It’s that time of year again. That’s right, awards season is upon us. BAFTA, Golden Globes, People’s Choice, Oscars, and the list goes on. I figure there are simply not enough awards to go around, so, dear readers, for this blog, I’ll be doling out my own Academy Awards. Of course, this Academy is made up of just me. (That makes the vote counting so much more straightforward…) And as I live in a vacuum and hardly watch any movies (I looked at the nominations and have not seen a single movie nominated for Best Picture…) we’ll be sticking to what I know. Which is food.
Stranded in a lovely studio apartment without cooking facilities for 2.5 months means that I eat out every breakfast, lunch and dinner. Thankfully, I’m in Thailand, a country renowned for its cuisine. In fact, in a recent CNN article of the world’s 50 most delicious foods, Thailand owns an impressive 4 dishes, including the coveted #1 spot. As well, I am based in Silom, the Wall Street of Bangkok, where I can count no less than 90 restaurants / stalls / carts / stands in a 10-minute walking radius of my apartment. My mission? Try. Them. All. (Hey! Some people climb Everest. My goals tend to be more… food-oriented. Sigh. The things I do in the name of research.) Warning, before you continue to read this, make sure you are very, very full. Drink a gallon of water, cinch your belt, get your stomach stapled if you must, because some of these dishes are knock-your-socks-off, slap-you-into-next-Tuesday good… So, without further ado…
Best Visual Effects
I’ve been trying to stick to a $10-a-day meal budget, so my food choices have been more flavorful than gourmet. However, even good food can look great. The fruit here can be so vibrantly colorful. I also had a killer pork chop at Chatuchak Weekend Market that had a stunning string bean and baby corn garnish. But my pick would have to be Tom Yum Koong, a volcanic red soup chock full of shrimp, lemongrass and straw mushrooms. A feast for the eyes and the stomach.
Best Breakfast Food
Thais don’t seem to differentiate breakfast foods from lunch or dinner foods. Workers will pick up a quick stir-fry or noodle dish on the way to the office. But no matter how many times I walk by it in the morning, I cannot get used to the smell of fried fish for breakfast. My usual routine is to pass by the 20 or so stalls on my way to work and pick up whatever calls out to me, whether it’s a steamed bun or dim sum or a full on green curry chicken. But always freshly squeezed tangerine juice. (Confession: I’ve fallen off the wagon twice and had a Sausage McMuffin With Egg.) But my favorite breakfast would have to be a simple stir-fry with a fried egg from one of the many mom-and-pop stalls with pre-prepared food. Fast, delicious and cheap.
Best Original Food
Sometimes I’ll come across a stall that reminds me of a lemonade stand – ie. food that looks like it was whipped up in someone’s kitchen. There’s a stall I pass every day that sells sandwiches that look like they’re ready to go into a kid’s lunchbox. Some days, there’s a chocolate cake messily frosted and cut into uneven squares. But my favorite would have to be the lady who grills buttered bread over charcoal with a liberal sprinkling of sugar.
Best Spicy Food
Sometimes, I’ll be walking in a crowd of five or six people when suddenly, we’ll find ourselves enveloped in an invisible cloud of pepper spray, reflexively coughing and sputtering. No, we’re not at some Red Shirt demonstration. We’ve simply walked by one of Bangkok’s ubiquitous street stalls stir-frying chilies and spices that make up the foundation of almost every Thai dish.
One of the first phrases I learned was “mai phed”, meaning “not spicy”. Thais are famous for eating extremely spicy food, and when I say “mai phed”, they usually just put in just 2 chilies instead of the normal 4. I don’t think they can grasp the concept of food with no chilies at all. Every stall will have a huge bowl of chopped chilies just waiting to set your tongue on fire. One of my favorite foods is Som Tam, an earthy, crunchy green papaya salad with tomatoes and green beans that absorb all the flavors of limes, tamarind juice, dried shrimp, palm sugar, garlic and peanuts, all crushed up in a huge mortar. When I say “mai phed”, the residual chili leftover in the mortar is usually enough to give it heat without being scorching.
However, I knew I was in trouble when one day I stopped at a popular lunch spot for some grilled pork and soup. As the woman was making the soup, I could only watch as she added spoonful after heaping spoonful of fresh chilies. After the first mouthful, I knew I was out of my league. In fact, I had to literally rinse off the other ingredients before I could eat them. Game. Set. Match. Chilies 1 James 0.
Best Snack Food
Thais love to snack. In my office, there’s food ready to share all day. Whether it’s boiled corn conveniently kernelled with a topping of freshly grated coconut or rice rolls with a spicy ginger dipping sauce, there’s a never-ending supply of snack food. The strangest I’ve come across would have to be tempura flowers. You can never eat just one?
Best Foreign Food
Bordered by no less than four countries, Thais love their foreign foods. There’s a mall across the street from my office that caters to Japanese businessmen. Literally three floors of just golf shops. But that also means authentic ramen, sushi and great bento sets. However, my favorite comfort food has got to be Singaporean chicken rice. Whole chickens boiled with spring onions and spices, then the flavorful broth is used to cook the rice until the grains are impossibly plump. All served with a spicy ginger sauce. Yummy in any language.
Best Seafood Dish
With over 2,500 kms of coastline, Thailand has no shortage of seafood. Take your pick: surprisingly fresh-tasting made-to-order dishes in lowly street stalls and everyone’s favorite tangy Pad Thai with shrimp to crispy fish with a green mango and shallot salad — sour, hot, salty, with a slight sweetness at the end. My favorite dish, though, was a sizzling seafood platter with fresh green peppercorns served at a humble outdoor restaurant I stumbled upon…
Best Dish Ever
Okay. It’s nearing the end of the show. Ricky Gervais has made his last unfunny joke. The audience is getting fidgety thinking of which after-party to attend. But everyone’s still in their seats waiting to see who’s taking home the big prize. So, best Thai dish ever? <insert drumroll here> Tom Yum Goong!
I really can’t put my finger on it. Is it the sour that comes from fresh squeezed limes, kaffir lime leaves and tangy tamarind? Or maybe the spicy that comes from chilis and chili paste. Or perhaps the fragrant thick slices of ginger-look-alike galangal or the stalks of lemongrass? Or the milk that’s added to smoothen out all the flavors. You can’t even EAT most of the stuff that goes into this soup. But whatever it is, it’s an unbeatable combination that’s at once earthy and refined.
So, if you ever get to the Land of Smiles, just know that there’s a world of culinary delights beyond Pad Thai… Happy eating. And good night.
Travel tips: (1) It’s always easiest to order Pad Thai, but to get off the beaten culinary tourist track, you’ll need to be prepared to do a lot of pointing, as most Thais do not speak English. Something else you might try is walking past the tables until you spot a delicious-looking dish that someone else is having. Simply call one of the waiters over and discreetly point to the dish. (2) If you have access to Thai-speakers, try asking them for their favorite dishes and have them write them down in Thai. It took me a month to figure that out, but once my office colleagues compiled a list, it made every trip out a culinary adventure and opened up a world of dishes that I would never have been able to order on my own. (3) Most street stalls won’t have prices posted. And as a foreigner, I have a disconcerting feeling that I’m getting charged 5-10 baht more than what the locals are paying. The slight hesitation when I ask how much is always a dead-giveaway. I can just see them thinking how much they can get away with charging me. At first, it bothered me, but after awhile, I figured that it was a small price to pay for some of the world’s best food.