Friday, November 30, 2012

Dining on the Rocks in Koh Samui

On the last night of our honeymoon, my husband insisted that we splurge on a fancy meal at a famous restaurant at the Six Sense Samui Resort, called Dining On The Rocks. "It features molecular gastronomy," he told me.

I have no idea what molecular gastronomy actually is. Wikipedia says it's "a subdiscipline of food science that seeks to investigate, explain and make practical use of the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur while cooking, as well as the social, artistic and technical components of culinary and gastronomic phenomena in general." That means nothing to me. My husband tried to explain it again: "It's the kind of stuff that they do when they take one food, deconstruct it and make it look like something else."

"That's what our friends' babies do with every meal," I said.

My husband tried again. "It's like a jazz song. You might not totally understand what's going on with every note, but you go along with the ride and appreciate the overall tone." That I sort of understood. Besides, I don't actually need much convincing to go out and eat more food.

We waved down a taxi. The taxi driver, a short tomboyish Thai woman, had her eyes light up when we told her we wanted to go to the Six Senses Resort. We didn't know why, but we eventually figured out it was because resort was really far away in a secluded place and she'd be making a healthy fare from our ride.

If you are a celebrity reading my blog (I know there are so many), I highly suggest going to the Six Senses Resort in Ko Samui if you want to get away from the world and enjoy a vacation in privacy. It's a beautiful spot at the northern tip of the island, with a breathtaking view but an astonishing amount of privacy, deep in the woods and far away from everything. Each villa is hidden from sight, tucked away from the main road down long paths. Guests who don't have a private driver get around on golf carts driven around by resort staff. It's an absolutely gorgeous location where the restaurant Dining on the Rocks is located, high up on the cliffs with a panoramic view of the sea. The restaurant is a relatively small one, with only about six tables indoors. We were seated comfortably at a table at the end of the bar, close enough to the edge of the cliff to feel the sea spraying into the air.  It had a bit of a campy feel to it, being halfway outside with the occasional fly passing by.

The restaurant menu offered a number of set courses for guests to try. My husband ambitiously chose the "Experience" set menu, a ten course meal featuring a spectrum of intriguing food ideas, one of those courses apparently being air. I selected the more modest "5 on the rocks"; five courses was going to be enough of a challenge for me to tackle.

can't wait for bread... must not fill up on bread...

We ordered a bottle of Australian shiraz merlot wine called Moon. Despite being one of the more modestly priced bottles on the wine list, it turned out to be a perfect accompaniment for the rest of our meal, since we weren't opting to go for the suggested set wine course. It also went well with the opening bread with pureed red peppers and garlic.

as a starter, we were both given a taste of duck and scallop with an almond puree.. I knew we were in for a spectacular treat for the next few hours...

His First Course: "oyster rockefella non traditional with rocket and bacon."

Part of the adventure, in reference to my husband's comment about jazz songs, is that you don't always understand what you're eating. What's that white creamy stuff? Is that an egg? You kind of end up just going with it, closing your eyes, and trying to figure out what tastes you can recognize. And if you can't place a name on the taste in your mouth - who cares. It's still tasty.

"I dare you to ask for ketchup," I said.

Her First Course: "scallop in apple-coriander water, almond powder, pumpkin and bacon."

"What are these bubbles?" I asked curiously. "Is that my scallop living and breathing? How did they do that?" There was a line of sauce that was holding back the apple-coriander water like a dam on my plate. I took pleasure in breaking the saucy barrier and having the liquid burst forth like a culinary flood on my plate. Presentation is fun. Messing it up (my "deconstruction") is even more fun.

His Second Course: "hamachi zushi destroyed and redone, sea vegetable, rice, wasabi & lime air.”

Oh, so that's what the bubbles were - lime air. Not that it actually answered any of my questions.  This dish was a great example of the unique creativity of the menu, taking traditional Asian concepts and adding a modern twist.  Okay, so like every Asian fusion restaurant in the world claims do to that, but there's something about the way that Asian fusion is done in Asia, and particularly here.  Here, it's not just Asian food + Western food = I am so clever.  Here it is Asian food + smash it up, rearrange it, add some bubbles and random other ingredients cooked in a way that nobody will ever figure it out, in order to produce the most interesting symphony of flavours in your mouth.

His Third Course: "salmon teriyaki, simply."

The salmon teriyaki plate was not all that simple. Those little reddish balls that you see are what the server described as teriyaki caviar, little bursts of teriyaki sauce held in by its own skin. I have no idea how they do that.  I'm not sure who could go back to regular salmon teriyakis after this.

Her Second Course: "canned tuna fish sandwich, brioche, potato puree, olive oil powder."

I love tuna fish sandwiches!  I loved it when my mom packed tuna fish sandwiches for me for lunch. This tuna fish sandwich also came in a lunch bag....

...and in a special tuna can explaining, sort of, what was in the "sandwich". It was nothing like my mother's tuna fish sandwiches, but then you know, my mom never left the sandwiches in the can.  The onions and tomato salsa added just the right kick of flavour, although the can was a bit difficult to eat out of.

His Fourth Course: "paella, prawn, squid, clam, chorizo and saffron."

So I was beginning to notice more and more how the menu was like a jazz song. Have you ever heard jazz pianist Brad Mehldau's musical interpretation of Radiohead's Exit Music? You should. In fact, play this video while you read the rest of this entry.

You recognize the song that he's playing because the theme is there; you can follow the melody.  But right around where he hits the lyrical line, "now we are one in everlasting peace" he takes the liberty to go all over the place, throwing in all sorts of new ideas and tunes while keeping just enough of the theme to reassure you that this is still the same song.  I've heard at least three different versions of Brad Mehldau playing this song, and every one of them was enthralling.  I mean, it's what all jazz musicians do, like Lester Young's brilliant take on "Body and Soul", amirite? I just chose this Brad Mehldau example because I love Brad Mehldau and who doesn't recognize Radiohead.

Anyway, that's basically what these guys were doing with the food. The menu announced a theme for each item, a theme that you would keep in mind when presented with a plate that looked nothing like the theme and yet, somehow, tasted just like the paella your mom used to make, while also being completely different. Chew chew chew...there's the paprika....chew chew chew...there's the saffron....chew chew chew...what is that?....chew chew chew...swallow.

Her third course: "tomorrow’s chicken burrito, mole, avocado and fresh cheese, smooth bean and grilled tortilla sand."

Again, like a Brad Mehldau jazz masterpiece.  Looked nothing like a burrito, and honestly, I couldn't tell from sight which pile was the mole, which pile was the beans, but mix it up and eat it all together: there's the burrito in my mouth.  Looks like "deconstruction" meant more than what I was doing with my fork and stomach acid.

His fifth course: "hot dog, onion, ketchup and grain mustard."

 It looked nothing like a hot dog, but tasted exactly like a hot dog.  On the left there, you see mustard ice cream. In the middle, the meat, with ketchup caviar on top, little ketchup balls held together by its own hardened skin. To the right, cheese!

His sixth course: "duck and coke, root vegetables and spicy popcorn."

I had never thought to put popcorn with duck or vegetables.  Nor have I ever had the brilliance to think about making Coca Cola jelly.  Holy duck! The possibilities...

His seventh course: "pomelo CO2."


This course was not, as I originally thought, air. It was essentially carbonated pomelo fruit.  The explosive combination of the sourness of the fruit with the sprinkled salt made it feel like a delicious gunshot in my mouth. I repeat: delicious gunshot in my mouth. I actually bucked my head back when I put it on my tongue.

Her fourth course: "lamb: 24 hr. lamb shoulder & 15 min. rack complimented with Mediterranean flavours."

This dish was daunting.  Even though I'd only eaten three courses before this main, unlike my husband who was now on his eighth, my tummy was getting filled up and it didn't seem like the restaurant had a vomitorium.  Every bite was rich with flavour and I didn't want to waste a crumb...but my overwhelmed brain was begging for a break. That was a lot of jazz for one night.

His eighth course: "wagyu beef rib eye in adobo, garlic and potatoes."


This was my husband's seccond time this week eating wagyu beef.  It's so rare for us as Canadians to come across Japanese wagyu beef that you really can't eat too much wagyu beef (unless, of course, you don't have a bottomless bank account - which, come to think of it, we didn't).

By the main course, I was feeling destroyed and as deconstructed as my dishes. The server took a look at us and, pitying us, announced a break before dessert, leaving us toothpicks.  This may be all in my head, but it seemed like even the toothpicks were of a superior quality.

Her fifth and final course, thank god: "variations in dark chocolate….taste, texture, temperature."

Like Thelonius Monk's particular brand of bebop, I didn't totally understand everything that was happening on this plate, but I had no problem with it. When it comes to chocolate, to put it in the words of Ellie Goulding, anything can happen, and dammit, I want it all to happen in my mouth.

His ninth course: "peanut butter and jelly, buttery bread and crispy milk, semi dried grapes."

fancy PB&J! All the was missing was our mothers reading us a bedtime story.  My husband was lucky. He also got another dessert:

His tenth course: "making a reference to a campfire: graham wafer and chocolate, charred marshmallow and smoked vanilla, contrasted with passion fruit."

After extensive traveling, I've come to realize that s'mores is actually a uniquely North American snack that many parts of the world has not had the privilege to experience.  In Namibia, I had the pleasure of introducing the concept of s'mores to my African friends when we went camping, and obviously they liked it. Who doesn't like s'mores?  Imagine my pleasant surprise in seeing it pop up in this Asian part of the world, deconstructed and redone and damn delicious.

so fully. so very very full.

After many hours of eating and drinking and thinking about what we were eating and drinking, we were feeling pretty tired by the end. But happy.  If I could make one suggestion for the restaurant, it would be that they should provide wheelbarrows for guests leaving the table so they can push their stomachs along in them.  But I guess the golf carts did the trick too.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

the ladyboys of thailand

When I told my hairstylist in Ottawa, a lovely woman originally from Vietnam, that my partner and I were going to Southeast Asia for our honeymoon, she emphatically insisted that we go to "Geisho" when we got to Thailand.

"Is that a place?" I asked confusedly.
"You know, Geisho!" she said again. "But don't sit your man at front. They do things to man in front."

I realized that she was referring to a "gay show".

The Thai concept of kathoey, or what is popularly termed as ladyboy in English, does not exactly have a direct Western translation. Some kathoey explain it as being of a third gender or a women of a second kind. Sometimes it refers to an effeminate gay man. Sometimes it refers to a person born as a biological man who has undergone a full surgery or is taking hormonal therapy. Some dress as men during the day at work, and dress as women at night.

We hadn't really planned on seeing a ladyboy show in Thailand, but I really wanted to learn more about kathoey while I was in Thailand. Although I am a cisgender woman, I find it fascinating to learn about different concepts of gender identity in other cultures. I just wanted to tap the kathoey clerk at our Bangkok hotel on her shoulder and ask her all sorts of questions about her life. That would be intrusive, of course, and I am a polite Canadian, so I did not. Instead, I bought a book on the subject and read it by the hotel pool.

Contrary to popular Western belief, ladyboys are not always readily accepted in Thai society, even though the term kathoey has for a long time and often ladyboys begin to self-identify at a very young age, as early as eight. Ladyboys often face public ridicule; sometimes they are kicked out of the house for bringing shame on the family. The ones that leave home early are denied an education, and cannot get well-paying office jobs. Even if they do have an education, many employers do not want to hire a ladyboy. This is why ladyboys disproportionately work as prostitutes or performers.  Even after going through a full gender reassignment surgery, the Thai government does not recognize them as women, and forces them to don the "Mr" title on their passports.  Meanwhile, the police often arrest ladyboys on the streets while propositioning to them at the same time.

By the time we got to Ko Samui, I decided it would be fun to hit up a ladyboy cabaret. Our guide assured us that the ladyboy cabarets were magnificent spectacles, with no affiliation whatsoever with the go-go bars in Patpong, and while I was worried about the idea of paying ladyboys to dance and pose in front of us like zoo animals, I did see that a lot of families brought their kids to the ladyboy cabarets and having a lot of fun. So we headed over to Stars Cabaret in Chaweng.

It's free to get into the show at Stars Cabaret, but there is a one drink minimum, and as you might guess, the drinks are way overpriced. Still the show was quite entertaining, as the performers came on stage in fabulous costumes and fun dance sequences. It's obvious that they spend a lot of time rehearsing and that they enjoy showing off their talents to the tourists. Between the ladyboys shaking their peacock feather-adorned booties to Lady Marmalade, and the showboys dancing around in high heels, mascara, tight black pants, and no shirts, there more going on than my eyes could keep up with.

also featuring showboys

I was impressed not only by kathoey's ability to transcend gender, but also, apparently race. The Thai performers were imitating white and black singers convincingly, without resorting to offensive caricatures (ie, no blackface). They were clearly the masters of makeup. I was tempted to run backstage and beg them to give me lessons in eyeliner.

One of my favourite acts involved a single performer dressed as a man on one side and as a woman on the other side, singing the famous duet "One Man Woman" (you can see another similar performance here). During the female vocals, the performer presented the female side, and during the male vocals, the performer presented the male side. It was fun to watch, if not at the least because it allowed you to see the performer both in drag and not in drag at the same time...not to mention also a white woman and an Asian man at the same time.

there's her...

there's him...

there's them!

There was, as my hairstylist warned, a lot of audience participation, sometimes involuntary: "Toni Braxton" convinced one of the male audience members to give her a kiss on the cheek, while another performer teased a shy Korean tourist who was trying to hide behind his iPad. It was definitely an entertaining night.

diana ross

toni braxton


britney spears

whitney houston

Friday, November 23, 2012

in praise of thai food

Management invited us and some of the other guests to a cocktail party by the resort's seaside pool. There, while munching on various yummy fried appetizers, we met Martin, one of the staff members. We told him how we were enjoying the food culture here in Koh Samui, although we were always keeping an eye out for the cheaper street food that Thailand is good for.

"Why not eat where the Thais eat, for a change?" Martin suggested. "Away from where the tourists stay."

Martin suggested a local favorite that might interest us. It was located on the other side of the fork in the road that we always passed. (Side note: The island of Samui pretty much has, like, one major road that circles around the whole island). On that road less travelled, giant trucks obnoxiously blasted the Rocky soundtrack to advertise tonight's muay Thai game passed less frequently, and less Indian tailors tried to engage you in conversations to sell you suits, and less beggars limped along the sidewalk. Instead, there were rows of vegetable markets, kabab stands, and the occasional sleazy massage bars where girls in tight dresses waited for their white princes to come and fill their pockets.

The restaurant, Mitra, was an open air stop, displaying seafood on ice at the front, like the huge warm water lobsters mysteriously lacking in claws, and what looked to me like a shark. The restaurant  ran until two in the morning, and seemed to be the place where Thai workers grabbed a bite after their shifts. The walls are covered with photos of the restaurant's dishes, photos of people eating them, and, oddly enough, photos of kittens. A flame grill at the back cooked the giant fish, filling part of the restaurant with smoke. Mangosteen pieces littered the ground. Everything smelled delicious.

They sat the farangs like us at the back of the restaurant. At the table next to us where bored Thai teens, watching soap operas on their iPhones and eating spaghetti.

We ordered the phad kea mao, a red chili curry with coconut milk.

"Make not spicy," the server told us, more than asking us. It's because I'm with my white "no spice" husband. She doesn't know I'm from Korea, That Other Part Of Asia That Loves Spice. But it's okay. The dish will come not spicy, and I'll just add the chili powder they leave at all the tables, which is another custom I really like.

A lot of the restaurants in Thailand offer the usual Thai dishes, massaman, green curry, paenang, but also "western" dishes like spaghetti or chicken nuggets. I suppose it's for the tourists who, after weeks on the road, grow tired of Asian food and miss "regular" food.  If there's one thing my trip here has taught me so far, it's that I apparently cannot get tired of Asian food, which I just see as food.  I love Thai food. I have been eating Thai food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and continue to crave more. No matter whether we're eating at an upsale dining restaurant or a food stand on the street, I have loved every meal I've eaten here.  I'll be sad when I leave this country and its amazing food...although maybe once I leave, my weight will go back to normal.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

a really big Buddha: The Grand Palace and Wat Pho

the city pillar shrine

It was nice of President Obama to join us on our honeymoon in Thailand. According to reports, he really enjoyed visiting the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, where the enormous Reclining Buddha is housed. It's one of the main tourist attractions in Bangkok, so it's always really busy and crowded, but we enjoyed it too.

We got to the grounds by taking the Chao Praya Express, which despite its name, is not actually a train but a ferry boat that Thai people take across the choppy waters of the river to get to work. The trip was chaotic, with no staff to regulate the capacity of the boat (not that a maximum capacity was posted anywhere, even if someone did care), just a ticket collector making her way through the crowd. The ferry was jerky, often slamming unceremoniously into the dock as long-tailed speedboats whipped past us, carrying waving tourists who were willing to pay more than the fifty cents that the Chao Praya Express charged for a ride. I suspect Obama didn't take the ferry.

Despite the large number of peddlers trying to sell us silk and con artists trying to convince us that the sites were closed, we made it to the Grand Palace without too much incident.

The entrance to the Grand Palace was closely guarded by the Clothes Police, making sure that nobody was entering the grounds immodestly dressed: clothing down to elbows and knees, no open-toed or open-heeled footwear. On one hand, I've been finding the Buddhist temple dress codes somewhat inconvenient - sometimes it just feels too hot to be wearing sweaters and jeans in hot Bangkok. On the other hand, I'm always a bit surprised at what some other tourists consider to be appropriate wardrobe for a visit to a religious site. Really? A belly top and hot pants?

After touring the Grand Palace, we stopped to eat some mangos. Every tourist that passed us viewed our fruit with envy.

the ministry of defence: lots of guns

The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho was really big. In our view, anyway. Apparently President Obama thought so too. Great minds think alike. It was too big to actually fit in one camera shot, no matter how hard I tried.


Buddha's feet


Buddha's back 

it was interesting to see so many statues of Buddha here, especially after seeing Angkor Wat, where many of the statues of Buddha in the temples had been deliberately destroyed

fierce temple guards

fierce temple kitties

i met lil sebastien!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Khao San Road

Don't go to Khao San Road. I mean, chances are if you're visiting Bangkok you'll probably visit it, just like the way tourists will visit Dundas Square on Yonge Street in Toronto, Rue St Catherine in Montreal, Rideau Street in Ottawa, the red light district in Amsterdam. But don't stay there long, because you are not experiencing Bangkok.

"Lots of foreigners," says my husband's aunt disdainfully, who is Thai and lives in Bangkok. "That's where all the foreigners go, and that's all they see when they come to Bangkok and that's how Bangkok gets its reputation."

Khao San Road is the Disney version of Bangkok, an adult's artificial fantasy view of a ridiculous land where everyone speaks English, virtually nobody is Thai, drinks are overpriced, and foreigner's bad manners are overlooked because they all want your money. A street vendor sells customized fake driver's licenses and university degrees. A woman pushes a cart full of sedated puppies, claiming she is collecting money for an animal shelter. A vendor sells fried grasshoppers and larvae, charging 10 both for each photo you take of it, leading me to suspect the food's not really for eating but for gawking. A bar called "We Don't Check ID" advertises strong cocktails.

A man asks me if I want a tuktuk taxi ride. I say no. In a much lower voice, he asks my husband if he wants to see a ping pong show. My husband says no.

As you can tell from my travel blog, I love traveling, but I have mixed feelings toward backpacker culture. It's not so much the bad manners, colonialist ignorance, or patchouli smell that I occasionally find; I'm more concerned about how the habits of backpackers affects and transforms the local environment. The most obvious example for me is the presence of henna tattoo and dreadlocking stands, no matter what country I go to. Henna and dreadlock traditions come from specific countries. I certainly don't think Asian hair traditionally required dreadlocking. Yet they've both become a part of backpacker culture; every city's backpacking tourist trap offers these services. Local people's livelihoods then depend on offering these services of an artificial culture that does not exist anywhere except in the ubiquitous backpacking culture. It annoys me, maybe particularly because I dislike hippies.

We liked Roof, though. It was a tourist bar on Khao San Road with overpriced drinks like any other joint, but I liked it for the view it offered. Several stories high, you can sit on the balcony by a cool fan and watch the crowd on the street below.

I liked watching one Indian tailor in particular. There are a lot of Indian tailors here, making a living on the fact that custom-made suits are so cheap here in Asia. He's got to get clients first, so I watch him work the crowd, stopping men and sometimes women that he perceives as potential suit-buyers. He hold up a poster of models wearing Armani suits, trying different pickup lines. One after another, the passersby turn him down or ignore him. The tourists want to eat some pad thai or get a foot massage, not buy a suit. Still, the Indian tailor has to keep trying, otherwise he won't get paid. I watch him go from person to person, with a friendly smile that is only dropped when he thinks nobody is looking. I imagine him waiting for people to get drunk enough to say something to their drinking buddies like, "Hey, after this beer, let's go get some cheap suits, dude." He dreams about one day tailoring real Armani suits in New York for real celebrities like Christian Bale, and not these drunk dreadlocked henna tattooed kids finding themselves by traveling on the family trust fund. He takes a break and drinks some water. I wonder who else can see how tired he is.

Roof has an in-house musician singing songs and taking requests, but only if it's within his repertoire, which seems to be mostly Jack Johnson, the Beatles, and Eric Clapton. The bar is filled with a few Asian tourists, and some old white men with young Thai girlfriends.

Meanwhile, back on the streets below, cops are sweeping through the stands and vendors, the ones without permits i assume, are scrambling to make themselves scarce. A bunch of tacky t-shirt stands magically disappear; the Indian tailors are gone; and I certainly can't see the people selling fake college diplomas anymore. A police officer on a motorcycle stops at one of the stands that are remaining. He walks into the store and walks out with a big bag of stuff. He's doing some of his own shopping. Soon enough, Khao San Road returns back to its normal bustling self.

Last night, we went for dinner with some of Rob's relatives who live in Bangkok. They took us to a lovely restaurant called the Greyhound Cafe, located near the trendy upscale avenue of Soi 55 in Sukhumvit, a large property of land that Rob's aunt's family used to own before it was sold to become a dazzling array of fashion boutiques, flashy restaurants, and fancy nightclubs. The restaurant's logo seems to be suspiciously similar to another greyhound company, but the menu read like a good novel. Usually I'm suspicious of fusion places, but if there's one place that should be able to pull off Thai fusion, it's Thailand. The food selection was a creative play on Asian and western classics, like corned beef spaghetti (with chili), or tender braised beef with rice noodle soup (with chili), or turkey pita pizza (with chili), or make your own noodle-lettuce-beef combo (with chili) or sandwich bits on a soup bowl. My husband's uncle noted that Thais take food seriously here. They don't treat meals as just something to fill themselves up, but an art, a social opportunity, one of the special parts of life. This is the part of Bangkok that I like.