Sam yan's savoury smorgasbord

The old Chinese community in the shadow of Chulalongkorn University boasts a dining experience unsurpassed anywhere in Bangkok in terms of quality and variety

In the early years after its founding, Bangkok was a city of small ethnic communities that were concentrated in certain parts of town. The Yaowarat area up to Talat Noi and Bang Rak was, of course, home to the Chinese community, with some Muslim residents as well. Samsen, in the vicinity of the St Gabriel School, was primarily Vietnamese, while the population of Bang Kapi and Phra Khanong was largely Muslim.

As Bangkok grew, the residents of these ethnic communities scattered throughout the city, taking their cuisines with them and bringing great variety to the dining scene. The result of this intermixing is an exciting choice of restaurants in almost every part of town.

The Sam Yan neighbourhood, set near Chulalongkorn University, is a Chinese commercial district where businesses selling tools, appliances, and motor parts generate a huge cash flow. In addition to prosperous merchants there are also university lecturers from Chula who have a good income and know how to live and spend wisely. There are also many students, several of whom come from well-heeled families and are able to make their own spending decisions. All of these factors make Sam Yan a place that offers enticing dining options.

The fresh foods and other ingredients offered at Sam Yan market are of very high quality, and with prices to match. The market was originally located near the Sam Yan intersection, but years ago it was moved to a new spot near the athletic field. Today, good things to eat can be found in an area that stretches from the site of the old market to the new one.

Today I'd like to mention a few of the interesting restaurants and food shops in that part of town. The first of them is set on the corner of Chula Soi 50, close to where the old market used to be. It is now an open space where cars can park, since no new building has begun there yet, and encompasses many stalls selling a variety of different kinds of foods. One especially good one offers sukiyaki, a combination of boiled vegetables with meat. It is available with either chicken or beef, served either "wet" (with broth) or "dry". The boiled vegetables are similar to those used in Japanese or Chinese cooking.

This vendor is especially good with the broth and a sauce based on tao hu yee (a fermented tofu condiment) is served with it, both of which are delicious. Service can be slow, though, because there are many customers and the cooking is done by two women who are getting on a bit in years.

There are vendors selling kha moo (Chinese aromatic stewed pork leg) and khao man gai (Hainanese chicken and rice) there too, but these are nothing special. Better to head for the stall offering kui jap nam sai (a noodle dish with broth), where the noodles are of the chewy type called sen Chienghai (Shanghai noodles) in Thai. But this shop is best recommended to people who have no aversion to pork offal, which is an important ingredient in the dish. Those who do like offal will find that the broth is very well done here.

Among the food shops on Soi 50 there is one, near the end of the soi, that specialises in khao moo daeng (rice with Chinese red pork and gravy) and is called khao moo daeng Nakhon Pathom. The owners make their own moo daeng (Chinese red pork) and moo krawp (pork with crispy skin), but bring in the kunchieng (a sweet Chinese sausage) from an outside factory. A really good serving of khao moo daeng should include all of these ingredients _ red and crispy pork and kunchieng _ as well as the sweet-salty moo daeng gravy. At this shop all these ingredients are very good, and the dish is let down only slightly by rice that can be too hard.

Moving past Chula Soi 50 is a shop on the main road called Kong Tui that sells "Bang Tan" grilled chicken, which has a style and flavour all its own, moist and very different from the dry Isan version. Bang Tan is a small tambon in Ratchaburi province where the locals used to make grilled chicken to sell at the railway station. These days it is sold far and wide. Kong Tui cooks its own chicken in Bang Tan and delivers it to Bangkok every day for sale at the shop, from morning until whenever it runs out. The owners used to sell it from a pushcart and moved here only recently.

Chula Soi 50 connects with Chula Soi 46, and about 10m into the soi is a shop called Leng Kee that cooks fried noodle dishes using a wok. The list of dishes available is quite extensive, and all of them are delicious _ rad na nuea (noodles topped with beef in thick gravy), koi sim mee (chicken in thick sauce poured over crisp-fried noodles), kui tio haeng nuea sap (noodles topped with minced beef in sauce), kui tio haeng pad gai (rice noodles fried with chicken) and khao pad pla khem (fried rice with salted fish). The food at Leng Kee is almost beyond compare, but customers have to be prepared for a long wait as the ordering system they use leaves a lot to be desired. The staff cater first to those who order food to take away in plastic bags, and each of these customers typically asks for 10-20 servings.

Not far from this soi, in the new Sam Yan market, is Kui Tio Ruea Taw Cham, a shop that makes delicious pork noodles using the recipe usually used for beef noodles. Inside the market to the right is a shop called Khao Nio Moon Sam Yan that offers all kinds of Thai desserts, and all very good, especially the khanom thuay (a coconut cream-based sweet made in shallow ceramic cups), which would be hard to match anywhere else in town.

Keep walking in the same direction and you will see two shops selling good khanom kui chai (dumplings stuffed with Chinese chives), one called Ran Jay Na, the other Ran Ah Ma.

The last shop that I would like to recommend is at the very end of the market near the Pathumwan district administrative offices. It is a big place run by a friendly Chinese merchant and his son. Inside the shop many imported products are on display, and include high-quality soya sauces with brand names from Hong Kong not available elsewhere in Bangkok, Chinese tea and many imported brands of coffee. Prices are reasonable.

These are just a few of the possibilities for dining in the Sam Yan neighbourhood, but they should be enough to give an idea of the variety and quality of the offerings there, and of the fun and can be had during an afternoon spent exploring this pleasant enclave.

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