Eating knafeh outside Habibah, a sweets shop in Amman, Jordan. I travel a lot, probably about six months out of the year. But nearly all of that travel is work-related, which for me means going back to the same places time after time to update Lonely Planet guides. It wasn't until April of last year that I came to realise that I hadn't been to a new place -- nor travelled simply for the sake of travel -- in three years.

So, I went to Jordan.

_DSC4337-Edit The view of Amman from the Citadel

This was my first visit to the Middle East, a region that couldn't be more different than Southeast Asia in just about every way. I knew a bit about the food, but my only experiences eating it were at relatively generic, pan Middle Eastern restaurants in Thailand and Europe. I was pretty excited to encounter the real thing on its home turf, and I wasn't disappointed.

_DSC4405-Edit Flatbreads for sale at a bakery in Amman

I don't have much of a sweet tooth, but if there's one food item I was looking forward to tasting, it was the region's sweets. Luckily in Jordan, I  didn't have to look far, and if a town had only a couple places selling food, one of them was inevitably a shop boasting a huge selection of nutty, crunchy, crispy, syrupy sweets.


Coming from Thailand, it struck me that Middle Eastern sweets are about exotic as it gets, in particular those made with pistachios (unequivocally the best nut):

 Middle Eastern sweets for sale at a shop in Petra, Jordan.

But of the country's sweets, I, like most visitors, was most taken with knafeh (or kanefe, kunafeh, kunafeh, knafeh, or kunafah). Imagine a crispy, buttery base of fine threads or semolina crumbs topped with a layer of warm mozzarella-like cheese, which is then drizzled with scented syrup and garnished with crushed nuts. That's knafeh.

The most famous vendor of the dish in Amman, if not Jordan, is Habibah:


Like nearly all sweets shops in Jordan, Habibah is to-go only, and customers would carefully escort their foam dish to a nearby square (shown at the top of this post), not doing a lot of talking, but solemnly savouring every bite; I did the same -- on several occasions.

Habibah Al-Malek al-Hussein St

_DSC4135-Edit Spring cleaning in As Salt

I also really enjoyed ful (or foul), stewed fava beans, served drizzled with olive oil and sometimes a lemony, garlicky, chili condiment that's not unlike the dip served with seafood in Thailand. I can't read Arabic, but I learned to spot ful by keeping my eyes peeled for the chubby, narrow-necked vessel the beans are cooked in:


Coupled with a warm, floppy flatbread, a few pickles and mint tea, a bowl of ful is one of the world's best breakfasts.

The type of places that serve ful also tend to do felafel, hummous, baba ghanoush and other standard Middle Eastern dishes. This is probably the most common type of restaurant in Jordan, followed closely by the type of place that does skewered, grilled meat served, again, with flatbread:


I ate this meal many times, but the one that stands out was served at a grungy restaurant in As Salt, a small town outside of Amman:


Here, the Syrian and Egyptian staff (just about everybody in Jordan is an immigrant -- not to mention is also extremely friendly and speaks some English) did simply-seasoned, smokey minced lamb and beef kebabs -- nothing terribly unique.


Most interesting was when they took the ubiquitous grilled vegetable sides -- tomato, onion and mild chilies -- and whizzed them in a food processor with a bit of lemon juice and salt. Served as a side, it was somewhere between a slightly tart gazpacho and a smokey salsa, and became a regular in my summer barbecue repertoire.


I also really came to love a mint tea and a nargileh (water pipe), occasionally taken in an fantastically atmospheric tea houses such as this Ottoman Empire-era place in As Salt:


That said, with the exception of the odd fast food or foreign cuisine restaurant, I didn't encounter much of a restaurant or street food scene in Jordan -- at least compared to that of Southeast Asia -- and the above are just about all the types of outside-the-home dining I encountered. In terms of an all-around restaurant with a menu, the best I came across was probably Al-Quds:


Also known as Jerusalem restaurant, and boasting a charmingly old-school vibe, it's here that I tried mansaf, said to be Jordan's national dish:


It takes the form of lamb that's been simmered in a lightly spiced broth with jameed, fermented, dried yogurt, and served over saffron rice, artfully topped with slivered almonds and a thin sheet of dough, and coupled with a bowl of the broth/jameed mixture. The lamb was fall-apart tender and broth was intensely rich, sour and funky all at the same time.

Al-Quds King Al Hussein St 8, Amman 7am-10pm

A few other restaurants I enjoyed:

Fakhr El Din

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Housed in a beautiful villa, this is claimed by many to be the best Lebanese restaurant in Amman. We ate kibbeh (raw minced lamb; 6 o'clock in the pic), a salad of a Roquefort-like cheese, an incredibly fresh tabbouleh, Lebanese sausages, a dip of walnuts, and grilled lamb w a spicy chili paste.

Fakhr El Din 2nd circle, Amman

Hashem Restaurant

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Probably one of the most famous restaurants in Jordan, this busy place does the usual repertoire of felafel, hummous, baba ghanoush and ful.

Hashem Restaurant Al-Amir Mohammed St, Amman 24hr

Haret Jdouna

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Charming restaurant in Madaba where I had a very good 'kifta sawani', patties of minced lamb in a tart sesame paste sauce with slices of potato and pine nuts, and baked in a wood-burning oven

Haret Jdouna Talat St, Madaba noon-midnight

Yay Khrueang/ยายเครื่อง

DSC_0494-Edit There's nothing more fun than discovering a new noodle dish. That is, unless that noodle dish has a funny name.

Ban Na Ton Jan, located in the far north of Sukhothai Province, is a beautiful village that's home to an award-winning homestay programme. But more importantly, it's also home to khao poep (ข้าวเปิ๊บ), a unique noodle dish, the name of which is pronounced a lot like "cow burp".


To make the dish, rice flour and water are combined and left to ferment for three days. The batter is then poured on a taut cloth elevated over simmering water:


The cloth is covered with a lid and allowed to steam for a minute or so, which results in a fresh noodle of sorts. A fistful of vegetables -- bean sprouts, water spinach, and young Chinese kale -- are then put on top of the semi-steamed noodle:


the lid is closed again, and the vegetables are steamed until just tender. The noodle is then folded -- poep being a dialect word for the central Thai phap (พับ), meaning "to fold" -- around the vegetables:


resulting in a neat package -- something of a vegetable-filled wonton. The noodle is then served in a bowl of homemade pork broth, topped with an egg that has been steamed in the same fashion, and a couple slices of barbecue pork, and garnished with coriander and chiffonaded sawtooth coriander (shown at the top of this post).

Khao poep combines ingredients and techniques I've encountered elsewhere in the Tai culinary world, but is not a dish I've encountered anywhere else. That's because the eponymous owner claims to have invented it. Yay (grandma) started selling khao poep nearly 40 years ago, and today the dish has become associated with Ban Na Ton Jan.


They also sell something called kuaytiaw bae (ก๋วยเตี๋ยวแบ):


It may look like a fried noodle dish, but in reality it's more like a 'dry' noodle soup.

To make the dish, dried rice noodles are put over the same steaming device:


topped with bit of broth, some ground pork and vegetables, and allowed to steam. When soft, they're removed from the steamer, topped with a couple slices of barbeque pork, ground peanuts, crispy deep-fried pork fat and a healthy drizzle of garlic oil. The dish is served on a banana leaf with section of lime, along with the usual optional noodle condiments: fish sauce, sugar, dried chili. Why banana leaf? An ancient tradition? A dogmatic adherence to the Old Ways? "We don't have to wash the dishes," according to Yay Khrueang's daughter. "It's less work."

A YouTube video, in Thai, that shows how khao poep is made:

Yay Khrueang Ban Na Ton Jan, Sukhothai 6am-3pm

Ancient Roots and Culinary Crossroads

10996539_10205490151231693_187913696515510740_n Being generally food-obsessed, and in the course of travelling to new places, I've often wished for one thing: to encounter some sort of introduction to the local cuisine, something that goes beyond the cursory descriptions found in your average guidebook or Wikipedia entry. Ideally something with pretty photos and perhaps a bit of interactivity. Something that puts the cuisine in context, touches on the culture and history, and highlights a few must-eat dishes.

With the kind support of Chiang Mai's Tamarind Village, I've been lucky enough put together my fantasy introduction to the cuisine of Thailand's north. I'd never call myself an expert on northern Thai food, but in nearly 20 years of visiting the region, eating the food, talking with cooks, cooking with cooks, and writing about the cuisine for books, newspapers and magazines, I've assimilated a fair bit of information and photos on the topic. I've sifted through all this, and have put together what I think is a pretty solid introduction to a cuisine that few outside the Thai-speaking world know much about.

If I were visiting northern Thailand for the first time and wanted to know what to eat, it's the introduction I'd want to encounter.

The exhibition opens on February 28 and runs until May 31.

A birthday in Mae Hong Son

_DSC7580-Edit "We don't know what day she was born -- they didn't keep track of that stuff back then." This about Khun Yay -- "Grandma" -- the mother of my landlord in Mae Hong Son.

What is known is that "back then" was 90 years ago, so at some point, somebody chose December 31st, New Year's Eve, to be Khun Yay's birthday. An excellent choice, as come this time of year in Mae Hong Son, the sky is inevitably blue and the weather is cool: perfect conditions for a celebration.

I've mentioned Khun Yay before. Born in Ayuthaya, she got married at a young age, and not long afterward, she and her policeman husband were posted to Mae Hong Son. Even today, Mae Hong Son, tucked into Thailand's mountainous northwestern corner, feels relatively remote, but when they arrived in in approximately 1939 it must have seemed like another planet. Indeed, Khun Yay claims that the trip took three months and involved riding on an elephant.

Like many Thai celebrations, Khun Yay's 90th birthday celebration began with a Buddhist component, bringing together monks from the more important temples in town, as well as VIPs, relatives, friends and neighbours:


Prayers were recited, holy water was sprinkled and money was donated, but one suspects that most people came for the food.


And, indeed, there was a lot of it, mostly central Thai-style dishes prepared by a caterer in town:


But I was more interested in the local stuff, all of it made at home by neighbours and family.

As an appetiser, we were given little bowls of a salty, savoury salad that combined slices of deep-fried tofu, deep-fried nuts and sesame, salt, garlic oil, deep-fried shallots and slivered ginger:


It was distinctly Burmese -- both in terms of its flavour and ingredients -- and distinctly delicious. And if too heavy or oily for some, it was seemingly strategically coupled with Mae Hong Son's tart, fragrant, juicy oranges.

There were countless tiny bowls of khao sen, thin rice noodles in a light, tart broth made from pork bones and tomatoes:


Relatively easy to make in large quantities, khao sen is a staple dish at celebrations in Mae Hong Son. And drizzled with garlic oil, topped with crispy deep-fried noodles (ostensibly to provide a bit of crunch -- a Thai effort to pack just about every possible texture and flavour into a dish) and eaten with the intensely spicy local chilies and a squeeze of lemon (more common than limes up here), the dish is, for me at least, Mae Hong Son in bowl.

And because there was khao sen, there was, of course, khaang pawng, deep-fried fritters of shallots, an obligatory accompaniment to the noodle soup:


If you like deep-fried shallots, imagine a crispy, ping pong ball-sized knot of them supplemented with lemongrass, turmeric, dried soybean powder and dried chili, and you begin get an idea of khaang pawng. I ate two plates.

There were also delicious local-style sweets made by Khun Yay's family the day before.


And what I suspect was Khun Yay's first selfie:

Khun Yay celebrated her 90th birthday today. She was born in Ayuthaya, but came to Mae Hong Son approximately 70 years ago, a journey that took a month and required riding on an elephant! Her husband, with whom she made that trip, is still alive at the ag

Lim Yuu Hong/ลิ้มหยูฮง

DSC_0333-Edit It's no secret that the Thais love noodles. Noodles are some of the most ubiquitous dishes in the country, available on nearly every street corner and in just about every restaurant. And it's easy to understand why people love them: they're cheap, satisfying, customisable, and come in a huge variety of shapes and forms, and from a variety of culinary and cultural influences.

Yet despite all this, I have to admit that I've never been crazy about Thai noodles.

I'm a rice man. I'll almost always opt for a plate over a bowl. And being a fan of savoury, salty, spicy flavours, I've long found that Thai noodles tend towards the sweet end of the spectrum. Given that noodles are so ubiquitous and cheap in Thailand, I've also found that they're frequently made with poor quality ingredients, the worst culprit being broth made from MSG-laden powder. Yet occasionally, when pointed in the right direction, I encounter a bowl that makes me reconsider my allegiance to rice.

The most recent case for noodles was made at Lim Yuu Hong, a longstanding Thai-Chinese place off Bangkok's Th Charoen Krung. The owners claim that the restaurant has been in operation for more than 50 years, a fact clearly evident in its ancient noodle cart, marble-topped tables, condiments held in ancient pop bottles, and other charming, old-school touches:


I ordered kuaytiaw kai tun (ก๋วยเตี๋ยวไก่ตุ๋น), chicken braised in a broth seasoned with Chinese-style spices:


which the owner suggested I couple with what he called poh, flat, squiggly egg-and-wheat noodles.

It was exactly what Thai noodles should be: rich, fragrant and balanced — the bowl barely needed any additional seasoning. And no wonder: as the owner was happy to share, he makes his own broth from scratch with bones (chicken and pork), bags of dried spices and fresh herbs -- not a cube of Knorr to be seen.


If you order the duck version, it's combined with a scoop of pet phalo, duck braised in five-spice powder, a rich dark broth that also contains duck blood, heads and feet. The phalo also results in a sweet bonus: when braising the duck, the owner ladles off the fat that rises to the top and uses it to fry garlic until crispy, a topping that garnishes most of the restaurant's dishes:


These include similar soups revolving around pork bones and pork stomach, as well as the rather elusive khao tom pet (ข้าวต้มเป็ด), rice soup with braised duck.

Come earlier in the day, and Lim Yuu Hong functions as a coffee shop:


serving old-school-style "bag" coffee and sweet toasted buns with coconut jam.

But it'd be a pity not to order the noodles.

If you're hungry for more, here's a video about the coffee shop side of Lim Yuu Hong narrated by a man with a funny voice and hosted by self-professed "sexy" woman, Bowie:

Soi 43, Th Charoen Krung 6.30am-7pm Mon-Sat

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Friday prayer at Haroon Mosque

DSC_0273-Edit The area surrounding Bangkok's Haroon Mosque is one of the city's largest and most traditional Muslim enclaves. The original mosque, a wooden structure, was built back in 1828, but was subsequently torn down, with some of the original wood used in the construction of the current building:


Over the decades, a neighbourhood grew around the mosque, one that today is almost exclusively Muslim, densely populated and relatively poor. It's a pretty sleepy place until Friday prayer, an event that draws local and international Muslims, beggars taking advantage of mosque-goers' adherence to the fifth pillar of Islam:


and vendors, from those selling Muslim paraphernalia:


to those selling food. The latter includes general Thai dishes such as noodles:


to more characterstically Thai-Muslim dishes such as mataba, a type of stuffed pancake:


and a vendor who sells a unique biryani.

A couple vendors also sell unique Thai-Muslim sweets, including phudding (พุดดิ้ง),


which, as the name suggests, is a type of pudding -- in this case bread pudding -- with a dense, moist consistency, a faint floral aroma and a topping of raisins and cashews; tubs of suuyee (ซูยี), a Thai-Muslim take on sooji, Indian-style semolina pudding:


semolina simmered with milk, sugar and spices; and, well, because this is still contemporary Thailand, donuts stuffed with hot dogs and deep-fried:


But probably the most interesting vendor is an older couple who sell a handful of unique and distinctly Thai-Muslim dishes, take-away only, from a cart.


On a previous visit, they had a big pot of kaeng waan, a soupy curry of lentils and dried spices, a dish I've never encountered previously in Thailand. This week, they had a fish curry packed with lots of dried spice, okra, eggplants and a fish head, and usually, made tart by the addition of an entire sour mango; the pit can be seen below:


They also do a dish of birds (and chicken) deep-fried, then fried again in a spicy, oily, thick curry:


There was the remnants of one unidentifiable curry and a curry of hard-boiled eggs, and a woman prepping samosas:


But most the stall's dishes had already been sold out by 11:30am. Like Jiw, this is another place where you'll want to arrive early.

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DSC_0194-Edit For Muslim food in Bangkok, one of the best areas is lower Th Charoen Krung. Formerly Bangkok's foreign enclave, today the European-run shipping offices and the Portuguese Catholic community that used to border the Chao Phraya River are long gone. But much of the area's Muslim community remains, including -- thankfully for us -- its food.

Other parts of Bangkok may have a higher volume of restaurants serving Thai-Muslim dishes, but none can claim this much history. Some restaurants along this stretch of Th Charoen Krung (formerly known as "New Road"), such as Muslim Restaurant, have been in business nearly 80 years, and continue to offer both food and atmosphere that have seemingly changed little in decades. (Although not all have made it this long: it appears that decades-old Thai-Muslim staple Naaz has now shut its doors for good.)

Open for 55 years now, Jiw is known for its khao mok kai (ข้าวหมกไก่) chicken biryani, probably the most ubiquitous and lauded Thai-Muslim dish. Yet the version sold here has little in common with the light, typically sweet street stall staple. Instead, the khao mok kai here is more similar to the Bangladeshi-style version of the dish: relatively heavy and hearty, with short, dense grains of rice and little of the fluffy consistency many westerners tend to associate with rice.

Also unlike most places in Thailand, the rice and the chicken are cooked separately. The latter is actually cooked in a curry, and to order, a thigh is piled on the rice, along with a dollop of the curry:


The result is hearty, mild and fragrant. My dining companion, Ung-Aang Talay, who estimates that he last ate at Jiw in 1987 (!), claimed that, despite the passing of decades and the death of the original owner, the flavours of the dish had not changed.

The khao mok kai is served with ajaat, a tart/sweet dipping sauce with chunks of cucumbers, and a common side is a bowl of sup kai, chicken soup:


the latter, well-balanced and not as assertively sour as elsewhere, with lots of tender, tart tomatoes and even some chunks of potato.

The biryani is what draws most locals to Jiw, and is worth seeking out. But for me, the real reason to come is plaa duk phat khreuang kaeng (ปลาดุกผัดพริกแกง) catfish fried in curry paste:


a dish that one doesn't encounter too often these days, particularly at Muslim restaurants. The catfish is tender, meaty and clean-tasting, and the curry paste -- still made in house following the original owner's recipe -- is an almost perfect balance of spicy and herbal flavours. The dish has a pleasantly oily consistency, and includes a  few crunchy eggplants and some torn Thai basil. By Thai standards, it's a relatively simple dish, but like the best Thai cooking, one that encompasses a seemingly disproportionate array of flavours and textures.

Note that Jiw's closing time of 1pm is deceptive; although the restaurant only has three tables, it does a brisk business in take-out orders, and most of the dishes are already sold-out by noon (often earlier for the catfish).

Jiw Soi 43, Th Charoen Krung, Bangkok 084 640 5775 10am-1pm Mon-Fri

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Nyaungshwe's morning market

Several communities in the Inle Lake region play host to a revolving market. Once every five days, a particular town's market will swell to several times its normal size, practically bursting with vendors, shoppers and exotic (and not so exotic) produce. Some of these markets are found at remote locations only generally accessible by foot or boat, while others take place in already established markets in bustling market towns.

Nyaungshwe, the town Myanmar's Shan State that essentially functions as the gateway to Inle Lake, is an example of the latter. It has an already large, diverse market, but once every five days, it spills out beyond its usual walls, packed with exotically dressed Pa O and Danu shoppers, Shan-run food stalls and Burmese traders. Not surprisingly, given that the village is adjacent to Inle Lake, the wares include a huge selection of fish. But there's also produce from the surrounding hills, lots of Burmese-style sweets, Shan-style noodles and savoury dishes, and housewares from China.

For images from Nyaungshwe’s market day, hit the play button above; click the button in the corner for full-screen mode and captions.

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Dao Kanong Lamphun/ร้านดาวคนองลำพูน

_DSC9466-Edit Few people seem to make it to Lamphun, which is a pity. The city is located 30km south of Chiang Mai, but getting there is part of the fun, particularly if you go via the old highway, which is edged by towering rubber trees:


and which passes through small towns. And Lamphun itself, although small, is charming:


hardly a surprising setting for an equally charming, longstanding restaurant serving northern Thai food.

Dao Kanong has been around for 40 years now, a history that's evident in the restaurant's somewhat institutional and bare dining room. The food isn't as rustic as some restaurants in northern Thailand, or as or homestyle as the take-away food from markets, but it's prepared with care -- in particular the vegetables, which in northern Thailand can tend to be overcooked -- making it a good introduction to the region's dishes.

On my first visit (pictured at the top of this post), I had (starting from the top and moving clockwise) kaeng ho, a stir-fry of crunchy, tart pickled bamboo, glass noodles, a curry paste and a mixture of meats, vegetables and herbs; nam phrik num, a spicy dip of grilled chilies, shallots and garlic, served here with a lovely selection of steamed vegetables; sticky rice; and smooth, herbal aep muu, minced pork combined with egg and a mild curry paste, and grilled in banana leaf package.


It was all good enough for me to make the drive again:


And on my second visit there was (moving clockwise from the top) sai ua, the northern-style herb and pork sausage, which here has more emphasis on the pork than herbs; kaeng phak, a deliciously earthy, vegetable-heavy soup that was studded with crunchy strips of rainy season bamboo; fresh green chilies stuffed with a minced pork mixture before being battered and deep-fried; and kaeng hang lay, the Shan pork curry, here seasoned a bit too sweet for my tastes.

Those stuffed chilies, seen again here:


were a real highlight: crispy, not oily, and with lots of flavour; easily worth the drive.

Dao Kanong 340 Th Charoen Rat (Th Chiangmai-Lamphun), Lamphun 053 511 552 9.30am-8pm

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Worth eating in (and around) Lisbon

Down the street, Lisbon. #portugal Portuguese food is relatively little known, and the reputation it does have tends to involve words like "stodgy" or "meat and potatoes". But after two visits to the country, I've found that eating in Portugal is a lot like eating in Thailand: unpretentious, garlicky, messy, cheap, boozy, full flavoured and fun. True, meat and potatoes pop up a lot, and the cuisine isn't as varied or spicy as that of Thailand -- or as diverse or sophisticated as that of Spain, to which it's often compared -- but Portuguese food is just plain good; not a surprise given that the ingredients the Portuguese do have to work with are pretty impressive. Amazing seafood, surprisingly good bread, a pastry and coffee culture to rival just about any country in the world, and good olive oil that flows like water are just some of the standouts, not to mention the alcohol, which is invariably cheap and tasty. Yet going light years beyond Thailand are the people involved with food -- at least the ones we were lucky enough to encounter -- who often tended to display an intimate knowledge about that which they made, served or sold.

So here are some of my best hits from my most recent trip to Lisbon, a city I wouldn't hesitate to call one of my favourite eating destinations anywhere. I didn't bring a proper camera on the trip, so the below are all taken with my iPhone 4 and edited courtesy of Instagram.

Cervejaria Ramiro

Said crab, Cervejaria Ramiro. The fat is combined with butter and served in the shell in a something of an intensely rich crab curry. #portugal

Easily one of the most enjoyable and pleasurable meals I had in Lisbon, if not of all time, was at this longstanding seafood den. In many ways, Ramiro is not unlike Chinese-style seafood halls in Bangkok -- both feature tanks of live seafood, flat-screen TVs and a loud and hectic atmosphere -- but the emphasis here is on seafood rather than seasonings. If you're coming from Southeast Asia, this may be the first time you've really, truly tasted seafood, which here takes forms such as shrimp in garlicky olive oil; cold spider crab with its fat made into a buttery dip (shown above); cold, briny gooseneck barnacles:

Gooseneck barnacles, Cervejaria Ramiro, Lisbon. Just one of several dishes of an amazing meal that also included clams in broth, a giant steamed crab, tiny prawns in olive oil and garlic, grilled buttery bread, and rather incongruently, a garlicky steak s

my first time trying this unusual specialty; the famous amêijoas à bulhão pato, clams in olive oil, garlic and parsley; and perhaps most incongruously (and memorably), prego, garlicky steak sandwiches, which one smothers in yellow mustard. All of this was coupled with buttery toasted bread and a slightly fizzy red vinho verde.

Cervejaria Ramiro Avenida Almirante Reis 1, Lisbon noon-1am Tues-Sat

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Páteo Do Petisco


Near the seaside destination of Cascais, this place does petiscos, the Portuguese equivalent of tapas. Heartier and less sophisticated than their Spanish cousins, but if you ask me, more satisfying, the petiscos we had on our two visits to the restaurant included crispy deep-fried potato skins; a soup of rice and octopus; grilled, rice-stuffed blood sausage; tiny snails:

Caracóis, Portuguese snails: tiny, salty, garlicky and possibly thymey. A drinking snack available all over Lisbon. #portugal

pipis, chicken giblets in a paprika-heavy sauce; a surprisingly tender and meaty steak; clams; and a shocking number of bottles of vinho verde.

Páteo Do Petisco Travessa das Amoreiras 5, Cascais Torre noon-2am Tues-Sun

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Pastelaria Aloma

The pasteis de nata at Pastelaria Aloma, winner of the best egg tarts in Lisbon two years running. Amazingly flaky and crispy, with a taste somewhere right between sweet and rich. #portugal

Although it dates back to 1943, Aloma has aged well, in 2012 and 2013 was deemed to serve Lisbon's best pastéis de nata (egg tarts). And justifiably so; although the standard in Lisbon is pretty high, the tarts served here were exceptionally light and flaky, and held a likewise rich filling.

Pastelaria Aloma Rua Francisco Metrass 67, Lisbon 8am-7pm

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Sol e Pesca

Sol E Pesca, Lisbon: barely a restaurant, but easily one of the most charming and delicious places I've ever eaten at. Choose a tinned fish or shellfish -- sardines, tuna, mackerel, mussels, octopus -- from the huge menu and they'll grab it from a shelf,

Sol e Pesca is a converted fishing tackle shop that also happens to sell tinned seafood. There's a vast menu of the stuff, ranging from tuna paste to octopus in spicy olive oil, which to order are grabbed from a shelf, dumped on a plate and served with a sprinkle of parsley and a wedge of lemon:

Fat sardines in spicy olive oil w pickles; Sol E Pesca, Lisbon, #portugal

Barley a restaurant, admittedly, but nonetheless one of my most memorable and satisfying meals in Lisbon.

Sol e Pesca Rua Nova do Carvalho 44 noon-4am

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Solar dos Presuntos

Solar Dos Presuntos: buzzy, boozy, bustling, big screen TV -- pretty much the epitome of the Portuguese restaurant.

This three-storey restaurant is epitome of the Portuguese institution: busy, buzzy, decked with celebrity portraits and big-screen TVs, and served by gruffily amicable male staff. And best of all the food delivers; highlights were the tender roasted kid goat, a soup of rice and prawns, and slices of tender Portuguese pork fried in lard.

Solar dos Presuntos Rua Portas de Santo Antão 150, Lisbon noon-3.30pm & 7-11pm

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Cervejaria Trindade

Expensive by Lisbon standards, and perhaps a bit touristy, Trindad -- located inside a former convent -- makes up for these with an immaculately beautiful tile-lined interior, a relatively brief menu that serves as a great introduction to Portuguese standards, and friendly staff.

Cervejaria Trindade Rua Nova da Trindade 20C, Lisbon noon-midnight

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Confeitaria Nacional

An amazingly crispy and light almond paste tart, and yet another galão, Confeitaria Nacional, Lisbon, #portugal.

Dating back to 1829, this is allegedly Lisbon's oldest pastry shop. Located in the centre of town, it's almost one of the most popular, and after approximately 10 visits, among the best I came across. Expect a huge selection of Portuguese pastries and cakes here, including a particularly memorable pastel de feijão (pictured above), an impossibly light and crispy pastry shell filled with bean paste that was almost as light and airy as whipped cream.

Confeitaria Nacional Praça da Figueira 18B 8am-10pm Mon-Sat, 9am-10am Sun

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BA Wine Bar

This place is admittedly tiny and relatively expensive, popular among foreign tourists (reservations are a must) and lacks the charmingly old-school atmosphere of other places in Lisbon, but for non Portuguese speakers interested in testing the waters of Portuguese wine, I can't imagine a better starting point. The selection of wines by the glass is immense, but the real highlight here is the customer service, with the people running the place being both exceptionally welcoming and extremely knowledgeable about their food (limited to canned seafood, as well as meats and cheeses) and of course, their wine.

BA Wine Bar Bar Rua da Rosa 107 6-11pm

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A Taberna da Rua das Flores

Bacalhau com grão de bico, salt cod and chickpeas dressed in vinaigrette at the charming Taberna da Rua das Flores, Lisbon.  #portugal #latergram

A closet-sized tavern that has a short, daily menu of dishes, some traditional, such as meia desfeita (shown above), chickpeas and codfish in vinaigrette, or iscas:

Also enjoyed at Taberna da Rua Das Flores was iscas à portuguesa, pork liver fried w air-dried ham in a garlicky, bay-leafy white wine reduction. Not usually a liver fan but really enjoyed this. #portugal #latergram

pork liver marinated in wine and sauteed with dried ham, as well as a couple more modern options. Equal parts charming and tasty.

A Taberna da Rua das Flores Rua das Flores 103 noon-midnight Mon-Fri & 6pm-midnight Sat

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Mercado da Ribeira (Mercado 24 de Julho)

#portugal haul. Think I'll go w some smoked mackerel tonight. #wishidboughtmore

The original section of this market, Lisbon's largest, is pretty unexceptional, and feels rather empty. The main reason to go is the new Time Out-branded food hall, which unites several famous restaurants and vendors (a couple of which are mentioned here), and shops, including one selling tinned seafood (pictured above) and branch of the well-stocked and knowledgeably-staffed Garrafeira Nacional, a wine store:

I did get to taste this: grapes picked in 1944 and held in wood for the next 40 years. Light, aromatic, almost no taste of alcohol and a bunch of other things I don't have the vocabulary to describe. #portugal

which had some interesting and ancient stuff for sale by the glass.

Time Out Food Hall Mercado da Ribeira (Mercado 24 de Julho) Avenida 24 de Julho 10-midnight Mon-Wed, 10am-2am Thurs-Sat, 10am-midnight Sun

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A Tasca do Chico

Daytime veterinarian/nighttime amateur fado singer Carlos Rodrigues in action at A Tasca do Chico, Lisbon, #portugal

Food is available here, but the emphasis is on fado, a type of Portuguese music with roots in Lisbon. On Monday and Wednesday nights, the Bairro Alto branch holds sessions of fado vadio, a sort of open mic session, where anybody who wants to can come up and sing a few songs. We were never out of here earlier than 2am on both our visits, made new friends (hi Carlos!) and found it a warm, inviting place.

A Tasca do Chico Rua do Diário de Notícias 39 7pm-3am

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Laap Kao Cham Chaa/ลาบเก๊าฉำฉา

_DSC9433-Edit Northern Thai food can be frustratingly elusive. Even in Chiang Mai, the region's largest city and cultural and culinary capital, there aren't many places serving local dishes. And the restaurants that do exist tend to sell similar repertoires of meaty dishes for a predominately male clientele, or are targeted at tourists (of all genders) and tend to lack real northern flavours and ingredients. Truth is, if you're in Chiang Mai and want to try good local food, the best option is to make a local friend and try to score a home-cooked meal, or to buy take-away food from one of the city's numerous markets.

But there are a few options. Decidedly un-toursity and rooted in the meaty laap mould, but with enough soups, salads and other dishes to claim some diversity, is Laap Kao Cham Chaa.

The obscure name is the northern Thai dialect name for the rain tree. The restaurant -- more an open-air gathering of rickety chairs and tables under the eponymous tree -- is open during the day, but I've only ever visited at night, when it's consistently packed with loud, happy eaters and drinkers, smoke from the grill and the blare of western music that never made it in the West.

The food isn't going to blow you away, but again, you're going to struggle to find a local place that does this many dishes served with local-style flavour, and with a fun local atmosphere to boot.

I always go for the tam som oh, a pounded salad of pomelo and nam puu, a funky paste made of tiny field crabs and herbs (shown in the middle of the pic below):


I like their soups, particularly kaeng awm, a meaty, spicy curry of pork or beef (also shown above), or the tom sop, a vast bowl filled with a spicy, clear broth and beef tendon.

They do northern-style laap, which is garlicky, spicy and fragrant, as well as a huge array of northern-style grilled meats -- grilled intestines; sai ua, a northern-style herb-heavy sausage; skewers of peppery beef; jin som, northern-style fermented pork wrapped in a banana leaf -- which are generally just OK.

Couple any of these with a basket of sticky rice and a Singha, and you've got yourself a good intro the flavours of Thailand's north.

Kao Cham Chaa has a cameo on a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, and Thai-language write-ups of the place (which include more images) can be seen here and here.

Laap Kao Cham Chaa Th Ratanakosin (behind Prince Royal's College), Chiang Mai 9am-11pm

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Jin Sot/จิ้นสด

_DSC1869-Edit Phrae, a little-visited town in northern Thailand, is probably the region's most famous place for laap and other meaty, northern Thai-style dishes. Yet the glowing rep has meant that many of the town's cooks have opened shop elsewhere in northern Thailand, and today most restaurants with the name Laap Phrae are found far outside the tiny town's city limits.

Yet one guy who chose to stay in his hometown is Wiwat Kanka, the chef/owner at Jin Sot:


Jin Sot is northern Thai for fresh meat, an apt name for this open-air restaurant that serves an entire repertoire of northern Thai-style dishes -- many served raw -- made from pork, beef and buffalo.

Dishes such as laap, a "salad" of minced meat, can be found across Thailand's north, but according to Mr Kanka, the thing that makes them particularly Phrae is the khrueang, or chili paste. “The chili paste is the same everywhere: chili, garlic and shallots; the flavour depends on how the dish is seasoned," explains the native of Phrae. "Here we use lots of makhwaen [Zanthoxylum limonella Alston; a spice related to prickly ash and Sichuan pepper], deeplee [long pepper] and malaep [Heracleum siamicum Craib; a local spice]."


This unique spice combination is particularly apparent in the restaurant's excellent pork-based dishes, including its laap muu suk, cooked laap:


a dish of finely minced pork, offal and that spice mixture (unlike elsewhere in northern Thailand, blood does not feature in the cooked version of this dish), briefly fried and topped with fresh herbs and no small amount of deep-fried crispy shallots (they sometimes do a unique local variant called that also includes tart cherry tomatoes). Like elsewhere in Phrae, the dish is spicy -- surprisingly so for typically mild northern Thai food -- yet also packs the fragrant, slightly numbing punch of makhwaen and the citrusy zing of malaep.

For adventurous eaters there's also luu muu, a "soup" of raw pork blood and a spice mixture:


"It’s hard to make," explains Mr Kanka, who explains that in addition having to prepare the obligatory sides of crispy deep-fried noodles, pork intestines, pork rinds and kaffir lime leaves, he also has to take great care with the dish's main ingredient ("The blood has to be very fresh, and as soon as we get it, it has to be kept cool."). To serve the dish, the blood is mixed with the spice paste, cooked minced pork, the liquid from picked garlic (“for sweetness”) and sweetened condensed milk (“for a sweet and oily taste”), before being served over the noodle mixture. It's an undeniably intimidating but delicious dish, a unique combination of herbal spiciness, meaty savouriness, soup and crunch.

Jin Sot also serve some exceptional beef-based dishes, including an excellent jin neung, beef shin steamed over herbs and served with nam phrik khaa, a dry galangal-based dip, and an equally tasty kaeng awm:


a rich, thick, intensely meaty stew.

Jin Sot Rte 1023, Phrae 9am-10pm 054 627 067

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Khanom Sen Paa Net/ขนมเส้นป้าเนตร (เก๋ากึ๊ก)

_DSC0297-Edit 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:


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:


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:


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

_DSC8957-Edit 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":


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.


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:


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

DSC_9727-Edit 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):


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:


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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Khao Soi Chiang Mai/ข้าวซอยเชียงใหม่ (สุภาพเจ้าเก่า)

_DSC6502-Edit 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:


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:


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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Sukii Rot Kraba/สุกี้รถกระบะ

DSC_0690-Edit 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):


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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