Did I or didn’t I cook with Poo?

I’ve heard that there are things to do in Thailand other than eating or sitting on a beach, and it was our fervent hope that we might possibly do some of them.

High on our list was something of cultural significance. The Grand Palace seemed to fit the bill. It’s a huge complex of ornate, beautiful buildings that used to be the chief residence of the king of Thailand. I could just picture Yul Brynner padding about, although then I began to feel resentful that I never got to be in The King and I on Broadway, but then the hard feelings subsided and I decided that the Grand Palace would make a very nice historic and cultural excursion. Although I think that Trip Advisor ranks up there with bathroom walls as places to receive useful sightseeing information, the purveyor of green balls nevertheless ranks the Grand Palace near the top of things to do in Bangkok.(By the way, according to Trip Advisor, the top rated restaurant in New York is a sandwich shop in the West Village called Faicco’s Pork Store – it may be a perfectly lovely pork store, but New York’s best restaurant it ain’t.) Anyhoo, It was worth a shot.

With this winning endorsement in our back pockets, we set out for the Grand Palace. Getting around Bangkok isn’t too bad, but taking a cab requires a bit of technology, a bit of skill in mime and charades, and a bit of luck. Google Maps really is the revelation of the modern age, but even that has its imperfections. Anyway, I realized that the words “Grand Palace,” which the average Thai cab driver may or may not understand in English, is right next to a temple called Wat Pho, which I had a feeling would be easier for the cabbie to understand. Wat Pho is Wat Pho no matter how you slice it. And besides, who doesn’t love a Thai temple? So I told the nice man to please take us to Wat Pho and he nodded knowingly, and we were off.

Well, ladies and gentleman, Wat Pho is a fabulous place. I know this because as soon as we arrived, we saw prominently displayed photos of President Obama and Hillary Clinton shuffling around this very temple IN THEIR SOCKS. When you enter a Buddhist temple you have to take off your shoes, and apparently they don’t make exceptions, even for the Leader of the Free World. I would think that a place would have to be pretty nice for the President of the United States and the Secretary of State to walk around in their stocking feet. I wonder if the advance team prepared a memo for POTUS (and SOSOTUS) reminding him to be sure not to wear socks with holes in them when visiting Wat Pho. Can you imagine? Actually, what I imagine is some poor schmo site advance kid having to take off his nice socks and give them to the president. So seeing photos of President Obama and Secretary Clinton sealed the deal. We were in the right place.

Wat Pho is famous for its statue of the reclining Buddha – a really extraordinary piece of religious art –although if you ask me he’s not actually reclining, he’s kind of lying on his side. Anyway, he’s huge – he’s got to be more than fifty or sixty feet long, with massive toes that dominate one side of the room. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the toes. The complex is also full of other, lesser temples that are nevertheless quite impressive in their own right. In all, it was a very good, happy accident. We had experienced Thai culture, and we were feeling good about ourselves.

The reclining buddha at Wat Pho temple.

The reclining buddha at Wat Pho temple.

Having gotten a nice cultural appetizer, we set out to take on the Grand Palace, only to realize that it was now closed. And so it goes. Things don’t always go according to plan. (A postscript. Upon further review, I learned that Wat Pho is the #1 attraction in Bangkok on Trip Advisor – take THAT Grand Palace!)

In addition to at least one attraction of cultural significance, I had promised myself that I would take a cooking class in Thailand. I had once thought that taking a cooking class in each country would be a smashing idea, but it never quite happened. For one thing, the cuisines of Argentina, South Africa, Egypt, New Zealand, and Australia (no offense, really), weren’t exactly the stuff you’d go to a cooking class to learn, although Sicily and Japan would have been interesting. I’ve attempted Thai food in the past and it has always been really, really mediocre. I yearned to learn the essential technique that I could use to amaze my friends. One cooking class caught my eye. It was called “Cooking with Poo.” Turns out that some woman named Chonpoo runs a cooking school in Bangkok and she has a sense of humor.

It is here that I must make a shameful confession. I didn’t care whether this was a good cooking school or not. I just wanted to have an excuse to call this post “Cooking with Poo.” Thus, I was deeply disturbed to learn that I wouldn’t be able to cook with Poo after all. Poo was sold out. As you can see, I have shamefully exploited Poo without actually taking her class. I don’t care. If you’re reading this, you clicked on the title. If you don’t feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth, I will happily issue a refund.

Having been prevented from cooking with Poo, I was forced to settle for the more prosaically named Silom Cooking School, which was a perfectly excellent trip into Thai cuisine. The thing I learned about Thai cooking, which should surprise almost nobody, is that if you assemble real Thai ingredients and throw them together in a pot or a pan, it’s going to taste good. Case in point – the first thing we made was Tom Yum Goong – spicy sour shrimp coconut soup. Basically, you prep a small pile of ingredients, including the Thai trinity – galangal (Thai ginger), kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass – then you add birdseye chiles, which will sear your soul if used properly, and a few other things like fish sauce, shrimp, and some other stuff (I have already sent home the very helpful recipe book that they gave us so I’m working from memory), and you add a few shrimp, some water, and a bit of coconut milk and you throw it into a wok and cook it for four minutes. That’s it, kids! And let me tell you, this was the best damn Tom Yum Goong I’ve ever had. It was tangy, spicy, and it had all those great Thai flavors that you almost never get at Siam Palace, or King of Bangkok, or King of Palace of Siam, or whatever your serviceable non-Thai-owned neighborhood Thai restaurant is called.

Other mysteries were revealed. We made our own coconut milk and coconut cream, which was like finding out the trick of sawing a lady in half. Here’s how you do it – take a coconut, shred it, add warm water, and squeeze it into a fine mesh colander (the Thais use woven baskets, but who’s got one of those?). The product of this is coconut cream. Then you take the just-squeezed coconut shreds and add more warm water and squeeze it out again. That’s the coconut milk. Crazy, huh? The technique trick I learned about coconut curry is that you combine the coconut cream and the curry paste and reduce that for a while, then you add your protein and the coconut milk (and the obligatory mise en place of spices and condiments) and reduce that for a while, and you’re done. It’s not insipid and watery, like I always make. The whole thing takes ten minutes. We also made our own curry paste. This was really easy, even though we used an old fashioned mortar and pestle. Just throw thai basil, thai cilantro (there are several kinds of both), some big not-so-spicy chiles, some little really spicy chiles, and some other stuff in a bowl (or food processor), and you’re done. Who knew?

I wasn't cooking with Poo, but it was still fun.

I wasn’t cooking with Poo, but it was still fun.

I will say that our instructor (who used to live, of all places, in Waco, Texas) may or may not have been the Rachel Ray of Thai cooking. He seemed perfectly fine with using canned coconut milk and prepared curry pastes. I’m sure he was right, but when I get home, I’m going full monty with all the homemade stuff.

We also made penang curry, pad thai, and sticky rice with mango. They were all shmabulously good, especially the sticky rice, which is now my favorite dessert. That one is ridiculously easy – steam (don’t boil) some glutinous rice, soak it in sugar and coconut milk, and top it with some sesame seeds. Your guests will think you’re god, and you’ll giggle and titter at how easy to please everyone is.

Thai cooking is a little like Thailand itself. It seems mysterious, but it’s actually really accessible. Bangkok is like that, too. It’s crazy and chaotic, but not so bad once you get the hang of it. People are friendly, the cabs take you where you want to go for about three bucks, and you can live quite well on a budget. There are higher end joints where you can spend a little bit extra, but in most cases, it will still work out to be a huge bargain when compared to the fancy shmancy joints in other big cities.

We had hoped to stare down at it all from atop the Skybar, the chic downtown cocktail lounge, but in the one moment of inhospitality, we were turned away because our friend John was wearing, gasp, sandals. That’s okay, we didn’t see the Grand Palace either.

A bucolic Thai beach, full of unsmiling, tattooed, European bodybuilders.

After several joyful days in Bangkok, we decamped for the beach. The water was lovely, the hotel was charming, and the guests were, how shall I put it? Weird.

We spent four days at this charming little beach resort on Koh Samui, a perfectly good island off the east coast of Thailand in the South China Sea, but I am left scratching my head about why so many strange people are attracted to this place. For starters, there seemed to be a disproportionate number of Eastern European body builders. There was one couple, covered head to toe with tattoos, who kept their kickboxing apparatus on the bench in front of their room. We never actually saw them beat each other up, but that seems to be their hobby. They’re both ripped up like, well, Herr and Frau Universe. And they never seemed to speak. Herr Universe would wade out into the water and put his head down and stand there for twenty or thirty minutes at a time, just pacing back and forth in the water. Then he’d hop onto a small floating pier and pace back and forth some more. Either he was thinking very deep thoughts or he was searching in vain for a contact lens.

On the plane on the way back to Bangkok there was another fellow who was bigger and broader than Herr Universe, with even more tattoos, if that’s possible. (Speaking of tattoos, on the beach the other day, we saw an older gentleman with a massive tattoo on his back of an extremely well-endowed naked man. I tell you, this place is just plain weird.)

Another woman who might have been Turkish or Russian walked around the property photographing or taking video of herself with her selfie stick almost constantly. Then there was the other unsmiling bearded gentleman with the prohibition-era haircut (y’know, shaved on the sides but the top flops downs over it) who sat in the restaurant staring ahead (or occasionally at his ipad), his leg in constant motion, as if he were stomping on imaginary cockroaches. Every so often his female companion would sit down next to him, but he seldom seemed to notice. There were a few European-looking gentlemen of a certain age accompanied by what appeared to be non-European women not of a certain age. There was another guy with a big Smith Brothers beard and a man bun who looked like he should be pouring cocktails in Bushwick. He never smiled either, or made any obvious expression. And then there were our roommates. Well, they might as well have been our roommates because the walls provided shockingly little noise reduction. The fellow never spoke. His significant other had a Midwestern accent out of the movie Fargo, which we were easily able to identify as she carried on an extended Skype call late one night. The next morning she was rather less articulate, but no less noisy. Happily, they were quick about it.

The sunbathing rituals of the resort’s inmates were impressive. Each morning, round about 8ish, the guests would scope out their chaises, put a towel or some other item that marked the property as theirs, and then have a quick breakfast before returning to their claimed territory, where they would proceed to crispify themselves for the rest of the day. Many of them turned purple before our very eyes. If I had some extra money I’d invest it in German skin cancer clinics.

A perfectly nice beach resort in Thailand.

A perfectly nice beach resort in Thailand.

And as bizarre as this sullen, territorial, tonsorially unusual assembly of Teutonic sun worshipers was, the staff was warm, welcoming and gracious. I would not be surprised to learn that they hire zen masters to work at Koh Samui resorts, just because normal human beings would surely go stark raving mad.

Despite the cultural gulfs between us and our fellow guests, Janine, our friend John (who joined us at the beach) and I had an embarrassingly good time. We kept ourselves quite busy by moving with alacrity from the restaurant to the beach to the pool, never pausing long enough to seem lazy. And we were quite responsible in our appetites as well, almost never drinking beer before noon. One day we even ventured into what passes for town. Why, you may ask, would we waste the opportunity to take advantage of the myriad cultural opportunities that Thailand has to offer in favor of a prosaic trip to the beach with a menagerie of semi-disgruntled European melanomics? Well, John was cold after a cruel East Coast winter, and after seven months of busy, culturally thoughtful travel, we had hit the sweet spot between tired and lazy that cried out for a restorative trip to the beach. I’m happy to report that it appears to have worked.

Salty, Sweet, Sour, and Stinky – Let’s Hear it for Bangkok!

Bangkok is one of the great food cities in the world. On what seems like every street corner, you will find some little food stand in which somebody is tossing together some outrageously delicious morsel for what you would spend on a pack of gum back home. It’s true that there’s some small chance that some of it could kill you, but chances are that it won’t. What’s not to like?

I’ll admit that they dish up some mighty strange stuff on the street. You will see all manner of dried fishes, parts of animals in which you can neither identify the part nor the animal, and heaven knows what else. And then there’s the question of hygiene. It’s not like the board of health is hanging big letter grades right there on the sidewalk. On the other hand, they cook the stuff right in front of your eyes and crank those woks up as high as they go, likely killing the little beasties that might send you to the rail. Now that I think of it, the one time I got really sick when traveling (excepting, of course, the pristine yakitori place that served me raw chicken on purpose) was in a pub in England. That little raw chicken episode probably just toughened me up for the tasty streets of Bangkok, right? Right!

I was ready to tackle the great cuisine of Thailand. So how many of these monuments to glorious street food did we patronize? Er, um, none.

It’s shameful, I know, but before my membership in the gluttony hall of fame is revoked, I am here to tell you that we still ate really well in Bangkok, even if I fall a notch or two in the esteem of the great world eaters.

Yummy looking street food that we didn't eat.

Yummy looking street food that we didn’t eat.

Thailand was not originally on our itinerary. We were going to pass through here on our way to Burma, but when our dear friend (and faithful blog reader) John told us that he  wanted to meet us in Thailand for his birthday, we jumped at the chance. We’ve been here before, but this trip through Bangkok has reminded me that there’s something to be said for revisiting a place that you’ve already enjoyed. For one thing, we were last here almost twenty years ago, and while I remember liking the city for all its frenzied charms, the memories were fuzzy little blots at best. Why not give Thailand another go?

And I’m glad I did! I’d forgotten how much I like it here. In the dim recesses of what’s left of my mind, I know we had fun here once upon a time, but now I remember why. Bangkok is one of those places that’s just funky enough to be endlessly fascinating while still being easy to travel in. The food is crazy good. You can get an hour long foot massage for eight bucks. There’s now a pretty convenient elevated train, which, while it doesn’t go everywhere, still gets you around. Taxis are really cheap and the cab drivers are usually friendly, honest, and mellow (although one cab driver risked all our lives in what seemed to be an attempt to get us to our destination quickly, even though we’d have been quite happy if he’d taken his time). There are lots of really cool temples and other cultural things, but to be honest, I’d be happy if there was nothing more than food and foot rubs.

Let’s begin with my shameful admission that we didn’t eat street food. On our first night in town, I thought we’d keep things simple and stay close to our apartment. I scoped out a place that seemed almost too good to be true, and I’m happy to report that it wasn’t. It’s a restaurant called Soul Food Manhanakorn and it is run, improbably, by a former American food writer named Jarett Wrisley. I am not qualified to say whether having an American food writer open a Thai restaurant qualifies as heresy or not, but I frankly don’t care. It serves craft beer, whimsical cocktails, and takes street food to the next level. They use as many organic ingredients as they can, and like many other places we seem to wander into, the joint would probably feel pretty at home in Brooklyn or the Mission, and I consider that a compliment.

Onto the food…over two meals (yet again, we found a place that we loved and went back – sue me) we had: little wraps of butter lettuce and pork jowl into which you could add an assortment of Thai yummy things like toasted peanuts, fried shallots, tamarind jam, and other jazz like that; a fiery, limey pomelo salad with prawns that I will dream about for years; Issan chicken wings; a classic green papaya salad topped with deep fried chicken skin (!!); that classic wide noodle called pad see ew topped with smoked pork jowl; deep fried okra; and a vegetarian red curry that would make you forget that there’s a big pile of pork jowl sitting in the kitchen waiting to be eaten.

Pomelo salad and fried okra with a crazy good sweet spicy dipping sauce.

Fried okra with a crazy good sweet spicy dipping sauce (L), and pomelo salad (R).

This food was everything I love about good Thai food, which is so hard to find in the states – it finds the perfect balance between spicy, sour, and sweet, and gives you that funky goodness that fish sauce brings to the party. Thai restaurants aren’t known for their service, but when I mentioned to the hostess that we had been there twice in four days, she tried to buy us a round of drinks and dessert. Sadly, we had run completely out of steam by that point, but it’s the kind of little touch that makes you love a place down to your toenails.

Soul Food Mahataran - a fun, funky joint that would be at home in Brooklyn or the Mission.

Soul Food Mahanakorn – a fun, funky joint that would be at home in Brooklyn or the Mission. Don’t worry that it looks empty – they were just about to get hit with a big second turn.

We weren’t done with this fancy food. For John’s birthday, we thought it would be fun to see just how much luxury we could squeeze out of Bangkok. The last time we were here we stayed in a guest house in the backpacker ghetto off Khao San Road. It’s more or less the Bourbon Street of Bangkok, with souvenir shops, cheap restaurants, and (I am told) clubs that appeal to baser sensibilities, let’s just say.

This time, we could afford a slightly elevated experience. We made a reservation at a place called the Siam Hotel, which is several miles up the Chao Praya river, the thrumming, exciting waterway that splits the city, and whose waterbuses also provide cheap sightseeing transportation options. If you make a dinner reservation at the Siam Hotel, however, they send a boat to pick you up at the main dock downtown. We scurried down to the dock at the appointed time and there came the boat, which whisked us half an hour upriver to a glorious little boutique hotel and restaurant made out of old teak timbers. We had cocktails on the deck overlooking the river, and a lovely dinner, but the food could have been lousy and we’d still have been thrilled.

Our sunset boat ride on the Chao Praya on the way to the Siam Hotel.

Our sunset boat ride on the Chao Praya on the way to the Siam Hotel.

So, no, I haven’t been eating squid testicles or lamb’s eyeballs or fish paste that was fermented in some ninety year old guy’s underpants. We aren’t staying in a backpacker’s flophouse, just a good old-fashioned airbnb apartment (it’s not too fancy, mind you, but it’s a far cry from the actual cage we once slept in at a Kuala Lumpur “guest house” in the 90s). No, we’re older and wiser and once in a while it’s nice to shoot the moon, even if shooting the moon only costs you what an impromptu midweek dinner in the Village does. Here’s to middle age!

Next time – I finally get to take a cooking class, we get thrown out of a bar, and I throw in a little gratuitous sightseeing for those of you who are sick of reading about food.