Food in BKK – Foon Talob

Results of the second cheesemaking attempt is coming soon… thank you for your patience.  In the meantime:

After returning from our trip to the US in late March, Tawn and I had a conversation about the food in Bangkok that we really miss when we are away.  In my mind, this list is much shorter than the list of food from San Francisco I miss now that I live here.  One of the Bangkok foods that did come to mind was the gai tod (fried chicken) and som tam (green papaya salad) served at Foon Talob (ฝุ่นตลบ) at the Chatuchak (sometimes “Jatujak”) Weekend Market.

As a special treat, Tawn agreed to serve as host for our video visit.  You can watch him introducing the cuisine of Foon Talob here:

Otherwise you can read about it and see the pictures below:


Foon talob translates as “dust all over” and the idea is of a Northeastern Thai (Issan) style roadside restaurant, a place where there would be dust all over the place.  The restaurant is open air but covered, adjacent to a paved walkway and rows of stalls.  In the hot season it is quite warm.  But even then it is quite popular, filling up by early afternoon with everyone sitting shoulder to shoulder and back to back in the tightly spaced rows of tables and stools.


Next to the open air kitchen is a little offering for the gods, a bit of food, sticky rice, and water with the ashes of incense scattered on the plate, a request for good fortune and business success that day.


I’m inclined to think that fried chicken is one of the most universal foods.  So many cultures have fried chicken … even before KFC arrived!  Here, freshly butchered chicken is breaded in a heavily seasoned coating and then dropped into a wok of boiling oil.  The end result is crispy on the outside but tender and juicy on the inside.  It is served with two sauces: The one in the back is really spicy and the one in the front is mostly sweet with only a little spice.  Always, always, always, the fried chicken is eaten with a bowl of sticky (glutinous) rice.


Fried chicken just isn’t Issan fried chicken without a side dish of som tam or green papaya salad.  Hundreds of green papayas are shredded each day to serve the customers.


To the green papaya is added lime, tomatoes, dried shrimp, peanuts, sugar, fish sauce, and chilies.  The mixture is pounded with a mortar and pestle, making a sound that in Thai is described as “pok pok…” providing a handy synonym for som tam.


The end result is a tangy, sour, slightly salty, and often very spicy salad that is really refreshing in the hot weather.


Another popular side dish is laab (sometimes Anglicized as “larb”).  Usually made with ground pork (although you can make it with other meats) the salad has ground toasted rice grains, shallots, green onions, lime juice, fish sauce, and chili flakes fried together then served on a bed of basil and mint.  Varying degrees of spice but always a very flavorful dish.


For a special treat, we ordered a grilled Northern Style pork sausage.  The meat is heavily spiced and flavorful.

After lunch we headed across the walkway to a vendor serving homemade coconut ice cream.  Their twist is that they serve the ice cream in half a young coconut shell with the meat from the coconut shaved out to accompany your ice cream.


You can choose from a variety of toppings: boiled water chestnuts, hearts of palm, peanuts, condensed milk, etc.


Coconut ice cream with young coconut meat, hearts of palm, and peanuts.  Refreshing!


Upscale Issan

Kum Poon Friday evening I tagged along with Tawn as he met some of his university classmates for dinner.  This group all studied abroad and are very “worldly” in terms of being willing to try new things and broaden their tastes in music, food, art, and the like.

That said, we returned to our Thai roots for dinner, choosing a restaurant at Central World Plaza called Kum Poon, which features upscale Issan cuisine.

Issan is the northeastern region of Thailand, adjacent to Laos and Cambodia.  Poorer than the rest of the country, Issan is viewed by other Thais much in the same way that the southern United States is viewed by other Americans. 

While people from Issan are sometimes stereotyped as being lazy or backwards, the truth is that many aspects of Thai culture, including food and music, trace their roots to this region.  Not all, of course, but many.

The restaurant is very pleasant with subdued lighting, two large artificial trees, and bamboo poles lining the walls.  The effect of the spot lights filtering through the leaves is one of eating outdoors in the moonlight.  Service is reasonably attentive and very friendly.

Issan cooking is often classified into a few main categories:

The first category has two types of salad, tam and yumTam means “to pound” and the salad is made by putting the ingredients in a large mortar and pounding them with a wooden pestle.  Most common is the som tam, a salad of shredded green papaya that is pounded with other ingredients  Yum means “to mix”, so the ingredients are just mixed in a large bowl.  Certain seasonings regularly appear in these salads: lime juice, fish sauce, tiny dried shrimps, palm sugar, chilies, and sometimes tamarind paste.

The second category is laab (sometimes written “larb”), a dish made of cooked ground meat (often pork) that has shallots, ground toasted rice, lime juice and fish sauce.

The third category is yang – grilled meats.  These are often served with sticky rice, khao nieaw, a highly glutinous form of rice that can seem a little undercooked to someone who has never tried it before.

Okay, now that you’ve had your introduction to Issan food, let’s take a look at the many dishes we enjoyed.  My new “gorilla” tripod came in handy.

For starters, Issan food comes with plenty of fresh greens as condiments.  You eat these both for the textural contrast with the dishes, as well as for the cooling aspect against the sometimes fierce chilies.  Cabbage, green beans and basil are standards along with some other greens you may not have ever tried.

Laab Gai Yang – Mixed two categories of Issan cuisine, this laab dish is made with gai yang – grilled chicken – resulting in two great tastes in a single dish.  Notice the little specs: this is the ground, toasted rice.  Adding a nutty flavor and a little crunch, uncooked rice is toasted in a pan and then ground before being added to the dish.

Gai Yang Khao Nieaw Tod – Grilled chicken served with deep-fried sticky rice balls.  I’m not certain that deep-fried sticky rice is traditional or not – I think it may be a bit of an improvisation on the chef’s part – but these are so tasty.  The chicken is moist and smoky.

Som Tam Kai Kem – A typical tam (pounded salad) made with shredded green papaya (tastes tart like a Granny Smith apple but not so sweet), tomatoes, and salty boiled eggs.  The eggs are interesting because they are soaked in a brine for about a month before being boiled.  Some dried shrimp are added for texture.

Laab Plaa Duke – This laab style dish, usually made with ground pork, is instead made from grilled, shredded catfish.  It has lots of shallots and mint in it and, as you can see from the chilies, has a bit of heat, too.

Laab Hed – For you almost vegetarians, this laab is made with a variety of mushroom types and lots of shallots.  The only thing keeping it from being vegetarian is the fish sauce, which adds the saltiness to almost every dish.

Tam Mamuang – Instead of being made with green papaya, this version of tam is made with green mango, which has a slightly more astringent flavor and a crisper crunch.  Fresh shrimp are added along with the dried shrimp for more of a “sea” flavor.

Yum Woon Sen with Sai Grawk IssanYum style salad with cellophane noodles, mushrooms and sai grawk issan – Issan style pork sausage.

Kor Moo Yang – Grilled pork neck, thinly sliced and served with a spicy dipping sauce.  This can be a tough cut but when cooked properly, the connective tissue melts away, making the meat even more flavorful.

Tam Sua – This tam is mixed with a type of mildly fermented rice noodles called kanom jiin.  When eaten cold by themselves, you can taste a slight tanginess to the noodles.

As you can see, we ate quite a bit of food for just five of us.  Even at a “upscale” restaurant like this one, the prices were still very reasonable.  We walked out having only spent about US$10 per person.

Left to right: Ko, Fluck, Pat and Tawn in front of the restaurant.

For dessert, we stopped by iBerry for some ice cream and brownies.  Hardly authentically Thai but tasty nonetheless!


Have I whetted your appetite yet?

Buriram Part 2 and More

Let me go back into the details about our trip to Burriram province, with our friend Trish.

Silk Factory

We went up to this province about five hours to the northeast of Khrungthep, to locate sources of silk for Trish’s new custom-made dress business.  Many of Thailand’s provinces are known for their silk, but the Nakhon Ratchasima (aka Korat) and Buriram provinces are known for their high quality and simpler styles.  Provinces in the north of the country have more decorative styles of weaving.

While there, we visited several silk shops and a factory, we had a brief visit with some of Tawn’s relatives, and we went to see some ancient Khmer ruins.  Here are the details:

Silk, Silk Everywhere

After visiting a few different retail silk shops, Tawn was able to get hold of one of his cousins, who recommended a particular silk factory located in Pak Thong Chai (see map above) with whom she’s worked before.  Tawn called the factory, which was not far away, and one of the employees met us at the silk shops to guide us there.

Located a kilometer back from the main road in a nondescript and unmarked set of warehouses, the factory was much different from what I had expected.  I shot a lot of video footage and will find the time to edit it in the next week or so, but in the meantime let me share some photos with you.

The owner walked us through the entire production process and was happy to have me take photos.


Raw silk hanging in hoops before being dyed.


The silk is manually dyed, relying on the skill of the workers to match a particular shade.


A row of drying silk that has been dyed a brilliant turquoise blue.


Trish and Tawn watch the dying process.


Custom made screens used to print patterns on the silk, hence the term silk-screening.


Dyed threads are wound onto spools.


The looms, which are automated but require the constant attention of workers.


The factory manager explains the process to Trish and Tawn.


These heated rollers finish the silk, making it smoother to the touch.


Finally, sample batches of silk for Trish to sort through.

Here’s a video that runs down the process.

We spent three hours at the factory that first day, learning about silk, looking at different colors and patterns, and finally making clear what it was we were looking for.

By the time we left for Buriram, the sun was already setting.



Saturday morning we started with an early breakfast at a restaurant owned by one of Tawn’s cousins.  A typical Thai restaurant, there were shelves and shelves filled with kitchy collectables, below.  Trish had her first authentic Thai breakfast, various gap khao (“with rice”) dishes including some fried fish, a curried fish mousse and mixed vegetables.


Our tour guide, a friend of Tawn’s cousin, met us at the restaurant.  She is a retired primary school English teacher, so spoke English well enough to comfortably make corny jokes.

Our destination was Phnom Rung Historical Park, located just 30 km shy of the Cambodian border south of the main city of Buriram.  This Khmer style Hindu temple dates back to the 10th century and is one of the best-preserved examples of Khmer architecture in Thailand.


We stand at the far end of the promenade, a quarter-mile long processional walkway that connects the lower stairway with the main temple complex.


Standing in front of the main temple complex and the second naga bridge.  You see two of the four pools of water that represent the four oceans and the raised platform represents the bridge between the human realm (between the four oceans) and the heavenly realm, where the temple is.


The amount of symbolism in the construction of the Hindu temples was amazing. This is the main tower, or prang.  It is covered with depictions of gods, humans, hermits, snakes, dragons and all of manner of beings.  Our tour guide spent about ninety minutes giving us the run-down on this temple and afterwards explained that she had exhausted maybe only ten percent of her knowledge about the temple.


To give you an example of the sort of knowledge she had to share, she explained that this detail (it shows an area about the width of two hands) showed two hermits reading copies of Playboy magazine.  One of the hermits, she said, was obviously not wearing any underwear.

Can you see which one doesn’t have any underwear?  (Answer at the end of the post.)  This was the type of humor we enjoyed all morning.

The construction of the temple was amazing.  It is made out of sandstone and instead of carving blocks then putting them into place, they instead stacked all the blocks (which were not always regular sizes) and then carved away to reveal the detail they wanted.


In this picture, you can where the blocks were carved to make the steps.  The block in the center top of the picture has many different faces as it was carved to be part of two separate steps as well as the adjacent wall.  This made the construction all the more difficult.


Detail of the principle prang.  This temple was primarily devoted to Shiva, one of the supreme dieties of the Hindu religion.  Shiva is depicted in the center of this panel.  Remember that with the way the temple was constructed, this was just a solid stack of limestone blocks.  The artisans had to chisel away to make all the ornamentation.  Because of that, mistakes could not be undone as there was no practical way to remove a block and replace it.  I think that makes the detail all the more amazing.

Like most historical sights, there is a lot to digest and after a few hours, a break is needed.  Since we had only a limited time in the province that weekend, we wrapped things up and dropped our guide off in the main town of Buriram just after noon.

Back in Town

After a quick bite of bami moo daeng – egg noodles with barbeque pork – we stopped by a local coffee shop for a latte.  So far we had consumed only Nescafe, which isn’t real coffee even though it seems to be the national coffee drink of Thailand.


We found a “real” coffee shop that had espresso machines, but when we asked for lattes the young lady said they couldn’t do lattes as they didn’t carry fresh milk.  Strangely, though, they offered cappuccinos.  Tawn inquired how they made cappuccino with no milk and she pulled out a pitcher of sweetened condensed milk.

Really wanting my afternoon latte (which my Italian cousin will no doubt shake her head at, as espresso drinks with milk are strictly for the mornings, right?), I asked whether we could comandeer her espresso machine.  Like most Thai employees, she was a bit overwhelmed by the confrontation but didn’t say no.

Next door was a pharmacy that had a refrigerator of bottled drinks, including individual cartons of milk.  I bought two, poured them into a glass measuring cup, and started frothing the milk while she pulled espresso from another machine.


Thankfully, I do have some training on this.  Back in the days when I managed movie theatres, we had cafes that featured Starbucks equipment and coffee.  As such, we had access to expert training and so I learned how to froth milk like nobody’s business.  I’m all about the velvety foam.

Ten minutes later, we had a trio of nearly perfect lattes.  Along the way, Tawn had kept imploring the young lady to pay attention so she could learn how to do this, but she didn’t seem to want anything to do with our milk steaming.

As we left, she was no doubt glad that we were out of her shop.  We tipped her well though and I walked away with the cocky satisfaction of someone who has brought civilization to the natives.  Ah, the espresso drinker’s burden.


We stopped at one final silk shop after lunch. While Tawn and Trish ooh’d and aah’d over the beautiful textiles, I was busy watching a pair of city maintenance workers install a new street light.

It was pretty amazing.  They pulled up in a pickup truck, a pair of lights in the back.  A bamboo ladder was leaned against the concrete electrical pole and a young man climbed up.  He slid a mounting onto the pole, fastened it into place, and then his coworker climbed up the ladder and handed the light fixture to him.

It took a few minutes for him to slip it into place, strip the wires and push them into one of the passing power lines.  Try as he might, though, the light wouldn’t illuminate.

Thankfully, they had a second lamp in the truck, so he unfastened the lamp and changed it out.  We left before the second lamp was installed, so I wonder if he had any success.  One thing that caught my attention, though, was just how little in the way of safety equipment they had.  No helmet, no protective gear, and he wore only flip-flops on his feet.

Occupational safety and health administration?  Nope.

Uncle’s House

We stopped by Tawn’s grandfather’s house.  Tawn’s father is the ninth of twelve children and the old family compound is now owned by his oldest uncle, the fourth child.

After years of hearing Tawn tell stories about his childhood visits to stay with his grandparents, it was fascinating to finally see the place.  Tawn’s uncle and several cousins graciously welcomed us and we sat around a table, eating mooncakes and drinking water and visiting.

The most fascinating thing on the wall: a picture taken at the funeral of Tawn’s grandmother.  It was a panoramic portrait of the more than three hundred family members who gathered at her cremation.  Tawn and one of his cousins went into the monkhood for a day to earn merit for their grandmother.  Tawn’s the one on the left.


Tawn, who was maybe 13 at the time, doesn’t look too happy about his new haircut.  This was the only time Tawn has been a novice in the Buddhist monkhood.

Speaking of teenagers, Tawn has a second cousin, Toy, a fifteen-year old who will be going to the US as an exchange student next August.  We visited with him, giving him a chance to practice his English.  Tawn suggested that we could coordinate a trip to the US while he is there so that he has the opportunity to visit other parts of the country besides the one where his host family is located.  He has not been assigned a specific location yet.

In the evening, after a few hours of relaxing at the hotel, we met another of Tawn’s cousins, Mee, for dinner at his restaurant.  Mee has visited us in Bangkok before and it was very nice to see him again.  His restaurant serves Thai food with slightly modern twists and everything was delicious.


The “Aunty” in the restaurant’s sign refers to Mee’s mother, not to Mee!

Birthday Burger

Sunday was my birthday.  We started the morning with a quick hotel breakfast and then stopped at another coffee shop (this one had milk) for lattes before hitting the road.


Next door to the coffee shop/bakery is a bookstore.  Just inside the door of the coffee shop is a sign. If reads, “Full stomach already, but is your brain full?  Books and journals, please go this direction.”  Quite clever.

We stopped back by the silk factory for another two and a half hours.  The owner had arranged for us to peruse a broad range of colors and we finally made some purchases.  Unfortunately, after returning to Khrunthep, Trish discovered that some of the silks were not two-ply as we had been told, but only one-play.  Tawn is working with the factory owner to fix that.


Our final stop on the way in was Chokchai Farms, Thailand’s largest cattle operation.  There was a huge crowd as people went on farm tours, ate at the steak house, and bought ice cream.  We decided to stop for a steak burger to celebrate my birthday.


The burgers were pretty tasty, although they had way too much mayonaise on them, which seems to be a Thai thing.  Trish claims this was the first burger she has had in fifteen years.  Glad we were able to knock her off the wagon.

Video of the experience.


Afterwards, we had some ice cream, bought some snacks, and I tried to milk a huge cow. Look at its expression!

We returned to Khrungthep a bit after sunset, pretty exhausted after our weekend up in the northeast.


Answer: The hermit on the left is blowing in the breeze.

Not to Korat

This was going to be the get-away weekend: the last weekend before the preparations for the move to the new condo got serious.  So Tawn and I were going to drive up to Korat and Khao Yai, about two hours northeast of Khrungthep, visit some property that Tawn’s father owns up there, and explore the self-proclaimed “Gateway to Issan“.

So what would be the one thing that would stop us? 

Our designer, who with his globe trotting travel schedule to far away places like Turkey and India, has summoned us to a meeting to discuss furniture.  Since scheduling time with him has been so difficult, we must make ourselves available when he is.  To be fair, he is a well-known Thai designer, doing many stores and boutique hotels.  He’s doing our home remodel as a favor as he’s our friend, certainly at a discounted price, so these schedule challenges are a small price to pay.

Still, we’re not going away this weekend.


Martha 1 Friday night I met Tawn at Paragon to take a look at some furniture at the Martha Stewart Store.  Actually, it isn’t the Martha Stewart store, but it is the only store in Thailand authorized to sell the Martha Stewart furniture collection, so the entire store is done up so that you wouldn’t know that it isn’t a Martha Stewart Store. 

We go in there frequently to get ideas as it is a style we like.  The store was designed by our decorator friend and dressed by him as well, as are many of the furniture stores in Paragon.

The lady who works there is so familiar with us, she just invites us in to have tea.  We sit at a dining room table on display in the main room, drinking tea and nibbling M&Ms, like two life size mannequins.

Martha 2 While there, we looked at various catalogs, discussed different pieces of furniture on display, and considered the merits of ordering a US-sized bed versus a Thai-sized one.  A king-size bed in Thailand is not a king-size bed in the US. 

Khun Nirin – note the carefully crafted PR in this linked story – told us of an experience where two picky customers – a pair of women – spent a half hour lying in one of the beds (under the covers, even) in order to try it out before spending that much money to buy the mattress.  It was the middle of the day, other customers were coming and going, and the women just lay there seeing if they’d be comfortable on the mattress for an extended period of time.

If you think about it, it makes sense.  Most of us shop for mattresses by lying down for sixty seconds or less.


P1010618 I ate Halal for dinner at my favorite vendor in the food court.  The nice lady there prepares Muslim style food and they have a chicken roti-mataba that is just lovely. 

It is a southern Thai dish that takes thin, crepe-like roti and stuffs them with a curried chicken (or beef or lamb) and shallot mixture, then fries it in a pan to crisp the sides a little.  The mataba is served with a side salad or cucumbers, shallots and chilies in a rice wine vinegar sauce, along with a spicy green chili sauce.

Not feeling fully satiated, I went haram and ate some pork satay.  That was tasty, too, although obviously from another vendor.

Below: Tawn took a dozen takes for this picture at a dozen different settings before coming up with something usable.


As there wasn’t much to watch in the cinemas, we headed home where I was early enough to participate in a conference call with work at 10:00.  Which was kind of boring, actually.


Funny food pictures:  Above: Ken and Roka clown around at a Japanese restaurant called Yayoi, part of a Japanese chain that is operated here in Thailand by MK Restaurants.  They serve you tea in this fun, brightly-colored English teapots with these tiny pink teacups that look to be stolen from a child’s tea party set.  Below: Last weekend in the midst of errands we stopped for dim sum at SK Park Hotel, at the Chinese restaurant that Tawn’s whole family frequents.  We didn’t check in advance and lucked out that nobody we knew was there.