Food in Shanghai – Part 2

As I mentioned in my previous entry, a large part of our trip to Shanghai was focused on eating. Let me share some more of our delicious discoveries with you. (When I say “our delicious discoveries,” I really should credit the friends and family on whose recommendations we relied.)

 

The Grumpy Pig

Located on Maoming Luu in the Jiang’an district, the Grumpy Pig features a pork centric, pan-Asian menu that invites you to nosh, chill, and enjoy the hip vibe.

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Pork steamed buns were a winner with fluffy buns, braised pork belly, and a cucumber and red cabbage slaw. The pork was sweet, sticky, and tender.

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Pork street toast, a play off the shrimp toast snack food common in Thailand and elsewhere in east Asia, features pork and grated sweet potato slathered on baguette toasts which are then battered and fried and then topped with sweet chili sauce. Good, but a little underseasoned.

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Several dishes are served over rice, making for a perfect meal for one. This was the teriyaki pork neck rice bowl with flavorful pork neck, sweet peppers, cabbage, and sansyo (the ground, dried leaves of the prickly ash tree) with a nice, tart teriyaki sauce. 

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The pork rice bowl features the same pork belly as served with the fluffy buns, served over rice with a poached egg, bok choy, and roasted onion. Mix it all together and you have a healthy and happy meal.

 

Di Shui Dong

Our first evening in Shanghai, Tawn and I were left to our own devices as Tawn’s cousins had to go to a social event. We wandered to the French Concession, another district in Shanghai, and ended up stumbling into a Hunanese restaurant that we later discovered is written up in Lonely Planet. Turns out that the recommendation was well-deserved.

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As you can see, the restaurant is popular with a mixed crowd of people. Many of the foreigners appeared to be expats, which I take as a good sign. Hunanese food is similar to Sichuan foods in terms of spiciness, but instead of relying on the tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, more traditional chilies are used. 

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The “Shef’s Special!” (per the menu’s spelling) was the Hunan style cumin spareribs, which were so good that my mouth waters just writing about them. The pork ribs are grilled and finished with a healthy dose of chilies and spices, mostly cumin seeds. The flavor is spectacular and they are not as spicy as you might expect. Cumin is one of my favorite spices, so I was in heaven. Almost ordered a second plate.

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The balance out the meat, we ordered a dish or stir-fried eggplant and French beans, which in addition to some chilies had some smoked pork belly. The little bit of bacon elevated the dish. If your children don’t like to eat vegetables, may I suggest you add some bacon to them?

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Since there were just the two of us eating, we ordered only three dishes, settling on something the menu called “distilled water egg”. We assumed this was a custard similar to the Japanese chawanmushi and were correct, kind of. The egg itself was flavorless and the dash of soy sauce didn’t season it sufficiently. Worst of all was the film of vegetable oil on top, which made the dish unappetizing. Two successes and one failure, but overall we were very happy with the food and service.

 

More Di Shui Dong

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As coincidence would have it, we ended up eating at another branch of the same restaurant two days later, when Jason and his husband Daniel took us to lunch. It wasn’t until we sat down and I looked at the name of the restaurant on the hand wipe packets that I realized we were at the same place. The good news is that we had a chance to further explore the menu.

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Hunan original bacon and smoked tofu spicy hot pot (“Recommended!”) brought together all the flavors we associate with Hunan cuisine in a single dish. It was tasty but seemed like a large portion for four people and I soon tired of it.

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An excellent, if simple, dish was the stir-fried cabbage with cayenne pepper. The cabbage was very sweet and despite the chilies, was a refreshing counterpoint to the other dishes.

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Mr. Mao’s favorite fried shrimps are small shrimp fried in their shells, covered in a mountain of fried garlic and chilies. Such a tasty combination. My only complaint was that the shrimp were not very large so the effort of peeling them was not rewarded with a lot of meat. I ended up eating the shells, which were crispy, but you still end up with the pieces that need to be picked out of your mouth. Not very graceful to eat!

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A steamed fish head, split open and topped with two types of chilies. The green chilies were pickled and had a nice vinegary flavor. The red chilies were fresh. Fish head is under appreciated in the west, but there is some really tasty, firm meat to be had.

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A soup made with pork bone and wax gourd, a flavorful, clear broth that made for a nice break from the spice of the meal. After two meals at Di Shui Dong, our appreciation for Hunanese food was even more solid than before.

 

Xin Ji Shi

One evening we went to the Xiantindi branch of Xin Ji Shi, a well-known Shanghainese restaurant chain. The restaurant, located in an upscale dining and shopping district, has a quaint interior that was formerly a row house. The modern exterior doesn’t prepare you for what might best be described as a step back in time, and a tasty one at that. 

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This is one of several “new” branches of the original “Jesse” (an Anglicization of “Ji Shi”) restaurant on Tianping Luu. Since the original is too small to reliably get a table in, the owners have opened these other branches. Depending on whom you speak to, the branches serve food that is as good as, or a close approximation of, the original.

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Before ordering, you are served a few small dishes of appetizers – pickled vegetables and spicy roasted peanuts. Enough to whet your appetite.

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A specialty is the crispy dried fish. Exactly as described, it is a dried fish that is then deep fried, making almost all of the bones edible and adding a nice crunch to the concentrated fishiness.

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The hong xiao rou (red braised pork) is perhaps the most famous dish in Shanghainese cuisine and is certainly the restaurant’s showstopper. Simmered for hours in a sweet soy sauce, the pork belly turns into a meltingly tender mass of goodness, a flavor that appeals to everyone except vegetarians. 

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Another very typical Shanghai dish was the bean curd skin with crab meat. This dish is deceptive. It looks unassuming at best and, more likely, unappetizing. It is profound, though. The thin strips of tofu are scrambled with crab meat. The first taste, before adding the all-important condiment of black vinegar, is relatively bland. But the vinegar unlocks so many levels of flavor and the dish is elevated to something much more than the sum of its parts. 

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A very simple dish of broccoli fried with garlic provided a nice serving of vegetables, helping to ensure a healthy, balanced meal lest we fall too into temptation with the pork belly.

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The most beautiful and extravagant dish, the toasted deep water fish head in a nest of fried shallot greens. The fried shallot greens hide the fish head when it arrives and the water carefully parts the nest at the table.

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The fish head, which is served split in half to make the meat readily accessible, is tender and succulent. The shallots prove the point that aroma is an integral part of flavor. You don’t eat the shallot greens but their perfume adds an earthy depth to the fish and fills the air.

Xin Ji Shi was a special meal and reinforced my love of Shanghainese food.

 

Qian Xiang Ge

Our final evening in Shanghai, Paul and Nicha took us to Qian Xiang Ge, a Guizhou style restaurant in Pudong, the eastern side of the city. Guizhou is a province in southwestern China that is relatively mountainous and one of the most ethnically diverse in China. It borders Sichuan province but has its own distinct culinary style, known as “Qian” (which is the Chinese diminutive for the province’s name). The food is known for its sour flavors and a distinct condiment, zao pepper, a fermented chili pepper paste.

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The interior of the restaurant is beautiful, with graceful courtyards and many seating areas for casual relaxing before, after, or during a meal.

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Sadly, despite most Shanghainese restaurants no longer allowing smoking, the common seating areas between the dining rooms was open for smokers, filling the room with the unwelcome scent of cigarette smoke. I’m fine with people making the decision to smoke, but when their smoke impedes on my enjoyment of a meal, that’s where I get upset.

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The highlight of the meal was a wujiang fish hot pot. A staple dish of Qian cooking is this fish in sour soup. Chunks of firm white fish are simmered in a spicy-sour sauce tableside for several minutes, before being served. The dish was similar to the Thai gaeng som, but without the tamarind flavor. It was enjoyable, but I think anyone trying the Thai dish might find the overall flavor of that to be richer and more satisfying.

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Seasonal greens stir fried with pork and an egg yolk. Served hot off the wok, you mix the egg yolk into the greens to create a pleasing sauce.

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Guizhou style fried chicken with cashew nuts in chili sauce. This tasty dish wasn’t as spicy as you might think, but had enough chili to get your attention and keep your taste buds awake. This dish is similar to one you might recognize from Chinese restaurants in the west – kung pao chicken – a dish which originates in Guizhou.

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I didn’t make note of the English name of this shrimp dish, which Google translate spits out as “Dushan hydrocloric acid flavored shrimp.” Appetizing, huh? It was shrimp in the shell with a garlic and chili sauce, very tasty and neatly arranged on the plate.

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Our final dish was a specialty called “Guizhou native chicken cooken in purple sand casserole.” It is basically a clay pot chicken. The unique design of the vessel allows steam to come up through the hole in the center of the pot, keeping the chicken incredibly moist and retaining all of its juices in the pot. The juices were too good to waste, so we spooned them on rice.

This was my first time trying Guizhou, or Qian, cuisine and I’ll definitely try it again. The food was very flavorful and not as spicy as Hunan or Sichuan cuisine.

Hope you enjoyed the culinary tour of Shanghai!

 

Dining in SF: Zarzuela

While in SF, I had the opportunity to meet up with a trio of Xangans (two of whom are AWOL from the site – ahem!) for dinner at Zarzuela, a Spanish restaurant on Russian Hill. The conversation was excellent and the food very good.

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Located on the corner of Union and Hyde Streets, the cable cars climb the hill outside Zarzuela’s front door. The room is cozy and the service friendly.

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Jamon Serrano con Pan e Tomate – Serrano ham with toasted bread and tomato sauce. The ham was tasty, the bread was nice, the tomato sauce was weak and watery.

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Gambas Ajillo – shrimp sauteed with garlic and olive oil. Very tasty but the portion was very small – this was the entire serving before any of us helped ourselves.

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Mejillones Vinagretta – A specialty is the cold mussels served with chopped veggies and a sherry vinaigrette. Cold mussels seem less common than warm ones, but this dish is a good argument why cold mussels should be more comon.

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Calamares a la Plancha con Aioli – Grilled calamari shells with a garlic mayonnaise sauce. The taste was fine but the presentation was awful. It looks like a three-year old just squiggled some mayo on top with a squeeze bottle.

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Pollo con Setas – Sauteed chicken with mixed mushrooms and sherry wine sauce. This was tasty but not particularlly inspiring.

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Pescado del Dia – Fish of the day, in this case salmon, served with a red tomato sauce and a side of green beans. Again, tasty but not very inspired. The type of dish that I feel most home cooks could easily create, which makes me wonder why I’m going to a restaurant to eat it.

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Fideos con Marisco – Vermicelli and seafood tossed with white wine and saffron. This had a bit of a “boxed mac and cheese” quality to it. Again, tasty food but not very refined. Having not been to Spain, perhaps you can argue that the food there is rustic but for a restaurant in San Francisco, I’m expecting a little sophistication for $14.95.

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Trio of desserts. I didn’t catch what they were (other than the middle one, which is an almond cake kind of like an Italian Torta del Nonna). Actually, the one on the right might be a rice pudding.

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The two AWOL Xangans, Jason and Sheening. Didn’t catch a good picture of the third Xangan joining us, Piyapong. Even if they have largely abandoned blogging on Xanga, it is always a pleasure to catch up with them in person. 

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Fantastic view of North Beach and Telegraph Hill (and Lombard Street) just a few blocks north of the restaurant.

 

Food in Bangkok: The Bibimbab

Recently a new Korean restaurant opened near the mouth of Sukhumvit Soi 24 immediately across from the Emporium. It is called The Bibimbab and its menu focuses on the classic Korean one-pot meal which features a ridiculously hot stone bowl filled with rice, vegetables, meat, and chili paste, which you then mix together before eating. Tawn and I visited for dinner two weeks ago.

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There are those cuisines with which I am extremely familiar and there are other cuisines about which I don’t know nearly as much as I’d like to. Korean is one of the latter. I always enjoy eating Korean food but I often feel a bit lost, uncertain of what I’m doing, how I should order, and whether the food I’m eating is very good or just passable by Korean standards. Bear that in mind as I talk about the restaurant, please.

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The Bibimbab is an attractive place to passers-by. The restaurant is airy and bright. The logo is colorful and modern. It is the type of place that is designed to appeal to people like me: those who like Korean food but don’t know much about it. That fact alone should probably make me nervous, right?

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We visited on a weeknight a few weeks after they opened. The tables were full and new customers were arriving and filling seats just as quickly as they were vacated. The interior looks a bit like a fast-food restaurant although it provides table service. The menu focuses on bibimbab, fried rice, and soups. They do not offer any of the “grill it yourself” dishes that are popular at many Korean restaurants.

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The restaurant’s branding and social media marketing is very up-to-date. They clearly want you to connect with your favorite bibimbab restaurant via your smart phone, tablet, computer, etc.

How To Eat Bibimbab

Their website actually offers useful information for the novice Korean food eater including helpful cartoons illustrating how to eat different dishes as well as general Korean food eating etiquette tips. Above is one an example of one of those helpful cartoons.

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Your meal begins with complimentary banchan. These are the side dishes (often erroneously referred to as kimchi, I learned – which refers only to the fermented vegetables) that accompany rice in Korean meals. Just by writing this entry, my knowledge about Korean food has expanded! The restaurant refills these throughout your meal. While the staff was busy, they were helpful and friendly.

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An overview of our meal. We ordered two dishes and shared them. Along with the side of rice and broth that came with one dish, we had a very hearty meal for two people, coming in at about 500 baht or under US$17.

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Our first dish was the jeyook bibimbab, rice and vegetables with spicy stir-fried pork. This was tasty. One of the nice things about bibimbab is the crispy crust of rice that forms at the bottom of the bowl. When it is time to eat it, there’s a nice crunchiness to it, a textural contrast to the rest of the dish.

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We also ordered dakbokkeumtang – spicy chicken stew with vegetables. While this wasn’t the spiciest Korean soup I’ve had – I remember a date years ago who took me to a Korean restaurant in Los Angeles, serving me a spicy tofu soup that nearly dissolved my tongue – it was spicy enough. Flavors were good and I couldn’t help but think that this would be perfect food for chilly weather… if only we had some chilly weather in Bangkok!

Overall, I was satisfied with The Bibimbab and imagine we’ll go back from time to time. The prices are reasonable for dinner, the portions generous, and the food is tasty. The question about authenticity is one I can’t answer, but at some level you have to ask whether authenticity is more important than simply enjoying the food.

 

Dining in Bangkok: Krua Apsorn

A few weeks ago, I accompanied my friend Chow for lunch at Krua Apsorn.  Chow, who is the author of Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls, was researching restaurants for an article in an Australian airline’s inflight magazine and needed an extra mouth to help her evaluate the food.  Who am I to shirk my duty as a friend?

Krua Apsorn is a Central Thai style restaurant that has garnered much attention in recent years.  With a homey charm, decent food, and a slightly obscure location, it is the type of place that makes foreigners feel like they’ve stumbled into a secret cave of culinary treasures.  While it is worth a visit, I wouldn’t necessarily put it on my list of “must-visit” restaurants.

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The original location of Krua Apsorn (there are now three) is on Samsen Road, which runs north from the Khao San backpacker district towards the Dusit Palace.  Located a little ways past the National Library, the restaurant is off the beaten path for most visitors but not terribly difficult to reach.  The chef used to cook for the King’s now-deceased mother and older sister and when this restaurant opened, Princess Galayani was known to visit it.  Six years ago, the Bangkok Post named it one of Bangkok’s best restaurants and you can now find it listed in nearly every guide book. 

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Lunch reservations are recommended as this location is popular with large groups of office workers.  The interior is modest and the emphasis is on the food rather than the decor.  The staff is friendly although rushed and it took a while for us to get their attention to order and then again to get the bill at the end of lunch.

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To ensure we gave the restaurant a fair sampling, we brought tremendous appetites, ordering and (for the most part) finishing more dishes than you would think two people could eat.  We started with a classic Central Thai appetizer: miang kana.  These make-it-yourself appetizers feature a variety of sweet, sour, spicy, savory, and salty tidbits that you wrap in a kailan (or Chinese broccoli) leaf with a splash of tamarind sauce.

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Can you spot the following items?  Shallot, lime, white ginger, peanut, dried shrimp, and fried pork rind.  Combined with the tamarind sauce, this appetizer exemplifies the typical flavor profile that Thai dishes aspire to, a balance of different flavors that leave you very satisfied.

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While I’m leery of ordering mussels thanks to a bad experience years ago in Seattle, we couldn’t pass up this dish that sat on nearly every other table.  Called hoi malang puu pad chaa, these super fresh mussels were stir-fried in basil, fish sauce, and chilies.  At first they didn’t seem too spicy but trying to avoid the chilies was a challenge and eventually you just had to give in and enjoy them.

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Another dish was gaeng kiaow waan luuk chin plaa, green curry with fish balls.  Green curry is one of the more accessible types of curry for foreigners’ tongues.  This one was passable but the taste was watered down.  

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The rice arrived molded into the shape of a heart.  Na rak maak! (Very cute!)

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A dish for which the restaurant is famous is neua puu pad prik lueang – crabmeat stir fried with yellow chilies and long beans.  The portion of lump crabmeat is generous, fresh, and sweet.  The sauce itself is also a little sweet, almost tasting as if it had ghee added to it, although I doubt it does.  The long beans were a little undercooked for my taste – reminding me of how when I brought my now-deceased paternal grandmother to eat Thai food once, she commented on a dish of stir fried vegetables, “My, they certainly like their vegetables crunchy.”  All in all, this was a well-made dish, though, and one I would order again.

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A dish of pad yot pak maew – chayote stems fried with garlic – provided a simple and refreshing contrast to some of the other, more strongly flavored dishes.

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Another highlight from Krua Apsorn’s menu is kai fuu puu – crabmeat omelet.  Their version, however, is so unlike the omelets you see elsewhere that it really makes you take notice.  Cooked in a narrow dish rather than a broad skillet, the omelet gains a lot of volume, looking more like a souffle than a traditional Thai omelet.

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Cross section of the kai fuu puu – standing very tall.  That said, the amount of crabmeat in the omelet seemed skimpy when compared with, say, the amount of crabmeat in the stir fry with the yellow chilies.  Still, this was one of the best dishes.

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The final dish we ordered, this one from the daily specials menu, was puu lon pak sot or salted crab and coconut cream stew with fresh vegetables.  This is a dish that is less common for foreigners to try and one that I haven’t run across too many times.  It is made of salted crab, minced pork, coconut cream, and a variety of herbs and spices, boiled until thick.

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The dish is actually more of a dip than a stew, as it is served with a selection of fresh vegetables – two types of eggplants (including the white ones), tumeric root, cabbage, and cucumbers – with which you eat the puu lon.  I found the taste of the dish to be interesting, both complex and unusual.  It is a bit sour, a bit salty, and very herbal.  Chow didn’t care much for it because it has sort of a milky aftertaste but it wasn’t a problem to me.

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For dessert, we tried some of the homemade fresh coconut sorbet (which was refreshing but didn’t photograph well) as well as this saku biak tua dam – miniature tapioca with black beans, served in sweetened coconut milk.  This is one of my favorite Thai desserts because it is not overwhelmingly sweet and has a bit of saltiness as well as the heartiness of the beans.

What to think of the restaurant overall?  You have to start out by understanding that this type of restaurant serves aahan juut, literally “bland food”.  It is the type of food that appeals to your grandparents, comfort food that isn’t too assertive.  That’s not a knock on the restaurant itself, because the food is well prepared with a lot of attention to the quality of ingredients and the methods of preparation.  The flavors are relatively bland because that’s characteristic of Central Thai cuisine when compared with Northern, Northeastern, or Southern Thai.

With all that in mind, Krua Apsorn delivers a good dining experience and value for the money.  Is it worth seeking out?  If you are already near the restaurant, it is worth stopping by.  If you have to trek all the way across the city, there are probably other aahan juut restaurants closer by that will satisfy you just as well and, if you are visiting from outside Thailand, there are other restaurants I would recommend you try before you get to Krua Apsorn.

 

Food in Bangkok: Prik Yuak

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Bangkok’s Chatuchak Weekend Market is popular among locals and visitors alike for its almost endless maze of vendors selling everything from fashion to frogs, souvenir trinkets to silverware for your dinner table.  Shopping isn’t the only reason to visit the market, though.  Hidden amongst all these vendors are several restaurants that are worth a trip, even if you have no plans to shop.  A few weekends ago, we ate at Prik Yuak, a popular place whose good food and convenient location makes it worth a visit.

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Prik Yuak is a Southern Thai style khao gaeng place.  Khao gaeng refers to the prepared curries (and other dishes) that are served with rice.  I shared a bit about this type of food in the third volume of my “Great Eats in Bangkok” series. 

Ordering at Prik Yuak is both easy and hard: easy because all you need to do is point and they will plate the dishes up for you.  Hard because you have to figure out what each thing is.  My advice: so long as you have no allergies, religious dietary restrictions, or adverse reactions to chilies, go ahead and point away!

Portions are small – think “Thai tapas” – and this allows you to try many different tasty dishes even if you come to the restaurant by yourself or just one other person.

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The restaurant itself is modest, located next to the edge of the market, immediately adjacent to exit 3 of the Kamphaeng Phet MRT station.  In fact, make a u-turn to the right as you exit from the station and then continue back as far as you can go (40 meters or so) and you’ll have reached the restaurant.  Grab a table after ordering and they will bring the food to you.

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Plaa kem tod – The name of the dish refers to the salty fried fish that is the main flavoring ingredient.  In this case, it is being served along with broccoli, although it is also served with other greens.  Salted fish is a popular ingredient in Thai food, especially in the south, where it is an easy method of preservation for a region that is close to the sea.  For foreigners, the taste can take some getting used to because it is very salty.  The saltiness is balanced by the clean, unseasoned flavors of the vegetables, though.

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Kai palow – This dish of stewed eggs and pork belly is often prepared with a Chinese five spice sauce.  In this case, Prik Yuak uses a palm sugar caramel and soy sauce.  This dish is ordered to accompany spicier dishes, as the sweet richness of the dish helps to counter the spice.

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Kuag gling moo – Shredded pork fried with spices, most notably turmeric, with a garnish of thinly sliced kaffir lime leaf.  This dish, which is spicy hot, has very assertive flavoring, making your taste buds come alive.  The texture is also very fun to eat, small shreds of slightly crispy fried pork and fried shallots.

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Gaeng tae po – This vegetable dish features something known locally as “morning glory” – not related to the flowers – a tubular green that grows near the water.  It is served in a curry and is quite spicy but in a way that is very pleasant.

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Panang moo – Panang style pork curry, which is milder than many other Thai curries.  It has a heavy dose of coconut milk which provides some richness on the tongue, countering other spicier dishes.  What makes Prik Yuak’s version of this dish unique is that they braise the pork first before cooking it in the curry.  The result is a bowl full of very tender pork.

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Pad prik king gai – Shredded fried chicken, cooked southern style with a dry curry (i.e. no coconut milk).  At first glance, this appears similar to the kuag gling dish, above.  But the flavor profile is very different.  Instead of having turmeric and lots of spices, this curry is made mostly of chilies, ginger, galangal root, coriander root, and lemongrass.  It is much more herbal and has a kick to it.

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Kai tom yang matoom – A common condiment for the khao gaeng shops is boiled egg.  Here we have boiled duck eggs done to a soft, creamy yolk.  Again, the richness of the egg helps counteract the spiciness of several of the dishes.  It is also an easy source of protein.

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To provide some more veggies, a little crunch, and some cooling relief to your mouth, a platter of crudité is served.  From left: kamin khao (white turmeric), long beans, and cucumbers.

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And to drink?  How about a coconut bowl of the favorite local cola: Pepsi.  While I normally don’t drink sodas, it is a very refreshing accompaniment to a meal like this.

Conclusion: The food at Prik Yuak is first rate in terms of quality, price, and flavor.  Best of all, the small servings allow you to try so many different things.  I hope that as you read the descriptions, you noticed how varied the dishes are and how they complement each other.  Something spicy, something sweet, something salty, something rich, something astringent – this is the quality of a balanced Thai meal, a feature that is lacking in a lot of western cooking, particularly in fast food America.  When I go for too long without Thai food, I find that my palate is bored from the lack of different flavors in a single meal!

Egg Sausage

One commenter on my previous entry about making sausage expressed surprise about sausage being a part of Thai cuisine. Sure enough, Thais like stuffed intestines just as much as about everyone else! After posting the entry, though, I learned from a friend about a unique Thai sausage used as an ingredient in a clear soup. The sausage is called “look rok”.

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It is made by filling sausage casings (intestines) with uncooked, well-beaten chicken eggs. Then you boil the sausage until the egg firms up. The sausage is then sliced and, if you want to be decorative, the cut ends are scored into quarters. The pieces are added to a clear broth that has minced pork and whole shrimp added to it. Looks quite pretty, doesn’t it? Seems like a lot of work, though, for just one ingredient in the dish.

Food in Chiang Mai: Huen Jai Yong

On our final day in Chiang Mai, Tawn and I drove east of the city to search for Huen Jai Yong, a restaurant highly recommended by our hotel’s staff.  Four or five people around the front desk agreed that this was the restaurant locals went to when they wanted to eat good Northern Thai food.  In fact, the restaurant is known particularly for its Lamphun style cuisine.  Lamphun is the province directly to the southeast of Chiang Mai.

As I learned from Wikipedia, Lamphun traces its roots to the 9th Century, when it was founded by Queen Chama Thevi as the capital of the most northern of the Mon kingdoms in the area that is now Thailand.

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Located on Route 1317 some 15 kilometers west of the city, Huen Jai Yong still feels like it is out in the countryside.  Its landmark is the large rain tree out by the driveway.  In reality, though, civilization is fast approaching.  Not a kilometer away, rice paddies have been transformed into housing developments.

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The gardens behind the restaurant were in the midst of lamyai or longan season, with the trees heavily loaded with fruit.  Chickens were strutting about the garden, scratching for bugs amidst the herbs and vegetables.

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The restaurant itself is a charming old teak wood house, with seating upstairs, downstairs, and in a few adjacent buildings.  A small gift shop is located out front where Tawn is standing.

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We opted for the open-air seating under the house.  This picture doesn’t show it very well, but several of the tables are made from old long boats with planks added to make the tabletops.  On the sign in pink chalk you can see the restaurant’s name in Lanna, the old Northern Thai language that traces its roots to a time when this region was a kingdom independent of Siam.

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We ordered a variety of foods, sampling several dishes we had eaten at Huen Phen as well as some specialties we had not tried on this trip.  Sticki rice is a staple.

First, let’s answer the question, what makes Northern Thai cuisine distinct?  Thailand has four major regions (North, Northeast/Issan, Central, and South) and each has its own style of cuisine although the have become increasingly merged as Thais move about the country.

Generally speaking, Northern Thai cuisine reflects the peoples who have historically lived in, passed through, and traded with the region.  These include the Mon, Shan, and other Burmese groups; the Hui and Taochew people from China; as well as Indian, Northern Lao, and Malay people.

Northern Thailand is more mountainous, has better rainfall, and somewhat cooler temperatures than other parts of Thailand.  The food tends to be heartier, a bit less spicy, makes more use of fresh herbs and vegetables, and makes less use of ingredients like coconut milk and fish than in other regions.  Whereas fermented fish and shrimp are used as a flavoring in other regions, you see fermented soybeans (trace the roots to China) used more commonly in Northern Thai cooking.

Let’s take a look at what was served:

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This dish of steamed squash and parboiled greens (similar to kale) and eggplant are served as a kind of side dish that you can go to for a break from whatever main dishes you are eating, kind of like the ban chan in Korean cuisine or pickles in many cultures.

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Once again we see the ubiquitous sai oua sausage, this time served with some muu tod or fried pork, known in the Northern Thai dialect at jiin muu.

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This dish, which is kind of hard to see thanks to the boiled eggs on top, looked at first to be nam prik noom, the roasted green chilli dip.  In fact, though, it was tam baakeua, a salad made of roasted eggplant.  Very tasty with the smoky meatiness of the eggplant enhanced with a variety of herbs and spices then served with the rich boiled eggs.

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One option for eating the roasted eggplant was this dish of kaep muu or chitlins (as they are called in the southern United States), deep fried pork skin.  Oh, so bad for you and yet so good, too!

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An unusual dish was larb kua plaa nin, of a salad of pan seared tilapia fish flavored with lemongrass, shallots, chilies, and other herbs.  Tasty and similar to, but less spicy than, other chopped meat salads that come from the Northeast.  Interestingly, I learned that tilapia was introduced to Thailand as a gift of Japanese Crown Prince Akihito in 1965 to H.M. King Bhumipol.  It has adapted very well and is found in rivers all across Thailand.

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Another version of gaeng hong lay, the Burmese style stewed pork with a tomato based sauce.  This particular version came very close to massman curry and was sweeter than the version we had at Huen Phen restaurant.  While it was tasty, it was almost too sweet for my taste.  Also interesting, it was made with fresh ginger instead of fried ginger.

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Northern Thai cuisine uses fresh herbs prodigiously and we were served this plate of various herbs and yard beans.  While I didn’t confirm it, I get the impression that these herbs are grown on the grounds of the restaurant.

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We ended our meal with gaeng pak waan, a soup of “sweet vegetable” which are the tips of a vegetable similar to spinach but much less earthy in flavor.  The broth is made from dried fish.

Our bill came out to about 400 baht for the two of us, about US $13.50.  The meal was a perfect conclusion to our trip to Chiang Mai.  The food is tasty, fresh, healthy, and the flavors are perhaps more accessible than any other style of Thai cuisine.  Now, the question is, when are you coming for a visit? 

Directions: From Central Airport Plaza take Mahidol Road towards San Kamphaeng (Route 1317) . Pass the junction of the Outer Ring Road and Route 1317 intersection, the make a U-turn at km 9. The restaurant will be on your left at the large rain tree.