Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

What 30B will buy you on Soi Cowboy

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

On a trip to Bangkok a few months back, we stayed at a hotel on Sukhumvit 23. (We left  on the  Saturday the red shirts were setting up camp at  Ratchaprasong.) So going anywhere, the most convenient route to and from  the BTS or train station was  through Soi Cowboy. Honestly.

In the late afternoons, food sellers set up shop along the soi to feed the resident community—noodle stalls, stalls selling BBQ skewers, papaya salad carts, the usual street fare. Returning to the hotel one evening, a cart  caught my eye, its glass case filled to the brim with all manner of mushrooms. I asked the stall owner if it was “larb hed,” a mushroom “larb,” the Northern Thai salad from the Isaan region. He shook his head  and pointed towards his dented, well-seasoned aluminum saucepan, saying something I couldn’t decipher.

I had no idea what it was, but since I’d eat  pretty much anything that has mushrooms in it,  I ordered a serving of whatever it was he was selling.

It turned out to be a mushroom soup, made with handfuls  of fresh herbs, a medley of mushrooms, and a thick green soup base which he ladled out of a large plastic jar (visible in first photo above).

The soup was  utterly delicious; earthy and pungent, bright, with a spicy muay thai  kick  to the throat. And for only 20 baht.

None of my Thai friends has been able to tell me what the soup is made from, only that “it’s some Isaan soup” or “tom hed” (mushroom soup).

We had the soup every day from then on, often having it for late-night supper in our hotel room. Mushroom soup to-go-go.

Click to view larger-than-lifesize!

On one visit, I noticed  a steel bowl of pale white, um, things on the worktop. Scooping up a spoonful,you could see that they were larvae of some sort: albino maggot- or grub-like creatures. “Aroi mai?” I asked the stall owner, to which he nodded and said it would cost an extra 10 baht. (Asking stall owners if something is tasty is just plain dumb, I know. As Warren Buffet would say, “never ask a barber if he thinks you need a haircut.”)

Since I was in the mood to splurge, I asked for the alien grubs. He obliged by plonking a heaping spoonful into the soup towards the end of the cooking process. The boiling soup then goes straight into a plastic bag—free BPA with every order!

Walking back to the hotel, I inspected the bag, raising  to eye level like a 2-year-old inspecting a bagged funfair goldfish. And it became clear what  the larvae were—wasps. There they were, little soup fairies—wings, cinched abdomen and all—floating in suspended animation throughout the grassy green liquid.

The wasp larvae  didn’t contribute anything extra to the flavour of the soup; but they had a nice, soft crunch, not unlike the bite feel you get when chewing on the heads of enoki mushrooms. And I’m sure that they’re also rich in protein.

And ladies and gentlemen, there you have it. The tastiest treat on Soi Cowboy.

(Wasp larvae are a treat in the North-eastern parts of Thailand, as well as parts of Indochina and China/Burma (huge image at bottom of linked page). I remember there being a documentary  where they show how villagers tie a feather to a wasp and follow it through the jungle back to its nest, but I can’t find it anywhere. But this is also pretty good.)

Soi Cowboy Spicy Mushroom Soup

Address: Soi Cowboy, towards the Sukhumvit 23 end, on the left-hand side if you’re entering from there.

Nearest BTS: Asoke

From about 4pm–7pm


Adventures in Househusbandry

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

I was thinking of a dessert to make for an upcoming dinner. Thai Red Rubies (Tub Tim Grob) came to mind—the dessert of water chestnuts coated with tapioca flour, and served in coconut milk.

Mango season is in full-swing, right now, so it struck me, “How about ‘Yellow Garnets’! Mangoes instead of tapioca flour! It’ll be like mango sticky rice, with the tapioca flour replace the rice as the starch! And it comes with coconut milk as well!”

I imagined the surprise and delight of my guests’ first bite. I set to work on a test batch, camera at hand to document my genius:

Cube mango, and toss gently in tapioca flour...

...until evenly coated

Place in boiling water until they float; remove and dunk in ice water.

Glistening yellow garnets. Success!

I fished a cube out of the ice water and popped it into my mouth. It tasted like luscious mango… covered in snot.

One essential element had slipped my mind: the ‘grob’ in ‘tub tim grob.’ ‘Tub tim’ means “red ruby” in Thai, and ‘grob’ means “crunchy.” Leave out the crunchy part, and the mouthfeel is just slime on goop. It tasted fine, just that the texture combination was all wrong.

Well then, I guess I won’t be demonstrating this on Good Morning Singapore, after all.

But since I’d taken the photos, I thought I’d post this disaster anyway. If anyone knows a pickling method, or some other technique to put crunch in mangoes, please leave a comment! (Ferran Adria is in town right now. Someone point him to this page!)

Postscript: Went out and got coconut milk, made the cream, and finished all the “garnets.” It actually wasn’t that bad as a completed dish. At least Xander seemed to enjoy it too.

Glacier Berthillon, Paris

Monday, 29 October 2007

One thing I REALLY need to learn to do, is to write short posts. Which will give me no excuse to write so infrequently.

Anyway, the wife and I were in Paris last week, and we managed to have some really fabulous food. One of the things we had the pleasure of tasting, was Berthillon ice cream.

On Ile Saint Louis, down a small street about five minutes’ walk from Notre Dame, three generations of ice cream artisans have been making ice cream and fruit sorbets since 1954. (Isn’t it strangely appropriate that “artisanal” has the word “anal” in it?)

They serve/sell Berthillon at numerous cafés and bistros, but this is where it’s made, and where they have all the flavours, including special seasonal ones. Everything’s made from scratch with all-natural ingredients, and nothing contains preservatives. At 2€ a scoop, this is definitely one of the best bargains in Paris.

I’m usually not a huge fan of ice cream (my biggest complaint that it’s always too sweet). And the only other time I absolutely LOVED it was when we had “Fifty Bean Vanilla Ice Cream” at Spago in Beverly Hills, made with—no prizes for guessing, FIFTY vanilla beans. I have not tasted ice cream—in any flavour—like it since. Nor am I likely to.

Berthilon Cones

But Berthillon comes pretty darn close. Especially my scoop of “Caramel au beurre salé” or Caramel with Salted Butter. I can’t tell you how delicious it was. If ever you needed proof that the human palate enjoys the taste of fat, this is it.

Had the queue not been so long, I would’ve gone right to the back of the line to get another scoop. Or gone inside for one of these:

Berthillon Sundae

Flickr photo by MomentstoShare

The scoop of “Framboise à la rose” (Pink Raspberry?) that Karina had was delicious too, or so she said. I was too busy enjoying the sweet, smoky, creamy, salty taste of cold, liquid butter.

Berthilon Queue

Berthillon Glacier
Address: 31, Rue St. Louis en L’Ile, 75004 Paris
Phone: 01 43 54 31 61

Syed Alwi Yong Tau Foo

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I LOVE Yong Tau Foo. It doesn’t matter which variety: regular YTF, Ampang YTF, Hakka YTF; I love them all. If my surname was Yong, I’d name my child Tau Foo, just as a tribute.

Yong Tau Foo (which is the Cantonese pronunciation, Mandarin “niang dou fu”—thanks, Van!) literally means “stuffed tofu,” with the stuffing made out of fish paste, although sometimes, it’s mixed with pork. Somewhere along the line, someone must’ve figured out that you can stuff pretty much anything with the mixture; and now, you have stuffed brinjal/eggplant, chillies, bean curd ‘puffs’ (tau pok), lady’s fingers (okra), bittergourd, mushrooms, etc. There are also deep-fried items like wantons and bean curd skin, as well as meatballs, cuttlefish and sausage-like things. Finally, you can also add vegetables, together with noodles of your choice.

Syed Alwi YTF

One of my favourite stalls in Singapore is at the corner of Syed Alwi Road and Jalan Besar. I’ve been eating here for about 12 years now. I don’t remember exactly how I came across this place, but I’m guessing it was on my first visit to Deskar Road to do research on red light districts. (I think there’s an idea here. “Eating Your Way through Singapore’s Red Light Districts” sounds like something a lot of tourists will enjoy. I’ll pitch it to the Singapore Tourism Board if the opportunity arises.)

Syed Alwi YTF

Order pegs with table numbers on them. Clipped to your bowl after you choose your items.

Although this is supposed to be Hakka YTF, it neither comes with yellow noodles, nor does it come as a fixed selection of items. Here, you can pick any number of items, and you can have it dry, in a clear broth, or with laksa soup.

Syed Alwi YTF

Take a bowl, fill ‘er up, and enjoy!

My order will almost always have two pieces of brinjal (Best brinjal you’ll ever taste in YTF. Deep fried and delicious.), two lady’s fingers, and two slices of bittergourd. The other four pieces depends on my mood. But the soup choice is pretty much a given: clear broth, with watercress. The flavour of the watercress permeates the soup, making it richer and more complex. Full-bodied. With hints of arugula. It’s good, trust me.

My seven-year-old niece, who’s a finicky eater, had some tonight and proclaimed, “it’s tasty!” Praise doesn’t come any higher than that.

Syed Alwi YTF
If you get ten pieces or more, it’ll come to the table in a bowl the size of a small basin.

Oh, just one last thing. If you go late at night, and happen to be at a table next to the old man with one full, and 11 empty bottles of Tiger Beer, and he’s calling out to you really loudly in goodness-only-knows what dialect, don’t worry. He’s a harmless fixture there. Just wave and smile. And tell him I sent you.

Syed Alwi YTF

Hakka Yong Tou Foo
Fu San He Coffeeshop
Corner of Syed Alwi Road and Jalan Besar
Open 3:30p.m. to 3:30a.m. daily, closed on Sundays

The satay here is also worth trying, in particular the pork satay. They give you the old-style Chinese peanut sauce that’s pretty rare these days, with minced pineapple in it.

Sand Worm Soup

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

I’ve already been a bit tardy at adding new posts to the blog. It’s been a crazy week. And some nights I come back from work, and I crave for a warm, comforting bowl of soup.

One of our meals in Guangzhou was at a place that served Panyu cuisine. Actually, I never really found out what characterizes Panyu cuisine, other than they sterilize your utensils in a wok right at the table:

Sterilizing Tableware in Guangzhou

The restaurants that don’t do this, serve table settings shrinkwrapped in plastic. As we all know, nothing says “hygiene” more than shrink wrap.

At the place in my previous post, they had these sand worms. And I thought they looked, well, interesting. (If there are any marine biologists reading, please help me identify these critters in the comments section.)

Sand Worms

Curiousity got the better of me, and I was sure these things aren’t endangered by a long shot, so I ordered up a bunch. Our waitress called over a girl to clean them, a task which the girl did quite deftly.

She’d pick up a worm, and hold it underwater in a basin. Then, using a long, thin stick (the Malay word ‘lidi’ describes this best), she’d shove it through one end of the worm, and the entire contents of the worm would exit the other end in a little black cloud.

I’m taking a wild guess here, but I think these worms swallow large amounts of sand, and filter out anything nutritious, because the primary component of sand worm innards is, surprise, surprise: sand.

Cleaning Sand worms

We then asked what the best way to prepare them was. “In soup, with white radish,” the waitress replied with great conviction. So, all righty then, Sand Worm Soup it is!

Sand Worm Soup

As you can see, the body of the sand worm is essentially a long, ribbed prophylactic (visible by clicking for larger photo).

And now, the million-dollar question. “What does sand worm soup taste like?”

Uncannily like white radish soup. As with bird’s nests, sea cucumber, frog’s glands and the countless other things that Chinese folk enjoy eating, the worms themselves were disappointingly bland as well, and slightly crunchy to the bite—somewhat akin to the texture of bamboo pith. Why can’t any of these things taste like foie gras or truffles, or wagyu beef?!

The waitress came over to inquire how the soup was, and we told her it was sorely lacking any flavour. “It is?” she said, genuinely surprised. It was then that she confessed to never having eaten the damn things before. Lovely. We instructed her never to recommend that dish to anyone ever again.

She must’ve felt bad about it, because she later brought over a plate of watermelon slices on the house. Not to sound ungrateful, but I think they were Panyu sand melons, the red parts tasted exactly the same as the rind.


I’ve found out that these worms are Sipuncula, Sipunculoidea, Sipunculida, or sipunculid worms. Commonly known as peanut worms, or in China and Vietnam, as “Bibi” worms. They are also found in Singapore waters and there’s a lovely picture of them here.

Seafood in Guangzhou

Sunday, 29 July 2007

About a month ago, I went to visit my brother in Guangzhou, China. If there’s anyone who enjoys food more than I, it would be him. Back when we were students, we had a somewhat different idea of what good food should be. His criteria for any gastronomic adventure, boiled down to four words, is: “Fast, good, cheap,” and “plenty.” (I know, this should be “plentiful.” But the Malaysian colloquilism/bastardization of that is “plenty.”) You could sacrifice perhaps one, but you needed a minimum of three to pass the test. For the most part, I still subscribe to his motto—I’ve had the good fortune to dine at Joel Rubuchon’s in Paris, and many other fine places that only meet the “good” criterion above; but that’s for another post.

Anyway, so here we are in Panyu City, just south of Guangzhou. At one of the many humungous restaurants where seafood is their speciality. You know how they say Americans can only picture something if it’s compared to the size of a football field? Well, imagine a restaurant roughly the size of a football field, stacked six or seven high.

Catch, Cook, Eat
Live Seafood

Now imagine an Underwater World kind of place, or the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where the descriptions of the sea creatures all end with the price per kilogramme, and you have a pretty good idea of the restaurant.

On top of that, they also had all manner of sea fowl (peacocks too), aquatic insects (diving beetle), amphibians, reptiles and assorted invertabrates (silkworm). Linked photos by Flickr user “merriwether”

Geoduck and Abalone
Abalone and Geoduck

We ordered ourselves some mantis shrimp, also known as “shako” in Japanese, and “lai niu har” in Cantonese. “Lai niu har” means “the prawn that urinates,” because they pee all over the place when scared or shocked—like when you toss them into a hot wok. So, apparently, they’re speared right before cooking, to make them evacuate their bowels. Whatever the case, them things are tasty.

Mantis Shrimp Tank
Mantis Shrimp

The highlight of the dinner, though, was steamed sea urchin with egg:

Uni Chawan Mushi

When we ordered it, we didn’t know it was going to be steamed inside the urchin itself, literally, an uni chawan mushi! It was smooth and silky, creamy and sweet—the kind of mild, briny sweetness you taste with perfectly fresh sea urchin.

While often referred to as “sea urchin roe,” the truth is that the five orangey strips are actually the creature’s gonads. Oh well, “that which we call a rose, by any other name…”

In all, a memorable meal. And yes, it was fast, cheap, good AND plenty.