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In my continued unemployment (well, at least I'm not formally employed full-time), I am assisting my friend Chow with testing recipes for the updated edition of her guidebook to Thailand's best street food. This involves going out to try different dishes in their original context - i.e. on the street - and then returning to her kitchen to try and recreate the dishes, taking notes for how cooks in other countries can modify or substitute techniques and ingredients as necessary. It is a tough job, but someone has to do it.
For this group of recipes, we went to a long-established Isaan style street food vendor on Soi Suan Phlu, off Sathorn Road. "Isaan" refers to the northeastern region of Thailand, a dry, poorer portion of the country and also home to a large percentage of the total population. Isaan food is spicy and often uses fermented foods (shrimp paste, fish, chili paste, etc.) to add flavor. While foreigners (and for that matter, many Thais from central Thailand) can find the food a bit too strong, many of the dishes have gained admission to the pantheon of popular Thai cuisine. Chief among these are som tam (green papaya salad), gai yang or moo yang (grilled chicken or pork), and larb (chopped meat and herb salad).
Here is the street vendor's version of kor muu yang - grilled pork neck. Thai pork is moister and more flavorful than the pork available in the United States, which has been bred to be low-flat and, thus, bland. The neck has plenty of fat and the meat undergoes a quick marinade and then grilling over blazing hot charcoal. Though simple, the flavors are very rewarding to eat.
Another dish we tried is the yam plaa muk - squid salad. "Yam" (which means "mix") refers to a style of salad that originates in Isaan, although of course it wouldn't originally be served with fresh squid since that region is a long way from the ocean. Regardless of the main ingredients, the dressing always includes shallots or onions, lime juice, fish sauce, sugar (usually palm), and fresh chilies. That's the holy quartet of Thai cuisine: sour, salty, sweet, and spicy.
Back at Chow's kitchen, we tried our hand at yam pla muk. In addition to the fresh squid (it must be fresh or else it will be rubbery), which is cleaned, cut, and boiled very briefly (it must be brief or else it will be rubbery), we added Chinese celery (substitute the leaves and thin ends of regular celery), onion, and tomatoes. Mix all the ingredients in a bowl, along with the sauce ingredients I mentioned in the previous paragraph.
The end result is a refreshing, ceviche-like dish that makes for a perfect summer salad. If you don't like squid or can't find any, you could use shrimp or fish, too. You could also use chicken, beef, pork (sliced and cooked), or even pomelo. Lots of options.
We also tried our hand at muu yang, the grilled pork. Lacking a grill, we seared on a cast iron griddle and then finished the pork beneath the broiler. We were focusing more on the marinade rather than the way the meat was cut and discovered that the marinade recipe will be trickier to figure out than we expected! This will require more experimentation. The red sauce is a bottled sweet chili sauce that is available in most Asian food markets. Served also with some sticky (glutinous) rice, another Isaan staple.
While we were at it, we also tried our hand at satay. Satay are skewers of meat (in this case, pork and chicken) that are marinated, brushed with coconut milk, and grilled. They actually come from southern Thailand by way of Indonesia. We didn't focus on cutting the meat into thin strips and instead went for chunks. We did make the peanut sauce from scratch. A lot of recipes available to foreigners substitute peanut butter instead of ground peanuts. Yes, you can do that... but it really doesn't taste the same. Served with cucumbers, shallots, and chilies briefly pickled in a rice wine vinegar and sugar brine.
The experience of cooking with Chow is always fun. For all the years I've lived in Thailand, I'm woefully ignorant of how my favorite Thai dishes are made. When there is such inexpensive and tasty street food available, there is little incentive to cook these dishes myself. (Especially since some of the ingredients and cooking processes come with a strong smell. Fermented shrimp paste anyone?)
Elvis has left the building and is now selling Thai sukiyaki on a street-side restaurant not far from the Hualamphong Railway Station. Recently, my foodie friend Chow (author of the Bangkok Glutton blog and the helpful street food guide, Bangkok's Top 50 Street Food Stalls) invited me to join her family for dinner at Elvis Suki. One does not decline a street food invitation from Chow and, once again, her choice was excellent.
Sukiyaki is a Japanese style hot pot dish. The Thai version bears only a faint resemblance to the original Japanese version. While there is still a hot pot component available at some restaurants, at other restaurants like Elvis Suki, "suki" refers to a bowl of vegetables and meat, with or without mung bean vermicelli, and with or without broth. The one thing it always has is a super-fiery dipping sauce made of chili paste, chilies, lime juice, and cilantro. The above example is a seafood suki with broth.
For a little more clarity into what's inside the bowl, here's a "dry" version (no broth) of a pork suki. Lots of green veggies and, despite being pork, a piece of squid made it into the bowl. The suki is satisfying, inexpensive, and easy to eat. The dipping sauce is seriously spicy. Be warned.
Elvis Suki is also known for their grilled seafood. Here is a plate full of cockles served with the dipping sauce. The seafood is very fresh, although I'm not a big fan of the flavor of cockles.
A very un-Thai specialty are these scallops grilled with a piece of fatty pork, slathered in butter and loads of garlic. You wouldn't think scallops and pork would go together, but they actually make a nice pairing. And with all that butter, who could complain?
One other specialty is this hard-to-see whole fish served wrapped in banana leaf and covered with pandan and kaffir lime leaves. The brownish mixture is actually a fine mixture of chopped herbs including lemongrass and galangal root (related to ginger). Needless to say, the fish has this incredible aroma after having been grilled with these herbs.
Elvis Suki is worth a visit if you enjoy experiencing true local cuisine. There is also a good homemade ice cream shop right next door so you are covered for dessert, too. Usually it is hard to explain where you can find these types of restaurants but Elvis Suki's owners make it easy: the GPS coordinates are on the menu!
There are a few entries I'll share soon of some Thai street food adventures I've been on with my friend Chow. In the meantime, I want to share this beautiful sunset picture I took the other day. I shot it in an alley off Rama I Road in the old section of Bangkok, known as Rattanakosin Island.
This neighborhood dates back more than 100 years and is filled with Chinese-style shop houses. The shop was on the ground floor, a stock room was on the floor above, and then the owner would live on the floors above that. This particular alley is filled with restaurants of various sorts and becomes very busy after work. I happened to arrive just after 6:00. My seat at an outdoor table positioned me perfectly to enjoy the minute-long moment of perfect lighting as the sun shined between a few blocks' worth of buildings and back-lit the activity on the street.
Even though the trip was several weeks ago, I'm only now getting to posting my video trip report on YouTube for the trip to Kuala Lumpur. The flight was on Lufthansa, the German airline. They fly it as a tag-on segment to the Frankfurt-Bangkok flight and it is currently the only Boeing 747 being flow between Bangkok and KL.
Here is the nine-minute video trip report for your viewing pleasure. Pictures and brief highlights of the flight are provided below.
Since I had a mid-afternoon departure and was traveling light, I decided to take the Airport Link train to the airport. Since it opened in the second half of 2010 (blog entry about it here), the service has been a money-loser. Ultimately, it isn't very convenient and the main in-city terminal is located near a subway station but is not connected to it. (In fairness, they are a month or two away from finally opening an elevated walkway to connect the two.) The system has a notable lack of down-direction escalators, making for a lot of heavy lifting or waiting for the single elevator at each station is you have heavy bags. The State Railways promises to add escalators at key stations but no timetable has been provided.
The airport itself is a wonder of glass, steel, and concrete. In many ways, it is hard to distinguish from any other major international airport, although as you can see, some Thai touches have been snuck in. This is a Buddha image that ostensibly contains a relic from the Lord Buddha. It was set up with a large display of flowers right in the middle of the departures hall as a temporary display sponsored by some company.
Hidden upstairs, high above the ticketing counters, is an observation deck. The view is largely obstructed by roof and wall support structures and a scale model of the airport, which has seen better day, is displayed there. Looking closely, I noticed that it had suffered much damage while being moved. It seems a jumbo jet has crash landed on the entrance road to the airport connecting from the expressway!
Before the flight, I visited the Singapore Airlines Silver Kris lounge. One of the luxuries I allow myself is a Star Alliance Gold tier membership, which provides me with lounge access when flying Star Alliance carriers. Having a quiet space away from the bustle of the airport makes air travel a lot more enjoyable. This lounge, in particular, is very nice with views of a large garden area.
The beverage and food selection surprised me with its breadth. In addition to a variety of cold cuts, cheeses, and desserts, there were several different types of proper food including soups, a salad bar, Chinese steamed dumplings, and a few main courses.
I was especially impressed that they had set up a make-your-own "khao chae" bar. Khao Chae (I wrote about it here last year) is a Thai hot season treat, rice served in cool, fragrant jasmine water with a selection of condiments. Not the type of thing you would expect to find in an airline lounge and something that was not on offer over at the THAI Airways lounge! Kudos to Singapore Airlines for their attention to detail.
A small selection of desserts, including a traditional Thai dessert cooked in a pandan leaf box, served with a cappuccino. While the desserts were not breathtaking, they were tasty and a wide variety was offered.
Our bird as seen through the dirty windows of Suvarnabhumi International Airport. This Boeing 747-400 is nicknamed Duisburg after the famous steel-making city in Germany. It entered the Lufthansa fleet on June 5, 1991 but the interior was in remarkably good shape for a plane quickly approaching its 22nd birthday.
Quick review of the safety demonstration card before departure. You can never be too careful, right?
If I had to sit in these tight economy class seats for ten or twelve hours, I would not be happy, but for the short flight to KL, it was fine. The seats have large touch-screen monitors playing an extensive selection of films and TV shows. One thing I like about these seats is that the magazines are moved to a pouch behind the tray table, freeing up a little more room for your knees. Still, seat pitch was just 31 or 32", comparable to economy class on most US carriers.
Our "meal service" was a snack box with a sandwich that contained the thinnest slice of chicken and the saddest looking leaf of lettuce I have ever seen. A muffin and a KitKat candy bar rounded out the meal. Beverage service was the small bottled water. I think you could go to the galley and request a juice or soft drink but no beverage cart was rolled through the aisles. While it is a short flight, this seems a pretty sad offering for an airline that claims to be full-service.
Beginning our descent into Kuala Lumpur on a beautiful late afternoon with high clouds. Closer to the ground, though, the skies were hazy and visibility was limited. Overall, the flight was smooth and reasonably comfortable. The crew, while being pretty senior, was friendly, professional, and seemed to genuinely enjoy working the flight.
Over the Songkran holidays in the middle of April, we were treated to the visit of several friends, many of whom I first met through Xanga. One afternoon, some of us gathered for tea in the lobby of the Erawan Hotel. Afternoon tea is one of those treats I enjoy because it is relaxing and provides a sense of sophistication. In fact, in the afternoons during fifth and sixth grade, I would go to my friend David's house after school. His mother always served milk tea and freshly baked croissant, which I think ignited my appreciation for afternoon tea.
The Erawan, a Grand Hyatt hotel, is conveniently located in the center of Bangkok and its tea service is surprisingly affordable. About 450 Bt (US$15) gets you a large pot of tea and a tall tray of snacks, more than enough for two people to share. A string trio plays in the corner of the lobby, the service is attentive in keeping with Thai custom, and there is no rush. You can spend an hour or two just feeling pampered and very refined.
In researching this entry, I learned that I have been incorrectly using the term "high tea". This type of afternoon loose leaf tea with cakes and small sandwiches is actually "low tea". "High tea" refers to a more complete meal that is served in the early evening. Thanks, Wikipedia!