Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cooking and Eating in Saraburi

A trip to Saraburi to visit friends included almost exclusively cooking and eating. Here are the results.

We started with a trip to the market. We attacked the squid after I put in a request for a squid heavy meal.

Squids were inspected, placed in a basket, poured back into the tubs, and scrutinized again. Finally we had enough squid to feed many hungry people. 50 baht was spent.

Next we went to go get some pork. What meal isn't complete without our cute little snouted friends?

A bag of pork puts you back 50 baht as well. The coffers certainly don't get emptied in Thai markets.

On to the beef and curry stand.


There was gaeng som

and there was gaeng phet, which is what we bought along with a bag of beef. 75 baht.

We bought tofu

and some mangosteens. Couldn't resist! We also bought a bag of fresh coconut. I should also mention that right after this I bought a four kilo durian. That's big. More on that in a minute.

After we got back to the house the first order of business was to make fresh coconut milk. Labor intensive yes, but very fun. Here's what you do: You place your coconut in a bowl and pour in hot water and begin to "milk" the coconut. You use a special basket to strain the milk.

You can milk the coconut three or four times.

I want to be honest with you here: because of my sex (male), I was mostly banished from the kitchen or ignored enough to the point that I didn't get to help cook as much as I would have liked. While the women went to the wholesale market to get vegetables (no space on the motorbike for me), I sat at home with the aforementioned bag of durian like an opiate in his den. It was maybe the best durian I have ever eaten. Good durian is like a drug. once I start, I cannot stop, and it always wreaks havoc on my day. I lay around either too full to move or eating more durian. Long story short: I didn't help much with the cooking except the occasional picture.

I was helpful once or twice though. At one point it was suggested I go and get some bua loy. I waddled off the couch for a quick ride into town and was met by a cauldron of bua loy.

Bua loy is little dough balls in a bath of coconut milk. More on this in a later post! This one was popular with egg in it.

everyone else was going it so...

If this wasn't enough, my friend Ace decided it would be a good idea to get some soda.

Since I’d never tried this concoction before, it seemed like a really good idea. Ace and I got a root beer like beverage, while E had sour plumb. Not bad at all.

The tailpipe on this spaceship is what adds the carbonation. Blast off!

Dinner was late this particular evening due to a doggie abortion in the veterinary clinic at the house we were staying at. That was one long surgery! Maybe you didn't want to hear about that. Anyhow, on to the food!

There was pat krapao pla-meuk or squid with basil.

There was tofu with three ingredients. This is usually made with pork although I've had it with squid before. up to you I suppose.

There was gaeng nua, a lovely red curry with beef

There was phad buat, which is a cucumber like vegetable (I don't know the name in English) with egg and pork

Last but not least there was pla salit; dried and fried fish

There's nothing more to say about this spread. The food was good as was the company. Stay tuned for part two where we'll look at a couple of delicious desserts.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Coffee in Paradise

We recently were on Koh Libong in southern Thailand. One of the frustrating things about travelling to such places is usually the dearth of decent food and drink. Many Thai islands have small or non existent local populations. People are often only there to serve the tourists who would like to visit. You often only get the most generic tourist fare without regard to the region's unique flavors. Our guest house served very poor food and equally appalling coffee. No matter, one of the small Muslim villages the dot the island was not far from our bungalow. Ten minutes up the beach and we were in "town". After our first day of putrid nescafe, we were able to track down some great food and a gem of a coffee stand. Southern style coffee, or kopi was on offer. It made for one of my favorite coffee spots in recent memory. Who would have thought?

I have mentioned a time or two before that Thai coffee just doesn't stack up to Lao, Vietnamese, or even homemade coffee. It's often too sweet, or too weak. Kopi is not fleshed out with so it's more reliably dark and rich. This coffee at eight baht a cup with tea was a bargain.

Our party of four gave a good bit of business to this stand. We had a coffee (well, two a piece) in the morning, followed by afternoon tea with 13 sticky rice snacks! The next morning was (a lot more) kopi and fried bananas.

Maybe not the healthiest breakfast, but certainly a great one.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Food Fatigue

The remanants of last night's particulalry heavy phad prik gaeng.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Suki With a View

Overlooking beautiful, er scenic Bangkok from the food court at Platinum Fashion Mall. Platinum Fashion Mall has one of the finest food courts in Bangkok. The food is mostly the same as elsewhere, but there is ample seating along large windows overlooking the huddled masses on the busy streets below. Since this is a wholesale mall, after you finish eating you can go downstairs and buy fifty pair of pants.

The Suki's not bad either.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Return of Rambutan

Two kilos of rambutan were purchased

fifteen minutes passed

and there was nothing left
save for a few sad orphans

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Another Noodle

Would you believe that in Luang Prabang, a food mecca for some, we kind of struck out? I can't explain but I can certainly make excuses. This was certainly not Luang Prabang's fault. We tried some of the well regarded restaurants, tracked down some of the must try food items, but the stars never aligned. We ate food that we liked, but never found our groove other than what I've posted on already. Oh well, we can't always eat our favorite meals.

I will offer this one bit of advice: proceed directly to the night market and try the pick and point items on display. Bring a plate, or bowl, or something as it's all take away. You'll be glad you did. Happy hunting!

Anyhow, here's another bowl of noodles to look at. After what we thought was enough noodles for a while, we had to try a concoction called Khao Soi, spotted along the main drag placed in between two restaurants selling croissants and lattes. Not the same as the lovely northern Thai noodle, but worth checking out.

Kind of like Pho, but richer and spicier owing to a well seasoned pork. Served with greens and the previously discussed suki sauce.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Few Words About Luang Prabang

It's always hard to approach a much hyped destination without having large expectations that need to be met in order to feel like something didn't add up. This is not the best place on the Internet to read gushing descriptions of the beautiful Luang Prabang. The royal sights, the many wats, the beautifully preserved colonial architecture, the great markets, and the beautiful rivers all make this UNESCO world heritage town beautiful indeed. These blessings certainly explain the hordes of tourists.

Hordes of tourists mean piles of tourist dollars. Luang Prabang certainly has benefited from the influx of foreign visitors. This influx of foreign visitors has been followed closely by an influx of young men (and women?) from the provinces to get a piece of the action.

It's always hard to decide how and where to spend your money in a place like this. Luang Prabang struck me at how gentrified it seemed. It was weird how many favorite tourist haunts are simply foreign owned: Joma Cafe, Scandinavian Bakery, Croissant d'or, and most other cafes and bakeries on the main drag are owned by foreigners. It is true that these places normally employ locals, but this brings up something that always troubles me. Many travelers like to think that their visiting a place helps the local population have a better life and a brighter future. How far does this dream become a reality when the jobs available for the locals is in the service industry? A lot but not all of the big dollars often end up in the pockets of outsiders.

I'm not a big fan of a lot of travel writing that tells half truths and paints overly flattering portraits of places. International travel has really exploded in the last number of years. What was once a pursuit of the very rich or at least the very interested, has become an everyday commodity. A place gets hot, gets flooded, and then discarded when it is no longer considered hip enough, or undiscovered enough. A new mecca for the "undiscovered", "unspoiled" and or "authentic" experiences usually materializes.

I want to be perfectly clear here: This is not to suggest that I am perfect and that somehow I was able to rise above these issues and I look down upon my fellow travellers with an air of superiority. I am as guilty as the next and certainly suffer from a troubled mind about this. What I do want to point out is that in the last couple of years I have found it harder and harder to be a visitor and a conspicuous consumer in the developing world.

Note: You are reading a truncated post that I was writing and rewriting about Luang Prabang when I was alerted to today's International Herald Tribune article about Luang Prabang. It more or less sums up some of the ideas I wrestled with while there. It says things more eloquently and heartbreaking than I ever could. This is essential reading, so consider it your duty to read it.

I'll try and say something about food in my next post. Sorry about that.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Down to Luang Prabang

The ride from Kui Kacham to Luang Prabang (80 kms) was exhilarating. The first hour or so of the day was a ride down like no other. It was the kind of experience that might make a drug abuser pause and realize that there are experiences and sensations that don't rely solely upon pills. We sped downhill at incredible speeds for an incredible length of time. It was hard to believe that we had gone up so far. We went up a time or two, only to be rewarded with more downhill. Our hands were tingly, and we just about froze to death, but it was worth it.

The last town we hit after an incredible downhill stretch, which is also the last town before Luang Prabang, provided an ideal lunch stop. We quickly spied a place for lunch, and were informed that what they had was pho. Hmm. Ok, that sounds good. As I watched the sweet couple prepare our pho together I knew we were in for something special. After I made our order, the proprietors pulled back a large piece of cloth that was covering their greens. I knew that these people took their pho seriously.

This has to be the most beautiful bowl of Pho I have ever eaten. Made up of the usual suspects, plus crispy pork and ample tomatoes, this bowl was a work of art.

These greens were also a source of excitement. Once again, a few familiar greens such as lettuce and mint, and a few other unfamiliar ones. The point of interest here is the sauce served with the greens. It is a sweet sauce with peanuts which is sometimes referred to as Lao Suki sauce. This was the first but not last time we would encounter this sauce in this part of the country. I'm still not sure how you're supposed to eat it though. Only on the veg, in the soup, or both? I did a little bit of both.

Coming soon, a post or two, or three about Luang Prabang. Don't be a stranger.

Friday, April 11, 2008

... and up to Kui Kacham

I forgot to mention in the last post that Phoukhoun was really really cold owing to its high altitude. When we awoke in the morning, we were in no mood to ride until it got a little warmer. Remember, we are acclimatized to SE Asia, not our native temperate climate, so we might seem like wimps when it comes to cooler temperatures. We sat over yet another bowl of pho for breakfast and waited for a little bit of warmth.

The pho did the trick and we were off. For me the day was tough. The dusty road, the beginning of the Lao burning season, and a nagging cold made this day less than ideal. It was up and down all day, but felt like mostly up. Luckily it was still incredibly beautiful, and there was always some place to stop to recharge the batteries.

When riding through a town, the kids would come running out to wave and say hello, but with us stopping, they were a bit more timid. In a town of unknown name we stopped for a bowl of noodles at an open store front.

Noodles spotted,


and presented. Spicy, fishy, with mushrooms, and a huge bowl of greens made for a great first lunch of the day. I sat near a mostly toothless old woman who did not for even one instant take her eyes off of us. Let's be honest here: we were hot, sweaty, wearing funny clothes, and riding bicycles with bags strapped to them. Oh, and I was snapping photos of my noodles. We were funny looking.

We arrived in the town of Kui Kacham to find a one street town where all the tour buses stop. The main drag is filled with the aforementioned buses, small dirty children looking for a handout (I shared my grapes), and tourists taking their picture. It's not an ideal stop after so much effort, but a place to rest one's head is always appreciated.

Note to readers: Sorry for the slow pace of updates. I've been travelling a lot the last month or so, so updates have been sporadic. I'll try to get back on top of things now that I'm back in Bangkok. Honest.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Up and Up to Phoukhoun

From Kasi the road got a lot steeper. Up and up we rode to Phoukhoun. The road wasn't straight up, just a steady climb. It was a difficult but breathtaking ride.

We passed through countless villages where hordes of children would run out from their abodes yelling "Sabaidee!!!" and waving like mad. Some kids opted to put their hands out for high fives. I was happy to oblige.

We rolled in to Phoukhoun at about two in the afternoon. Upon hearing us speaking Thai the owner of the guesthouse was excited to tell us all of his feelings about Thailand in rapid fire mode. He aired some grievances that I think are on many people's minds who have studied their history and Thai popular culture. He complained that he doesn't like the way Lao people are portrayed in the Thai television that he sometimes watches. He also explained to us why he thinks Isaan should really be part of Laos. I recommend you do a little research about this if you want to know more. It's interesting, I promise. Our heads were spinning from this barrage, and from the severe hunger from our difficult days ride.

Can you guess what we ate?

Gotta love those greens!

As I've said before, I love Pho, but the calorie deficit was starting to be a problem.

That night we had to beg a girl at a local restaurant to make us something different. Boiled chicken, stir fried veggies, and sticky rice couldn't possibly taste better.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Vangvienne to Kasi

It's always a relief to be back on the road after a period of rest. It's especially so after the place of rest is a place like Vangvienne. The main tourist drag in Vangvienne is lined with tourists restaurants playing endless episodes of Friends. Some of these restaurants have "happy menus" which offer a variety of drug laced menu items. Maybe that's how some people actually enjoy watching Friends.

The road to Kasi provided the beginnings of the best riding I have ever done. We rode between large green peaks and only encountered moderate hills on this beautiful day. The riding was easy and enjoyable. Even after getting a rather late start, sixty kilometers just disappeared and we arrived in Kasi at midday.

We encountered a few usual suspects for lunch.

More pho with lots of greens. At this point I had started to finally fall in love with this dish. More on this later.

After lunch it was more naam oy.

This drink is sweet of course, but has a slight grassy taste which is really quite delicious. I can't think of a more refreshing beverage.

At this point I think it's appropriate to pause and say a few words about traveling by bicycle. When you ride your bike, the distance that you can cover on a given day is not immense, meaning you end up in the middle of nowhere a lot of the time. This fact might make this journal very boring to read for some of my readers, but I thought for the sake of documentation it would be helpful to show that not every place is a postcard. Many people talk about wanting to see and do "Authentic" things in the foreign countries they visit. Does that apply only to exciting and photo worthy things?

Kasi was a sleepy affair with no real sights, no exciting or unusual food discoveries, and no complaints. We wandered the streets, visited the dingy market, made small talk with a local boy with surprisingly good English, and rested up for the coming days.

We had a friendly dining companion that night at dinner.