the next 45 minutes.

Combine the lemongrass and blood in a mixing bowl and use your hand to squeeze and squish the lemongrass stalk for about a minute. You’re helping to release the essence of the lemongrass, which tones down the flavor of the blood and keeps the blood liquid. Leave the lemongrass in the blood for now, but avoid it when you spoon out the blood later.

Put the pork slices on a solid wood chopping block or cutting board. Use a heavy knife or cleaver to chop the pork, lifting the knife off the block with each chop and working methodically from one side of the expanse of meat to the other, then working your way back. (How hard should you chop? Pretend you want to hack a medium-size carrot into two pieces with each chop. Rely on your wrist for motion and the weight of the knife for most of your power.) Every 15 seconds or so, use the knife to scoop up some of the meat and fold it back onto the rest. Make sure you’re not neglecting any spots.

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Austin Bush © 2013

Once the meat is coarsely chopped, after about 5 minutes, drizzle on 2 tablespoons of the blood (leaving behind the lemongrass), and keep chopping and folding as before to incorporate the blood and to continue chopping the meat more and more finely. Keep at it, adding another 2 tablespoons of blood every 5 minutes but stopping once you’ve used a total of 1/2 cup, until the blood is completely incorporated (the meat will be a deep purple reminiscent of beets), and the meat is very finely minced (you’re shooting for a level several times finer than that of store-bought ground meat). After 15 minutes, you’ll have reached hamburger texture. Keep going. It requires about 30 to 40 minutes of chopping, depending on your facility for it.

Discard the rest of the blood. (Don’t worry, blood isn’t expensive.) Transfer the minced meat mixture to a bowl. You’ve just spent more time and expended more energy than most people do preparing and eating an entire meal, so it should go without saying that you don’t want to leave any of your hard-won mince on either the chopping block or your knife. Do, however, discard any waxy fat that might have collected on your knife blade.

Prepare the laap for cooking (“yam” the laap)
In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the 1/2 cup of reserved offal cooking liquid with the 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 5 to 7 tablespoons of the laap seasoning paste, depending on how intensely flavored you want the final dish to be, until they’re well mixed. Add all of the raw meat mixture and cooked offal, then stir gently but well. Add the salt, green onions, and herbs, stir well, then add the fried shallots and garlic and stir well.

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Austin Bush © 2013

At this point, the average Northern Thai cook would taste the mixture and adjust the seasoning, adding salt (or less typically in the North, fish sauce) if it isn’t salty enough and more naam phrik laap if it is not spicy or intense enough. If you’re brave, go ahead. (If not, you can season it later, as it cooks.) Raw laap is delicious and rich. Northern Thai men of a certain generation would say it is superior to the cooked version. And I agree.

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Austin Bush © 2013

Cook and serve the laap
Heat a wok or large pan over high heat, add the oil, and swirl it in the wok to coat the sides. When the oil begins to smoke lightly, add the meat mixture, stir well, then add 11/2 cups of the reserved offal cooking liquid.

Cook, stirring constantly and breaking up the meat to ensure that it doesn’t clump, until the meat is cooked, the liquid begins to simmer vigorously, and the mix- ture looks slightly soupy as the meat gives up its water, about 5 minutes. Taste and season with more salt or laap seasoning paste.

Keep cooking at a vigorous simmer, stirring often, so the flavors have a chance to meld, about 3 minutes more.
Spoon the laap onto a large plate or platter in a low mound. There should be some liquid pooling at the edges. Let it cool to just above room temperature, then sprinkle on the green onions, herbs, fried shallots and garlic, and pork cracklings, and serve.

[Ricker suggests making a meal of laap by serving it with sticky rice and "...fresh herbs on the stem, such as Thai basil, sawtooth, cilantro, and Vietnamese mint (rau ram); and raw vegetables, such as wedges of cabbage, quartered Thai apple eggplant, cucumber spears, and 3-inch lengths of long bean."]

Pok Pok preview #2: Khao Soi Kai

Posted at 7am on 10/14/13 | read on
7 Comments


Rick_9781607742883_art_p216
Austin Bush © 2013

JJ Goode co-wrote Pok Pok with Andy Ricker. Bon Appétit’s recent nominee for a food-based Nobel Prize, JJ has worked on, both openly and clandestinely, several high-profile cookbooks. But I suspect that the Pok Pok book was, in many ways, not his usual assignment.

JJ flew to Thailand for the shoot — only his second time in the country — which was also seen an opportunity for him to get immersed in the food and observe the dishes being made firsthand. During our month up in Chiang Mai, he maintained a throne-like station in the corner of the kitchen:

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where he sat for hours each day, furiously taking notes and asking questions. When Andy cooked something, JJ was also furiously taking photos, videotaping, asking more questions and prodding Andy to weigh even the most minute ingredient and to explain his reasoning behind every single step.

By the end of the month, I suspect that Andy’s desire to kill me was only overshadowed by his desire to kill JJ.

But his insistence paid off, and the result of their collaboration is a cookbook that is not only clear and patient, but one that’s eminently readable, with a distinct voice and an engaging narrative. With the book due to be released at the end of this month (it’s currently available for pre-order here or here), I asked JJ a few questions about the process of putting it together.

-You’ve worked on quite a few cookbooks spanning quite a few concepts and cuisines. What makes this book different?

The biggest difference was in writing the recipes. Most of the books I work on are with chefs who create food, who come with dishes or interesting takes on classic dishes. Andy, however, does not create dishes. He tries to replicate dishes that he’s had in Thailand. Not only that, the food is totally unfamiliar to most of us. It was really fun to try to figure out a way to introduce the food to readers that wasn’t too filled with facts and dates. So instead of acting as an all-knowing authority or expert (a role in which, to his credit, he’s not entirely comfortable), he acts as a sort of tour guide, one who understands where you’re coming from, because he was once just like us: new to the country and to the food.

-Some of the dishes profiled in Pok Pok are relatively unknown, even here in Thailand. What were the challenges in writing a book about such an obscure cuisine?

The recipes were the big challenge, for sure. Again, he’s not creating food. He’s replicating it. He works really hard to do it with ingredients available in the U.S. and he wants to do it faithfully, so shortcuts or substitutions that change the proper flavor profile are a no go. The recipes have to provide a lot of extra details, because so many of the techniques and ingredients are unfamiliar. Most cookbooks tell you to “peel carrots” or “blend until smooth”; all of us can do that, no problem. In this book, however, we had to consider that people might not just know how to, say, get at the tender heart of lemongrass or to properly pound green papaya in a mortar for som tam (aka much more gently than I initially assumed).  Not only that, but once you get the recipes right, you also have to convince the reader of two seemingly contradictory things: that recreating real-deal Thai food is totally possible and doable at home, but that getting it right takes some real effort.

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-Based on your experiences cooking Thai food at home in New York City, can someone in the US really expect to be able to make all of the dishes in the book?

One hundred percent yes. Some dishes take more work than others. But every ingredient he calls for is available here, and we offer advice on how to find it. For the rare ingredients, like makhwen [prickly ash; a type of dried spice], he provides substitutions that don’t sacrifice flavor.

I’ve done a lot of shopping while working on this book. And I’m always shocked at how much is available, at Chinese and Southeast Asian markets mostly but also at farmers markets and even major supermarkets. For instance, Whole Foods (at least the one on Houston Street in Manhattan) sells not just lemongrass but fresh Thai chiles and fresh turmeric root! Then there are awesome online sources like Temple of Thai, which will ship you ingredients, even fresh stuff like green papaya, chiles, galangal, and hot basil.

And once you build up a pantry, the shopping trips become less frequent and the cooking gets easier and easier. Right now, my pantry has palm sugar and tamarind pulp and black and thin soy sauces and other stuff that will last forever. In my freezer, there’s frozen galangal, kaffir lime leaf, pandan leaf, fresh chiles, and cilantro roots. I barely have to leave the house to make some of the dishes in the book.

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-You chose khao soi as the recipe to feature here. Why? Any tips on making the dish?

It’s a dish I’ve made at home many times, even after the book was finished. It shocks me every time I cook it: I’m like, I can’t believe I made this! The key for the home cook is breaking the dish up into steps. You can pound the paste a few days before you want to serve it (or you can freeze it for months!). You can fry the noodles the day or two before. You can even make the curry a day or two before. So when your friends come over, all you really have to do is warm it up, boil the noodles, and accept the inevitable high-fives.

Khao Soi Kai/Northern Thai Curry Noodle Soup with Chicken

Reprinted with permission from Pok Pok by Andy Ricker with J.J. Goode, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

Makes 6 bowls (each a one-plate meal)

Curry paste
1 pod black cardamom (often labeled cha koh, tsao-ko or thao qua)
1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
14 grams dried Mexican puya chilies (about 8), slit open, seeded and deveined
7 grams thinly sliced lemongrass (tender parts only), from about 1 large stalk
1 (7-gram) piece peeled fresh or frozen (not defrosted) galangal, thinly sliced against the grain
1 (14-gram) piece peeled ginger, thinly sliced against the grain
1 ounce peeled garlic cloves, halved lengthwise
4 ounces peeled Asian shallots, thinly sliced against the grain
1 tablespoon Kapi Kung (Homemade shrimp paste)

Curry
1 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoons turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon mild Indian curry powder
2 tablespoons Thai thin soy sauce
3 ounces palm sugar, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
6 small skin-on chicken legs (about 2 1/2 pounds), separated into thighs and drumsticks
5 cups unsweetened coconut milk (preferably boxed)

To finish the dish
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
1 pound fresh or defrosted frozen uncooked thin, flat Chinese wheat noodles (sometimes called wonton noodles)
1 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut cream (preferably boxed), gently warmed

To serve alongside
About 1 cup drained, chopped (into bite-sized pieces) Thai pickled mustard greens (stems preferred for their crunch), soaked in water for 10 minutes and drained well
About 1 cup small (about 1/4-inch) wedges of peeled shallots, preferably Asian
6 small lime wedges (preferably Key limes)
About 1 cup very coarsely chopped cilantro (thin stems and leaves), lightly packed
Roasted chili paste
Thai fish sauce

Make the curry paste
Use a pestle or heavy pan to lightly whack the cardamom pod to break the shell. Pry it open, take out the seeds, and discard the shell. Combine the cardamom seeds in a small pan with the coriander and cumin, set the pan over low heat, and cook, stirring and tossing often, until the spices are very fragrant and the coriander seeds turn a shade or two darker, about 8 minutes. Let the spices cool slightly and pound them in a granite mortar (or grind them in a spice grinder) to a coarse powder. Scoop the powder into a bowl and set aside.

Combine the dried chiles in the mortar with the salt and pound firmly, scraping the mortar and stirring the mixture after about 3 minutes, until you have a fairly fine powder, about 5 minutes. Add the lemongrass and pound until you have a fairly smooth, slightly fibrous paste, about 2 minutes. Do the same with the galangal, then the ginger, then the garlic, and then half of the shallots, fully pounding each ingredient before moving on to the next. Pound in the dried spice mixture, then the rest of the shallots. Finally, pound in the shrimp paste until it’s fully incorporated, about 1 minute.

You’ll have about 10 tablespoons of paste. You can use it right away, or store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 6 months. You’ll need 5 tablespoons of paste for 6 bowls of khao soi.

Make the curry
Heat the oil over medium-low heat in a large, heavy- bottomed pot until it shimmers, add 5 tablespoons of the curry paste and the turmeric powder and curry powder, and cook, breaking up the paste, then stirring frequently, until the paste smells very fragrant and loses the smell of raw garlic and shallots, about 8 minutes. Knowing when it’s done takes experience, but as long as you’re cooking at a low sizzle, the curry will taste great. Some of the paste might brown and stick to the pot, so occasionally scrape it to make sure it doesn’t burn.

Add the fish sauce, soy sauce, palm sugar, and salt to the pot, increase the heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring often and breaking up the sugar once it softens, until the sugar has more or less fully melted, about 2 minutes. Add the chicken, tossing to coat the meat in the liquid. Cook for about 2 minutes so the chicken can absorb the flavors a bit, then stir in the coconut milk.

Increase the heat to medium high. Bring the liquid to a simmer (don’t let it boil), then decrease the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the meat comes easily from the bone but isn’t falling off, about 45 minutes. You’ll see droplets or even a layer of red oil on the surface. This is good. The broth will taste fairly salty and intense. Keep in mind that it will dilute slightly after you add the coconut cream later. You can keep the curry warm on the stove for up to 3 hours or in the fridge for up to 3 days. (It’ll get even better as the flavors meld and the meat soaks up some of the curry.) Bring it to a very gentle simmer right before serving to make sure the chicken is heated through.

Finish the dish
Pour enough oil into a wide medium pot to reach a depth of 2 inches and set the pot over medium-high heat. Heat the oil to 350°F (or test the temperature by dropping a piece of noodle into the oil; it should turn golden brown in about 20 seconds). Put 3 ounces of the noodles on a plate and gently toss them so there are no clumps. Fry them in 6 portions, turning over the nest of noodles once, just until the noodles are golden brown and crunchy, 20 to 45 seconds per batch. Transfer them to paper towels to drain. You can let them cool and store them for a day or two in an airtight container kept in a dry, cool place (not in the fridge).

When you’re nearly ready to serve the curry, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add the remaining noodles and cook, stirring occasionally, just until the noodles are fully tender (you’re not going for al dente here, but not mushy either), 2 to 3 minutes. Drain them well and divide them equally among 6 bowls.

To each bowl, add a thigh and drumstick, ladle on about 1 cup of the curry, spoon on 1/4 cup of the warm coconut cream, and top with a nest of fried noodles. Serve the bowls with a plate of pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime wedges, and cilantro; a bowl of the chile paste; and a bottle of fish sauce. Season your bowl and stir well before you dig in.

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Rick_9781607742883_art_p228
Austin Bush © 2013

Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand is scheduled to be released at the end of this month (you can pre-order the book now here or here). The book profiles the mostly regional Thai dishes served at the Portland, Oregon and New York City restaurants of chef/restaurateur, Andy Ricker. Andy and JJ Goode collaborated on the writing, and I did the photos.

That’s a distinctly unceremonious introduction for something that’s pretty big deal for all of us involved. But how to begin? It’s nearly impossible for me to look at the book objectively. For one, it’s a thick book that covers a lot of ground — 70 recipes, to be exact — and one that comes as the the result of many, many months of work. Yet it doesn’t seem that long ago that I was up in Chiang Mai with Andy and JJ, shooting the pics. It was a pretty tough gig — there was a lot of stuff to be photographed in a relatively short period of time — and there were times when I felt like I was in over my head. But I learned a lot. And It was also a lot of fun.

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JJ Goode © 2012

A typical shoot, such as the one for the dish pictured at the top of this post, would go like this: Andy would tell me which recipe he was going to do, and on which dish it would be served. I would then flip through the psychedelic Thai tablecloths we had strewn across the yard (to make them look aged, of course):

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JJ Goode © 2012

proposing two or three alternatives. Some combos clicked immediately, I shot them, and the resulting pics look, if I don’t say so myself, awesome. Others seemed to go together at the time, yet looking at them now, I’m not convinced that they work. But ultimately I’m happy with the fact that every image in the book looks real. There was no food stylist hovering over each dish with a pair of tweezers and a bottle of glue; Andy cooked each dish just as if it were meant to be eaten, ran it out to my ‘studio’ (a wall-free plot of concrete covered by a tin roof), perhaps sprinkled a garnish over it, and I shot it.

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JJ Goode © 2012

That was the process for every single image. And as a result, the dishes in the book look exactly like they came from a home, stall or restaurant in Thailand because, well, they did. And that’s something I’m proud of.

I’ll be profiling three recipes from the book, coupling them with interviews with the guys involved. For my pick, I thought I’d go with kuaytiaw khua kai, wide rice noodles fried with chicken and egg. I chose this not only because the introduction to the recipe describes the time when I took Andy to this stall in Bangkok’s Chinatown, but also because it’s one of my favourite Bangkok-style Thai dishes, not to mention one that doesn’t require any particularly obscure ingredients (in Thailand, the dish is made with a type of preserved squid, here Andy suggests fresh squid or cuttlefish as a substitute).

Kuaytiaw Khua Kai/Stir-Fried Noodles with Chicken, Egg and Cuttlefish on Lettuce

Reprinted with permission from Pok Pok by Andy Ricker with J.J. Goode, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

Serves 1 as a one-plate meal (to make more, double or quadruple the ingredients, but cook each batch separately)

Ingredients
6 ounces fresh wide (about 1.5-inch), flat rice noodles
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 tablespoon Thai oyster sauce
1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
Pinch ground white pepper
10 or so 2-inch pieces torn green leaf lettuce
2 tablespoons rendered pork fat, fried garlic oil or vegetable oil
4 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast, thinly sliced into bite-size pieces
1/4 cup sliced green onions (about 1/4-inch lengths), plus a little extra for finishing
2 ounces fresh raw cuttlefish or squid bodies, cut into bite-size pieces

To serve alongside
Fish sauce
Granulated sugar
Vinegar-soaked chilies
Toasted chili powder

Prepare the noodles
Carefully separate the noodles. Unless you’ve found freshly made noodles, either microwave them briefly or
briefly dunk them in boiling water (for a few seconds) just until they’re pliable enough to separate without crumbling. Drain them well before proceeding.

Stir-fry and serve the dish
Combine the egg, oyster sauce, fish sauce, sugar, and pepper in a small bowl and beat together well. Line a large shallow serving bowl with the lettuce.

Heat a wok over very high heat, add the fat, and swirl it in the wok to coat the sides. When it begins to lightly smoke, add the chicken and stir-fry (constantly stirring, scooping, and flipping the ingredients) until the slices are barely cooked through, about 1 minute.

Add the cuttlefish, stir-fry briefly, then push the chicken and cuttlefish to one side of the wok. Add the noodles to the center, prodding and stirring them lightly so they don’t clump together. Decrease the heat to medium-high, scoop the chicken and cuttlefish on top of the noodles, and cook them, undisturbed, for 20 seconds or so. Ideally, the noodles will bubble and blister at the edges.

Stir the egg mixture once more, pour it directly onto the noodles, then sprinkle on 1/4 cup of the green onions. Use the wok spatula to flip over the noodle-egg bundle onto the chicken and cuttlefish and cook undisturbed for about 1 minute.

Use the wok spatula to break up the bundle and stir- fry until the cuttlefish is completely cooked, about 1 minute more.

Transfer the noodles to the lettuce leaves, and sprinkle on the extra green onions. Season to taste with the fish sauce, sugar, vinegar-soaked chiles, and chile powder.