Food in Bangkok: Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin

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Before we headed to Los Angeles last month, Tawn and I were invited to a special foodie dinner held at Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin restaurant.  Sra Bua is known for its molecular gastronomy take on Thai food.   Organized by CatAndNat.com, a Thai lifestyle website, and WorldFoods, I was invited to attend because of the writing I do for CatAndNat.

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Dinner was held at the beautiful Siam Kempinski Hotel, tucked away right behind the Siam Paragon mall.

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Opened less than a year ago, the Siam Kempinski is a beautiful 5-star hotel.  Their fresh flower arrangements in the lobby make it worth a visit just to “stop and smell the roses”.

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The building also features gorgeous architecture and decorations throughout.  I enjoy visiting nice hotels like this just for the ambiance.

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By coincidence, fellow blogger Angel and his partner were on holiday in Bangkok, staying at the same hotel.  We were able to meet them for a late afternoon tea before proceeding across the hall to our dinner.

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Our host didn’t have Tawn’s full name handy so used my surname for his place card.  Tawn was very excited as this is the first (and only) time after our wedding that he’s had my surname!

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Each dish was made with a WorldFoods sauce and was paired with a wine from Monsoon Valley Wines, a local Thai winery. 

WorldFoods is a Malaysian based maker of high quality Asian-inspired sauces, marinades, chutneys, and pastes that previously has given me samples of their products and invited me to try and, if I like, to write about them.  While I’ve been given no compensation, Tawn and I were invited to this very nice complimentary dinner.

The restaurant,Sra Bua, is the sister restaurant of Henrik Yde-Andersen’s Kiin Kiin in Copenhagen, the second Thai restaurant in the world to receive a Michelin star (which I understand has since been lost). 

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Appetizer – Yum Som O, which is a traditional salad made with pomelo.  Pomelo is basically a large, less sour grapefruit.  Here, the chef added frisée and fish roe, which was meant to have a similar texture to the individuals pulp sacs of the pomelo.

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Close up of the pomelo salad.  This wasn’t much of a success, in my opinion, with too little pomelo and too much roe, which overpowered the flavor of the salad.  The pairing wine was a Monsoon Valley Colombard, a fruity white.

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Next dish was a Laksa Soup, which used the Singaporean Nyonya Laksa Paste.  This was a very pleasant, curry-type soup that was flavorful but not too spicy.  It was paired with a Monsoon Valley Cuvee de Siam, another white wine from grapes grown in the hills above Hua Hin, a beach town about three hours south of Bangkok.

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The fish course was a pan-seared white fish (bass, I believe) with fish mousse and red curry.  This used the Red Curry Sauce and is actually based on a classic Thai dish called haw mok, in which fish is pureed, mixed with a red curry paste, and steamed in banana leaves.  I really enjoyed this course.  It was paired with a Monsoon Valley Shiraz that was pleasant, although not very complex.

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The highlight of the meal was this beef with basil curry sauce.  The chunks of beef couldn’t have been more tender and it was served in a lightly fried pastry shell that is balance (although you can’t see it) on a small mound of jasmine rice.  This dish was so good that Tawn, who rarely eats beef, had the whole thing.  It was paired with a Monsoon Valley Cuvee de Siam Rouge, which was also the highlight wine of the evening.  It is a blend of 70% Shiraz and 30% Sangiovese grapes and has nice fruity flavors without too many tannins. 

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Dessert was a jasmine ice cream served wrapped in phyllo dough and a jasmine rice panna cotta served with mixed tropical fruits, wrapped in a banana leaf.  These were really nice as the flavors were very delicate and refreshing.  The wine was a Monsoon Valley Muscat Dessert, which was sweet and syrupy.

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After dessert a variety of hand-rolled truffles were set out.  If you like chocolate, you’d like these!

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What the room felt like after the dinner.  Ha ha…

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Me and Tawn with our friend Linda, who was able to join us at the last minute for dinner.  Conclusion: the menu, which was specially prepared for the event, worked very well in some areas and less well in others.  Attention to detail in the preparation was very high, though, as was the quality.  Service was also very attentive, which of course can be a challenge when you have some 30-40 diners.  Kudos to the chef and staff of Sra Bua for pulling this off.

Lesson in Economics – Black Market Krispy Kreme Donuts

Is it a matter of the law of supply and demand or are Bangkok residents just too impatient to queue up for an hour to get donuts?  One thing is for certain: ever since Thailand’s first branch of Krispy Kreme, the popular North Carolina-based donut chain indulged in by former President Bill Clinton, opened last September there has been a black market for donuts in Siam Square.

The franchise is majority owned by Ausanee Mahagitsiri, the daughter of a wealthy family who owns one of Thailand’s largest conglomerates.  With the first location at Siam Paragon, one of the largest and busiest malls in the city, Khun Ausanee expects to build 20 locations in the country over the next few years.

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Ever ready for a new trend, when the store first opened Bangkokians eagerly queued for hours to buy a few dozen of the donuts.  These days, the lines are shorter, although there are still limits placed on how many donuts you can purchase.  Also, if you want the specialty donuts (frosted, filled, sprinkles, etc.) you can only order a mixed dozen.  No picking and choosing allowed.

To fill the demand, there are “donut scalpers” at work.  Not unlike their brethren outside a sold out Rolling Stones concert (or the men selling pornographic DVDs along Silom Road or, for that matter, the taxi touts at Suvarnabhumi Airport), the scalpers discreetly flash laminated picture menus and mutter their pitch – “Donuts, donuts for sale” – in barely audible tones.

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Can you spot the scalpers?  In addition to the woman holding the laminated card, the man behind her and the woman in the light blue shirt behind him were all working the crowd of shoppers, looking for an easy mark.  Security guards were present, too, although there seemed to be a loose understanding between all parties that so long as the scalpers were discreet, they could go about their business.  (Hey, that sounds like Silom Road and the airport, too!)

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Across the street from Siam Paragon, on the sidewalks of Siam Square just a few meters from a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts shop, vendors offer Krispy Kreme donuts for sale either by the dozen or individually, in entrepreneurial plastic containers that certainly did not come from Krispy Kreme.  On the day I investigaed, prices were marked up about 25%, relatively modest.  Presumably the mark-up has decreased over time, considering that the wait at the shop is now no longer than you might expect when checking in for an international flight. 

I have to wonder how long this fad will last.  Many people around Bangkok recall the Rotiboy craze.  Rotiboy, a Malaysian chain that makes coffee flavored Mexican buns, opened here in 2006, setting off a sensation for the fad-conscious locals that included hours-long lines.  Six month later the fad was dead, most of the locations closed, and only a few rebranded (“Mr. Bun”) branches remain, their employees looking forelorn as the fickle masses pass by.

Will this happen with Krispy Kreme?  Thailand doesn’t lack for donut chains – Dunkin’ Donuts and Mister Donut are both large and at least three other chains are growing here – and according to the Bangkok Post, donuts are a billion baht business.  ($33 million)

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On the whole, though, I suspect the craze will die.  Krispy Kreme donuts, which are really only special when you’re getting them freshly baked, aren’t yet available that way in Thailand.  To keep up with demand, thousands of donuts are made in advance, boxed, and stacked on rolling shelves in the back of the shop.  This is your guarantee that the donuts you see coming off the conveyer belt are not making it into the box about to be placed in your hands.

The bigger question that crosses my mind, though, is this: why are Thais so crazy for donuts?  I’ll take a freshly made khanom krug* any day of the week.

*More about those coming soon.

 

Arts and Crafts Projects for a Winter’s Day

Day two of the bathroom tile work is underway.  Tawn, the handyman, and I spent ten minutes discussing the different options for how best to arrange the tile.  It is kind of hard to explain, and I’ll post pictures about the whole process once it is done, but the challenge is in how the shower glass and tile floor come together.  For some reason, building a lip like you have in western-style showers is just beyond comprehension here.  Plus, it would require us to replace the glass we currently have.

Anyhow, while I wait for that project to come to a (hopefully satisfactory) conclusion, I want to share a picture that I took of some new year’s decorations at Siam Center mall.  This was one of the first malls in Bangkok, dating back to 1973.  It has undergone countless rennovations (two in the five years since I moved here) to keep it fresh for the young crowd and it has managed to remain popular.

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Siam Center as it looked shortly after its opening in 1973.  On the right is Rama 1 Road (which becomes Sukhumvit further east).  The space on the left is what today is Siam Discovery Center and a multistory car park is back behind (to the left in this picture) of the malls today.  Siam Paragon, which was built on the site of the former Intercontinental Hotel, now sits down the street (to the right in this picture) of Siam Center.

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From another angle looking towards Rama I Road and Siam Square on the far side.  This picture is taken from roughly where the large LED video screens are in the plaza between Siam Center and Siam Paragon.

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The same side of the Siam Center mall today, with the Siam BTS Skytrain Station in the background.  Amazing how young and fresh Siam Center looks.  Must be the availability of inexpensive, high quality face-lifts here in Thailand!

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The mall has three four-story atrium areas and these are currently decorated with these large signs as well as smaller shapes.  At first they didn’t catch my attention.  But as I looked more closely I started to wonder what they were made of.  It looks like color pencils.

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Turns out, they are constructed of plastic straws!  At first I thought they were solid objects but eventually I figured out that the shapes are formed of plastic sheets with straws glued on top.  The sides, though, are made of thousands of straws.  Tedious work to make, I’d imagine…

 

Demolition of the Siam Theatre

Pent-up anger fueled the flames of arson when forty days of anti-government protests ended on May 19 with the surrender by protest leaders to the police.  The crowds that had blocked one of Bangkok’s main intersections for more than a month dispersed but before they did, violent elements in the crowd set fire to several buildings around the city in what appeared to be a deliberate and preplanned attack. 

In addition to more than 80 people killed and 2100 injured during the protests, one of the victims of the arson attack was the the 44-year old Siam Theatre, which was one of only two remaining single-screen first run cinemas in Thailand’s capital.

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Photo courtesy Southeast Asia Movie Theatre Project

Opened in 1966 in Siam Square, one of the first shopping areas in what is now the nexus of Bangkok’s lively Ratchaprasong shopping district, the Siam Theatre along with its sister complex, the Scala, were a reminder of a bygone era.  Tickets were still paper and you chose your seats from a photocopied seating chart, which the ticket cashier then dutifully crossed out with a pen.  The ushers, uncles that seemed to have been working at the theatres since the very opening, dressed in black slacks, white shirts, and yellow jackets.

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In the aftermath of the fire, the bulldozers have moved in and started to demolish the burned out shell and surrounding shops.  The property owner, adjacent Chulalongkorn University, has long held a master plan to redevelop this area into a more modern shopping complex as they did just down the block a year ago.  Their good fortune, then, that this damage paved the way for the master plan to be implemented.

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One wonders why we need another mall in a neighborhood (and an entire city) that is teeming with them.  Siam Square and the Siam Theatre were unique elements of the city and were especially important to teenage and university life.  As I understand it from my friends who grew up in Bangkok, hanging out in Siam Square was a rite of passage in that period of life where you transition from childhood to adulthood.  Another few blocks of those memories have been razed.

Thankfully, the Scala Theatre and the nearby Lido three-plex, both operated and owned by the same family that owned the Siam Theatre, continue to operate.

 

Beauty Literally Melts Away

In the aftermath of the May political protests and the two days of rioting and fires that followed, certain parts of the city showed the scars of this violence, despite efforts by business and civic leaders to clean up and put on a fresh face.  One area in particular where these scars still showed was the shops in the eastern section of Siam Square, a popular shopping destination in the heart of Bangkok.  Until just a few weeks ago – more than two months after the protests – this sign from a skin care clinic remained unreplaced.

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I saw it while walking from the Siam Skytrain station and found it very evocative of the Buddhist teaching that everything is impermanent, our beauty as well as our bodies.

Just a week or so ago, I passed by again and noticed that the clinic has put a new sign up and is, it seems, back in business.  In this most Buddhist of countries, you can once again test the precepts of your faith and see if beauty can be made permanent.

 

Biking through the Protest Aftermath

This morning I pulled out my bicycle and, figuring that five days had been enough time to wait, pedaled my way to the various spots that had been affected during the Red Shirts’ protest and the subsequent riots and arson. 

At 8:00 on a Sunday the streets were very quiet although there were others out.  For closed off sections of road, there were a surprising number of sightseers there to absorb the unimaginable.  This raised a question that has crossed my mind many times in the past two months: where were the police?

All in all, there is quite a mess.  The damage is a little less extensive than my wild imagination had feared after seeing selected pictures shown again and again last Wednesday while the city was burning.  But it is still a mess.  Everywhere that the protesters had burned barricades made of tyres, there is a thick layer of burned rubber, a slick that has permeated the asphalt.  Plants and landscaping are destroyed, the same fate suffered by every police box in the area.

Please let me share some photos and video with you.  The commentary may sound a little pro-government, when in fact I don’t align particularly with any side in this conflict.  But after seeing my city heavily damaged, largely by outsiders who claimed to be peaceful, I’m a bit jaded.

My first stop was the Chidlom intersection.  You can see the Chidlom Skytrain station and are looking down Ploenchit Road towards Siam Square.  There was a very large barricade here that was torched.  There are large scorch marks on the underside of the Skytrain station and you can see that the traffic lights melted.  The ground by the looted police box is slick with the residue of burned rubber.

The same intersection from the other side, with Soi Lang Suan running off to the back right of the picture.  This was the largest contingent of troops I saw.  Many soldiers seemed to be assigned to clean-up duty but this bunch was armed and definitely doing security.  The curfew is still day-to-day but the hours are being shortened.  What started at 8 pm – 6 am is now something like 11 pm – 5 am and will hopefully be lifted in the next few days.

The Ratchaprasong intersection.  Ploenchit-Rama I runs left to right through the picture.  Straight ahead is Rajadamri Road heading towards Lumpini Park and Silom.  On the back right of the picture is the police headquarters.  Would you like to ask the obvious question?  How in the world was a protest of tens of thousands of people that lasted 40+ days allowed to happen right in front of the nation’s police headquarters?  Were there no officers around to put a stop to it when it first started?

The answers lies in the complex politics of Thailand’s military and security services: it has been reported that there are many factions within the police, several of which are loyal to the former Prime Minister.

The Skytrain started running today and will be back to a full schedule starting Monday.  The only station not open is Rajadamri due to damage to the station.

Gaysorn Plaza, on the Ratchaprasong corner, appeared to not have sustained much damage.  Louis Vuitton, in particular, seems to have come through unscathed.  Given the number of LV knock-offs sold in Thailand, I can only imagine that the shop was saved only by its immense popularity, even among Red Shirts.

The collapsed section of Central World Plaza, which was still smoldering.  This is in the Atrium section, a part of the mall that was new construction since I moved here.  The right half of the mall is expected to be reopened within six months but this portion and to the left will have to be completely razed and rebuilt.

Doesn’t that look like more damage than would be caused by a couple of Molotov Cocktails?  Sure enough, the authorities report finding at least one compressed gas cylinder amid the debris.  At the nearby Four Seasons hotel, it is reported that several cylinders were found, wired to make a bomb.

Along the Rama I side of Central World, you can see the extensive damage to the Zen department store.  No word as to whether the high-rise portion was affected, but I cannot imagine how the structure could not have sustained damage.

Down the street in Siam Square the damage was also extensive.  Of the six or seven soi (alleys) in Siam Square, it appears that two suffered extensive damage.  This building is on the corner of Rama I and Henri Dunant Roads.

I had originally heard that both the Siam and Scala theatres, the last two independent single-screen cinemas in Bangkok, had burned.  Thankfully the Scala, architecturally the more interesting of the two, survived unscathed.

However, the building housing the Siam, as well as dozens of small, owner operated shops, was destroyed.  This area is immediately below the Siam Skytrain station, directly across from Siam Paragon mall.

Extensive damage to many shops.

There are still some coils of razor wire here and there.  This is at the Payathai – Rama I intersection across from MBK Mall.  These appear to be awaiting clean-up and are not part of any current security operation.

The Metropolitan Electric Authority office in Khlong Toei along Rama IV Road (between the expressway and Asoke-Ratchadapisek Road) was completely destroyed.  There are still sections of this generally poor neighborhood that are without electricity.

The good news is that there was an important sign of the city coming together this morning, a volunteer clean up effort which drew at least 1,000 people to Lumpini Park and the Silom-Saladaeng neighborhood.  The name of the event: Together We Can.

Okay, I’m ready to put this topic aside for now and move on to other things.

The Day After the Fires

Thursday evening, the second night under curfew has started.  The government has announced that these will last through the weekend.  There were very few reported incidents today apart from a brief confrontation between about 100 protesters and a few police officers up near Victory Monument, and an arson attack on another bank branch.  Relatively speaking, things are calm both here in Bangkok and in the provinces.

To be certain, no long-term fix has been found to the political situation.  But for now, at least, things are calmer.

Lines around lunchtime at the local Villa Market were twenty deep as residents of the Thong Lor neighborhood and beyond rushed to stock up on supplies.  With all the malls closed and many of the supermarkets, the Villa Markets in the mid-Sukhumvit area have been some of the few proper supermarkets that are open.  We are stocked up enough to get us through the weekend.

This afternoon, Ajarn Yai, the retired school director pictured below for whom I volunteered as an English teacher a few years ago, called and expressed her concern.  Her worry?  How bad these events will make Thailand and the Thais look in the eyes of the world.  She wants everyone to know that this isn’t Thailand and this is not how Thai people are.  So there you have it, from her lips to your screen.

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One of the most useful sources of information in the past 48 hours has been Michael Yon, the freelance American writer, photograph, and former Green Beret.  With loads of war zone experience he has been reporting from Bangkok and has provided a near-continuous stream of information and updates through his Facebook page.  Hundreds of locals have started following and commenting on his feed as he has provided a unique insight both in terms of quantity and also in terms of providing his military knowledge.

Best of all, he has been very generous in giving permission to people to use his photos.  All he asks for is attribution and a link to his page.  Here are some pictures:

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Northeast corner of Rama IV and Ratchadamri looking down Rama IV towards Sathorn.  Lumpini Park in the foreground with Silom subway entrance visible.  The large barricade has been removed and there is a small army of city workers who have been cleaning the park.  Still a lot of debris and damage to the pavement.

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Damage to shops (possible a bank?) at Siam Square.  On the far right of the picture is Siam BTS Skytrain station.  From what I’ve heard, both the Siam and Scala cinemas were destroyed.  Many small shops were also destroyed, ruining the livelihoods of the independent owners of those businesses.

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Michael and a Thai reporter he was traveling with spoke with one of those owners, who went into her shop trying to salvage inventory.  As you can see, things are pretty well destroyed here.  Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) reports that because of the damage, the buildings that house the cinemas and shops (Siam Square Sois 5 and 6) will likely need to be demolished.

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Damage at Central World.  This is the front side, the Zen department store that faces Rama I road.  From what Michael reports, it looks like the damage was limited mostly to the department store and this end of the mall.  The remainder of the mall looks like it might be okay.

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Same building but around the corner looking back towards Rama I Road and Siam Square.  The central structure of the department store collapsed after the fire.  BMA also says that because of the extent of damage, this structure will need to be demolished.  Now, the reports are that the BMA is saying that Central World will have to be demolished, which I would interpret as the entire mall.  However, this doesn’t seem to jive with the firsthand reports from Michael so we’ll have to wait and see what the truth is over the days and weeks to come.

The seven-story Big C superstore and mall across the street from Central World also was destroyed by fire and will need to be torn down.  The first floor or two of that is filled with small, independently-owned shops.  Anger vented at “elites” managed to do more damage to “common people” than anything else.

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Finally, not from Michael’s website but floating around from various Thai bloggers, this picture that compares a clip from Resident Evil 4 to the real skyline of Bangkok yesterday.  The film shows downtown Los Angeles, the other City of Angels, on fire.  Eerie, isn’t it?