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Secrets of the Bangkok Chefs
by Matthew Amster-Burton
February 20, 2002
It's no surprise that Thai-American favorites like phad thai and tom yam taste better in Thailand, but a bigger and unexpected treat is that there are dozens of popular dishes in Thailand that haven't made it to American shores. These are three of my favorites.
Down at my local Whole Foods, there's a world-class sausage case offering everything from chorizo and linguica to kielbasa to chicken basil garlic. Despite the international outlook, their "Thai sausage," which includes peanuts and a bit of chile, doesn't begin to do justice to the array of sausages available in Thailand. And not long ago the only authentic Asian sausage I knew of was the Chinese lop cheong.
Sure, a chicken peanut sausage is tasty, and I like lop cheong, but I'd trade them both in a heartbeat for a plate of sai krok tod.
There's a very famous and expensive Bangkok riverside restaurant, Supatra River House, on the Thonburi bank of the Chao Phraya. We ate at the restaurant next door. It's a cheap homestyle place with no English name but a deck overlooking the river. Thousands of huge dragonflies buzzed just overhead. A lizard crawled across one of the globe lights. In the tropics, everything is alive. We ordered a whole fried fish, som tam of coconut shoots, and chicken laap. Then on a whim I ordered a plate of "Isaan sausage."
The plate held a number of sausage links, but they were in the traditional sai krok shape: about the diameter of an American breakfast link, each link an inch long. I realized that I'd been seeing them around town on sticks, being grilled on the street. For sai krok tod, the links are fried, halved, and served with cabbage or other leaves, diced ginger, peanuts, sliced chiles, and cilantro. You can make little wraps or just keep eating the sausage straight long after you're full.
What makes sai krok so good? The same things that make Isaan food good in general: lime juice, fish sauce, sticky rice, and garlic. The sausage has an initial sour bite from the lime, then the garlic hits you. The rice keeps it chewy and not too heavy. And this is one sausage that's easy to make at home. If, like me, you're too lazy to stuff it into casings, just mix some up in a bowl, let it sit overnight, and fry up small patties in a skillet. There seems to be one standard sai krok recipe that's all over the net, and it's exactly the same as the one in Thailand: The Beautiful Cookbook. Which came first, I don't know, but here it is.
ISAAN SOUR SAUSAGE (SAI
Makes about 1-1/4 pounds
1 lb ground pork (not too
lean or ground too finely)
1/4 cup minced garlic
1/2 cup steamed sticky rice (see note)
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder (optional, see note)
Mix all ingredients in a bowl. If you like, stuff into thin casings and twist off at 1-inch intervals. Let sausage cure 12 hours in the refrigerator. The lime juice will turn the meat white. Saute in a pan until cooked through and serve as described above. If you've made links, they're best deep-fried.
Note: I like to add a bit of cayenne pepper for color. Sticky rice is an opaque, long-grain white rice eaten throughout north and northeast Thailand and Laos. It is widely available in Asian groceries in the US, usually in five pound bags labeled "glutinous rice." Here's a primer on cooking sticky rice; you can purchase all the necessary gear and rice from the same site, or you can use a regular American metal steamer pot.
Another popular Thai sausage is sai oua, which is native to Chiang Mai. This sausage is harder to make at home, since it's half-dried. This is too bad, since sai oua contains shrimp paste, lemongrass, chiles, and galangal (it may or may not contain lime juice), and is as delicious as sai krok and completely different.
There's no hard line between soup and curry in Thailand. Many curries have a thin broth and are delicious eaten straight with a spoon, and it's not uncommon to spoon tom yam over rice and eat it like a curry.
On our first day in town we walked down from our hotel to the Democracy Monument, a soaring abstract landmark in one of Bangkok's oldest neighborhoods. There are two famous restaurants on the monument; one, the Vijit, gave us our only mediocre meal last time around, so this time we headed directly to the Methavalai Sorndaeng. The Sorndaeng is outfitted like a fussy hotel dining room and fills up with government employees at lunch, but it's cheap and friendly, and sometimes there was a lounge chanteuse who would sing "Happy Birthday" as well as Thai songs.
Adela spotted one of the Sorndaeng menu's charming translations: "Vegetables in tamarinated soup." It's not every day you learn a new verb, and this was quite a soup, with an array of vegetables in a bright red broth. It was both hot and sour, but more substantial than a typical "hot and sour soup," with a smooth mouthfeel.
When we returned to the Sorndaeng, I ordered the soup again and listened as the waiter repeated back in Thai: gaeng som. I consulted World Food Thailand and found that this usually translates as "sour curry," and you can eat it as a soup or over rice. Its base is one of the easiest chile pastes to make at home, but you can also buy it from Importfood.com, and I brought home a couple of packets from the grocery inside the Tokyu department store in Siam Square. Shopping in a Thai grocery is heaven. There are rows of fish sauce sorted by quality, with several rungs that aren't imported to the US. I also grabbed some other curry pastes and some cookies for the plane.
VEGETABLES IN TAMARINATED
10 dried red chiles, seeded, soaked, and chopped
1-2 tbsp cilantro root or stems, minced
3 shallots, chopped
1/2 tbsp shrimp paste
6 large cloves garlic
1/2 tsp black or white peppercorns
Pound ingredients to a paste in mortar and pestle. Because this is going to be suspended in a broth, it's especially important to get the paste very smooth. And because this is a big pain, just buy some from Importfood.
1-1/2 cups water
2 cups chicken broth
1 tbsp chile paste (above), or more to taste
1 oz tamarind paste, dissolved in 1/4 cup hot water and strained
2 tbsp fish sauce
1/2 head broccoli, cut into very small florets
1 small zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1/2" segments
Combine the water, broth, chile paste, and tamarind juice in a saucepan. Season with fish sauce to taste. Add broccoli and zucchini and simmer until vegetables are cooked, 5-8 minutes. Feel free to throw in whatever vegetables or meats you like, and eat as a soup or over rice.
Gaeng som is related to another of my favorites, gaeng pa: jungle curry, which is also a soup-like curry made without coconut milk. Even in Thai-American restaurants that claim to specialize in the cuisine of the Northeast, it is rare to see a curry sans coconut.
Here's a mystery. How do Americans like their fish? Judging by the popularity of places like Catfish Corner and Spud Fish and Chips in Seattle, the answer is: fried. Thais like fried fish even more than we do, and they've invented a wealth of techniques for coaxing every last bit of crunch out of a fish. Among the best of these, and certainly the crunchiest, is fluffy catfish. So why is this brilliant preparation, a staple across central Thailand, absent from nearly every Thai restaurant menu in the west? Americans would go crazy for it, and in fact I first heard about it after noted health food maven Marian Burros raved about a version at Thanying restaurant in Bangkok.
Fluffy catfish (pla doog foo in Thai) is simple to describe and simple to make. Grill or broil catfish to well done, flake the meat to pieces with a fork, air-dry, then deep-fry the flakes until dark brown and crisp. Think of it as the fish equivalent of home fries or shoestring potatoes: the object is so maximize surface area and therefore crunch. It is commonly served either as a salad (yam pla doog foo) with slivers of green mango or in a simple stir-fry with red onion or shallot, garlic, lemongrass, and basil.
The salad, which combines the extremely crispy fish with moderately crispy and sour green mango (and, this being Thai food, a whole lot of chiles), is a remarkable dish, and the only thing tricky about making it is finding a green mango. A green mango is just an unripe mango, but few markets carry them regularly and even those that do sometimes label half-ripe mangoes as "green." A half-ripe mango is a useless thing with no taste. A green mango should be smaller than a softball and heavy, with smooth, firm skin. If you only see ripe mangoes, ask--they might have some green ones in the back. If you're not sure, hold one up and ask the grocer, "Sour?" Even then, be prepared to make stir-fried fluffy catfish instead of salad. Inconsistency is the spice of life, or something.
FLUFFY CATFISH SALAD
Adapted From Dancing Shrimp
1 pound catfish fillets
5 cloves garlic, chopped
10 fresh Thai chiles, thinly sliced
2-3 tablespoons fish sauce
2-3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 cup green mango, julienned
3 cups peanut oil for frying
2 tbsp raw peanuts
2 shallots, sliced thin
A few leaves of Boston, green leaf, or butter lettuce
Cilantro to taste, minced