The Thai Rice Exporters Association is very concerned about a new strain of rice, developed at LSU in Louisiana, that is similar in shape and taste to Thai Jasmine grains. The name of the new product? Jazzman rice. Based on the name alone, I'd say that farmers in the Northeast don't have all that much to worry about yet (I am trying to imagine the branding... how does one combine the idea of Jazz musicians with a long grain, oriental rice?)
Uncle Ben's, a rice company that has traded on some pretty ugly stereotypes for a long time now, might have something to worry about.
Things have been busy here, so I haven't gotten back to my time in Seoul. It was too brief, and though I managed to wade through most of the city's best neighborhoods (I spent nearly all of my time there waking around, and trying to orient myself) I witnessed a great deal and experienced not much at all. My first impression was that Seoul seems like a nice city to live in, but it's not a terribly easy one to navigate as a tourist. Hell, a lot of Koreans seemed lost.
Because of the communal nature of Korean eating culture, it's not terribly easy to eat alone there, either. What's sadder than a guy picking at his food, alone, in a restaurant? (Answer: A guy barbecuing a big plate of short ribs for six, on the tabletop, by himself, in a restaurant). So while I ate well, I didn't eat right; I'll save my analysis on the food scene for another time (I plan on going back pretty soon, anyways).
Here's what struck me about Seoul, and it's equal parts positive and a negative (I briefly mentioned this before). It is strikingly sophisticated. And the dialogue of design there is such a driving force, and that design is so much further along than Bangkok or Shanghai or even Singapore that you can't help but notice it. You can't also help but notice that these designs are duplicated in a limited number of forms (bar, coffee, Italian, French, Japanese, repeat).
The restaurants look as if they were neatly snipped out of the pages of other cities - coffee roasters from San Francisco, wine bars from the West Village, Izakayas from Osaka, bistros from Paris - and because of that you get the sense that the city is very international. Perhaps the most international city you've ever seen, because here the west is done often, and in good taste, and the East also gets authentic treatment. Nothing feels staged or silly about the Western restaurants there - unlike the amateurish foreign operations that populate other Asian cities. But then you realize that this is all just a manifestation of good taste, and precise design, rather than diversity. That is unusual.
While in Korea, many people thought it strange that I chose to move from Shanghai, a city of the future, to place like Bangkok, a city of yesterday's corruption and chaos. Many I spoke to had been here, and most didn't like it very much. I understand why. Bangkok, too, is not a terribly easy city to navigate, and it takes some time to appreciate its charms.
Yesterday I was wandering around Sukhamvit Soi Three, the street that Thais and foreigners refer to as Soi Arab. Every time I walk through that neighborhood I feel the exhilaration of its bizarre international character. Arab families, Europeans, Africans, Malays, Chinese, Japanese... and I thought that while Bangkok is certainly rough round the edges, this is what distinguishes it from the homogeniety of places like Seoul or Beijing. This city, for better or worse, has absorbed waves of different peoples - Indian, Chinese, Burmese, Europeans, Arabs, me - for a very long time. And while Bangkok lags behind in style and efficiency, it more than makes up for it with the odd results of unplanned, organic growth.
Maybe you were in charge of millions over a billion baht intended to help farmers plant rubber trees, but didn't really get much done, and then somebody sort of made you answer for it. That's always a pain. Or perhaps you've been slaving away in the editing room, piecing together a docu-drama that lifts the filthy lid on your country's preyed-upon citizens. You know, the ones who behave like jackasses while on vacation and occasionally get scammed or arrested in the process.
Whatever the case, it's been a long week. The kind of week that, when it's all over, calls for some celebration. Not just any reward though... I'm talking serious luxury. Like a slab of freshly ground beef, wearing a melted crown of processed cheddar, dribbled with heavy duty mayonnaise and slipped between two deep-fried donuts.
Oh, and don't forget the olives. I like my donut cheeseburgers dirty, no twist.
(If you'd really like to eat this, you can. It is served at the Le Fenix Hotel, on Sukhamvit Soi 11, in Bangkok. It wouldn't hurt to get really, really stoned first. Then call Bravo; that's probably a whole episode there.)
I'm no sailor. But I do know that when the waves are inside the boat, towering over the boat, and you are getting thrown around like a toy in the boat, that you probably shouldn't be in that boat. This was the case last week, when myself and a very good friend almost took a long, Andaman bath for a dinner of grilled pork and chicken. Click and read!
Because the piece is more of a narrative than a blog entry, I didn't really get to talk too much about the chicken. It tends to gum up the machinery of a story - in my opinion - when you go from treacherous waters to long-winded descriptions of cooking techniques and tastes.
No worries! By following these terrible directions, you too can experience the delightful flavors of Trang's best barbecue. The stand in question lies just around the corner from this fabulous fountain, which manages to capture the region's endagered Dugongs, mermaids, sea turtles stallions, and (I think) stallion-mermaids all in one dripping wet masterpiece of marble.
Im-a get a little vague on you right now, because it was starting to rain and we were late when we picked up this barbecue. To get there, you pass this fountain in front of Trang's Deputy Governor's house, head north, and make a left at the first light at the bottom of the hill (man, I need to get into this google map thing). It should be on your left.
Otherwise, just head to the fountain in the afternoon, look above the rooftops, and see if you can't make out the sweet, grey haze of amazing barbecue. Here's a color shot of the stuff on the grill (my Atlantic piece is in B&W), which was very similar in spirit to the Kansas City style - sweet, a shade spicy, and very smoky. It would've made a mid-westerner proud. Or Gilligan and Skipper.
While exploring the old Port town of Kantang, which I also wrote abouthere, I came across the old train station that marks the end of the Southern Railroad. A little less than a century ago, trains would pull up to the station house and load up with rubber, tin and other commodities that were off-loaded in Kan Tang's port, only two blocks away. These days, a hush fills the small harbor, and trains pick up only a handful of passengers before heading north.
That afternoon, a black curtain of storm lowered fast in front of the mountains, and I was suddenly stuck in the open on my bike. It started to really pour down, so I hopped on and sped off in search of a restaurant. Just behind the station, beside an abandoned railcar, there were a dozen thatch and bamboo huts, and that's where myself and a friend took shelter. It was an Isaan restaurant - an unlikely thing to eat so far south - but they specialized in seafood, combining the wealth of fish squid and shrimp here with the sturdy seasonings of Thailand's northeast.
At that little outdoor restaurant, they also make one of the best grilled pieces of pork jowl (khor moo yang) I've tasted in Thailand. And that's saying a lot, because I order this dish a few times a week, and Thailand grills some of the best pork around. It was stunningly good - smoky and caramelized without, juicy with lots of fat woven through...
Enough with words. Take a look... isn't that beautiful?
Here's a picture of the sea in Trang, where I was just a week ago, as the sun set. The most wonderful part of rural, mainland Thai beaches is their easy, empty, untouristed atmosphere. The sea may not be as clean as on the islands, but the food culture remains intact, and I prefer onshore authenticity to offshore paraside.
On mainland beaches, a handful of locals might eat crabs and steamed fishes with a couple stinging salads and a few beers, and then watch the sun set with friends. After, they buzz home on their Hondas. That's about all there is to do, and it's a dreamy way to pass the days.
This piece made me hungry, and even more excited about eating at Alinea, a restaurant I'd love to try. There is plenty of potential for wine pairing with Thai food (in fact, it makes perfect sense with many cold weather whites) but Thailand's ridiculous wine tariffs stand in the way here.
Anyways, an informative and tantalizing piece from one of America's most innovative chefs. It makes me miss that uncertain dance of pairing Asian flavors with Western wines. I do miss that very much here.
How did you build an international city with, well, so little internationalism? This is the question on my mind at the moment. The design, the sophistication, the touch, the homogeny of this city... It doesn't make all that much sense. But it's weird and sort of wonderful.
Anyways, all the French bistros and Japanese izakayas and Spanish tapas bars and Italian trattorias are fine, but my favorite place in Seoul after a day is called the Flair Bar, and yes, it's a chain. And yes, I thought I had stumbled upon something special until the guy next to me said "It's a chain." But after wading through the most stylish places in town I saw this little bar, that sits like a log cabin atop a 7-11 in Myeong-dong, and I had to go in and see. And this is what I found. Refereshingly bizarre.
In this writing market, living in a place that has recently scared off many editors, I've found myself on the move a lot. This week it's off to Korea for a speedy weekend in Seoul. I've never been, I'm going in blind, and I've got 60 hours to burn.
I plan on sleeping a little, eating a lot, and seeing what wonders a spendthrift food journalist might rustle up in one of the world's spendiest cities. This is all starting to sound poorly planned... because it is.
If you've got any tips, send them my way at wrisley (at) gmail (dot) com. As usual, I'll return the favor here.