Saturday, August 24, 2019

Culture, cuisine and the Chao Phraya

Jul 22. 2019
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By Khetsirin Pholdhampalit
The Nation

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Khlong San, the old riverside district on the Thonburi side of Bangkok, is enjoying a whole new life these days, with hip restaurants and bars opening all along the road and in the side sois. For residents though, as well as for visitors wanting an authentic experience, its charm still lies in decades-old, simple and friendly eateries serving unpretentious yet tasty dishes.

For those who are not familiar with the area, a good starting point on a culinary journey of discovery is Iconsiam shopping mall. From there, it’s a quick 150-metre walk to Cream, a 38-year-old restaurant located in a century-old, white-painted two-storey house that stands out from neighbouring shophouses, the posh shopping malls and the five-star hotels. 

Cream restaurant

Situated at the mouth of Charoen Nakhon Soi 9, Cream is delightfully down to earth. The plain wooden tables and chairs with floral upholstery might not shine out on Instagram but tummies are in for a real treat. 

    The restaurant is now run by the second-generation owner Sorapop Marneenate and its name Cream is a nod to its original incarnation as an ice cream parlour. 

    “We are near several schools so my parents started by selling ice cream to attract young clients. Customers later asked for food too and my parents began serving single Thai dishes, spaghetti and steaks. The menu gradually grew and the ice cream options were finally dropped,” says Sorapop.

 Fried Snakehead Fish Fillets

    The 70-seat, air-conditioned eatery offers mainly Thai dishes made to family recipes and at pocket-friendly prices. The main cook has been with the eatery since it opened.

    Snakehead Fish Fillets (Bt130) are fried and dressed with tamarind sauce and tossed with roasted peanuts and chopped red onion giving them a sweet and tangy taste and crunchy texture.

Fluffy-fried Catfish

    For the Fluffy-fried Catfish (Bt150), the fish is first ground then stir-fried with chopped chilli and slightly seasoned with sugar.

Termite Mushroom Spicy Soup

    For a strong taste, nothing can beat Hed Khon Tom Yum or termite mushroom spicy soup (Bt130). It’s normally cooked with shrimps but you can change to sea bass fillets if seafood is not your thing. Another  favourite is fried rice with shrimp fat served with stir-fried chopped duck with holy basil leaves (Bt90). 

Stir-fried Chopped Duck with Holy Basil Leaves

      Opposite the Cream restaurant is Wat Suwan and this area between Charoen Nakhon Sois 12 and 14 is lined with local eateries that have been in the area for more than a decade and offer irresistible savoury and sweet treats.

    The streetside Saengcharoennakhon Chicken Rice has been doing a roaring trade since opening 33 years ago and serves tasty and reasonably priced Hainanese-style dishes. 

Saengcharoennakhon Chicken Rice eatery

    The rice is cooked in chicken stock to perfection and, thanks to the use of charcoal stoves, is both fragrant and soft. The chickens weigh about three kilograms each ensuring the meat is dense and flavourful. 

    “We cook about 30 kilograms of rice a day during the week and double that at weekends. The chicken is also slowly charcoal steamed over alternating low and medium flame. About 20 chickens are used each day,” says the owner Nittaya Lekwongpron.

The light option 

    The chicken rice goes for Bt40 a dish but the portion of rice is quite large compared to other eateries I have sampled. For those who prefer to eat less or are concerned about carbohydrate levels, a light option goes for just Bt25 a pop. Fried chicken is also available.

    The dipping sauce is a perfect combination of ground chilli, ginger and garlic paste, soy sauce, bean paste and chicken stock. Feel free to add chilli and ginger to taste. 

    Next door is Guay Jub Jay Ju serving guay jub (rolled rice noodle soup) with crispy fried pork belly, boiled offal and hard boiled eggs for Bt40 a bowl.

Guay Jub Jay Ju

    “Jay” is a Chinese familiar term for older sister and the owner Nittaya Sae-Hua is known as Jay Ju to her customers. Her family started the guay jub business with a stall at Charoen Nakhon Soi 21 about 17 years ago and it quickly became a local favourite. That first outlet is now run by her elder sister and Jay Ju opened her own stall next to Charoen Nakhon Soi 12 eight years ago. She also offers brown broth in contrast to the original clear one.

    The broth with Chinese herbal five spices is aromatic and peppery and the noodles are slowly boiled to get a texture that is neither too hard nor too soft. The pork belly is juicy and crispy. 

    “I select trimmed pork belly with less layers of fat so that the skin will crisp up well when fried. I cook it over high heat to cut down on the oiliness and boil the offal to order. To enhance the taste, I use only 100-per-cent ground white peppercorn,” says Nittaya.

    A separated dish of crispy fried pork belly goes for Bt60 (100 gram) and is served with sweet soy sauce dip. Also available are fresh spring rolls stuffed with minced pork, Chinese sausage and tofu dressed with sweet tamarind sauce for Bt40.

Bua Loy Sam Noo

    A dessert sanctuary for Khlong San locals for over two decades is a small stall at the mouth of an unnamed alley next to Wat Suwan. Called Bua Loy Sam Noo, its popular hot sweet treat is bua loy (tiny rice dumplings in sweetened coconut milk) for Bt20 a bowl.

     The rice dumplings come in three colours based on the ingredients used – yellow from pumpkin, green from pandan leaf mixed with taro, and purple from sweet potato. The dumplings are first boiled in pandan leaf stock then for a second time in coconut milk. The add-ons are an egg, double eggs and salted egg yolk and the prices go for Bt25, Bt34 and Bt28 a bowl respectively. 

Bua Loy

    “The rice dumplings are made from sticky rice flour and rolled into tiny balls so they cook quickly and easily. The dough is made daily and we use only coconut milk extracted from fresh coconuts. We regularly sell 300 cups a day,” says the owner Apipat Ronasiriratana.

Ruam Mit

    Another favourite is ruam mit (Bt25) - a popular dessert of sweetened coconut milk with taro, corn, water chestnut, pumpkin, and sarim (sweet coloured rice threads) topped with shaved ice. 

    For a one-stop venue where you can try a selection of delectable main dishes and desserts and also buy some of Khlong San’s best products, the Thonburi Delight zone at Iconsiam has been designed to preserve the local wisdom of residents in neighbouring areas.

Charoen Nakhon Shop

    If sweet sticky rice with mango is your favourite, Charoen Nakhon Shop will not disappoint with high-quality nam dok mai mango and sweet sticky rice that is cooked with perfection. A box of one mango and sticky rice goes for Bt100. Dried mango and mango smoothies are also on offer.

    “I use sticky rice from Chiang Rai for its aromatic flavour and its long-grain shape. The mangoes are carefully selected from the orchards in Chachoengsao province and I also distribute them to many restaurants around Bangkok,” says the owner Ketsara Phulumlert who relocated her shop from Charoen Nakhon Soi 20 to Iconsiam.

Knitted products by Joobgeneral Group

    In addition to food, you can shop for handicrafts and souvenirs, among them are knitted products ranging from bags, hats, scarves, to bag charms, bottle holders and socks produced by elderly people and teenage mums from Joobgeneral Group, as well as khon masks in different sizes from Baan Khon Thai, a group of mask makers of Soi Wat Suwan community, and miniature resin and epoxy accessories from Sanfan shop ranging from model sets of Thai food to earrings, pendants and key rings. 

Miniature souvenirs by Sanfan shop

IF YOU GO

>>> Cream restaurant at the mouth of Charoen Nakhon Soi 9 is open daily from 11am to 9.30pm. Call (02) 437 2582.

>>> Saengcharoennakhon Chicken Rice situated between Charoen Nakhon Sois 12 and 14 is open daily from 7am to 3pm. Call (02) 861 3284.

>>> Guay Jub Jay Ju between Charoen Nakhon Sois 12 and 14 is open daily from 11am to 7pm. Call (089) 698 8666.

>>> Bua Loy Sam Noo situated next to Wat Suwan is open daily from 9 to 9. Call (084) 524 9161.

>>> Thonburi Delight zone on the ground floor of Iconsiam is open daily from 10 to 10. 

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