Yuen Lei Restaurant, Bangkok, 6:34 pm, February 4, 2008
One of the terrific unexpected benefits of learning Cantonese is how it lets you see the rest of the world with a Chinese eye. Gwong Dung Wah is like a magic wand that opens a door to Chinese communities wherever I go.
The other night I was in Bangkok. I had walked a long way trying to find a travel agent’s office at an address near Lumpini Park. After I finished the errand, I went back out on the street, feeling hot and sweaty, and not even particularly hungry. But my eye caught some signs written in Chinese characters. When I travel, any sign with Chinese words on it calls to me like home, especially in a place where most of the signs are written in a language that I don’t have a clue about (namely, Thai).
The Chinese characters they use in Thailand are strange, though. Have you ever noticed this? I can just about read them. They have an odd, broken brushstroke style, as if they’ve been written by someone who barely remembers how to write Chinese:
It’s a kind of Chinese calligraphy I only see in Bangkok. Maybe it has something to do with the nature of the Chinese community there. Most of them are from Chiu Chow (in Thailand they say “Teo Chow”), and most of the families came down to Thailand a long time ago, trading in birds nest, and other expensive dried seafood. The lingua franca of the community now is mainly Thai. Chinese here have Thai, not Chinese names.
As assimilated as they have become, the Chinese community in Thailand is nevertheless distinct from the Thai. Everyone, Thai and Chinese, knows who is who. For instance, all of Thailand knows that Thaksin Shinawatra, ex-Thai Prime Minister turned Hong Kong resident and power broker in exile, is Chiu Chow Chinese.
Anyway, I was looking at these broken brushstrokes, and trying to figure out what the third character from the left was supposed to be, when my eye wandered off across the street to another Chinese sign that I did know how to read:
Yuen Lei Daai Fan Dihm
The Source of Fortune Restaurant.
What grabbed me was not the name but the look of the place. It wasn’t exactly a building, but an open corner lot partially covered with plastic and iron sheeting. In front was a streetside kitchen surrounded by pots filled with fresh green leafy vegetables, glass containers with pieces of tofu, sliced Chinese sausages and pigeon eggs. Roast ducks hung from a pole. I recognized that the eggs and the tofu had been prepared in the lo seui braising style typical of the Chiu Chow cooking I have sampled in Sheung Wan and Wan Chai, in Hong Kong.
I walked over to take a closer look. If I were Wong Kar Wai, I would have made an urgent call to my cinematographer on the spot. Inside the place had, well, patina. It looked as if it had not been painted, scrubbed, or otherwise improved since 1967. Just on the basis of the decor– industrial steel tables, acid-green molded plastic chairs, ancient ceiling fans–I would have eaten there.
Well, that’s not entirely true. If it had not smelled fabulous, I wouldn’t have done what I did without thinking: walk into the middle of the Source of Fortune and sit down by myself at a big round metal table.
That smell. There’s nothing like it anywhere in Hong Kong. Sure, Hong Kong has a lot of Chui Chow Chinese restaurants, but the Chiu Chow food of Thailand has morphed into something different, as odd looking as that calligraphy. The Chiu Chow have become a little bit Thai in their tastes. They have developed a liking for strong, intense flavors, they use the pungent green herbs of the Thai countryside. I suppose you could call this cooking Thai-Chiu Chow fusion food.
Seconds after I seated myself, a scary-looking middle-aged Chinese woman with a blob of fuschia lipstick, pencilled eyebrows and a butch cropped haircut came over and slapped a plastic menu down on my table. It was tri-lingual, in Thai, Chinese, and English, and it also had some helpful pictures.
The worst thing about eating alone in a Chinese restaurant where everything looks and smells great is that you can’t order all over the menu, like you would if you were with a group of friends. I ordered a beer and pondered. Then I gathered my courage and asked the scary waitress for some help. She didn’t speak any Chinese, but she had a few words of English.
“You want vegetable? Come, look.” I chose a tender, bright green bunch of morning glory shoots, and then I pointed to some fat prawns swimming in the tank.
The choi arrived first, stir fried to perfection.
Hidden in there with the morning glory stalks were fat cloves of Thai garlic that had been fried brown, and some of those little almond-like seeds that my friend David puts in with his pig’s lung dish. But this vegetable stir fry didn’t smell or taste like a Hong Kong stir fry. The sauce was stronger, a bit sweet. I ate with chopsticks, and ate with gusto. When I stopped for a moment and looked up, I noticed that all the help had come out of the kitchen and were standing in a line by the doorway, watching my reaction to every bite.
Soon, part two of my order arrived: Prawns with Bean Thread Noodles (called here, woon sen):
The cook served this dish to me himself, bringing it covered to the table. With a flourish, he opened the claypot top so that the steam released at once, in a whooooosh!. My god. The aroma of the green chinese celery was intense, concentrated, like a curative herb. The whole dish–noodles and meaty prawns–was infused with it.
“My mother is Thai and father Chinese,” said the waitress when I asked her about her background. But, where in China did she and the restaurant owners come from? “Over there,” she answered, pointing towards the kitchen. Oh, I said, Chiu Chow? Guangdong?”
“No, no” she shook her head. “Over there. Chinatown.”
Memory fades, but delicious food is forever.
Yuen Lei Daai Fan Dim is near the corner where Thanon Lang Suan meets Lumpini Park. The location surely has excellent fung seui. In a city where things get torn down and rebuilt almost as fast as in Hong Kong, this restaurant has occupied this corner for more than thirty years. Hopefully it will still be there the next time I pass through Bangkok in search of a source for amazing Chinese fusion food.