How to eat an island

roti chanai
Roti chanai and kopi (coffee)

Sitting at a breakfast of roti canai and kopi, you start to wonder if the could be flakier, less oily. If a few more layers of the papery pastry was possible. If only you’d stopped at the neighbouring nasi kandar vendor who will give you a knowing look as you depart past him. There is a creeping feeling that you’ve missed eating something vital. In this way, slowly, the Malaysian island of Penang burrows deep within you and drives you insane. It is one of the few towns on earth where savouring food, above all else, is a total obsession pursued by an army of fanatic and devout locals. Everyone that you meet has a food story, a favourite haunt, a noodle joint that is in decline but they can’t stop eating there because the vendor will discover their infidelity. It is but a small island.

The curry breakfast – roti with a few spoonfuls of daal – is the perfect start to the day. The hit of chilli heightens the experience of that first bump of caffeine like cutting your heroin with methamphetamines. It is a primer for the task at hand: devouring an island like an insatiable food junkie.

Nasi kandar was introduced to Penang by Indian Muslim hawkers in the 1930s, who plied their rice (nasi), curries and sweets door to door from a pair of rattan baskets balanced on each end of a kandar stick. While the individuals hawkers moved into corner cafes and Chinese shop houses over time, there are still a minority of vendors who carry their food by kandar (and bicycle) into the Penang suburbs. There are hundreds of nasi kandar joints to try; almost every second stall in Penang’s compact Little India has the flat grill for roti; identical stainless steel Bain Maries of the day’s fried fish, chicken, or squid; and a cornucopia of curries in giant saucepans. Not to mention that streets throughout the island’s suburbs are rife with them.

My picks for nasi kandar:

Kayu Nasi Kandar
This restaurant looks like the sort of place worth avoiding, with its flashy sign, clean interior and chrome chairs mocking the external patina of grime that other nasi kandar restaurants wear as a badge of honour for their decades of service. Their young roti chef is the master. He works split shifts from early in the morning until about 10:00am, has a long lunch until about 4:00pm, and then starts again for the dinner crowd. Eat their roti chanai in the mornings, curry kapitan later in the day.
Location:216 Penang Road, Georgetown

Kedai Kopi Yasmin
Almost directly opposite Kayu Nasi Kandar, and next to the shabby alleyway of Nasi Kandar Line Clear (so named because its owner would yell “Line clear” whenever the queue for curries ended.). They tend to close down their roti grill a little earlier than Kayu.

Restoran Hameediyah
According to the staff’s greasy t-shirts (in my books, as reputable a source as a peer-reviewed journal) this place has been serving the same dishes for 100 years. Think about that the next time that a waiter reads out the day’s specials to you.
Location: 164A Campbell St, Georgetown

See also: a Penang local’s tips to nasi kandar

Pig’s brain tom yam and the morbidly obese dog.

Austin told me that there would be pig’s brain tom yam. An offal and coconut soup aberration buried in Bangkok’s inner suburbs within walking distance of some of the other rarer gems in Thailand’s food scene. A mere taxi ride from the Gut Feelings safehouse where I was holed up beside the pool. We’d conversed earlier, online, transcript as follows:

Austin: Fancy tom yam samong muu
pig brain tom yam?
me: It all looks great
That whole prion thing puts me off pig brain a little
Austin: prion?
me: They’re what causes mad cow disease. They collect in the brains/spinal cords of animals – although I have a feeling that pigs aren’t a problem. At least ones that haven’t been fed a steady diet of pork
Austin: i’m pretty sure the pigs here eat lotsa pork–the left over school lunch (which was mostly pork) is used as pig feed!
me: That’s bad news.
Austin: Yep

He’d somehow got the idea that I’m a massive offal fan. I do believe that if you’re going to eat meat then you may as well do your butcher a favor and eat the whole animal (just like most of the world’s population) but I’m not always seeking out the best pipe and lung dishes. His confusion of my love for innards was the result of me shooting some of the worst shots of Cambodian offal that I could find while he did his professional photographer “work” in Phnom Penh last year. After a while, I can’t take my own food photography with any seriousness.

After rallying Hock from Gut Feelings to form a mini Southeast Asian food blogging conference, we headed towards Chote Chitr.

Chom Chitr

Chote Chitr had gained a reputation as the restaurant that Bangkok food aficionados go when they want to show off the subtler side of Thai food to visiting journalists. The New York Times has previously given the hole-in-wall joint the thumbs up. The mee krob is a standout dish. Crispy and balancing sweet and sour on a knife’s edge without the tinned pineapple acidity and cheap starchy sauce that I associate with Chinese sweet and sour. According to Austin, the sour citrus note comes from the peel of the local som saa fruit. Hock mentioned that this was how he imagined Kylie Kwong would do sweet and sour pork. Older Bangkok cuisine seems to be more focussed on sweetness and balance rather than just the razor-sharp edge of chilli that cuts through more modern Bangkok fare.

Our stop for pig’s brain tom yam, the ostensible reason for swapping the sin of poolside sloth for freestyle gluttony, was fruitless. The store was fresh out of brains.

We regrouped and hit up Udom Pochana, a restaurant doing what Austin imagined was a Chinese chef’s version of an Indian curry, but somehow turned out much more like the Golden Curry-brand that Japanese people seem to love. It is something of a Thai rarity and appealing as a cultural artefact from a nation that otherwise cooks a mean curry but this dish ends up sweet and altogether a bit dull.


Next, Khanom Beuang Phraeng Nara on Thanon Phraeng Nara for khanom bueang . These sweet crispy taco-like shells are ubiquitous throughout Bangkok, normally filled with a saccharine meringue cream. These were a world apart, redolent with smoke from the charcoal brazier and filled with sweet duck egg paste, coconut meat and dried fruit. This, like Chote Chitr, are worth crossing oceans for. We discussed the possibility of renting a house in this neighbourhood, wondering if each Chinese shophouse had a spare room.


Pad see ew: the boat noodle. Along with char kway teow, this is my favourite fried noodle dish. The dish promotes the wok hei smoke flavour like few others. I took no notes on it and still have no idea what street it was on. With the tom yam with brains tip off, Austin had in his possession a map indicating that good streetside goat stew could be found at Ko Lun restaurant, near a morbidly obese dog on Thanon Mahanop.

The dog was easy to find; a possible result of its inability to move. Ko Lun’s goat stew in “red sauce” was only average, despite being paired with some piquant shreds of galangal on the side. My thought was that they were fattening up that dog with grim intent.

We ended the impromptu food crawl at a cafe where Austin ordered two of the most lurid Thai foods I’d seen: a glass of milk with red food coloring and toast with viscous tangerine goop. This is what he eats when he’s not trying to show off to the rest of the world that he is a mature adult, somehow a fitting seventh and final course


Chote Chitr
146 Thanon Phraeng Phuthon
02 221 4082

Khanom Beuang Phraeng Nara
Thanon Phraeng Nara

Ko Lun
Thanon Mahanop

The road to Mae Hong Son

wat and street market at maehongson
Night market in front of wat at Maehongson

The road to Mae Hong Son in Northwest Thailand is dream trip for motorcyclists. A road of endless switchbacks, freshly paved, glides you through hidden valleys filled with stepped rice paddies, small farms, streams revealing waterfalls, hidden caves and palaces abandoned until the next warm season drives royalty into the highlands. Bamboo arches over the road in the lower reaches of the hills to be replaced by stark pine forest as you snake your way up the summits.

The road runs close enough to Burma for bored Thai military police to be stationed every few kilometres checking for contraband or smuggled people but unconcerned with Westerners on motorbikes. Lookout points stare over the mountain ranges. By all rights there should be no great reward at the end so as to prove a cliché about the intrinsic nature of journeys and destinations. But there is and it’s Baan Phleng Restaurant.

Baan Phleng

If there is one thing that I’ve learnt about dining in Southeast Asia, it is to avoid any restaurant with the words “authentic”, “local”, or “traditional” plastered out the front in English. It is the sign that the restaurant embodies none of those things and most often personifies the opposite. In this case, I was wrong. Contained within the ornate temple-cabinet were five or six dishes, only one of which was entirely familiar, the rest were surprises.


The great thing about an average firm tofu is that it carries fat and meat flavours so well and thus is wasted on vegetarians. Fatty and chilli-hot carnivore tofu.


I’d spotted bundled, spiralling fronds of ferns at the northern Thai markets in Pai, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son itself, but resigned myself to not being able to find it on a restaurant menu because I couldn’t find the Thai word for it and was too embarrassed to phone a friend for translation help. I’d mentally consigned it to that group of foods that I believe, rightly or otherwise, only get cooked at home and never see the light of day on a restaurant menu in one of the languages that I can read. Despite the large amount of sesame seeds and deep fried garlic mixed through, the above fronds had a nutty flavour all of their own.


Nam prik, a tub of ground pork as hot as freshly-dropped napalm, accompanied by eggplant and flowers. Any botanical help on the steamed flowers served alongside the pork would be much appreciated. I snapped what I think is the flower on the plant from which it came, but can’t be sure.


As an ingredient, they might make for a workable local substitute for zucchini or pumpkin flowers, although much more fragile and slightly bitter.


Gaeng Kai Mae Hong Son – Chicken curry with lime leaves aplenty and a few local herbs that I can’t readily identify.

Location: Baan Phleng Restaurant, on Khunlumpraphat St, Mae Hong Son

Getting there: Hire a motorbike from Chiang Mai, ride at a leisurely pace out to Pai on day one, Soppong on day two and then onto Mae Hong Son on day three. Repeat in reverse, or complete the “Mae Hong Son loop” through Mae Chaem and then back to Chiang Mai. sells an excellent map.

Or just catch the bus.

Note: Map link points to Baan Phleng restaurant.

The Other History of Khao Soi

Khao soi from lam duan
Khao soi from Khao Soi Lamduan, Chiang Mai

The best food on earth is the result of cultures butting heads with each other. Khao soi is one of them: a synthesis of Yunnanese-Muslim (Hui or in Thai, Cin Haw) and Shan cuisines that came together in Northern generally thought to be the result of Chiang Mai’s place on the trade route through the Golden Triangle. Hui caravans traded throughout Southeast Asia with the Yunnanese economy more dependent on the southern caravan trade than trade with the rest of China. The Hui population further expanded after the failed Panthay Rebellion caused refugees to flee Yunnan and into Chiang Mai.

Calling it curry noodles is oversimplification. The oily and slightly coconut-creamy curry is cut through with sides of tart pickled cabbage and lime juice, served over flat egg noodles. It is then finished with a hefty handful of deep-fried noodles topping the dish. The spice is dominant but not too much chili heat. While beef and chicken are the most common meats on offer, pork (both meat and ribs) can be found; all falling off the bone or in moist and stringy chunks. You’ll want to eat every bowl that you see, regardless of the animal on offer. There are small variations between vendors – tarter pickles, some finish the dish with a spoon of fresh coconut cream, subtle variations in the spice blend, less or more coconut milk – and there is a need to test the limits both of the dish and your ability to fit as much of it into you as you can while in Northern Thailand.

khao soi
Streetside khao soi

There is a slight similarity between khao soi and the Malaysian laksa – which begs question, is it possible that the dish is more recent and has different origins to the accepted history? The dish definitely has Muslim roots (and most likely, Burmese, given the physical and linguistic similarity to the Shan dish “hkauk hswe”) and the khao soi restaurants are predominantly Muslim-owned, but could they have come from elsewhere? CPA Media answers:

Towards the end of the 19th century, following the Pahang Rising of 1891-95, a group of Malay Muslims was deported to Chiang Mai by the Siamese government. These Malay Muslims eventually assimilated with the Bengali Muslims of the Chang Peuak area, but not before they had introduced peninsular cuisine in the form of satay and peanut sauce, salad khaek, murtabak, etc., to this far northern city

Following their various arrivals in Chiang Mai during the 19th century, the Bengali, Yunnanese and Malay Muslims intermarried to a certain degree. In addition, all groups took local Thai wives and raised their children as Muslims in a convenient and fair exchange – Muslim religion for Northern Thai cultural characteristics.

Maybe the khao soi story is even more labyrinthine (and possibly, shorter) than previously imagined. Does anyone have another reference for pre-1895 khao soi?

Location: In Chiang Mai, the best: Khao Soi Lamduan, Faham Rd, about 200 metres north of Rama IX Bridge opposite a resort named The Resort. Also worth a mention is Khao Soi Islam, soi 1 between Chang Klan and Charoenprathet Roads, near Ban Hor Mosque. In Maehongson, the no-name khao soi joint at the entrance to the market on Singhanatbamrung St.

See Also: In Thailand, Austin Bush has far too many pages of khao soi related material for someone who lives in Bangkok. In New York, Nat is undertaking the task of eating American khao soi. Good luck, Sisyphus. EatingAsia got me thinking about the laksa link.