When we lived in Bangkok, I occasionally met Dave at his office for lunch. Sometimes we'd go to a restaurant, sometimes to the row of open shopfronts a few steps away for guaytiaow phad kee mao ("drunk" noodles -- rice noodles fried with seafood and copious amounts of fresh chilies and Thai basil) or guaytiaow laad naa (rice noodles fried in black soy and topped with a "gravy" of Chinese broccoli and pork, chicken, or squid). If it wasn't too hot and we were feeling ambitious we'd follow the crowds pouring out of his office building across Wireless Road (one of the few green, tree-lined streets left in downtown Bangkok), join the throng streaming out of the Sindhorn building next to the American Embassy, and head to the collection of vendors selling everything from bras to barbecued pork on rice in a covered, vacant lot on Soi Langsuan.
A visit to this market/hawker area never failed to turn up something new and delicious. After squeezing our way through folks stopped to peruse T-shirts and sarongs, check out pirated CDs and DVDs, consider the health benefits of ginger tea and candy, and stock up on snacks sweet and savory to sustain them through the afternoon ahead, we'd pop out in a cavernous space filled with long communal tables and bordered on three sides by food stalls. The smell of all sorts of dishes permeated the air. Hundreds of Thais were placing orders, paying for their dishes, jostling for a place at one of the tables, yet the scene was curiously without cacaphony (it's the Thai way to speak softly). This is where, on a scorching day at the height of the hot season, I was introduced to khanom jeen gaeng tai plaa (fermented rice noodles topped with pungently burning fish kidney curry), and it's where I discovered delectable young coconut pies sold on Tuesdays and Thursdays by two enterprising sisters. Almost any Thai snack could be found in this space -- and if it wasn't here it was being sold in one of the alleys just outside the market. To visit this market was -- for a glutton with a recently -discovered bottomless love of Thai food -- simply heaven.
One day I noticed an especially long line snaking from a somtam (green papaya salad) seller's stall. I couldn't see her at work, but I knew she was making somtam by the hollow knock-knock of wooden pestle against ceramic mortar. But why the line, longer than at any other vendor's stall, when somtam is available on most any street corner in Bangkok? It turned out that this vendor was making not ordinary somtam, but somtam ponlamai (fruit somtam), an Isaan region specialty. I waited 30 minutes in that line -- a long time when most office workers take only 1 hour for lunch. But it was worth it. Fruit somtam is regular somtam but "more" -- more sour, more sweet, more layers of flavor and texture, dessert, salad, and main dish all in one.
The moral of this story? If you're in downtown Bangkok on a weekday, wondering what to have for lunch, stand watch around 12 o'clock outside a large office building and then follow the crowds to -- mostly likely -- a food vendor paradise off the main streets and not listed in guidebooks.
After we moved to Saigon I forgot all about fruit somtam, until on a trip to northern Thailand we chanced upon a hole-in-the-wall Isaan place off the backpackers' beaten track in Pai.
Fruit somtam was on the menu, and it was even better than that version in Bangkok -- funkier and fishier (I suspect because the cook used plaa raa -- a sort of unfiltered, super-strong version of Thai fish sauce native to Isaan), the struggle between sweet and sour, vegetal and fruit flavors more pronounced.
I'm afraid I haven't quite captured that fruit somtam's true essence in my recipe, but it will hold me till I return to Pai or -- better yet -- till I can make it to Isaan.
Isaan-Style Fruit Salad
Ingredients and quantities are flexible with this fruit salad, though you really do need at least one kind of sour fruit and one kind of sweet fruit to make it work (tomatoes and long beans are a must). If green mango is unavailable to you, a very tart Granny Smith apple will work, or use green papaya. If your grapes and tomatoes are very sweet, you'll want to add more lime juice. Use the eggplant, if you can find it, for a real touch of Isaan. And you will need a mortar and pestle.
I tend to like my somtam "priaow priaow phet phet" -- very sour and very hot. You may want to reduce the number of chilies and add lime juice (and fish sauce) in stages, tasting as you go along.
1 green mango, peeled and julienned
1 each apple and crisp Asian pear, sliced
a good handful of grapes, seeded if necessary
8 cherry tomatoes, halved if large
big handful each of long beans in 2-in segments; roasted peanuts; dried shrimp; and Thai "globe" eggplants, quartered and soaked 1 hour in salt water, then rinsed (eggplant is optional)
2 garlic cloves, unpeeled
6 tiny Thai chilies
3 Tbsp fish sauce
1 Tbsp palm or coconut sugar (substitute dark or light brown sugar -- but moderate lime juice in this case)
3 limes, sliced vertically around the "core" into seedless quarters (alternately, juice them)
In a mortar and pestle pound the garlic and chilies and then add sugar, fish sauce, and limes (if using juice, add a bit now and a bit as you go along, to avoid splashing the dressing into your face!). Pound again. Add long beans and pound only to bruise, not to mash; follow with mangoes and tomatoes. At this point use one hand to mix with a large spoon while pounding with the other. Add fruits, pound and mix. Taste for salt-sweet-sour-hot, and adjust seasonings as necessary.
Place on a plate and sprinkle with peanuts and shrimp (alternately, pound a few of the shrimp and leave the rest for garnish).
Serves 2 quite generously. Delicious with freshly steamed jasmine rice -- or sticky rice -- to soak up the dressing.