Passing years, Changing tastes

Time affects all things, including our restaurants and some of our one-time favourite dishes

Everything that exists is there for a reason. But as times change, the roster of objects, and ways of using them, changes. Things that were once current become outdated. This constant change is also present in matters related to food. Things that were once commonplace vanish and will never return, or when they can be seen, it is not in kitchens but in museums.

BLAST FROM THE PAST: ‘Kuay tio khae’ is still a popular dish, but it has evolved over the years.

But there is one more way in which we might run into things that we believed were gone forever. They come into the hands of people who make food for sale, and who think that, if they use antique equipment to prepare it, customers will think they have happened onto an old and venerable restaurant where food is cooked the old-fashioned way.

Two things that time takes away are restaurants and the equipment used to prepare food. Today, firstly, I would like to look at a few restaurants that have vanished over the years.

One of them is, or was, Bamee Ratchawong, which used to be located on Ratchawong Road near the Ratchawong-Yaowarat intersection. The dish that the shop was famous for was its bamee haeng sai luk chin kung luk chin pla (wheat noodles and balls of pounded shrimp or fish meat served without broth). The things that made it special were the home-made noodles and fish/shrimp balls as well as the seasonings, which included tang chai (preserved cabbage) and fried garlic in oil.

Besides the noodles, Bamee Ratchawong also offered hoy thawt (shellfish fried in batter) made using a stove shaped like a narrow-mouthed cement water jar. The mouth was the same size as the iron pan in which the shellfish were fried until the batter began to brown. The cook had expert knowledge of just how much flour to put into the batter, and how to control the fire. If a stronger fire was needed, one side of the pan would be lifted slightly to admit air so that the blaze became hotter.

In addition to the noodles and the shellfish, the restaurant also offered excellent durian ice-cream. A customer would have to order all three dishes to fully appreciate Bamee Ratchawong. Unfortunately, that is no longer possible, as the restaurant has been closed for many years.

FULL SET: An old ‘tang chai’ container now used for pickled chillies, and a modern container for the seasonings accompanying noodles.

At the SAB intersection, where Charoen Krung Road crosses Chakkrawat Road, there used to be a coffee shop called Nai Paw that was open in the mornings. The coffee was brewed the old way, using a long cloth bag. An attraction that brought people in from far away to drink coffee there was the fresh milk that was always kept warm in a special pot. When someone ordered coffee, the owner would spoon the thin film floating on the surface and put it into the cup. Customers could also order plain warm milk mixed with sugar.

Besides the hot drinks, customers could buy khanom pang sangkhaya _ small squares of steamed bread served hot with a warm coconut cream custard called sangkhaya, made from corn flour, coconut cream, eggs, palm sugar, cane sugar and milk simmered together in a pot. This coffee shop, too, is long gone, as is the method of brewing coffee with the skin from warm milk that made it famous.

There were also shops that sold boiled beef offal. This was a cheap dish that skilled cooks could make tasty. At one time it was sold in almost every fresh market, and was bought primarily by labourers and others who came to buy prepared food at the markets. The vendors who sold it would carry their equipment to the market on a plank balanced on a shoulder and set it on the floor. The beef offal would be cooked in a white enamelled pot until extremely tender, and would be kept on the fire to keep from cooling. If it did cool, a layer of fat would solidify on the surface giving them an unappetising appearance.

There would also be a cutting block. The customer would select their preferred offal and it would then be prepared and put into a bowl. It was served in some of the broth it had been cooked in, together with rice, to customers who sat on low stools brought by the vendor. Today, this cooked beef offal has almost completely disappeared, replaced by kui tio nuea pueay (noodles with beef that has been cooked until very tender). Many people also eat the dish called kao lao together with rice _ basically offal with vegetables in broth _ which is very similar to the cooked beef offal of the past.

Kuay tio Khae is a noodle dish that has become scarce. It can still be found in Bangkok, but the vendors who sell it are usually not ethnic Khae Chinese, and the meatballs used to make it have developed into the various kinds served in sukiyaki restaurants.

The original kuay tio Khae vendors had two pieces of equipment. The first was a big pot where the broth was cooked. It was divided into sections, one for briefly scalding the noodles, the other for the broth. The different kinds of meatballs used to make the dish were kept near the pot so that they stayed hot. The other component was a container in which plates, uncooked noodles and seasonings were kept. Both could be carried suspended from a plank balanced on a shoulder.

One kuay kui shop run by ethnic Khae Chinese that is still in business is in Nang Loeng market. The equipment used by wandering vendors in the old days is still used there, perhaps to emphasise the fact that the kuay tio Khae sold there is authentic.

These are all foods and restaurants of the past that are now gone. Among the equipment and utensils used in making foods that are disappearing, the first that should be mentioned is the wooden cabinet that was always prominent among the furnishings of any noodle shop. It was used to hold the noodles to be cooked as well as a pile of bean sprouts. Pieces of boiled pork would be hung in it, together with long, sausage-like lengths of pounded fried fish called hue kuay. These cases were made of teak and glass.

Originally, the seasonings put on the table for customers to add to their noodles included a bottle of nam pla (usually a small-sized Coke bottle with a pierced wooden stopper) and a wooden box with a lid divided into three compartments to hold sugar, ground dried chillies and pounded roasted peanuts. Also important was the jar of pickled chillies in vinegar. Since tang chai is largely gone from noodle shops, the jars that once contained it are now sometimes used to hold these chillies in vinegar.

These days, the old methods of seasoning noodles are gone. Noodle shops do not use tang chai any more, at least not in its old form, packed in glass jars. The packaging is plastic now. The ground chillies, sugar, pounded peanuts and other seasonings now sit on the table in stainless steel containers or plastic ones distributed to the shops by soft drink manufacturers. Even the cabinet used by the cook to hold ingredients is made of stainless steel now rather than wood.

So, the changes, both good and bad, that time brings to all things do not spare our food, the way it is cooked nor the places that sell it. While some new developments are for the better, other, picturesque and evocative aspects of our culinary heritage live on only in the memories of people old enough to remember them.

About the author

Writer: Suthon Sukphisit