In Bangkok and barely over jetlag, Night + Market chef Kris Yenbamroong of helped his diminutive 81-year-old paternal grandmother, Vilai Yenbamroong, into the back of a white van for what he calls “an epic trip.”
Their game plan was to head out of the city up the Friendship Highway through Isaan (northeastern Thailand) tasting along the way in the towns and villages where Vilai had done business decades ago. They'd stay in Udon Thani, a city close to the Thai-Lao border, make day trips around the region and then fly to Thailand's northernmost corner for more discoveries to bring home.
From all accounts the trip was a smashing success for the culinary powerhouse team known for changing Angeleno's perception of Thai cuisine. She, by taking Thai food mainstream 30 years ago, luring the uninitiated with brilliantly prepared dishes in a stylish setting at Talesai, opened with her son Prakas Yenbamroong. And he for upending L.A.'s notion of the cuisine, speaking to his own generation with regional upcountry specialties that had the fooderatti rhapsodizing over fried pig's tails and stunningly aromatic fermented fish-laced nam prik sauces.
Kris Yenbamroong says that his current menu, is “only the beginning.” He'll be rolling out his latest obsession, Koi, the powerfully- seasoned finely minced raw dishes of meat, fish, or shrimp (and occasionally river snails) at the upcoming To travel along and sample the booty from this culinary treasure hunt, turn the page.
On the road from Bangkok and Looking for lunch near Khorat — after a side trip to one of the world's largest Buddha relics — Kris says: “we pulled up to a roadside shack in Jor Hor that served awesome mum tub, the local blood sausage. Isaan beef is extremely lean but mum tub is enriched with pork liver, blood and plenty of garlic, giving the small round links juiciness and a velvety texture. I've already started to make them at the restaurant.”
The region's signature tonsil-torching green papaya salad, som tum Lao, that came alongside is hotter and saltier than the Bangkok version. It's blast of umami comes from fermented fish in the dressing whereas the slightly sweeter-tasting Bangkok som tum Thai is made with dry shrimp. At Night + Market you may soon see both regional variations.
In the van, during the long drive north east, Vilai would reminisce about the times she'd traveled around Isaan. “I knew she had contacts there but she had never told us kids about her diamond smuggling days when Isaan was virtually a lawless Wild West,” Yenbamroong says. “She would get the stones in Bangkok, where she lived, and sell them upcountry where she'd and travel around the provinces buying up hand woven artisinal fabrics from the villagers to sell back in the city. To avoid being robbed she sewed the gems into her skirt hems.”
Nostalgia aside, it was Vilai's almost disintegrating little phonebook of contacts that led them to many a find. “The trip was the chance of a lifetime to tap into my grandmother's knowledge about the subtleties of the food and also the culture. Culinarily, it put me in a new place. I've been comfortable cooking the regional Thai food I grew up with and took for granted. Now I was traveling as an observant chef, figuring out what makes the best versions of a certain dish, hoping to hone my skills. But without my grandmother, Night + Market and everything I'm doing would not be possible.”
The local grapevine supplied a tip for the world's best larb pet Udon (Isaan duck larb) at a tiny family-run place where the owner's pre-teen daughter did the serving. On the menu it was duck, duck and only duck cooked in every form from soups and hotpots to fried duck heads split for easy access to the delicious brain.
Vilai and Kris did manage to wangle a few tips for the larb (recipes are unheard of in such restaurants) so they'll be able to duplicate it. The salad-like dish, brightly flavored with the lime-dry chile-fish sauce trio so typical of the Isaan kitchen, has a completely different character from the northern duck larb you may have tasted at Night + Market. Earthy, anointed with dried spices, flecked with juicy bits of skin and dry fried, it is filled with concentrated duck meat essences.
Kris reports that Udon Thani, until recently considered a complete backwater, is a fairly large city today. Still, life is very simple there. A lot of socializing goes on at bare bones koi specialty places that you could equate to pinxto bars in small Catalonian cities. They serve various koi and only koi along with copious quantities of alcohol. The name translates to “little bit” or “pinky-finger size” because morsels get picked up with fresh veggies and nibbled along with drinks.
Next on the agenda a trip north to visit relatives where Kris would hunt down the best kao gan chin, an addictive mix of jasmine rice, fatty pork strips, blood and salt steamed in leaf packets. I'd never had it until a cousin served it to us. My mom ate it as a child and it's only known in the very far north of Thailand.”
Everyone seemed to know the best kao gan chin vendor in the Mae Chan district north of Chiang Mai. “He sold only that and espresso drinks that he made on a fancy espresso machine — they're huge now in Thailand.”
Vilai is somewhat bemused at her grandson's excitement. She's surprised by how much this generation's tastes and appetites have changed.
With all his organ meats and blood is Kris Yenbamroong simply jumping on the over-hyped nose-to-tail train? “Style and trend are not what these dishes are about,” he insists. “They're about the things people love to eat all over Thailand.”