Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Whew! I feel like I have stepped off the plane and onto my desk with hardly enough time to catch my breath! I arrived from Hong Kong at midnight on Sunday, and Monday was back to work and all the little things that seem to build up at a frightful pace when you are on holiday. Hong Kong was wonderful – great food, but more importantly great company :) We had relatively little time, but we manage to squeeze in a lot of gems like here and here, and my first time ever here. But before moving on to Hong Kong (and hopefully an actual food post soon!), here is the last of my Bangkok adventure…
Ayutthaya & the Summer Palace
The once dazzling capital of old Siam, Ayutthaya was a force to be reckoned with, holding sway over the region. Courted by foreign powers, it was seemingly undefeatable. But, as fate loves to deal with “seemingly undefeatable” things, they were conquered by the Burmese army in 1767. The city was destroyed, the temples desecrated, and the multitude of Buddha statues decapitated. Now we are left with the melancholy ruins that are at once sad (it is never a happy thing to see religious artifacts, no matter what religion, so intentionally destroyed) and majestic. And if you find a quiet spot and look out on the green grass and old crumbling structures, you may be able to catch a glimpse of the great city that it once was. Ayutthaya is about 1 1/2 hours out of Bangkok and for this day trip we booked a tour which took us there via van and returned via river cruise. Before heading to the ruins, we stopped at the Bang Pa-In Palace, the royals’ summer resort. The vast grounds were perfectly manicured and the buildings were a curious combination of Western and Asian styles. There were obviously Thai structures around, but the main mansion, the one the royal family actually uses in the summer, is made in European style. There was also a residence that was completely Chinese, all its parts having been shipped from China. There were topiaries and lakes (with turtles!) and gazebos. A veritable royal playground…I would love to spend summers there racing golf carts and feeding the turtles. Hmmm…perhaps someday when C & I make some royal friends. Until then, we explored and took pictures, and hurried out towards the tempting smells of sidewalk grilling! :)
Jim Thompson’s House
I already mentioned Thompson, the restaurant at Jim Thompson’s House where we ate after a rigorous morning at Chatuchak Market. As mentioned, this well loved (as far as I know) American settled in Bangkok after World War II (when he was working with some sort of a precursor to the CIA, and he was stationed in Thailand), finding New York City a tad to tame for his taste (imagine that). He built for himself a fabulous teak house (he used to be an architect, back during his “tame” days) by the river. He took parts of old abandoned Thai houses and assembled them into a gorgeous example of Thai architecture…with his own little twists. As we toured through the house, my bare feet cool on the wooden floors, I imagined what it must have been like back in its heyday – Jim entertaining scads of glitzy and interesting characters in the spacious living area, replete with Asian art and facing a lively river, his jungle-like garden shading the house in its exotic embrace. It’s that sort of a place…a place that encourages these lost-glamour type of fantasies. Or maybe I just have a wild imagination. Anyways, don’t think old Jim was just another ennui-filled expat. A lover of Thai culture and arts, much of the credit for today’s worldwide popularity of Thai silk lies with him. He sent samples of the beautiful material to the top fashion houses in Europe, creating quite a stir. To this day Thai silk remains very popular. The Jim Thompson House is located at the end of a soi (lane) near the MBK area. A lovely pocket of peace in an otherwise busy part of town packed with malls. Jim Thompson House: 9am-4:30pm. Soi Kasem San 2, off Thanon Rama 1. Tel – 02 6123601. Skytrain – National Stadium.
My First Thai Massage
If you are looking for a massage recommendation, you are better of looking here. We went to a random massage place near our hotel that C picked because of proximity. We had finished another day of being up and about, and I was lying in bed snoozing, when C said he would just go down to buy some water at a 7/11. Hah. He came back proudly announcing that he had found a place where we could have a massage. I was still toying with the idea of a Thai massage. You see, despite great massage places being all over my city, at excellent prices, I am not really a fanatic. Don’t get me wrong, I love the pampered feeling I get from a massage, but I need to have them very, very gentle. No deep-tissue action. No vehement cracking and pressing. But I was in Thailand and I really wanted to see what it was all about. So off we went to C’s little discovery for our massages. The girl who did my massage was charming and talkative. She chatted throughout the massage, which may seem counter-productive, but I enjoyed her Thai chattering (that I didn’t understand). Her voice was musical and her expressions so vivid, and they thankfully kept me distracted from the cracking. In Thai massage your whole body is stretched and cracked. The stretching I loved! She uses her body as a kind of counter-weight to stretch yours, resulting in the both of you in all sorts of weird positions. I don’t think I have ever stretched as much as I did then, and it felt fabulous! The cracking, now that’s a different story. I’m sure this part also affords great relief for some, but I think I was just too nervous that whatever part of my body she cracked would, um, really crack (as in break off). When she cracked my neck, so help me, I felt like I was in a Steven Segal movie! Of course, everything turned out well and she waved me off, still chatting with me in Thai, while I smiled and nodded and tried to pick up context clues. As I walked back to the hotel with C, I realized that my body did feel rejuvenated…it felt as if someone had oiled my joints, and now they were swinging smoothly in their sockets. My first Thai massage...aaah, another milestone in my list of simple pleasures :)
The most common question we get when back from Bangkok is, “What did you buy?” Or “Where did you shop?” This may seem a bit of a sacrilege to a place with mind-blowing cuisine and awe-inspiring sights, but in truth, it’s not (although it certainly isn't the only thing this city has to offer...or even the best it has to offer...my money is still on the food). Why? Because if they didn’t want us to gush about the shopping, then they wouldn’t have made it so dang fabulous, or so darn tempting…or so beguilingly affordable! Everything from teak furniture to high-end fashion to 150-bhat market finds. No matter what kind of shopping you do, there is a place in Bangkok ready to take you to its bosom and gently separate you from your cash (or firmly implant themselves onto your credit). I have only 3 words for you: Don’t fight it.
I will make this quick, and hopefully painless, so that you culture-vultures out there don’t weep from my cheapy shopping tales. Here goes: Chatuchak Market – I enjoyed Chatuchak more than I though I would. It was also less harassing then I was expecting. I think this is because I was warned about its mad crush of humanity more than once. We only saw a smidgen but surprisingly I got most of my lode from here. Cotton strapless tops in tropical prints, beach-y dresses, Christmas lights, shorts and vintage tees for C, spice mixes, tank tops, cute bags. Was in during the morning, out by lunch. Take the Skytrain stop Mo Chit. Suan Lum Night Bazaar – If you don’t have the time or patience for Chatuchak madness, Suan Lum is a good alternative. Much smaller, but also a lot calmer, you can still find goodies here. I got cute tank tops, silk bags, nice tees for me and C and friends, loads of earrings. There is a hawkers market where you can eat. MRT stop Lumphini. Those Bangkok Malls – I realized that, when away from home, I tend to gravitate more towards markets and little streets than these huge temples to commerce (probably because we have enough back here). We did hit MBK and Siam Paragon but honestly couldn’t get inspired. Maybe we were tired? Or broke? Siam Square – The little sois across from the Siam malls are filled with treasure waiting to be discovered. My favorite discovery being Mola (thank you Luxe Guides!), a tiny stationary store on Soi 11 – adorable notepads and I even found a Moomin date book!
There you have it! Bangkok...a beautiful whirlwind for the senses…I’m glad I let it take me for a spin :)
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Although I may have painted it that way with my last two posts, Bangkok is not all about eating (I am all about eating…and Bangkok is just a darn fine place to do it). It is an energetic city full of rich history and culture. There is a ton of things to see and do: from majestic temples and awe-inspiring ruins of old; to cutting edge artwork that can be seen in the new galleries sprouting all over the place. Just watching life churn around Bangkok and its people is amazing. One moment you will see a pretty, young girl in all the latest styles (necessary body parts covered of course!) kneeling before an altar and praying intently, incense in her hand and Louis Vuitton on her shoulder. Another moment you will see a monk on a dock, leaning against a post and smoking a cigarette, his arm escaping his orange robe covered in tattoos.
And no, it’s not all about the shopping. Although shopping in Bangkok is fun and fabulous and that cannot be denied. But more on that later.
So much to see and (seemingly) so little time. We did as much as we could, but still allowing for time to sigh and savor. Because in Bangkok, whether you’re talking about the food, the sights, or the shopping, there will always be sighing and savoring.
The Grand Palace & Wat Phra Keaw (Temple of the Emerlad Buddha)
Two of the most visited places in Thailand, and two of the holiest. It’s no mystery why tourists come in droves to see them – and C & I were part of the throng. Eschewing the free city tour that came with our airline/hotel package, we made our own itinerary so we could see the temples we wanted at our own pace (which is how I prefer doing things anyway). This was first on our list. We took the public ferry from the Oriental Pier, waving away touts trying to convince us to rent a private long boat for 1000++ bhat. We paid around 36 bhat (for us both) to get on the public ferry that took us where we needed to go...and it’s a cheap way of “cruising” the Chao Phraya river! We got off at Tha Tien and walked to the palace entrance. I felt just like a school kid on a field trip…my eyes were wide as saucers as I tried to take it all in (and there is just so much to take in!). My mind tried to grapple with three things at once: The Thai style of architecture which I was seeing in person for the very first time, the size and splendor of the structures, and the beauty and mind-blowing detail that went into everything. I cannot imagine these buildings hundreds of years ago, still as they are now, in blazing, searing, Technicolor. Weren’t people shocked at the frenzy of gilded color? Or was brilliance like this commonplace in the life of a royal then? Wat Phra Keaw is another riot of fantastical embellishment. Golden chedi (bell-shaped tower), vibrant mosaic tiles, and gleaming marble compete for your attention. So much so that you find yourself forgetting…isn’t there supposed to be an Emerald Buddha in here? And there he is...high atop all this adornment, 66cm of jade holiness. I sigh in my bare feet (shoes off in all temples please!). What a magical place to be. When in Bangkok…Must see…Bring your shades and prepare to be floored. The Grand Palace & Wat Phra Keaw: 8:30am-3:30pm. Ferry stop Tha Tien or Tha Chang.
Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha)
After exploring the Grand Palace & Wat Phra Keaw, we hailed a cab for lunch at Chote Chitr. You can read about our wonderful meal here. With our tummies full and ready for more adventure, we headed to Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This 16th century temple is the oldest and largest wat (temple) in Bangkok, has the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand, and now has the dubious claim of housing my favorite Buddha. I knew that it was supposed to be the longest reclining Buddha in Thailand, but I was not prepared for how big it actually was, or how gold. I felt like those girls with their noses pressed at Tiffany’s windows, shiny diamonds in their eyes…except my eyes were filled with big gold Buddha! I have no idea what it says about me, the fact that my head was completely turned by size and gold-ness…but it’s true and I won’t lie! My head was completely turned by size (46 meters long and 15 meters high) and gold-ness! Truly, it is a beautiful sight. And although you may be thinking it is all flash and fancy…it isn’t! Its reclining position illustrates the passing of Buddha into nirvana. At the gigantic soles of its feet are inscribed 108 auspicious laksana (characteristics of a Buddha). I was entranced! Wat Pho: 8:00am-6:00pm. Ferry stop Tha Tien.
Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn)
After ogling at the Reclining Buddha, we crossed the river (from Tha Tien take the cross-river ferry to Tha Thai Wang) to Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn. The 82 meter praang (towering spire of Khmer origin, same purpose as a chedi) commands your complete attention as you approach it from the river. Upon closer inspection, it reveals itself as yet another wonder of intricate detailing in its porcelain mosaics. At each of its tiers there are rows of kinnari (half-human-half-bird) holding the next level up on their shoulders. It was here that the new Thai capital (in Thonburi) was built after the fall of Ayutthaya (and before it was transferred across the river to Bangkok). We walked about the towers and rested our legs on some steps nearby, admiring the mosaics and the monks going about their business, and watching the other tourists climb the towers. C had injured his knee in a game of b-ball and couldn’t climb the steep stairs. I have a more “feed-me-chocolate-truffles-as-I-lie-on-a-feather-bed” type of physique, so I was dubious about attempting it. We were there though…so I thought I’d give it my best shot. I made it halfway – not bad for me! Especially when I saw a couple of guys coming down from the top, their knees shaking like a carnaval dancer’s tush. Whew! We headed back to the pier to cross the river only to find it was closed! Apparently there was a military procession about to happen and the ferries weren’t working. So we had to meander around until we found a main road and grab a cab to take us back to our hotel across town. No easy task. Don’t let anyone tell you that Bangkok is not an adventure! :) Wat Arun: 8:30am-5:30pm. Th Arun Amarin, Thonburi. Cross-river ferry from Tha Tien to Tha Thai Wang.
I so enjoyed wandering about the wats! Everything seemed like our own little discovery, even if countless of tourist footsteps had come before me.
Next up: Ayutthaya (the once glorious Thai capital), Jim Thompson’s House (lovely teak residence of Bangkok’s favorite expat), a little spot of shopping, and my first Thai massage! But before that, I am off to Hong Kong for the weekend…C and I are visiting my godfather who lives there. I am looking forward to catching up on old times, a lot of laughter, and a load of good food! I'm also hoping to sneak a little food shopping in ;)
See you when I get back…with the last of Bangkok and the first of Hong Kong! :)
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
We were meeting with a former work-colleague of C’s (who is now based in Bangkok) for dinner and were asked to pick a place. We decided to go with a recommendation from our good friend Christine of Ramblings from a Gypsy Soul. She had eaten in Somboon Seafood during her trip to Bangkok and had rave reviews. Serving Thai-Chinese food, Somboon Seafood is a popular restaurant for both tourists and locals. With good reason – the food was fantastic! My only regret is that we were only three people and couldn’t order everything on the menu! We had the Curried Crab which is their specialty. C ordered a steamed garoupa “with lemonade and chili”. Hmmm. Something must have been lost in translation there. We figured that it was prepared with lemon and chili, which sounded good to us. Looking at the menu, I thought to myself that “lemonade and chili” sounded much cuter and “lemon and chili” ever could :) Cute name or no, this fish was a revelation. Lemon and chili sounds familiar enough but, like all dishes in Thailand it seemed, the flavors were so sharp and distinct…like I could taste each one as if they were answering a roll call. Aside from the chili and the lemon, the fish was piled with cilantro/coriander, an herb which I love (and had in shameful amounts while in Bangkok, along with Thai basil). The crab curry was fabulous…like nothing I had tasted before. Was it Thai? Chinese? A blend of both? I couldn’t tell. But as I was poking the shells for bits of meat and scraping up all the luscious sauce (which was a mysterious consistency between solid and liquid) I figured that perhaps it didn’t matter. The third and last dish we had (not including the steamed rice which we had at every meal) was the Fried Morning Glory (like our kang-kong), water spinach fried with garlic. Simple enough but just as tasty as the other two dishes we had. We washed everything down with two bottles of the local Singha beer. Definitely worth being taking for a ride! (Please read Christine’s post about being taken for a ride on a tuktuk…the same thing happened to us, but because we were forewarned by her post we were able to avoid a scam). Somboon Seafood: Surawong Road.
The Infamous Food Courts
Aside from the street food, another Bangkok gastro-destination touted by many are the food courts found in the many malls around the city. The food courts are huge halls lined with stalls that sell many of the dishes you will find on the street, much of them just as good. Although I do enjoy the home-cooked edge that street food has when actually sold on the street, after a day of marathon shopping, enjoying these dishes in air-conditioned comfort is no small luxury. We ate at two food courts while in Bangkok: Central World’s and Siam Paragon’s. Central World Plaza (formerly WTC) is walking distance from our hotel so after our flight we headed straight there. C was cross-eyed with hunger already and we needed some food…fast (he doesn’t eat plane food…he is not chi-chi-gourmet, he just can’t/won’t…you should see him when he gets off a long-haul flight….wheelchair please!). Our first meal in Bangkok: Tom kha gai (soup of chicken, coconut milk, galangal, and lemongrass…a big favorite of mine), Fishballs in red curry, and a spicy noodle soup. Our first taste of Bangkok, in just an ordinary food court, and already we were loving it! The whole “eating Thai food in Thailand” that everyone was talking about was hitting its mark dead center. Despite the tears in our eyes from the spiciness, we kept shoveling it all in until there was nary a noodle left. After our meal, I headed over to the stall where I spied some khanom buang. I first heard of this filled, crispy-pancake like snack from Ramblings from a Gypsy Soul. It sounded so good that I had my eyes peeled for them. Inside the crispy pancake (made of rice flour) is coconut cream, shredded coconut, and sweet strips of fried egg yolk. They are just as yummy as Christine says they are! There is a savory version too with chopped scallions and some cilantro…also very good. Of course, I had both :) Beside the food court was a grocery section where I happily stocked up on curry pastes. The other food court we visited was the one at Siam Paragon, after a long day of shopping (more on that later). C was feeling rebellious and got his meal at a Japanese stall. I would not be deterred in my Thai-ness and got a plate of ground pork with holy basil, which was served with steamed rice and a fried egg, along with a plate of som tam (I couldn’t get enough of this!). This time I had bought my khanom buang beforehand so I didn’t have to move anymore…just sit down and pig out in earnest. Central World Plaza: Ratchadamri Road. Siam Paragon: Rama 1 Road.
One of the sights on my “things to see” list was the old teakwood house of Jim Thompson – Thailand’s favorite foreigner. Thompson served in Thailand during World War II, and decided to move to Bangkok after the war, as he found New York too tame for his liking (!!). An architect before the war, he built for himself a splendid abode of teak, using traditional Thai architecture infused with his own touches. The house is beautiful (and beautifully maintained!)…add lovely examples of Southeast Asian art and a lush, jungle-like garden, and tuck the whole thing by the river, and you have got one gorgeous crib. But more on Jim, his fabulous home, his eventful life, his mysterious death, and the goodies you can get at his gift shop, later. Now we are going to talk about Thompson, the wonderful restaurant on the premise. Thompson serves traditional Thai dishes amidst a contemporary backdrop – all polished concrete, silk cushions, patterned walls, and relaxed ambience. The tranquil setting, gracious staff, and cool air-conditioning are just the thing after a morning of vigorous scouring at Chatuchak Market (more on this later). We dragged our ratty shopping bags, and our even rattier selves inside, grateful for the cool air and the serenity of the place. Up until this point we had eaten in food courts, markets, sidewalk stalls, hole-in-the-walls, and noisy restaurants. Suddenly I was enveloped in the perfumed air of a more up-market clientele…and quite conscious of the dregs of Chatuchak no doubt still clinging to my clothes. Only for an instant though, before the charming hostess gently Sawatdii-kha’d us to our table. I could literally feel myself slowing down. To start, we had fresh spring rolls that were served with an amazing dipping sauce that had hints of lime and cilantro/coriander and other flavors I couldn’t place my finger on. We ordered a phad thai that came wrapped in a thin sheet of egg which C loved. I ordered the Green Curry (kaeng khiaw-waan) with Prawns. Green Curry is my favorite among the Thai curries (Red, Green, Yellow – like a traffic light…and green means Gooooo!). I can eat this in massive quantities and this time was no different as I scraped every last bit of sauce long after all the prawns were gone. C decided that we should try something new and ordered the Lemongrass Chicken which turned out a triumph of crunchy lemongrass bits and tender tasty chicken, dipped in a lip-smacking chili paste. We washed everything down with a tall glass of Thai iced tea each. To full for dessert (aw! I know, I know!), we capped our meal of with Thai coffee…served good and strong atop a layer of condensed milk. Heavenly! Eating at Thompson was like a spot of precious quiet in the riot that is Bangkok. Not that I don’t like the riot. I do. It’s just nice to re-group in this tranquil place before plunging back in! Thompson: Jim Thompson House, Soi Kasem San 2, off Thanon Rama 1. Tel – 02 6123601.
For our last night in Bangkok we decided to go to Hualamphu, and open-air restaurant serving Isaan (northeastern) food. We heard the food was good and it sounded like a “kick-back” kind of place, which I thought would be just right for winding down on our last night. So we hailed a cab and headed to Sukhumvit road (it’s located on one if the sois off Sukhumvit). Bangkok was not going to let us off that easy though. This was no walk in Disneyland…when in Bangkok you need to be ready for anything. This was, after all, the city Jim Thompson decided to live in because New York City was too staid. Driving down a dark soi, and conferring with some locals, we discover that the restaurant has closed. Criminy. Now what? With the meter ticking away I hastily spread out my all my notes and guides. Some place near Sukhumvit, c’mon, appear before me! My eyes settled on Vientiane Kitchen which was a few sois away from where we were. Recommended by the Luxe Guide for their “nuclear-hot Isaan food” (yeah!), and noted under their “relaxed” section of dining, I figure this would be the perfect substitute. The Luxe Guide also said it was “theme-y”, and we were soon to find out just what this meant. When we got there the customers were a motley mix of tourists and locals (more tourists though). Open-air with wooden tables scattered around, the staff is friendly and quick, and business seems very brisk. The décor and the band did seem, just as Luxe said, “theme-y”, but we hadn’t actually been to any other places that had local music and traditional dancing (unless you count the local pop bands in Suan Lum – which, although not of the cultural sort, were still fun to watch), so we sat back with the rest of the farangs (foreigners) to enjoy the show. I really enjoyed the host (who was the lead signer of the band), who I found immensely funny even if he spoke mostly in Thai – which just proves that laughter knows no language. Oh boy have I rambled! AnyWAY, theme-y or no, I was there for the “nuclear-hot Isaan food” and Luxe did not disappoint. We had a bowl of tôm yam (our last tôm yam in Bangkok…sniff) to start, which definitely did not pull the punches when it came to heat. We ordered a fried river fish which they told us was some sort of snapper. This was delicious…the meat was cut into pieces but still attached to the bones and the whole bit was deep-fried to perfection, super-crisp outside and tender and moist inside. It was served with that they described as their “sauce for seafood”, any more elaboration on this was lost in translation. The sauce was bright and green and reminded me a bit of the spring roll sauce at Thompson with notes of cilantro and lime, fish sauce and chili. We had to ask for extra. A lot extra. We also ordered a catfish salad, another typical Thai dish that I had wanted to try in its home turf and it was amazingly good! The catfish flakes where so crisp and light that if somebody had sneezed they would have blown all over the restaurant! They served all the elements of the salad separately so the catfish wouldn’t loose its crispy-ness, and you each could make your own mix as you see fit. Both C and I balked at the size of the serving but we soon made short work of it. It was that good. I also loved the basket of fresh herbs and veggies they place at every table. I was developing a violent dependence on Thai basil and needed to put it on everything. By the end of the night, I was feeling that contentment you get from a good meal settling in, putting me in such agreeable spirits that I gamely joined in clapping while our wacky host belted out a Thai “happy birthday” for one of the guests. A little bit campy, a lot delicious. Keep your humor and you will be stuffed to the gills in goodness and chuckling all night :) Vientiane Kitchen: 8 Sukhumvit Soi 36. Tel – 02 2586171.
No matter how many meals I had eaten, or even if I ate double what I did, or stopped at every road side stall, not even then would I have left satisfied. Not matter how full my belly, I still felt the grumble of dishes untried, restaurants unvisited, and meals uneaten. I still need to try more of iberry, a local ice cream place with its chandelier made of cups and locally inspired flavors (the banana and cheese was so yummy!). I definitely need to try more kanom jeen (rice noodles served with various curries and a score of fresh and pickled veggie condiments), which I only tried once, on our river cruise from Ayutthaya. I also need to finally try some miang, which I unluckily did not come across during my visit. And then there are all those recommendations from friends and kind bloggers that I did not get the chance to get to! Sigh…more for another trip! I’ll be back in Bangkok one day for a second serving! ;)
I’m not done with Bangkok yet! Sights, shopping, and more adventures coming up! :)
Friday, November 09, 2007
We are back and what a trip that was! I am still on a wonderful Thai-high and I just don’t want to come down :) Bangkok was an amazing adventure in so many ways and at so many levels…it certainly did not disappoint all my whimsical imaginings.
Bangkok is a frenetic dance of old world and new; endlessly swirling in vibrant color, so you never know where one ends and the other begins. It is a monk’s silent gaze and a teenager’s flippant swish of her micro-mini-skirt. It is awe-inspiring temples to Buddha and mind-boggling temples to commerce. It is bustling markets filled with all manners of goods and shiny new malls that taunt you with high-end designers. It is a riot you can lose yourself in…it is a riot you want to lose yourself in.
Of course, weaving in and around everything, there is the food. Immensely important and central to life in Thailand…and rightfully so. Its flavors are intense, crisp, clean, bright. Thai food is like a symphony with each note having its own distinct character, clear as a bell, that immediately draws your attention, but still has the ability to blend perfectly with all the other flavor notes. And let’s face it; more than anything else, I was in Bangkok to taste that symphony for myself.
I love Thai food, and although we have some pretty good Thai places here, I had listened to friends go on about how “nothing compares to Thai food in Thailand” one too many times. It was finally my turn! I could feel the kaffir lime and chilies even before our plane touched down. Like before, I’m dividing my trip into highlights for easy digestion :)
The gastronomic highlights on our trip (part 1):
This was a recommendation from Robyn of Eating Asia, who graciously shared with me a wealth of tips for Bangkok eating. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to them all (more for next time!), but I did get to this…and were we ever glad we did! Chote Chitr is a tiny five-table gem of a place tucked away down an unassuming lane off Tanao road. It’s a short cab ride from the Grand Palace so we hopped over for lunch in between wats (temples). The chalkboard menu outside was all in Thai, which only made me more excited. We placed ourselves in the capable hands of the very charming proprietress, only asking for the mee krob (crispy noodles with a sweet-sour-salty sauce). The rest we left up to her. Aside from the mee krob, we ended up with a steaming bowl of tôm yam (spicy and sour soup), hor mok (fish in red curry steamed in banana leaves), and steamed rice. This was one of my best meals in Bangkok...one of my best experiences in Bangkok. Everything from hunting the place down, to its cozy feel, the afternoon breeze that wafted in throughout the meal, the complete absence of foreigners (except for us), the helpful proprietress, her unbelievably fluffy dog, the tôm yam that was the best I had ever tasted (she used heart of palm instead of the usual mushrooms – for its sweetness she said), the mee krob that was excellent in every sweet-sour-spicy-crunchy bite, my first taste of hor mok (with its delicate pieces of fish cradled gently in a bed of softly set red curry which hid a mound of fragrant Thai basil leaves all ensconced in a banana leaf cup), to the satisfied lethargy that enveloped me after this perfect meal. Chote Chitr – 146 Phraeng Phutorn, Tanao road.
After our meal in Chote Chitr, I wanted to try another of Robyn’s recommendations – the sticky rice at Kor Panich, which is said to be the best. The kind lady over at Chote Chitr gamely offered to walk us there (it was just out of the lane and across the main street). Apparently, it’s been around for quite some time and with good reason…the sticky rice is really all that delicious! A big covered metal bowl contains the rice which the girls behind the counter open to stir once you’ve placed your order. You buy the mangoes from another lady that is sitting right outside the shop. We got our order to go since we were still full from our lunch and had one more wat to see. They pack it all up for you, peeling and slicing the mango and including a plastic pouch of coconut milk and another of the crunchy topping, as well as some plastic utensils. I had this scrumptious dessert sitting on a bench at Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn…more on this later), in the shade of one of its chedis (large bell shaped tower). Bliss. Kor Panich – 431-33 Tanao road.
Street Food and Market Stall Hawkers
I was soon to find out that, just as it is hard to take a bad photo in Boracay, or have a bad coffee in Spain, it is hard to have a bad meal in Bangkok (oh, I’m sure there are whammies hiding there somewhere, but I thankfully didn’t bump into them). This is probably because there is such deliciousness to be found on every sidewalk corner and down every tiny soi (lane). Bangkok’s streets are literally lined in gastronomic gold. Being a big fan of, not only Thai food, but street food in general (we have our own gems too…more on that someday!), I was determined to sample all this city had to offer. Let me tell you, I could have eaten double what I did and I would still feel that it wasn’t enough. I had sweet coconut water still in its husk, vendors hacking at it to crack the shell and insert my straw, then scraping out all the tender meat for me to eat with my fingers. I had deep fried sweet things at Chatuchak Market that look too tempting to even ask what they were (banana fritters I think I was told…but I would have tried it no matter what it was). Outdoor hawkers at the Suan Lum Night Bazaar served a dizzying array of dishes…each one looking better than the next (not that I was in any way daunted oh no not me), the perfect re-charge after a night of shopping. C had grilled chicken and I had som tam, a spicy green papaya salad that I am now seriously, irrevocably addicted to, and we shared a plate of phad thai (stir-fried noodles). We had grilled chicken and pork on sticks in between the ruins of Ayutthaya (more on that later)…the hunger-inducing smell reeling us in. Hot of the grill, they were incredibly juicy and soft and so tasty. We ate them standing in the grill-smoke, oil and juices dripping down our chins. At one such stall the meat suspiciously did not taste like chicken (although they told me it was)…did I care? Not me! It tasted even better than chicken! Bring it on I say!
I have divided my Bangkok eating highlights into two posts to avoid getting long-winded (although I fear it is much too late for that). I meant to have it all in one post before I realized exactly how much I could just go ON and ON about this cuisine that obviously has me on a leash. I’ll be posting about the sights and such too…temples, shopping, Thai massage and more! Stay tuned! :)
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
I was a happy girl this weekend. Despite last week having more than its fair share of stress, and this week shaping up to be just as hectic (with a big important meeting coming up!), and C being away (to watch FC Barca play in Hong Kong), the weekend was a wonderful interlude from everything.
Friday night was spent with my favorite girl, my icon, my mom. Yes, I am one of those girls who has lived her life in wonder, fear, and abject adoration of mother. This is a state that can never be outgrown…nor would I want to. We had a fabulous dinner at our favorite French restaurant, splitting a bottle of white wine and lots of gossip between us. Then we went back to my old home where we had a mini-slumber party with Moe, her poodle :)
I spent Saturday and Sunday with a very good friend (known as Christine, but Nena to me). We spent most of the day at the Pink Kitchen – a terrific food festival organized by I Can Serve (a breast cancer advocacy group) to raise breast cancer awareness. Many popular local chefs gathered under one roof, whipping up old and new favorites, all for a good cause! It was fun and we were stuffed silly, staying on for hours chatting and sampling all the delicious treats on offer. We liked it so much we returned the next day for more!
Nena also introduced me to Genmaicha – green tea combined with roasted brown rice. I already love the taste of green tea…and the nutty flavor of the roasted rice adds a deep and earthy dimension to it, even if it was originally used only as a filler (way back when) to reduce the price of the tea. After she saw how much I liked it she kindly offered to get a box for me when she passed by the Japanese grocery.
And speaking of green tea, C arrived back home on Sunday bearing the matcha (green tea powder) I have been wanting! Yay! Now I can finally make all those lovely looking matcha sweets and desserts I have been seeing everywhere! Hmmm…I wonder where I should start…Any suggestions? :)
C also brought back a canister of Café Siam Thai herb tea. It’s a favorite among all my aunts and uncles who have lived in Hong Kong. It’s the café’s own blend of such goodies as lemongrass, bael fruit, lemon leaf, galangal, orange peel, and cha-em. The scent is out of this world. And the infusion it makes is absolutely magical.
Thank you C and Nens! Now I have a good stock of tea to fortify me this week :)
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
I want to go to Thailand. Sometimes it seems that practically all my friends have already visited this very famous tourist-destination-neighbor of ours (one very good friend just got back). In fact, a lot of them are already off to less visited places around our little Asian block, while I have not even seen the major go-to points…places that are in my own backyard! Criminy.
They say people take for granted that which is familiar…and I suppose I am guilty. All my life I dreamed of far-off destinations, when some of the most exotic where right beside me (instead of a debilitating 18+ hour flight away), not to mention all the incredibly amazing places to visit right here (but that’s a whole other story)!
Ah Thailand! What secrets have you shared with everyone but me? When I go, will you be weary of visitors and have no gusto left for a latecomer? Will the cuisine I have heard so much about, whose flavor is incomparable to any of its replications in other countries, still lash out with the same power and heat to slay me? Will all your goodies still be as reasonably-priced? Wait for me Thailand!
Sigh...one day. Meanwhile, I pacify myself with homemade Thai curry.
I love Thai food (another reason I am itching to go!) but I have never really thought of making it at home. Until I saw these recipes on Rice and Noodles…Mae’s fabulous site of which I am a big fan. I combined some of her recipes, along with some others from my own cookbooks and this is what I came up with.
Thai Green Curry with Tilapia
(adapted from Mae’s recipes)
- 300 grams tilapia fillets
- 1 cup coco evap (Nestle coconut evaporated milk)
- 1 cup water
- One 50-gram package green curry paste (about 2-3 tablespoons)
- 2 stalks of lemongrass (sliced 1 inch diagonally, crushed)
- 1/3 cup dried kaffir lime leaves (not packed)
- One onion, sliced
- 2 slices dried galangal
- 3 pieces calamansi (one for the curry and two for the fish)
- ¼ cup of dried holy basil
- 1 teaspoon fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- Squeeze calamansi on the tilapia and set aside.
- Heat the oil in a pot on medium heat.
- Fry the onions, lemongrass, and galangal until onions are soft.
- Add the curry paste and kaffir lime leaves and sauté a bit.
- Add the coco evap and water. Let simmer until flavors develop, about 20 minutes. Add fish sauce and calamansi/lime to taste.
- While the sauce is simmering, add the tilapia fillets. Stir (carefully! take care not to crush the fillets), cover, and let simmer for about 10 minutes.
- Add the holy basil and stir (carefully!). Simmer a bit more then take off the heat.
The curry came out much better than I expected. I thought my first attempt at Thai cooking at home might not capture the full flavors that I expect of Thai food…plus I was using a lot of dried/not fresh ingredients. Well, I was pleasantly surprised that all those Thai flavors did come forward, without overpowering one another! It should still be tweaked to your taste though, depending on how spicy you like it. The tilapia fillets worked really well with this. They were just the right amount of tender and held the flavors perfectly.
I used dried kaffir lime leaves and dried galangal which I found in Spices 'n Flavours. This was before I found out that you can get fresh kaffir lime leaves, galangal, and holy/Thai basil from Gil Carandang's Herbana Farms stall at the Salcedo Saturday Market. I have, since then, also found fresh galangal at Rustans Supermarket. My good friend who just came back from Thailand brought me back some kaffir lime leaves as well…in a very spiffy-looking blue tin! Thank you Gypsysoul! I will be using these next :)
I have yet to try Thai dishes in Thailand, which I am told is one of life’s amazing food experiences. Until then I have this...thanks Mae for always inspiring!
To try next time:
- Using fresh kaffir lime leaves/galangal/holy basil
- Adding fresh cilantro at the last minute
- Using real lime instead of calamansi (first I have to find some)
- Substitute the tilapia with prawns or chicken
- Adding a vegetable like kangkong or spinach or eggplant