Of the fifteen or so recipes that I brought home from northernThailand last year, nam prik dta daeng is my favorite. Nam prik are Thai 'dips' eaten with blanched or fresh veggies and, in northern Thailand, plenty of glutinous rice. 'Dta daeng' means 'red eye' and Mon, the Nan (a northeastern province bordering Lao) native who showed me how to make this dip, believes that its name is a reference to the water that its heat brings to the eyes.
There are a number of variations on the nam prik dta daeng theme, though most versions include plenty of dried red chilies. This northern, or Nan-style, nam prik dta daeng features smoked fish.
The Nan River courses right through Nan town, separating its laid-back commercial center from the rice paddy and corn field-studded eastern 'suburbs'. The wide river is low and sluggish in the dry months, considerably higher during the rainy season (the suspension bridge pictured above was washed away in last year's September floods). Longboat races are held on the river every year to mark the end of the Buddhist rains retreat.
It's not surprising, then, that fish figures prominently in the local diet (as it does throughout much of river and stream-etched northern Thailand). At the Nan morning market you'll find it salted and dried, smoked,
packed into whiskey bottles and left to dissolve into sauce,
and fermented with rice husks to make bplaa raa. Fresh fish is sold whole, of course. And then there are fish eggs, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled over charcoal,
and logs of bplaa som, raw fish fermented with rice and shaped into big sour 'sausages'.
Nam prik dta daeng might just be one of the simplest Thai dishes you'll ever make, especially if you forgo mortar and pestle in favor of blender or mini-chopper. Ingredients are few: dried chilies, garlic, shallots, tomatoes, shrimp paste - and, of course, smoked fish.
Before it's incorporated into the dish the fish (Mon used a butterflied specimen similar to those in the third photo from the top) is crisped - over coals, traditionally, but in a microwave in Mon's kitchen.
Garlic and shallots are softened (microwave, again) and, along with the fish, pulverized in a mortar with toasted red chilies.
Tomatoes are softened in a skillet, shrimp paste added and cooked until its ammonia-like odor dissipates, and then the fish-chili paste is added to the mix.
It all cooks for a bit over low heat, taking on a lovely brick-red gloss, and then it's done, ready to eat with raw vegetables and sticky rice.
Nam prik dta daeng's appeal can't be overstated. It's fishy, but not overly so, and the shallots and garlic lend a mellow, caramelized note. Mon's version is very, very spicy, in that hurts-so-good kind of way that urges one back for more even as the tongue and upper palate beg for mercy. It keeps at least a week in the fridge and leftovers are wonderful stirred into scrambled eggs or spread on toast or a cracker.
Smoked mackerel is a fine substitute for the river fish that Mon uses. It results in a smooth, extra-rich dip.
Mon's Nam Prik Dta Daeng
Very spicy - reduce the number of chilies to soften the blow. You could also add a bit more tomato to balance out the heat.
about 100 grams smoked fish, boned
6 unpeeled shallots
8 unpeeled garlic cloves
20 whole Thai small dried red chilies, stemmed but not seeded
2 medium ripe, not exceedingly juicy, tomatoes, diced
1 Tbsp gapi (Thai shrimp paste)
1 tsp cooking oil
1/2 cup water
Raw veggies and herbs for serving: sliced cucumber, long or green beans, cabbage, small round eggplants, Thai basil
1. Remove any skin from the fish. Microwave until it exudes any moisture and begins to crips, about 3-5 minutes depending on the fattiness of the fish. (This is messy - be prepared for a good splattering of oil on the inside of your microwave).
2. Place garlic cloves on a plate and cover with microwave-safe plastic wrap. Wave till very soft and starting to brown a bit on the outside, about 2-3 minutes. Repeat with the shallot, which will take a little longer. Cool and then peel.
3. Toast the chilies in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring often, till they darken but are not burned.
4. Place the fish in mortar and pound to a rough mash. Add the chilies and pound to flakes, then finish with the shallots and garlic to make a rough paste. (Or, place the lot in a powerful blender or minichopper and have at it. Just be sure not to overprocess - the end result should have some texture.)
5. Place a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add oil and then tomatoes and gapi together. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes. Add water and continue to cook, stirring and mashing the tomatoes with the back of your spatula or spoon, until the moisture has almost evaporated and the smell of the shrimp paste has subsided a bit.
6. Add the chile-fish paste and cook, stirring, until it has started to darken and take on an oily sheen, about 4-5 minutes. There should be no moisture left in the pan and the paste should be thick.
7. Serve at room temperature with veggies and sticky rice.
If you're here via the Guardian food blog, welcome! Have a sniff around - archives and country categories are to your right. We're heavy on Malaysia content, but do manage get out and about in the region from time to time.
We're suckers for Malaysian coffee shops. We refer here to the genuine article, mind you, not to any of the cute-ified old style-themed shops that have popped up around Kuala Lumpur in the last few years. The latter may be squeaky clean and air-conditioned, and some serve a good cup of local brew, but they don't come with the layers of history and the retinue of characterful regulars that places like Penang's Toon Leong do.
This year is Toon Leong's seventy-first in business. The shop is known for its coffee and coffee powder, sold by the kilo. A sign on the wall behind the check-out counter proudly proclaims, 'The Best Coffee Powder Sold Here Retail.'
Time seems to have passed Toon Leong by. It's not listed in Rasa Rasa Penang, a locally-produced, meticulously detailed guide to the island's hawker and restaurant food. And on a Sunday morning it is not particularly busy. Its nasi kandar stall is doing a somewhat steady business, and a noodle vendor serves up a bowl here and there. Next to the noodle cart, the Hainan chicken rice stall is closed up.
Most of the customers are regulars of a certain age nursing a pot of tea or a cup of coffee. Toon Leong's owner is delighted when Dave takes out his camera (we're here courtesy of our knowledgeable taxi driver, Mr. Goh). We're never sure what the reaction to photographing will be in places like this - sometimes folks scowl, other times they laugh. Here, today, smiles all around. As Dave sets up his tripod at the shop's entrance the owner hurries behind the service counter and strikes a pseudo-casual pose, back straight and face to the lens (you can just make him out above, to the left), as customers gently razz him.
We wonder what will become of Toon Leong. The shop is brilliant, occupying a lovely colonaded corner unit that catches cooling cross breezes. Booths and tables are well-placed for prime street-watching. The owner's son, who looks to be in his fifties, helps out at the shop, and perhaps he'll keep things going after it passes to his hands. Or perhaps not - there are so many other old-style coffee shops in Penang, and most of them are packed with busy hawker stalls and crowded with customers jostling for tables from early morning to closing. How long can this little gem subsist primarily on the sale of coffee powder? Or, maybe Toon Leong sells so much coffee powder that it needn't place a priority on famous hawker fare.
Toon Leong's coffee? Delicious: dark, thick, and fragrant - and packing a hell of a punch. The best, perhaps, in all of Penang.
Toon Leong Coffee Shop, Jalan Transfer at the intersection with Jalan Argyle, Penang. Early morning to mid-afternoon.
Over the course of three days last week I ate, I would wager, as much lechon baboy (spit-roasted pig) as most Filipinos eat in a year. Thanks to 72 hours of intensive training, I now know a good one from a bad one, and could probably rate any lechon on a loosely calibrated scale of, say, one to five. Hardened arteries be damned.
Serious lechon research dictates a trip to La Loma, a barangay (a Philippine administrative unit) of Quezon City. Not to eat lechon - judging from what we sampled on site, and according to every local we spoke with, La Loma lechon is mediocre at best - but to get a sense of its important place in Philippine culinary culture.
La Loma is block after block of lechon roasters and sellers. The finished pigs are displayed outside the shops, exposed to exhaust and whatever else is floating about in the air. Most are sold whole, to party-givers and goers. Lechon is, more than any other Philippine food, perhaps, fiesta fare. We met a balikbayan (returnee) from California who told us he was picking up a porker to take to a family reunion a couple of hours outside of town.
'I don't eat it myself,' he said. 'Too fatty. But if it's a special occasion you gotta have lechon.'
In La Loma, pork-scented smoke hovers above the streets, where carts selling deep-fried pig innards do a steady drive-by trade.
Some of the roasting is done at streetside pits open to observation. The pigs are roasted over indirect heat for - depending on size - an average of three hours.
The shops offer delivery service - by foot,
There's always time for a game of cards as the pigs roast.
Heading back to our car, we came upon a live pig delivery. Face-to-face, so to speak, with my lunch.
As Dave snapped photos I listened to the pigs scream, as if for their lives. In fact, at that moment they were protesting being pulled by their ears.
From the back of the truck the pigs were loaded, one-by-one (or several at a time, if they were piglets) into bags to be weighed.
Once inside their bags the pigs quieted down.
After being weighed they were unceremoniously dumped into a holding room near the scale. I assume that they are slaughtered not far away. It's not nice, the way pigs are killed for lechon; they are hung upside down and their throats are slit so the blood drains cleanly.
This was the nearest I've been to my food when it was still alive, but so close to being 'meat'. The experience was ... disturbing. Standing there, watching and hearing, it was easy to swear off bacon. The sights and sounds stayed with me as we drove to our next appointment, through the afternoon, past our pork-free dinner. I'm an animal lover.
But I'll eat lechon again. So it is for carnivores.
La Loma, Quezon City, Philippines. No street names needed - every driver in Manila knows the place.
The July-August issue of Malaysia's Flavours magazine includes our feature story (with 5 recipes) on northern Thai food. Thanks to our editor for the absolutely gorgeous 14-page (!) layout - Dave's location shots look great - and to photographer Yap Chee Hong for making the dishes I prepared here at home (and my tableware) look so good.
Flavours isn't available (to the best of our knowledge) outside Malaysia/Singapore and, unfortunately, there's no web link to the story, but perhaps I can rustle up a pdf for EatingAsia.
While in Chiang Mai last November we shared a meal with several folks from Lanna Dog Rescue, an organization devoted to the laudable cause of improving the lives of city's stray dogs. I sat next to W, a doctor at Chiang Mai University. W is Thai, so it's not surprising that a few seconds after meeting each other we were talking food. I knew immediately from the way W - after learning we were in northern Thailand to do research for an article on the region's food - zeroed in on the menu's more esoteric dishes that the lady is a real chowhound (no pun intended). So when this Chiang Mai native recommended a particular restaurant specializing in aahaan thang nya (northern Thai food), I got out my notebook.
Problem was, she didn't know the restaurant's address, only its street and its name: Phet Doi Ngam. 'Look for a wood sign,' W said.
The next day, our last in Chiang Mai, we pointed our rental car to Thanon Mahidon and drove, slowly, from the Ping River several kilometers away from downtown. I kept my eyes peeled. Nothing. We retraced our path and repeated the search. Finally, Dave stopped the car and I jumped out to inquire at a hardware shop: 'Phet Doi Ngam?' I was pointed up the street. This maneuver I repeated a few more times, at various places of business, before we spied an open-air place almost obscured by greenery. Above it's entrance, a wood sign. It had taken us 50 minutes to find a restaurant located about a 15-minute drive from our guest house. But boy, were our efforts repayed tenfold.
No English is spoken at Phet Doi Ngam, and the menu is in Thai, which I don't read. No problem - armed with market, kitchen, and restaurant-grade spoken Thai ability and the names of a few dishes that W had recommended, we were set. As soon as we sat down a waiter plonked a basket of vegetables and herbal shrubbery - something essential to any northern Thai meal - on our table and took our order.
Bplaa bing op - stuffed fish - is an edible work of art. For this dish Phet Doi Ngam partially debones and butterflies a whole bplaa chon (snakehead fish), tops it with a mix of diced fresh turmeric, lemongrass, cilantro, green chilies, garlic, shallots, and green onion, and then rolls it vertically, tail-to-head, enclosing the stuffing. The snakehead 'roulade' is then deep-fried.
The result is the most exquisitely flavored fish we could ever hope to eat. Its crispy skin and exceptionally moist, fragrant flesh alone had us fork-fencing over the plate. The stuffing - a bit spicy, sweetly caramelized, the wee-est bit astringent from the turmeric - was extravagant icing on the cake.
Muu hum astounded with its simple sublimeness. This dish of on-the-bone pork (muu=pork) stewed with lemongrass, fresh turmeric, onion, water, and nothing else summarized, for us, the essence of northern Thai food: transcendent flavors coaxed from the most basic ingredients. Spoon-tender meat, clear broth, a garnish of fluffy coriander - unpretentious and truly memorable.
Asked for suggestions, our waiter proffered khua khae gai and this dish, too, was wonderful. 'Khua', slow frying over low heat with minimal oil, is northern Thailand's answer to central Thailand's 'phat', or high-heat stir-frying. And khua khae gai is essentially a 'dry' take on gaeng khae gai, or coconut milk-free northern Thai red curry with chicken (I include a recipe for the latter in the article that resulted from this trip). Gaeng khae - and Phet Doi Ngam's khua khae gai - is a boldly spiced dish that exemplifies the northern Thai love of vegetables. Our serving included pea eggplants, golfball-sized eggplant quarters, long (snake) beans, and plenty of dtam leung, a seasonal vining green.
We finished with nam prik bplaa jee, a 'dip' of chopped snakehead fish and herbs mixed with coconut milk (an ingredient absent in most northern Thai dishes, khao soi being an exception). For us, the most interesting part of this tasty dish was two of the blanched vegetables it was served with: slender young bamboo shoots, another seasonal delicacy, and more dtam leung.
The bad news: our meal left me in such a foggy state of satedness that I floated out of Phet Doi Ngam without a calling card and thus, without an address. The good news: armed with our photograph of the entryway, you'll be able to find it. More bad news: if you speak no Thai, communication will pose a bit of a problem. And good news: if you go armed with the names of the dishes described above, you'll eat well. Repeat this phrase - Dichan jaak gin aahaan thang nya (Dee-chahn yaahk geen aah-haaahn taahng nuh-ah) - to your waiter and you'll no doubt end up with other swoon-inducing regional delicacies.
Phet Doi Ngam, Thanon Mahidon, Chiang Mai. Follow the road along the Ping River, and turn left at the overpass. Phet Doi Ngam will be somewhere on your left.
The Star newspaper picked up our recent post on fish head curry and assam prawns at Subang Jaya's Ah Lye restaurant. Not sure what attracted their attention about this particular post, but we do appreciate the publicity. Thanks Star!
Just learned of a write-up on EatingAsia in the July 1 South China Morning Post.
Thanks to Food & Wine Editor Susan Jung for taking an interest in Dave's photos and my scribblings, and welcome to anyone in Hong Kong who may have found their way here via the paper's piece. We have a soft spot for Hong Kong, having lived there (at Stanley Fort, no less - now home to the People's Liberation Army) in the early nineties, when the Mid-Levels escalator was just a twinkle in a city planner's eye. We hope it won't be too long before we get back for a visit.
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