High Thai

about Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand No comments:

I spent most of my time on the streets of Thailand, but I did venture into a few restaurants.

Lets start with Hua Hin. Lonely Planet told me the place to go for seafood and atmosphere was Chao Lay (ranked #2 on the list of things to do in Hua Hin though there are some differing opinions) but I was eventually taken there for a rather offbeat reason – MakeMyTrip (who was making our trip) organised the usual desi lunch at that place. Apparently one of their chefs – Portuguese parentage from Macau and has lived in Nepal -  knew Indian (read Punjabi) food. I met him on the way out of the restaurant, trying to do my usual duck and hide lunch run when faced with Indian food; he convinced me that if I stayed he would make me real Thai from the restaurant’s usual menu. Thus my rendezvous with green lip mussels and the first tom yam of the trip.


The main reason for the popularity of Chao Lay is its location; its a wharfside restaurant with unending views of the sea. Few places in the world allow you to actually build on the beach, but Hua Hin has no such qualms. Rows of piers stretch their long fingers into the sand and sometimes beyond into the sea. It was raining, so the open deck was for pictures only but the views are amazing; a beer in hand and you’re willing to forgive all the nonsense in the world. And talking about freshness, at the pier ships are actually offloading catch.

 

The mussels, steamed with huge chunks of galangal and loads of basil and kaffir lime leaves were full or aromatic thai-herb smells mixed with the sea. The pork tom yam (I’m calling it tom yam by translating backwards, the menu called it “hot sour” and the waiters called it various unintelligible noises) was loaded with sour and bird chilli and fresh herbs and managed rather successfully to combine ecstasy palace with torture chamber. It was a fantastically tasty soup, but so loaded with chillies that even a Reddy would sweat. Unlike gimmicky hot sauces on TV (or that ridiculous phal in London) this one is not hot for its own sake. Its wonderfully flavourful – the hot and the sour doing an incredibly complicated tango with lemongrass, basil, kaffir lime, ginger, pork and a bunch of other stuff that I really have no idea about - all those bold flavours calling out for some kickass heat. I’m not exaggerating the spice levels – take it from someone who has chilli pickles neat – this one is up there.

My first sit-down Thai, even if surrounded by Indians having Indian food, was quite a pleasant experience.

Obituary

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Serpis is shut for good.

Most people, even many long term Bandra residents, will have no idea what that meant. Even google in all its wisdom knows where it is but has nothing to say about what it is. A bare handful of links mention it at all, and no reviews or gushing blogs serve up its secrets. This alone, in todays hyperinformation world, would have guaranteed Serpis the status of a “find” but alas – no more. One fine day, discreet as ever, Serpis put a small notice on its door saying it was closed till further notice. It sounded more like a monsoon break than a retirement, but confirmation has come through the grapevine; there will be no further notice.

Serpis was a cold storage. That does not mean so much in Bandra, but Serpis was a special kind of cold storage. He was, you see, a master of the daily meat. On different days of the week he produced different meats – Wednesdays for roast beef, Saturdays for barbecue chicken on his large outdoor grill, other days for other things like tongue – I didn’t even get to know his schedules well enough in the short time we had together. The roast beef was how I first got to know about this tiny corner of a tuckedaway place; for a while Sunanda suspected my visits to her house were less about her than the Wednesday roast beef tucked away in her fridge, sliced beautifully fine by her mother and ready to be picked off, or piled high on bread. Once I moved to Bandra, shouting distance from the store itself, I thought I was set with roast tongue and barbecue for life. Alas, it was not to be.

The shop was always discreet, even the sign hard to see from the main roads, an unlikely gem tucked into the nape of Chimbhai Road just before it straightened out and went its purposeful way. You had to know where it was, or you would be one of the thousand cars that go by the busy St. Andrews junction each day, unaware of any such institution. A small yoga studio and cafe has opened up next door, beautiful green walls and spiritually satisfied foreigners included; apparently the rent from that more than makes up for the closure of the store, and old man Serpis was not getting any younger.

I wonder who he’ll pass his meat secrets to…

Flying Beers

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Drinks inside domestic flights went the way of dinosaurs days before my first flight, and for a very long time the only place to drink even before boarding a flight was at Bangalore Airport. The sobriety situation stayed firmly in place for decades; your only options for flying drunk was to tank up before entering the airport or joining the ever-expanding ranks of desi international travellers.

Private airports changed all that; now the average alcoholic has all kinds of options even when his (or her) ticket is firmly printed with names like Delhi or Jhumritalayia. Swank bars have opened up in checkin areas, but even more important in the waiting areas as well. I discovered Foodie Bar at Mumbai domestic about nine months ago, but it is in the Air India terminal and not even my entreaties about ready availability of liquor persuaded friends and family to buy AI tickets. Some months ago, the “other” domestic terminal also gained a version of Foodie Bar. Called 24x7 (though there was many a time when that was not followed) it served a generous bar but a much smaller selection of food.

Photo 29-07-11 6 29 32 PM (HDR)

Today, Sunanda’s flying Kingfisher so I’m back at foodie bar enjoying average pan-fried chicken dim sum and a nice Fosters draft.

Eight Bowls and the Art of the No

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When I first moved into Mumbai in the mid nineties, Gujarati Thali was a big thing. At a time when expense accounts were still some years away, the sheer promise of unlimited food (even if vegetarian), attentive waiters and wholesomely pretty gujju girls (even if vegetarian) all sounded like the greatest option ever. That most of them were tucked into bylanes made them (in the era before map-laden smartphones) only added to the adventure. Don’t get me wrong though, I also do love the food.

This whole prologue is leading up to my visit to Panchvati Gaurav today, hidden inside a mall in Thane. The somewhat odd name means the pride of five banyans and derives from an eponymous religious place near Nasik; this is where the chain originates too. It was one of the star thali places in those days, suitably hidden in Marine Lines behind two thousand shows of Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. In those days it used to rank somewhere between Status and the very hard to find Thakkar. The original location has since closed; it has become a chain that can be found hanging about in many a suburban mall. While Rajdhani spreads through the Western Suburbs, Panchvati Gaurav (I’m sure people call it PG) rules the other side – Vashi, Mulund, Thane, and even makes an appearance in hometown Nasik.

This was my second visit to the Thane location, and it didn’t seem very busy either time. The thali is the standard one – eight bowls and all the usual trims; the only jarring note both times has been a couple of punjabi dishes. The food is quite good, very competently executed and well presented but invariable comparisons with the other thali chain – Rajdhani – kept popping into my head. I find that all the better gujju thalis have food that a blind taste session would not be able to distinguish – they are all rather competent when doing classic dishes in classic ways. The differences lie in the range – Rajdhani scores a little better there though neither can match the unending options offered by Ahmedabad’s Agashiye (which in my opinion is the best thali in the universe).

There’s also the whole health business and the unhealthy propensity man has, when faced with unlimited food, to eat way too much. The nice thing about the thali is that it goes both ways – it can also mean as little food as you want and (unlike a five star buffet) at a mere rupees two fifty a pop you don't feel like you’re wasting money. You can stick to the relatively modest portions in an individual bowl and avoid refills; combine that with the vigorous negative gestures when faced with the ghee, and you could end up with a proportional, balanced, healthy vegetarian meal.

I need work on those negative gestures though – the waiter didn’t always get it.

Mixup

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Today I went in search of misal.

Misal is as soundly maharashtrian as the pandu, the vada pao, the dabbawallah or the endearing habit of naming everything after Shivaji. No self-respecting station or streetcorner in Mumbai can afford to maintain its status in society without one. I suspect that while pao bhaji is sold to the tourists, Mumbai survives on misal. Even our canteen - which can barely fry an onion - will occasionally serve halfway decent misal (and surprising for so simple a dish, a misal is rather easy to screw up).

The name just says “mixed” but such simplicity hides endless variations on the basic aria. The two mixers in the mix are simple – a spicy, watery pea-centric dal called usal and dried fried snacks called farsaan or chiwda. Optionals such as diced onions, pao, dahi, sprouts, aloo are, well, strictly optional. The droolworthiness is in the details – sprouts or spicy potatoes or poha, all kinds of stuff that can be hidden in there. The defining characteristics of a misal mix are in the spices of the usal (from moderate in Goregaon to flaming in Kolhapur) and the type of farsaan used (I’ve even seen chinese noodles) and finally the options that come as standard equipment. In four bicycled stops I covered quite a few riffs on both.

Stop number one was Cafe Madras. Yes, I know its not what comes right up to the top of your mind when you think Maharashtrian but an old-time Sunday regular to the place (whose table I happened to share) introduced me to the delights of Madras Misal. Of course, nothing in Chennai mentions any kind of mixture, so this is definitely fusion food. The usal is sambhar, the farsaan mix reminiscent of the south, the dahi topcoat flecked with dhania but the mixture is definitely a very nice (though unusual) misal.

  

Next were two side by side options in the heart of Maratha country – just off Shiv Sena Bhavan and Shivaji Park in Dadar. Prakash and Dattatrey are what can only be described as bastions of maratha culture and misal was a very popular choice at both places. Both had very similar offerings; the basic usal filled out a spicy potato mash and sprouts. In both places, misal was very popular and the dahi variety more popular than the plain. Many a formica-topped table had people digging two spoons into the mixture, and it gave me an intresting insight into the multiple ways it is possible to eat misal.

Now misal is a really shortlived dish – to be consumed within minutes if you are to avoid a soggy mess – and the technique of eating it can change what it tastes like. The old uncle to the left mixed the whole thing throughly, covering every inch till it was all an even whitish yellowish green colour. I personally like to mix a little, which leaves some of the farsaan crunchy for longer but also gives different parts different tastes. Some ate it off the bowl, manipulating the mixture a little at a time while the rest remained intact. Others poured the contents onto the plate, allowing most of the usal gravy to run around while they picked off the solid bits, then soaking the pao in pure gravy. One person had the dahi and the misal separately, a spoonful of this and one of that.

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My last stop was somewhat further away, genuinely off the beaten track not too far from Milan Subway. Misal afficionado Kabi found this one out for me (how she stumbled upon it in the first place is a bit of a mystery – it took multiple phonecalls and chatting up paanwallas for me to replicate the feat) – I guess its enough of a local landmark that you can ask your way there, and popular enough that you cant fail to notice the crowds. The easiest way to get there is to come east on Milan Subway, take the road towards the station till you reach a T junction and then follow the rightmost turn past the telephone exchange till you arrive at another T junction where blue tarp and crowds will help you locate the place. Google tells me its close to something called Rane Hospital.


View Larger Map

Unlike the other full-service places, this is the one place on the list that is solely focused on misal (well, to be pedantic, it serves usal and misal) and thus the entire crowd is gulping down only that. The place opens in the morning and shuts when it runs out, usually around 4pm but earlier on Sundays. By the time I landed here, though, the three misals I had already consumed had filled my stomach. Number four was not going to happen today, but I’ve tried the misal here before and I agree with Kabi that this one is serious stuff. The usal base is hotter, more flavour-loaded and more substantial than either of the two Dadar stalwarts. The farsaan is the thicker softer surti variety and the usal (a liquidy version in a huge bowl) is alone worth the journey but when mixed into misal – aah, the chunky chewy toothsome strands of besan are brilliant at soaking gravy and add a whole new dimension – al dente rather than crunch. This version feels far more like a fullsize soupbowl meal than a snack.

I find misals too different from each other to make a real ranking, but I certainly enjoyed the Vile Parle stall the most, followed closely by Cafe Madras. There are other place well known for misal – Gypsy, Hiralal Kashidas, Vinay, Aram – and a dozen others; I’ll leave all that tasting to Rashmi Uday Singh.

MultiBites

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This is a multi-post, on three meals.

First, there was Caravan Serai, where I was treating my nephew to kababs. We ordered three; the chicken kalimirch came out first and was wonderful – raising expectations to fever pitch. The mutton galauti that followed tumbled us into the depths of the disappointing (for a while we thought they may have served us veg galouti by mistake) and the chicken kasturi that brought up the tail promised cheese and other exotic flavours but ended up innocuous and barely passable.

Across the road was the newest addition to the gourmet chocolate craze that seems to be catching up in Bandra. An Australian chain that built its brand around Spain’s answer to the donut, its a large slick operation with eight kinds of truffles, multiple shake&stir options, chocolate fondues, burgers, sandwiches, chocolate drinks and of course, churros.

The chocolates were rather colourful, looked expensive and were quite good. They weren’t Bandra’s best (the Taj Lands End wins that one hands down) but having crossed the Cadbury barrier and offering a pleasant ambience to boot, it was certainly worth a visit; an opinion shared by nmane a teenager. The hot chocolates were more unusual. The Azteca was rich, creamy and had a distinct afterbite of chillies.

  

Then there was Gostana, a place I returned to after a couple of months while waiting for my bicycle to be fixed. Still just as good, though there are a few small additions to the menu (like beef burgers) that I have yet to try. While writing this post, I ran through the chicken nuggets and hummus with tulsi green tea.

Breakfast at Chiang Mai

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It took me a while to start my first day at Chiang Mai. Its a slow city; even the morning newspaper arrives only at 11am. By the time I was out of the door the sun was already showing off a little, and the day's bustle past its morning peak. Beyond the tuk tuk stand outside the hotel was a small cluster of restaurants, one of which caught my attention. It advertised mutton biriyani. The restaurant, it turned out, offered local Muslim food (properly certified by the local mullahs, the sign also said). I'd been told by Lonely Planet that Muslims here were the legacy of Chiang Mai's bygone glory days, when caravans from Yunnan brought goods, foods and religions. Quite different from the pork-centric menus of the rest of the populace, the stall offered chicken, mutton, beef and shrimp biriyani. However, rice weighed too heavily on my unexercised conscience, so I ordered oxtail soup instead.


This was revealed to be a steaming bowl of clear, bracingly spicy broth full of large chunks of oxtail, tomatoes, onions, coriander, star anise and bird chillies. Quite delicious, even if some of the drool is your nose watering in protest.

Calorie-burning

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Day Two, I went jogging.

It sounds horribly exotic to go jogging in Hua Hin specially when I duck it so frequently at home, but I did lace up and start running bright and early. Only to find food within minutes. A hundred yards out of the hotel gates a most odd barbecue cart pulled up next to me; it was attached to a scooter and the man was driving it around like a perfectly normal scooter - fire, meats, grill and all. I was to learn later that this was not unusual in Thailand, but it certainly provided a quirky start to my day. Barbecue in hand from this mobile pork heaven, ornate temple in the background, I continued my jog now accompanied by a very hopeful street dog (he eventually did get half my barbecue).


Another kilometre of uneventful jogging later, I found myself at a canal lined on either side with kaccha roads that the recent rains had turned to mud. The crossing - a small road bridge - yielded another postcard moment. Against the backdrop of the canal was a hugely fat man running a barbecue stall, an ancient fan blackened with age and burnt grease powering the flames, serving the locals gathered for elections.


And it was election time in Thailand. On the other side of the bridge was what looked like a small village market where a few people were lining up at the polling booth. The market itself was dominated by a large banyan, wrapped with sashes and adorned with deities like something straight out of India - except for the soft drink. The Thais apparently like to propitiate their gods with offerings of food and drink, which usually means a bottle of bright red soft drink complete with straw.


The market turned out to have a clutch of street carts selling all kinds of goodies, from delicious garlic sausages to banana fritters and much in between. There was this strange pork-n-blackbean sticky rice - really sweet sticky steamed in a pandan leaf, mixed with savoury pork and back bean into a sort of limbo between snack and dessert that I found to disturbing to like. Much nicer were these things that a mother and two daughters were vending - they looked like fried idli - I later discovered they were called khanom krok. Made of coconut milk mixed with rice powder, they had crisp outsides, sweet soft insides, you ate them two at a time and were quite addictive.


The market also had a few stalls that boasted chairs and tables, focusing on full meals rather than snacks. This was more challenging in a sign-language world, since no one (not even the young) speak any English. Point and shoot was much harder than with the street carts, since I had no real idea what was being sold in the first place. In any case, a few gesticulations and vacant stares later, I was handed a bowl of pinkish liquid with rice noodles, a few thai fish cakes and a lot of seafood broth, and told to sit in front of a tray full of fresh herbs that it seemed I could add as I liked. The herbs really were very fresh; young perky leaves that looked like they had been plucked hours ago (and in a fridge-free world, probably had). All were strange; one looked like bay leaf but was sour, one tasted like basil, one had a crunch and so one. All in all, lots of fun, though it will take time and a few repeats to get a favourite combination going. Few people sat and ate with me (and hence no chance to imitate) but the place did brisk business in takeaways.

My iphone running app told me I lost three hundred and eleven calories on that run.

Avoiding Indian Food

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I'm not being anti-national, just trying to avoid makemytrip feed me desikhana in Thailand.


So far, I've managed multiple exotic fruits, barbecued pork, curried oysters, something resembling a jackfruit idli, a couple of nut variants and a steamed rice-coconut pudding.


Our saviour was a rest stop on the long journey from Bangkok to Hua Hin in the south. A handful of stalls sold us these exotic fruits (names still unknown) and some very colourful steamed snacks in leaf cups.


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