Tuesday, February 23, 2010

And How Would Mrs. Like Her Cobra Today - food adventures in Bangkok

Fried Papaya Salad

Not a full week has passed since I left Thailand after a 5 week stay and I'm craving Kanom Jeen Nam Yaa (noodles in fish curry sauce) or better yet, Khao Pad Moo Bai Ga-Prow (pork fried rice with bails leaf) - I am not however craving cobra!

To be fair to Thai cuisine, I only saw cobra featured on menus in two places I ate but it was enough to make me suspicious. The thought of the aforementioned reptile surfacing in a green curry sauce alongside "licked frog" gives me the willies.

I loved 99 percent of every dish presented - the colors, flavors, combinations of textures were superb. Crisp and soft, sweet and hot, bursts of something unidentifiable but definitely delicious kept me guessing at every meal. The simple fried Morning Glory (or "moaning golly" as we saw it written one place) pictured here had a depth of flavor I'm determined to replicate with chard or baby brocolli. I flipped over the fingernail sized eggplants (ma-khue puang) that added a piquancy to fish dishes; the sprigs of fresh green peppercorns that gave a bite to poached chicken breast. I learned to appreciate the difference between the ginger root we use here in the US and the galangal root (kha) with it's close to ginger but something "I just can't place" flavor. Eating was an adventure, a feast for eyes and body.

The local Safeway is pretty tame when compared with the grocery store I frequented at the Emporium in Bangkok. The produce section was dazzling - displays of vegetables like works of art - mushrooms like I've never seen before; varieties of citrus and melons that don't make it to these shores and vegetables that were Aladdin's treasures to me - I longed for a kitchen.

Don't get me started on the mounds of fresh fruit overflowing from street vendor stalls - pineapple bursting with a fresh-from-the-field flavor and juice that I let drip all over a white linen skirt; mini bananas so sweet that my reaction was "where have you been all my life"; dragon fruit with horned skins looking prehistoric; papaya - green and firm used grated into thin spaghetti like strings tangled on a plate as nest for giant fresh river prawns. Oh and the fresh fruit blended juices - I'm hard pressed to decide between watermelon/lime or lemongrass/mint as a favorite.
The Emporium Food Court was a cafeteria on steroids. Every cuisine you can think of represented behind glossy white counters - I went there to buy take-out for lunch or dinner and always came away with too much food. What to choose - salapao - soft as a feather steamed buns with savory barbecue pork fillings or sweet custards; satay - chicken, beef, pork all with a nutty, coconut laced, chili dotted sauce for dipping and finger-licking; or how about a box of tempura crusted prawns, crabs or white snapper fillets? For the faint-hearted there was always a quiche or smoked salmon salad. Soup on your mind - from cream of mushroom to intoxicating Tom Kha Gai (chicken coconut soup), all there for you to take back to hotel, apartment or park for an alfresco meal. Packaging for the to-go foods didn't disappoint either - garnish, often an intricately carved vegetable or an orchid bloom, tucked into the raffia that held the box closed.

The street stalls were an whole other option and one, enticing as they were, I didn't succumb to other than for the occasional fruit. One street dish that fascinated me was quail eggs fried in something that resembled an ebelskiver pan so that they came from the pan an oval ball - saw them popped on top of what looked like fried rice. Another stall on my morning coffee walk route specialized in barbecued goose bills! Nothing is wasted so menus featuring chicken sinew, crispy snake bones, and the mysterious "licked frog" attracted my attention but not my taste buds.

I had two negative food experiences in all. On Koh Samet island at a beach front restaurant I ordered fresh crab papaya salad. Oh my! Fresh - what was I thinking - everything is fresh. Luscious mound of tangled papaya shreds studded with tiny red jewels of hot Thai peppers arrived followed by a lidded plate. Lid was whipped off to reveal two live crabs - quick as a flash sharp knives slice the crabs into quarters and they were plonked, still waving little claws, on top of my salad. Needless to say I apologized for my error and re-ordered something definitely dead and cooked prior to arrival. The other followed similar use of the term fresh involving prawns - these I swear were doing laps in the orchid decorated bowl of soup! I'm told they were dead - just not cooked - beautiful presentation but ...
As for the cobra dish - we went one evening to a street cafe - garden seating, basic place. The menu was overwritten with English translations - that cobra came skinned, un-skinned, fried, barbecued, whole, in chunks - anyway you want it! It was the same place that offered "licked frog".

Enjoyed many meals at the hotel where I had a studio apartment - The President Park Hotel (95 Sukhumvit Soi 24, Sukhumvit, Bangkok ) and I cannot speak more highly of the modest cost of meals ($3-6 entrees), impeccable service, delightful staff and pretty surrounds. My all time favorite there was the chef's version of a Pomelo Salad with Fresh river Prawns. (They were cooked!)

Maxine loves rice but on occasion would bring her own boxed meal with her!

Perhaps the best meal of all was at Cabbages and Condoms (www.cabbagesandcondoms.co.th. 10 Sukhumvit Soi 12, Bangkok) a restaurant on a mission - I'll write more about it later.
Meanwhile will try to reproduce a couple of favorite dishes and write up the recipes to share.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ko Samet - "find me an island lonely and lost" for Valentine Day

For a few days we left the chaos and crowds of Bangkok for the serenity of Ko Samet - an island in the Gulf of Thailand. Going was a last minute decision based on three adults figuring they could manage a two year old and three week old for the duration.

Chinese New Year and Valentine Day added to the craziness in Bangkok and getting out made sense. Booking was made through a travel agency close to the apartment - no hassles but it was relatively expensive for Thailand. Inclusive of transportation via luxury van (sole passengers) to the port of Ban Phe, and private speed boat to the island,villas ran around $155 a night - breakfast included. Given that this slice of heaven is around two and half hour drive from Thailand plus 20 minute boat ride, it's popularity with both Thais and ex pats living in Bangkok is understandable. Our van was private, comfortable and on time - especially important when we left the island - waiting in the heat with kids would have brought a meltdown - on my part! Only white-knuckle event was the speedboat ride off island - young driver thought he was in a James Bond chase scene.

Ko Samet is famed for silky, white sand beaches, once being a pirates lair and refreshing lack of big developments. Most of the island is a National Park , an indication that the beaches will not be rimmed with skyscrapers anytime soon. The travel agent assured us that our destination, on the east coast of the island, Ao Cho beach, was not a "hot spot" and therefore very quiet! She was correct. Ao Cho - tucked in about a thousand foot crescent bay was blissfully simple and quiet - apart from the firecrackers welcoming the New year at dawn on Saturday!

Ao Cho Hideway consisted of perhaps 30 villas, some right on the beach, others a short walk up the gentle slope and with glorious views. Not luxury but not spartan either - sort of up-upscale older backpacker reliving the hippie dream place. The on-beach restaurant was good - and a further foray to a restaurant perched on the point discovered great seafood there. Friday night entertainment was a fireshow - think cheerleaders with flames. Friday night was seafood BBQ - the display of fresh from the Gulf crabs, prawns, squid, shellfish and snapper rivaled anything I've seen at Pike Place, Seattle. And no photo - camera was out of batteries!

Best of all was the beach - practically deserted from dawn to mid-morning and again from around 4 p.m. onwards. Child perfect sand and a gentle slope into shallow, sparkling clean warm water - I never got in deeper than hip high. Staff of young Thais were helpful and really solicitous of the children. Beach dogs appeared to be cared for by the staff - must admit though to longing for a spay and neuter program! Beach vendors with fresh fruit and colourful sarongs for sale wandered the beach; food vendors set up to BBQ chicken to order. The next beach around the point was a stark contrast - jammed with deckchairs and bars it was hip to hip with noisy, drinking, carousing westerners. Our beach attracted a far more restrained type - several appeared to be honeymooners.

We were one of very few westerners staying - majority of guests were Thai or Japanese. Other non Asian guests (mainly eastern European) had obviously never heard of skin cancer because slathering body with oil and stretching out under full sun at the peak of the day was the norm.

Monday, February 8, 2010

What Superbowl? Bangkok Snapshots Feb. 8 2010

Fourteen hours ahead of Tucson - left the hotel around 8 a.m. heading for the Grand Palace hoping to beat the crowds. Came across a cafe - seats lined up on the sidewalk - everyone facing inwards looking at a small TV screen - Superbowl time Bangkok.

Young women - impeccably coiffed, silky black hair piled into chic chignons, tailored short skirts, spikey high heeled shoes, stand in line waiting for a motorcycle "taxi". Hop on side-saddle without disturbing a hair and race off into the maelstrom of Bangkok morning traffic.

Tuk-tuks idle waiting for passengers brave enough to ride an open vehicle at exhaust pipe level through the maze of streets. Took one a couple of days ago and whirled into the traffic frenzy at breakneck speed.

Taxi takes a short cut through a street lined with gilt Buddha's and temple gods - some on the move. You want a garden Buddha, a sad Buddha, perhaps a miniature or even larger than life - this is the place.

The Grand Palace - neurotic about cultural sensitivity and having read the literature on "proper attire" my little group wore closed-toe shoes, long skirts, elbow length blouses - made the sole male in the party wear long pants. Was correct on the long skirts but the no trouser rule for women seems to have gone the way of the Dodo along with the close-toe shoe etiquette - sandals ruled. Doesn't matter though if you goofed and showed up in a skimpy top and shorts - obliging merchants lined the entrance offering sarongs, shirts and long pants for rent. Annie - Mary Poppins umbrella held high introduced Finn, now two plus weeks old to this world - he slept though the whole thing.

Disney couldn't have dreamt this place. The Grand Palace, started in 1782 defies belief. It is simply the most fantastical place I have ever seen. Not mind-boggling awesome - just fantastic. Behind the white walls is a magical kingdom - elaborate temples, ceremonial buildings and temples. Will write a full description later. Suffice to say - if you are into glitz - this is the place. I'm wrong - it is awesome!

Loved the modern touch - artists restoring murals in the gorgeous gallery had i Pods firmly in place and swayed to the music as they worked on paintings first conceived 228 years ago.

On the way back to the hotel passed my favourite building - the top floor when lit at night looks just like one of the old rice boats, once familiar sights on the Chao Phraya River.