In the world of scuba there’s a poorly conceived acronym [link] which is often recalled using the phrase ‘Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas’. I couldn’t help but find parallels between the deceptive appeal and gratuitous misrepresentation of it’s food and the lady boys for which Bangkok is supposedly famed.
I am delighted by some of the foods I see but baulk at others, finding the genuine article seems a challenge. Ghastly stretched chickens hanging in the warm afternoon; fish balls floating like tragic orbs of sickliness ready to spoil a good Tom Yam soup and sticky rubbery glutenous balls of god knows what on skewers. And all the while, amazing skill and food are hiding in plain sight.
Such was the form on my trips to Chinatown Bangkok, during which I managed to eat well, seemingly against all odds. With my post [link] about discovery in mind, I went in with low expectations and tried to find a place where the chef looks harassed and the locals look happy. Before long I was eating the most amazing seafood and seriously contemplating rounding up as many tourists as I could find to say ‘stop what you’re doing and come and eat this’.
First thing I saw was the fish, proudly laid out like a good fishmongers, with all the vegetative accoutrements lined up above. I could barely see the chef as he blurred between his five main pots – main wok, deep fry wok, clam boiling/sauce pot, stock pot, fish steaming pot and around ten flavour pots, which seemed to include tamarind, salt, palm sugar, rice wine, dark & light soy, sesame oil and chopped/dried chilli.
An order comes in. The lone chef adds a healthy portion of oil to the pan. A girl brings him a plate of seafood, including octopus, squid, clams and prawns which he does some minor prep with, scoring the squid, slicing the octopus. Clams go straight into the sauce pot, with half a ladle of stock, from the adjacent stock pot. To his main spoon he adds a sprinkling of four flavours, which hit the wok and are joined by the rest of the seafood. The heat get turned up and the noise is awesome. Another half a ladle goes into the wok this time, both deglazing and welding the flavours together. Fresh chilli and greens go in, followed by the clams and suddenly the whole thing lands on a plate. Without flinching or looking to admire his work, a ladle of stock goes into the pan with a roar, he scrapes the pan and then discards the waste water into a bucket. The next order is up.
This process takes 2 minutes 50 seconds, but feels like 30 seconds flat.
And I sit down.
I order (guess what) and sit where I can see him work. That performance wasn’t an anomaly, it’s continual. All with different dishes… surely everyone is getting different levels of the hand mixed flavours, but no, looking around they are all having a great meal. Mine is certainly as good as I though it would be.
Now bear in mind, this is a rickety street stall with an arrangement of raw food, a picnic table with little surface area, five pots sitting atop canisters of gas with direct burners, rough-looking red plastic furniture, poor street lighting, mopeds ambling past (it’s a side side street, else they’d be trying to set new records) and it’s a dim muggy evening in Bangkok. The chef’s mobile phone goes; I had thought he was listening to music. It’s an order that he shouts to one of the girls, without stopping as a massive plume of flames erupts out of his fearsome wok. He finishes another dish.
No, in fact it was music; as he finishes the dish, he pulls out his phone and changes the tune. With a nod he resumes the next dish, casually managing his stock pot and choosing when to add back into it from steamed dishes to keep regenerating it. And another dish.