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I was quite excited to see the Masterchef finalists go to Thailand the other week. Obviously, this was mostly so that I could feel superior to their bungling attempts to make somtam, since the Chiang Mai market cooking challenge was one of the few I could reasonably imagine doing well on. For foreign readers who have not experienced the pleasure of watching Greg and John shout at hapless cooks, I should explain that many of their challenges involve cooking buckets of sponge pudding for soldiers or making high-end dinners for picky aristocrats. Even though some of my favourite past contestants have focused on Thai or Japanese food, the show does tend to emphasise knowledge of ‘honest’ aka British cuisine. Watching them battling with khao soi in Chiang Mai was a rare moment of ‘hey, I can make that!’.

Even better, though, was their trip into the mountains of Northern Thailand, where the food they cooked looked really delicious. One dish began with fermented fish in a curry paste – although I don’t have fermented fish to hand, I really liked the idea of a curry with fish as a base flavour rather than as a main ingredient. I loved the Northern-style curries we ate in Chiang Mai so the episode prompted me to experiment. What I came up with was a properly spicy vegetable curry infused with the umami richness of smoked fish and fermented soy. The recipe is pretty flexible: you could add meat or reduce the chilies. But it is meant to be spicy rather than sweet so don’t hold back too much…

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I was having a late afternoon tea with the lovely V today (vegan chocolate cake for her and pita with babaganoush for me, the non-sweet toothed party) when she mentioned she’s planning a trip to Barcelona by train. I love overnight train journeys and our conversation reminded me of the fantastic leg of our Thailand trip from Chiang Mai to Bangkok by train.

I’m already well-disposed to sleeper trains: the whole thing evokes either the romance of private cabins (think North by Northwest) or the communal fun of berths with curtains (Some Like it Hot). This journey was more along the Some Like it Hot lines and it was completely splendid. First of all, Thai trains are simultaneously old-fashioned and wonderful. The ceiling fans might or might not work and you’ll be lucky to have a/c but everything is comfortable and passengers are incredibly well looked after. Someone cleaned the floor at least three times during our journey and staff pass up and down the aisles constantly selling drinks. But the best part was when they made our beds for us. When you signalled a desire to sleep, someone would appear and, Transformers-style, turn your four-seater table set up into cosy bunk beds with curtains. I don’t know how they did it, it was so fast. The table was folded into the floor. A mattress came out of the wall. Linens appeared from nowhere. It was awesome.

But before we went to bed, there was dinner to consider. I actually think the food on the Thai rail system was some of the best I ate, possibly because it wasn’t aimed at tourists. We did have to combat the farang menu situation – the Thai and English language menus were different, naturally – but once we got the Thai menu translated, we picked from a simple selection of curries and stir fries. I ordered something like pad krapow with chicken and it was so good. It’s hard to imagine that something in a little airline food tray could ever be good, much less something you order on a train. (British train food makes me shudder.) But it was.

It was full of green peppercorns, crunchy long beans and Thai basil, and it came with a side dish of chopped chilies in fish sauce and vinegar. I know it looks a bit oily but it was a nice slick of good chili oil, and the overall effect wasn’t at all fatty.

Sadly, some of my travel companions really couldn’t tolerate any level of spiciness and I ended up eating some of their food too. (Sadly for them, but obviously I was completely happy to be trying more dishes.) I think I had the best night’s sleep of the whole trip on that train. The rhythm and sound of its repetitive movements, plus the delicious food and cosy berths must have lulled me into a state of complete relaxation. Hmm, perhaps time to think about some more train-based travel..

Bangkok is a pretty bustling city already so Bangkok Chinatown was always going to be a bit madcap. We took the regular bus-type boat down the river and emerged into a shopping street that ‘bustling’ doesn’t even begin to describe. Holy hell, I have never seen anything so crowded and claustrophobic in all my life! I don’t actually have any photos of the experience because there was no real way to take meaningful photographs. We were squashed up like the mosh pit of a Morrissey gig, but with only cheap consumer goods as our objects of lust. We just shuffled along with the rhythms of the heaving crowd for what felt like miles till we found a cross-street and then legged it out of there. This picture below is of a relatively quiet, relaxed and empty thoroughfare…

But for all its insanity, I really enjoyed Bangkok Chinatown. The Chinese lanterns were pretty and there was a different energy to the place than the rest of the city. Also fascinating were the proximities of other immigrant communities: walk west a couple of blocks and you’re among sari stores, pan sellers and samosa stalls. Walk north and you’re in an older Chinatown full of mildly decrepit shophouses selling all manner of knick-knacks.

Naturally, I was partly there for the food and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, my first sensation was being overwhelmed by choice: every corner had maybe five or six food stalls and I was anxious about how much I’d miss, no matter what I chose to eat. I started off with some green sugary coconut things that I wasn’t a huge fan of. I love pandan but whatever I bought tasted mostly of sugar. Mr Lemur enjoyed it more than me as he has a South American sweet tooth. Once in the real market area, I found more to my savoury tastes, but what really piqued my interest were these odd dumpling displays.

The dumplings themselves are not odd – they’re the kind of flat, rice flour dumplings that are often filled with slightly bitter Chinese greens and I love them. But these enormous displays of dumpling architecture built around the edges of vast drums reminded me of nothing more than something from the nest of Ridley Scott’s Alien. I think it’s the gelatinous, sticky consistency of the dough, which is so appealing in the mouth, but becomes a bit abject en masse like this. I expected something to emerge from the bottom of the pile and bite me. Plus, the perfect tiling of the wall doesn’t give me the impression that these dumplings are being cooked and served quickly…it was a hot day and the alien dumpling nest looked, well, dank. I ate one and lived to tell the tale, but I was slightly concerned about food safety here, I have to admit.

To recover from the freaky Alien dumplings we stopped off in Hong Kong Noodles cafe for some dim sum. This wasn’t the best dim sum I’ve ever had in my life but it was perfectly serviceable and one shrimp dumpling with chili sauce was amazing. Siu mai and har gow were fine with good fresh seafood and it was mostly good to find a place to sit down after all the crazy crowds.

The only thing I really couldn’t bring myself to try was these little Asian ‘tacos’ that they sell at lots of food stands. I know they’re not tacos and I am willing to bet that they’re delicious. But the filling just looks SO MUCH like nasty American orange cheese and sour cream that they put me right off.

Last weekend, I finally caught up with Thrifty Gal and got to try out my tua nao, or fermented soy bean pods. Thrifty Gal is a vegetarian who never eats Southeast Asian food in restaurants because she also has a nut allergy and it all just seems too Russian Roulette-ish. Of course, I delight in making Asian food that won’t kill her, and I was especially excited because I’d discovered in Chiang Mai a vegetarian alternative to shrimp paste. Southeast Asian food is tricky for vegetarian cooking because fish sauce and shrimp paste aren’t ingredients but foundational flavours, imparting salt and umami to dishes. You can salt with soy sauce or plain old sodium chloride, but rich umami sensations are a bit harder to achieve. Fermented fish and shrimp are basic to Thai cooking and I’ve read that poor families sometimes eat little but rice and fermented fish in the leaner months: you can’t just omit flavours this essential to a cuisine. But in the Shan market in Chiang Mai, Naomi showed me tua nao, flat dry disks of fermented soybeans which do the same job in Northern Thai and Burmese cuisines. Perhaps because these regions are further from the sea, they developed a soy-based means of creating deeply savoury notes. Read the rest of this entry »

One of the many bits and bobs I brought home from Thailand was a jar of nam prik pow. Or at least, I think that’s what it is. At one of Chiang Mai’s night markets, I came across a stall selling candied fruits and savoury things in jars. Obviously, I couldn’t actually read any of the labels but I was drawn to a particular set of little plastic pots. The stallholder opened some of them for me and it was clear they were variants of chili and shrimp pastes. I bought two – one an almost black, deeply fishy scented tar with a musty kick, the other a rich jewelled red colour with a lighter garlic, chili and fish sauce smell. They’re obviously mass produced, but they taste a good deal better than any of the jarred nam prik pow you can buy over here. I’ve been dying to try them out. (If anyone reads Thai, I’d love to know what it actually says…)

Unfortunately, my original plan for a variant on yam som-oh went awry at the shops, where basically nothing I wanted to purchase was available. No coconut milk, no grapefruit, etc. I think I went into a bit of a panic because I came home with a completely random Ready Steady Cook style bag of ingredients. Rump steak, portabella mushrooms, spring greens and red peppers? Er, ok. My local greengrocer (i.e. the Mean Polish Store) doesn’t exactly carry a wide range of Asian vegetables but still, I have no idea where those mushrooms came from. That being said, I ended up with a rather nice dish – lots of wok-fried greens and thinly-sliced beef with the roasty hot garlicky flavour of nam prik pow seared onto them.

To make this dish vegetarian, obviously it’s easy enough to omit the beef and just use greens and mushrooms. Likewise, soy sauce can sub for fish sauce in the usual way (use a bit less and dilute more with water as I find soy a bit saltier). More challenging is the nam prik pow but you can buy veggie nam prik pow in many Asian markets. It’s worth seeking out, or indeed making your own, as the stuff’s a wonder to have in the fridge.

Spicy Thai beef and greens

  • 1 small rump steak
  • 1 head of spring greens
  • 2 portabella mushrooms
  • 1 red pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3 long Thai red chilies
  • 1 tbsp nam prik pow (or to taste)
  • 1/4 cup measure, half filled with fish sauce and half warm water
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • 1 lime

To prepare, slice the meat very thinly, cut the mushrooms and pepper into rather less thin slices, and also slice the greens. Finely chop the garlic and chilies. Get the wok good and hot before adding a glug of oil, then add mushrooms. When they’ve coloured, add garlic and chilies.

Next add the greens and the pepper. Of course, the key thing in wok frying is not adding too much volume. Greens seem pretty volumetastic at first but then cook down pretty fast. Still, don’t make this for more than two people or your wok won’t stay hot enough. You want the greens to get that toasty wok hei flavour.

Finally, add the beef and the nam prik pow and fry for a minute. You want the paste to cook and also sear into the beef and greens. Then add fish sauce, water, and sugar and stir to dissolve the chili paste and sugar into the liquid. Mix everything well. Once that’s done, turn off the heat and add the lime juice. Serve immediately.

The south end of Banglamphu quickly sloughs off the frat boy reek of the Khao San Road and becomes a rather charming neighbourhood. Apparently there are some trendy parts, which we made a foray into by going to a couple of rather cool bars (of which, more later) but mostly it feels quiet – or as quiet as you can reasonably get in an Asian metropolis. We came down this way partly to eat at Chote Chitr, an old shophouse restaurant that’s been written up in a lot of venues. Unusually, it features both in budget travel guides and in very upscale publications. My friend K gave me a fancy culinary journal that featured it and since my Bangkok guide also listed it with a helpful map, we figured it would be worthwhile but possibly very touristed. By here’s the odd thing: while Chote Chitr does cater to foreigners with an English language menu and distinctly tourist-oriented prices, neither the restaurant nor the leafy square it abuts are overwhelmed with tourist business. Read the rest of this entry »

I suspect that Chiang Mai is a city that reveals itself only very reluctantly to the outsider. On the surface it’s all flash bang tourist frontages offering elephant tours or jewellery or wifi and pizza, arbitrarily mixed with motorcycle repair shops and building projects. Since the old town is spread out over a mile square, it’s a messy and daunting prospect for the pedestrian. Although I have found a few delights on my own, the Lemurs have also done very well on recommendations from friends and fellow bloggers. For our last dinner, we went to Huen Phen restaurant, recommended by Naomi as one place that solves the Thai menu paradox. What’s the menu paradox? If a menu is in Thai we can’t read it and hence can’t really order the delicious food within. But if the menu is in English, we can read it but the food will also be translated, dumbed down to western palates. Catch 22. Huen Phen, however, has an English menu but still serves authentic Northern Thai dishes. Read the rest of this entry »

So far, I haven’t had the best luck with street food unless it’s been a very detailed recommendation from a trusted source. Not that I’ve eaten anything unpleasant – just not life-alteringly wonderful. I’ve been waiting for that moment of foodie discovery, the chow hound’s Holy Grail of discovering a totally new and amazing source of deliciousness. It’s not as easy as it looks, here in a Thailand full of tourist traps, fruit shakes and ho hum pad thai. On my last day in Chiang Mai, I went for a walk on my own, across the river from the main city centre to check out a neighbourhood reputed to have quiet leafy streets. Yeah, right. Quiet and leafy in Thai terms translates to balancing on the 30 cm between main road and concrete wall as motorbikes and vans hurtle past you at a rate of knots. Maybe I never found the right turning and the pretty streets were hidden just a block away. There’s a lot in this city that you’ll never find unless someone takes you there. Either way, I had had enough and decided to make my way back to the hotel when, right on cue, I noticed something rather interesting going on across the street. Read the rest of this entry »

If you listened to the more cautious advice on eating in Southeast Asia, you would eat only cooked food, only hot food, only food prepared in front of you, only food in proper restaurants, no raw vegetables or non-peeling fruit, and definitely nothing you find down an alley. Food safety is an important thing and I definitely don’t want to catch hepatitis or food poisoning while I’m on holiday, but the problem is that if you followed all of these rules, you would basically eat nothing interesting in Thailand or Vietnam. So, I am breaking these rules one by one and instead following the advice of food bloggers like Eating Asia who know a lot about street food and balance culinary adventure with food sense. I’m eating street food at busy stalls, where I can see from the local clientele that standards are high. I’m choosing stalls with a lot of product and hence a lot of turnover – nothing is sitting for too long when a vendor is popular. I’m trying to go at busy times – kanom jeen or jook at breakfast, somtam at lunch, grilled meats early in the evening market hours. You can tell when food looks forlorn, stale, or, in one horrifying case, covered in bees. Really, it wasn’t a major piece of deductive reasoning to decide that bee-covered fruit is not the healthy way to go.
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Well, my pretties, I’ve finally escaped from farang food! After I met Naomi Duguid in London, we kept in touch and arranged to meet up at the Haw morning vegetable market in Chiang Mai. We had had a lovely time in East London talking about everything from Naomi’s travels in Burma to film, philosophy and Iranian gender politics and so I was super pleased to have the chance to meet up again. This time, though, we’d have a proper food market to visit and we’d be on Naomi’s home turf, as it were. She didn’t have much time to spare as she was actually catching a plane later in the morning – I know, right, how generous to meet up and show us the market when she was on such a tight schedule – but she packed in an intensive education in a brief space of time. In between catching up with all of our lives this autumn, Naomi explained many of the market’s  treasures and introduced me to what may be my new favourite breakfast dish. Read the rest of this entry »

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