Stickman's Weekly Column December 8th, 2019

Does Good Pad Thai Exist In Farangland?



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

I love a good Pad Thai, and in Bangkok you can find it anywhere. Thai food is pretty good here in New Zealand too – but you can’t get good Pad Thai here for love nor money. I have tried Thai restaurants from Auckland to Wellington, and none does Pad Thai that well. The sloppy noodles some Thai eateries here have the cheek to call Pad Thai is an insult to the diner. I have learned that if I want decent Pad Thai here in NZ I will have to make it myself. So I set off on a journey to learn how to cook Thai food with the ultimate goal of making a good plate of Pad Thai.

 

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Stir-fried brocolli and shrimp, as easy as it gets

 

17 years in Bangkok and as best I can remember, I don’t think I cooked once. That’s not to say that I can’t cook – I can – nor that I don’t like it – I do. It’s simply that eating out in Bangkok is so easy.

It’s a different story here in NZ. Eating out often costs $$, so I cook at home most of the time. I don’t set out to make anything fancy or to prepare dishes to wow anyone, I just make the dishes we like and try to make them as well as I can. I would soon discover that many Thai dishes are really quite easy to make.

I wear the apron at Stickman HQ (although the other half will say that she wears the trousers!).

 

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Cucumber som tam with mussels and crispy pork (made for the other half).

 

One of my favourite Thai dishes is gang-gahree-gai, or yellow chicken curry in English. When I first went to make a curry I looked at all the ingredients needed to make the base ingredient, curry paste, and I rolled my eyes. I’d have to buy many items I wouldn’t use in any other dishes which meant it really wasn’t economical to make it at all. And saving money is one reason to cook, right? It sounded like there was a lot of work just to make the curry paste. I needn’t have been concerned. I would soon learn that most Thai restaurants – be they in Thailand, New Zealand or wherever – don’t make curry paste themselves at all, but buy it in. Some buy the commercially available stuff, others may source it from famous curry paste makers. Some restaurants might have someone whose job it is to make curry paste. In other words, the hardest part of making a curry is actually the easiest. Once you have the curry paste, the rest is super easy.

Thai stir-fried dishes are also super easy. There are variances between different stir-fry dishes but once you have mastered one there’s no reason you cannot master them all. There really aren’t that many differences between dishes as diverse as stir-fried morning glory or chicken and basil leaves or beef and oyster sauce. Do one well and with a wee bit of practice you should be able to quickly master them all.

It’s fun to get creative with stir-fries and not just make dishes to your liking by mixing the ingredients up, but by doing stir-frys with a Thai flavour using ingredients not typically used in Thailand. I like stir-frying Brussel sprouts, kale and shrimp with basil leaves, chilies and garlic. Tasty and healthy!

 

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Stir-fried brocolli and Brussel sprouts with shrimp, squid and lots of chilli.

 

Another favourite is a stiry-fry with basil, chilli, three different varieties of mushroom and round beans with no meat at all. The contrast in texture between the soft mushrooms and the crisp green beans makes the dish work really well. It’s currently the other half’s favourite and we had it just before I published this column. This dish actually came about by chance – one night we couldn’t be bothered going to the butcher’s to buy some meat and just used what was in the fridge and it worked really well.

I like to adapt Thai dishes using local ingredients. The flavour is still unmistakably Thai but the final dish may be something you would not see on the menu in any Thai eatery. Seldom do you get a stir-fry in Bangkok with lamb for example (but go easy on the chilies as lamb and chilies don’t mix well; chilli overpowers the subtle flavour of lamb).

 

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Stir fried vegetables with beef, garlic, chillis and oyster sauce.

 

While many Thai dishes are simple and even straightforward to make, the number of ingredients in a single dish can mount up. When I make the old farang favourite, chicken and cashew nuts, there are 15 different ingredients. All bar cashew nuts are things I typically have in the kitchen so it’s no big deal. But some dishes need ingredients you might not use for anything else which might make them uneconomical to make.

But by no means are all Thai dishes easy to make and, frustratingly, two of the most popular – and two of my favourites – Tom Yum and Pad Thai – aren’t easy to make at all.

You can buy Tom Yum flavouring in Asian groceries but that’s not what I’d call cooking per se and is simply taking a short cut, cheating even. Using packet flavouring results in a dish that lacks intensity and complexity of the real thing made by a decent chef. Unfortunately you cannot get all the ingredients fresh that are needed to make an authentic Tom Yum. I’ve given up on trying to make a decent Tom Yum and wait until I am in Thailand to enjoy it.

 

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Dry gooey teeow with beef, mushrooms, spring onions and mung beans, quick and super easy.

 

Sourcing ingredients for some Thai dishes here in New Zealand can be an issue. We’ve planted chilies….but the plants died. We planted two varieties of basil for pat-krapow. They, thank goodness, are thriving. This may be the best place in the country to grow herbs used in Thai cooking – it’s warm and we have very high sunshine hours – but there’s still much that won’t grow and besides, we kind of suck in the garden.

If you cook Thai food, it helps to have a decent Asian Grocery nearby. There is one in the next town, about 20 km away, which is fantastic – the best I have seen in all of New Zealand, in fact. It’s run by a Thai couple and stocks all the Thai products whereas the supermarket-sized Asian groceries in Auckland tend to be Chinese-owned and while they have plenty of Thai products, they don’t stock everything.

 

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About to make put-krapow with 3 types of mushrooms.

 

One thing I like about cooking Thai is that it’s not technical in the way some Western dishes can be. As much as I enjoy time in the kitchen, I don’t like anything that’s too involved or technical or which becomes fussy and overly time-consuming to prepare. My rule is that no meal should take more than an hour from start to finish, unless it’s a special occasion.

I enjoy time in the kitchen and find it very relaxing. Put on some music, prepare a couple of dishes and enjoy a drink…it’s a nice way to spend the late afternoon.

I used to eat lunch at Foodland regularly and the chefs there do Pad Thai brilliantly – and they make it so fast. Obviously, everything is already prepared but from the first ingredients hitting the wok to the final dish being served on the plate takes about 60 seconds.

So how about my Pad Thai?

I have tried and tried, but for the life of me I cannot make a decent Pad Thai. It just doesn’t work and I end up with something similar to the local Thai restaurants – sloppy noodles. I use the proper Pad Thai noodles from Thailand. I have tried different woks, frying pans and oils. I have watched Thai chef after Thai chef make it on YouTube and I just cannot do it. There are some Thai dishes I know I make genuinely well. But Pad Thai? Epic fail! I could try and make the excuse that I cannot get some ingredients fresh but that would only be a small part of it. You really do need fresh shrimps which aren’t that easy to get here. The next best is the frozen variety from Australia (which are MUCH better and much more flavourful than what you get from Thailand or Vietnam). But they’re frozen – and the flavour just isn’t there. You need fresh shrimps to give depth to the flavour and aroma to the dish. I’ve failed so many times I have given up trying to make Pad Thai.

 

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Is this the perfect Pad Thai? Foodland does a great job.

 

My measure of a good Thai chef / restaurant is how well they do Pad Thai and Tom Yum. If they make those two dishes well I bet they can cook any Thai dish well. But I have not found a single restaurant here in Kiwiland that does either well. No doubt there are some but I haven’t come across them. (Speaking of Tom Yum, we had a great Tom Yum at MEU Republic on Rachada, about a 10-minuite walk up from Soi Cowboy on the same side of the road. Even the other half who can be quite particular about Thai food remarked how good it was.)

That I can’t make a decent plate of Pad Thai is a good reason to keep visiting Bangkok. There I can get my fill of authentic Pad Thai and let’s not forget Tom Yum.


Billboard Bangkok
 

Mystery Photo

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Last week’s photo was taken of The Holy Redeemer Church, on Soi Ruamrudee. While the roof looked like a Thai Buddhist temple, it is in fact a Catholic church. The photo was taken from the walkway between Lumpini and Benjakit parks. This week’s photo was supplied By Texas Jerry. So, clever readers, where is it?


Nana Plaza
 

Stick’s Inbox – the best emails from the past week.

Friendships with the locals in South-East Asia.

I lived in Thailand for 4 years. I worked in a US multinational company where everyone spoke English in the office. Before living there I visited Thailand for work many times, often for short trips (3 – 10 days) but also on one occasion for a 3-month work assignment. My working visits were in the 1980s & 1990s. My living experience was in the 2000s. Outside of that I have worked & lived in Singapore, Malaysia & Thailand for a total of 13 years. I started living & working in these countries when I was young (23) and I stayed in Asia until I was middle-aged. I lived and worked in (mostly South-East Asia) for almost 18 years over a 25-year period. The friendliest countries I worked in were Malaysia & Singapore. I have male friends from those countries who I’m close with today. We don’t speak on the phone but we still exchange emails and these days WhatsApp messages, too. Some of these friends went to university in the US or UK but many of them went through the local education system without going overseas for education. I have some extremely close male friends from Indonesia. Interestingly, all of them ended up emigrating to the US but they were Indonesian when I met them. I don’t have male Indonesian friends who live there today. In all cases, my friends are people I worked with. We’ve all been through high pressure projects, experiencing the highs and lows together. It builds a bond that stays for life (or at least for a very long time). With similar work experience and high pressure work situations, plus 4 years living there, I do not have even one male Thai friend. Most of the people I mixed with in Thailand were farang husbands of my Thai wife. Very few of them were “my” friends. And interestingly, there was little social interaction, even among the farang staff, when I worked in the same US multinational companies in Thailand.

Swedish visitors in decline.

Male Swedes were the once statistically the most likely to have a Thai partner outside of Asia. But my guess is the exchange rate and a potential law being mooted a few years ago in Sweden stating a man buying sex abroad can be prosecuted in Sweden if a claim arises will not have helped push them towards Thailand.

Chinese and Indians.

The Chinese mostly come in tour groups on package tours. After they have paid a lump sum to an agent, they hardly spend. As for Indians, those who make overseas trips are middle-to-higher income earners and they prefer to book flights themselves rather than travel in groups. And once they are in Thailand they tend to spend individually and thus a larger spectrum of businesses (transport from the airport, hotels, food outlets, shopping and doing the naughty boy bar-hopping) benefit from Indian tourists.

Pattaya high season, 2019.

I was in Pattaya late November for a visit and it was way below the usual high season. The streets were less congested, the malls / restaurants were empty, and the whole tourist area just felt like it was running at maybe 2/3 capacity. Things started to pick up around the 28th, maybe due to the fireworks festival, but it certainly didn’t feel like high season when I first arrived.

The state of affairs.

This year is the first year since 2000 I have not visited Thailand. What really amused me in your column was the reader’s story of the week from Jimmy who was bitten by a soi dog. That kind of sums up my current view on Thailand. The excitement of the nightlife is gone for me and the outstanding story on a Bangkok nightlife-centered website is about someone bitten by a soi dog.

Thailand today.

We all know change is inevitable and we need to accept it. We don’t have to like it though and I think that in a nutshell describes Thailand for most of us who were there years ago. I don’t need to go in to all that has changed, as most of us are quite aware of the changes and, honestly, I see it getting worse. I live in Canada now with my Thai wife and even she dreads going back. We will always have the memories. Many will never know what we have enjoyed in the good years and for that we are fortunate. I still enjoy your column and will continue to read it. We know the bar scene is going downhill but maybe you could write about other things going on.


Spankys Nana Plaza Bangkok
 

Bars in the new complex on Sukhumvit soi 7 opened this week and the glow of neon seen from the Nana BTS station gets brighter and brighter. Curiously, no signs have gone up with a name for the complex but one lady told a correspondent that it would be called Nana Market…but that has yet to be confirmed. The complex has a decent footprint and word is there will be a couple of dozen bars or so. My feeling is that pricing will be critical to the complex’s success. The traditional appeal of beer bars is threefold: lower prices, a laid-back atmosphere & attitudes and (in the case of beer bars in the likes of Pattaya and Phuket), somewhat fresh air and perhaps a sea breeze. There ain’t no fresh air in Bangkok so we can cross that one out. And attitudes aren’t what they were which leaves price as the way for bars in the new complex to compete. So how are prices looking in the new bar complex. From a couple of bars which have opened – and I would not expect pricing to be uniform throughout the complex – a local beer will set you back 130 baht. And in at least one bar, a barfine will set you back 800 baht. The complex is something of a curiosity and there are all sorts of permutations. It’s a very short walk from Soi Nana which is a big positive. It also happens to be right on the doorstep of the Arab quarter….so the crowd might be rather diverse. That it is located in such a prime area makes me think it will be something of a stop-gap before it is developed in to something more permanent. In other words, enjoy this new bar complex while it lasts.

There are of course two soi 7s on Sukhumvit – soi 7 and soi 7/1. In soi 7/1, the next soi over, there is no update on The Pickled Liver, the British pub at the very end of the soi, which has been closed since late last year when it was sold. Will the new Pickled Liver open before Christmas or could it go through a whole calendar year with the doors closed? Whatever the case, going by the raging success of the owners’ other bars, it should be worth the wait.

Long-time liaisons aren’t all that common these days, and at least one Nana Plaza bar has essentially barred its staff from going long-time on the biggest night of the year, New Year’s Eve. Traditionally, some bars have managed this by imposing outrageously high barfines which, amazingly, some punters have been willing to pay. But at least one bar has outright prohibited the girls from going long-time that night. I wonder if others will put such a policy in place?

There are no Indians on Soi Nana I was told by someone this week who really ought to know better. Fake news, they said, Stick was perpetrating fake news! Why do you always speak badly about Soi Nana, I was accused of. The photo below was taken on Soi Nana this week, not far down past the plaza. And if what some Thai women say is true, even a blind man knows Soi Nana is full of Indians… Why some get so upset about the most innocuous things being said, I have no idea. Indians are all over Soi Nana (and they’re almost certainly much nicer people than some of the drunks you find on the soi).

 

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Groups of Indians on Soi Nana this week. Photo taken by a reader.

 

I have yet to visit the newest bar on Soi Cowboy, Oasis, but I have to say it looks fantastic from the photos I have seen of it. Is it a snapshot of the future of the bar scene? I expect more bars will go this way i.e. gogo bars will be sold, opened up and converted in to a bar where staff are not available. Will Soi Cowboy become more like Silom soi 4 in some ways, with a mix of bars and eateries?

Speaking of Oasis, what effect will it have on established bars in the immediate area, like Scruffy Murphy’s and Bradman’s? As much as I once liked it, Bradman’s just hasn’t been the same since founder Thomas sold it (and it has always been cramped and pokey, it has to be said). And then there’s Scruffy Murphy’s which is pleasant enough, but just too similar to the Queen Vic. A great job was done on the exterior frontage, but the layout inside doesn’t work in a way that say the Robin Hood does. If you want a quiet oasis, go to Scruffy Murphy’s. If you want Aussie sport, go to Bradman’s….but slap in the middle of Soi Cowboy with a great view of the soi, Oasis looks like it will be hard to beat. And if you’re looking for a bargain, Chang draft is just 100 baht at happy hour at Oasis.

At last I got something right with Hooters. A couple of weeks ago I wrote that Hooters on Sukhumvit soi 15 would reopen on Friday, December 6th…and it did.

Things are happening on Sukhumvit soi 11 in the area that used to be the sub-soi with Cheap Charlie’s and Charley Brown’s. The area had been surrounded by corrugated iron fencing and behind the fence the area was overgrown with weeds. All the plant growth has been cut down and the fence removed. Is construction of the new development about to begin?

Demonia, the long-running fetish house on Sukhumvit soi 33, will celebrate Christmas with a party this coming Friday, December 20th. A free Xmas present is promised.

 

demonia-bangkok-xmas

 

Reports from the bars are very consistent these days, and I find that more often than not readers are in agreement. If one person says a bar is good, odds are others commenting on that bar say something similar. Ditto if a reader says a bar sucks – others probably feel much the same way. Whenever anyone mentions Billboard, Butterflies, Spanky’s, Crazy House or Sexy Night (which seems like an outlier in this group), they all get rave reviews. Whenever I hear Angelwitch or Tilac mentioned these days, it’s invariably something of a disappointment.

In the column of November 24th I passed on a question from a reader asking if anyone could recommend any quality ladyboy clubs. He was looking for something a bit better than your average Nana Plaza ladyboy gogo bar. Not a peep. I received another question from a reader this week who asks if anyone knows where he can rent a wheelchair in Bangkok to use there and in Hua Hin. If you have any ideas, please do drop me an email so I can forward any info to him.

New signage has been going up for bus stops in downtown Bangkok in both Thai and English. This is the new official signage and is a huge improvement on the old signs and should make getting around by bus a little easier.

A couple of friends messaged me on LINE this week to say how “cool” Bangkok felt. Some days the Mercury didn’t reach 30 and overnight lows were around 18. Sounds like the perfect temperature.

The diggers are in and work on Benjakit Park has begun. Probably of little interest to most readers I know, but it’s a great park and parts of it will be closed for the next 18 months – which is a real loss for those who stop by regularly.

 

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Truth be told, you’re not likely to see monitor lizards in Benjakit Park.

 

One area where Bangkok has improved markedly over the years is dining options, particularly international food. On that note a regular reader is raving about the burger deal at Arno’s which has a branch in the Hyatt Regency, between Sukhumvit sois 11 and 13. This is what he said: 220 baht for a really good burger, curly fries and a drink from set lunch menu. Expected some tiny thing to come out, was shocked. Actually thought that they’d misheard me and this couldn’t be the 220 deal. Highly recommended for anyone wanting a great lunchtime burger.

Why do so many Thais add sauce or salt or pepper or whatever condiments are on the table to their food before they have even tasted it? They do this with Thai dishes and they also do it to many Western dishes, sometimes adding things we’d never dream of to complement a dish. It’s almost like it is ingrained in them to do this before tasting their food. I’ve never worked out why. Any explanation?

Thailand is not a Christian country. We all know that. It’s only at Christmas that we might be indirectly reminded of it. A long-time reader emailed this week about extending his marriage visa. The local Immigration office informed him that there is a 30-day consideration period and he would have to return to get the new stamp in his passport on…..you guessed it…..Christmas Day! Visiting the local Immigration office is just about the last place in the world I’d want to be on Christmas Day – and I say that as someone who is not a Christian!

 

scruffy-murphys-bangkok-xmas

 

Cat-and-mouse games are happening in some condo buildings with units listed on AirBnB. To recap the law in Thailand, AirBnB is only legal for stays of 30 days or over. Shorter stays require a hotel licence. Of course, private condo owners don’t have a hotel licence and have no chance of getting one so essentially they are illegal. Residents of buildings with units listed on AirBnB don’t like it because short-stay visitors may not behave as well nor treat the premises the same as long-stayers. A few years back large signs appeared in lobbies, lifts and common areas of some condo buildings saying AirBnB was illegal in Thailand. Some even threatened that anyone found to be staying in a unit from AirBnB would be reported to Immigration and the police. Residents in some buildings are putting pressure on condo committees and building management offices to disallow the practice of units being rented out short-term. There are reports of people who have booked accommodation using AirBnB have being blocked from entering the odd condo building while there are people within the building – management office staff and security – who are supplementing their income by hiring out electronic keycards that allow entry to the building. Some buildings have installed finger-print access for residents to try and keep short-stayers out while security guards help AirBnB guests get around this. There have been reports of heated exchanges between residents and short-stay guests. It all sounds like a lot of stress and is one reason why I wouldn’t use AirBnB in Thailand. You just don’t know what fun and games await you.

Speaking of accommodation, I’ve noticed a weird trend amongst a small number of readers who tell me that they like to fly business class or premium economy but at the same time they choose to stay in hotels that strike me as not much more than a step up from a doss-house. Personally, I spend less on the flight and more on a nice hotel. It’s always economy class for me…..load the iPad up with movies and TV shows and you can essentially distract yourself from the general discomfort of being cooped in cattle class knowing that when you reach your destination you have a nice hotel to relax in. Personally, I wouldn’t bother leaving home if I had to stay in a cheap hotel room, but that’s me.

 

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Comparing air quality between my home in New Zealand and Thailand.

 

One of the reasons I no longer live in Bangkok is the terrible pollution which is a real problem for much of the year. It never really goes away and it’s simply a case that at certain times of the year it isn’t that bad. While there is a greater awareness these days of the pollution and the air quality in Bangkok, I wonder if it will always be a problem and the city will never be free of it. Let me explain. This week I got a scratchy throat. I was a little miffed at why I had come down with something. And then this morning when the sun rose it was bright red, you could look directly at it – and it looked just like the sun does in Bangkok. (Usually, here in New Zealand you cannot look directly at the sun as its blindingly bright.) And from my office, I couldn’t see the hills in the distance that make such a lovely backdrop as I work on this column. There was some shit in the air – which didn’t make sense. We’re on the coast and there’s very little industry here. So I got online to check our air quality rating and it was 25. That’s still considered “good”, but much higher than usual – we are usually somewhere between 2 and 10 (the lower the number, the better). An AQI reading of 25 is actually quite high for provincial New Zealand and to be frank, didn’t make sense. Then I remembered that our Aussie friends are battling massive bush fires all over New South Wales, and Sydney has been suffering terribly with the worst air quality in recorded history. Apparently the reason that the air quality in New Zealand has deteriorated is because the smoke from the Australian bush fires has drifted across with the westerly winds, crossing the 2,000 odd kilometres of the Tasman Sea, passed right across the North Island and is hovering over my part of the country. That’s why I can’t see the hills in the distance, why the sun was bright red this morning and why I had a scratchy throat. So what’s this got to do with Bangkok? What hope is there that Thailand will ever have clean air if a small city on the east coast of a country as isolated as New Zealand in which there is little traffic and virtually no major industry suffers degraded air quality because of bush fires in a country more than 2,000 km away? In Bangkok there are so many contributors from the traffic, to all the industry in the neighbouring provinces to farmers burning across the country and in nearby countries – which are much closer to Thailand than Australia is to New Zealand. Seriously, what hope does Thailand have of ever eliminating pollution, let alone merely reducing it to supposedly healthy levels?

 

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Quote of the week comes from Kloth, “The Future Belongs To The Young“.

Reader’s story of the week comes from Kloth, “The Future Belongs To The Young“.

The terrifying moment some Thais are thrown from a fairground ride is caught on video.

As high season arrives, complaints of long queues at the airport have resumed.

A German who uses a walking stick is the latest in a long line of foreigners in Pattaya robbed by a man who looked and dressed like a woman.

Just when was the golden era in Bangkok for expats?

Hundreds of tourists escape a major fire at the Holiday Inn in Pattaya.

The body of an elderly Dutchman is found floating in the Chao Praya River.

 

marine-parade-napier

Summer here on the east coast of NZ’s North Island, where the air is uncharacteristically hazy.

Sometimes I have a few column openers mapped out in advance, other times I am not sure what I will write about the following week. This happens to be one of those times when I do have the next few columns mapped out and clear in my mind about what I am going to publish so here’s what on the menu over the coming weeks. Next week’s column opener will be a look back over the past year with comment on changes in Bangkok, a column I do every year. However, I am going to do it a bit different this year and only comment on the positive stuff. There has been enough bad news this year already and I don’t think there’s any need to go over all the crap again. Rather, I am going to comment on what I see as the positive changes in Bangkok, and Thailand in general. I will do a column opener with predictions for 2020, and I am going to take on board a suggestion from Dave The Rave who this week suggested I write about some of the crazy bar bosses we have known and tell some stories about some of their crazy antics. That should see us through to the end of the year.

Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick

Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]