in Food

Food blog: Thailand

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WOWZERS. Thai food has to be hands-down the best food I have ever eaten in any country, ever. Previously the crown was held by India – but I have to say, Thailand has it all. The brilliant fiery curries that you might find in India, but so much more – hearty noodle soups, deliciously different regional specialities, their own take on dim-sum, and don’t even get me started on the sweets. This list could’ve easily been as long as my arm (we literally didn’t stop eating in Thailand) -but I will endeavour to summarise Thailand’s star players of the food world. Here goes:

1. Kao Soy
  
Mind-blowingly good spicy red curry of the North, Kao Soy features a big ole piece of chicken on the bone, tons of herby and spicy goodness in a thick red sauce and – the best part – deep-fried noodles. Must be tasted to be believed.

2. Tom Yum Soup
  
Can’t remember the fancy Thai name for this, but you’ll know it best as Tom Yum – the zingy, spicy soup containing heaps of chili alongside noodles, and usually both pork and prawns. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, Tom Yum gets the facial sweats going, but it’s worth it for every last tasty drop.

3. Drunken Noodles
  
Sam and I discovered these at a restaurant on Railay, and afterwards we went back to the same place every night for more of these obscenely good noodles (even though they fucked up out order every night, once even nearly poisoning Sam with seafood! That’s how much we loved them). So they use really thick rice noodles, and fry in tons of chili oil with crunchy veg, peppercorns, a rich meaty sauce and some kind of protein. The texture of the soft noodle, crunchy veg and tender meat holds part of the appeal, but there’s some kind of higher power going on here, greater than the sum of its parts. Never got us drunk(en), sadly.

4. Noodle Soup
    
Ok, ok. So you think you’ve had noodle soup before – like the kind you get from a Chinese restaurant or M&S. But this is different. DIFFERENT. We’re talking fresh rice noodles (tongue-swirlingly flat and fat, or sinewy and long); a thick tasty gravy that’s meaty as hell; and a ton of fresh veggies, and/or meat. We found our best one in the back of a lady’s house in Chiang Mai; it was so good we ordered seconds. Add to that a big dollop of chili paste, sour chili juice, sugar and oyster sauce and you got yourself the Thai version of a sandwich. Reliable, cheap, staple, and adaptable. Also comes in a clearer/broth-like form with a garlicky coriander-laden soup and chicken/duck/fish balls/pork balls. I’d take it any way. Just give it to me. Now. NOW.

5. Curries!
  
I had no idea before we got to Thailand quite how fiery Thai curries are. The first few we tried really stung with heat – but in a good, flavourful way – and after a few roadside sittings of ‘point and buy’ curries we slowly learned that morning glory is cray spicy; brown clear noodles are slightly sweet; any kind of meat/fish/veggies curried and fried with egg is gonna be hella good. There are the well-known classics of red, yellow and green curry (the latter more aniseed than when found abroad) – and variations on these, from soup to thicker stew, and all shades of spice. Impossible to go wrong. 

6. Pad Thai (obvs)
  
Doesn’t need much explanation, suffice to say it (unsurprisingly) tastes way better in Thailand; is locally known just as ‘Noodles, Thai style’; and contains far more interesting fresh vegetables, a more generous portion of peanuts and fish sauce, a better balance of flavours and generally comes with prawns the size of your fist. For about 90p.

7. Thai (kind of) dim sum
  
Like in most of South East Asia, deep fried snacky goods are everywhere on the streets of Thailand. But of particular note are fantastically fresh and crunchy spring rolls, wonderfully gooey and chunky-meat-laden steamed buns and a dizzying array of dim sum, including wonton soup to die for with insanely delicate and juicy wonton floating in a tasty noodle broth. Oh god. Nothing will ever taste as good in England ever again.

8. Yunnanese noodles
  
We went to a tiny little town in the far North West of Thailand that grows Oolong tea and basically only eats Yunnanese noodles. It’s a town built on Chinese immigrants and they continue their culture via tea growing and also this bone-warming dish of steaming hot thick rice noodles, porky broth, tons of chili and coriander, sliced tender pork and dried crispy garlic. There are restaurants where all they sell is this and it costs about 40p. Necessary given the altitude and the cold, we found it to be like a big garlicky porky hug. Served with free Oolong tea. Mmm.

9. DEEP FRIED THINGS
  
Who doesn’t love deep fried things?! I’m preaching to the choir here. But there’s a certain specific joy that comes with a freshly deep-fried food item, still piping hot from the bubbling fat, and masterfully combined with just the right flavours and textures. Deep fried banana with crunchy sesame and peanut; sweet potato with the same; prawn tempura in chili batter and even deep fried rice lollipops on a stick. Even I thought the last one was a bit OTT, but this is a country who loves it’s rice. Whaddya gonna do? 

10. Sweet sticky rice
  
Talking of rice, it doesn’t come more delicious than sticky rice, all congealed and saturated with sweet coconut milk. Add into the mix some sliced mango and crunchy puffed rice topping; or morning glory flower blue colouring and an egg custard accompaniment and you have a plate of sugary rocket fuel for your breakfast.

11. Other miscellaneous sweet things
  
Too many to mention, but to name a few, we found a wonderful milky/jelly/bean/crushed ice thing on a market which, on melting, tasted like heaven. We developed a crushing addiction to a packet food from 7 Eleven which was like a cream-filled brioche with custard and pandan. Oh and the aforementioned steam buns also came in custard form. Not to mention coconut milkshake with real coconut, and the ubiquitous roti pancakes, smothered in butter and topped with pure diabetes.  

12. Iced coffee
  
Thick with condensed milk, crushed with ice, containing a good cup of freshly brewed coffee and the extreme sugar high of the milk, iced coffee – at about 50p for a big 50ml cup – was our daily addiction. Nothing puts a spring in your step and counteracts the incessant Thai humidity like an iced coffee, and they were EVERYWHERE.

13. Papaya salad (bottom right)
  
I thought this was gonna be sweet, but boy was I wrong! An amazing, tangy, spicy blend of papaya, carrot, chili, garlic, fish sauce, tomato and sugar. Super refreshing, and a healthy addiction to whatever fried deliciousness you’re probably eating.

14. Garlic and coriander chicken 
  
A whole chicken, spatch-cocked, barbequed in tons of garlic and coriander, and served either whole on a stick or butchered into chunks. A speciality of the Khmer region. No chicken will ever be as good again.

15. Other classic dishes!
  
Again, so many to mention but fried pork with ‘holy’ basil and cashew nut chicken were particularly good. 

16. Unknown liquor 
  
Is it rum? Is it vodka? Is it lighter fluid? Probably the latter because it costs 80p a bottle and gets you blind drunk. Hopefully not literally. 

Nong Khai, Thailand

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So we’d been deliberating for a while about whether to go to the Full Moon Party. At first we’d been so keen that we actually planned our Thailand route around it, so we’d end up in Ko Phangan on the right date. But when push came to shove, we’d thoroughly gone off the idea. We’d met tons of people that said it’s trashy and horrible; we hadn’t booked accommodation; it had rained for the previous three nights in a row (making sleeping on a beach a less than inviting prospect!); and frankly, we missed the less-touristy goodness of the North.

So we headed far up North-East, as far as you can go, to Nong Khai, a little Mekong River town that borders Laos. We could literally see Laos from the river. Pretty cool! After our Open Water we were craving some rest and relaxation, and that was exactly what we got – in the form of food-gorging and celebrations for the end of Buddhist Lent.

  
  
When we arrived they were already setting up stages and marquees in the middle of town for the weekend’s celebrations, and by the evening, festivities were in full swing! There was a full-blown stage of musical festival proportions, with light shows, local Thai pop stars singing hip hop and cheesy pop; a huge long collection of picnic tables flanked on both sides by the most delicious, sumptuous and cheap food stalls you could hope to find, even in cheap, delicious Thailand. 

  
  
And even more excitedly, once we walked further down (after peeling ourselves away from the food stalls) we found taking place, on an INSANELY ornate stage set of glittery waterfalls, deers, and tropical surroundings, a bloody BEAUTY CONTEST! It was like we’d died and gone to (camp) heaven. There was a giggling ladyboy presenter with a straight-acting hunk partner; crazy elaborate hair styles and manic smiles from the ladies; waxed chests and earnest speeches from the boys. In short, it was like a really good reality TV show. They even had an OTT live steel band accompanying the whole thing with soft music and sound effects! 

    
So we wiled away a few evenings (as the festivities ran across our full 3 nights there!) munching away on divine food like garlic and coriander roasted whole chicken and spicy papaya salad (specialities of the North East); delicious tempura prawns; suckling pork; sweet treats like coconut milkshakes and mad icecream/jelly concoctions, and world-class sushi that cost about 5p a piece. 

  
    
 
In our lazy daytimes, we strolled along the Mekong, got foot massages at brilliant little family-run massage parlours where we gossiped with the owners; walked passed impossibly small temples and monk-spotted our way around town; and ate at a brilliant local food court where I ate a divine sweet and spicy crab and calamari noodle soup that will stay with me forever! Town was also flanked by the most comprehensive market you will ever see, selling everything from food, sweets, toiletries, clothes, electronics and toys, so we had a lot of fun fawning over stuff there (that we don’t have room in our bags to buy!)

   
 
We also took a VERY HOT day trip to a nearby sculpture park, which was brilliant in its insanity. The walk there was relaxing and scenic, aided by two giant iced coffees (our Thai addiction) – taking us down the river, through country lanes, passed buddhist temples, and finally to the park itself.

  
So the park – Sala Kaew Ku – was built by a crazy Buddhist dude from Laos, and is supposed to be a mash-up of religious references – drawing from Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim stories. The result is a whacked-out collection of mental-looking sculptures, with anything from giant dragons, buddhas, and religious icons, to men beating frogs to death, with plenty of murder and sex thrown into the mix.

   

  

The most eccentric – and possibly the most enjoyable – entails crawling through a sculpture mouth to be ‘reborn’, finding inside a ‘wheel of life’ that you walk around, depicting life from childhood, to work, to death. We (kind of) managed to follow it all the way around, but soon got distracted by a group of adorable teenage monks that we had to stop and (subtly) stare at.

  
The walk back was one of the hottest experiences of my life, as we decided to take a different route from our leafy walk there, and ended up in BRILLIANT sunshine (well over 35 degrees) for over an hour! Determined as ever not to fritter away money, we managed the walk home, aided by an emergency ice lolly stop, and decided that was quite enough daytime adventuring for us!

So, after a nice few days of (mostly) R&R, we bid Thailand an emotional farewell, and caught a tuktuk over the Thai-Lao ‘friendship bridge’ into our second South-East Asian country, Laos!