Thailand Travel Book
This blog post contains an excerpt of a book I have written about the legendary, brave and informative 6,002-mile Thailand tasting trek I went on in 2007-2008. The full-length book will be published in early 2016.
In 2006-2007 I threw a leg over a well-used Honda dirt bike and went to explore Thailand – 6,002-miles puttering around Thailand to find the best in regional cooking.
In the northern city of Chiang Mai, I visited a bastion of excellent cooking worthy of inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List – Pork Dishes (if such a thing exists). I was accompanied by my talented Thai travel cooking companion nicknamed “Chef Kitty” who helped me evaluate the pleasing palace of pork called the Heuan Phen restaurant (the authoritative Lonely Planet guidebook uses Heuan Phen as the English language translation – please note other English language resources translate the restaurant into English as Heun Phen – it refers to the proprietor nicknamed “Auntie Moon” in Thai)!
Here is an excerpt of the book I wrote about this Thailand tasting trip. I will be offering the entire book, complete with recipes I learned along the way, and trip photos as an e-book in 2015.
Chowing In Chiang Mai
Our goal was to reach the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai and for me to renew my formal Thai language lessons by attending a two-month conversation course at the local AUA language school to supplement the four-month reading and writing course I had taken previously at the school.
Chiang Mai has its own unique cuisine. The city is far from the coconut-growing coastal south and transportation links to the city were limited until modern times. So the central Thai tradition of coconut cream curries was less common. Chiang Mai chefs maximized the bountiful local vegetables, pork, chicken and fish from the rivers and created a unique northern Thai cuisine. I loved this style of food, especially the city’s embrace of the potential of the pig. In addition, I wanted to revisit my favorite citadel of Northern Thai cuisine, the Heuan Phen Restaurant.
Heuan Phen Restaurant – Palace Of Porky Pleasure
The UNESCO World Heritage List board has not yet responded to my submission that the Heuan Phen Restaurant in Chiang Mai should be included in its list of historic sites, but I am hopeful. This legendary outpost of Northern Thai cooking deserves the recognition and support of the world community. Here the ordinary pig is transformed into culinary creations worthy of global note. I find it curious that the place is not already on the UNESCO list, but I may be the first to have contacted the UNESCO evaluators. As others join the cause, I am confident their site visit will enchant and excite the evaluators.
UNESCO has 878 sites already registered as places of note for the global community. These include such world famous sites as the Acropolis, The Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and the temples at Angkor Wat. In Thailand, the historic cities of Ayuthaya and Sukhothai are included as they feature important ruins and temples from Thai history. However, this list is lacking in its recognition of great bastions of culinary art. Once the UNESCO evaluators dine at Heuan Phen, I hope a trend of recognition will begin.
The food served in most Thai restaurants in the West is not seen at Heuan Phen. Those other outposts of great cooking most often feature the common Thai dishes: chicken satay or fried spring rolls to keep the kids quiet until the main courses arrive, or coconut-cream-based curry dishes or phat thai stir fried noodles.
In contrast, Heuan Phen features traditional Northern Thai food. Central to this cuisine is a reverence for and devotion to pork dishes seldom seen outside of some barbecue shacks in the Southern U.S. operated by guys named “Bud” and a few towns in Italy where prosciutto is made by guys named the equivalent of “Bud” in Italian.
Part of the UNESCO charter is to educate the world community. Think of the value to the world community of having more people try the simple but alluring Northern Thai dish of fermented pork called muu naem maw. The traditional recipe involves combining raw ground pork and cooked pork skin with small but potent chilies, pre-cooked sticky rice, garlic and salt in a pot, then forgetting about it for three days as it ferments and gains a wonderful sour and spicy flavor. The frugal Thai chefs sometimes dispense with refrigeration of the raw pork combination, but most favor eating all of it after three days of fermentation to avoid spoilage. Once eaten, this delicacy is never forgotten. Enthusiasts marry a bit of the fermented pork with peanuts, fiery bird’s eye chilies and ginger slivers as they goggle the porky delicacy. Heuan Phen’s version of this classic is particularly excellent.
The restaurant also serves the revered Northern Thai dish of khao sawy (also written in English as khao soy), a flat egg noodle curry that comes in many forms, including a pork flavor, with a side of shallots and crispy fried pork rinds. Fried pork rinds are necessary side accompaniment for dipping into various pork-based relishes, and diners can purchase a bag to bring home.
Naam phrik awng combines ground pork with tomatoes, dried chilies and lemongrass to make a sort of Northern Thai pork Bolognese sauce. I think the Italian members of the UNESCO board of evaluators would find this version pleasing. For the diet conscious, the Heuan Phen menu lists “crispy pork skin―low fat” as an improbable alternative.
Like a woman whose friends are jealous that her beauty does not require cosmetics to highlight fine features, Heuan Phen has a clean and brisk atmosphere unadorned by expensive furnishings and exotic flower arrangements. A patron can feel equally comfortable in a tuxedo or a T-shirt. The restaurant is divided into two facilities. The non-descript lunchtime canteen features a full expression of Northern Thai delicacies, while evening patrons can dine on the same foods in an antique-filled wooden home next to the canteen. Don’t let the humble appearance of the canteen fool you―the hardy metal tables and plastic serving dishes mean Heuan Phen takes its food seriously, but not itself too seriously. It should be noted that Heuan Phen does dress up the serving platters with freshly cut banana leaves to add a traditional Thai accent to the presentation and the paper napkins are cheerfully replenished upon demand.
The restaurant has made the evaluation process easy for UNESCO―a menu in Thai and English, including photos of the more popular dishes so the diner can await the arrival of the dish with heightened, gleeful anticipation having already seen the glory of the food in the photo. At least ten freshly made dishes are offered each day. For those wanting to quench thirst, the restaurant thoughtfully provides Indian gooseberry juice, Asiatic pennywort juice and six other elixirs. The Indian gooseberry juice is a testimony to the fact that if you add enough sugar (here almost 19 percent), you can make anything taste palatable.
My research into the UNESCO site criteria gives me some hope. I note the Jurisdiction of Saint-Emilion in the Bordeaux region of France is a UNESCO site. The UNESCO website offers the following description about this location of some of the world’s best and most costly wines: “Viticulture was introduced to this fertile region of the Aquitaine by the Romans” and the area is an “outstanding example of an historic vineyard landscape that has survived intact and in activity to the present day.” I can only imagine the rigorous fact-checking process and wine tasting that the talented and discerning UNESCO staff went through to choose the Saint-Emilion area over other wine- growing regions in the world.
My own memory of a visit to Bordeaux is a happy if hazy one. I think I’m still paying off the credit card from the bottles of vintage Bordeaux wine that my traveling companion argued we were obligated to sample. With the quiet intensity that two bottles of wine before dinner can give such important decisions, my bibulous buddy counseled, “Remember, great meals last a lifetime in your memory; credit card bills only linger for years,” as he reached for what I recall read as the “Really Expensive Vintage Wines” list.
I am not expecting immediate results from the UNESCO World Heritage Site evaluation. Important evaluations take time, and the breadth of dishes at Heuan Phen would require several contemplative visits. But I’m willing to serve as a guide as I am there for lunch most days if I am in Chiang Mai. I’ll even buy the first round of gooseberry juice.
Heuan Phen Restaurant (please note the Thailand guidebooks carry a variety of spellings for this restaurant) is located at 112 Ratchamankha Road by the corner of Jhaban Road in the inner moat area of Chiang Mai.
Heaven, I’m In Heaven Again
There should be an anti-defamation league for pigs. Mean-spirited statements such as “eating like a pig” or “dirty like a pigsty” and “fat like a pig” do a disservice to one of the tastiest and most efficient of animals. As chefs throughout history have known, virtually all of the pig can be eaten―everything but the squeal, as the phrase goes. The chefs of Northern Thailand hold to this ancient practice. It was at the Heuan Phen Restaurant in Chiang Mai that I first had muu naem maw, the fermented pork sausage from heaven made with cooked pork skin, raw minced pork, cooked and cooled sticky rice and aromatics.
Kitty and I decided to make our own muu naem maw. We trimmed off all the fat from a section of pig skin the size of an airport novel cover and boiled the skin for about fifteen minutes. After cooling the skin and slicing it into matchsticks an inch long, Kitty donned a plastic glove and mixed the pig skin with raw minced pork, cooked sticky rice, garlic, chilies and a large pinch of salt. We had purchased a roll of green and fibrous banana leaves at the market. The banana leaves would serve as fragrant wrappers for the naem as it matured. She put the bundle of banana leaves in a pan of water and swaddled the top with a towel to capture the steam and soften the leaves. Kitty steamed the leaves for about ten minutes and removed them from the pan. After the banana leaves cooled, we cut out oblong sections from the leaves. We placed bits of the pork mixture inside the middle of the banana leaves, wrapped each one tightly and secured each with a rubber band. We placed the two dozen bundles in the refrigerator to cure for three days. On the third day, we opened one of the bundles and had a taste. The boiled pork skin was gorgeously gelatinous and al dente compared with the soft cooked rice and now fermented sour pork. It was even better than the samples I had purchased in the market. It became my after-school snack each day. We saw naem in many forms in the markets and restaurants: the traditional raw and fermented form, pork short ribs fermented naem style, and even fermented and smoked naem.
Naem is so popular that Thai food companies manufacture a cooked version both in small plastic bags as a bar snack and in cylinders like a hotdog. These commercial versions are sold in convenience stores like 7-11 all over the country and come in mild and spicy versions with fiery phrik khii nuu chilies embedded in the meat. I had one recently that brought tears to my eyes from the intense chili spice. Even with commercially made products, the big Thai manufacturers make sure to keep some things real.
The Patrons Of the Pig
In France, wine enthusiasts have organized themselves into Bacchic brotherhoods to honor and promote notable wines. Gastronomic eating clubs were also formed to recognize and celebrate certain ingredients or dishes. The clubs, called confréries, celebrated regional products such as distinctive cheeses, wines, oysters or escargot, as well as unique charcuterie or dishes like cassoulet. Often the members of these confréries were wine producers, farmers, professional chefs and gourmands who donned ceremonial robes and silly hats and engaged in a formal banquet featuring their favored foodstuff. Wines of distinction were frequently served and initiates to the particular club might be compelled to eat a substantial amount of the treasured product and drink a giant flagon of wine or alcoholic cider as part of the ritual. It sounds like a university fraternity pledge initiation rite, but with better food. If there is a similar group in Chiang Mai for pork, I would like to join, even as a token farang member. Certainly Kitty’s excellent naem would earn her a place of honor at the table. Perhaps I could come along as her manservant as befits a Princess of Pork. If no such club exists, shouldn’t the pleasurable pork of Chiang Mai be heralded with such a confrérie? It could be called “The Patrons of the Pig.” How about “Celebrators of Swine?” Perhaps “The Pilgrims of Pork?”
A Banquet In Honor Of the Superlative Swine
If I may be so bold, I would like to propose a menu for “The Patrons of the Pig” celebration banquet.
Professional drinkers like the Russians and Thais know that the pleasure of the cocktail hour(s) can be enhanced and the drinking bout prolonged by the judicious inclusion of light snacks. These dishes meant to accompany cocktails are called kap klaem, or “drinking foods” in the Thai language.
As kap klaem, let us offer grilled pork on skewers with a spicy dipping sauce to stimulate the palate. Tidbits of the fermented pork naem spareribs would be welcome to contrast with the light whiskey and soda water on the rocks favored by Thai drinkers. Why not offer Chiang Mai sai ua, a delightful sausage made from minced pork combined with a robust paste of lemongrass, galangal, shallot, garlic, black pepper and long chilies. Imbibers always welcome a laap muu minced pork salad. A final palate tempter could be maa hor or “galloping horses” made from minced pork, chicken and prawns atop mandarin orange sections with ground peanuts, pineapple, deep-fried shallots and garlic.
By this time, the group would be starving so there would be a demand for more substantial pork dishes, and Thai cooking can satisfy these needs. Let us bring forth muu grop―crispy fried pork favoring the legendary pork belly marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, salt and sugar then steamed, pricked vigorously with a fork, rubbed with salt and dried for a couple of days and then deep-fried until it looks like pork crackling. And what pork repast would be complete without kaeng hangleh muu― pork belly curry loaded with ginger to cleanse the palate? Further, I submit kaep muu—deep-fried pork skin treated with lime powder and vinegar, fried and then dried as a snack if the diners get peckish between additional courses arriving to the banquet table. For dessert, perhaps khao chae with sweetened shredded pork.
This club would be open to all in recognition of the egalitarian nature of the pig. I expect that as the event got advertised the multitudes wishing to participate would compel its being hosted at the municipal stadium, or other sizable venue. For all I know, such a confrérie already exists. It is on my list of things to research. Trust me, there is a lot to know about Thai food.