Friday, September 28, 2012

Food Tour in Bangkok Chinatown

Frighteningly mad urban chaos, deafening noise, and sweltering heat can be unsettling when the last few weeks was spent walking in the remote mountain trails of the Himalayas. That is the impression that Bangkok gave me the first time I set foot on Thai soil and it has never left me ever since. People like large, chaotic Asian cities. I get that. Surprisingly, having grown up in one, I'm not one of them.

Food Tour in Bangkok Chinatown, Thailand
How can a man choose from this endless stack of dishes in Bangkok Chinatown?

However, Bangkok has a redeeming factor: food. But you know that already. Fortunately, an awesome travel blogger and fellow food lover like me, Mark of, was kind enough to take me on a food tour in Bangkok Chinatown. With an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the Thai population having Chinese ancestry, a food tour in Bangkok Chinatown will involve some of the mind-numbingly great tasting dishes the whole of Thailand has to offer. Let's begin, shall we?

1. Steamed Barramundi and Morning Glory Stir-fry

Food Tour in Bangkok Chinatown, Thailand
Steamed barramundi in garlic and chili sauce. Fresh fish in light sauce. Good.

To begin our food tour in Bangkok Chinatown, Mark wanted to initiate me to Thai-Chinese cuisine by taking me to his favorite place in the district, Jaow Restaurant. The bad news is that it was closed when we visited, maybe for renovation, maybe they have transferred locations. We don't know. The good news is that right across the street is a similar restaurant: Khao Tom 3/1. Trays upon trays and vats upon vats of prepared Thai-Chinese dishes will greet you when you come upon it.

Food Tour in Bangkok Chinatown, Thailand
Morning glory stir-fry. Fresh, flavorful and crunchy.

I'm sure it was a difficult decision for him but Mark settled on steamed barramundi in lime and garlic sauce and morning glory stir-fry. Good choices. The fish looked spicy what with all those chili in there but it was absolutely not. The sauce is very light and a great condiment to the soft flesh of the fish. As for the morning glory stir-fry, what we Filipinos call kangkong, it's fresh, flavorful and crunchy. What more could you ask for? This food tour in Bangkok Chinatown is looking pretty good and we have only just begun.

2. Pomegranate Juice

Food Tour in Bangkok Chinatown, Thailand
One of the many street stalls selling pomegranate juice. You cannot escape them. Give in.

The first meal in our food tour in Bangkok Chinatown was a heavy one, by Thai standards, of course, involving seafood, vegetables, and rice. So we figured we walk off our fullness by exploring the deliriously crowded and impossibly narrow lanes and side streets of Bangkok Chinatown. You have to jostle your way around here, as you would in the markets of Chiang Mai, the Thai city I lived in for a few months. There was one thing, however, that kept propping up whenever we exited a covered walkway or make a turn on an intersection. Freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice can be found on several street stalls which serve them on little plastic bottles. And you know what? Pomegranate juice is probably the best beverage I have ever had in Thailand. Tall order, I know! They are unbelievably fresh and the subtle, very subtle, sweet-sour pomegranate flavor was refreshing.

3. Chicken Intestine on Skewers

Food Tour in Bangkok Chinatown, Thailand
Skewers galore. We went for chicken intestines. How could we not?

Chicken intestine on skewers. It is exactly what you think it is. It's soft and chewy. Plus points if you feel the gooey stuff inside which is really chicken feed, but has been turned into, well, you know. Andrew Zimmern bizarre food? Not for me. I grew up eating chicken intestine on skewers. We call them isaw (ee-sao) in the Philippines and dip them into vinegar to cut the rich, dark flavor intrinsic in animal innards. The Thais, though, use another condiment, one made with a mix of fermented fish, eggplant, and chili, which looked disgusting and I thought it would taste fishy. It didn't. It was sweet, actually. Strange and eye-opening experience this food tour in Bangkok Chinatown is turning out to be.

4. Cendol

Food Tour in Bangkok Chinatown, Thailand
One of my favorite Asian deserts: Cendol

There was one specific stall we wanted to go to, what could possibly make or break our food tour in Bangkok Chinatown, but since the stall was still setting up when we got there, we had to while the time away. I'm so glad we came upon this restaurant that was serving cendol, a dessert I first had in Malacca's Old Town, which is also a specialty there. Cendol is dessert made with worm-like jelly, typically green from food coloring, mixed in with corn bits, red beans, etc. all immersed in iced coconut milk and sweetened with palm sugar. It's cold, sweet, and light. Nothing could be more perfect.

5. Slow-Roasted Noodles

Food Tour in Bangkok Chinatown, Thailand
One of the richest, most flavorful noodles I have ever had in my life!

Mark mentioned a stall we need to head to for our food tour in Bangkok Chinatown. The stall is apparently famous with foodies and food aficionados who live in that wonderful world called the Interwebs. I doubt the stall had a specific name, as is the case with most stalls here. Its name is not important, however. What is important is the slow-roasted noodles that was being served here.

The slow-roasted noodles is diligently and carefully prepared by this old man using a medium-sized wok, quite small for the number of people queuing to have a taste of his specialty. Unlike most dry Thai noodle dishes, this dish isn't prepared via stir-fry. Instead, he roasts the broad rice noodles in a huge fire, stirs them slowly and carefully, adding seemingly precise amounts of oils, spices, meats, and vegetables. The result is a very smoky and very nutty noodle dish unlike anything I have ever tasted before. One small serving costs 40 Baht and believe me, you will want to order two. It is one of the richest, most flavorful noodles I have ever had in my life.

6. Dough Balls filled with Sesame Paste in Ginger Soup

Food Tour in Bangkok Chinatown, Thailand
Dough balls in ginger soup
Food Tour in Bangkok Chinatown, Thailand
Rich sesame paste inside dough balls

Since we only ordered one serving of what is apparently the most famous slow-roasted noodles in Bangkok Chinatown, we still had room for one final dish. This is sort of something to cap off our food tour in Bangkok Chinatown. Mark recommended a very unusual dish, which I had never heard of before. It is a soup dish made with dough balls filled with sesame paste immersed in ginger soup. Strange combination, wouldn't you say? But hey, we're talking about the great culinary tradition of the Thai-Chinese here. So it has got to work. And it does. Surprisingly, it does. That ginger soup will assault your throat and your nostrils like there is no tomorrow. Then, when you take a bite of that dough ball, the sesame paste will suddenly replace that clear, ginger taste in your mouth with a rich, creamy, almost peanut-buttery flavor. It's a study in contrasts. I love it.

Thus ends our food tour in Bangkok Chinatown. At the end of the day, I learned (yes, I learn!) that whenever I dislike a place, food is always there to redeem it. It's the case with Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and now Bangkok. I'm guessing that will remain the case with all other cities I will be visiting here on out.

What is usually the redeeming factor in the places that doesn't tickle your fancy? Have you done a similar food tour in Bangkok Chinatown or somewhere else in Asia?

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