It’s 94 degrees and sweat sits permanently on my brow as I dig into a giant bowl of steaming, brothy soup for breakfast. I’m not quite sure what I’ve ordered, but the line of locals queuing up for plastic bags of the old man’s broth confirms my decision to take a seat at the table and order a bowl for my wife and me to share.
The woman waiting on us brings out a massive pink bowl and sets it between us. Guay Tiew Naam Tok has a deep, beefy broth that gets its dark color from cow’s blood. It’s served with thin rice noodles topped with pieces of beef, sausage, and fresh romaine. On the table is an array of sauces and vinegar of varying degrees of hotness. We quickly realize that we’ll never be able to split a bowl of soup on this trip again for two reasons: not eating an entire bowl of this yourself is impossible, and soup like this is best enjoyed customized with the varying degrees of heat in the bottles on the table. Our trip to Southeast Asia has just started and the flavors have my brain in overdrive.
We wander the streets, meandering in and out of temples while enjoying fresh squeezed pomegranate juice (from a one-woman master class in breaking down the fruit-see video) and bites and beers as we traverse the city. Markets are abundant all over Bangkok, from flower markets to food markets filled with every whim. From fresh tropical fruit to live animals, the markets are filled with sights and smells that are a part of the true Thai experience. The most fragrant of these is the seafood market, filled with everything from fresh fish, razor clams, massive lobsters, prawns of every size, and of course, Nam Pla, or fish sauce.
Fish sauce, made from fermented fish, is one of the staples of Asian cuisine. It gives the ultimate umami that tangy, salty, sweet, and funky taste that we love so much in Thai food - and here it was, covered in flies, making my wife Meg turn a little green, and making me wonder how I can carry it in my backpack for the next four weeks…I didn’t get any Nam Pla that day.
Our evening was spent people watching on Khao San Road, the backpacker district of Bangkok. The street is lined with vendors selling elephant pants, North Face knock-offs, and street meat. We enjoyed skewers of chicken kidneys, hearts, and the surprisingly delicious Lā kị̀ (loosely translated to “chicken ass”), while people watching over Chang beers. We ended the night across the street from our hotel at the nightly sidewalk eatery with plastic stools and metal pop-up tables filled with locals and night owls. This quickly becomes “our place”, especially after the chef sits at our table our second night there and exchanges recipes, pictures on our phones, and has us tasting his “secret” pad thai sauce (“No ketchup in mine”), and brings us samples from his make-shift kitchen and we taste sauces and sampling bites. We had whole-fried frog topped with crispy fried shallots and a sweet and spicy sauce, stir-fried morning glory greens with chilis (our Thailand obsession), and his no-ketchup pad thai over the course of the Bangkok leg of the trip.
The following days in Bangkok we ate breakfast at the morning version of the sidewalk restaurant, this one occupied by multiple vendors. Pa Thong Ko - crispy fried-dough coated in raw sugar. Jok - rice congee with pork meatballs. And Oliang - thai iced-coffee, strong coffee over ice topped with sweetened condensed milk. We ventured into Chinatown to Kuai Chap Uan Photchana, the Michelin-recognized street food vendor slinging peppery noodle soup. Thick homemade noodles swim in a peppered pork broth topped with cut to order crispy pork. The spicy broth gives you a full-body sweat that does the trick to cool you off after beating the crowds that fill the streets of Chinatown before standing in line for 20 minutes to sit at a table. We venture back to our ‘hood and have a nightcap at “our place”, with the chef joining us to people watch in between manning his wok for the late night clientele.
One of our favorite Bangkok excursions was the Maeklong Railway Market, a market on top of a fully functioning railroad that vendors close up whenever a passenger train creeps its way past - four times a day, every day. Vendors lay out their wares, creating a mosaic of colors, textures, and smells as you make your way down a railroad track. We have fresh coconut water out of a newly-machete-ed coconut, street sausage, and rice and scallion pancakes coated in sauce flavored with, you guessed it, fish sauce and chili paste. Sensory overload sets in as you see vegetables, chilis, fruits, raw meat, fish, squid, sweets… sights, smells, sounds of bartering make it impossible to take it all in.
And then, the train comes. Vendors scramble to cover their wares and fold up the DIY tarp canopies that keep them cool in the afternoon heat, the crowd parts, and everyone presses against each other, scrambling to both photograph and not get run over by the train that is coming right at them. Now, THIS is a market.
Our time in Thailand ends in the Krabi Province on Railay Beach, a by-boat-only section of the southeastern peninsula of Thailand. After arriving by long-tail boat, we take in the breathtaking scenery surrounding us. For every meal, we dine on char-grilled seafood, gai yang (bright red BBQ chicken) and Changs, living the beach bum lifestyle. We hiked and swam in the Indian Ocean by day, and by night drank Thai beers and SangSom rum and coke, served in a bucket with two or ten straws, depending on the crowd. As we sat at our favorite bar on the beach, The Jam Rock Bar, enjoying a playlist being curated by a Thai man named Moe dressed as Slash, we knew this was going to be hard to beat.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Leddy is BHCC’s Executive Chef. After working for seven years at an intellectual property law firm in NYC, Matt made a massive career change and attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Providence. Named one of the Five U.S. Sous Chefs To Watch by Forbes, his talent and incredible work ethic have kicked things up a notch in the BHCC kitchen. When he’s not whipping up new recipes from his “book of spells,” he loves to get outside and hike around Acadia National Park.