Sunday 21 July 2013

Eating In Bangkok

Whilst I steadfastly insisted on ordering dishes 'Thai-spicy' at every opportunity during my stay in Hua Hin, I was ready to give my guts a breather by the time I arrived in Bangkok. This could only mean one thing for a good Chinese boy such as myself: a trip to Chinatown.

As darkness falls, the streets of Chinatown come alive with hawkers selling southern Chinese treats such as Cantonese BBQ, Teochew braised duck and Hainanese chicken rice. While the roast duck and wontons in my soup noodles aren't going to win awards, they were pretty good for the equivalent of 75p I spent on them.

The Chinese influence on how Bangkokians eat isn't just limited to Chinatown. This is most evident at breakfast time judging by the gusto at which the locals were tucking into bowls of congee and soup noodles. Naturally I started the day with the latter, which came with loads of goodies including fish balls, fish cake, pork slices, minced pork, some veg and fried wonton skin. I tended to go for the broad ho fun rice noodles (called sen yai in Thai) but most stalls offer a choice of noodles. The soup is often quite mild (ideal for breakfast) but there are loads of condiments on the side if you want to pimp your bowl up.

As you might have gathered I ate lots of noodles in Bangkok, and my favourite came from a stall on the edge of Chinatown. Through pointing and uttering random words of English, Chinese and Thai I ended up with a bowl of noodles that appeared to be the lovechild of Vietnamese pho and Chinese braised brisket noodle. By that I mean the herbs and crunchy beansprouts reminded me of pho whilst the anise-scented, melt-in-the-mouth brisket (with bits of tendon, too) was most definitely Chinese. My only regret was that I didn't order a second bowl.

Away from the soup noodles I also enjoyed eating in small hole-in-the-wall joints serving dishes such as duck red curry with kanom jin noodles and pad kra pow with pork. The latter with its aniseedy hit from the holy basil is one of my favourite dishes (remember to ask for it to be served with a crispy fried egg). In other places I may have baulked at the undersized portions but this isn't a problem in Bangkok's hot climate where it's better to eat small and eat often.

One thing I didn't dabble in as much as I would have liked is desserts and sweet snacks. That said I did enjoy crispy pancakes called mae prapha that were filled with egg, coconut, sugar and other stuff. They do look like tacos but I will resist the temptation to call them Thai tacos!

I wouldn't go so far to call it a disappointment but I expected more from the Soi 38 Night Market in Sukhumvit. The food I ate was OK and I may have been unlucky in my choice of stall, but there's a good buzz and when prices for pork skewers start at Baht 10 (less than 20p) one can't really complain.

By contrast I was more than pleasantly surprised by the offerings in food courts such as the one in the MBK Center. I particularly enjoyed the som tam Thai there; it was a damn fine green papaya salad which left me perspiring heavily as I insisted on Thai spicy.

Thinking about it I preferred the som tam from the food court to the one I had at Somtam Convent in Silom. Thankfully, their larb was a far better offering and it went down well with sticky rice. While I liked this hole-in-the-wall, the food was a mixed bag; the dry and overcooked gai yang (Isarn-style grilled chicken) was particularly disappointing. There probably is better Isarn-style food in Bangkok but I lacked the language skills and radar to have discovered it.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Eating In Hua Hin

Hua Hin is about three hours by road from Bangkok, and as such is a very popular getaway for those from the Thai capital. It isn't, by any stretch, the liveliest resort in Thailand, but I'm an old git so I don’t really care. Besides, who needs full moon parties when there is abundant seafood!

My favourite restaurant in Hua Hin is Lung Ja Seafood, which can be found on a stretch of Daychanuchit Road where the night market is located. On my first visit I ordered a whole red snapper in tom yum soup laced with coconut milk. This was a quite amazing dish with a proper spicy soup (just look at the amount of aromatics they put in it) coupled with tender, just-cooked fish. I wasn't sure about the coconut milk at first, but it made the dish into a kind of hot and sour curry, which is no bad thing in my book. By the way, remember to insist on this dish to be cooked 'Thai spicy'.

On my second visit I went for lobster. Whilst it was perfectly cooked on the barbecue, with hindsight I wouldn't have gone with the sweet tamarind sauce, as there just wasn't enough zing. On the other hand I was very pleased with the morning glory, which was stir-fried with plenty of garlic and chilli.

Of the other places I tried in Hua Hin, Koti Restaurant is probably my next favourite. It can also be found on Daychanuchit Road albeit across the road from where the night market starts. The menu is quite comprehensive with all the greatest hits from the Thai canon along with a smattering of Chinese and Thai-Chinese dishes. I really liked the warm salad of seafood & glass noodle (yum woon sen), which had a pleasing yet powerful, spicy sour kick to it. The wok skills here are also very good as exemplified by dishes like stir-fried seafood with peppercorns.

I also liked the crab sausage, which is to all intents and purposes the Teochew-Chinese dish of ngo hiang 五香 - crab and pork meat wrapped in beancurd skin, then deep-fried. Unlike the Chinese version, I couldn't really discern any five-spice flavour, but it was tasty and moreish nonetheless. Incidentally, versions of this dish are very popular in Malaysia and Singapore.

Hua Hin's night market is great for a stroll although I didn't really eat any proper meals there. However, I did enjoy snacks such as rotee (the local Romanised spelling of roti) and the coconut custard puddings known as khanom krok (thanks to MiMi for letting me know what these are). I think I liked the idea of khanom krok, with its crispy outer and wobbly centre, more than the execution, as the ones I tried weren't that sweet or coconutty. Perhaps they're meant to be like that.

The various guidebooks and online guides often cite Sang Thai and Chao Lay as Hua Hin's 'go-to' seafood restaurants. Both have excellent locations with piers stretching into the sea and serve dishes such as fried mantis shrimp (pissing prawns) with garlic, blue swimmer crab & glass noodle claypot, oyster omelette and mixed seafood platters. Both places were decent enough, but I think Lung Ja Seafood is a better restaurant in terms of value and quality. Next stop, Bangkok.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

The Joy of Hake

I love fish. I love it so much that if given the stark choice of giving up meat or fish, I'd go pescatarian. It'd be tough giving up juicy steaks and wondrous Cantonese BBQ but it'd be tougher giving up fish, lobster, prawns, scallops, clams, crab and all the other amazing treats from the sea. One of my favourite fish is hake, which despite being caught off British shores, isn't that popular in the UK. Sadly, most of the British catch goes to Spain, a country where hake is revered. (Not for the first time I wonder whether the much-vaunted food revolution in the UK is an illusion when so much brilliant British fish and seafood ends up abroad.)

Steamed hake with ginger & spring onion
Hake's flaky texture is similar to that of cod but the flesh is softer. Indeed, it's great battered and fried as fish & chips. It can also be grilled, pan-fried, roasted or steamed. When I cook hake, I like to treat it the traditional Cantonese way by steaming it, topping it with ginger and spring onion, splashing hot oil over it before adding a dash of light soy sauce. Alternatively, I sometimes give hake a Southeast Asian flavour by mixing up a dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, garlic and chilli to pour over the steamed fish.

Hake also goes well when paired with meat or seafood. I remember a restaurant in Barcelona that served hake with clams in the most amazing sauce. It was so good, I shocked my friends and waiting staff alike by my new found fluency in Spanish by asking for 'mas pan por favor, mas pan' to mop up the sauce. Alas, I can't remember the name of the restaurant; it was a long time ago, I was on a stag do and it was in the days when I was a civilian.

Anyway, can you guys please eat more hake? For those of you in London, the Furness Fish Stall in Borough Market sells hake steaks from Shetland. I'm sure other quality fishmongers have it in stock and I've seen hake on sale at Marks & Spencer.