Friday, 24 May 2019

Thai hot

So hey, we’ve been away and now we’re back and I’m super excited to write up all the things we have eaten and drunk over the last month sleep. Of course I (half) jest. As much as I love sleep, I do also want to record some of the culinary highlights of our trip. If only to be able to point my wife to them as a reminder in a couple of weeks when she has somehow contrived to pretty much forget everything we have just done. She can tell you multiple facts about marsupials and the new Spurs stadium, so I’m guessing it’s just spending time with me that she finds unmemorable.

Anyway, we kicked things off with five days in Bangkok, a city we had both visited, but never together. Although with my last visit being as a green teenager, in my knock-off Ralph Lauren Polo shirt and treasured Wayfarers (still a strong look I like to rock, nothing much changes), I was very excited to see how the city had changed. In particular I was excited to enjoy some of its legendary street food, still reputed by many to be the best in the world, as well as adding to my foreign crisp collection. Possibly the highlight of any trip abroad.

Our first stop, after a quick wash and brush up at the hotel, was Boat Noodle Alley, so named as they were served from canoes that traversed the cities waterways to customers on the shore. They are now, more prosaically, mostly served from dry land all across Bangkok but are particularly associated with a stretch of restaurants just north of the Victory Monument.

In keeping with tradition they are still thickened with pig or beef blood and served in the tiny bowls, which originally stopped the precious cargo spilling in the water as they were handed across to the customer from the boat.

You can also chose from a variety of noodles to have with your broth; including thin or thick rice noodles and egg noodles; other common ingredients in boat noodles are garlic, fried garlic, radish, cinnamon, bean sprouts, parsley, morning glory, and chilli and they are often topped with crackling or fried wontons for crunch.

After choosing our restaurant - the first one we got to as you cross the bridge, we were tired and needed feeding - we ordered all the noodles, including both beef and pork versions and yen ta fo, a sweeter, pink broth with wide rice noodles and bean curd.

These ended up being my favourites, alongside a version listed as 'tom yum', with egg noodles and barbecue pork, although all were stellar, with the blood being a lot more subtle than I expected. We finished with traditional ceramic dishes of coconut pudding, which the Ewing enjoyed more than I did, although I was struggling after eight bowls of boat noodles.

The following morning we took a river boat to visit Wat Arun, the temple of the dawn, but before hand we dealt with the important question of the day; what we were going to eat for lunch, with a visit to the Wang Lang food market.

While there was a multitude of food carts, selling all sorts of fascinating, and often unidentifiable, ingredients, we ended up at the restaurant above, I have absolutely no idea what it's called in English, lured in by the display of seafood and smell of grilling pork.

As you can see we didn't skimp on the ordering, ordering a range of dishes including deep-fried crab omelette, sticky rice flavoured and coloured with pea flower, frozen watermelon smoothies, and no less that three different types of som tam/som tam-related salads.

Traditionally made with unripe shredded green papaya, it can also feature various other unripe veg, including mangoes, apples, cucumbers, carrots, and, like many dishes of the region, balances sour, hot, salt, and sweet. Often served with sticky rice, grilled chicken or pork crackling, it's a wondrous combination of textures and tastes.

Of the three versions we tried - with grilled pork neck; three types of shrimp; and sausage and peanuts - I think the latter just about edged it. More like a kind of Spam, the chunks of soft sausage mixed perfectly with the crunchy nuts and occasional bursts of searing heat from the birds eye chilli, all doused in lime juice and fish sauce.

My views on foreign McDonald's are well documented but, for the uninitiated, I'm very for them. Especially when you've just arrived somewhere/are drunk. I'm especially in to unique menu items or individual quirks, as can be seen here by Ronald McDonald (and my wife, on the right) adopting the wai, or Thai bow.

The item I was both excited and dubious to try was the Mcfried chicken, their version of classic fried chook. How would it stand up to perfection of the mighty Colonel? In the end it exceeded all expectations, with it's beautifully brittle and grease-less carapace, keeping the chicken juicy within, and a hint of chilli heat. In fact, it was reminiscent of the spicy crumb coating on a KFC hot wing and all the better for it.

The samurai pork burger - featuring teriyaki sauce, lettuce, tomato, onions, and mayo - has become a bit of a cult item since being introduced. It was pretty good, being rather McRib-esque (from memory, it’s been several years since I’ve had the pleasure), although I thought the meat to bun ratio was a little off and could have done with being a double, or a quarter pound patty.

Thai Maccy’ d’s are also known for their fried pies – corn, pineapple and a changing, usually savoury, version such as Thai green curry. Known as the ‘crispy & delicious’ pie. Both of the ones I tried were far better than expected - corn mixed with a kind of vanilla-y custard doesn’t sound like much of a winner, but trust me on this, and the pineapple was both sweet and tart. Even the Ewing, who initially eschewed them, agreed with my assessment after being persuaded to try a bite.

Our first trip to visit Pe Aor for tom kung noodles was thwarted when they were closed for Songkran (heralding the start of the Thai New Year) celebrations. Sad as that was I did find this guy selling what I thought were prayer beads from his hand cart. Further scrutiny showed they were strings of small round sausages, grilled over charcoal flame to order. I think I’ve found my new religion.

Looking for somewhere else for dinner, we chanced upon Phayai Thai, on the same street, a casual, but highly acclaimed Thai Halal restaurant - this is an area densely populated with Thai Muslims, and there are several other halal street food vendors and restaurants in the area – although, from looking at the menu, most of the usual suspects were there. The only thing I really missed was an ice cold beer to wash it down.

One must order, following my pattern of picking the weirdest sounding things on the menu, were the chicken knees. Although the waitress gestured towards her elbows when we ordered them.... Whatever they actually were, the 'knees' were like nothing I've had before. Little nubbins of gristly stuff, covered in batter and deep fried before being doused in sesame seeds and sweet chilli sauce. Strangely addictive, we both polished these off stat.

Even better was the beef larb. Possibly my favourite of all Thai/Lao dishes, larb is a 'meat salad' made from minced meat or fish mixed with fish sauce, lime juice, roasted ground rice, chilli, onion and fresh herbs and served here with raw cabbage and green beans. Clean and light and delicious, although my palate, rapidly acclimatising to the heat, was missing a hit of chilli.

We also enjoyed a simple, but excellent som tam, and this gargantuan sea bass, steamed and served with a fresh and punchy lime and chilli spiked broth. The Ewing was in her element carefully stripping the perfectly poached flesh from the bones and eating with sticky rice and a thicket of fresh herbs. This was a meal for two in it's own right and, offhand, I think it cost about 300 Baht, or about £7.50.

In a town with so many fun, cheap and casual places to eat, not to mention all the food vendors on every street corner, it almost seemed a shame to spend a night in a fancier restaurant. But Thai Niyom came highly recommended by several people, as well as the Michelin Guide, and so we scrubbed up for our most refined meal of the trip.

Luckily refined doesn't mean lacking in flavour, although if something comes with a chilli heat warning in Thailand, sensible folk should probably heed it. As we know, being sensible isn't anything I'm often accused of and the idea of 'stir fried pork with Chanatburi chilli paste - only for the brave', was too intriguing/challenging to pass up.

Yes, it was undoubtedly hot. So hot it turned the Ewing a little hysterical with maniacal laughter when the waitress appeared to ask if everything was ok; as a mixture of tears and beads of sweat rolled down her cheeks. What I found most interesting, however, was the flavour of the chilli paste which was reminiscent of a Caribbean style jerk pork marinade. 

I know there are many naysayers who doubt you can taste flavours in  very spicy food, but this wasn't just a blast of heat. Layers of flavour, including black pepper and kaffir lime leaves, went toe to toe with huge amounts of smoky chillies.

The rest of the meal was similarly flavour-packed, from the smoked coconut iced teas we started with to the cojitos (mojitos made with coconut water) we ended on. Particularly recommended is the Chang Mai combo - a platter of deep fried pork belly, cracklings, fermented sausage, fresh vegetables and green and red relishes for dipping.

We also enjoyed a generous dish of crab fried rice with spring onions, southern style sour yellow curry with sea bass and pickled bamboo shoots; the morning glory with fermented shrimp paste and a pudding of my favourite sticky rice and mango with salted coconut milk.

For our last evening we headed to Chinatown, where the in-your-face smells and sights and sounds of 'old' Bangkok can still be felt. It's really a wondrous place, and a must visit, especially as it gets dark and hundreds of vendors pour onto the streets, with their mobile food carts and fold out tables and chairs, and start frying and grilling and chopping and juicing to create the most delicious dishes .

Two of the most famous stands is T & K Seafood, on the corner of the busy Yarowat Road. Here you sit on plastic chairs at shared trestle tables, while a swarm of hard-working waiters in their distinctive green polo shirts, buzz about serving some of the best fish and seafood in the city.

We started with a deep fried thai-style omelette, stuffed with crab meat, chilli and chives, and served with more chilli sauce; accompanied by ice cold Singha beer. Anyone that regularly reads this blog (hi Mummy P), will know of my ouef-aversion, but I have been slowly easing my self back in over the last few years. This, with it's crispy edges, chunks of sweet seafood and salty, spicy sauce, was doing things to me. Very good things.

We split a portion of smoky, grilled banana shrimp, that had been butterflied and cooked on open coals and served with fresh and fiery red and green chilli sauces. I also ordered the fish cakes (or first of the trip) which the Ewing maintained she didn't like, but then proceeded to happily wolf down when they arrived. I'm a big fan of a bouncy, well-spiced fish cake, and these were excellent dipped in a dish of classic sweet chilli sauce.

The yellow curry with squid was impeccable; rich coconut sauce, with subtle spicing, stuffed full of and tender chunks of cephalopod and one the very best things we ate on our trip. Alongside was simple sticky jasmine rice and more stir fired morning glory, our go to veg on this visit, with funky fermented shrimp and red chilli.

As wonderful (and reasonable) as the food was, the real highlight was the view from our table; listening to the throaty roar of mopeds and tuk tuks and the general hustle and bustle as Chinatown sprung into life, all while enjoying a stunning sunset over this wonderful corner of town.

My absolutely favourite Thai dessert, in fact one of my favourites full stop, is thai sticky rice, served warm and topped with fresh mango and slightly salted coconut milk Even better, we timed our visit with peak mango season, which are the summer months of April and May in Thailand.

In honesty, this was probably my least favourite of all three mango sticky rice I tried on our fleeting visit, but only because the mango was perfectly ripe, as you can see from the glowing orange colour, when I prefer my fruit a little greener. Whatever, I would happily eat this forever and ever and it remains one of my very favourite puddings.

Our second attempt to visit Pe Aor, on a final morning in town, worked out perfectly as it was a short stroll from the hotel (well, according to Google Maps, the reality was a mile in brutal sunshine, in the heat of the day. Mad dogs and Englishmen).

Of course what you really want after a sweaty schlep is a nice refreshing beverage or, if you’re my wife, several. While I’m almost certain I’ve regaled everyone with this story many times before, one of my most enduring memories is when we first started to go out and went to a Mexican restaurant for dinner, where she proceeded to order no less than three drinks. Not one after each other, which would have seemed far more moderate, but all at once, just as we arrived.

Some things never change, although this time she stuck at two and, as her habits have obviously rubbed off over the intervening decade, I ordered a brace too.  Between us we enjoyed the classic Thai iced tea - a fantastically refreshing drink - sweet, milky and a little bitter, coloured a glorious orange shade from tamarind – strong, sweet iced coffee; fresh sugar cane juice; and bael, or wood apple juice. Which was fun to try, but very sweet.

She also ordered a starter of crab spring rolls, long thin cigarillos of crustacean wrapped in a very light filo style pastry. I was unfussed by these at first, but happily tucked in when I realised the filling in each one comprised of a whole crab leg.

As good as these were, we were here for the main act, the tom yum kung nodle soup that can be ordered with a variety of different seafood accoutrements, including a massive sharing bowl stuffed full of lobster, white fish and mussels.

We went with the classic river prawns, with an extra order of river prawns on the side, plus squid for me and an egg for the Ewing. The sweet seafood complimented the rich and slightly sour soup, enriched even further by the the addition of shrimp head oil. Simply outstanding and a bowl can be yours for about two quid.

We hadn’t eaten a single ice cream during our whole trip, something that seemed a little remiss due to the fact the weather was sweltering and we were on holiday. Is there a better combination of factors? As if in answer to our prayers we happened upon a vendor on our way back to catch the sky train to the airport. Just a guy with a small cart selling a single flavour, coconut, with the option of adding condensed milk and peanuts (yes to both), and absolutely perfect.

The heavens aligned even further with the Insta-worthy backdrop of Thai flags that I took a picture against. Of course the reality didn’t show the Ewing and I bickering over who’s turn it was to have a bite (sharing is caring) before it liquefied in the intense heat, all while lugging our heavy bags behind us. Oh the glamour of being an international jet-setter. Next stop Down Under.