Two weeks ago we found ourselves working on a story at a posh resort in northern Thailand. It was the type of gig that strangers, when I tell them I write about food and travel, envision as they reply dreamily, "Wow, that must be amazing."
Don't get me wrong. It is amazing, to be able to do what we love to do -- eat well and travel and meet intersting people -- and call it a job. But a job is a job and traveling for work is nothing like traveling for pleasure. And jobs with the sort of perqs we enjoyed two weeks ago come along... well, near to never.
We worked our butts off for four days because that's how away-frome-home work is. Nothing like the fear that you won't get everything you need while you're on locationto inspire pre-dawn risings and pre-bedtime hours at the computer. But it was all good: the bed didn't give us backaches and the spray in the shower was as hot as we wanted it to be, and generous too. Our room came with a deck and views, of a grazing ground for elephants and egrets and beyond, Burma -- the Ruak River and a patchwork of farms trailing to pine green hills. The staff were wonderful people who worked hard to help us do our jobs. After every photogenic and much-photographed sunset there were lovely cocktails and good food and excellent wine.
And yet, and yet. By the evening of day two I was missing the flavors of the street, craving the tastes and textures of down and dirty northern Thai cuisine. I wanted the snap of roasted chiles and the tingle of prickly ash, the richness of fatty barbecued meat and the bite of sticky rice. I was chafing to imbibe something of Chiang Saen, the nearest town, and its surrounds. There were local specialties there, I knew, and I wanted to try some.
So, as I sat at the bar sampling a tom kha cocktail (addictive) the night before an early morning photography foray to Chiang Saen market, I sought advice from the mixmaster. In Chiang Saen, try the fish grilled in a bamboo tube with herbs, he advised. A nighttime specialty, served by the river, but we'd be in the vicinity early morning. What else is there to eat? I asked. Oh, khao ram feun in Baan Sop Ruak! It's on your way into town! He described a dish of jelly-ish gram flour squares in a cool tomato-based broth that sounded like a memorable treat we enjoyed a couple years ago on the street in Luang Namtha, in northern Laos.
So the next morning, well before we alighted at the dock in Baan Sop Ruak, I told our our guide that we'd need to stop on the way to Chiang Saen in Baan Sop Ruak for a bite or two. I've dealt with guides associated with high-end resorts and hotels, and usually they are resistant to any requests off the beaten path. I hate being handled and I'd steeled myself for protests: Oh no, that food is too dirty. Oh no, that food will make you sick. Do you dare to eat something spicy? I think it's not a good idea, you're not used to the food.
Surprisingly, and delightfully, Khun R's response was nothing of the sort. "Alright," he said, with a smile. After alighting from our boat near a big golden Buddha statue across the Mekong from an atrocious Chinese-owned resort complex in Laos we made our way to a stall set back from the street where a middle-aged woman was setting up for business. She was happy to serve us khao ram fuen, she said, but we'd have to wait a half an hour.
We decided to wait it out with an "appetizer" of laab khua, beef laab prepared in the nothern way, with odd bits and meat and lots of fresh herbs and chilies and dried spices. At the table next to us sat a group of Thais just off the night shift at the casino. As we waited for our order we watched, mouths watering, as dish after dish arrived at their table: gaeng om, a heady beef stew enhanced with a mixture of dried spices, thick slices of barbecued pig's neck with tamarind-soured dipping sauce, two kinds of laab, fried chicken, somtam local style, with bplaa raa instead of fish sauce. All accompanied by Saeng Som and soda and bottles of energy drink.
Finally our laab arrived,and it was perfect. There is something so unidentifiably deep and rich and almost mysteriously fabulous about northern-style laab -- the absence of a light note like lime juice, perhaps, or the combination of dry and fresh spices or the meatiness of the meat in Thailand. We dabbed it up with fingertipfuls of sticky rice and agreed that it was among the best we'd ever eaten, better perhaps even than our favorite laab in Chiang Mai.
By the time the last nib of water buffalo meat had disappeared into our mouths the khao ram fuen lady was ready for us. She offered two types of "jelly" -- one made with sticky rice flour and one made with a combination of sticky rice and yellow pea flour. We ordered one of each. For both orders she sliced the jelly-paste into rough cubes, added a few yellow noodles, and then sluiced on a ladleful of thin liquid by boiling tomatoes in water and then passing the mixture through a sieve.
Condiments came next: a dab of fresh red chili sauce, a splash of Mae Sai-style semi-liquid tua nao (fermented and sun-dried soy beans) mixed with chopped cilantro, spoonfuls of ginger-garlic water, Shan (and Sichuan)-style sandy chili oil, salt and ground peanuts.
On top of it all, fresh cabbage shredded and tossed with pea sprouts, and a mixture of blanched snake beans and bean sprouts.
After she'd served us Paa Laa (Aunty Laa), as the vendor is known, encouraged us to personalize our bowls with the addition of anything we wanted more of. That meant more chili sauce and cabbage for me, more tua nao and chili sauce for Dave.
What we ended up with was certainly one of the most delicious concoctions we've come across in our by now fairly extensive northern Thai travels, a dish that pushed all our buttons with its fresh vegetables and copious amounts of chili. The snap of the cabbage contrasted nicely with the yielding jelly-paste cubes, the nuts and fermented soy beans added heft and umami. By the time we got to the bottom of our bowls the dish's range of flavors had melded in the remaining tomato-y soup.
Resisting the urge to order a repeat, we departed with a bag of lovely crisp-fried banana slices (by Paa Laa's daughter, who works next to her), toddling off to the Chiang Saen market where more deliciousness, in the form of pounded pomelo salad with black crab paste, awaited.
Khao ram feun and laab khua, Baan Sop Ruak. On the river near the golden Buddha statue, about 100 meters towards Chiang Saen. The khao ram feun is sold on the river side of the road and the laab khua shop, with its two tables, is directly across the street. Look for Aunty Laa, but if you don't find her ask around for khao ram feun -- there are plenty of other sellers after about 930/10am. This is a morning/early afternoon dish. Aunty Laa says she usually sells out by 1230/1pm.