Jamie's Stomach: What's in it today?

Jan 24

I’ve been camped out in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand’s largest city, for the past week, enjoying the lush mountain scenery and catching up on some work. Northern Thai food is a wonderland of pig products: balls of fermented raw pork mixed with sticky rice (naaem) here, deep-fried, a rich, tamarind-laced Burmese pork curry (hanglae) there, and funky sausages and deep-fried pig parts at every corner in between. But my favorite so far has been naam phrik ong, which is essentially Bolognese sauce minus the pasta. 

Northern Thais love their naam phriks, or chili pastes (another popular version, naam phrik nuum, is mainly made from pounded roasted chiles). They’re usually served with a platter of raw vegetables and sticky rice, which are used as scooping vessels for the paste. Naam phrik ong is made from simmering tomatoes and minced pork with a mix of garlic, chiles, shallots, salt and shrimp paste down to a thick, savory stew. You’re supposed to eat it as a dip, but I’ve been surreptitiously scooping it up with my spoon when no one is looking. 

Naam phrik is available at every market in town, but I learned about it while visiting a local coffee farm in the mountains of Doi Sakhet. I seem to have a knack for connecting with old ladies here—despite our complete inability to communicate verbally, I’ve been invited into the home kitchens of basically every grandma I’ve met, where I’ve been able to witness (and participate in) home-cooking firsthand. Here’s the version I made with Pa Pong in her well-worn wok at home in Doi Sakhet. We topped the finished product with chopped cilantro and ate like queens. 

I’ve spent the past week traveling through Isaan, the northeast region of Thailand, the agricultural heartland of the country. Few tourists make it up this way—Isaan is a long way from Bangkok and the tropical beaches to the west, and there’s little in the way of mainstream attractions in most of the industrial cities and Mekong border towns.
But the region is a great place to experience a more traditional side of Thai culture—homestays are more common here than hotels—and the food is some of the most complex and intriguing in the whole country.
The town of Nong Khai, in the northernmost province of Isaan, is best known as a gateway to Laos, which is visible across the Mekong River and accessible via the well-traveled Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. Despite its proximity to Laos, the food in Nong Khai is uniquely influenced by the Vietnamese community that settled in the area following the Indochina war in 1950s. The morning market downtown has a huge array of Viet-flavored prepared foods—miniature banh mis, lacy banh xeosand freshly steamed rice flour rolls—mixed in with the bounty of local produce on offer. Here’s a look at some choice picks from the Nong Khai market.
Serious Eats has my full story and a look at some choice picks from the Nong Khai market.
Jan 20

I’ve spent the past week traveling through Isaan, the northeast region of Thailand, the agricultural heartland of the country. Few tourists make it up this way—Isaan is a long way from Bangkok and the tropical beaches to the west, and there’s little in the way of mainstream attractions in most of the industrial cities and Mekong border towns.

But the region is a great place to experience a more traditional side of Thai culture—homestays are more common here than hotels—and the food is some of the most complex and intriguing in the whole country.

The town of Nong Khai, in the northernmost province of Isaan, is best known as a gateway to Laos, which is visible across the Mekong River and accessible via the well-traveled Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. Despite its proximity to Laos, the food in Nong Khai is uniquely influenced by the Vietnamese community that settled in the area following the Indochina war in 1950s. The morning market downtown has a huge array of Viet-flavored prepared foods—miniature banh mis, lacy banh xeosand freshly steamed rice flour rolls—mixed in with the bounty of local produce on offer. Here’s a look at some choice picks from the Nong Khai market.

Serious Eats has my full story and a look at some choice picks from the Nong Khai market.

Jan 18

Dong Daeng in Chiang Khan: Chiang Khan is a sleepy, historical Mekong river town popular for its timber houses and relaxed attitude. Most urbanites come here for a quick weekend getaway, but I camped out for four days, watching the river float past and enjoying a bit of the local flavor (including, mercifully, real coffee from actual coffee beans!). 

The food scene in Chiang Khan isn’t exactly sophisticated, but I did manage to find one dish that’s indigenous to the town and nearly impossible to find elsewhere: dong daeng, thick, short fermented rice flour noodles extruded and boiled to-order by the chatty Miss Chi of Chi Kum Man Tong. The chewy noodles, named for the little dance they do while cooking, are then mixed in the ubiquitous mortar and pestle with a som tum [papaya salad] variant and a handful of fresh mountain greens. Served room temperature, it’s a light, refreshing lunch, with the familiar zigzag of sweet-hot-salty-sweet flavors. 

The dish apparently comes from an old family recipe that called for bite-sized noodle balls—nicknamed “gai muah,” or chicken’s head—instead of the tubular noodles Chi makes today. When her shop started drawing crowds, it took too long to make the gai muah to order, so she developed the dong daeng, which are faster and more efficient to make. Today, the dong daeng are a Chiang Khan staple, but as far as we can tell, they’ve yet to make it beyond the tiny town. Pretty sure that if a restaurateur Stateside adapted the recipe, this dish would catch on like wildfire—please, someone in NYC, take me up on this. 

Sheets of rice noodles drying in Tha Bo. A small Vietnamese community here has cornered the market on noodle production, and all across the tiny town, bamboo racks with fresh sheets salute the sun. Later they’ll be cut into noodles and I will eat all of them. 
Jan 15

Sheets of rice noodles drying in Tha Bo. A small Vietnamese community here has cornered the market on noodle production, and all across the tiny town, bamboo racks with fresh sheets salute the sun. Later they’ll be cut into noodles and I will eat all of them. 

Jan 13

More scenes from Ban Wan Na Mok: Pa Pon and Khun Peht; mam up close and personal

Tippie the tour guide and I arrived in Nong Khai in Isaan province, literally the end of the line, after 14 hours on the train. Isaan is economically one of the poorest regions of Thailand, but agriculturally one of the richest, and the food here reflects the bounty of its surroundings. I’ll be exploring the town and markets of Nong Khai more tomorrow, but upon arrival, we drove an hour west to the Ban Wang Nam Mak village homestay.
Wan Nam Mak is a traditional community originally founded in 1959 in the outskirts of Si Chiang Mai province, surrounded by rubber plantations and sugarcane fields. In 1998, following the economic collapse in Bangkok, a Wan Nam Mak native named Tinanphop returned to his hometown and began to revitalize the village as a destination for tourists interested in seeing traditional Thai rural life. Today, the homestay program has over 100 families, who welcome mainly groups of domestic tourists into their homes, kitchens and cotton (a local crop) weaving studios. I am one of few Americans who’s made their way here, and I’m SOL when it comes to the English front, so Tippie—despite her insistence on calling the bathroom the “happy room” and her blaring Adele ringtone—has been an invaluable help.
After a few hours of socializing with the children and chickens, one of the village’s oldest residents, Pa (Auntie) Pon and her grown daughter, Peht, took me into the communal kitchen for a lesson in traditional Isaan cooking. Almost everything we ate was prepared using a mortar and pestle, and we took full advantage of the farmland nearby, picking fresh herbs and greens from the village’s community garden. As an independently-minded traveler, I’m usually wary of programmed activities, tour guides, or authority in general. But this meal was, to the best of my knowledge, no bullshit: just a family making a typical weeknight dinner, with the added annoyance of an American gnat [me] buzzing around taking photos and asking too many questions. There is no more intimate way to understand a food culture than by going into the home kitchen, and I feel [cheeseball alert] incredibly grateful that Pa Pon and Khun Peht let me in so readily. Below, dinner [apologies in advance the misspelling of any Thai words]:
Mam: Holy hell so goddamn delicious. It’s basically a dumpling wrapped inside of a flower instead of a carb. The filling is made from local onyx fish, pork, raw sticky rice, fish sauce, kaffir lime, chili, herbs and salt all pounded together into a paste with the mortar and pestle. Peht spooned a lump of the filling into the blossom of a local herbal flower (dok kae), sealed it with the leaves, and steamed a dozen of them at once.
Som Tum: Probably the region’s most famous dish: papaya salad, made from green papaya pounded with a kind of wild olive, tomato, garlic, lime, two kinds of fish sauce (homemade fermented and regular), chili and sugar. Incendiary and refreshing all at once, like Tiger Balm for your mouth.
Pon Plaa: kind of like seafood babaganoush, Thai style. Pa Pon fried up a base of aromatic [mild] chiles, shallots and mushrooms, then pounded that with filets of onyx fish that had been boiled with eggplant (eggplant apparently takes away the fishy smell of fish). A splash of cooking stock in the mortar and pestle and the resulting paste is light and refreshing, topped with cilantro for an herbaceous kick.
 Also: tom yum soup made Northeastern style with tamarind sauce, steamed and raw greens from the garden, hard boiled eggs and about a bushel of sticky rice.
We ate on the ground, in a cotton lantern-adorned porch near the village’s small stream. Mangy dogs and cherubic children wandered in and around while we ate, and some elderly neighbors sat down and helped themselves to the food, too. Pa Pon ate slivers of ripe papaya for dessert and took a nap sitting up. I want to be like her when I grow up.
Coming up later this week: Exploring the Vietnamese-influenced cuisine in Nong Khai; witnessing the production and processing of fresh rice noodles in neighboring Tha Bo; my attempt to eat an entire grilled chicken [gai yang] in one sitting. 
Jan 13

Tippie the tour guide and I arrived in Nong Khai in Isaan province, literally the end of the line, after 14 hours on the train. Isaan is economically one of the poorest regions of Thailand, but agriculturally one of the richest, and the food here reflects the bounty of its surroundings. I’ll be exploring the town and markets of Nong Khai more tomorrow, but upon arrival, we drove an hour west to the Ban Wang Nam Mak village homestay.

Wan Nam Mak is a traditional community originally founded in 1959 in the outskirts of Si Chiang Mai province, surrounded by rubber plantations and sugarcane fields. In 1998, following the economic collapse in Bangkok, a Wan Nam Mak native named Tinanphop returned to his hometown and began to revitalize the village as a destination for tourists interested in seeing traditional Thai rural life. Today, the homestay program has over 100 families, who welcome mainly groups of domestic tourists into their homes, kitchens and cotton (a local crop) weaving studios. I am one of few Americans who’s made their way here, and I’m SOL when it comes to the English front, so Tippie—despite her insistence on calling the bathroom the “happy room” and her blaring Adele ringtone—has been an invaluable help.

After a few hours of socializing with the children and chickens, one of the village’s oldest residents, Pa (Auntie) Pon and her grown daughter, Peht, took me into the communal kitchen for a lesson in traditional Isaan cooking. Almost everything we ate was prepared using a mortar and pestle, and we took full advantage of the farmland nearby, picking fresh herbs and greens from the village’s community garden. As an independently-minded traveler, I’m usually wary of programmed activities, tour guides, or authority in general. But this meal was, to the best of my knowledge, no bullshit: just a family making a typical weeknight dinner, with the added annoyance of an American gnat [me] buzzing around taking photos and asking too many questions. There is no more intimate way to understand a food culture than by going into the home kitchen, and I feel [cheeseball alert] incredibly grateful that Pa Pon and Khun Peht let me in so readily. Below, dinner [apologies in advance the misspelling of any Thai words]:

Mam: Holy hell so goddamn delicious. It’s basically a dumpling wrapped inside of a flower instead of a carb. The filling is made from local onyx fish, pork, raw sticky rice, fish sauce, kaffir lime, chili, herbs and salt all pounded together into a paste with the mortar and pestle. Peht spooned a lump of the filling into the blossom of a local herbal flower (dok kae), sealed it with the leaves, and steamed a dozen of them at once.

Som Tum: Probably the region’s most famous dish: papaya salad, made from green papaya pounded with a kind of wild olive, tomato, garlic, lime, two kinds of fish sauce (homemade fermented and regular), chili and sugar. Incendiary and refreshing all at once, like Tiger Balm for your mouth.

Pon Plaa: kind of like seafood babaganoush, Thai style. Pa Pon fried up a base of aromatic [mild] chiles, shallots and mushrooms, then pounded that with filets of onyx fish that had been boiled with eggplant (eggplant apparently takes away the fishy smell of fish). A splash of cooking stock in the mortar and pestle and the resulting paste is light and refreshing, topped with cilantro for an herbaceous kick.

 Also: tom yum soup made Northeastern style with tamarind sauce, steamed and raw greens from the garden, hard boiled eggs and about a bushel of sticky rice.

We ate on the ground, in a cotton lantern-adorned porch near the village’s small stream. Mangy dogs and cherubic children wandered in and around while we ate, and some elderly neighbors sat down and helped themselves to the food, too. Pa Pon ate slivers of ripe papaya for dessert and took a nap sitting up. I want to be like her when I grow up.

Coming up later this week: Exploring the Vietnamese-influenced cuisine in Nong Khai; witnessing the production and processing of fresh rice noodles in neighboring Tha Bo; my attempt to eat an entire grilled chicken [gai yang] in one sitting. 

Y’hear now? #subwaysofbangkok (at สุดใจไก่ย่าง ส้มตำ อ.ต.ก.)
Jan 10

Y’hear now? #subwaysofbangkok (at สุดใจไก่ย่าง ส้มตำ อ.ต.ก.)

Jan 8

Snapshots from two days in Bangkok.

An assortment of activities I have undertaken in my brief layover here:

-       Revisit Wat Pho and get massage at Way Pho Traditional Thai Massage School. Small man digging his shoulder blade into my neck mutters “strong” as he systematically destroys me.

-       Meet up with American expat Jonathan Englander (thanks Matt Gross!) for dinner at Hemlock in Banglamphu on night one. Englander is great company, the food is nothing to write home about, but the blues bar we go to afterwards—Adhere on 13th—is. The Thai Buddy Guy howls and wails with only the hint of an accent to indicate he wasn’t raised in Chicago.

-       Wander canalside wet market and breakfast stalls near my guesthose in Thelawat. Eat coconut doughnuts, kai jeow (Thai omlettes), lemongrass soup with thick fresh prawns.

-       Wander the street food stalls near the incredibly congested Grand Palace/Amulet Market. They kind of suck, or I’m not ordering the right things [or both].

-       Get a foot massage at a no-name local joint on Th Maharat—upstairs, in a small room filled with mattresses on the floor and a variety of middle-aged clients. A small TV is blaring a fantasy soap. Kindly older masseuse asks where I’m from, then gets to work with herbal salves, a pointy acupressure stick, and his fists. Less than no-frills but one the best treatments I’ve ever received.

-       Nap against my better judgment

-       Take a public night bus to Pak Khlong Talat, the late-night wholesale flower market near Memorial Bridge. This may have been my highlight so far: wandering alley after alley of orchids, lotus, yellow marigolds, jasmine blossoms on ice, and a million more tropical fauna I could never name. Hotels, restaurants and florists shop for their stock here, as do the hundreds of phuang malai (flower garland) vendors who sell on the street. The market obviously smells fantastic, and the Technicolor display, backlit by bright naked fluorescents, is borderline hallucinogenic.

Today’s agenda includes Chinatown and a visit to Jarrett Wrisely’s Soul Food Mahanakorn. 

image

Some brief background for those wondering what in god’s good name this is all about: I’m in Southeast Asia now through the end of March. Route as follows: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Burma/Myanmar and back to Thailand. It’s the culmination of five years of swooning and plotzing after my first trip to Thailand in 2007. I’m here partially for work and partially for fun—I have a series of assignments lined up with Saveur and Serious Eats, and many more in the works (a guide to Buddhist monk cuisine for Health & Spirituality Magazine, anyone?). I’ll be posting field notes and observations here, sometimes coherently formed, but likely not always. So without further ado, some swampy thoughts from my first few days in Bangkok.

Revisiting old favorites from the get go: Wat Pho, home of the worlds longest reclining Buddha. Less touristed than Wat Phra Kaew but in my opinion just as stunning, if not more so. Ive spent years trying to understand why Im drawn to the colorful, over-the-top (some might even call it gaudy) aesthetics of Eastern iconography while preferring simple monochromes for what well call my personal life design. Seeing Wat Pho again reminds me of my long-buried love for all that glitters and is gold.  But returning to Wat Pho, then wandering the labyrinthine Amulet Market looking for that one mystical alley etched in my memory also reminds me not to fall into the trap of nostalgia: Ive been here before, but this time it is not the same. Im a sucker for tradition, but need to be careful not to grow frustrated in trying to recreate experiences. Must keep my memory like a shark: constantly moving forward.  Revisiting old favorites from the get go: Wat Pho, home of the world’s longest reclining Buddha. Less touristed than Wat Phra Kaew but in my opinion just as stunning, if not more so. I’ve spent years trying to understand why I’m drawn to the colorful, over-the-top (some might even call it gaudy) aesthetics of Eastern iconography while preferring simple monochromes for what we’ll call my personal life design. Seeing Wat Pho again reminds me of my long-buried love for all that glitters and is gold.

But returning to Wat Pho, then wandering the labyrinthine Amulet Market looking for that one mystical alley etched in my memory also reminds me not to fall into the trap of nostalgia: I’ve been here before, but this time it is not the same. I’m a sucker for tradition, but need to be careful not to grow frustrated in trying to recreate experiences. Must keep my memory like a shark: constantly moving forward. 

Jan 8
Bangkok I: Wat Pho & the trouble with nostalgia
How much does cuteness weigh?
Jan 7

How much does cuteness weigh?