A Cook's Tour
You just had to be there: compassing the cuisine of Thailand, in Bangkok and beyond
Sapachai "Sap" Apisaksari and I became fast friends in the late 1970s, while I was the chef at Clarksville Cafe and he was managing the Fresh Plus Market across the street. I had a keen interest in international cuisine (especially anything Asian) and would constantly pick his brain for tips on how to re-create the latest Asian treat I had stumbled across. He invariably knew a restaurant-oriented production shortcut that made the dish easier to prepare in our limited kitchen at the Cafe, but more importantly, made sure all of the proper taste components were included. In short, I owe much of my success in cooking Asian cuisine to his tutelage. Through the years Sap has repeatedly told me that I had to go to Thailand and taste the food firsthand, as well as experience the beauty of the country and its people. My stock reply was always that I couldn't possibly afford to go, I didn't speak the lingo, and was befuddled by the alphabet. I was mired in the typical tunnel vision of a middle-aged dude too comfortable in his status quo rut, and I had misplaced the adventurous gumption of my youth.
Years passed, and I found myself working at UT and writing food articles for the Chronicle and, during the same period, Sap married the long-lost love of his life, Chatfung "Mam," the Ruth Reichl of Thailand. For years she was the food writer for Thailand's major English-language newspaper, had taught cooking, owned restaurants, and is very well respected as a food authority in her country. Mam and Sap opened a new Thai restaurant across from campus, and I was assigned to review their new venture, Madam Mam's Noodles and More. Their food surpassed my wildest expectations. A glowing review (see www.austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2001-09-28/ food_feature.html) of their establishment followed in September of 2001, and I became a twice-weekly regular, eating Thai food of a caliber that I suspected could only be topped in Thailand.
Around Christmas I received a mysterious call from Sap; he had to talk with me. We arranged to meet, and I couldn't have been more surprised: Sap and Mam were offering me a free, guided tour of their homeland! Sap had to stay and run the restaurant, but Mam would precede me by a few days and pick me up at the airport. She was going back to shop for the restaurant, check up on her house, and make arrangements for her daughter to visit the States. She offered to be tour guide, driver, interpreter, and hostess while she put me up at her sumptuous Bangkok home. I knew that she would provide access to culinary discoveries that I had absolutely no hope of finding on my own, and there was no way I was going to miss this opportunity.
After making all of the arrangements, getting the recommended inoculations, and doing all conceivable pre-trip research, the dates were set. I endured an abysmal and cramped 18-hour transit over the Pacific and arrived in the sweltering humidity and insane bustle of the Bangkok airport to find Mam waiting patiently. While hurtling through Bangkok's intense traffic at breakneck velocity, I was impressed with the sheer bravado of the motorbike drivers that weaved within inches of our car. They make up the majority of the vehicles on any road, and are as likely to be carrying a family of five as they are a stack of freight boxes 10 feet tall. Regardless of the cargo, they brake for no other vehicles. That would show weakness: The other drivers can smell fear, and will prey on it if given a chance.
Once safely at Mam's, I settled in and checked out the kitchen. Most Thai homes have two food-preparation areas, with the food being prepped inside and cooked under shelter outside (which keeps the strong aromas and heat from entering the house). Cooking is done on two-burner hot plates, in pots and saucepans as much as in woks. The main utensil for eating is the spoon, with the fork being used as a pusher. Thais are shocked at the prospect of Westerners placing sharp forks inside their mouths ... we might as well be eating with razor blades! Chopsticks (in my opinion the most inefficient means of stuffing the mouth with food) are reserved primarily for eating noodle dishes. Eating napkins are most often boxes of facial tissue.
We began almost every morning in Bangkok at a small noodle shop near Mam's house that served kuay-tiao luk-chin pla, or fish ball noodle soup. For a pittance, you get a bowl of richly seasoned pork stock containing ground pork, fried fish, or shrimp balls, sprouts, scallions, and your choice of six different types of noodles. Noodles are an excellent way to begin the day. If we were lucky, a woman selling small, round, cloud-like coconut puddings (khanom krok) would come by with her vendor cart and we would load up on those little delights for later.
The food we ate at home or as guests of Mam's friends was consistently superb, and generally not the kind of dishes that are found in restaurants. A good example was served at a potluck hosted by an internationally known writer. It was a dish of smoked catfish that had been fried, served with a cloyingly sweet chile sauce and a platter of intensely bitter ka-tin herb leaves. Eaten separately, the three components were marginal, but when eaten together as they should be, the melding of flavors was perfectly balanced. Mam had brought a complex green curry with fish balls and the tiny, grape-sized bitter eggplants of Thailand that floored the crowd.
A dinner at Mam's younger brother's house yielded a pineapple curry with tiny, crunchy dried fish and a pork dish with a wild herb (I never got the name right) that had a horrible smell but an addictively delicious musky-herbal flavor. At that meal we were introduced to the wonders of pomelo and salak fruit. A pomelo is like a large slightly sweet grapefruit with tiny segmented capsules of juicy flavorful pulp for flesh, excellent alone and perfect as an ingredient in a salad. Salak, or snake fruit, have an exterior that looks like reddish-brown, shiny, scaly snake skin and a crisp flesh with a sweet-fruity nuttiness.
We didn't stick to just Thai food. At the Marina, a Chinese spot that Mam has eaten at since she was a child, we dined on masterfully prepared dim sum, braised gelatinous geese feet with crunchy veggies, crisp Peking duck, and succulent fish maw soup, among other things. We dined at Zanotti's, an upscale Italian restaurant that has won Best of Bangkok for the past two years straight. It was overrun with tuppies (Thai yuppies) and beautiful jet setters, and the food was respectably good. I had a standout risotto with wild mushrooms.
During the next three weeks, we covered the cities, the beaches, and the countryside from north to south, touring historical temples, museums, and sites of natural wonder that boggled the mind with their beauty, but the food was my main attraction. Every location we went to had its own array of markets and its own regional specialties. Along the coasts seafood is king, in the mountains of the north foods from the forests prevail, and everything from all points funnels into the markets and restaurants of the cities.
Markets in Thailand are generally either morning or night markets, doing business from very early morning to midday, or from dusk to late evening. They range in size from large, bustling complexes with thousands of vendors to lively, floating markets on canals (where all commerce takes place from small boats) to simple stands on the side of the road. There are brightly lit food courts (excellent spots for great, cheap food) with dozens of different food vendors that do booming business at night, and you find these in every city.
Every market, regardless of size or location, will host an astonishing array of foodstuffs, from raw components to completely cooked. The fruits, vegetables, and herbs were a constant discovery process, nibbling here and there, trying to figure out what they were. At every market one will find an incredible variety of aromatic dried seafood items as well as the freshest from the sea. Surprisingly the dried seafood, once fried or cooked, tastes exactly like fresh! Street vendors are ubiquitous, offering an unbelievable assortment of dishes to the Thais, who seem to eat constantly while awake. Regardless of where you are, or the size of the operation, generally everything is kept fastidiously clean, and all of the vendors take enormous pride in their products. At a street market south of Bangkok I discovered the joys of coconut-milk-laced sticky rice, stuffed into a length of bamboo, and slowly cooked over coals. After splitting open the bamboo, the smoky, sweet flavored rice was the ultimate dessert. The perfect foil for the rice is fresh nectarine juice sold in plastic jugs for little cost. Its sweet-tart taste is so incredibly refreshing in the sweltering heat.
Everywhere you find the famous Thai mangoes that haven't a bit of stringiness of the other varieties, but do have the sweetest and most sensual flavor of any in the world. Mam also introduced us to the pleasures of duku fruit (long gong in Thai) that look like loquats on steroids, but taste like a heavenly blend of sweet citrus and pear. Scanning the fruit sections you see smelly durians and gigantic jackfruit (both delightful), aromatic rose apples and red hairy rambutan, guava and dragon eye fruit, mangosteen and sapodilla. The horticulturist in me wishes these would grow in Texas!
Once you get out in the countryside you see where the foods found in the market come from. On a temple tour to the southwest of Bangkok, we encountered long stretches of salt evaporation ponds lining the roadway on both sides, producing perfect raked up mounds of sea salt. Bangkok is very near the gulf, so seawater canals run up to the highway. The smell of fish is never far from these ponds, as fish sauce manufacturing shacks are close to the salt source. Anchovies are brought in by boat on the canals and packed in barrels with the salt to produce this aromatic amber seasoning, which is sold along the road in 1- and 5-gallon jugs.
A little to the north you begin to see large fruit orchards growing every imaginable variety of tropical fruits. There is an economy of operation whereby every square inch of land is utilized, and all vertical layers used as well. The ground will be covered with one variety of fruit, while medium-sized trees and vines will grow under a taller canopy of fruit trees and palms. The fruits are for sale everywhere you go, and the number of choices is staggering. Rice paddies and vegetable fields are seen everywhere in the countryside, and they are generally smaller, family-scale growing operations. Rice paddies will have other varieties of water plants sharing their space, as well as fish and freshwater prawns during the wetter phases of growth. The canals (klongs) that run off of the rivers are a source of food, as well as a means of transportation. It's common to see nets strung across canals to catch fish, fresh water prawns, crawfish, or frogs. Ducks and geese swim in the water, and the margins of the canals have water spinach, watercress, and morning glory vine ready for harvest. Every house in the countryside has a flock of chickens and ducks or geese or a small herd of pigs. Trucks on the highways can often be seen hauling cages of birds to market, and at a country intersection we looked over to see a small pickup filled to the brim with the carcasses of three freshly slaughtered hogs. The Thais enjoy an intimate relationship with their food, and there's no doubt in their minds where it comes from.
Trips up and down the coast near Pataya gave us the best seafood of the trip. At the Tarae Seafood Restaurant in Chanburi we feasted on a 12-course lunch that featured toothsome squid rings stuffed with cuttlefish swimming in a lime-chile-cilantro broth; raw crab and green papaya salad with the tiny and exquisitely fiery "mouse dropping" chiles; mild and fruity pineapple curry with chunks of brilliant orange crab roe; and a taste discovery that absolutely blew me away: steamed spotted mangrove crab dipped in sweet chile sauce. Mangrove crabs (poo pah) become a luminous red with white polka dots when cooked, a color straight off of a Fifties skirt or bikini. When you extract the flesh from the shell it tastes like the sweetest combination of lobster and king crab meat. Easily the best-tasting crab I've ever eaten.
Down the coast at Satahip, there is a gem of a seafood spot named Ban Amphor Restaurant. The seating area is over the water, with waves crashing underneath. Out front are scores of concrete tanks holding myriad different types of seafood: fish, crabs, fat chunky rays, lobsters, cuttlefish, clams, and more. Standouts included primordial-looking slipper lobsters that were split, fried, and topped with a robust brown garlic sauce; rich seaweed soup with fish and squid that screamed of the ocean; giant oysters scrambled with egg-black pepper-chile, and a wonderful fish (taloomba) braised in sour tamarind broth with celery greens. All were exquisite and impeccably fresh.
Up north in the mountains of Chiang Mai, the food is forest-based and borrows heavily from the hill tribes and the Isaan cultures of Northeast Thailand. The north is the home of kao soi, a red curry noodle soup that I had gotten addicted to at Madam Mam's in Austin. I had five different versions while up there, and frankly, the one she makes in Austin is superior. People in the north are also famous for their sausage, a coarse pork blend seasoned with red curry paste. The best came from a small roadside stand halfway up Thailand's tallest mountain, sold by a woman grilling them on the side of a dead-end road. There's also a fermented version of the sausage that we ate with garlic and scrambled egg. It is "cured" at room temperature for three days, and although sharply flavored, it is delicious. Treats in Chiang Mai include crunchy, puff-ball-like wild mushrooms in red curry broth, strips of gelatinous young coconut meat stir-fried with shrimp, rich pork soup with tart bitter melon, and Singha beer over ice with vitamin D extract and plain soda poured over it. The men up there all seem to be especially infatuated with herbal sexual stimulants for "vigor." (Thailand is the original home of Red Bull.)
We ate at a hill tribe restaurant that specialized in "forest food" that was quite an experience. The meal started with a curry dip of ant eggs; there was also a twiggy dish made from small herbal tree limbs that was texturally punishing but delicious, a bright pink pomelo spicy salad, and a fruit salad made with mak jeong fruit. Mak jeong fruit resemble small pale moons, but I still don't have a clue what they are botanically. The forest meal is the only one where I was totally lost and confused, although I really enjoyed it.
Breakfast one morning found us eating huey dop soup with sides of Chiang Mai sausage. The broth was scented with anise and cinnamon, and it had fresh ziti-like tubular rice noodles I had never seen before. Wedges of 100-year-old eggs were floating next to the slices of fresh pork belly and ground pork. The soft, reddish-gray cubes that I thought might be some strange form of tofu were in reality very liver-like cubes of coagulated pork blood. The soup was excellent, but the pork blood cubes went untouched. (They were the one thing on the whole trip I refused to eat.) Chiang Mai also provided superlative dishes that left lasting memories. At one spot we feasted on sweet Chinese leek greens braised with fish balls and piquant roasted green chile strips with boiled vegetables that we couldn't get enough of. At another we gorged on dry tofu sheets stuffed with pork and crabmeat, deep fried and served with a sweet chile sauce, and a salad with dried jellyfish that was superbly crunchy.
As for the warnings from our bureaucracies about what not to eat, let me just say that if I had followed their directives I would have starved to death. I ate everywhere and sampled pretty much everything I came across and never had the slightest hint of gastric distress ... not even a burp. I returned from Thailand completely enamored of the beautiful countryside and incredibly impressed with the grace and friendliness of the people I met (except for one exceptionally lame taxi driver in Phuket Town). The food was so much better than I had hoped, and even more exotic than I expected. Mam and Sap shared the bounty of their home country, and through Mam's expertise I discovered foods that the average tourist would never even hear about, much less have the opportunity to taste. I am eternally indebted to Mam. Given the opportunity I would return in a heartbeat, and know that I will someday soon. Now I go into Madam Mam's for my weekly fix of the flavors I discovered in Thailand, and now I dine with an increased respect for their vision of what real Thai food could and should be.