April 14, 2007

Still nibbling on that Big Mango

catfish salad vendor

To truly appreciate and embrace the vibrant Thai culture, you have to take the time to know and understand the food because it is central to the Thai identity. And though Thai cuisine has been influenced somewhat by neighboring countries such as India and China, it still retains much of it's own unique and distinct flavors. But the most important thing I learned about Thai cuisine is this: the exclusive use of fresh ingredients. Everything is made fresh, including curry pastes which don't contain any curry powder or other dried and ground spices. And by far the best and most affordable place to sample such cuisine is out on the streets. A short stroll down a soi (side street) can yield some of the most exquisite culinary discoveries.

ma-phrao juice off the streets

Take the ma-phrao for example. This small coconut with it's sweet and refreshing juice is found in abundance on the streets for just about 10 Baht (or $ 0.30). They were just the thing for our parched mouths. Though similar to our own buko juice in the Philippines, it has a much nuttier taste and is somewhat sweeter. It was heaven in a husk. I especially enjoyed scraping the succulent flesh with my straw, yup my straw - the flesh was that soft.

thom khaa kai

It's not unusual to see carts on the sidewalk not only serving every item from the Thai kitchen, but also cooking it right there in big woks or pots. Nor is it unusual to see luxury cars vying for space with tuktuks in front of these portable al fresco eateries. Some of the best street food can be found at the markets such as the Suan Lum night bazaar where I ordered a bowl of thom khaa kai (or tom ka gai - chicken coconut soup) with steamed rice. Those who cannot take the heat of the tom yam kung can opt for this milder version. The chili factor is slightly muted by the coconut milk making it more palatable for sensitive tastebuds. I love both soups and when at a Thai restaurant, I like to alternate between the two.

I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record here, but I can't stress enough how hot Bangkok is this time of year! And brave as we tried to be soldiering on in this sticky climate, we longed for the comfort of airconditioning. And when longing turned into desperation we went to the mall. There is no shortage of malls in Bangkok. The only attraction these malls had to me were the food courts where street food could be had at sidewalk prices but in airconditioned comfort.

I've heard varying opinions on which mall has the best food court but because we were already there during the lunch hour, we ate at the MBK Food Centre . Here, they employ a coupon system like in the Suan Lum night bazaar. You exchange your money for coupons and whatever is not used may be redeemed later. Usually 150 Baht ($ 4) is enough for a substantial meal, drink and dessert. There are some stalls though that only accept cash like the one we bought our catfish salad from.

So there I was clutching my coupons. I was good to go but I didn't know where to start. The place was already abuzz with hungry shoppers and the sound of food cooking. Usually the rule of thumb is to go where there is a crowd, preferably a crowd of locals. That didn't work this time though because it was fairly late and most of the diners were already at their tables chomping away. So I turned left and went from stall to stall surveying my options until I made a full circle.

crispy noodles with chicken and gravy

Eventually, I settled for 'crispy noodles with chicken and gravy' as my main. Ok, so it's not exactly Thai but the smells wafting from behind this counter reeled me in. What can I say? I'm a sucker for crispy noodles with MSG heavy sauce. My decision had nothing whatsoever to do with the cute tanned guy with the nice tush and strong-looking hands who was ordering from the same stall and speaking to the vendor in pure Thai (swoon). Nothing at all. This might have been the best decision I made all week, it was great!

the flaming hot catfish salad

My friend and I shared a side of the spiciest catfish salad I've ever had in my life. Look at those chilies! After the initial jolt of heat though, all the elements of the salad came together and it turned out to be very good. I really love this dish, this is one of those things I could probably have everyday without getting tired of it.

khanom buang, crispy pancakes

So this is where I tell you about my favorite foodie discovery in Bangkok - the khanom buang or crispy pancakes. I didn't do the actual discovering of it, my friend did. At first I thought they were tacos and waved them off, full as I was after wiping my noodle plate clean. I was surprised when she told me they were actually sweet and not savory. I took a bite and fell in-love. Where has this been all my life?!

What it is, is a thin wafer-like sheet (similar to our barquillos back home) made with rice flour and topped with a thin sheen of coconut cream, what seemed like palm sugar or panucha and toasted shredded coconut. The yellow strips you see on the pancake on the left of the photo are sweet egg yolk strips which I later learned are called 'golden threads' and are usually made from duck egg yolks. I can't remember much now, 'twas a delicious crunchy-chewy blur! Does anyone know where we can get these here in Manila? Or know how to make them at home?

guava with chili salt, when you need a break from the plum powder

If you like the taste of lemongrass and pandan even half as much as I do, you have to get yourself a chilled bottle or two of Soontra when you're in Bangkok. It's the bomb!

I found this at the Sky Train station and it was just what I needed after 3 hours in the Chatuchak market. Now I'm gonna buy me some lemongrass and pandan leaves and try to recreate it.


Watergirl said...

yay! food post! and you had some of my favorite things like guava in chilli salt/sugar mix, catfish salad and those rolls, glad you found the spelling, I kept calling them the thai tacos (although thakos or however they spell it is a different dessert).

Of course a cute man with a cute tush is reason enough to go to the stall. Right choice Nena!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I can feel the heat, and the chili peppers, jumping right off my screen! As always, your travelogues make me hungry for adventure.

Anonymous said...

Oh, how I envy you, Christine! I've never been to Bangkok and it's absolutely insane as my parents keep raving about it. Your food pics and commentary were so vivid, though; it was almost like being there myself.

As for the khanom buang, I am not sure if you've ever seen the Sweetest Taboo dessert stall in Greenhills. They make these crisp Indonesian treats called mertabak where pancakes are stuffed with various sweet fillings. I am not sure if the effect is the same as for khanom buang, but it's probably worth a shot.

Oh, and cute men with cute tushies are always a nice reason for dropping into a stall. ;)

christine said...

Mila, I rushed to search about it online when I got back to Manila! I had to find out what it was and where I might be able to get it again. So good no?

Hi Lydia! Oh gosh, the heat, both from the food and the climate! It can do crazy things to you! :)

Midge, you're the best! That definitely sounds worth a try. Where exactly in Greenhills? Thanks so much! :)

Anonymous said...

The words "crispy" and "pancake" in one dish? I am so looking for khanom buang! I've seen the Sweetest Taboo stall, though haven't tried. I remember passing it and being immediately attracted to the pictures...the owners knew how to catch a dessert fan's eye! I think it's on the outside of Virra Mall, on the same side of Gloria Maris.

christine said...

I forgot to add: I knew you girls would understand the lure of a fine hiney! ;)

Anonymous said...

Hi, here via Bookworm in the Pantry! The egg strips in the khanom buang sounded familiar, especially once I saw how thin they were in the picture.

I found the recipe I was thinking of in The Elephant Walk Cookbook (the Elephant Walk is a Cambodian-French restaurant in Boston), or at least a close variation of it - Cambodians call the egg strips "vawee," or "angel hair." It's served fairly simply, by itself on a plate with candied fruit, though it's considered a very fancy sort of pastry, made only by "women who had once lived in the Royal Palace." They also note that it came over from Thailand, who got it from royal Khmer.

Recipe summary: Separate a dozen eggs, and store the whites for another use; you only need the yolks for this recipe. Do not beat the yolks; you will be sifting them shortly.

Bring six cups of water to a boil in a large saucepan, then add two cups of sugar and stir only to dissolve. Let it return to a boil, then turn the heat down to low in order to simmer until it thickens a little.

While this simmers, using a spoon, press each yolk gently through a very fine-mesh strainer over a second bowl. The motion is basically a sort of "rubbing" one, since the yolk will be resistant to going through such small spaces.

Once the yolks have been pressed, add 1 tsp vanilla extract to the yolks, and stir.

For the next step, you need a funnel with as small an opening as you can find. Covering the bottom hole of the funnel with your finger, pour some of the yolk mixture into the funnel. Then, moving in circular motions above the pot of sugar syrup, take your finger away from the hole, and let the egg mixture stream into the water, making circular trails. When all the egg mixture in the funnel has streamed out, set the funnel aside, and press down on the yolk strands so that they go below the surface of the sugar water and cook. Then use the fork to gather the strands into a hank, pull them out of the water, and place on a plate to cool. The cooking process should take no more than 30 seconds. Repeat until all the egg mixture has been used up, then serve like a plate of pasta, topped with candied fruit.

I've tried it twice, and I think I still need a smaller funnel - mine don't come out as uniform as I think they should - and more practice!

Anonymous said...

I love those crispy pancakes too! Gaah, they're reason enough to go back to Bangkok (that and all the cute men *dreamy sigh*)

I have to get out of your blog...the pictures are making me so hungry.

Anyway, great meeting you last Friday! :D

christine said...

Lynne, thank you SO much for this! That is so kind of you. :) The whole process sounds like so much fun, almost like an art project. I don't know if I'll succeed at making decent strings of egg yolk, but now I'd love to try! Will have to look for a thin funnel first. Again, thank you very much! :)

Hi Nina! It was great to finally meet you too! And to share that Sonja moment as our nightcap haha. See you soon I hope! :)

Sidney said...

Yummy, yummy, yummy...

Anonymous said...

Good god! I was going from dish to dish, getting hungrier and hungrier, every dish sounding better than the last...and then I come to that sweet crispy pancake thing...oof! Everything sounds so so incredibly good! :)

And if good food wasn't enough...you topped it all of with a cute guy with a nice tush...perfect! :)

Unknown said...

wow, all that looks crazy good!

christine said...

Sidney, everything was yummy! I would LOVE to see you do a street food series for Bangkok like you did for Manila. :)

Jo, we didn't have a bad meal, even the food on the lunch cruise was pretty good and had the mango with sticky rice for dessert, Yum! I can't wait for you to go and eat to your hearts content over there! :)

Hi Garrett, so good to see you. I've been remiss at blog hopping lately what with Easter holidays and catching up on work. But I'll be coming over soon. You would have loved all this food too!

Reesh said...

The thai version of the buko juice "ma-phrao" is different from what we have here because of one thing ... thai's boil their coconuts. Yes, even if they taste refreshing, they're actually not fresh ... but just as good. After "peeling" off the husk until the hard center shell is left. They then boil them in big couldrons - shell and all. Hence the super soft coconut meat and the extra sweet coconut juice. Then submerge them into styrofoam boxes full of ice to make them cold. I wish our buko vendors here can do the same. Yummy!

christine said...

Reesh, thank you so much for that interesting bit of info! Now we don't have to wonder any more why it tastes so different. :) See this is one of the reasons I love blogging, it gives us the ability to learn from one another.