[Note: My friend Patty is awesome. She’s so awesome that I won’t let her go to Thailand without writing a guest post, so here it is! Thanks Patty. Oh, and check out her website: PatriciaJang.com.]
After consuming untold amounts of green papaya salad, pad thai, and red curry at our local Thai restaurant haunts, Lauren and I were looking forward to trying authentic Thai food (and laying out on the beaches with a Singha) during our trip to Thailand. The food was incredibly cheap, delicious and ubiquitous – Thai people love to eat, and eat well. The streets in Bangkok were literally lined with food stalls hawking sausages, noodles, fried chicken, and all sorts of tropical fruit, but the insane traffic, air pollution, and narrow, bustling sidewalks made for seriously extreme al fresco dining. We also travelled to the north to the mountains in Chiang Mai and flew south to the stunning beaches in Railay, Koh Phi Phi, and Phuket. To simplify the task of describing our culinary travels, I’ve listed my top five favorite eats.
1. Inthanon Restaurant at the Royal Project, Doi Inthanon National Park
Doi Inthanon National Park not only encompasses the highest mountain in Thailand, it is also home to the “hill people” – people from the Hmong and Karen tribes. We visited the Royal Project Research Station, a project endowed by the King, which helps the Hmong and Karen people cultivate cash crops and flowers and also runs the Inthanon Restaurant.
After a few wrong turns on dirt roads, we found the Inthanon Restaurant next to a mountain stream lined with cottonwood trees. The food, the epitome of local, was sublime. The freshness and brightness of the vegetables, sautéed with a delicate oyster sauce, blew me away. The tofu and mushroom soup was also amazing – the tofu was silken, but with a depth of flavor that I don’t equate with tofu (despite having lived in a vegetarian co-op and suffered through dozens of iterations of “tofu scramble”). The rainbow trout, which had been reintroduced to the park by the Royal Project, was the house specialty. Lauren picked the bones clean.
2. Tornado potato at Siam Paragon, Bangkok
After wandering around the sprawling Siam Paragon mall in Bangkok (which was easily larger than my Brooklyn neighborhood), Lauren and I headed down to the food hall. It was almost an embarrassment of riches. We were surrounded by all manner of sausages (who knew sausages were so prevalent in Thai food?), steamed buns, dried dragon fruit, strange doughnuts, fried rice wrapped in lotus leaves, and the largest vat of soup I have ever seen:
And then, I saw it: the tornado potato.
Pomme frites. Potato chips. Cheese fries. Cue drool now. I am an unapologetic fried potato freak. After reading an article about street food in Korea that mentioned “tornado potatoes,” potatoes that have been cut in a nifty spiral, skewered, and deep-fried, I knew I had to try one. My hands trembled as I took hold of the tom-yum flavored tornado and handed over the requisite baht. I took a bite. Crispy. Not as greasy as I expected. The spice of the tom-yum flavor hit the back of my throat. I coughed, drank some water, and sneezed. Then it dawned on me: this was the best potato chip I had ever experienced. It was almost like a thick-cut potato chip that had managed to retain a real “potato” taste without losing the potato chip’s addictive salty deliciousness. And how festive it is, the tornado, with the skewer!
3. Khao soy noodles
After spending the day at Doi Inthanon, we stopped by a little roadside place that specialized in a curried noodle soup called khao soy, a northern Thai specialty, served with onions, lime, and pickled cabbage, which was akin to kimchi, but not as spicy. The curry was similar to massaman curry, with less peanuts and more kick. The egg noodles and chicken drumstick were sprinkled with a golden layer of lovely fried noodles. What really made this dish a total standout was the added vinegar from pickled cabbage, which also warmed my little Korean heart.
4. Fried fish with chilies on the beach at Phi Phi Island
Need I say anything else?
5. Traditional Thai desserts at Taling Pling
The dessert menu at Thai restaurants in the States – green tea ice cream, chocolate cake, and maybe a fried banana or some coconut sticky rice. Check out this picture:
Wild, right? On the top left is kloy cheum – banana stewed in syrup and topped with coconut cream. To the right is kao nuew dum – black sticky rice with black beans in coconut milk and syrup topped with kao mao (cooked sticky rice dried and deep fried, much like Rice Krispies). On the bottom left is tap tim krop – water chestnut coated in potato flour mixture, colored with red food dye and served in coconut milk and syrup. On the bottom right is lod chong (and my favorite) – flour and pandanus juice rolled into green pods, served in coconut and brown sugar syrup. While these desserts may not be particularly photogenic, they were interesting texturally and completely different than anything I had ever had. The closest analogy I could come up with was the Korean shaved-ice dessert, pot bin seu.
Here are some Thai desserts getting served up at the Chatuchak market in Bangkok:
6. OK, so I cheated. Here’s #6 – Sai oua, Northern-style Thai Sausage at Huen Phen
Since I’ve talked about the surprising amount of sausage consumption on Thailand, I had to mention sia oua, my favorite sausage experience. We had done some research on Chowhound about restaurants in Chiang Mai and found several raves of Huen Phen (I whole-heartedly concur). I ordered the sia oua, accompanied by a chili dip and sticky rice. I was dumbfounded after my first bite – what was this weird, alien flavor? It finally dawned on me: lemongrass. I usually think I have a decent palate, but it was so jarring to taste lemongrass in a sausage that I was completely thrown off. After my initial shock, I started wondering why more people don’t add lemongrass in their sausage. In case you want to stuff your own sia oua, check out this recipe.
Before I left, one of my friends asked me confirm the existence of Thai coffee in Thailand. The answer is yes. And now, I bring you, the stylings of the Thai Coffee Carnation Man. If you want to book him for your next office party, look him up at the Chatuchak Market in Bangkok.