Bangkok Bites

To wrap up my Bangkok series, I’m combining all the rest of my food notes into one post.

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My first bite in Bangkok was at the airport. I was famished after the three-hour flight even if I had a bowl of cheap ramen before taking off. I saw a 7-11 and looked for something that would catch my eye. This taro and coconut custard pie just screamed at me. I loved the old taro pies at McDonald’s in the Philippines, and coconut custard is always good. For my drink, I took a can of Chakuza sparkling black tea. The pie was heavenly, which frustrated me first, because 7-11 in the Philippines has really crappy food; and second, because I haven’t come across taro and coconut custard in a pastry despite our affinity for both ingredients.

I hoped this was a sign of things to come in Bangkok, and indeed it turned out to be so.

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Our first serious meal was brunch at a local sports bar. The big UFC fight night was scheduled at 9:00 a.m. Thailand time, so we scouted the Asok area. On our way to one of the more SEO-friendly sports bars on Soi 23, but on our way we walked by Bradman’s, a sports bar-turned-bistro that boasted of its superior food and high ranking on Trip Advisor. A quick walk to check out the other sports bar, but decided to return to the more homey Bradman’s with its friendly (British, I think) proprietor.

I had the “surfboards”, scrambled eggs and bacon on toast. She ordered their veggie burger, which turned out to be chickpea-based and tasted similar to falafel.  The surfboards were just as one would expect, with perfectly cooked eggs, as advertised by the owner, nicely toasted bread, and of course, finely chopped bacon to bring everything together. The vegetarian burger was top notch, and I’ll admit to having sampled quite a few, including the self-proclaimed best in Manila. Both dishes proved that Bradman’s reputation for good, home-cooked food was well-deserved.

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Of course, one needs a beer in order to enjoy fight night, even if it’s ten in the morning. The best lager in Thailand, and maybe the best mass-produced lager in Southeast Asia, is probably Beerlao from Laos. It is actually an adjunct, brewed with rice. But as Hitachino Nest has proven, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While there isn’t much difference between all these mass-market beers, Beerlao just tasted cleaner, not as industrial and metallic.

 

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Being a lenten Sunday, there were also hot cross buns being served. One a penny, two a penny? No sir, these were complimentary. I’m not a big fan of raisins, and I thought the bread a bit too dense. Since I haven’t had hot cross buns before, I don’t know if it’s really supposed to be that way. I won’t argue with free dessert, though.

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Everywhere in Bangkok, one sees ambulant vendors and food stalls selling fresh tangerine juice (dalanghita in Filipino. I wasn’t able to catch the Thai word). Served ice cold, it’s the perfect thirst quencher for hot Bangkok sidewalk heat.

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In Chatuchak Market, I was lucky to have found something I was really looking forward to tasting in Bangkok — pok pok. While the term is derogatory in the Filipino language, this is a great afternoon ice cream snack in Thailand. Coconut ice cream and Thai milk tea ice cream topped with peanuts and nested in a bun was yet another way to quell the sun. It’s the Thai equivalent of what we call “dirty” ice cream in the Philippines, which is often served in buns as well. Perfect .

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Another summer street favorite is Thai-style iced coffee, a generous heap of instant ground coffee and condensed milk, prepared as you order. It’s both intensely bitter and sweet at the same time. For days when the sun isn’t shining, you can also order this hot.

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My most “authentic” Thai meal was at Khun Saak, near Attamit International School where A. used to work. Her old boss and closest teacher friends took us out to lunch after a visit to the school. How do I know this was authentic? Aside from the lady situated at a station outside the restaurant pounding away at fresh ingredients using a giant mortar and pestle and lifting whole roasted chickens out of earthenware ovens? Well, the restaurant itself was devoid of anything written in English, from the signboard outside to the text in the menus. The clientele was made up of mostly Thai office workers on their lunch breaks, and the only exceptions were well, us.

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Luckily, our Thai kru (teacher) host was there to do the ordering for us. The aforementioned roast chicken came first. This was strongly Chinese-influenced but the dipping sauces were distinctly Thai with a nice balance of salty, sweet, sour and spicy.

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Another local favorite is the som tam. This was a common picnic food in Chatuchak, with weekenders lazing around the adjacent park with their mats, snacking on this green papaya salad with green beans, carrots, chili and peanuts in a spicy vinegar sauce. I wonder why this isn’t more of a hit in the Philippines when we have all the necessary ingredients locally available. I assume it’s because Filipinos aren’t as used to heat, especially in their salads, at that. In fact, whenever I order som tam in a Thai restaurant in the Philippines, I am constrained to ask for extra chopped chilis, even if I already ask the staff to serve it extra spicy.

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The highlight of my meal was this fried local sea bass. The flesh was cut out and chopped into cubes and deep fried, then returned to the fried carcass of the fish for plating. Aside from being expertly fried – crunchy and not greasy at all, it was again the dipping sauce that made the dish, a combination of, again, sweet, sour, salty and spicy, but with an added slight bitterness from the chopped coriander.

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Rounding out the meal were a couple of sauteed dishes: mixed seafood and vegetables as well as larb/laab moo (ground pork, and yes, “moo” refers to pork in Thai). I didn’t get to try much of both, though I did find the pork a bit on the tangy side. I decided to stick with the fish and the som tam, which I could eat everyday. Khun Saak was a good introduction to Thai cuisine the way the contemporary Thais enjoy it. These were simple dishes, made with the freshest ingredients and a balance of flavors — always a recipe for great food.

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Because the sidewalks of Bangkok can be way too hot during lunch time, a good alternative to street food would be to check out the air-conditioned food courts at the malls. Pier 21 is in one of the newest and most unique malls along Sukhumvit, Terminal 21. Each floor has a theme based on a city around the world, and even the rest rooms are decorated accordingly. Pier 21 is dressed up as San Francisco Wharf, but the offerings are mostly Thai (there are a number of sit-down restaurants of pretty much every cuisine, though). Payment is made at each stall using a prepaid card, but the change can always be refunded after your meal.

I had a tough time picking something out so I decided to get two viands from different stalls, roast duck on sesame noodles and fish maw (the organ used to keep fish afloat) soup. Unlike in the Philippines, food court stalls in Bangkok are all unique, each serving a small menu items that they alone offer. That’s a lot better than having dozens of establishments all offering pork barbeque.

The food was ridiculously cheap at around 40 Baht each. I had a tall glass of passion fruit juice as well. In all I spent around 100 Baht for everything. And the food was excellent – all the passion and flavor of street food but in a spotless, comfortable, air-conditioned environment.

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As for A., she headed straight to her favorite stall and got her usual order — brown rice with ground tofu cooked two ways and some vegetarian “chicharon”. Bangkok really is a vegetarian’s paradise. And while I wouldn’t have a hard time turning vegetarian in Bangkok because of the quality of the food, all the equally awesome meat would still be calling out to me.

One thing should be noted with Bangkok mall food courts: come before the lunch hour rush. Getting a table can be very difficult. Luckily, however, people there are respectful and trustworthy. You can leave a bottle of water, a book or something similar on an empty table and people will recognize that it’s been reserved while you order and pick up your food. Don’t worry, no one will take your stuff, but it’s best not to leave any valuables just the same.

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My last lunch in Bangkok was at the food court in Emporium, a high-end shopping mall and perhaps the classiest one this side of Siam. I was trying to look for a highly regarded chicken rice shop nearby, but forgot to Google directions. A cursory search around the immediate area proved unsuccessful. I was supposed to just drop by a coffee shop or somewhere with free wi-fi, but hunger got the best of me. I went up to their food court and decided to have chicken rice there. Emporium uses chits for payment, unlike Terminal 21’s cards, but you get your change back just the same. My set of steamed and fried chicken with chicken rice set me back around 65 Baht, which was already expensive for food court fare. Well, I was in a richie rich mall, so I couldn’t complain about the price. What I did want to complain about was the middling food.

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Disappointed with my first lunch, I decided to come back for more. This time, I ordered cherry roasted duck with noodles in soup. This was, again, pretty boring. The dish was saved by the beautiful coagulated blood, though. It wasn’t bitter and chalky like Filipino “betamax”, but was delicately flavored and yielding like gelatin. While my farewell lunch was more of a disappointment, this was still much more satisfying than the typical Filipino food court meal, and cost just as much.

Bangkok had so much more to offer, but I only had so little time and so little space in my already burgeoning belly. I’ll definitely be back for more, and I can hardly wait.

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