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.

Japan – a place of mystery and joy and…salmonella.

What kind of moron eats raw chicken? This kind of moron. Japan will do that to you. But it will also charm and mystify you, and no wonder people love this place so much.

Twenty years ago, Janine and I packed up and moved to Japan, and I still consider it one of the best decisions we ever made. We learned how to observe the world around us and then adapt to what we saw. We experienced what it’s like to be illiterate and almost completely ignorant of virtually every cultural norm. As fish out of water experiences go, this was up there. You might say it was a raw fish out of water experience.

We made it work. We made friends, learned a little Japanese, and our daughter was born here. I was really excited about coming back.

Our first stop was Kobe, where my friend Paul and his better half Megumi had invited us to visit. Paul and I worked together for several years, and apart from being one of the nicest guys I know, he’s a world class eater. Paul and I ate sheep’s head in Morocco and bushrat in Ghana, so when Paul promises a good time, he means it. Paul had warned that we’d eat our way through Kobe, and while I’d be glad to see him even if he were a celiac vegan, I have to confess I was especially excited.

Our first stop was a neighborhood izakaya called Shindo, that had a total of maybe fifteen seats. Izakayas are casual pubs that serve food, and they are generally considered to be places where the drinking is more important than the eating. This izakaya was certainly an exception. We had plate after plate of Japanese delights. There was impeccable octopus, perfect tempura, sashimi of fugu (you know, the poisonous puffer fish), eel, and all manner of other goodies. While the eating was great, so was the drinking. There was no shortage of exceptional sakes – a lot of the sake we have in the states is godawful, but boy do they make some nice stuff here. We had crisp dry sakes and sweet flowery sakes. Paul got us off to a very good start.

We kicked off our tour of foods you shouldn't eat with a little fugu (L), which if prepared incorrectly is poisonous.

We kicked off our tour of foods you shouldn’t eat with a little fugu (L), which if prepared incorrectly is poisonous.

Paul couldn’t get a reservation at one of his favorite joints the next night, so Megumi made nabe at home, which turned out to be way better than anything we could have had anywhere. Nabe is a big stew of whatever you feel like throwing in the pot. Megumi’s nabe was simple but spectacular. At the risk of getting it wrong, I think it went something like this: Start with a pot of hot water in which you steep a sachet of dashi mix. Dashi is a combination of dried bonito flakes and edible kelp called Konbu, which makes a smoky, fishy base for the soup. Then you add some miso, aromatics like onion and maybe some carrots, and whatever else strikes your fancy. Megumi adds kimchi and I think some kind of red pepper flakes for spice. Once the soup base has simmered for a bit, it goes in a big ceramic pot that sits on a portable burner in the middle of the table, where you throw in hunks of whatever you find in your fridge, which in Japan can be napa cabbage, shitake mushrooms, burdock, taro root, tofu, daikon, and strips of shaved pork shoulder or some other small amounts of meat. It was simply glorious. I had forgotten how easy and satisfying nabe was and I can’t wait to put it in the rotation when we get home. I may even have to spring for a proper nabe pot for the sake of verisimilitude.

A glorious pot of Japanese stew, right before we started cooking.

A glorious pot of Japanese stew, right before we started cooking.

On our last night in Kobe, Paul tried to kill me. We went to his favorite yakitori restaurant. These are humble little places where the main event is grilled meat on a stick. Traditional yakitori places like this one just serve chicken, but others branch out into vegetables, beef, or pork. We had pretty much every part of the chicken – thighs, breast, liver, and heart-stopping rolled up tubes of grilled chicken skin. This was all quite tame when Paul noted that one of the specialties of the house was chicken sashimi. Yes, kids, they serve raw chicken at this place. Don’t worry, Paul advised, the chickens are treated like spoiled children and kept in pristine conditions and it’s perfectly safe. I didn’t take much convincing. There was no way I was passing up the chance to add raw chicken to my list of culinary conquests.

Raw chicken - it's what's for dinner! (It seemed like a good idea at the time, although I don't know why.)

Raw chicken – it’s what’s for dinner! (It seemed like a good idea at the time, although I don’t know why.)

So? It was very mild, almost like yellowtail or some other gently tasting sushi. Little did I know that three days later I would spend the night doubled over with cramps and shaking with chills. Was it the raw chicken? I’ll never know (Paul was none the worse for wear), but I’ll always wonder.

On our last day in Kobe, Paul and I went to a preseason baseball game between the local Hanshin Tigers and the Saitama Lions. Japanese baseball is like American baseball being watched by South American soccer fans. They sing songs for each player, spend much of the game on their feet, and generally whoop it up.

There are other things to love about Japanese baseball, like the beer. Well, the beer is lousy, but the beer sellers are as entertaining as the game. Beer is sold by young women who schlep around a thirty pound pony keg on their backs and then dispense the beer at your seat. To market their product, they walk to the front of the aisle, bow, raise one hand, and sing “who would like some beer?” in a particularly nasal tone. I felt bad for them because it was a preseason game and the stadium was mostly empty and the kegs didn’t seem to be emptying terribly quickly. Since the people in our section (as opposed to the boosters’ section in the bleacher) were eerily quiet, as a result, at some points the most prominent sound in the stadium was dozens, if not scores, of young women singing “who would like some beer” in a way that would make adnoid surgeons salivate.

Lousy beer poured with gusto.

Lousy beer poured with gusto.

We were situated in prime foul ball territory and our chances of snagging a ball were improved by two important factors – there weren’t many people in the stands, and when a foul ball was hit into the stands, the fans cowered in fear. Nobody seemed to want to catch a foul ball. Wouldn’t you know it, a ball came in our direction and not a single fan made a move for it. Many just stared at the thing, as if wondering what that foreign object was that bounced down the aisle. When it stopped rolling, I just picked it up.

What a country!

What a country!

I love this place!

Malls, Steaks, and Nice People – A Hodgepodge of Buenos Aires Stuff

We put Maggie on a plane the other day and after three really terrific weeks with my mother and/or our daughter, we have now returned to normal programming, if you can call traipsing around the world normal.

Back in Buenos Aires after a week in Uruguay, our first order of business was to go…to the mall. It seems that Knucklehead Jones left a small pile of clothes in a dresser drawer at our last stop, and I was down a number of vital pieces of clothing. One of them was my new favorite shirt, made by the same nice people who make my special undies – Ex Officio. Another, alas, was a pair of those undies. I’m down to four.

The big tragedy was losing that shirt. It dries fast, doesn’t (er, didn’t) wrinkle, and it just looked snazzy. And there it sits, lonely, scared, and abandoned, in a dresser drawer in Uruguay. (The owner of the apartment, bless him, said he’d send the stuff home to the States, but a fat lot of good that does me here.)

With my favorite people (and my favorite shirt)

With my favorite people (and my favorite shirt)

I hate losing stuff (especially snazzy wrinkle-free shirts), I hate shopping, I really hate buying clothes, and I hate malls. I was full of hateful hate. After several hours of scouring the mall for overpriced pale imitations of my beloved shirt, among other lamented items, I was able to procure some replacement duds, but the experience was like a bladder exam, only not as fun.

The mall of hateful hate notwithstanding, I liked Buenos Aires a lot. It’s a cosmopolitan, peppy, fun, tango-y place. People eat, they drink, and they dance. I cannot think of a single person we encountered who wasn’t cheerful and friendly. Can you imagine that? Cabdrivers were honest and efficient (although once, when I was going out to the airport to meet my mother, one cabbie asked if we could stop at McDonald’s for coffee – I explained that her flight had already landed, which he took in stride). Shopkeepers were gracious, even on the rare occasions when we didn’t buy anything. Waiters seemed genuinely glad to see us. People were amazingly patient with our infantile Spanish. This is easy travel, and it’s a jumping off point to places like Patagonia and Iquazu Falls that we’ll return to someday, I hope.

If you like steak, it’s a particularly good town. After a few culinary misses, we decided to play to the place’s strength – meat. We wandered into a relatively pedestrian-looking steakhouse and did what you’re supposed to do – we ordered some salad, a steak, some fries, and some Malbec – and life was mighty fine. Today, we hit the jackpot at an absolutely charming place called Gran Parrilla del Plata with almost the same format. We had a simply perfect meal of skirt steak, a salad of lettuce, tomato, carrots, and beets, a plate of fries, a morcilla sausage (made from blood – Janine was not nearly as happy about it as I was), and a 500 cl bottle of simply smashing Malbec. When the waiter couldn’t interest us in dessert or coffee, he brought us a round of sparkling wine on the house anyway. The bill came to thirty bucks. It was all waaaayyy too much fun for a Tuesday afternoon, and I almost felt guilty, but not quite.

Does this meal rival the chivito?

Does this meal rival the chivito?

On our return from Uruguay we repositioned ourselves closer to downtown in the neighborhood called San Telmo. Our new apartment was just a short walk to a great weekend flea market, but more than that, I think it’s good to have a chance just to try different parts of town on for size. These extended visits give us that luxury. We arrive in town, suss the place out a bit, wander out of town for a spell, then resume the visit in a different neighborhood.

Janine does love a flea market.

Janine does love a flea market.

If Palermo Viejo was Soho (New York’s Soho), with cafes and boutiques, San Telmo was the West Village (um, with cafes and boutiques). Today, we also wandered through Recoleto, which could easily stand in for the Upper East Side, complete with dainty dowagers and older gentlemen in summer suits and ties. The Upper East Side does not have the gravesite of Eva Peron, however. Wander the streets of Buenos Aires and you could be in New York, Madrid, Paris, Barcelona, or even Rome, but remarkably free of the attitude.

We also took in an actual tango show. Mind you, we didn’t dig deep for the fancy pants tango bar extravaganzas, which will run you at least a couple hundred bucks before the night is out. No, cheapskate Eric lobbied for the intravaganza presented by the non-profit Borges Cultural Center, which, if you ask me, put on a perfectly fine tango show for twenty bucks. There were men and woman, they wore fedoras, they danced, they twirled their legs in that Argentinean way, and it looked like tango to us. There was also this earnest young fellow who repeatedly crooned at us (while the tangoers changed costumes) and who made up for in passion what he lacked in subtlety. Next time, though, we’ll go to a milonga, which is basically a neighborhood dance hall that starts at midnight and goes until dawn. They usually start with a tango lesson and then let people loose on the dance floor. To do this, though, you need to take a disco nap at around eight, and then drink a pot of coffee chased by a couple of Red Bulls. If you do all this you might be able to pull it off, but then again, maybe not.

Finally, we made yet another visit to a famous theatre without actually seeing a performance in it. The Teatro Colon is said to be one of the finest acoustic opera houses in the world. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful theatres I’ve seen. I would spend a month shopping for socks in malls to see an opera here.

Just another beautiful theatre without a performance. (Photo courtesy of Janine, who graciously agreed to let me use it.)

Just another beautiful theatre without a performance. (Photo courtesy of Janine, who graciously agreed to let me use it.)

On the other hand, while the acoustics may be nearly perfect, whoever designed the men’s room needs to find another line of work.

I swear I took this photo in the Teatro Colon and didn't crib it from somebody's PowerPoint presentation on failure.

I swear I took this photo in the Teatro Colon and didn’t crib it from somebody’s PowerPoint presentation on failure.

We are now off to South Africa and Kruger National Park. We may or may not have internet access, so if I go quiet for a while, please don’t be alarmed. After that, we’re off to New Zealand and Australia, about which we have done ZERO research. Any recommendations about where to go or what to do will be most welcome. See you in the funny papers.