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Some Or Tor Kor Favorites

Michael Babcock, Saturday, February 1st, 2014

ตลาด อ.ต.ก. – Talat Or Tor Kor – (Or Tor Kor (pronounced Aw Taw Kaw) Market) in Bangkok has long been one of my favorite markets. It has a tremendous variety to offer, including fresh foods (produce and meats) and prepared foods (both to go and for eating at the market), with everything enticingly displayed. Whenever I’m in Thailand I’ll get there at least two or three times to graze the market and to purchase items to enjoy at home (Thai home, that is). In this blog, I highlight a few (only a few, alas) of my favorite stalls.

(Click images to see larger version.)

Passion Fruit Juice – Stall 10/9

On the frontmost row of the market, just at an intersection, is a stall that has various bottled drinks for sale. My favorite is the fresh passion fruit juice – น้ำเสาวรส (nam sao rot). A beautiful golden color, it is 100% passion fruit; it tastes slightly sour and very refreshing and best drunk straight (no water added or ice). I’ll always get one to drink with lunch and a few to take home and savor over the next few days. It’s the best passion fruit juice I’ve had in Thailand, and I’ve tried quite a few.

Fresh Drinks Stall

Fresh Drinks Stall

Fresh Drinks

Fresh Drinks

The tangerine juice (“orange Juice” – naam som) is also delicious (it’s also easy to find elsewhere), as is the enticingly green pennywort juice. I can’t answer for the sweet corn or carrot, however. Other juices that they sell include guava, sugar cane and lemongrass. They also have chrysanthemum tea and 10 herbals Chinese tea. They have a second stall in the market at stall 8/31.

Northern Food – Stall 10/16

Directly adjacent to the juice stall (10/9) as you head up the intersection (perpendicular to the long aisle in front) is a stall where we pick some items to take home.

Northern Food Stall

Northern Food Stall

Fresh Drinks

Northern Foods

We might pick up some of the items that are ready to eat: such as the dipping sauces Nam Prik Nuum or Nam Prik Ong along with some fried pork skin. We almost always pick up a couple items to take back to our townhouse to heat up or cook there:

Hunglay Pork Curry

Hunglay Pork Curry

Sour Fish

Sour Fish

To the left above we see one of my favorite curries (it’s among my Current Top Ten Favorite Dishes – Hunglay Curry – Kaeng Hunglay. The second item requires having your own kitchen so that you can fry it up: it’s the Sour Fish – Pla Som – pictured above right. (Check out Kasma’s blog: In Search of the Best Sour Fish (Pla Som).)

Egg Custards – (No Number)

Egg Custard Stall

Egg Custard Stall

Egg Custard

Egg Custard

This stall has recently moved (from 11/11). As you continue from stalls 10/9 and 10/16 on the intersecting aisle, you’ll come right away  to Miss Muay. The item to buy here is the egg custard: I often devour one on the spot. The pastry is flakey and delicious (though it could be a little thinner) and the filling creamy and sweet but not too sweet. Delicious! They are best warm. Some of the other items they sell are various “pies” (more like an individual pasty – tuna, spinach cheese, sausage and chicken), cheese cake, custard caramel, pudding and cake. I tried the cheese cake and found it a bit dry in texture.

Pad Thai and Mussel Cakes- Stall 11/40

Towards the back corner closest to the parking lot is an area where you can order all kinds of food cooked to order: it’s basically a food center area such as you’d find in any mall but without the tokens. You can order whatever you’d like and sit in the shared seating area. Be warned: at lunch time, especially on weekends, it can be hard to find an empty table.

Pad Thai Stall

Pad Thai Stall

I’m not a real fan of Pad Thai, though it seems to be the favorite of so many fahrangs (westerners) – to my taste buds there are so many other more interesting noodle dishes. (Check out my blog on Thai Noodles – An Amazing Variety.) This stall in Or Tor Kor is the one place in Thailand that I will often order Pad Thai. I love the presentation: rather than cooking the dish with egg shreds, as is more usual, here it is served inside of the egg – a Pad Thai omelette, if you will. It tastes good and the owners of the stall are always friendly and welcoming, which helps.

I’ll also order another dish here – Pan-Fried Mussel Cakes with Wilted Bean Sprouts and Hot-Sour Chilli Sauce (Hoi Malaeng Poo Tod) – it’s what she is cooking in the photo to the left).

(See my blog Pad Thai at Aw Taw Kaw Market.)

Pad Thai

Pad Thai

Mussel Cakes

Mussel Cakes

Above left is the Pad Thai. The Fried Mussel Cakes are above right.

Delicious Pad Kaprao– Stall 12/19

Basil Duck Stall

Basil Roast Duck Stall

Basil Duck

Basil Roast Duck

This is the dish I order the most at Or Tor Kor – it is Roast Duck Stir-fried with Holy Basil – Kaprao Ped Yang; on the sign in the picture to the left, it’s on the top line in the middle – กระเพราเป็ดย่าง (click for a larger version). It is your typical pad kaprao (stir-fried with holy basil) dish made with roast duck and served over rice. It is as delicious as it looks in the picture here.

Dried Fruits – Stall 5/24

Dried Goods Stall

Dried Goods Stall

I can’t resist adding one more stall, since I nearly always make a purchase here of dried jackfruit chips. This stall is at the very front of the market, perpendicular to the longer aisles. Although they have dried fruit and nuts of many varieties here, my favorite is the dried jackfruit chips. Another item I’ll get is the roasted cashew nuts with sugared sesame seeds, which are mildly addicting.


I could keep going: a roast pork stall, one of the stalls to buy durian, the stall where I get Tod Man (Fish Cakes), the stall with GABA rice, etc. I’m going to stop here and suggest that the next time you’re in Bangkok, head out to Or Tor Kor and find your own favorites!

Also, check out my previous blog Aw Taw Kaw (Or Tor Kor) Market in Bangkok

Getting to Or Tor Kor

Or Tor Kor Market is located on Kamphaengphet Road – Th Kamphaengphet. The easiest way to get there by public transport is take the metro (MRT) and get off at Kamphaeng Phet exit 3. The Saphan Khwai Skytrain (N7) is also located roughly 0.3 Kilometres away.


Written by Michael Babcock, February 2014

Satisfying A Durian Craving

Kasma Loha-unchit, Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

The bountiful durian season in Thailand wound down to its tail end as I left to return home to Oakland at the end of this June. But I had my fill the last three weeks of my stay, succumbing to temptation time and again as I walked down Bangkok’s busy streets, around bustling open-air marketplaces and even through the produce aisles of modern supermarkets. The “King of Fruits” was everywhere and it’s so easy nowadays to satisfy a craving without having to overeat, overspend, or be intimidated at having to pry open the wickedly spiky fruit oneself.

(Click images to see larger version.)

Peeled Durian

Peeled Durian at Or Tor Kor Market

Unlike days long passed, it’s no longer necessary to buy durians whole. From streetside vendors to supermarket aisles, the fruit is available already peeled and sealed in packages holding one to two sections of the fruit (a durian has three to five sections, depending on size and shape), costing anywhere from 60 to 150 baht ($2 to $5) when the fruit is in season and usually doubling in price during the off-season. The packages are wrapped in clear plastic, making it easier to tell how ripe the fruit is and select according to one’s taste. Some Thais like their durian under-ripe (hahm hahm) with more of a crisp texture and less of a scent. Some like it really ripe (ngom ngom) – soft and creamy with a robust aroma and usually a deeper color. Many prefer it “just right” – neither too green nor too ripe (gkam lang gkin or “just the time to eat”), which is what I usually go for. At this stage, it is rich and creamy like custard, yet firm in texture without being too soft or too moist, and deliciously fragrant without being too sulfurishly odiferous. Most vendors won’t allow you to touch the package to feel how firm or soft the fruit is, so visual guidance has to be depended upon. But they will tell you the stage of ripeness of the package that looks good to you. Some label the stage of ripeness, in Thai of course, on the plastic wrap next to the price.

Rambutan & Durian

Rambutan & Durian

During my childhood and youth, in the days before styrofoam, plastic wrap and air-conditioned supermarkets, durians were sold only whole and buying one involved quite a ritual. Some people could tell a good durian by just looking at it, while others relied on their sense of smell. The size and shape of the fruit were important considerations. A round and perfectly symmetrical one was likely to have more sections holding more fruit than an unevenly skewed one. Vendors often used a bamboo stick to tap on the spiky fruit to determine ripeness by tone. They would cut a triangular-shaped plug through the thick brownish green peel for the prospective buyer to take a peak at the fruit inside, smell more closely and even lightly touch the flesh. When all the indicators met with the customer’s satisfaction, the durian was weighed and haggling over price would take place.

Weighing Durian

Vendor weighing a durian

After the purchase, another set of rituals took place. if a household had both durian lovers and durian haters like my family, when the fruit was brought home, it would have to be kept and pried open outside the house – in the garden or the detached kitchen behind the house. Then it would have to be consumed by the durian lovers in its entirety before they could return into the house. There were no air-tight plastic containers in those days to store uneaten portions in the fridge, and even if they were carefully wrapped for storage in the fridge, the durian’s tenacious aroma could easily escape through any seal and permeate the ice box, contaminating everything within. For durian haters, even imperceptible levels of the fruit’s scent was objectionable and the cause of much family discord.

Durian Stall

Durian at Samrong Market

Of course, most durians are still sold whole today to satisfy the craving of several people in a family (it’s less expensive to buy whole fruits) and the ritual of selecting one still takes place as described. A difference from the past is that after a durian is bought, the vendor provides the additional service, it it is desired by the customer, of peeling and boxing the golden yellow chunks of the inner fruit in styrofoam or wrapping with clear plastic. One no longer needs to risk being jabbed by the nasty spikes just to enjoy the fruit.

Back in the Bay Area, satisfying a durian craving can be an expensive affair as fresh durians are sold only whole – for as much as $7 a pound! That’s exponentially higher than the approximately 100 baht (around $3) I have been spending the past few weeks on an already peeled package of absolutely divine tree-ripened fruit. There are, of course, less expensive frozen durians – whole as well as peeled in sealed packages, but any kind of frozen fruit loses a lot of its true character and durian is not the least of them. For durian lovers, a fresh durian is worth the price to satisfy a seasonal addiction.

Durian Sections

Durian sections at Seri market

Truck Vendor

Durian truck vendor

Peeling Durian

Preparing to peel durian

But of course, durians imported into the Bay Area, almost all of them from Thailand, tend to be picked quite green when there is little, if any, aroma detectable to foul up closed spaces during transport. This makes for quality that is less than ideal. For me, I take a closer look than if I were buying one in Thailand. The stem and exterior should look fresh and not dried out and there must be a distinctive durian fragrance coming through when I hold the bottom of the fruit up to my nose. Better yet, if there is a small split on the bottom of the durian, I am assured that the fruit has been picked closer to maturity and has continued to ripen in transit. But of course, if there is no smell at all exuding from the split, there’s the chance that the split might have come about from the fruit banging against other fruits during transport. If there is a faint fragrance, I would consider buying it and leaving the fruit at room temperature in the basement or garage for a day or two until the aroma becomes more prominent before prying it open. The split makes it easier for you to open up the durian.

Oakland Durian

Oakland durian

Twice this spring I came across durians at a small market in Oakland Chinatown that had all indicators that they were worth buying. And both Michael and I weren’t disappointed! There was enough in each fruit to satisfy us for a couple of sittings. At $6.59 a pound for an average five-pound durian, we ended up with only about a pound and a half of peeled edible fruit. An expensive splurge that’s for sure! For Michael, that would have to do for this durian season. For me, they were just teasers, as I knew I would certainly be indulging in more during my planned three-week trip to Thailand in June to visit my mother. And indeed I took every opportunity to satisfy my craving!


See also:


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2012

Toh-Plue Restaurant in Bangkok

Michael Babcock, Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Toh-Plue restaurant, found at Chatuchak Market in Bangkok, serves delicious, flavorful Thai food. Whenever Kasma takes one of her small group tours to Chatuchak, we always take them to eat at Toh-Plue. This blog gives my impressions and explores some of our favorite dishes there.

Toh-Plue Sign

Sign for Toh-Plue Restaurant

Chatuchak Market (in Thai จตุจักร), also called “JJ market” is a weekend market that is spread out over 27 acres, has over 8,000 stalls and is said to attract over 200,000 visitors each day. It’s a “must-see” destination in Bangkok, if you’re there or a weekend. It sells virtually any and everything, including Thai handicrafts, clothes, ceramics, plants, pets, and on and on. Its published hours are 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sundays; the plants section is open on Wednesday and Friday the market is open for wholesalers. (See the Info-Asia site for a good summary of the market; the official market site is Chatuchak Weekend Market.)

Click on photos to see a larger image.

Toh-Plue restaurant is found in section 27 of Chatuchak Market and the sign can be seen from the center courtyard. It is open from 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays.

As much as I love going to Chatuchak – I visit every year on my annual trip to Thailand – it can be an exhausting experience. One reason is the heat: it can get very warm indeed. The second is the number of people crowding the narrow aisles. After a couple hours of shopping I’m ready for a sit-down. One distinct advantage to Toh-Plue is that it is air-conditioned so you can relax in luxurious coolness. They do get quite a few tables in a small space and there are times when every table is filled.

Restaurant Interior

Inside Toh-Plue

Restaurant Interior 2

Another view insde Toh-Plue

One nice thing about Toh-Plue is an extensive menu that includes pictures of many dishes. They clientele is a combination of Thai and fahrang (the Thai word for Caucasian).

Menu Cover

Front of Toh-Plue menu

Toh-Plue Menu

One menu page

They serve good, solid Thai food. I’ve always gotten the authentic, Thai variety – but that may be because I’m usually there with Kasma doing the ordering and making sure they know we want it Thai-style.

One picture is said to be worth a thousand words. I’m going to just show some pictures of some of the dishes we often order.

Be sure to click on each picture to see a larger version.

Pork Neck Salad

Pork Neck Salad

Fish with Mango

Fried Fish with Mango

When Kasma and I came to the restaurant on our own in January of 2011, the two dishes pictured above are what we ordered. On the left is a spicy Larb (pronounced lahb) salad made from succulent pork neck with a very spicy dressing that includes (lots of!) chillies and ground rice. This is one dish I always order here. The menu lists the dish on the right as “Deep Fried Fish and Spicy Mango Salad” (Pla Samlee yum Mamuang). One (of many) things that the Thais do extremely well is fry things; fried food very seldom has a greasy feel or taste – it is simply flavorful. Here, a cottonfish is split open, boned, coated with tapioca flour and fried crispy: so you get the crispy, tasty outer side enclosing succulent, tender fish meat. The fried fish is topped with a spicy mango salad for serving and eating.

Steamed Fish

Fish Steamed with Lime

Haw Mok

Fish Curry in Young Coconut

Here are a couple more fish dishes. On the left is a fish steamed with chilli-lime sauce (Pla Kapong Neung Manao); this dish is typically very spicy. To the right is a fancy presentation of Haw Mok, this version served in a young coconut and hence called Haw Mok Maprao Awn; this dish can be thought of as a (red) curried mousse and is typically served in banana leaves. (Here’s a picture of the more usual presentation of haw mok.)

Crab Dish

Crab dish

Fish Cakes

Fish or shrimp cakes

Here are two more seafood dishes. To the left is a Stir-fried Crab with Basil – the green herb in the picture is basil that has been deep fried. To the right is (in Thai) Tod Mun (pronounced Tawd Mun), a deep-fried fish (or shrimp) cake; it is served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce. They do both dishes very well here.

Crab & Bean Thread Noodles

Crab with Bean Thread Noodles

Vegetable Dish

Stir-fried Chinese Broccoli

I’ll finish with these two dishes. To the left is Boo Ohb Woon Sen – Crab served with Bean Thread Noodles. It’s a tasty, savory dish. To the right is Kana Nam Mon Hoi – Chinese Broccoli Stir-fried with Oyster Sauce. This is the Toh-Plue version of what I’ve blogged on as Universal Vegetable Recipe


All in all, Toh-Plue is a reasonably delicious restaurant. I wouldn’t say it is worth making a special trip to Chatuchak Market, just to eat there; but Chatuchak Market is worth a special trip, so check out Toh-Plue for lunch when you go.


If you’re looking for places to eat in Bangkok, check out our blogs:


Written by Michael Babcock, January 2012.

Whole-Grain Rices Make a Comeback in Thailand

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, January 1st, 2012

In Thailand, the movement back to consuming whole-grain rice is picking up steam. Just a decade ago, it’s almost unthinkable that Thais would ever give up the white rice they have become so accustomed to eating and regard as a refinement of their taste for the rough-and-tumble brown rice relegated to a small subset of the rural population. I recall that in my childhood, my mother would buy whole-grain red rice mainly to feed our pet dogs since it was less expensive.

The Switch From Whole-Grain to White Rice

Whole Grain Rice

Red & pink jasmine rice

In generations past, before the days of mass cash-crop agriculture for export, farmers grew enough rice just for their own and for local consumption. The rice was de-husked by pounding with large wooden mortars and pestles, which retained the bran and germ. But as the country began to emerge on the world stage, government policy focused on increasing agricultural output for export to build up the country’s foreign currency reserves and wealth. Cash-crop agriculture was pushed and this large-scale mono-cropping necessitated the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to increase and maintain yields.

Click on photos to see a larger image.

9 Kinds of Rice

Mix of 9 rice varieties

Government-sponsored field trials selected rice strains with superior attributes to promote for farmers to grow (see previous blog: Thai Jasmine Rice – Kao Hom Mali – Part 2). The advent of modern-day mills came about to handle the large tonnage of rice and standard polishing techniques were implemented to produce grains that were uniform and looked white, long and beautiful as the world market demanded. Because the fragile oil in rice bran could turn rancid easily, removing the bran with polishing enabled exporters to store the large tonnage of rice for indefinite periods of time without concern about spoilage until it was ready to be shipped abroad.

This development led to a change in domestic consumption patterns with white rice rapidly replacing hand-milled brown rice as the norm. With modernization bringing more sedentary ways of living, Thai people found white rice more palatable as its lightness and easy digestibility better suited their life-style and its neutral, mild taste and softer texture better complimented Thai dishes. Its long shelf life was also seen as a plus compared to brown rice which turned rancid and buggy easily – usually in only a couple of months under normal home conditions in the tropics.

The Health Food Movement

Rice Vendor

Or Tor Kor rice vendor

Things have changed quite a bit since then and mostly in the past half a dozen years or so as the health food movement marched in earnest to the forefront, propelled by widespread concerns about the rising incidences of modern-day diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer in all segments of the Thai population.

Today, whether at open-air marketplaces with large rice vendors such as at Or Tor Kor (pronounced Aw Taw Kaw), mega warehouse stores such as Makro (similar to Costco), neighborhood fresh markets, or even upscale supermarkets and specialty health food stores in many of Bangkok’s glittery shopping complexes, it is exciting to see many varieties of whole-grain rices on offer in various natural colors, from light brown and pink to deep purple and black, alongside different kinds of polished white rices. They come in big sacks, bulk open baskets or specially packaged kilogram pouches slapped with labels touting the particular grain’s health attributes.

Bulk Rice Bin

Supermarket bulk rice bin

Also on offer are colorful mixes combining several different kinds of whole-grain rices. With research confirming a unique nutritional profile for each kind of whole-grain rice, these mixes are formulated to provide a broad range of nutrients as well as ensure a delicious texture and flavor combination.

What is astonishing is that the prices of many of these emerging whole-grain rices are relatively steep, especially those grown organically or are heirloom or improved native strains grown only in limited quantities in particular regions of the country. This is a far cry from a decade ago when there was little, if any, demand for them.

“Green” Markets

Rice for Health Sign

Sign says "Rice for Health"


Accompanying the health food movement, the past few years have seen the advent of “green” markets — sort of like farmer’s markets held once a week at several locations in major cities. Vendors offer not only fresh, organically grown produce, healthy snacks, ready-made take-home foods, and natural juices, but a wide range of natural products as well, such as herbal shampoos and natural cosmetics, herbal food supplements, and environmentally friendly household products. Of course, it is most interesting to me to see the increasing varieties of organically grown whole-grain rices being sold at these markets. Many of them are particular to micro-climates in different parts of the country and are OTOP (“One Tambol, One Product” – tambol refers to a district in a province) or village products, which earn villagers a good income. The word “OTOP” usually signifies a quality hand-made product — notice it on the sign of a rice vendor stall at Or Tor Kor (Aw Taw Kaw) market in the above left picture.

The Red and Black Whole-Grain Rices

Among the varieties of whole-grain rices that have become highly valued among the health conscious in Thailand are the red and black rices. They contain more nutrients than the lighter brown rices. (It’s interesting that researchers in America have recently found black rice to contain even more antioxidants than blueberries — see www.blackrice.com.)

Sanyot Red Rice

"Sanyot" red rice

Red rices have been popular among health-conscious consumers since the beginning of the health food movement. While there are many strains of them grown around the country, kao sangyot has emerged as one of the most highly regarded. A red rice native to (and only grown in) Phattalung province in southern Thailand, this heirloom variety saw a resurgence in its cultivation about seven years ago when local agricultural cooperatives designated it as a rice to be grown organically for the health food market. With a stellar nutritional profile, demand for it in recent years has surpassed the limited supply. In addition to all the vitamins and minerals found in all brown rices, sangyot red rice is much higher in iron and zinc than other whole-grain rices, owing to the mineral-rich soil and water where it is grown.

Red jasmine rice, on the other hand, is particularly high in vitamin E and is said to contain 30 times more antioxidants than common brown rice.

Among the black rices, the most popular is probably kao hom nin or fragrant purple rice. Developed by Kasetsart University (Thailand’s agricultural university), it looks black when raw but is actually deep purple when cooked. It is a delicious rice higher in iron, zinc, copper, calcium, potassium, vitamins A and B than brown jasmine rice. More importantly, it contains a substance called proanthocyanidin. which gives the rice its dark color, and is a more potent antioxidant than vitamins C, E or A. The iron in this rice has particularly small molecules, making it immediately available to the body.

Hom Nin Rice

"Hom Nin" Rice

Kam Doi Hill Rice

"Kam Doi" hill rice

Another highly nutritious dark purple rice is kao kam doi, cultivated in the hills of the north where it picks up

Rices Are Full of Flavor

Forget Husband Rice

"Forget Husband Rice"

The black rices are not only very nutritious but they are full of flavor. Perhaps the most flavorful is a glutinous variety given the common name of kao leum pua — literally “forget husband rice.” I was told by a friend that it got its name because any wife who cooked the rice would find it so delicious that she would eat it all up, forgetting to save any for her husband. It is an OTOP rice from Surin province and has become very popular.

I bought some to try out and found it indeed very delicious. Mixing just a quarter cup of this rice with two cups of brown jasmine rice turns the whole mixture a pretty purple color when cooked and adds so much flavor that it can easily convert white-rice eaters into brown rice lovers. My niece is one of them. She won’t touch brown rice, but when I mix it with the “forget husband rice” and cook it the way I usually cook brown rice (see How to Cook Jasmine Brown Rice for Maximum Nutrition) she just can’t seem to get enough of it!

Soaking Rice

Soaking rice (click picture)

Steamed Whole Grain Rice

Steamed whole grain rice

More to Come in the Near Future

Of course, there are numerous other varieties of very nutritious native whole-grain rices. Books (in the Thai language) have been written about them over the past couple of years. I am still looking for some of them in the rice markets, health food stores and “green” markets. Perhaps as more and more people are awakened to the health benefits of consuming whole-grain rices, many more varieties of these rices will become readily available. For me, consuming these native whole-grain rices not only contributes to my health but it, in turn, improves farmers’ earnings and helps return them to a more harmonious way of living on the land.

Surin Rices

Or Tor Kor rice stall

Whole Grain Rices

Several whole grain rices


Kasma’s Other Articles on Rice

Fool Proof Rice Recipes

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, December 2011.

In Search of the Best Sour Fish (Pla Som)

Kasma Loha-unchit, Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

Pla som, or sour fish, is one of my very favorite foods from the northeastern Isan region, which is also known for its sour sausages. It’s made in a similar way as the Isan sour sausages, using fermented rice as the souring agent. I’m partial to fish and a perfectly fermented and crispy-fried sour fish is so delicious it’s hard to stop eating it! The problem is: perfection is hard to find, even in its home territory.

Ready-to-eat Sour Fish

Ready-to-eat sour food

My first encounter with pla som was some fifteen years ago in the then small riverside town of Nakhon Phanom in the northeastern corner of Isan. It was at a small rice shop near the hotel I spent the night. Hungry and looking for a good place for breakfast, I walked down one of the streets and noticed a busy rice shop crowded with customers – a good sign! Among the assortment of ready-made dishes in front of the shop was a yummy-looking fried fish topped with crispy fried garlic, fried dried chillies, sliced shallots and cut Thai chillies. I soon discovered it wasn’t any ordinary fried fish. It had a very unusual and delicious sour flavor definitely not from lime juice, tamarind, vinegar or any other sour condiment. That introduction to pla som was truly memorable and I fell deeply in love with this Isan food.

(Click images to see larger version.)

In those days, Isan food hadn’t yet become popular in the main heartland of the country’s central region. It was impossible to find it in any eatery or restaurant in the capital, even in the few so-called Isan restaurants just opening in the city. But memories of that first encounter remained vivid in my mind and on my tongue. I could only dream of another trip to Isan to savor the delicacy.

So-so Fried Sour Fish

Sour fish at Si Saket

Fast forward half a dozen years. Michael and I took a trip to Isan with our friend and adopted brother Sun, who drives for my Thailand tours. I was showing Michael around to the places I’d been and we were exploring new places as possibilities for organizing a future tour. I hadn’t offered an Isan trip for years as traveling in the vast Isan region, Thailand’s largest, during the last two decades of the last century could be tedious and standard tourist accommodations lacking in many of the fascinating areas worth visiting. With Isan now a popular destination among domestic Thai tourists and Isan food becoming an “in” cuisine nationwide, it was a perfect opportunity to check out the new infrastructure, as well as the lively markets and local eateries I’d been reading about in Thai travel magazines.

Sour Fish in Surin

Sour fish dish in Surin

We had just arrived in Nong Khai on the Mekong River. It was late in the day and after checking into a family-run guest house near the river, we went for a walk along the alley by the waterfront, hoping to find a good restaurant with views of the river for dinner. My eye caught a signboard with the words pla som and immediately I insisted that we have dinner there.

I ordered the pla som while Michael and Sun chose a couple of other dishes. Soon, both of them understood why I was so excited about eating there. The fish was very quickly gone before the other dishes received our attention. The next evening, after a full day of exploration, Sun was the one to adamantly insist that we return to the same place for dinner and, this time, forget about other dishes and just order three plates of pla som, one for the each of us!

Sour Fish in Ubon

Sour fish in Ubon market

For the rest of that trip, as we journeyed along the Mekong east- and southward to the border province of Ubon and then cut westward to Surin and Buriram before heading back to Bangkok, we kept an eye out for pla som but, unfortunately, did not find any place with as good a pla som as we had in Nong Khai. Some were actually rather disappointing. Most of the pla som we saw were uncooked, sold in open tubs in the fresh marketplaces and made with whole fish, as it’s traditionally done, particularly small silver barbs (pla tapian) that do have a lot of small bones. The pla som we had in Nong Khai was made with chunks of a large fish with plenty of moist meat and very little bones.

Kamnan Jun Sour Fish

Sour fish in bulk at Don Wai

Michael and I love to visit open-air fresh markets in Thailand and Sun often drives us to marketplaces far and near. We soon begin to notice raw pla som being sold in some of the larger gourmet fresh markets in or near Bangkok, like Aw Taw Kaw (Or Tor Kor) and Don Wai, either already packaged in plastic bags or sold bulk in big piles. The pla som made by Kamnan Jun sold in Don Wai market is particularly good. It’s made with a fish called pla nuanchan in large mostly filleted chunks with skin still on. The skin is important as it adds a good texture to the fish when it is crispy-fried.

The first time I saw pla som at Don Wai, I bought two large bags and fried all the pieces up the next morning for breakfast. Sun, whose home is in Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south, planned to breakfast with us before making his long drive home. He was so delighted to have so many pieces of pla som to feast on. The fish was crispier and even more delicious than he remembered having in Nong Khai. He was convinced that I must have a secret way of frying the fish that enhanced the crispiness and flavor. He devoured with great pleasure as much as he could but there were so many pieces we couldn’t possibly finish the two big plates. So he decided he would wait till afternoon to begin his long drive, so that he could have lunch and finish off the rest!

Sour Fish at Don Wai

Don Wai sour fish vendor

Sour Fish, Ready to Cook

Sour fish at Don Wai

Sour Fish Dish

Vientiane Kitchen's fried sour fish

Pla som has become much better known among Thais all over the country as Isan food continues to soar in popularity the past decade. As migrant workers from Isan find their way around the country, I’m seeing raw, ready-for-cooking pla som in markets far and wide, even in the southern region. A number of Isan restaurants in Bangkok now have it on their menus but so far nothing near as good as the best pla som I’ve had in Isan or that I’ve fried myself from fish bought at Don Wai and Aw Taw Kaw. Vientiane Kitchen on Sukhumvit 36 serves an acceptable one after the restaurant remodeled recently and put in a new menu (and perhaps new cooks, too), but it lacks the crispiness that has become a trademark of delicious fried pla som.

I can even find ready-to-cook pla som in my local Cambodian market in Oakland (see my blog on Sontepheap Market), in packages in the freezer imported from Thailand and labeled in Thai as pla som Mae Jinda. The ingredients are shown in English though, listing fish, garlic, rice and salt. To preserve the fish better for its long journey here, it is made saltier than what’s available in Bangkok’s markets and needs to be eaten with plenty of rice. Delicious though it is!

Frozen Sour Fish

"Mae Jinda" sour fish at Sontepheap

Mae Jinda Sour fish

Sour fish out of package

Tilapia for Sour Fish

Very fresh tilapia for making sour fish

I’ve also taken to making my own pla som and teach it in one of my advanced classes. (See Menus for Advanced Set F.) Definitely a fish with skin still on makes the best pla som. I’ve tried making it with red snapper, catfish, basa (swai) and tilapia. The best result so far is with very fresh tilapia that I buy live from the tanks in Asian fish markets, that I then fillet to remove only the center skeleton, head and tail, but leaving the skin on. In the Bay Area it takes about a week to sour the fish. Rubbed with a coating of tapioca flour before frying, it delivers a most satisfying combination of crispiness and natural sour flavor to rival the best I’ve had in Isan’s restaurants.

Making Sour Fish

Preparing the tilapia

Sour Fish, Ready to Fry

Week-old soured tilapia

Sour Fish Dish

Sour fish at Bao Pradit, Mukdahan

My most recent trip to Isan was in December 2009 with a group of twelve on a special northeastern Thailand tour. (On Picasa, see Kasma’s Northeastern Trip Photos, Part 2.) Whenever and wherever I saw pla som on a menu, I would order it. Several in my group loved it, but like me, they soon discovered that quality and taste could vary substantially. By far the best we had was at a truly native Isan restaurant in Mukdahan, called Bao Pradit. It’s south of town along the river, serving really hardcore Isan food made with local ingredients not found in other regions. With all the wonderful choices and fiery hot range of flavor combinations, Sun asked that I order for him his own plate of pla som and that’s the only thing he ate that night with a heavenly grin on his face. I would have to say it really was the best of the best pla som I’d ever had.

This fall, I’m offering another special 21-day trip to Isan and I’m already dreaming about a fabulous dinner in Mukdahan!”

More Ready-to-eat Sour Fish

More ready-to-eat sour fish

Sour Fish, To Go

Sour fish, to go

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2011.

Thai Fast Food (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

Pre-made Food at Aw Taw Kaw Market

Pre-made Thai Food

Pre-made food at Aw Taw Kaw

Kasma sent this picture to me when she was at Aw Taw Kaw (Or Tor Kor) market in Bangkok enjoying herself and I was back in California taking care of things here. I am such a sucker for pictures of street food / market food. I loved the picture: just seeing it brought up the feel of a Thai market, with the delicious looking pre-made food amongst interesting stalls, the smiling vendors and the jostling crowds. It would be very hard to just walk past this delicious looking crab. Yum!


The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.


Previous blogs on Aw Taw Kaw: