Noodles with Honey Braised Chicken

Street food is one of the things that makes Bangkok a real pleasure to visit or to live in. There is such a variety of food, almost all of it of high quality and flavor. A recent favorite of mine is a long-standing Sukhumvit Road staple: Guaytiaw Pikgai Sai Nampung. This is a typical noodle shop selling honey-braised chicken.

This is a bowl of “dry” noodles (broth served in a separate bowl on the side) with a wing and drumstick. Some bean sprouts and chopped long beans. Many different types of noodles are available. I chose giam ee, a hand-rolled rice noodle similar to German spätzle. I like it because it is easier to eat than long noodles and holds onto the seasonings better, too.

The chicken is very tender, sweet and flavorful with the hint of honey to it. You can also choose other parts of the chicken if you prefer breast meat, for example. There are other ingredients available, too, in case you prefer further customization. Here in Thailand, the noodle shops are all about customization!

More a picture of Tawn than of the shop, but you can see that it is neat and tidy, even though it has been opens for many years. The walls are hung with newspaper clippings, family photos, and photos of His Majesty the King. The laminated table tops have worn with age but are kept sparkling clean.

If you are interested in visiting, the restaurant is in Sukhumvit Soi 20/1, a small dog-legged alley that connects to Sukhumvit road just about 10 meters west of the mouth of Soi 20. The restaurant is the fourth or fifth shop in on the right-hand side. You will see the aunty cooking just outside the front of the shop, the smell of the chicken beckoning you.

 

Cooking Various Thai Street Food

In my continued unemployment (well, at least I’m not formally employed full-time), I am assisting my friend Chow with testing recipes for the updated edition of her guidebook to Thailand’s best street food. This involves going out to try different dishes in their original context – i.e. on the street – and then returning to her kitchen to try and recreate the dishes, taking notes for how cooks in other countries can modify or substitute techniques and ingredients as necessary. It is a tough job, but someone has to do it.

For this group of recipes, we went to a long-established Isaan style street food vendor on Soi Suan Phlu, off Sathorn Road. “Isaan” refers to the northeastern region of Thailand, a dry, poorer portion of the country and also home to a large percentage of the total population. Isaan food is spicy and often uses fermented foods (shrimp paste, fish, chili paste, etc.) to add flavor. While foreigners (and for that matter, many Thais from central Thailand) can find the food a bit too strong, many of the dishes have gained admission to the pantheon of popular Thai cuisine. Chief among these are som tam (green papaya salad), gai yang or moo yang (grilled chicken or pork), and larb (chopped meat and herb salad).

Here is the street vendor’s version of kor muu yang – grilled pork neck. Thai pork is moister and more flavorful than the pork available in the United States, which has been bred to be low-flat and, thus, bland. The neck has plenty of fat and the meat undergoes a quick marinade and then grilling over blazing hot charcoal. Though simple, the flavors are very rewarding to eat.

Another dish we tried is the yam plaa muk – squid salad. “Yam” (which means “mix”) refers to a style of salad that originates in Isaan, although of course it wouldn’t originally be served with fresh squid since that region is a long way from the ocean. Regardless of the main ingredients, the dressing always includes shallots or onions, lime juice, fish sauce, sugar (usually palm), and fresh chilies. That’s the holy quartet of Thai cuisine: sour, salty, sweet, and spicy.

Back at Chow’s kitchen, we tried our hand at yam pla muk. In addition to the fresh squid (it must be fresh or else it will be rubbery), which is cleaned, cut, and boiled very briefly (it must be brief or else it will be rubbery), we added Chinese celery (substitute the leaves and thin ends of regular celery), onion, and tomatoes. Mix all the ingredients in a bowl, along with the sauce ingredients I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

The end result is a refreshing, ceviche-like dish that makes for a perfect summer salad. If you don’t like squid or can’t find any, you could use shrimp or fish, too. You could also use chicken, beef, pork (sliced and cooked), or even pomelo. Lots of options.

We also tried our hand at muu yang, the grilled pork. Lacking a grill, we seared on a cast iron griddle and then finished the pork beneath the broiler. We were focusing more on the marinade rather than the way the meat was cut and discovered that the marinade recipe will be trickier to figure out than we expected! This will require more experimentation. The red sauce is a bottled sweet chili sauce that is available in most Asian food markets. Served also with some sticky (glutinous) rice, another Isaan staple.

While we were at it, we also tried our hand at satay. Satay are skewers of meat (in this case, pork and chicken) that are marinated, brushed with coconut milk, and grilled. They actually come from southern Thailand by way of Indonesia. We didn’t focus on cutting the meat into thin strips and instead went for chunks. We did make the peanut sauce from scratch. A lot of recipes available to foreigners substitute peanut butter instead of ground peanuts. Yes, you can do that… but it really doesn’t taste the same. Served with cucumbers, shallots, and chilies briefly pickled in a rice wine vinegar and sugar brine.

The experience of cooking with Chow is always fun. For all the years I’ve lived in Thailand, I’m woefully ignorant of how my favorite Thai dishes are made. When there is such inexpensive and tasty street food available, there is little incentive to cook these dishes myself. (Especially since some of the ingredients and cooking processes come with a strong smell. Fermented shrimp paste anyone?)

 

Food in Bangkok: Elvis Suki

Elvis has left the building and is now selling Thai sukiyaki on a street-side restaurant not far from the Hualamphong Railway Station. Recently, my foodie friend Chow (author of the Bangkok Glutton blog and the helpful street food guide, Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls) invited me to join her family for dinner at Elvis Suki. One does not decline a street food invitation from Chow and, once again, her choice was excellent.

Sukiyaki is a Japanese style hot pot dish. The Thai version bears only a faint resemblance to the original Japanese version. While there is still a hot pot component available at some restaurants, at other restaurants like Elvis Suki, “suki” refers to a bowl of vegetables and meat, with or without mung bean vermicelli, and with or without broth. The one thing it always has is a super-fiery dipping sauce made of chili paste, chilies, lime juice, and cilantro. The above example is a seafood suki with broth.

For a little more clarity into what’s inside the bowl, here’s a “dry” version (no broth) of a pork suki. Lots of green veggies and, despite being pork, a piece of squid made it into the bowl. The suki is satisfying, inexpensive, and easy to eat. The dipping sauce is seriously spicy. Be warned.

Elvis Suki is also known for their grilled seafood. Here is a plate full of cockles served with the dipping sauce. The seafood is very fresh, although I’m not a big fan of the flavor of cockles.

 

A very un-Thai specialty are these scallops grilled with a piece of fatty pork, slathered in butter and loads of garlic. You wouldn’t think scallops and pork would go together, but they actually make a nice pairing. And with all that butter, who could complain?

One other specialty is this hard-to-see whole fish served wrapped in banana leaf and covered with pandan and kaffir lime leaves. The brownish mixture is actually a fine mixture of chopped herbs including lemongrass and galangal root (related to ginger). Needless to say, the fish has this incredible aroma after having been grilled with these herbs.

Elvis Suki is worth a visit if you enjoy experiencing true local cuisine. There is also a good homemade ice cream shop right next door so you are covered for dessert, too. Usually it is hard to explain where you can find these types of restaurants but Elvis Suki’s owners make it easy: the GPS coordinates are on the menu!

 

StrEAT Food Park in San Francisco

One of the more interesting dining experiences on my trip to the United States was the StrEAT Food Park in San Francisco. The renaissance of street food trucks – no longer the “roach coaches” of my youth – has swept many major cities and San Francisco has been no exception to this foodie trend. In June 2012, a permanent street food truck park opened in the city’s edgier South of Market district.

The park is located just beneath a freeway overpass across the street from the Costco warehouse store. Each day, up to ten different vendors park, following a rotating schedule. The range of options is overwhelming: from Spanish-Filipino fusion to Japanese sushi, gourmet Vietnamese sliders to Korean tacos, Italian word-fired pizzas to Indian curry. The website and twitter feed lists which vendors will be present and the park is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

The facility includes plenty of tables and chairs, restrooms and sanitary stations, and a 100-seat covered seating pavilion for those days when the weather is inclement. The crowd is varied but local high tech and bio tech firms are well-represented. Free bicycle parking is provided, encouraging environmentally friendly transportation.

Spoiled for choices, I finally settled on Roli Roti, a truck specializing in rotisserie chicken and porchetta, crispy roast pork. Open more than a decade, Roli Roti claims to be the country’s first mobile rotisserie and their focus is on sustainably raised meats and organic produce. While the chicken looked and smelled amazing, I opted for the porchetta and arugula sandwich.

The sandwich offers a generous – hearty, even – serving of juicy pork with very crispy skin, an onion relish with a tanginess that cut through the richness of the pork, and huge mound of baby arugula that looked like it has climbed out of the field a few minutes earlier, it was so fresh. 

The sandwich was served on a wonderful roll that sopped up all the juices. Sure, it was too big to eat like a real sandwich, and I had to take it apart and eat with a knife and fork. But it was a pretty tasty lunch, all for about $12 including a side of potatoes.

The roast fingerling potatoes sit underneath the rotisserie, where they are bathed in the drippings from the chicken and the porchetta. Sprinkled with rosemary sea salt, they are addictive.

No doubt, the StrEAT Food Park will be a destination to which I will return again and again on future visits. After all, there are so many different types of food to try and so little time. Many thanks to SF-based Xangan Jason for introducing me to this gem.

 

Of Soi and Motorsai

Thailand is a country of cat-nappers. Wherever I travel, I see plenty of people who, in their boredom, lethargy, or exhaustion, take every opportunity to shut their eyes and rest. Maybe it is the heat and humidity?

On the list of jobs I would not want to have is the motorcycle taxi driver or khon kap rotmotorsai. While the offices of Bangkok are filled with women, the men from the countryside find jobs like this one. For a fee paid to the mafia and a license paid to the government, they receive a colored vest and an assigned stand at the mouth to one of the city’s many long soi or alleys. 

Inhospitable to pedestrians, the soi are usually too narrow, too winding, and too sparsely populated to justify mass transit. Instead, we flag down a rotmotorsai, hop on the back, and whiz our way to the mouth of the soi where we catch a taxi, bus, or train onward. Dangerous? Yes. I only ride the motorcycles on our soi, where the drivers recognize me as a regular and are familiar enough with the traffic on the street to know where caution must be paid. 

Why are our streets laid out in a network of long, narrow soi? It is thanks to the rice-growing past of the central plains of Thailand.

As you can see in the picture above, rice paddies were laid out in long, narrow strips that connected to a main canal or road. As the paddies were drained, paved, and developed (the housing developments are the strips of mostly red roofs) the streets followed the long, narrow contours of the agricultural past. A map of Bangkok shows that legacy: thoroughfares a kilometer or more apart with long, narrow streets stretching out from them. Few of those streets, though, connect the larger thoroughfares.

The result is that many of us live some distance away from major streets and if we aren’t driving, have to find our way out of the soi under an unforgiving sun. It’s enough to make you cave in an ride on a motorcycle taxi or, perhaps, to want to take a nap.

Need a Remote Control?

Most of the time, the vendors occupying any particular stretch of sidewalk are fairly consistent. The shoe repairman is next to the roti sai mai vendor, who is next to the steamed corn and peanuts vendor, who is next to the magazine vendor.

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But the other day, I looked to the street below the Thong Lor Skytrain station, and saw a vendor whom I had never seen before. For a few moments I stared, trying to figure out what, exactly, the vendor was selling. Finally, I descended to the street for a closer look.

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Sure enough, he had a table full of remote controls: remotes for air conditioner units were in the back and remotes for various other electrical appliances were in the front. There must have been a few hundred different models. This struck me as odd, because demand for remote controls must not be very high. It also struck me as odd because, since I had never seen this vendor here before (or since, for that matter), how would people know where to seek him out?

“You know, I need to get a new remote control for the Betamax player. I’ll just wander the city under I come across a remote control vendor.”

Doesn’t seem likely, does it? 

 

Food in Bangkok: Samosa

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Normally I write about entire meals but there is one street vendor in one corner of Bangkok that sells a single item that is so good, that my mouth waters as I write this.  The vendor, Raspal Singh, makes samosas, the deep fried Indian pastry filled with a potato mixture and served with a complementary sweet and sour sauce.

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Mr. Singh’s stall is nothing more than a single cart parked alongside a wall in a small soi (alley) immediately to the south of India Emporium, a small shopping center in Pahurat (Little India) on Chakrapet Road.  This is not far from Bangkok’s Chinatown and the Old Siam shopping center. 

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All day long he prepares batch after batch of the samosas (they also prepare tikki – which is the filling fried up without the pasty wrapper) and you can only get them to go.  They’re so tasty, though, that eating them by the side of the road is perfectly acceptable.  Why would you want to wait and let them get cold?

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The filling is made of potatoes mixed with loads of spices.  It is a great example of vegetarian food that has rich, satisfying flavors.

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The secret to any successful fried food is that the oil has to be fresh and at the proper temperature.  Too hot and the outside burns before the inside cooks.  Too cold and the whole thing becomes greasy.  Mr. Singh is the master of the boiling oil-filled wok, turning out an endless stream of perfectly cooked, crispy but not greasy samosas.

If you find yourself in the heart of old Bangkok, craving a snack that will satisfy but leave you eager to return, you should head down to Little India and seek out Mr. Singh’s samosas.

Many thanks to Chawadee Nualkhair (www.bangkokglutton.com), author of Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls, for leading me to this gem.