January 9-16, 2008
Today's International Herald Tribune, on its back page, featured one of my favorite Bangkok soi restaurants, Lek & Rut.
But, originally the write up was, of course, in the New York Times.
Street smarts in Bangkok
By Joshua Kurlantzick
Monday, January 7, 2008 — Surrounded by groups of civil servants greedily slurping bowls of soup at Chote Chitr, a tiny, family-run restaurant in the older part of Bangkok, our table soon overflows like a Thai Thanksgiving. The yam makhua, a salad of grilled long eggplants topped with tiny dried shrimps, combines the tang of fresh shallots with expert charring. Prepared by the hand of a skilled griller, the vegetables retain a smoky crunch on the outside, but a first bite pierces the crackling char and reveals a juicy eggplant so sweet it resembles a ripe peach, full of lime juice and fish sauce that has soaked into the flesh.
Next comes Chote Chitr's gaeng som, a soup flavored with tamarind and palm sugar, packed with chunks of coarsely chopped cauliflower and large, meaty shrimp, their fat melting into the hot broth. Native to southern Thailand, where cooks use the abundant local seafood, gaeng som has a dense mouth feel, because the chef has added finely ground fish flesh into the stock, thickening it like roux.
Chote Chitr, which has been around some 90 years, prides itself on cooking recipes developed by ancient Thai royal courts, and its wall menu lists hundreds of dishes. These often rely on traditional ingredients tough to find today, and Chote Chitr's cooks say little about how they uncover them. Dodging longtime customers and a small dog in the tiny dining room – just five simple rectangular tables packed together and open to the street – the chef brings out a plate of mee krob, crunchy stir-fried vermicelli flavored with a caramelized sauce of palm sugar, ginger, lemongrass and som saa. A fragrant, tart variety of orange now almost extinct in Bangkok, the som saa balances the sticky sweetness in the dish, which in the hands of a lesser chef can taste like strands of rock candy.
A decade ago, when I first moved to Bangkok, a friend who had emigrated there long before me let me in on a secret: the best food in Thailand is served by street vendors and at basic mom-and-pop restaurants. To prove his point, he dragged me to Chote Chitr, tucked into a side alley and decorated with nothing but a wall calendar. I saw no foreigners, and we pored through a menu all in Thai. We sampled the specialties, and I was quickly convinced, eating the same dishes then that I would enjoy 10 years later, and dozens of times in between.
That Chote Chitr would prove a culinary revelation shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise: small places often prove to be the best eating spots in many cities. But for historical reasons Bangkok may boast the finest street food on earth. The city has long attracted migrants from across Asia, so its street cuisine, both at vendor carts and in tiny restaurants, blends many styles of cooking. Even a simple snack like murtabak mixes Malaysian-style roti pancake with curry fillings that betray Indian and Burmese spices.
Thai habits also lend themselves to street meals. Since Thais normally eat many small meals rather than three squares and traditionally prefer to meet outside the house, street food suits them. Many Thai dishes can be cooked relatively quickly, and Thais are fastidious about cleanliness, important to customers worried about eating alongside a road.
But every trip to Thailand prompts me to wonder: can Bangkok remain the world leader in its simple culinary prowess? In an era of the globalization of street food, when the Internet now allows food lovers to share tips, will Bangkok's street food lose its edge?
After culling through Thai food Web sites, I often arrive in Bangkok carrying a list of street dishes I must try – unripe mangoes dipped in sweet chili sauce, charcoal-grilled fish sausages, tacolike shells filled with shredded coconut. Every time I mention my list, real Thai gourmets tell me noodles, the ultimate quick snack, should be the real test of any street stall.
"Noodles are one of the great Thai secular religions," wrote the longtime Thailand food critic Ung-aang Talay, adding that Thais think nothing of plodding across Bangkok to sample a new dish. Nearly every street in Bangkok has a vendor selling thin, slightly sweet egg noodles; wide, chewy rice noodles; pad Thai topped in gooey omelets. Even, occasionally, the northern Thailand noodle specialty known as khao soi. As the Thailand food blogger Austin Bush has suggested on his knowledgeable site – www.realthai.blogspot.com – khao soi reflects the many foreign influences on Thailand cuisine. Khao soi blends egg noodles with a mild, Indian-style broth and toppings of crispy noodles, shallots and pickled cabbage, a Burmese touch that adds an acidic flavor cutting the rich, oily curry.
Like rock bands, the best noodle slingers attract groupies. Normally, a plate of noodles costs the equivalent of less than a dollar, but at Raan Jay Fai, a simple open-air restaurant in old Bangkok, noodles run four times as much. Outside Raan Jay Fai, lines of cars, tuk-tuks and motorcycles crawl through the hot air, belching exhaust toward Jay Fai's al fresco seating. Still, at Jay Fai's opening time of around 4 in the afternoon, a line waits to be served, and the cook throws handfuls of chicken chunks and noodles into a pan as if she were a metronome on double time.
I tried Jay Fai noodles stir-fried with spicy Thai basil, a dish also called drunken noodles. Some Thais believe the dish got its name because street cooks serve it into the wee hours, when their clientele is the drunkest. The broad rice noodles come out of the pan thin and chewy, as if they could tear easily. Yet they never turn tough, and the chef has thrown in large bits of sweet Thai basil, the edges seared with a slight soy aftertaste.
Raan Jay Fai opened far from central Bangkok, near the older part of town, which contains a large percentage of vendors who have stuck to traditional recipes. Not far away, in the heart of Little India, a solitary man stands over a giant wok crackling with oil, focused on his task. All around him, shoppers lugging bags of saris, incense and Bollywood videos squeeze past one another on the sidewalk, spilling into the street and sometimes knocking a passerby to the ground.
For less than the equivalent of 50 cents the man hands out bags of pakoras and crisp vegetarian samosas. As you bite into a samosa, the triangular pastry yields an almost liquid mix of potatoes and spices, like a Shanghai-style dumpling filled with soup. This being Thailand, it also packs a punch, with far more ground chilies inside than in the samosas you would encounter in a New York Indian restaurant.
Though Thailand easily absorbs cuisines like Indian, Malay or Cambodian, one influence dominates. Thais of Chinese heritage run many Bangkok industries, and at night they gather to talk shop at the city's basic Chinese-Thai restaurants, many of which serve fresh ingredients cooked simply and quickly. Some, like the famous Somboon Seafood, have been around so long they've become Bangkok institutions. At Nguan Lee, a typical Chinese-Thai joint, waitresses bring out fresh local sea bass, plucked from tanks outside and steamed with chilies, chopped raw garlic and a broth of lime juice and rinds of kaffir lime. Not just sprinkled on top, the chilies have been embedded into the fish meat, so they pop out of the soft flesh onto the tongue.
Still, Nguan Lee, becoming popular with visitors, seems to have watered down the garlic in this dish. A friend recommends a more full-on garlic experience, plaa tod kratiem phrik Thai, fish coated in garlic and thin chilies and then deep-fried. This satisfies the garlic craving. The fish skin crunches like cornflakes, and squirts hot, oily garlic into my mouth, like garlic's purest essence. Inside the crunchy crust, the sea bass remains tender.
One step down from a real sit-down restaurant like Nguan Lee are the kap gaeng (with rice) joints, collections of street stalls serving various curries over rice. Kap gaeng outlets reveal the diversity of Thai regional cooking, often lost at restaurants in America, which tend to focus on the better-known dishes of central and northeastern Thailand. At Talad Loong Perm, a collection of stalls near Thai Airways' main office in Bangkok, a market that made Food & Wine's 2007 "Go List," vendors stir crimson, orange and yellow curries floating with wisps of coconut milk. One chef ladles out gaeng leung, a southern curry flavored with chunky squash and turmeric.
I timidly taste a spoonful of gaeng pa, or jungle curry, maybe the hottest dish in Thailand – the intense chilies and bamboo shoots traditionally used to cover the flavor of wild game or nearly spoiled meat. Jungle curry may have served a purpose in rural areas, but it is made these days with tender chicken, and the fire overwhelms any flavor of the bird, leaving the lips scalded and unable to taste.
Knowing I love trying many dishes at the same meal, on one trip to Bangkok my friend Noy takes me around to Bangkok's modern indoor food courts, upscale versions of kap gaeng. Food Loft, which sits atop the upscale Central department store, has become the hottest version – several levels of comfortable booths packed with beautiful people wearing wrap-around shades. Food Loft's gaeng som packs the proper mix of tart and sweet, but it tastes thin, and seems to have none of the hearty ground-up fish. It gets worse: the fresh spring rolls, veggies and shrimp wrapped in a soft wonton skin, come served with a gluey sauce that tastes too much of corn starch.
Disappointment never lasts long on the streets of Bangkok, though. Back at Chote Chitr, the chef welcomes a friend and me by name. After greedily slurping down gaeng som and a salad made from banana flowers, we consider stepping outside for dessert, since a shop nearby sells glutinous rice cooked in coconut cream.
But we don't want to leave, and settle on one of Chote Chitr's specials, a reimagining of the classic traditional Thai papaya salad, som tam. Instead of making som tam with unripe papaya, Chote Chitr uses pineapple and mango, with salty fish sauce drawing out the natural sugar of the so-ripe-they're-ready-to-turn fruits. I vacuum them down, waddle into a cab, and fall asleep on the ride home, thinking about my next meal.
POINT AND ORDER
Thai Airways flies nonstop between Kennedy Airport and Bangkok. Flights in early February start at $1,015. Other airlines (United, Continental, American, Northwest, Japan Airlines and All Nippon, among others) change planes and sometimes carriers en route, often in Tokyo.
WHERE TO EAT
Many simple Bangkok restaurants have no working phone (and few employees who speak English), so it may take some time to find them. You might also have to resort to the timeless point-at-what-looks-tasty method of ordering. Have your hotel write down the name and address in Thai, and embark upon your street food hunt with considerable patience. Dinner for two at most of these restaurants will cost less than 500 baht, about $16 at 31 baht to the U.S. dollar.
Raan Jay Fai, 327 Mahachai Road, (66-2) 223-9384, is near Wat Saket in the older part of Bangkok
Nguan Lee, corner of Soi Lang Suan and Soi Sarasin, is in the central business district; (66-2) 250-0936.
Chote Chitr, Prang Pu Thorn alley, off Tanao Road, is in the old part of Bangkok.
Samosa seller: near the corner of Phahurat and Chakraphet Roads in Little India. Look for a small alley with a sign above it that says "Sunny Video Indian Movies." Often open only during the daytime.
Food Loft, top floor, Central Chidlom department store, at the corner of Ploenchit Road and Soi Chidlom, is in the central business district; (66-2) 793-7070; www.central.co.th.
The best areas for street snacks include the side streets off of Yaowarat Road, in Chinatown; Talad Loong Perm (Loong Perm market), on 89 Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road, is in the northern part of Bangkok, just behind the Thai Airways building.
On January 3rd my web site experienced a more than 600% jump in 'hits' (i.e., requests and bytes). The increase was largely due to hits on my Mutter Museum pages.
The other day when I bought the current issue of Newsweek (the Iowa caucus coverage) I discovered why. Ah ... the power of GOOGLE to bring in accidental readers. (*)
(*) Well, I also did get a few complaining e-mails about the baby soup recipe. Emma from some prissy school in the UK wrote:
From: EMMA ******** [mailto:*****@******.sch.uk]
Sent: Tuesday, January 08, 2008 7:32 AM
Subject: your baby soup is sick
I am disgusted with your baby soup web page. Its sick!
Last night I made a second visit to Angelini, the newly reopened Italian restaurant in the Shangri-La hotel. This time I had a plate of Italian cold cuts followed by a dish of clams from Manila done in a marinara sauce. The meal came with a complimentary shot glass of something red with some green leaves on top. Also complimentary was a trilogy of after-dinner thingies of unknown composition. And, I forgot, the pre-starter was a loaf of Italian bread with sides of chopped olives and a salsa like sauce.
It was all very wonderful.
PS: The January 7 edition of The New Yorker has this great piece by Hendrik Hertzberg:
Out in Iowa, with the bell at last ringing and the combatants charging out of their corners, the Republican card has come down to the Maulin' Mormon versus the Battlin' Baptist. Would the Framers be pleased? Doesn't seem likely, somehow. The deists, freethinkers, and assorted Protestants (plus two Catholics) who drafted the Constitution sternly forbade theological sucker punches – "No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States" was how they put it – but today's Republicans make their own rules. Marquess of Queensberry? Not for the new Grand Old Party. (Meanwhile, those groovy Democrats are reprising "The Mod Squad," with the white guy, the black guy, and the blonde scrambling to see who gets to make the collar.)
The tale of the tape suggests that Mike Huckabee has to be given the edge, religion-wise. He trained at Ouachita Baptist University and turned pro early, pastoring his own church at twenty-four. A mere nine years later, he was president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention – half a million strong, a fifth of the state's population at the time. He may not be a heavyweight these days (he shed a hundred and ten pounds as governor), but if he no longer has the belly he certainly has the fire.
The fire, yes – but, affable fellow that he is, minus the brimstone. Huckabee's sensational rise has been made possible by his success, so far, at speaking in tongues that evangelicals and non-evangelicals understand differently. "I always tell the story of a lady who asked me, was I a narrow-minded Baptist who thinks only Baptists go to Heaven?" he likes to say. "And I told her, 'No, ma'am, I'm more narrow than that. I don't think all the Baptists are going to make it, either.' " Does he mean "Let's not take this eternal damnation stuff so darn seriously"? Or is it "Everybody roasts in Hell except selected evangelicals"? And then there was his instantly famous sound bite at the November 28th YouTube debate, when he was asked where history's most revered victim of the death penalty would stand on that issue. "Jesus," Huckabee replied with a rueful smile, "was too smart to ever run for public office." This was a clever sally, allowing moderates to infer that he, Huckabee, realizes that capital punishment is morally dubious but (like his gubernatorial predecessor Bill Clinton) supports it for prudential political reasons, while assuring his co-religionists that he, Huckabee, is a humble sinner, albeit one on easy terms with the Lord – who will forgive His flock the minor sin of clamoring for the modern equivalent of crucifixion.
Lately, though, Huckabee has been getting his signals mixed, like a man putting letters to his wife and his mistress in the wrong envelopes. A few weeks ago at Liberty University (founder: the late J. Falwell), a student asked him what accounted for his rocketing poll numbers. "There's only one explanation for it, and it's not a human one," he said. "It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of five thousand people – and that's the only way that our campaign could be doing what it's doing." To an evangelical ear, that might sound like simple wonderment. But to many other people it sounded like the ravings of someone who thinks God is his precinct captain.
In Mitt Romney's case, it's the religion itself that may have a glass jaw. When Mitt's father, George Romney, a liberal Republican governor of Michigan, ran for President, in 1968, his Mormonism was just another biographical detail. That was before the Party's firm embrace of "faith" as a mandatory political talking point. It's no longer clear that the dogmas of whatever sect a candidate happens to be affiliated with can be dismissed as irrelevant to the policies he or she might pursue in office. And the dogmas of Mitt Romney's sect are breathtaking. They include these: that in 1827 a young man named Joseph Smith dug up a set of golden plates covered with indecipherable writing; that, with the help of a pair of magic spectacles, he "translated" the plates from an otherwise unknown language (Reformed Egyptian) into an Olde English that reads like an unfunny parody of the King James Bible; that the Garden of Eden is in Missouri; that American Indians descend from Hebrew immigrants; that Jesus reappeared in pre-Columbian America and converted so many people that the result was a series of archeologically unconfirmable wars in which millions died; that while polygamy had divine approval for most of the nineteenth century, God changed his mind in 1890, just in time for Utah to be allowed into the Union; and that God waited until 1978 to reveal that it was O.K. for blacks to be fully paid-up members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
One might ask, What of it? Plenty of religions have curious doctrines. (Several, for example, hold that on Sundays millions of people drink blood and eat flesh.) The Framers knew this was dangerous territory, which was one reason they tried to rule it out of political bounds. And Romney himself warned, in a speech, titled "Faith in America," that he delivered on December 6th, "There are some who would have a Presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited."
The weasel word here is "distinctive." Romney had no problem describing his church's not-so-distinctive doctrines. "There is one fundamental question," he continued, as if he were speaking on tax cuts, "about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Saviour of mankind." (But please don't ask about Jesus' post-Resurrection travel schedule.) The candidate went on to patronize rival religions, administering quick head pats to Catholicism ("I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass"), evangelicalism (for the "approachability" of its version of God), Pentecostalism ("tenderness of spirit"), Lutheranism ("confident independence"), Judaism ("ancient traditions"), and Islam ("frequent prayer" – a bit feeble, that).
Missing from this litany, of course, was something to the effect of "I appreciate the deep commitment to reason of the agnostics and atheists." Indeed, the only "religion" that Romney had anything rude to say about was "the religion of secularism." He pointed scornfully at the "empty" cathedrals of Europe as evidence of "societies just too busy or too 'enlightened' to venture inside and kneel in prayer," adding a little later that "any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty" has "a friend and ally in me." Take that, NATO. On your knees.
Secularism is not a religion. And it is not true that "freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom," as Romney maintained. What freedom, including religious freedom, requires is, precisely, secularism – which is to say, state neutrality in matters of religion. (Nor does religion require freedom, as the European past and the Middle Eastern present demonstrate; religions, plural, do, however.) "Americans do not respect believers of convenience," Romney thundered in his "faith" speech. "Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world." These were strange observations, coming as they did from a man whose campaign has consisted largely of jettisoning the beliefs he found convenient as a Massachusetts politician but finds highly inconvenient now that he stands to gain the Republican nomination for President. But then those were merely political beliefs.
Touch gloves, Mitt and Mike. And perhaps, if God interests Himself in the minutiae of earthly politics, He'll arrange a double knockout.
Boring you with food.
David had a great time with his girl friend over New Year's in Canoa Quebrada (Brazil).
PS: Reader Kevin kindly forwarded this bit of wisdom to me:
This came in a forwarded email and I think its a hoot! But the last paragraph is what really does it for me... I think it's the best analogy I've seen or heard yet. I may use the last paragraph in a few days... I've already pre-posted for today and I'm beating up on Ann Coulter tomorrow... But you might like to post this. You're on a roll with your Romney / Huckabee piece!
There was a shooting recently at a church where four people ended up being killed by some kid who was disgruntled because he couldn't go on a church field trip. So instead of dealing with the fact that he was left behind in a rational manner he decided to blast some of his fellow church members for leaving him out. A security guard wound up shooting the lone gunman and saved a lot of people in the process. The woman was an ex-police officer who had plenty of training on how to take down a violent suspect.
This morning at the gym I see the lady who stopped the shooter on TV making a speech for all the major media. She went on to explain how "God" guided her through the event and was responsible for her ability to bring this horrible event to a close. I take issue with this woman, or any other person for that matter, claiming that "God" was responsible for her heroic actions. The only problem with this statement is that same all-powerful God that saved this lady from the shooter was also responsible for the deaths of the people who were shot before he was stopped.
This reminds me of every time a football player takes a knee in the endzone and points his hand up in the air to the magical dude in the sky who has nothing better to do in this infinite universe but watch a stupid football game. Even if he is watching the game then what about the other team who just got scored on? Unless they are the Atlanta Atheists I seriously doubt god would root for one team over the other. So that leaves us with a little predicament. How can this all knowing and great god let something like crazy lone gunman going on a shooting rampage at a church happen? You would think out of all the places god would keep you safe a church would be the first one.
After shedding light on this whole paradox I am only able to come to one conclusion. GOD DOES NOT GIVE A SHIT. When I say he doesn't give a shit, I mean about everything. Your Kids, Your Football Team, Your Car, Your Family, This Earth, EVERYTHING. There is a good reason for this. That reason is the fact that if this one all knowing being did create the ENTIRE UNIVERSE made up of billions of different stars and galaxies then the dude probably doesn't have time to worry about what's happening to a couple of flesh bags on a distant rock out there in the vastness of space. In fact if he is responsible for everything then he shouldn't have one spare moment of time to even think about what some crazy human being on the planet they call Earf is doing. Otherwise he would spend all his time trying to figure out how to get Skyler's parents the new Tickle Me Jerko doll.
It's sad to say but if people started taking responsibility for their own actions (bad or good) and stopped saying shit like "God helped/made me do it" then we could avoid more tragedies like this. The same God that created this woman and placed her in a position to stop the shooter also created the shooter and placed him in a position to kill four other people before god's helper (security guard lady) stepped in a took him down. So was god a little late to the party or was he off at a sportsbar watching the Patriots kick Steeler ass all over the playing field?
Lemme make it real simple for you. God is like the video game developer that made Grand Theft Auto. Instead it's Grand Theft Universe! Essentially he makes a world that you can play in and have the free will to do whatever the hell you want. You have the choice to NOT drive directly to the Haitian neighborhood (or whatever ethnicity you choose) and run over a mob of suspicious purple clothed gang members. Unfortunately sometimes people don't feel like NOT killing and get a little carried away in their God delusions. Which is exactly what happened in this situation. The reason innocent people die and your favorite football team just got beat is because no matter how loud you yell god doesn't hear you. It's not because he doesn't have ears. He invented them. He just doesn't give a shit. So leave him alone and stop saying you are doing things in his name. He has an entire universe to run and he doesn't have time to deal with all that nonsense.
What is this? Hint: it is not what it was originally designed to be (but, you've probably already guessed that what with all the ink mark-outs).
Of course, this is just more proof that THOCBDC has way too much time on its hands.
For starters, here is the second hint about what that thing is ... you know, the bit that I featured yesterday. OK, you have to look at the two photos to capture this hint. But, unless you are familiar with the concept (THOCBDC's latest time filler) these two photos will be about as informative as were yesterday's photos.
And, now for something entirely different: Today is Pom's birthday so Isabelle surprised her with a cake which, in Thai, reads "Happy Birthday, P'Pom".
PS: Map from Geocache:
Next: Part III