- May 21 2013
Hor Mok (Steamed Fish Custard)
In my relatively long history as an eater, I’ve rarely met a custard, sweet or savory, that I didn’t like. The soft, innocuous texture spoonable enough for babies and the bedridden coupled with decisive, bracing flavors thrills me every time.
Hor Mok satisfies this craving at the elemental level of haute comfort food. It elegantly bridges several cultures at once like a charming polyglot at a dinner party.
Take the insouciance of a French mousseline, add a brooding Moorish influence on the way to Southeast Asia, and you end up eating a delicate fish custard with a kaffir lime kick.
So what if your local Thai place doesn’t have it on the menu. Grab some banana leaves, dust off the steamer and make with the Hor Mok.
- May 15 2013
Tom Zab from Zab Isaan on Soi Tonson
Tom Zab represents everything that amazes about Isaan food. It’s improvised yet masterful, spontaneous yet nourishing. Much like great sex it shouldn’t be overly planned, but it helps to have done it a few hundred times before.
Tom Zab translates to ‘delicious soup’ like some sly riff on the old Abbott and Costello baseball routine “Who’s on First?”
A hungry fat man wearing a bowler sidles up to his favorite Isaan hawker stand.
“What’ll it be?”
“I’ll have the delicious soup, please.”
“The delicious one.” And so on and so on and so on…
The brilliance of this dish lies in its refusal to be exactly the same soup twice. Sure the base is there; pork stock, roasted chilis, galangal, lemongrass, but the calibrations vary wildly giving each fragrant, toothsome bowl a new chance to become your favorite.
And what, I ask you, could be better than that?
- May 10 2013
Tom Yum Goong
We were wandering though Tarad Rot Fai (the train market) and feeling a bit peckish despite snacking on sai krok isaan and gorgeous shrimp dumplings amid row upon row of goods for sale.
Knockoff Converse sneakers, pop-up clothing shops fashioned from VW vans, vintage motocross gear, industrial lighting - if you a need a certain thing, chances are you’ll find that very thing here.
It’s the ideal place to get slowly drunk on daiquiri-like smoothies, pretend that hot wind blasting your dome is a cool breeze and people watch with the locals.
Tom yum goong is apparently a favorite dish among farang, the red-faced foreigners you’ll see lurching around at high noon a hair away from a heatstroke. Note to tourists: Poking around Bangkok’s many huge, sprawling markets makes more sense after the sun goes down.
As for the ‘hot and sour prawn soup’, an accurate yet wildly modest description, it simply killed. I should hope once in my life to craft a stock so incredibly rich and nuanced.
We stood in a long queque and finally sat down at a crooked wood table next to an overdressed hi-so Pomeranian and his owner. When my soup arrived, brimming with fat mussels and flecked with roasted chilis, I could feel the jealous eyes of the queque burning a hole in the back of my head.
I’ll go again soon and document the exact location ‘tho you might find it by looking closely and following the longest line.
- Mar 14 2013
The Sum of Its Parts
If you’ve ever watched ambitious contestants on Top Chef get the boot over a poorly executed soup, you’ll understand the delicate alchemy that goes into making laab, the minced meat salad invented in Laos and perfected in the Isaan region of northern Thailand.
Sure you’ve mastered pate en croute. You know your way around a knife and your puff pastry levitates, but can you achieve the sublime with an inexact* handful of herbs and spices?
Made from pork, chicken, duck, beef or even mushroom, this simple salad of incredibly nuanced flavors and textures explains in a single mouthful why Thai food is so damned beguiling.
Mint leaves, lime, chilis, palm sugar, red onion, fish sauce, roasted rice powder - unremarkable ingredients made magic by their proximity to one another.
The above version called laab tord uses fried rather than ground chicken which suits me just fine.
*Anyone you gives you a finely calibrated laab recipe is doing it wrong.
- Feb 12 2013
Roll your own: When the amuse becomes the meal
From Totino’s pizza rolls - the platonic ideal of readymade stoner snacks - to the highbrow molecular gastronomy of Alinea’s spicy cinnamon puff (there’s foie gras involved), single-bite foods shoulder a heavy burden. They must by definition transcend the sum of their parts to become something greater within the damp cave of your expectant maw.
The flavors contained in each small mouthful don’t have the leisure of time. There’s no layering of elements, no creative tension between what comes before, next or after. There is only the surprise of what happens when the morsel passes from hand to mouth. With bite-sized foods, it’s right now or never.
How, for example, does one pack the ambrosial glut of oozing cheese, red sauce and wheat that is pizza into an inch long, previously frozen inaccurately named ‘roll’? (In truth, the ‘pizza roll’ resembles a bloated square.)
So while not technically an amuse-bouche (rather than free, it will set you back 40 baht), miang kham definitely qualifies as a “mouth amuser.” In Thai, the name means ‘eating many things in one bite’.
This decidedly old-school mélange of raw shallots, ginger, chilis, garlic and lime with roasted peanuts and dried shrimp will simultaneously stimulate your appetite and kick your dulled palate in the ass. Wrapped in vibrant wild betel leaves, you can buy the whole caboodle on side sois throughout Thailand.
Top it with the sweet-savory dressing made from palm sugar doused with nam pla. Because you create your own unique leafy vessel, each gorgeous bite varies by assembly.
Eat just two and then tuck into a waiting bowl of duck noodles or eat ten and call it supper.