28 July 2009

The glitter of Pratunam

The morning started out gray with a heavy mist of humidity fanning out over the city. But, I was not going to be deterred from an outing to Pratunam Market. For months I've heard of the market dedicated almost exclusively to clothing and beauty products. So, after skytraining my way to central Bangkok and disembarking at Siam station. I proceeded out into the humid air and let my green leather flip flops clap their way down the cement stairs and to street level.

Vendors were out early, already hawking their noodles and adorable miniature pineapples (I ended up going home with six... how can you pass up a miniature pineapple?!). I walked past CentralWorld, the newest of Bangkok's ultra glossy super shopping centers, and found myself waiting to cross a quadruple lane road along with a gaggle of Thai women wearing towering heels and chatting excitedly. I held my breath and followed with the pack as soon as there was a slight clearing of the rushing taxis and tuk tuks. Exhaling with relief, as I have learned is "normal" for me to do upon successfully crossing traffic, I set foot on the opposite side's crumbling sidewalk and surveyed the scene. So this was the edge of the famous Pratunam Market.

Judging from the size of the crowds milling, morning was a popular time to head to Pratunam. People were everywhere. Women in their heels and pencil skirts shaded themselves with parasols, men in short-sleeved polo shirts dabbed at the perspiration already forming on their brows with brightly colored handkerchiefs and market employees dressed in aprons bustled about hauling huge carts of assorted goods.

But, like all good markets in Thailand, the edge is merely the beginning. Like a present being unwrapped, one must step into the covered, dimly lit curving alleyways of a market in order to really discover the prize. Tables heaped with long flowing bunches of glistening black human hair, baskets toppling over with every shade of nail polish imaginable and rows and rows of tiny pencil skirts and matching patent leather heels awaited inside. Throwing myself into one of the markets narrow openings, I turned down the twisty alleys until the crowds thinned a bit and saw the huge Buddha surrounded by tables covered in tiny offering plates. I'd later find out that rather than have vendors set out food offerings by their own stalls, as is common at other markets, Pratunam was built to provide a central offering place that all stall owners could contribute to as desired. The rule was established to cut down on vermin within the market, and for that I was glad. One doesn't desire to reach for a strand of human hair and be surprised by a rat popping out of it.

A tiny little twinkling caught the corner of my eye. One twist and another turn and I was standing at the open mouth of an amazing site, unlike any other treasure I had yet found in Bangkok. Some time ago, this may have been just a quick pass thru to lead a visitor to another bustling area of the market. But, today, the sun streamed in (as this tiny alley wasn't covered like all of the others) and glitter and sequins were scattered over the cement floor and walls. It was if someone skim coated the entire place in concrete and then let the sparkly confetti fly, trapped for eternity! Note to self: absolutely brilliant and to be replicated in a future home sometime, somewhere.

I walked slowly through, taking it all in and cursing the fact that I didn't bring my camera on this outing. At the end of the dazzling alley, the market began again, but this area had a much different tone. Huge feather boas were strung around the necks of male mannequins wearing giant cotton candy wigs and bedazzled evening gowns in neon that trumpeted out into tulip trains. Seamstresses sat at tiny sewing machines behind the mannequins creating even more elaborate gowns at a shocking pace. Yards and yards of tulle and man-sized heels in every shade of an extra glossy rainbow brilliantly lined nearby racks. I laughed out loud, dazzled by the color and the show, half expecting a drag version of a Bollywood movie's dance scene to pop to life in front of me.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 60:
Cool Slaw
After a hot and humid morning exploring the back alleys of a local market, I crave a crunchy fresh dish for lunch and a giant glass of water filled with ice and lime wedges. Here's one of my favorite lunches that also works great as a side to dishes like Pad Thai or Philippine Ribs.

4 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/8 teaspoon sesame oil
pinch of black pepper
pinch of salt
pinch of cayenne, vary amount to taste
1/3 head of green cabbage, shredded
1/2 carrot, cut into matchsticks
1 green onion, finely diced
1 hand full of cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
lemon wedges
4 hard boiled eggs, optional

In a large bowl, whisk the vinegar, oils peppers and salt. Add the cabbage, carrots and onions. Mix well. Refridgerate for at least 20 minutes. Add cilantro just prior to serving and mix well. Serve with a lemon wedge and a sliced hard boiled egg, if desired.

Yield: four lunch size servings

23 July 2009

Jiggle, jiggle

While traveling solo with the kids recently, we stopped in Hong Kong for what was supposed to be a brief layover. In reality, the stop ended up consuming an extra seven hours of our time due to flight delays. Rolling my eyes in exasperation (I mean really, who wants to entertain two of the five and under set at an airport--any takers?), we wandered, hoping to pass the time quickly.

We looked at over priced souvenirs. My son kissed a life-sized plastic ramen girl who was promoting steaming soups. We found a little television set with other travel weary families. But, after witnessing two minutes of sword swallowing, blood spurting animation I quickly decided to take the kids for a look at a few more overpriced souvenirs.

And, then, off in the distance, I saw the beckoning green and white lights of my favorite coffee chain. While I enjoy local businesses in almost every scenario, there's one coffee chain that I frequent as if it is a second home no matter where in the world I am. And, this long layover was about to become one fortunate, life changing stop as it will forever be remembered as the day I discovered... coffee jelly.

With my kids already eyeing the nearby playground they had just discovered, I placed an order for a latte with coffee jelly. I've long stared at Thailand's jellied drinks, a bit nervous to try them at the open air markets. On Bangkok's streets, vendors stand in the humid heat stirring giant glass vats of milky liquid with various colors of gelatinous globs floating through.

Upon receiving my drink in Hong Kong, I had doubts. Cubes of darkly tinted gelatin floated through the cold latte like leeches hiding in a muddy river. And, then, with kids happily prancing through the playground, I slurped and fell in love. Milky latte mingled with small droplets of rich, almost bitter, espresso beads.

The subsequent hours in Hong Kong were filled with two more coffee jelly drinks, hours of playground merriment and an extremely caffeinated self boarding a plane (with two sweaty hot, happy children in tow!).

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 59:
Coffee Jelly
After a bit of work in the kitchen, I finally settled on the consistency that matched the jellies I enjoyed during my layover in Hong Kong. The finished product should not be too firm, but rather "scoopable". Add a scoop to your next iced coffee drink, think of a long layover in Hong Kong (and be thankful that you're not at an airport!) and then settle into a lawn chair in the summer sun!

2 cups of your favorite freshly brewed coffee
1 Tablespoon gelatin
2 Tablespoons sugar

Combine all ingredients and stir well, until the gelatin and sugar is completely dissolved. Spray a deep bowl with a mist of vegetable spray and pour the gelatin mixture into the bowl. Refrigerate overnight. The next day, make an iced coffee (or a glass of chocolate milk) add a large scoop of coffee jelly, some ice, and a straw.

Will keep for two weeks in an air-proof container, kept under refrigeration.

15 July 2009

Make room for noodles

While my mom was visiting Bangkok recently, we took an afternoon sans kids and did some exploring of the much neglected by tourists neighborhood of Victory Monument. Sure, it's the main intersection of Bangkok (and as a side note, the location of the most recent Red Shirt protest activity that shut the city down for a number of hours). But, a lot of tourists consider Victory Monument a place to pass quickly through en route to another location. Stop for a couple of hours and you'll be richly rewarded with covered market after covered market (after covered market and on and on...).

Used and refurbished shoe sellers stand elbow to elbow with home made noodle vendors and imported clothing stalls selling shirts and dresses for a song. Umbrellas and faux designer watches mingle with MAC cosmetics and Christian Fior (no typo... you read it correctly) handbags.

And, unfortunately, a little cart-like front of a McDonald's is plopped down right in the middle of no less than two dozen vendors selling every type of homemade noodle under the sun. Good grief. In a country that does fast food so well, hand cooked quickly, with natural ingredients and traditional culinary skills, why must the frozen slab of pseudo meat place exist here too? If you find yourself with an hour of two to pass in Bangkok, head to Victory Monument's ring of covered markets, skip the Big Mc Meal and sample a locally made ice cream concoction, a plate of noodles or a mixed Thai soda. Then, take a fist full of coins and score some excellent deals on all sorts of wonderful finds.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 58:
Coconut Curry Egg Noodles
This noodle dish is a wonderfully satisfying meal at the end of a long afternoon of shopping. Slightly creamy, not spicy and full of fresh flavors, it pairs well with a tall iced tea or sparkling water with lime. I enjoy making Char Siew and serving it on top of the noodles, but any protein would sit well with the dish.

1/2 pound of egg noodles, approximately
1 cup of coconut milk
1 tablespoon of mild red curry paste
2 cups of loosely packed greens (spinach, arugula, celery leaves, finely sliced cabbage all work well)
1 carrot, finely cut into 2 inch matchsticks
1 large hand full of cilantro
1 cup of chopped green onion, about 1/4 inch long
1 lime, cut into wedges
Cooked protein of choice: char siew, steamed sliced chicken, quickly boiled large prawns

In a large wok, bring the coconut milk and curry paste to a simmer. Add the carrots and greens. Cook until the vegetables are slightly wilted, but still crunchy. In a separate pot, bring a full container of water to a boil and quickly cook the noodles, no more than three minutes. They should be chewy and al dente. Drain, rinse and add to the coconut curry mixture. Toss the noodles to coat and place generous portions into four bowls. Generously top with cilantro and green onions. Serve with one lime wedge and top with protein of choice.

Yield: four generous servings