Shophouse is an architectural style often seen in South East Asian cities and towns in which the business is at the street level and the family quarters are in the back or upstairs. Business and family are only separated by thin cement walls and inevitably the two realms mix creating a unique retail experience. The retail experience that we are interested in is the dining and eating experience. To us, Thai cuisine is all about eating among the cacophony of family, friends, strangers and whoever happens to be nearby.

Monday, May 2, 2011

rice fat chicken

food court chicken rice
ข้าวมันไก่ or khao mun gai is the Thai version of Hainanese chicken rice. No lunchtime market would be complete without a khao mun gai seller.
The dish itself appears to be quite simple, but the details are complicated. To begin with one must choose the right bird. I prefer a more tender chicken, so I go with a younger bird. Some might say that an older bird is better because it creates more flavor. It is up to the cook.
Then the cooking begins. One can get really into the details, like brining or the intricacies of poaching, but here it is quickly in a nutshell: Put the chicken in a big pot, top it with water and simmer the bird till cooked through. The chicken is then cooled. Pull off some of the fat off the cooked bird, ladle some of the fat off the broth, smash some garlic and fry it all in a heavy bottomed pot. Add the rice, coat it with the fat and add enough broth to cook the rice. Add some ginger, pickled lime and winter melon to the broth, let it simmer till the melon is super soft and remove the lime before it gets too bitter. The sauce is also an item of contention, everyone has their own sauce, ours is a smashed mixture yellow bean paste, ginger, prik ki noo chili and dark soy. When the rice is done you are ready to eat. Lay a bed of rice down, top it with some sliced chicken, put some broth in a bowl, put a crank of white pepper and sliced green onion in it, add enough of the sauce for your liking, add some sliced cucumber and top it all with cilantro. Eat.
Oh yeah, in Thailand the chicken is served room temperature, but here in Seattle where it is cold for 9 months we heat the chicken up in the broth, it is up to you.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The humble chicken

Gai yang -ไก่ย่าง- is not a fancy dish. In fact, gai yang most of the time is nothing to write in a blog about at all. Gai yang can be downright terrible, under-seasoned and dried out on the grill all day in the sweating sun with some sauce from a bottle in a condensation filled baggy.
When gai yang is good, it is something to write in a blog about. I never realized how good gai yang could be until I encountered a gai yang wichianburi ไก่ย่างวิเชียรบุรี seller down the underpass from where we were staying in South Central Bangkok. This guy's chicken was amazing. I ended up getting one chicken a week for lunch. His chicken was so good it was usually sold out by noon every day, so I would have to hit him up by 10am if I was to be lucky. When I picked up friends from the airport it was inevitably the first thing they put into their mouths.
grilled chicken bliss

There are a few different versions of gai yang. The one sold above is call gai yang wichianburi, which I gather originated in Wichianburi district in Petchabun province in Northern Thailand. The chicken is butterflied, marinated, bound into some bamboo splints and slow cooked over charcoal turning often to create a lacquered effect. The skin and outside meat is rendered and crispy, the meat is soft and well seasoned. Smaller 12-16oz chickens are used, promoting the tenderness of the meat. The size also helps in cooking and portioning, where your typical 2 1/2 -3 pound bird is unyielding and a bit much for 1 person to eat.
Other versions I have encountered are cooked on makeshift street side or highway side rotiserries and some are cooked in giant ceramic pots creating a tandoori-like chicken. All are eaten with sticky rice and are usually accompanied by a sauce.

The wichianburi chicken described above comes with a deeply spiced and slightly sweet tamarind based sauce. The sauce has a certain viscosity that sticks to the chicken when it is dredged through the sauce.
The marinade itself is also important. In addition to the holy trinity of Thai marinades, that is coriander root, black peppercorns and garlic, I like to add palm sugar, Thai soy sauce and a touch of some kind of booze like beer or whiskey. The marinade should also have a slight sticky viscosity that will stick to the chicken while it is grilling. The marinade should also help promote caramelization while it is slowly cooking over the charcoal.
Charcoal must be used to achieve gai yang greatness. No gas grill, no briquettes, no oven, but real charcoal. The slow smokiness achieved from charcoal will make your gai yang legendary.
The chicken must be smaller, never frozen and free range. Cornish game hens will work if need be, but try to find fresh birds.
If possible eat your gai yang with your hands, with sticky rice and with copious amounts of beer or whiskey.
Like most great things, gai yang is simple to eat, but cooking gai yang has the potential for disaster. However, if you can follow the rules in your tax return, you can make gai yang.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Spanking The Fish

nostalgia markets=fair food

It has been over six weeks since we launched our Monday night Shophouse: food off the path dinners at Licorous restaurant. The menu has been evolving and changing. However, one dish has remained a constant on our menu - ทอดมันปลา, "tord mun pla" or curried fish cakes. The popularity of the fish cakes is a testament to keeping things simple, keeping things real and not messing with traditions.

Tord mun is a Thai food classic and is always served with a relish of sorts containing cucumber, vinegar, chilli and sugar. Our version is a bit of a nod to the country fair by making the cakes into bite sized portions and placing them into a bowl with fried basil leaves, the cucumber sauce drizzled over, and stabbed with a few bamboo skewers. One can see this version of the fish cakes at the provincial markets geared toward the nostalgia starved Thai middle class. Little bowls of banana leaves are made and the fish cakes go in and one can wander through the markets stalls poking at the cakes and eating at your leisure. 
clunk clunk spank spank

Here in Seattle, we get in catfish and grind it a few times, then pound it in a mortar and pestle with an egg, PK's red curry paste, fish sauce, lime leaf and sliced green beans. The most important part is slapping and spanking the fish paste into a bowl in order to pulverize the proteins a bit, making a more poofy, and slightly rubbery cake.
makin' cakes
Fancy cakes at shophouse

Friday, October 22, 2010

where to get quality fermented mud fish around here?

ปลาร้า the blue cheese of Thai cuisine
I'm not sure if Seattle is ready for the more pungent side of Thai cooking, but they are ready for some depth in flavor.
Half the fun of doing this Shophouse project is locating ingredients that either maintain the flavors of the motherland or contribute to the story that we are telling.
kaffir limes
We've found a fish sauce that we like. It's called Tra Chang - let me reference a post from our previous blog 86 seattle. Fortunately we brought back several litres of this fish sauce from Rayong, Thailand to keep us going. You can also buy it at the Viet Wah down on MLK.
We also have been lucky to find ingredients from the local business that are subtly important to Thai cooking like fresh kaffir limes. Apparently they get the limes from someone down in California, as the US won't allow imported kaffir limes. There is only one harvest a year and we jumped on it. Kaffir limes add an important citrusy bitter kick to curry pastes. The limes were so fresh and fragrant that I got some weird kind of hangover headache from peeling and smashing the limes. Or maybe I was just hungover, I don't remember.
More locally, we have also found some great finds. Oxbow farm out in Carnation sells their amazing cilantro root. I have never seen cilantro root like Oxbow's. I got in several fat bunches that completely permeated the walk-in cooler. We pound the fragrant cilantro roots in a mortar and pestle with garlic and peppercorns to complete this important trinity of Thai marinades for grilled meats. I'm not sure why the roots are cut off of cilantro bunches when you buy them in the store. This is just one of the mysteries of the produce business, like Why do they put those little stickers on the apples.
white gold from Oxbow
We've also become big fans of Mad Hatcher chickens. These chickens from Ephreta are always succulent. Further, we can get various sizes to fit our application, like medium sized for ข้าวมันไก่ khao mun gai or smaller for ไก่ย่าง gai yang.
Ok, I'm done talking up ingredients and going Thomas Keller on you all.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sausage vortex

don't stare too long
I was really hoping to document the debut of our Monday night "food off the path" nights at Licorous with scores of pictures. However, time was tight with a multitude of catering events and many restaurant obligations. I had to put my head down and focus without a camera in my hand. I only got one picture; that being a photo of the sausage vortex. I think of it as an ode to the art of Walangkura Napananka. I don't know if she would appreciate it, but maybe an art collector would pay a few grand for it.
The good news is that the night got off to an excellent start with lots of glowing happy faces.
Sausage will be on the menu again for Monday, October 18th. The sausage is called ไส้อั่ว "sai ua" and is from the North. We use Thundering Hooves pork which is ground with handmade red curry paste, extra lemongrass, lime leaf, palm sugar and a touch of fish sauce. I crave this sausage because the aromatics are so refreshing, something that cannot be said for many sausages.
We enjoy eating this sausage when having a few beers or cocktails. It is often paired as a side to นํ้าพริก "nam prik" chilli dips, or served on its own with little piles of herbs, chillies, ginger and cabbage leaves. As with much of Thai cuisine, the dish is interactive. You can mix and match the amount of heat and herbaceousness to your liking and roll it up in the cabbage. Or use the cabbage as a cool down from the chillies. Or just eat the sausage. Whatever, it is up to you.
We will be posting our next Monday menu on Friday.

Monday, October 4, 2010

spicy soap opera

toasting shrimps
What do Korean soap operas, Thai housewives, chilli shrimp paste and sliced white bread have in common? They all come together daily at around 6:30 PM to create a scene that proves that the world is getting smaller. Imagine curling up in front of the TV with a stack of white bread and a little jar of your favorite chilli paste and watching the drama of feudal gender bending Korea unfold. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?
not too spicy but guaranteed to make you cry with pleasure
I am not here to talk about the Korean Wave, or whether it is corrupting the children or enriching the culture, but to talk about making and eating nam prik pao, or what I call toasted shrimp and chilli paste. It is pretty simple to make but the flavors created are complex. Fry garlic, shallots, dried shrimp and dried red chillies. Smash it all. Cook it down with tamarind, salt and palm sugar. Put it in a jar and save it for your favorite TV drama. Ten minutes before your show comes on, toast some white bread and get comfy. Spoon the paste onto the toast and let the emotions flow.
serious drama
Another option is to come down to Licorous on Monday nights starting October 11th from 5PM till close where one of the items I will be serving is toasted shrimp and chilli paste on toast. There isn't a TV at Licorous, but you can watch my friends and I bust our buns and create some serious emotions with our food and drink.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Burnt Rubber and Smashing Garlic

burning rubber Photo by Paula Bronstein

One of my colleagues once complained that the aroma emanating from the Thai restaurant next to his apartment smelled like "burnt rubber." Granted, he was a snooty Francophile that believed any garlic cooked past the shade of a Twinkie was considered burnt. However, frying garlic is integral to Thai cooking, as a condiment, in some nam prik, or just to get some sauteed veggies going. The most important part is using your mortar and pestle to smash the garlic. This method smashes it all flat so it will cook evenly, get crispy and not burn.
Yes, people still use the mortar and pestle. You hear it everyday in Anytown, Thailand for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The clunk, clunk, ponk, ponk goes on somewhere. It is an incessant sound that becomes white noise after awhile, like the sound of the motorbike ripping around. You hear it when your are lost in the alleyways or lost in the forest.
The cost of a decent granite mortar and pestle is comparable to a blender, but the mortar and pestle gives you a texture and taste that is incomparable. Come find out why at our Monday dinners at Licorous.
One final thing to add - be sure to follow the superstitious rules about the mortar and pestle concerning the female and male anatomy that state: don't store the pestle in the mortar, don't bang the pestle in an empty or dry mortar and wash it right away. Seriously.
not burnt rubber