Thursday, May 7, 2015

Singapore Food in Bangkok: Chuan Kitchen ชวนคิทเช่น

More and more big Singaporean names are jumping on the Thailand bandwagon. Take Breadtalk for example, you can now see them in every other corner of Bangkok, very much like in Singapore. Other well-known franchises like Yakun Kaya Toast, Crystal Jade and Paradise Dynasty have set up shop here too, but what do you think of when you miss food in Singapore?

Airy bread, foie gras soupy buns, or grilled thinly-sliced bread with egg custard? Nah, not for me. Chilli crab? Ok, getting there, but I believe most who know Singapore really well will agree that the soul of signature Singaporean tastes lie in hawker centres. When I miss Singaporean food (not as much as I should, honestly, otherwise I wouldn't be only blogging about this after 5 years), I think of dishes like chicken rice, laksa, fried hokkien mee, bak chor mee, bak kut teh, popiah etc.

You might be surprised, given the HUGE diversity of cuisines in Bangkok (you can even find Ethiopian, Cuban and Peruvian restaurants here), but authentic Singaporean food is as rare as it can be. Though some have tried with reasonable commercial success, I will gladly tell you that if you see a supposedly Singaporean restaurant named after some famous shopping street in Singapore and wish for authentic flavours, it's better to stay as far away from it as you can.

That brings me to my new mini series, Singapore Food in Bangkok, where I do my best to unearth proper Singapore tastes for you, whether you are locals craving to reminisce your culinary enjoyments in Singapore, or Singaporeans/Malaysians living here, like me, who badly crave for some hometown comfort food now and then.

Chuan Kitchen from the outside

Chuan Kitchen is open and run by true-blue Singaporeans trying to introduce authentic "my-mother's-recipe" Singaporean dishes to folks in and around Bangkok. They have recently introduced an attractive new menu to freshen up their image, but really, it's their food that does the talking.

Katong Laksa style with rice noodles cut into shorter strips, and people who love spicy will love this! 

Small portion of chicken rice for Noah, only roasted chicken is available here, but there's the Singapore chilli sauce, impossible to find that in Thailand.

Char Kway Teow, very shiok! To the sweet side, like a very very delicious Kway Teow from your favourite breakfast economic beehoon auntie in Singapore, just with more liao
Dry Bak Kut Teh. Those who are familiar with it in Malaysia will be shocked to find it here, those who haven't tried it, it's like no other stew pork dish you have ever tried before.

Easily the star of the show, KL-style Herbal Bak Kut Teh. When you come here, order this first then decide on the rest.

On top of the usual traditional suspects, Chuan Kitchen has a full range of Dim Sum as well as some creative dishes like salted egg fries and laksa fried rice to keep you interested if you come frequently. This is by no means a place where you will be content walking in and chomping down a laksa before speeding off to your next errand.

Look at the hustle and bustle during lunchtime

All's not perfect though, as Chuan Kitchen is located along Bond Street Road, a short drive beyond IMPACT Muang Thong Thani, which is incidentally the furthest drive-able place from my office which I will not consider a business trip/short vacation. For those who live around that area, please patronize them frequently so that they will consider opening some branches nearer to my place, for those who don't, an idea will be to visit them when you are going to IMPACT for any exhibitions (or at the Chaeng Wattana Immigrations for your visa applications), since you are already in the vicinity.

If you are lucky, you might find a young Singaporean lady zipping around in the semi-open kitchen making sure you get your dishes quickly. Speak to her and you will know that she is the brains behind this endeavour. She speaks perfect Singaporean English at such a pace that you will struggle to catch up, but it also means that she has all the right credentials to push Chuan Kitchen to greater heights.

PS. They are closed on Thursdays!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The most delicious Khao Tom (Boiled Rice) in the whole wide world!

Disclaimer: I was given a couple of bowls of free Khao Tom, but the comments are all mine.

For those who came here thinking this is a recipe or a restaurant review, sorry to disappoint you. In fact, this dish wasn't even cooked by a Thai.

The 5 condiments, coriander, fried garlic, fried shallot, chopped chilli in fish sauce and garlic/shallot oil

Khao Tom, or boiled rice, is a simple Thai dish that involves boiling some cooked rice briefly in a pot of hot soup, which is made commonly with minced pork balls, fish or shrimp. I will easily call it my favourite Thai dish (and not steamed fish with lemon or fried basil pork with rice) if not for the difficulty of finding a tasty one. Most versions found here are unfortunately, way too overdosed by chicken/pork essence, but if the right one comes around, this is the kind of food I can eat everyday.

Noah really having fun during his Khao Tom session

God works in wondrous ways. Even though my family has been placed in Bangkok for the long term, a place where we have few friends and no relatives to begin with, He has blessed us with great friends over the years in unexpected ways.

Around 1.5 years ago, my family was having dinner in a popular neighbourhood restaurant with my sister-in-law. Having newly-acquired the art of walking steadily, Noah decided to 'disturb' the table of diners behind us. He was cute and engaging, but after a while, it became embarrassing as they could not eat in peace, so I went over to get him. It turned out that a couple of them (R and I) were missionaries from Singapore preparing to serve in Thailand, so we started to keep in touch even though it would be some time before they would officially relocate.

Ellie enjoying herself as well, though it's just not her style to do any expressions too dramatically

Now, they are finally here for the long haul, and we are so glad. Not only are they friendly, they are really good with kids as well. It's not easy to see BOTH Noah and Ellie warming up to relative strangers that quickly.

However, today, we discovered something else that was completely unexpected. I, a true-blue Singaporean, cooks the most delicious Khao Tom in the whole wide world! This is not an exaggeration. Her boiled rice far exceeded my expectations of how good this dish can potentially taste.

Incredibly amazing Khao Tom

I believe the key to her success is heart. For the standard local cook, Khao Tom is a coming together of a very basic bone stock, coriander root and a lot of chicken/pork essence powder. That's also what most customers expect, so few will think of going the extra mile to 'complicate' their cooking procedure and bring the dish up a notch. As you can see from the picture, I added green marrow, mushroom, pork, shrimp, and prepared from scratch 5 separate condiments to create a Khao Tom so wholesome and balanced, it literally blew me away.

So, thank you R and I, for being hospitable hosts, for being enthusiastic enough to engage a family you got to know in this most unlikeliest of ways, for being confidants in a home away from home, and last, but not least, for letting me know that Khao Tom can taste as good as this.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Bringing your toddler to work: To do or not to do?

The Thai New Year, more commonly known as Songkran, resulted in Noah having to spend 2 weeks away from school due to a 'short' term break. For us parents though, 2 weeks seemed pretty long for Noah to spend at home without any scheduled activities nor external help. Having a totally dependent 7-month old at home didn't help the cause much either, so I figured, since my accountant frequently brought her toddler to work, why don't I try to do the same? Maybe there will be something for Noah to look forward to my wife could concentrate on other things when we are out.

The first day was pretty much a mess for me, as he didn't let me work properly on my working terminal, assuming ownership of it and throwing massive meltdowns when I got impatient, as my team depended on my work before they could continue with theirs. However, it was mostly confined to my room so the disruption to others was still controllable. After bringing him out for lunch, he seemed to completely understand the situation and even said, "Daddy, I will type after you finish your work, ok?"

Ok la, stop blowing liao la.....

The second day was more eventful. My accountant brought her son. I initially thought this would be better as they would have companions and disturb us less, but how wrong I was. In no time, my office became a playground. Crayons, pictures, books, boxes, toys were strewn all over the floor. There was hardly any place to walk. 2 kids, hand in hand, stomped all over the office in shrieks of laughter and sometimes petty arguments, constantly bugging my accountant and myself for help. I saw colleagues who planned to look for me head back to their seats when they saw the mess in my room. I couldn't work at all. Aside of some trivial matters, I struggled to write any sentence longer than 10 words properly. It completely sucked. It's enough that I couldn't work in peace, but if it was going to affect my colleagues as well, I would have to put things to a stop.

Oh my goooooooodnessssssssssssssssssss

However, there was something else happening. The kids were genuinely happy. They became really great friends. Even though Thai is not Noah's best language, he was communicating with his slightly-older local friend beautifully. They were just kids being kids, trying to work out how to live with others and play together. The shrieks of joy were real, their laughter full of pure innocence.

But why, oh why, did everything sound so terribly irritating and noisy to me? Even though something has to be worked out in the future to ensure their presence is less disruptive, surely I must change my mentality and see some positives when I see kids enjoying friendship with each other?

By the third day, Noah was really looking forward to coming to my office. Aside of some poo clearing disaster, he was generally well-behaved, until his friend arrived and everything in Day 2 repeated itself again. However, this time I had to leave early (with him) as it was my turn to man my company's booth at a Furniture Fair.

At the booth, he was his usual self. Running around, finding paper to scribble on, trying to make conversation with the people, until he did something that completely stunned everyone. A purchaser from China was asking me about the specifications of my product when Noah pounced out of nowhere. All of a sudden, we saw him, standing as tall as he could, right smack in front of our 'customer', and asked in a serious tone...

"Do you want to buy a mattress?"

One of the ways he keeps himself busy.

I wish I had taken a video of the entire episode. He's only 2 months past his 3rd birthday, and even though he has followed me to my office and exhibitions on a handful of occasions, I had never explicitly explained what I was doing. It seems like he has already figured it all out and is eager to lend a hand. I guess that's what you call "learning on the job".

So... bringing your kid to office, to do or not to do? I personally think that 3 years old (or less) is a bit young, and a few of them in the office will possibly disrupt the working environment and affect the efficiency of everyone, but with slightly older kids and some form of control, the situation will be different. Thinking from their perspective, they will be able to absorb things that they will not have the chance to if they are completely excluded from the adult working environment. They will also understand why Daddy has to leave the house early and come back late everyday.

He now knows how to enjoy himself at exhibition booths, offices and warehouses too

Ending off with a correspondence between me and my wife when I was at my wit's end during one of those days:

Me, "So far this is more of a nanny experience than working, with my kid around. I only have 1 hour in the office this morning and I spent 20 minutes clearing poo. Now arrive at the booth need to bring him to lunch and watch him play with his bowl."

Wife, "It is a Daddy experience. Not nanny."

Words of wisdom, eh?

A Daddy experience. I'll take it.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Survival Guide for Foreigners in Bangkok: The first 10 random tips

While walking along the road in my neighbourhood during the Songkran break in the morning, I could not help but notice the patches of white powder on the road. I soon realised that these white patches were indications of the various spots of water 'warfare' during more happening parts of the day. All of a sudden, I had successfully identified all the potentially dangerous locations in the vicinity, and could plan my route carefully if I had to venture out later.

Then I thought to myself, with my experience here, I can really share some random tips and tricks specific to Bangkok that might make newcomers' (tourists or new residents) lives easier. After brainstorming, here's my first instalment:

Refer to Tip #6

  1. Know where you live

    I came here more than 5 years ago needing to urgently find a permanent office and move in as soon as possible, so within a week of arriving, I had to start shopping at megastores to equip my new-found location. It took me by surprise that EVERY shop commanded me to draw a map of the delivery location before letting me leave. It's the standard operating procedure here in Thailand.

    Never mind the delivery staff will call you on the day itself regardless of the detail of your drawing, you better know where you live (and how to draw it) before you can navigate your way through your purchases.

  2. You can have anything anywhere, because 7-11 is everywhere

    Unless you are looking for canned San Marzano tomatoes or frozen Atlantic Cod, you are covered in Thailand, because 7-11 is everywhere (2nd highest number of branches in the world after Japan), and it has everything you need. In fact, most brands make items exclusive for 7-11, which you cannot find in the huge hypermarkets.

    With everything from incredible-tasting instant meals, gourmet coffee, to supersoakers during Songkran, and the ability to pay virtually all important bills at their counters (even air/bus tickets), life will never be the same without it again.

  3. Zebra crossings don't work as they should, but use them anyway

    Unfortunately, most cars will not deliberately stop for you just because you are standing at a zebra-crossing and obviously look like you want to cross the road, but use them anyway, especially at night.

    Because in the dimly-lit areas, the zebra crossing is often blessed with spotlights, so even if cars don't stop for you, it's the 1 place they are most likely to see you when you finally decide to risk your life sprinting to the other side.

  4. Chill when looking for taxis

    Taxis have always been a huge topic of debate in Thailand, mostly because of the way some drivers choose customers and others who refuse to turn on their meters.

    There are things that cannot be changed overnight no matter how much we whine, and the taxi situation is one of them, However, in terms of service quality and price, I still feel that Bangkok taxis might be one of the most value-for-money ones in the world.

    So, my advice will be to chill when you are rejected by a taxi, because unless it's a bad time (or really bad location), the next one will most definitely be round the corner and you will get your ride soon (I hope).

  5. (Men only) Chill when a lady of any age mops the floor really close to you while peeing in a public toilet

    Because I have been told by multiple sources that it will be weirder if it's a guy cleaning the toilet in Thailand!

  6. (Women only) If you suspect you are pregnant, look out for vending machines outside public toilets

    Because it's not rocket science and you deserve to know whether to shop for normal fashion or maternity fashion.

  7. You can always watch your favourite football match

    Because the most well-known way(s) might not be available where you live, and there are alternative(s).

  8. Don't feel awkward frequenting hospitals to cure your flu, and hotels for some nice food

    Because it's the norm for the sick to visit hospitals immediately (treat it like the clinic in your hometown) and for the best restaurants to be set up in good hotels.
  9. Learn to LINE

    Sure, you can continue to Whatsapp with your folks back home, but please please, learn to LINE in Thailand. Nothing else means anything here.

  10. And the life-saver, when asked, ALWAYS say Aroi (delicious)!

    When your friend buys you a meal, or a store-keeper asks you to taste their sample, they know that their food is very delicious. Even if it's not and they are waiting for the 'honest' answer, smile and say "Aroi". This is a life-saver.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of my random tips!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Stranger in Bangkok's (likely-permanent) Facelift

Thanks to you and everyone else reading this, I have been fortunate enough to have sufficient support and motivation to keep this blogging endeavor alive for the last 5 years. In fact, this blogging journey has given me more rewards that I could have ever imagined. The love from my readers, however few there may be, the precious friendships I have made or rekindled because of this space, I treasure every bit of it.

My biggest satisfaction to date happened at the tail end of 2014, where my popular Thailand Winter Getaway Series indirectly inspired a couple of talented photographers (Terry and Ginosko from One Eye Click) and a set of lovebirds to embark on a journey deep into central Thailand (completely unknown to them otherwise) to shoot their pre-wedding pictures. I was involved in the planning, and when the beautiful pictures were published, I was literally beaming from ear to ear, elated at the positive energy this humble blog has generated.

Just one of the many stunning pictures taken. Credit: One Eye Click

Over the years, I have also made it a point to revamp the look of my blog frequently, to keep it fresh and updated, however, it also involved sticking my friends and colleagues onto the blog banner, which might not be totally appropriate. Therefore, in collaboration with One Eye Click, I did a personal shoot at my favourite night market in Thailand, and the shots have now been used to permanently grace the blog, as they have effectively captured its spirit-- the story of a stranger trying to navigate his way in his colourful surroundings that is called Bangkok.

Credits: One Eye Click

Aside of these, every picture you see on my "About Me" and "Contact Me" pages and also the banner on my Facebook Page are from the same shoot.

So thank you once again Terry and Ginosko, for making me such a satisfied blogger, and to subsequently capture the blog's spirit so well. I am certain this 'cosmetic surgery' has undoubtedly lifted the Stranger in Bangkok's image to another level. And to my readers, I hope you like what you see. As long as you want to read, I will not stop writing.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Stranger's Ultimate Guide to Online Shopping in Thailand

If you know someone who tells you Thai malls are getting quieter by the day and are not doing well, they don't know their stuff. Yes, new malls are sprouting like wild mushrooms by the minute, and the economy isn't exactly rosy, but the truth is, much of the 'shopping crowd' has been removed by the groups running the malls themselves, through their extremely comprehensive online shopping portals.

Anyone who has read my letter for Noah for his 3rd birthday will know that he is still resisting toilet training. Couple that with the arrival of Ellie, it means that I had recently been forced to scramble around for the best deals for diapers. This exercise pointed me to the beautiful world of online shopping, be it through mall groups like Central and Robinson, supermarket giants like Big C and Tesco Lotus, or even independent online shopping portals like Venbi and Lazada.

The advantages are obvious. Better deals. Delivery to your doorstep (diapers are bloody bulky) as soon as the next day. Access to most items you can find in the malls. Creative modes of payment (payment on delivery is the mode I recommend). Delivery trucks that have built-in sorting drawers, freezers and chillers all at the same time.

A common scene in my house, how to not look for best deal?

However, things might not be as rosy as it seems. If you are tempted to start buying groceries online in Thailand, do take note of the following tips to ensure you do not get frustrated.

  1. Be prepared to wait the entire day for your items.

    Depending on your order quantity and company you order from, delivery might or might not be free. Some even give you the luxury to select the time period in which you would like them to deliver. But trust me, it is impossible for them to give you any promises.

    Most will deliver on the day promised, often the working day after you place the order, but none of my orders had been delivered within the time frame I preferred. Every truck might have up to 50 locations to hit a day, so be prepared to be stuck in 1 place to wait for your items then celebrate your new-found freedom when they arrive.

  2. Be prepared to speak Thai, or look for help.

    In your order form, you can give all sorts of instructions, to the point of giving details of the slight cracks on your door to aid in their identification of your house.

    But whatever the case, the driver will still DEFINITELY call you on delivery day to ask you how to get to your place, and he will DEFINITELY only know how to speak Thai.

    So, if you don't speak Thai, or don't physically stay near anyone who speaks Thai, or do not want to receive urgent calls from random numbers during working hours (and speak Thai), purchasing online might be a very frustrating experience for you (and the driver).

  3. Delivery staff are, well, delivery staff.

    Even though the delivery services are well-established and pretty mature in Thailand already, mistakes still happen. There is a possibility that wrong items are sent to you by mistake. Whatever it is, there is no point complaining to the delivery staff, as their job is to drop the items, collect payment and scoot off to their next destination. So, for online shopping, be mentally prepared to pay for the wrong item first, then contact the sales office again to request for the goods exchange. This is just how it works.

    And this leads me to an important sub-point that you should not leave your urgent items to the hands of these online shopping portals, because anything might happen and you might just not get your item on time.

  4. Scour around for the best deals, and don't forget to use the discount codes, if any!

    One of the best things about online shopping is that they often offer better deals than those you can get in the shops. Of course, it might need you to buy more pieces that you normally do, but they save you the hassle of carrying them home yourself.

    For the best deal, homework is required. Be diligent and go through a few websites, they will definitely be offering differing deals which might or might not suit you. Many will have special periodic promotion codes to give you good additional discounts, so please do not forget to use them!

I really wanted to write this post because I have learnt many lessons from my experiences with online shopping websites and I hope to highlight the things you should consider before making your first purchase.

I also want to emphasize again that even if the services are not perfect, I really do recommend online shopping in Thailand as a MORE THAN LEGIT way of getting products without leaving your house, especially if you know exactly what you want, and speak a bit of the local language.

Meanwhile, happy shopping!

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Ultimate Home-Made Valentine's Day Dish - Mediterranean Fish Soup

Valentine's Day happens to be tomorrow 
When restaurants laugh to make our pockets hollow
So what do we do to avoid this scam?
Make something great at home? 
Of course you can!

Pardon my lameness to start yet another blogpost with some poetry. Anyway, after at least 3 separate requests for the recipe to my Mediterranean Seafood Soup last night, and considering it's a perfect dish to impress your loved one (as long as he/she is not vegetarian and likes seafood), I shall rush out the cooking instructions with some of my random pictures taken under poor lighting.

No home-made stock on hand, so used some decent store-bought ones

Ingredients (serves 2-3)

  • 8 large shrimp, around 500g
  • 200g of boneless fish fillet, skinned and cubed (picture below, I used wild sea bass)
  • 1 cup of white wine
  • 1 can of chopped Italian tomato (I used chopped as they are skinless and seedless, you could use the full tomatoes as well but remember to remove the seeds if you don't want your soup to be too sour)
  • 200ml of chicken stock
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic (for shrimp stock)
  • 1 large handful of parsley (preferably flat-leaf, but curly ones will do too), finely chopped
  • Sea salt and black pepper to taste
  • 2 bay leaves (optional)

Cubed fish fillet
Diced onion

Cooking Procedure:

  1. Shell and devein the shrimp. If you like the heads, leave the heads on, if not, remove the heads and set aside with the shell for the shrimp stock.
  2. Fry 2 cloves of garlic in a small pot till fragrant, add shrimp shells and heads, fry till the entire house smells of hae mee (prawn noodle) then pour in around 2-300ml of water to simmer into a nice shrimp stock.
  3. In a separate soup pot where the whole dish will be put together, sweat the onions in some good olive oil. This will take some time on medium heat, till the onions become sweet but do not take up too much colour.
  4. Deglaze the pot with a cup of white wine and wait for the alcohol to boil away.
  5. Pour in the can of diced tomatoes and bring the mixture to a boil, add bay leaves.
  6. At this point add in shrimp stock and chicken stock and bring the soup to a boil again.
  7. Add in fish fillet cubes.
  8. Before adding in the shrimp, make sure you are well prepared with chopsticks or tongs to remove them once cooked and prepare your serving plates/bowls.
  9. Once you are ready, add in the shrimp and remove them immediately onto your serving bowls once they cook through, we do not want overcooked rubbery jumbo shrimp on your Valentine's Day.
  10. Finally, while the soup is still bubbling hot, stir in your parsley and season the soup to your preferred taste with salt and pepper.
  11. Serve.
My Mediterranean Fish Soup

How can I sign off without leaving you with some important tips?

Number 1, this soup is exceptionally versatile. It can be cooked with any kind of seafood you prefer, so mussels, clams, squid, even crab will work beautifully. Just put in anything you can find. Just keep in mind that the most vital point is that every element needs to be extremely fresh, we don't want to take chances with anything that might spoil the whole pot of soup!

Number 2, this is a main course, not a starter. You eat this together with some nice bread or baked potato to complete a good meal. You need a lot of seafood in the soup (also to make the soup delicious). If the amount makes you feel that it might be slightly excessive, it's perfect.

Number 3, you can add some chopped fresh tomato as well, to spruce up the taste a little, but I still recommend you to use a can of tomatoes as the base, because unless we use those expensive imported tomatoes, it's unlikely the standard ones we find in our markets can provide enough flavour to the soup.

Number 4, Do not overcook the seafood!

Number 5, Enjoy!