Obscure objects of desire

Family eatery highlights hearty Hakka fare from southern China

If there is such a thing as a culinary endangered species, a type of dining establishment that occupies the same doomed territory as the Asian golden cat, the bumblebee bat and the Javan rhino, it is probably the small, informal restaurant, owned and operated by the same family for many years, where exceptional food is prepared using personal recipes that have been polished to perfection over time.

Freshwater prawns fried with chai po condiment.

Bangkok used to be full of these places, and some have managed to hold the fort even as the mainstream Thai dining scene, egged on by the tourism industry, off-target articles in the foreign travel press, and our general national preference for style over substance, has sometimes careened off into gruesome fusion experiments, miscalculated elegance (wine with the curry, etc), and worse.

There are exceptions, of course; Ung-aang Talay's food life would take a serious hammering if, for example, the kaeng tai plaa haeng at Nahm were to disappear. But U-a T can't be the only one who would cheerfully forego a lifetime's worth of green curry ice cream served in liquid nitrogen for just one more bowl of the high-art pet toon naw mai once served at the long-gone Saw Ying Thai, or the yam het huu nuu that See Fah used to bestow on customers back in its glory days at the original location behind Wang Burapha.

You can't eat nostalgia, though, and as a personal list of restaurants in this endangered category has become rather short of late, U-a T was very grateful when the photographer and culinary explorer AB pointed the way to Piang Kee Phochana, a small dining room specialising in Hakka Chinese cuisine so good that it would be a happy find in any era.

To get to Piang Kee, go to the intersection of Yaowarat and Rachawong roads. Directly across Rachawong Road from the big Grand China Hotel entrance look for a blue street sign identifying Trok Wat Kuson Samak, a short lane that forms the entryway to a temple. Walk into the lane and just before reaching the temple turn into the even smaller lane on the right, where you will see a shiny red sign written in Chinese and Thai overhead identifying the restaurant.

Deep-fried tofu paper stuffed with minced shrimp.

Scanning the menu, U-a T was intrigued to find dishes that are not offered in most other Chinese restaurants in Bangkok. One that AB was especially enthusiastic about was the tao huu yat sai muu nam daeng (pieces of tofu stuffed with seasoned pork with fresh herbs in a savoury red broth). An order was placed for this dish, together with others for servings of fong tao huu yat sai kung thawt (tofu paper stuffed with minced shrimp), kung chae buay phat chai po (freshwater prawns fried with the Chinese condiment called chai po), and muu chai oh (pork belly meat with pickled green vegetables).

First to arrive was the shrimp-stuffed fong tao huu, a popular dish which was especially good here because of the perfect crispness of the fried tofu. The shrimp filling had been given an appetising texture by mixing it with enough minced pork to make it juicy and flavourful. Despite the deep-frying the stuffed tofu sheets were not oily, and had the appetite-enhancing, snacky appeal that makes dishes of this kind disappear quickly when set on the table.

The pork dish, the same one known as muu phan pee (thousand-year pork) in the Thai North, was less fatty than the heart-nukeing versions that U-a T has encountered in some other restaurants. The variant served at Kiao Liang Ning off Silom, for example, is considerably heavier but the pickled vegetables have a mouthwatering sour tang that was less pronounced in the Piang Kee version. But Piang Kee's pork belly meat, sliced quite thin, had been stewed to absolute tenderness and was fully flavoured by the vegetables. Strongly recommended.

Tofu stuffed with seasoned pork with fresh herbs in a savoury red broth.

Kung chae buay are a large, meaty variety of prawn that Piang Kee prepared by frying them with hua chai po (a Chinese condiment made from salted and dried Chinese radish). The flavour of the hua chai po, and of the fresh coriander and pieces of spring onion sprinkled over the prawns, enhanced their sweetness while allowing their flavour to come through more fully than a more aggressive, garlic and chilli-based recipe might have done. The prawns themselves were very fresh and the serving was generous.

The tao huu yet sai muu nam daeng was a Hakka speciality that was new to U-a T. The pork-stuffed tofu pieces were similar the ones served with kuay tio Khae, or Hakka-style noodles, but the red-pink broth they were stewing in was something special. Its colour suggest the tint of dishes made with the fermented soy condiment called tao huu yee, but the owners explained that it was khao daeng maak, a type of dark red rice that can be fermented in the same way as traditional Thai khao maak until it acquires a whiskey-like aroma. The resulting thick pink liquid is not sold commercially, so the Piang Kee kitchen makes its own.

Piang Kee's tao huu yat sai muu nam daeng shares the bowl with fresh lettuce leaves and is sprinkled with pieces of spring onion and plenty of fragrant black pepper. It is accompanied by a small cup of spicy chilli paste that zaps the stuffed tofu pieces even more vividly to life when they are dipped into it. A memorable dish that will always be on the table when U-a T revisits Piang Kee to explore the menu further.

Service is friendly and informal, and prices are mid-range.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Ung-Aang Talay
Position: Reporter