Beer and ### and chips and gravyDominic Lavin
Those of you of a certain age and gender who hale from the North West of England shouldn’t really need the title explaining, but as I like to be as inclusive as I possibly can I’ll add a bit more information for people who’ve had the nerve not to be brought up in Lancashire or Cheshire. Back in the glorious nineteen eighties, what might loosely be described as a “pop group” called The Macc Ladds thrived on the periphery or should that be the underbelly (or an even more iniquitous part of the anatomy) of the music industry in the UK.
They did little for the furtherance of political correctness and got proscribed from a number of venues before they even played them. One of their better known tracks (which is rumoured never to have graced the hi-fi system of the Vatican) was/still is called “Beer and ### and chips and gravy”. Out of politeness I’ve omitted the second component of “what a Macc Ladd” wants although if you can’t work it out it starts with “s” and ends in “x”.
Now I know that by mentioning the Macc Ladds, there’ll be sensitive principled caring types with a feel for environmental issues and a concern for the welfare of the less fortunate who’ll be screaming blue murder and rapidly botching together voodoo dolls of me (I’m short, a little overweight have blue eyes and shoulder length brown/black hair if you want my likeness to be accurate), and those who like to become part of their host nation by immersing themselves in the culture and eating the local food will be marking me as an outcast and Philistine by admitting to my need for good honest chipped fried pomme de terre in a rich brown sauce. Now before I continue, and before I die from a million pin pricks, I do actually like Thai food. It’s great.
I would wholeheartedly encourage those of you making your first visit to Thailand to try as much of it as you possibly can (and I don’t just mean a banana pancake). The most basic explanation I’ve heard of Thai food is that it’s a sort of mix of Chinese and Indian, although to be fair that’s something of an over simplification.
The main thing that characterizes Thai food is the chilli, when you eat in a restaurant virtually every meal will be accompanied by four pots of different types of chilli to liven up your repast. Thai’s like their food spicy and us northerners (if we’re real northerners that is) like it bland, if you’ve tried Thai food in a restaurant back home you’re more than likely to have been served something that’s been toned down for the western pallet, so prepare yourself for something with a little more squeak when you get here.
There are a large number of dishes available in the Land of Smiles, and the ingredients that give Thai food its distinctive zest include lemongrass, ginger, chilli, fish sauce, shrimp paste, garlic and coconut.
There are a huge range of dishes available, generally speaking (and I’m being very general) the stuff in the south tends to have more of a seafood/coconut slant, while the stuff in the north tends to have more of a meat/chilli slant.
Thai breakfast if it’s not fruit, tends to be a dish called Khao Tom, a litteral translation is “rice soup”, which really leaves little room for a description except to say that it isn’t that spicy unless you add too much chilli and is available as Khao Tom “Gai” (with chicken), “Moo” with pork,”nuen” with beef “plah” with fish or “Kueng” with prawns.
Personally I rarely get chance for breakfast in Thailand and I can just see you thinking “Wow what a diligent guy, he’s so busy he doesn’t take a morning meal.” Those of you who know me however realize that I do sometimes take a morning snack known as a “Lay” (ridge cut fried potato) available at 7/11 stores flavoured either as “Extra barbeque” or “nori seaweed”. I have on several occasions been spotted at 6:30 am breezing my way home with a couple of bags of “Lay” after an evening discussing the Premier League in an establishment that as a mere oversight forgot to close it’s doors at 1am.
Daytime dishes vary greatly. If your not keen on spicey stuff Pad Thai’s a safe bet. It’s sort of a mix of fried noodles, vegetables a bit of rice and “gai” or “kueng”, when you get it the granular stuff on the edge of the plate next to the lime is ground peanut. It’s meant to be mixed in along with the lime juice to add flavour.
The curries are also well worth a try I’m not well up on the actual difference in types, but there is Kaeng Daeng (red curry) or Kaeng Keo (green) and Massaman (which has a slightly different flavour) all of which are available as beef, chicken, pork or prawn dishes.
My current favourite, which I find excellent for a hangover or head cold is “Tom Yam”, it’s a spicy soup that can contain chicken, fish or prawn. Broadly speaking there tend to be two types, it can be a clear soup or an opaque dish, usually served with rice. The opaque variety tends to be red in colour and although I could be wrong I’ve a feeling the pigmentation in the dark variety comes from shrimp paste.
If your tongue, the roof of your mouth and other parts of your digestive tract are made like most westerners of human skin, you may want to exercise caution and finish any food order with the phrase “Pet nid noi” it means “a little bit spicy” or “mai pet” which means “not spicey”. However if your innards are made of asbestos, kevlar or the type of heatproof bricks they use to line the test sites at atomic weapons research establishments you might want to try the phrase “pet mahk” which means “very spicey” or “pet mahk mahk”, although when you sit down to bid your lunch a fond farewell, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
There’s also a great deal of fried dishes, i.e. fried rice with a meat or fish of your choice or fried noodles (which are sometimes sheets of flat noodles) in a similar style with a variety of sauces. One of my personal favourites is a dish called Laarb. It’s traditionally a dish from the north of Thailand; it can be found in Bangkok/Central Thailand, but rarely so in the south. It’s made of ground meat (of your choice) and seared with chopped chillis, onions and beans. The salads here are also highly recommended as an option for those who wish to maintain an enviable physique. I’d also be doing you a disservice if I failed to mention the different type of food outlets you’ll encounter over here as well. Back home your probably used to restaurants where they come and serve you at the table then you pay and go about your business, or shops where you can buy food (prepared or otherwise) then take it home and do what you want with it.
However in Thailand, what can pass as a restaurant is four Formica tables in the road, an old lady with no teeth, a camping stove and two pans that don’t know what a brillo pad looks like. There’s also a great variety of stalls, handcarts, grilles welded to motorbikes and old women with a six foot bamboo pole with baskets on either end, all of whom are prepared to sell you some form of nourishment.
Most of the stuff is usually fine to eat even off roadside stalls, however as a word of warning be careful of the “street barbeques”, the places that have piles of small satay’s that they grill on half an oil drum filled with burning coals. I used to love the chicken and beef from those places, but curiously seemed to be plagued with bouts of dyspepsia, however since I’ve steered clear of them I can still be described as a “frequent visitor” to Thailand although my visits of another nature seem to have become less and less frequent.
As a word of warning one might be advised to try and stick to static catering establishments rather than the mobile ones which have been known to leave people in hospital. The worst ones I’ve learned from anecdotal experience are the “hot dog stall welded to motorbike variety”. A friend of mine was lying in hospital in Koh Samui where he was receiving medical attention for torn knee ligaments, a dislocated arm and various cuts and grazes, when he had the following telephone conversation with his travel insurance company in the UK.
Agent, “Why are you in hospital Mr xxxxxxx ?” My Friend, “Becuase I’ve had an accident.” Agent, “When did the accident take place ?” Friend, “5:45 am Thai time on the 17th.” Agent, “And what happened ?” Friend, “Well I was riding my motorbike home from a beach party when a catering establishment crashed into me.” Agent, “Where you drunk Mr xxxxxxx?” Friend, “No but the man driving the restaurant was drinking a bottle of whiskey at the time.”
In a similar vein, if you want to make use of this website for cautionary purposes I’d steer well clear of a dish called Som Tam. It’s actually supposed to be very healthy, it’s a sort of salad made with shredded pappaya, chillis, lime juice, chillis, fermented crab meat, chillis, uncooked meat and chillis. It actually tastes quite nice at first, but I dare any westerner to eat more than four or five forkfuls. As with all great designs it is bi functional, it has a medicinal use which medics stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam War discovered. Some GI medics stationed in Khorat ran out morphine to treat soldiers who’d recently lost limbs and were clean out of ideas as to how to treat their patients when they saw local ordelies rubbing a concoction on the recently dismembered stumps of the victims. They noticed that the profuse bleeding stopped immediately, the severed veins healed themselves and skin of a harder than usual variety grew over the wound. When asked what they were using the orderlies replied “Som Tam.”
On a serious note, much as it tastes good, and can be a challenge for “chilli heroes” because of the uncooked element in the meat and fish, it can be the cause of some severe discomfort and should only be sampled by the very brave, the very well insured or the severely constipated. No dip into a country’s ingestible delights would be complete without a look at the local liquid refreshments, and I can honestly look you in the eye without wavering when I say, “I’ve done a fair amount of research on the topic.”
The first phrase that comes to mind when discussing Thai liquor, is “all that glitters is not gold.” Look at it objectively; these statements apply to virtually all Thai brand liquid intoxicants. It’s cheap, it’s strong, and it tastes delicious. It has a nice label on that makes me look well travelled. However what they don’t tell you in the brochure is that it’ll give you the hangover from hell. The two main indigenous beers, are Singha and Beer Chang. Singha is brewed by the Boon Rwad distillery and has a very full hoppy taste; it was taken from a German recipe that was used by some German Engineers who were working here in the earlier part of last century. Chang is a much smother drink and both taste very good when chilled however their strengths run at around 6 or 7% proof, which makes them a little harder to manage over the extended periods of immersion that us westerners tend to favour whilst here on holiday. Personally (and you can called me a heretic for this) I prefer the foreign beers brewed here under license such as Heineken and Tiger, they’re 5 or 10 baht more expensive, are less volatile and the morning after are less likely than their local counterparts to see you up before the local judge.
There are two types of people in my opinion who should consider venturing onto Bangkok’s busy streets with a Singhover or Changover, either people with assertiveness problems or those with very hard mates.
It’s rumoured (although not confirmed) that Mother Theresa was once in Krung Thep on an aid conference when she was treated by local dignitaries to the region’s fare. The morning after and 6 big Chang down the line she staggered towards the conference, kicked a beggar who asked her to spare the price of a cuppa around the head then beat him with her stick shouting, “Get a ####### job you lazy ####.”
We all have days where we feel like that, some more than others and its on those occasions that we get strange spiritual urges to seek out the type of food that our forefathers were raised on. It’s no coincidence that complimentary therapists, when helping in the treatment of cancers look at a patient’s lineage and asses the type of food their ancestors were nourished with so they can prescribe the type of diet that they’re genetically predisposed to thrive on.
When I had a little health scare a while ago I went to see a complimentary dietician who after a week or so of DNA testing and family genealogy suggested I should try and survive as far as was solely possible on chips, Hollands Pies, chip shop gravy, salt and vinegar crisps and dandelion and burdock. I managed to adhere rigorously to his suggestions and the proof as they say is in the pudding, with the fact that I stand here proudly in font of you 100 kg in weight and with no foolish delusions towards exercise.
The treatment did have a slight side effect in that it shrunk the waistbands of all my trousers but it was a small price to pay to rid myself of a potentially fatal verouca.
Although I regularly stray from my regime and can be seen eating curry, tom yam, pad thai and fried rice I often feel it my duty to seek out good proper chips, gravy and pies. Now I do actually feel that I’ve been reasonably diligent in my quest for a decent chip supper, but I’d like to throw it open to the readers of KSR.com and see if they can come up with any better establishments than I’ve been able to source.
I must point out that meat pie chips and gravy is more than just a meal. ItÃ‚Â’s a religious experience. For a northerner it’s got greater spiritual significance than a trip to Mecca (or the Gala Bingo Halls now that Mecca have lost market share).
The food being presented to you is only part of the experience. The person partaking in the sacrament should be if not blind drunk, at least half cut, defineitely not sober, preferably with a couple of betting slips from William Hill in his or her pocket and if not bloodied from a fracas outside a nightclub the recipient of the mana should at least be in the mood for a fight. He must queue up for his food, be abusive to the staff (who will be wearing white and blue checked aprons that have not been washed for 3 months) and complain about the price and size of the portions.
There are few places outside the UK that offer this service.
“The Chippy” on Lamai Beach Rd, Koh Samui fails miserably. OK the chips and pies (made by Big Joe’s English Food Company) it sells are as close to damit as you’ll get to the real thing back home, however the staff are polite. I’ve never seen a fight in there and the food (including chip barms with gravy) is reasonably priced.
I’m told that the Offshore Bar, Soi Nanai in Patong offers a very similar range of food to the chip shops in England, but lacks an offensive owner, does not have a plate glass window to throw queue jumpers through and doesn’t have a calendar, stuck on last months page with a picture of a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales on it.
Pattaya being the strong hold that it is of mainstream British culture has several options for chipsomaniac, my favourite are The Pig and Whistle and Rosie O’Gradies, both on soi 7, they probably fail in offering the fully chippy experience as the food is closer to restaurant standard than necessary, but will leave you with a high cholesterol count and the need to buy some bigger shorts.
There is however one establishment in Bangkok on Sukumvit Soi 23, which bears the signage “Fish and Chips”. It comes very very close to the real thing, almost indiscernably so. The flooring is worn brown lino. The salt cellars have a single grain of rice in them. There are posters depicting Lancashire Life in the early 20th Century. The food is of a standard which could be the envy of any friery in Greater Manchester. The staff there although Thai and diligent have that half shocked, half weary look that says, “That’s the bloke that dropped his trousers and asked me to marry him last week.” and best of all there are fights in the queue.
If anyone has any further offerings that can be put into the hat for Thailand’s Chippy of the Year, I’d be very happy to hear about them. Happy hunting.
As for the Macc Ladds, I’ve heard they all went down Torremelinos although rumours are that one of them isn’t a million miles away.
Wan’ a chip luv ?
Dominic Lavin shares his time equally between the United Kingdom and Thailand. A writer, poet and mystic, Dominic is available for small parties and special occaisions. Contact his agent to establish his current schedule. http://www.myspace.com/140525510