Local Love

about Khao Lak, Phang-nga, Thailand No comments:

Authentic is not always what you expect it to be.

I spent three days in Khao Lak, searching for chillies and coconut milk; screaming in frustration at finding only ginger, soya and rice wine. Looking for locals feeding themselves got me to a strange mixture of hotpot and hot plate; I was quite excited by it but apparently that was as local as Chinese in Mumbai.

Markets are usually good hunting grounds. The local wet market did have food stalls, but most were closed by the time I got there - apparently Khao Lak's bucolic populace start early and shut by noon. The one stall that was open looked authentic enough but, in a sleepy unhurried afternoon was feeding only two tables - a German-sounding family and a European couple with too much suntan. A little bit of sign language did produce a classic tom yam with the much sought lemongrass and chillies, rustic chunks of ginger, galangal and onion floating about, reasonably rendered and reasonably fiery. Emboldened by my lack of distress with the chillies, she made the next dish – a rather nice crackling pork and beans in red curry - noticeably more fiery.


Sunday arrived and I scooted off early morning, still in search of the curry, towards Takuapa town – once a centre of tin mining. The old part of the town is scattered with older Sino-portuguese houses, while the new area looks just like any other town. Pleasant - especially the bits along the river - but nothing utterly spectacular. More to the point, it was a full-sized town, not bucolic at all and not much was open in the morning. The only thing open was packed to the gills, and served what looked to me exactly like biriyani and paratha. And indeed, that is what it was, with a twist.

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The biriyani was quite different taste-wise, laden with coriander and what the west calls curry powder (it originated with sambhar masala). The paratha, a crisp layered version createdby stretching the dough rather than rolling it, was filled with egg and meant to be had with powdered sugar and condensed milk, both of which rather conveniently were in dispensers at the table. The crackling paratha, with its soft egg centre and loads of condensed milk (yes, I was a little generous) was quite wonderful.

On the way back from Takuapa, I came across in the town of Ban Muang a row of stalls hidden from the sun and the highway by large awnings. A few of them were selling food, so I stopped to see. The first stall offered me a large array of sweets – sticky rice with fillings such as red bean, banana or coconut, wrapped in banana leaf, steamed or roasted – the banana-filled roasted version was especially nice. Alongside were sweet soups and brightly coloured jellies of different kinds, but I didn't try them.


Next door was a fair, frail old lady selling dim sums out of a huge steamer – these are common in the area (especially the standard sui mai in colourful variations) but this lady had the nicest looking ones. Opening the steamer revealed exquisite shapes; dim sums made to look like flowers, like crab claws, like shrimps, cubes, balls, dimples, so many shapes. The there were the combos, a pork base and a topping shaped into something interesting, were the nicest – most unusually a hot dog dim sum made to resemble a flower.


A trip to the nearby gas station led me to my next discovery - actual curry. I've since formulated the theory that a row of steel vessels signals curry, while hanging chickens or vegetables signals kway teow, and this place – a thatched, largish seating space under a few large trees, was definitely the curry types. The fried pork in red sauce was suitably fiery, spreading slowly down from lip to stomach. The pork and pineapple curry that followed was the best thing I ate on the trip; a wonderful combination of spicy, sour and sweet flavours (I discovered later that Phuket is particularly proud of its local pineapples) attached to some meltingly tender pork. A few hours later, another stall would feed me a tom kha gai (Chicken Galangal Soup) to challenge this, but it still won.

I was still puzzled that curry options - what I thought of as Thai food - was so hard to find and why everyone kept steering me to noodle soup and dim sum instead. Robyn's comments on my previous post (read on mobile while downing the curry above) pointed me in what is often called the right direction. It turns out that through the twists of history, Phuket has the highest percentage of ethnic Chinese in Thailand. Tin and trading both drew thousands of workers, mostly Hokkien – and gave the tiny Phuket island province its distinctive China-tinted identity. Most searches for top dining spots turned up many recommendations that were distinctly Chinese in origin. It turns out, yesterday's kway teow and all those other variants on noodle soup I had been turning my nose down on were the most original things I could have had. Alas, my eating was at an end – I had run out of mealtimes and stomach space.


My final dish in Phuket was, however, of suitably chinese-thai provenance – squid and basil in a wonderful ginger-soya sauce, spiked Thai style with loads of chillies and basil. Eaten, beachside, to gathering dark clouds and the slurps of a green coconut drunk through a nicely touristy straw.

Looking for Local


When IMA invited me to Phuket on what really important people call a junket, I was quite excited. Visions of pork-lined streets and wonderful curries glazing my eyes, I braved roaming charges to land at Phuket airport and discovered a slightly different destination – Khao Lak, rather than Phuket. Not so bad, I told myself, the name has eating in it and anyway, how far from good food can you get in Thailand.

Life has since been more of a challenge. Khao Lak is, it turns out, a small, rural, mildly sleepy town better described as a string of hotels plunked into some dramatic scenery, peppered with more Scandinavians than Thais. Faced with so much white skin the chefs at the intensely pretty JW Marriot treat chillies with great wariness – a single one probably powers an entire lunch service. As for real Thais eating real Thai food, It's easier to find McDonalds and steak than a local grabbing a meal.

However, I'm not about to give up that easily. As in Goa, renting a scooter here was a breeze and thus armed, off I go hunting ravenous locals and their hideouts. A few trips up and down the thin strip of civilization that constitutes the town does not yield much result, so I persuade the scooter lady to tell me her recommendation. "Kway Teow neah Moo Moo Show" she tells me, and I pretend to understand.

Moo Moo Show, it turns out, is hard to miss – a huge neon sign announcing the town's primary cabaret show. Right outside is indeed a food stall proudly displaying the flat rice noodles characteristic of Kway Teow, and eventually an excellent plate does indeed appear. Sliced fried pork from the stall next door is equally satisfying. Both, however, seem very Chinese; Kway Teow is very popular in Thailand so I shouldn't really complain,  but the stereotypes in my brain would not be satisfied with this chilli-lacking curry-missing option. No, I needed coconut milk and lemongrass.


I kept wondering, where do the locals eat? They certainly look well-fed enough, but most restaurants are empty of all but the whitest of skins. Worse, none of Europeans appear in any distress – a sure sign that the dreaded bird chilli has not been observed. More searching was in order; it was finally a Vegas-style 99 baht all-you-can-eat buffet sign with a happy pig that caught my interest and, venturing a short way down a beaten path I was in a large restaurant full of locals. The happy pig had saved the day.


All you can eat wasn't quite the huge array of Thai curries I expected. Indeed, there was not a curry in sight; the tables were packed with locals all trying the single item on the menu – a wierd combination of hot plate and hot pot that united Japan and Korea in ways politics never could. Korean Barbecue met Japanese Shabu Shabu in Khao Lak.


First came the fire – a clay bowl filled with blazing coals. Then the plate – a raised aluminium thingy with handles and a huge perforated bump in the middle. On the top of this bump was perched a big chunk of pork fat. Put the plate on the fire, pour the stock in around the bump and wait for everything to boil or melt while you go pick up the array of meats and vegetables on offer. The meat cooks on the bump – helped along by the melting lump of lard – while all around the stock happily boils into a soup.

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A row of trays greeted me, filled with strips of meat marinated in different sauces and ready for the grilling. Pork, as one may have expected from the happy pig on the sign, is the dominant choice but there were a few chicken options too. The soup portion had  noodle types to choose from (glass, flat or fried), a few kinds of greens, herbs and various shapes and sizes of fish and meat balls. Seafood choices (given that the sea was one hotel's width away) were surprisingly sparse – a single option each in fish, prawn and squid.

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This, though not particularly gourmet is a satisfying meal with lots of meat and a nice soup formed from a hearty stock redolent of  five-spice - a social and entertaining way to eat. The tables were filled with couples, families, mens parties, womens groups, all kinds of people having boisterous fun. Drink,s even water, is extra but all in all the bill came to a comfortable 140 baht.

Still no bird chillies, coconut milk or lemongrass but search abh bhi jari hain

Military Manoeuvres

about M Shetty Marg, Kala Ghoda, Fort, Mumbai 1 comment:

Cafe Military, hidden in the bylanes of Flora Fountain, would have remained hidden to me but for a loving recent article in DNA. It took me a while to get to flora fountain (possibly a reflection of how much of Mumbai life has moved out of the fort area) but here I am, at lunch, catching a quick bite of Salli Boti and Masur Gosh before the caramel custard appears.

The cafe may have been hidden to me, but it certainly wasn't unknown. The red checkered table cloths were busy with beer bottles and raspberry sodas; waiters rushed past at regular intervals transporting keemas and paos; biriyani was already sold out. Contemplating the inevitable paper menu staring at me through the glass tabletop, I settled on (as already mentioned, look up dears) the special of the day - Masur Gosh. Whole masur dal with skin landed up - a hearty dal stew if there was one, prettied up for the non-vegetarians by drowning three tender boneless chunks of mutton. The brain masala was pedestrian but the the salli boti that followed was loaded with salli crunch and tomato sweet-sour. The final stage- the caramel custard – came with a darker-than-average brown cap and was on the better side of competent. This isn't the best Irani restaurant ever but it is, indeed, quite good.


The tale of Mumbai's Irani chai, as we all know, is no longer in the food but the borrowed time that Cafe Military and kin are living on. I've always wondered, though, why are these storied restaurants unable to convert a reputation into a sustainable business. With generations of loyal customers, prime real estate and often (Brittania, for instance) an enviable brand, these places should be able to do more than sit and wait for death. The owner, Sheriar Koshravi, complains that roadside puribhaji is eating his lunch and there's no dinner crowd, yet less than a hundred feet away restaurants such as Khyber or Apoorva are thumbing their nose at street food and queuing people up for dinner. Irani cafes seem headed towards graceless decay rather than graceful vintage – gripping at a fading past rather than building on a heritage.

Deep thoughts make me hungry. Go ahead, gobble up the keema while it lasts…


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