Thai street food: khanom tang taek

There was a time when I wrote a lot more about Thai street food. In the years since I had to stop working from home and started getting a real job, I’ve had a lot less time to write – but rest assured I haven’t stopped enjoying Thai street food! In the past few months, I’ve discovered a tasty treat that I had not encountered in more than ten years here: a snack named after a broken barrel.

Called “khanom tang taek” this snack is basically a pancake cooked in a deep pan, filled with shredded fresh coconut, black sesame seeds and sugar.

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Baked until crisp, it is folded in half (the breaking of the “barrel”) and served while still warm.

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It isn’t the fastest treat to make, perhaps one of the reasons you see so few street vendors making it. But the flavor and texture and wonderful and I count myself lucky to have a vendor who is regularly found at lunchtime across the street from my office.

 

Cannelés in Bangkok at Le Beaulieu

Widely considered Bangkok’s finest French restaurant, Le Beaulieu serves dishes that would be at home in Paris. It also charges prices that are simply beyond my budget. But when I want un petit goût of that French sophistication without landing in the poorhouse, I stop by the Le Beaulieu cafe and purchase a few cannelés.

Cannelés, a pastry from Bordeaux with a dark, richly caramelized crust and a soft, almost custardy center, are painstaking to make. They require copper molds that are lined with beeswax and butter before being filled with a crêpe-like batter that has rested up to 48 hours. The two-step baking process begins with an extremely hot oven that is later lowered to a more reasonable temperature in order to produce the distinctive crust. Done right, the results are heavenly. Done wrong, they resemble either a burned brick or an eggy sponge.

The cannelés at Le Beaulieu have the ideal texture, the right amount of caramelization on the exterior that makes for a complex flavor without tasting burnt. Served with a tasty espresso drink from Malongo, a family-owned coffee firm from Nice, I can afford to have that French cafe experience without having to survive on crumbs alone.

Kaffir Lime Cheesecake

As dessert for a barbecue with friends last weekend, I baked a kaffir lime cheesecake. Kaffir lime, a member of the citrus family whose fruit and leaves are an essential part of Thai, Indonesian, Laotian, and Malaysian cuisines, is an unusual flavoring for cheesecake. It is very aromatic but also astringent, a quality that I thought would go well with the richness of cheesecake.

To impart the flavor, you boil cream with whole kaffir lime leaves and then let it simmer for about twenty minutes as the cream reduces. The sweet, almost lemony scent is distinctive and you cannot successfully substitute regular limes for kaffir limes. Most Asian markets sell kaffir lime leaves, which freeze well.

The end result was fantastic. The recipe, which I based on this one (but used two eggs instead of one as I think the author wrote the incorrect number), produced a substantial but not overly-heavy cake, rich enough to be a dessert while not leaving you feeling like you ate a brick. Deviating from the recipe, I made a sour cream glaze with kaffir lime zest and sugar. I will definitely make this one again.

Preparing Baked Alaska for the First Time

While in Hong Kong, Gary took us to a fantastic 1960s style restaurant called Sunning. The menu was full of classics including Baked Alaska. This being only the second time I have had the dessert, I was taken by the over-the-top nature of the dish and decided that when I returned to Bangkok, I would try preparing it.

The version prepared at Sunning Restaurant is beautiful, nicely shaped, like something right out of a Betty Crocker cookbook or Better Homes and Gardens magazine. 

The whole video experience is here – pardon the less-than-stellar audio quality.

Baked Alaska is a single layer of cake with ice cream on top – quite a thick layer of it, ideally domed. The whole dessert is then coated with meringue, which provides insulation when the dessert is then placed in a very hot oven for a few minutes to brown the exterior. 

Instead of the traditional pistachio ice cream, I opted for alternating layers of macadamia nut and mango sherbet. For some contrast, I also added crushed raspberries. The kitchen was quite warm when I was molding the ice cream into a stainless steel bowl, so instead of neat layers, there were gaps, air pockets, and swirls. Unmolding the ice cream from the bowl was a challenge the next day. Lining it with plastic wrap did not help.

The most showy versions include setting the dessert alight with some brandy. That was a bit too much to accomplish this first time. The most important thing is that the birthday boy and all the guests enjoyed the dessert. Next time, I will work on improving my technique.

Food in Hong Kong – Sunning Restaurant

The evening I arrived in Hong Kong, I joined fellow Xangans Gary and Rudy for dinner at Sunning Restaurant in Causeway Bay. Sunning is a long-time favorite of locals, dating to 1948, and specializes in Western food. It is the type of place where local families go for special events or weekly Sunday dinners, a chance for “fancy” food that today feels reminiscent of the era of Julia Child. 

Despite its lengthy history, the restaurant moved not long ago to Lee Theatre Plaza, a modern building in Causeway Bay. The new interior is tasteful, clean, and modern. The white linens are starched. The waiters dress in tuxedos. It is easy to imagine that you have entered a time warp and landed in the 1960s Hong Kong celebrated in director Wong Kar Wai’s film In the Mood for Love.

Gary ordered (and shared, thankfully) a dish of escargot. Unlike all the other escargot I have eaten, this dish wasn’t drowned in butter and garlic. Instead, the snails were served with a rich brown sauce and rested on a layer of broiled, molten mashed potatoes. They were tender and scrumptious.

I ordered foie gras on toast, a very basic pate that was tasty but not fancy. The taste of the foie gras reminded me of the Oscar Mayer liverwurst my grandfather used to serve me for lunch on Triscuit crackers.

As the main courses arrived (Rudy had the lamb chops and Gary had the sirloin steak), the waiter brought a plate with baked potato toppings: sour cream, bacon, and chives. Classic!

I ordered the Spanish Kurobuta pork served with the special house sauce – same the was on Gary’s steak. All of our dishes were garnished identically: baked potato, half a roasted tomato, and a floret of cauliflower. The simple presentation reminds me of the food at Uncle John’s in Bangkok, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where a former hotel chef turns out Western classics in distinctly hotel banquet style. The Sunning version was tasty, well-cooked, and completely unimaginative. That isn’t a complaint, though, because the restaurant serves exactly what is promised at a reasonable price. No molecular gastronomy is needed here.

The three of us shared two desserts. The first to arrive was a lemon soufflé, perfectly spongy and light with a dry middle.

The second dessert was a Baked Alaska. This Betty Crocker classic is something I haven’t seen in a long time and was eager to try. It was the expected show-stopper, a meringue covered Mount Vesuvius with two maraschino cherry nipples served en flambé. 

Here’s a brief video showing the flaming dessert in all its glory:

The inside of the dessert was different than I had previously had. In addition to the yellow cake base and ice cream, there was fruit cocktail. While unexpected, it lent additional retro credibility to the dessert and I’ve decided that I will have to prepare Baked Alaska one of these days soon.

(For a more complete review with better pictures, visit Gary’s entry about the restaurant.)

The Ultimate Little Boy Cake

I don’t mean for the title to sound sexist, as this cake could be enjoyed just as well by a little girl, but when I saw it sitting on the counter at the Mandarin Oriental Shoppe at Emporium Mall, I thought immediately of a certain nearly four-year-old boy with whom I recently had a long conversation about the names of the different Marvel superheroes in The Avengers.

The conversation went in circles around the character Hawkeye, who is his favorite superhero. I was telling him that Hawkeye’s alter-ego name is Clint Barton in the same way that Spiderman is also known as Peter Parker and Batman as Bruce Wayne. For some reason, even though he knew of Spiderman and Batman’s alter-ego names, he couldn’t grasp my explanation of Hawkeye and Clint Barton. I tried both Thai and English, but for some reason he just wasn’t buying it. His mother also tried to explain it, to no avail.

Sadly, Hawkeye isn’t represented on the cake.

 

Dining in Singapore – Pollen

Will write in the next day or two about the spectacular new Gardens by the Bay, which opened a few months ago near Marina Bay in Singapore. In the Flower Dome, one of two terraria in the gardens, British chef Jason Atherton has opened the Singapore branch of his Michelin-starred London restaurant, Pollen Street Social. Simply named Pollen, this posh restaurant is meant to bring a touch of Provence to the Lion City.

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The main dining room is located on the ground floor, below the actual Flower Dome exhibit area. A tea room is on the exhibit floor. If you arrive with reservations, an electric tram will meet you at the entrance to the Gardens by the Bay and drive you to the restaurant’s entrance, which is on the back side of the dome. After your meal, you are invited to walk up a ramp directly from the restaurant into the dome – no need to pay the entrance fee.

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The view from our table, looking out at the Singapore Flyer.

Chef Atherton has worked under Gordon Ramsay in several restaurants and now has his London restaurant as well as a restaurant in Shanghai and Singapore. Pollen makes his second Singapore location. The restaurant’s menu reflects the Mediterranean climate inside the Flower Dome and there is a lot of innovation and finesse without it being fussy.

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Even before receiving a menu, the wait staff brings a large basket of fresh bread, all of which is wonderfully tempting. It is nice to be made to feel welcome but the wait for the menus did seem overly long.

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Two servings of olives and a white bean hummus were provided to our table of four, an amuse bouche of sorts. The menu features a fixed price three-course lunch set with three choices for each course, for S$ 55 – about US$ 45.  Two of us went for the set while the other two ordered a la carte.

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One of the starters from the lunch set, an asparagus and grilled heirloom tomato salad. It was topped with edible flowers and microgreens and the basil oil was very intense. The ingredients were of excellent quality and the presentation was beautiful.

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This dish, the picture of which doesn’t reveal everything, is a slow cooked egg served with chorizo and patatas bravas. Patatas bravas is a classic Spanish tapas dish of diced fried potatoes served with a spicy tomato sauce. There is a white sauce on top of the dish that hides the egg which was perfectly poached – firm but tender white with a silky liquid yolk. This was a good example of a simple dish with robust, complex flavors.

The third option for the starters was home smoked salmon with beer pickled onions and spiced eggplant.

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My fellow diner, Chor Phan, ordered a starter from the a la carte menu, scallop carpaccio, cucumber, apple, and horseradish “snow.” The scallops were nicely prepared although I had something different in mind when seeing the word “carpaccio” on the menu. The use of sea grapes (a type of sea weed) was interesting and the horseradish snow was playful and added a lot to the flavor of the dish. It was also a very sculptural plating.

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For the main course, Tawn had the roasted Brittany cod, creamed olive oil potatoes, and grenobloise sauce, which is a brown butter sauce made with capers, lemon, and parsley. The fish was really well done and the mashed potatoes were decadent.

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David ordered the roasted artichokes with sauteed wild mushrooms and potato foam. Despite my weariness of foams, this dish was really nicely executed and very flavorful. The third selection from the mains (which we did not order) was a specialty of the Singapore branch of Pollen: marinated lamp cutlet with asparagus and prickly ash.

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For our main course, both CP and I ordered the Rangers Valley 300-day rib-eye steak served with duck fat chips and green salad. The duck fat chips are just what you might expect: thick cut “French fries” fried in duck fat. The salad was beautiful – the large bowl of greens artfully arranged and misted – literally, it looked like dew – with a very flavorful dressing.   

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Inside look at the chip, which was creamy and soft inside but not quite as crispy as I would like on the outside. The duck fat adds a lot of flavor but also left the chips with a heavy feeling. As for the steak, the “300 days” on the menu refers to the amount of dry aging the steak went through. Most steaks, if dry aged at all, are done for only a few days. The dry aging process concentrates the natural flavors of the beef. This was a good steak, cooked correctly and with a nice peppercorn sauce. That said, I ended up sprinkling some salt on it because it seemed underseasoned.

Service was good overall, but with some inconsistencies. The wait staff is a combination of locals and foreigners and the foreigners seemed to be more sophisticated in the service. As an example, I found a hair in my salad – something that is an especially big faux pas at this caliber (and expense) of restaurant. A Singaporean server apologized and took my salad to the kitchen. A few minutes later, another server (a European woman) brought out the replacement salad and another order of fries and set them on the table. The Singaporean server, standing nearby, realized a mistake had been and she started to tell the European server that the fries belonged to the table next to us. The European woman quickly stopped her and said, “No, this is a complimentary order; the other order will be out in a moment,” although the look on her face suggested that she had in fact made a mistake by giving me the fries.

My point is that the European server in this case realized that taking the fries off my table would look very uncouth, especially given what had happened with the salad. Bringing another order of fries to the adjacent table was better than picking up a dish that had just been placed on my table. The Singaporean server seemed more concerned about the error in the order.

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Our lunch reservation was at 2:00, so by the time we were ready for dessert, the restaurant was almost cleared out. The manager invited us to take our dessert at the bar, since the sun had reached our table and was making the dining a bit uncomfortable. The benefit of being at the bar is that we were able to watch Pollen’s pastry chef, Andrew Lara, and his assistant create their magic. Lara is an alumnus of elBulli, chef Ferran Adrià’s three Michelin star winning Spanish restaurant that closed last year. 

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Lara’s work is exquisite both in flavor and composition. Here is frozen blackberry, goat cheese sorbet, rhubarb consommé with mint oil. The pink sticks are meringue. The process of watching him create these desserts was the same as watching a painter or a sculptor. The combination of textures and flavors was perfect, satisfying in a way that a simple, cloyingly sweet and rich dessert could never be. The mint oil was vibrant, the rhubarb consommé piquant, the goat cheese sorbet tart and creamy, and the berries cool and meaty. 

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Crispy and burnt lemon with cucumber sorbet. The “lemon” is a crispy lemon meringue (the white thing with the shavings of lemon zest) and the dollops of soft meringue bruléed with a butane torch as the plate is constructed. The cucumber sorbet is peeking out from underneath but was cool and full-flavored, just like eating a perfectly ripe cucumber but creamy and smooth. Another example of a dish that was both simple and complex.

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We also had the chocolate, roast cocoa nib, ice cream, jasmine parfait, and cherry. Sorry for the focus being on the back half of the plate and not the dessert itself. This was also a complex dish, all the more so because the cocao nibs were bitter and crunchy, which contrasted with the jasmine parfait and the sweet chocolate. Unlike so many molten chocolate cakes I have had or other one-note desserts, this satisfied my sweet tooth without setting me into a diabetic coma and paralyzing my taste buds with chocolate monotony.

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After dessert was done, Chef Lara gave us some truffles and these homemade “Magnun bars” – small chocolate-covered ice cream bars that were a perfect end to the meal.

All in all, Pollen was an enjoyable dining experience, but one that didn’t quite live up to my expectations (Michelin starred chef) or the price, which was steep. That said, the experience was very pleasant and we enjoyed it with a pair of good friends who were just the right people to share such a meal with.