Jan 282012

On the first Saturday morning of her trips, Kasma likes to lead bewildered Americans down the crowded sidewalk of Sukhumvit between Soi 55 (Soi Thonglor) and Soi 57, where a market blossoms at dawn. Fragrant grilled pork, strings of flower buds for Buddhist offerings, and knick-knacks beckoned, but we were on a quest. We picked up plump pan-fried dumplings stuffed with garlicky Chinese chives, chewy glutinous rice chive cakes, fried bread (a kind of unsweetened doughnut), grilled bananas, and khanom krok, the deliciously rich coconut milk pancakes (in this case topped with a few kernels of corn or bits of green onion). Oh, and two trays of mango and sticky rice.

Our main meal was a bowl of noodles with fish dumplings and pork meatballs. The fish dumplings all start out as ground fish, but are formed into various shapes and sizes. There is a choice of wide or thin noodles, dry or fresh, and hot-and-sour soup or hot-and-sour seasonings without the broth. On the table, fish sauce, peanuts, chillies, and sugar were available for adding savor and texture; the noodles also benefitted from a few teaspoons of lime juice, conveniently pre-squeezed, but available only by request.

We valiantly sought to eat everything, but in the end we couldn’t finish it. We will have to do better at lunch, assuming we are hungry by then.

Chatuchak Market

One of the largest bazaars in the world, Chatuchak weekend market is a maze of vendor stalls featuring everything imaginable, from fine art to puppies. Catering to both a local and international clientele, one finds stall after stall of denim clothes, housewares, personal care products, and souvenirs. Since there is no air conditioning, the heat can become suffocating by mid-day. That won’t dissuade a determined customer, but since I was just browsing, I eventually needed to seek cold refreshments. Chilled young (green) coconuts we available at every turn: a cleaver removes the top of the shell, and a straw provides access to the cool, slightly sweet coconut juice. With some effort, you also can extract the tender meat. The fresh-squeezed tangerine juice was much easier to consume, and deliciously refreshing. Nevertheless, if one were on a quest for a particular thing, you could ignore the inconvenience.

I, on the other hand, was exhausted with the pushing and bumping. On one corner of the market, I noticed an entrance for the MRT, Bangkok’s subway system. This station connects to Aw Taw Kaw market, where I was planning to pick up some jackfruit chips. Might this be a shortcut? Navigating from Exit 2 to Exit 3 involved passing through an underground shopping mall; commerce is everywhere. At the market, I found jackfruit chips at a number of stalls, and bought about a kilo for road munchies. We will return here the last day of the trip for take-home purchases.

Lunch at Toh Plue

At noon we met for lunch at Toh Plue restaurant, a small oasis of air conditioning conveniently located in the market. Fried fish and green mango in a mouth puckering lime juice dressing is a classic combination, and the cottonfish was crispy outside and absorbent inside, making a nice pair with the green mango salad. Stir-fried crab meat arrived topped with crispy fried holy basil. Thin slices of fatty pork neck were tempered with strong spices in a spicy Northern larb. Finally, after a lengthy delay, we got a young coconut which opened to reveal a fish mousse with mixed seafood (and plenty of cabbage on the bottom) which had been steamed in the coconut. It was enough food to discourage further efforts in the hot market, so we headed back to the Rex.

Modern Shopping

After a brief break, a fellow traveler and I took the BTS Skytrain toward the center of town for a little indoor mall exploration. I would have my Smartphone SIM no matter how many stores I had to hit. We started at MBK Center, which is chock full of electronics shops. The DTAC store there was sold out of the card, and first suggested trying the innumerable stalls on the fourth floor. When I asked how I could identify the ones selling SIM cards, the guy relented and suggested the DTAC store in Siam Paragon, a newer mall a couple of blocks up the street.

Before leaving MBK, I had to try Shanghai Xiao Long Pao, which Michael and Kasma had recommended for its juicy steamed pork dumplings and onion pancakes. Stomach space only permitted trying one of them, and the dumplings were delicious, with a heady dose of sesame oil in the broth. The wrappers were not as delicate as the ones in Taipei, but were cooked through and not doughy. Some perhaps were too well cooked, the skins having burst and released much of the broth. Still, well worth a taste, and it would be such a shame to have my stomach empty for an entire afternoon.

We crossed through the Skytrain station to Siam Discovery, and then proceeded past Siam Center to Siam Paragon. The Krispy Kreme sign visible from across the street is your first indication that through the front doors lies a vast array of American brand names. Such a strange experience. Fortunately, the DTAC shop had my card and I was able to get my phone set up.

Heading downstairs, we stopped in at the Gourmet Market. I found what I needed for the road, which was some candied ginger (not crystallized ginger, which messily sheds large sugar crystals). The market had a lot of samples to taste, so now I was full again. My shopping companion stocked up on snacks and gifts, ending up with enough goodies to possibly require new luggage. We hauled our stash back to the Rex on packed trains, just in time for dinner.

Dinner at My Choice

At 6:30, we gathered to walk a few blocks down to My Choice on Sukhumvit Soi 36. It used to be an obscure restaurant, but it has been attracting more attention and more large parties. For whatever reason, there was no problem getting a table tonight.

One longstanding favorite here is a salad of smoky grilled long green eggplants (seldom found in the U.S., you can substitute light-purple Chinese eggplants) topped with a few shrimp and a lively hot and sour lime juice dressing. A second salad of thin slices of winged beans, topped with coconut cream and crispy fried shallots, was delicious as usual. Meats were the stars in dishes featuring tender pieces of beef coated with panang curry, and grilled lemongrass pork with a tangy dipping sauce.

A unique Southern-style dry chicken curry with baby corn and sadtaw beans (also known as stinky beans) was especially hot and spicy, befitting the region. A rich green curry was accompanied by crispy, flaky roti. Finally, we shared shrimp and squid stir-fried with Chinese celery. A scoop of coconut milk ice cream with lemon basil seeds (tulsi) helped soothe the palate.

Tomorrow, we arise very early, leaving Bangkok under cover of darkness and beginning our adventure in Southern Thailand. On past trips I’ve been the last to check out, earning Kasma’s ire. Can I pack early for a change?

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