Fine (Thai) dining in Bangkok

High end dining in foreign countries can be tricky.  Reading reviews is of no help – there’s always an equal balance between those who loved it and those who thought it was over priced, over-hyped and not worthwhile.  Make up your own mind.

I had wanted to eat at Nahm for a long time.  I’ve been a fan of David Thompson ever since he first came onto the Sydney food scene, way back when.  My sister gave me a copy of his first cookbook back in the early 90s and it has become one of my favourite recipe books.  I’ve learnt a great deal from those recipes but I’ve also enjoyed the experience of eating at his earlier restaurants, Sailors Thai and for more causal bites, the Sailors Cantina.  I also jump at any opportunity to make a booking when he arrives in Sydney a guest chef at the likes of the Bentley Bar.  Rare treats.  So I was not surprisingly very excited about the prospect of eating at Nahm (I’d also read and seen interviews with him in Bangkok talking about what it’s like to be a white person cooking high end Thai food: the Thais don’t like it – something to do with grandmothers and eggs.

Interestingly, the reviews on TripAdvisor were on the whole, not positive and then again there was that whole hype about eating at a restaurant that had been named World # 1 (now knocked back to #2).   But I had asked some people who are foodies what their experience of Nahm was and they advised that we go – that it was an experience not worth missing.

Whilst browsing the best places to eat in Bangkok I also came across the Issaya Siamese Club.  This place got very good reviews so I uhmed and ahhed about which place to go to and then decided to book the Issaya.  Also they were very prompt in their reply, which Nahm wasn’t.  The other thing that made me wonder about Nahm is that it seemed very formal – in the Como Hotel – and had a strict dress code.  I was planning to travel very light – no heels or silk dresses.

I was also considering Bo.Lan.  Again this place resonated with me because of their use of sustainable ingredients and the fact that both chefs Bo (Duangporn Songivsava ) and Lan (Dylan Jones) who are a husband and wife team had worked with David Thompson – Jones back in Sydney and Bo in London.  I’d also seen an interview with them and was impressed with their attitude to food and Thai culture. Bo is a native Thai and has been presented with the inaugural award for Asia’s Best Female Chef, as part of The 50 Best Restaurants in Asia Awards 2013.

So I was tossing up.  Finally, I decided that my husband’s birthday would be celebrated with lunch at Issaya and then we would have dinner at Nahm just before leaving Bangkok.  And then I thought, what the hell, here we are in Bangkok with some of the best Thai fine dining restaurants in the world, we’d be crazy not to try them all, so I booked Bo.Lan as well.  And so glad I did.  While the Issaya Club made my heart sing – such a joyous experience in a gorgeous setting – Bo.Lan’s food was sensational. 

It strikes me as very odd that the most negative reviews came from Asian people.  Theyir comments generally were that you can get the same food at street stalls much cheaper.  I think that they not only miss the point – you just don’t get this calibre of food on the streets – but there seems to be reluctance to pay for high end Asian food (barring Chinese).  Whist most of these people would not bat an eyelid at paying exorbitant prices for Italian or French food (some of it very ho hum), somehow paying the same for Thai is unthinkable. Plus, I don’t think they fully appreciate what constitutes a fine dining experience – it’s not just the setting and the great attentive service, it’s the play of ingredients, of textures and tastes; its taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary that sings in your mouth, scintillates your taste buds and keeps you wondering how the hell they did it. Worth every penny (or baht) in my book. 

So although I’ve yet to eat at Nahm I have packed my heels and silk dress and look forward to the experience. Meanwhile, I can thoroughly recommend splurging out on the food and wine at both the Issaya and Bo.Lan.

But where’s the oil?

We’ve just come back from a reconnoitre in Noosa.  We’re embarking on a sea change and need to find somewhere to live – quickly.  Its very hard to get a sense of what properties are like on the web – photos that make places look bigger than they or a lack of photos (always a worry) and then that more nebulous  aspect of how a places feels:  is this a place I’d be comfortable in? So a visit is necessary.

We booked an apartment through Airbnb; we’ve been using this site for our overseas travels and have stayed in some wonderful places, including a lovely little  apartment on Rue de Rivoli that seemed to epitomise Parisian living (including the 6 flights of narrow circular stairs).  Got to feel very much the local.

I like to be able to self-cater, even if that’s just a matter of getting a nice platter of things for lunch or morning coffee/toast. I don’t always want to go out to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.  And these days, funds are a bit tight so an apartment where we could fend for ourselves was ideal.

The place we found in Noosa was ideally situated, just back from the main street (which backs on to the main beach), a quick walk to the shopping centre and – big tick – a good bottle shop across the road.  Plus it had a nice pool and gym (not that we got to use them this time). However what I discovered (too late) was there were absolutely no provisions for cooking – despite a great BBQ on the balcony.  This always astonishes me.  How can you expect people to bring their own essentials such as olive oil (any oil would have done) when they’re only staying for a  few days?  Or do you assume they’re not going to cook? So then why wouldn’t they just stay in a hotel?

Having spent the entire day driving from one side of the Sunshine Coast to the other (back and forth) looking at properties, we felt too exhausted to go out for a meal and instead decided to buy some things to eat in:  eye fillet to sear on the BBQ and a mixed green salad and ready made dressing (quelle horreur) plus salt and pepper (these we could either leave behind for the next guests or take with us).  But on returning to the apartment we discovered there was no oil – olive or otherwise – with which to sear our steaks.  Merde.  We improvised by smearing them in the balsamic salad dressing and all was well.  But it did strike me as weird that you would provide all these facilities but no essential provisions.

We had a similar experience in Yogyakarta when we rented a house for a week so we could self-cater.  I had envisioned trips to the fresh markets, exploring and experimenting with local produce. Ha!  Whilst the place had a (limited) range of utensils there were absolutely no provisions: no salt, pepper, sugar, oil.  In fact nothing.  So we needed to purchase everything, which makes it both impractical and uneconomic for short stays, and again made me wonder why this was so.

If I were to offer my place for travellers I would ensure that there was everything they could possibly need in the way of cooking  to make their stay and easy as possible. Again a big tick to the owner of the Paris apartment who not only provided all necessary condiments but also left cereal, porridge, dry and sweet biscuits and a fabulous sort of dried toast that was just perfect to have with our morning cafe au lait.  Perhaps it helps to be French.

Camping holidays

I used to go camping a lot  – many years ago that was what you did either for long Easter breaks or in the summer holidays or sometimes just for a weekend.  My family used to go camping around Lake Eildon (in Victoria).  Back in those days you could just go bush, find a nice spot and set up camp.  We would generally camp near a river (stream actually) and my uncle would fish for trout.  He taught me how to fish.  Mostly I got the fly tangled in a tree but sometimes I caught fish.  I liked the solitariness of fishing in a stream, just walking along and casting.  Whether or not I caught a fish was beside the point, it was really just an activity. If I did catch a fish I would have to unhook it and then clean and scale it.  All part of the process. Even putting live worms onto the hook was OK.  But I was a kid then.  Not sure that I could do that now.

When we were young we used to travel all the way up from Melbourne to Hervey Bay in Qld (some 2,000+ miles) in the September school holidays. 5 of us (3 kids in the back) in a Holden station wagon fully laden with tent and camp beds and food and god only knows what else. We didn’t pay attention to the preparations, we were just keen to get on the road. It was a long, long journey and my dad would drive pretty much non-stop, fuelled up on coke (as in coca-cola) and ‘no-doze’.  He would stop by the roadside in the early hours of the morning for a couple of hours’ sleep and then would drive on again.  We’d usually stop in Brisbane overnight with some relatives and then be back on our way.  I remember how long and flat that journey was – nothing to see but the occasional billboard and lots of telegraph poles.  We’d count them (out of boredom) and we would play hangman and noughts and crosses and I spy.

In those days the tents were huge, heavy canvas things with wooden poles – usually one in the middle of the tent and eyelets that had to be threaded around the corner poles.  Our tent didn’t have a floor.  But we had those old camp beds.  I suspect they were really army cots. And no sleeping bags – mum always brought plenty of blankets and sheets.  We camped right on the foreshore: crowded with tents so close to each other that you could barely move between them; as kids we didn’t care. It was exciting to be able to wake up early to the sound of the pounding surf and go and swim – at 6am!  I think we lived in the water.  Evening times were magical too, with the ending of daylight and the descending quiet  – distant chatter and occasional raised voices of kids and adults – and the preparation of food and smell of sausages and chops cooking.  I don’t think I ever appreciated the effort that went into that exercise. Our main activity as kids was playing on the beach and reading.  We always sought out the local second hand bookstore  and spent many hours lying around reading.  It was simple but blissful.  Not a care in the world.

When we camped in the bush there were usually a group of adults and I remember fondly how at night, in our tent we would hear the adults talking and singing around the fire and playing cards. When you’re camping there’s really nothing to do – walks, cards, books, swimming. I don’t think we were ever bored.

As a young adult I once travelled all the way along the east coast of Australia from Warrnambool to Darwin, camping along the way. Sometimes just stopping at a beach for a night or two and other times in little campsites in a little tent with not many provisions or accessories.

More recently I’ve had camping trips to the Snowy River and a number of canoe trips, packing our canoe with everything we needed and finding a nice place to stop.  Sadly, now there are so many restrictions on where you can camp and you can no longer  just go bush.  You have to be in a designated camping ground.  These can be horrid and don’t appeal to me.  One time we canoed to a lovely little spot and set up our little tent only to find the next day a helicopter circling around and then the water police coming to tell us that we couldn’t camp there – too dangerous:  a branch might fall.  Despite our pleas that we were well aware of the risks, we were moved on.  And so we packed everything into our canoe (the water police watched to make sure we left) and paddled to another place.  Again the next day a ranger came and told us we couldn’t camp there.  We explained that the camp site was way too full and besides, we didn’t have much stuff with us and would take all our rubbish away with us, that we had already been moved on and were only there for another day.  The ranger relented and so we spent a gloriously quiet time by the water, doing very little – eating, drinking, reading, swimming.

But for a number of years now we haven’t camped.  Instead our holidays have become more exotic, travelling to various places in Asia – India, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bali – or to Europe, Morocco, and more recently to the UK.

This year for our anniversary we decided to go camping.  Our daughter and her girlfriend had been camping to Seal Rocks (Myall Lakes) and stayed at a place called Camp Treachery (!) with lovely vast camping spots and gorgeous beaches. A couple of other people I know said they’d also been there and thought the place was perfect.  So off we went.

My daughter had bought a big tent – large enough to stand up in which was a first for us – so we borrowed that and planned our meals, bought our provisions, packed the car and off we went. We took everything that we thought we needed (including some nice champagne and champagne glasses) and my daughter’s double blow up mattress, sheets and pillows, chairs, a hammock, our Weber as well as one of those little portable butane burners which used to be only in the Asian shops, but can now be found in the mainstream supermarkets. We even took coffee and a camping coffee plunger. Luxury.

But of course, despite making careful lists and pre-prepping dressings, marinades and rubs, there were things we forgot.  Main one being a salad bowl. How to make salad without a salad bowl.  The small cereal bowls we took were too small.  So my creative problem-solving skills came to the fore.  I mixed everything in a plastic bag, added the dressing and voila! Problem solved.

We arrived on Friday afternoon – although we meant to leave at 10am to get here by 2pm there were, inevitably, last minute things to take care of.  I decided I wanted to take our hammock, which necessitated the search for some extra ropes.  And then there were the last minute food purchases – some coriander, fresh fruit etc.  But finally we were on the road and arrived soon after 3pm.  All good; time for a swim once we’d found a good spot to set up the tent and camp site and then we could settle in and have a G&T before making dinner.  What we hadn’t factored in was the setting up of a tent we had never used.  Fraught, to say the least.  I think it took us nearly an hour to figure it out.  The instructions were vague (and I suspect translated from Chinese – never a good thing).  But at last we were done and the tent was up, the bed inflated and made up and our food stuffs and drinks packed in ice.  And so to dinner – seared salmon with a tomato, pomegranate and roasted lemon salad. I had roasted the lemons at home as well as the pomegranate dressing and the chilli-lime salt for the salmon.  Simple and perfect. And then there was nothing to do but sit around the fire and drink red wine. No wifi, no service = no phones, no iPads.  Blissfully relaxing.

Eating well acrosss the continent

We’ve eaten rather well on our trip: from street food in Hong Kong to great London pub food and Scottish specialities. In London we would take a break from our walking and sightseeing to have a beer and a bite to eat. I’m not a beer drinker but the beers in the UK are very different to those back home. They’re full of flavour and as different in their complexity as wine. So, when in Rome…… However, one pint is my limit. Thereafter I need to revert to wine; most pubs had a good selection of wine by the glass. English pies are a British pub food specialty (as are fish and chips) and these are nothing like the pies back home, they’re hand made and sensational, particularly ones with ale and game (eg, ale and venison). And of course chips, hand made and crisp I couldn’t go past these. And because we walked so much each day I figured I could indulge.

In Scotland, haggis was the choice du jour. I love haggis. Its rich and flavousome, peppery and spicy and tastes very much like the Spanish morcia. I took every opportunity to order this. I just wish it wasn’t served with neeps and tatties (that’s turnips nad mashed potatoes) though I must admit that they do go very well together. My preference would be for haggis to be served with a rocket and tomato salad but I guess in the cold weather people want something filling and sustaining. And so to porridge. Another Scottish speciality. They cook it with salt but also serve it with whisky, brown sugar and cream. Its heavenly and a wonderful way to start your day. Especially when its only 3 degrees outside.

In Oban, home of the malt whisky of the same name, we indulged in local seafood – scallops from Mull, langoustines and huge oysters. Scottish hot and cold smoked salmon came in a variety of forms. And then there was game: pigeon, partridge, pheasant, grouse and venison. Grouse is very strong in flavour, much more so than pigeon or partridge or pheasant, due to the fact that it subsists on a diet of wild heather. Venison was similar to kangaroo – very lean so it could be cooked quite rare and a very mild gamey taste. In Oban I had a superbly cooked venison saddle with spiced red cabbage, pickled walnuts and a chive and truffle mash. It was sensational and the venison was so perfectly cooked that I wondered how this was done (it was a very thick cut). I thought it would have been seared in a pan and then finished off in the oven but turns out that it was all done in a pan because it was cooked rare. For medium rare it would be first seared then finished off in the oven. On the Isle of Skye I had a wonderful confit of duck leg served with julienned vegetables – beetroot, carrot, spring onion, coriander – with a thai style dressing. Inspired. And this from a bar menu. True, the bar food came from the same kitchen that serves the dining room which has won awards and a Michelin star. Venison shin with bone marrow jelly. Sounds weird but it was wonderful. The venison is slowly cooked until it falls apart (much like slow cooked lamb) and is then put into a mould (like a timbale) and the jelly on the outside.

Over the channel we wanted to experience good traditional French food: escargot, steak tartare, coquilles St Jacque, pot au feau, confit of duck, rabbit in mustard sauce and of course, pates and rillettes, cheese and baguettes. Generallly we just wondered until we found a bistro that appealed to us – spoilt for choice, there are bistros everywhere, mostly serving much the same. One day, walking through Montmartre we spotted a little Coriscan bistro. It was very small but they had a range of charcuteire plates and all we really wanted was a bite to eat, rather than a meal. The young woman who ran the place was friendly and welcoming and despite not speaking much English, but was very chatty. We had a fabulous white beer and then the house red wine (which was excellent) and a mixed cheese and charcuteire plate. And then we sat outside with our cofees and watched the world go by.

I’ve never eaten so much on a holiday (or at home for that matter). We generally only have breakfast and then dinner. But who could go past all these wonderful foods. We’ve come back slightly heavier but happier for the experience.

Kowloon: Temple St Blues

Last night we went down to the Temple Street markets to eat local food. We finally found a small place with outdoor tables serving beer and a menu that included soy marinated goose. Yum. We’d just sat down and poured our beer and were just ready to order when our bowls and glasses were quickly whisked away together with the table and stools. In 30 seconds flat all the outdoor tables were packed away and the diners were standing off side. It was the civil police. Apparently it’s illegal for these little places to trade outdoors. They’re all really tiny, having room for only 3 or 4 tables inside – and not very pleasant, so they rely on their outdoor seating which is much more atmospheric.

The patrol had been by an hour earlier and shut all these places down but once they’d left business resumed as usual. This time a huge altercation ensued. The owner was remonstrating with them – to no avail. Four of the officers stood by and then the federal police were called. A number of the diners started yelling. It was quite a fracas. We stood by, holding our bottle of beer and glasses, wandering what was going on. One man who had been very vocal told us how apalled and ashamed he was about this kind of  heavy handed regulation. Hong Kong citizens were being denied liberty and it was very unfair on the proprietors. They can’t make a living serving just a few tables indoors and they cop a huge fine – the equivalent of AUD2,000. This was yet another example of the slow but inexorable advance of restrictions since the end of the UK lease.

We stood waiting for the gendarmerie to leave but they didn’t seem to be going anywhere so we finished our beers, paid and left in search of somewhere else to eat. Unfortunately the bustling food scene had been well and truly shut down. No one was serving outdoors. We finally decided to eat indoors at a place around the corner but it wasn’t quite the atmosphere or experience we were after. No matter, it was late and we were hungry. And the food was good. But within a few minutes shopkeepers started putting out their tables and calling to passer-bys to sit and eat. The constant hustling for customers had resumed and Kowloon night life kicked on.

Cooking Bali style

When we come to Ubud we come to do yoga and laze by the pool and eat. What else on a holiday? Occasionally well take a trip out somewhere – either on a bike or with a driver, but that’s about it. This time we decided that we would do a cooking course to learn how to make some of those wonderful Balinese dishes we eat.

One of my favourite foods here is the pepes lidung (smoked eel parcels in banana leaves). I attempted it at home, modifying a recipe I sourced. The first time I made it I was happy with the result – it tasted just like the real thing, with ground turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, candelnuts etc. My only problem was that I didn’t think to use disposable gloves and so I ended up with bright yellow nails and hands. Next time I used gloves while grating the turmeric and then again when forming the paste into little parcels. Of course when you eat these little parcels by hand, you still get yellow tumeric on your hands, but not nearly as much as when cooking.

We booked into a cooking class at Warung Enak which seemed to have a good range of foods to cook.. We were picked up at 7am by the chef, Nyoman, and her driver and were taken to the local produce market. Nyoman took us around the various stalls and explained what the different fruit and vegetables were and what the Balinese used them for. Then back to the warung for a balinese coffee before starting the morning’s preparations.

There were four of us – my husband and myself and a lovely French couple who had very little English. Fortunately my husband’s schoolboy French came back to him and he was comfortably conversing with them while I sat and watched the interactions (I must learn French).

Despite the language barriers it was a comfortable and convivial morning. We cooked 7 dishes: two starters, a soup, two mains and two deserts. We ate each dish as we prepared them, each time sitting at a table which was cleared and re-set after each course by the staff. All the prep work was done by the cooks so our time could be spent not in chopping ingredients (a substantial task) but in learning how to put things together and what the cooking process for each dish was. A good thing too for otherwise we would have been there all day! The morning lasted 6 hours at the end of which we were presented with a certificate (not sure what purpose this serves – just to prove that you did it?).

What we cooked:

  • Buntil Ayam (Sumatra) Sticky rice stuffed with minced chicken, coconut milk, ginger a nd minced garlic, wrapped in pumpkin leaf
  • Otak Otak Tenggiri (Kalimantan) Grilled minced white mackeral wrapped in a banana leaf
  • Garang Asam (Bali) Seafood in lemongrass and chilli, ginger, blue galangal and turmeric broth
  • Pangek Sapi (Sumatra) Spicy beef stew with sweet basil leaves
  • Bergedel Jagung with Urab Sayur (Central Java) Corn fritters served with mixed vegetables and grated young coconut
  • Kue Lumpur (Kalimantan) Sultanas and young coconut pancakes
  • Pisang Rai (Bali) Balinese boiled banana.

I’m not sure that I will cook many of these dishes again, some of them were too fiddly and some too labour intensive, and I’m not a desert person (and in fact I really didn’t like the Pisang Rai but it wasn’t possible not to eat it, given the circumstances. But I will re-create the soup (to my mind a superior version of a bouillabaisse) and the fish which i think can be modified and simplified. If only I had a kitchen aide at my disposal (the human kind), to finely chop all the ingredients.

I did feel for Nyoman, for whom the process must have been a bit tiresome: watching people ineptly stir and mould and shape and plate. I imagine she could have had it all efficiently done in a third of the time. She was however, both helpful, informative and delightful and we came out feeling like it had been a good day’s venture and a worthwhile holiday experience, not to mention a huge amount of food to have consumed.

Tania Layden

 Buntil Ayam
Buntil Ayam
Otak Otak
Otak Otak
Garang asam
Garang asam
 Pangek Sapi
Pangek Sapi
Bergedel Jagung
Bergedel Jagung
Kue Lumpur
Kue Lumpur
Pisang  Rai
Pisang Rai

Gili Island and the SS Minow

A disparate group of people board a little charter boat for a three hour cruise: a movie star, a millionaire and his wife, a professor and a country girl called Mary Ann.  The weather turns rough and the little boat is tossed and finally washed up on the shores of a small island in the South Pacific.  And here for the next 96 episodes these castaways make this island their home.

I always found it strange that a group of people with nothing in common should all be on board this boat.  Sure maybe the professor and Mary Ann, but the movie star? And the millionaire and his wife?  Wouldn’t they have their own luxury liner or at least be on baord something more salubrious?  The other thing that never ceased to puzzle me was how it was that they all came – for just a three hour cruise – with so much luggage.  The professor seemed to have an entire laboratory with him, Ginger had  suitcases full of glamourous gowns and Mr and Mrs Thuston Howell (the third) not only had enough things to furnish their modest cabin but all that money and jewellery.  The only people who seemed to come as they are were Maryanne (same outfit day in day out) and the skipper and Giligan (diito re outfits).

I come to be writing about Giligan’s Island because in many ways the place we’re staying at on Gili Island is the same: simple huts with bare essentials right at the waters’ edge; beautiful beach and…. well really just that and the fact there’s nothing to do.

Today after breakfast on the beach we progressed to lazing on the beach lounges, reading and sipping G&Ts.  Then we ordered up a pony cart and took a trip around the island.  All of 10 minutes (Gili is only 2 kilometres wide) wandered around the busy part of Trawangan (full of beachside cafes and bars) and found a nice place to have lunch (they served a lovely tuna tataki on a bed of rocket) and a magarita and then hobbled home along the shoreline. Thta’s the extent of the activities, except for diving and snorkelling.  Must say, I’m very content not to have to do anything very much and just like Mary Ann i wear the same outfit day in, day out (bathers & sarong).

Malacca/Melaka

There seem to be 2 spellings for this city/province in south Malaysia. Settled by Portugese in 1511 and then later taken over by the Dutch in 1641.  The British ruled Melaka from 1846 to 1946  before finally being given independence.   It is a very multicultural place (in SE Asian terms).  The Chinese began trading with Meleka in 1405.  Straits-born Chinese who intermarried with Malays are known as Peranakans and its this culture that makes Melaka so unique.

Nyonya is the term commonly used for the Peranakans and their cuisine is distict – a fusion of Malay, Indonesioan, Indian, Portugese and English – and as I understand it, famous throughout both Malaysia and Singapore.  People make trips to Melaka specifically for the food.  There is a famous section called Jonker Walk where on weekends night markets abound with street food and stalls selling everything garish.  That’s the Chinese influence: everything you could possibly not want or need.  But the food is good.

Durian takes pride of place – ice cream, pastries, puffs, etc.  I decided that despite its off-putting smell (and it does smell bad) and my husband’s avowed distaste for it, I was going to try a small pastry.  Why not? When in Rome .. so we bought 3 little durian puffs.  Small balls of light pastrty with a centre of durian custard cream. Looked inoffensive.  Just like a little Italian deep-fired pastry with a custard cream centre.  Only difference was the smell.  And its hard to get beyond the smell.  Taste wise its OK.  An acquired taste, and probably one that would forever evade me.  But, tick: durian tried and tasted.  Next dish: I just need a beer.image