The MBK Shopping Center in downtown Bangkok is definitely a must-see and, honestly, one of the only things I liked about what I saw of this city in the 3 days I spent there. A 6 story shopping mall where every price is negotiable, every brand name product is fake but truly very well done, and every visitor finds at least 2-3 things they need. Creative souvenirs. Abercrombie and Ralph Lauren which your friends won’t know you got in Thailand for 200 baht ($8) haggled down from 500 baht. Colorful, shiny Mai Tai boxing shorts for your nerdy little brother. A statue of a transvestite priest grabbing its private parts for your brohawn at home. Some incense for your pothead boyfriend. A silk or pashmina scarf for your mom. Dads are just too difficult to shop for…. But you get the idea. Cheap, cheap, cheap heaps of not-too-shabby stuff. Worth a trip.
The best part by far, though, is the MBK Food Center on the top floor of the mall. A bit like a cleaned up dai pai dong, a collection of street food stalls moved inside and given windows and booths and actual inbuilt kitchens. One can find an incredibly vast array of traditional cuisines from every region of Thailand, as well as other Southeast Asian countries. And each shop specializes on only a handful of dishes, always a good sign. For example there’s a North Thai curry place, a Tom Yam “soupery,” a Pad Thai place, a Thai fried rice place, a sautéed veggie place, etc. Convert your money monopoly-style to food court vouchers and go crazy. It’s difficult to find something that isn’t delicious or above 60 baht (like 3 USD?). Full plates of pad thai and bowls of noodle soup “with everything” go for like 2-3 USD at this place and they’re complex, with a huge variety of fresh ingredients.
I opted for the Tom Kha Kai, one of my favorite Thai soups which I’ve had in restaurants in Boston several times and which my mom and I agree is one of the most comforting dishes on a cold winter day ever. I actually had it on a hot summer day but it still worked, it always does. The broth is made of coconut milk, galangal (a type of ginger), lemongrass slices, lime and cilantro. Fried chilis are added, as are tender chunks of white meat chicken. Up until now I have described what all Tom Kha Kai soups have in common. There is an incredible balance of flavors which takes place in every bite here, which is what makes this dish so intriguing and wonderful for me. It also makes this dish, in my opinion, one of the most difficult to get right because adding a teaspoonful too much of one ingredients can throw off the equilibrium of taste completely and result in a disaster. The naive sweetness of the coconut milk is pulled into a sour direction by the lime juice and, at the same time, an herbal one by the lemongrass and cilantro. The dry, fried chilis add an undertone of heat which puts a tingle on your tongue but (very importantly) does not burn it. Plump, pulled chunks of chicken breast soak up all of this wonderful flavor through the broth and provide a great bite. This one also had some kaffir lime leaf, which added even more citrussy zing, and tomato, which I don’t think is a traditionally used ingredient but which provided a nice, soft, melt-in-your mouth comfort to the dish. The superior version of chicken noodle soup.
A really yummy and traditional Thai stir fry (called put luo something…) with slices of bamboo, ground pork and I think some soya beansprouts. The bamboo had a nice bite with a similar texture to a baked artichoke heart and it went nicely with the crumbly, slightly oily pork it was mixed with. It was flavored with aromatic, citrussy kaffir lime leaves, garlic, a bit of onion, soy and oyster sauces, and a bit of red chilis gave a mild heat. The stir fry was served with a bit of rice and some mixed sauteed veggies (Chinese broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and bok choy).
Chicken pad thai. Kind of plain and I liked the street version a bit more because it had lots of sauces and garnished to sprinkle over it, but still very satisfying. The usual, slippery, rich sauteed rice noodles flavored with fish and soy sauce, topped with a big heap of crisp, snappy beansprouts, some spring onions and a bit of grilled, peppered chicken breast. A squeeze of lime brings out the sweetness of the noodles.
Gaeng Joot Woon Sen. I found this soup absolutely fantastic, despite my companions’ less than enthusiastic reaction to it. A beautifully clean, clear broth (chicken-based, I think) with velvety, wilted cabbage, a bit of soft egg which clung to it nicely, and a large amount of transparent glass noodle floating around. Each chopstick-full of the glass noodle made me smile – it was like slurping up a clump of a million skinny, slippery little worms (not much flavor of its own, but what an awesome texture!). Easy to eat, super healthy and light. Makes you sweat that GOOD, HEALTHY sweat on a hot summer day.