Khoo Chek Bin (Bill, please); Chapter One

So now that we’re back from our long North American jaunt where we pigged out like there was no tomorrow, let’s address the foodie thing from an expat’s point of view. Promising I’d try to  avoid mindlessly posting uninhibited pictures of everyone’s favorite internet topic (food), I wrestled on how to highlight all the great things we ate and still stay on topic. Noticing that Skip the Dishes is the latest craze in Canada and the USA, it seems that today’s lazy millennial generation need not even step foot outside, never mind picking up a kitchen utensil to cook anything. With everything from McDonalds to gourmet five course dinners available at the touch of a smart phone, it’s no different here in Asia with one big exception. Often compromising taste, quality and style, eating “western style food” in Southeast Asia means tempering one’s expectations.

New York: Food heaven

Avoiding a third version of That Dreaded Foodie Post, I thought I’d combine a gastronomical recap of our trip with a look at the differences between Asian and North American versions of foods that many westerners grew up with. Sharing experiences of my reunion with foods I know and love by matching them up side by side with their Thai counterparts, think of this post as a comparative food primer for wannabe expats. Believing that exploring local foods is one the best things about experiencing another culture, we avoided reading about an ongoing “best burger in Chiang Mai” debate on Facebook’s Chiang Mai Eats group and tried to delve first hand into “real Thai food”. And although we kind of knew this, it’s worth reiterating that almost everything you think is authentic anything usually lands somewhere far removed from what’s enjoyed by most locals. With abundant European expats here in Chiang Mai, western food often gravitates towards a very non-North Americanized style so let’s dive right in and call this a Cautionary Food Tale for North Americans pondering a move to Thailand. Focusing on Italian food first, I’ll make this a multi part post.

Pizza

Availability in Chiang Mai:     High
Similarity to the real thing:   Medium
On the scale of 1 to 10:           6.5

Clearly biased, my immediate disclaimer is this: Born and raised in Brooklyn during an era of small mom and pop pizzerias featuring pizza and New York style Italian dishes which mostly imitate Sicilian style (dark red sauces and emphasis on baked cheese), I never argue with anyone about pizza. As sure as Trump supporters talking Obama birther theory, there’s only one way to make “New York Style Pizza” and this is it.

Pizza slices from Espresso Pizzeria in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, USA

Simply stated, Brooklyn pizza is the best in the world in my book. For anyone who’s never been to Brooklyn, here’s the scoop. Thin crusted and dripping with oil, real New York style pizza has perfectly browned but never burnt imported mozzarella cheese. And that’s it. Only served piping hot out of a pizza oven, it’s best enjoyed by picking it up, folding it in two, letting the oil drip and enjoying the crust. Easily recognizable as the main part of the pizza that gives it its unique taste, most New Yorkers agree it’s the water (like the bagels) that differentiate the crust from New York style wannabes all over the world.

Variation number One:    Sicilian

Also known simply as “squares”, this fabulous variation is little known outside of New York. With a thicker, lighter and much airier but still crunchy crust, it’s generally served with extra cheese (always brown and piping hot) and a smidgen of red pizza sauce sneaking through. It’s sacrilegious to put on any toppings. Not as oily, you can’t find this crust outside of New York so don’t bother looking for this in Asia.

Variation number two:    Pie with “real” toppings

First off, let’s be clear. A “Pie” in New York isn’t dessert with blueberries and whipped cream; you can go to a quaint cottage town in Maine for that. If you must eat pizza with toppings, there’s only two choices. Although readily available all over Asia and Europe, real pepperoni only exists on the East coast of America. Greasy, a tad crisp when cooked and actually smoked and flavored (unlike its European counterparts), you can buy it anywhere but it’s really only good for one purpose. The other quintessential topping is New York style Italian sausage (which can be found outside New York if you look hard). Made with a copious amount of fennel and usually as spicy as Tom Yum, it can (and should be) served on hero sandwiches (there’s no “subs” in Brooklyn), or as an entrée with grilled peppers onions and red sauce. Having scoured every import store in Thailand and Penang, I’ve never found anything remotely close to real Italian style sausage,

Commentary on Pizza in Asia:

Before the Brooklyn readers panic and change their minds about moving to Asia, I’ll add that pizza is probably the most universally served western food anywhere on the Asian continent. Having sampled versions in Myanmar, Cambodia, Penang and dozens of times here in Chiang Mai, I’d say that while nobody duplicates Espresso Pizza, the best remaining mom and pop pizza in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, pizza is palatable in Asia, albeit very different. So while I’m OK eating everything from dry flavorless European meats to fresh seafood and shrimp paste on pizza, be warned when you come across something that looks like this:

To be fair, our friend runs the “New York style pizza” and western style restaurant shown above and it’s literally across the street from us. While portion sizes are huge by Thai standards and we often eat there for convenience, the classically trained chef hails from America but not New York which means his pizza misses the mark for me. Although Americans from places like Texas, Wisconsin and California often praise his pizza, I usually order the generously large (and expensive) rack of ribs which he smokes in-house. With so many places serving pizza, you may find something appetizing enough like this “Mexican style pizza” from Fajita’s in Mae Hia, our favorite local hideaway for fresh-Mex (which, ironically, is the only thing we didn’t eat in North American since only California does Mexican properly and we didn’t go there).

Or sometimes you’ll find a wonderfully priced single serving sized pizza at a place you’d least expect it from. Seen below, the slice below has a surprisingly good crispy crust and the toppings include fresh Thai Basil, mushrooms and cheese that’s gooey and melts in your mouth. Not exactly screaming out pizza, Bunny Buns Cafe and Restaurant is Japanese owned, has only two tables and its suburban location is perfect for moo-baan dwellers like us.

And then there’s all the rest. One of the higher rated western foods, you’ll never run out of pizza options in Chiang Mai or anywhere in Southeast Asia. And sometimes the variations are just what you’re in the mood for. But before attempting to argue with some non New Yorker that thinks he understands real New York pizza, peruse the pictures below (all from Chiang Mai) and tell me if anything looks remotely close to what I’ve described.

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Other Italian Food:

Meatballs

Availability in Chiang Mai:    Medium
Similarity to the real thing:   Low
On the scale of 1 to 10:           5

Call me crazy, but I like meatballs even better than pizza. Growing up, local parents hated me because while all the kids chowed down on pizza at birthday parties, I requested meatball heroes. Yeah, I was left out a lot. Anyway, anyone can roll up some ground beef (or minced beef, as it’s known everywhere outside North America) and call it a meatball. And that’s basically what they do in Asia. Real meatball connoisseurs understand the fine art of making Italian style meatballs. Sadly, I’m not Italian so I haven’t mastered the craft but I can tell you that required ingredients include onions, fennel, oregano, salt, red pepper flakes, parsley, garlic, bread crumbs (made from New York bread of course) Romano or parmesan cheese and eggs. Best served on hero bread (purists never call it a sub or sandwich) and cooked in a pizza oven until the bread is golden brown and the cheese is melts, a good one looks like this:

So what’s the deal in Asia? Not usually seen on Thai menus, they prefer pastas like spaghetti infused with a spicy Thai style Bolognese sauce or creamy Northern style Italian specialties like Carbonara, although lack of real smoked crispy bacon makes them sad. Usually needing a western style Italian restaurant to find meatballs on bread, there’s some options out there and although you can’t necessarily tell the degree of flavor from a picture, I assure you the example below is about as good as it gets and it looks a lot better than it tastes. Doughy bread adds carbs and calories assuring a good sugar dump but don’t expect anything close to what New Yorkers know as Italian hero bread. Like bagels, it’s the water that makes it good. So they say.

Interestingly enough, searching “meatballs” on my IPhone picture gallery from Thailand pulls up a cornucopia of stuff that I suppose can be considered meatballs. For example, this is a meatball in Thailand.

And so is this

And then there’s always European variations of meatballs like this concoction that actually tasted good but doesn’t even remotely resemble anything Italian. 

Italian Meat Sandwiches

Availability in Chiang Mai:     Somewhat limited
Similarity to the real thing:   Extremely Low
On the scale of 1 to 10:           3

Considering Thailand has some of the best pork anywhere on the globe, it’s a shame that doesn’t translate into good sandwich meat. Utilizing Airbnb allowed us to avoid the high-priced hotels and stroll around my old Brooklyn neighborhood like locals. Staying at an old attached three-story brick house that’s typical in Brooklyn, the lower level was fully renovated and the owner uses it as a year round vacation condo. Giving me an opportunity to stroll through the meat, cheese and deli counters at the local area supermarkets, I discovered a cornucopia of mouth-watering options and all kinds of stores from local butchers to newer high-end gourmet supermarkets which I assume serves the wealthier folks buying up all the old houses for several million.

Essential lunch meat; Boar’s Head makes America’s tastiest processed meats

A real selection of cheeses available everywhere in New York

Possibly my favorite lunch, nothing beats a great sandwich and while there’s a world of options  in Asia, they mostly suck when judged by New York standards. Clarifying what makes a “proper” sandwich (so the Brits understand), you start with quality Italian meats. While Thailand makes a plethora of sausage and ham products, they all taste the same which means they have very little taste. Preferring their meats uncured, unsmoked and with almost no spices, flavorings or anything besides the pig itself, you’d need to find a gourmet supermarket willing to import products like I’ve shown if you want a good sandwich. While it’s possible some ailing New Yorker pulled a bribe with customs officers and imports Boar’s Head products into Bangkok, we hate the big city and Chiang Mai’s supermarkets mostly carry one company that’s no doubt owned by a rich family like almost everything in Thailand. Sporting a cool name (TGM for Thai German Meat Product), if this what Germans consider flavorful, it’s lucky we don’t live in Munich.

But that’s not the sad part. You’ll find sad versions of ham and cheese (and tuna) sandwiches in any one of the 8,000 Seven Elevens and pretty much any other store from discount convenience shops all the way to Rimping and Tops, the two western style gourmet supermarkets in Chiang Mai. Mostly looking like the picture below with one slice of meat and something masquerading as cheese, tell me how appetizing that looks to you.

A Thai ham and cheese sandwich

It’s not impossible to find better sandwiches than the fast food airport style varieties in Chiang Mai because a host of western style restaurants offer “club sandwiches” (triple-decker crappy ham and cheese on three pieces of dry toast), hoagies (European style which means with tons of sweet British mayonnaise) and even specialty stuff like Cubanos (requiring boiled ham which means the dill pickles stand out the most). Of course there’s always Subway which has one slice of standard American meat and decent bread. But no matter how you dress it up with ciabatta, European rye or any other fancy name, you get the same result without quality ingredients. So what should a great Italian sandwich look like? I feasted on the sandwich below from Anthony’s Butcher & Deli on Third Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Looking closely at the picture, fellow Southeast Asian expats might notice the meat doesn’t look anything like what’s available in Thailand. And that’s because there’s some ingredients I’ve not come across in Chiang Mai but rightfully should since it’s all pork and that’s what they do best. Unable to find Hot Cappy anywhere outside New York City, the link from Staten Island Live explains how we improved on traditional Capicola which is dry-cured muscle running from the neck to the rib of the pork shoulder or neck. Our version is leaner, cooked and then coated with paprika and hot spices giving it an enormous flavor improvement.

Also blatantly missing from Thailand, I always thought Head Cheese was some gross European concoction they classify as “terrine” that’s made from pig snouts then jellied, ground up and turned into an inexpensive cold cut. But oddly, despite the large European expat crowd, I’ve never seen it here and it’s an excellent addition to an Italian sandwich. Another product sorely missing from Thailand is Beef Salami. While the Kosher version is second to none, it’s insanely expensive so Boar’s Head makes a great substitute version.

Finally, there’s the cheese. Provolone, while less common, can be found in Chiang Mai and since it’s always imported from Italy, it should be the real thing. But it’s always missing that sharp, nutty smell and although I’ve appealed to my friend who owns Chiang Mai Smoke House and imports various American meats for resale here in Chinag Mai, he can’t seem to get hold of any of these. So for any aspiring expats looking to makes some cash on the New Yorkers living in Thailand, here’s a gallery of suggestions to start your import business for suffering Brooklynites. I’ve included three different types of mustard. Which reminds me. Selling mostly of French’s Yellow Mustard in local supermarkets, I don’t know who thinks non spicy brown mustard belongs on Italian meat sandwiches but it’s probably the same people who put ketchup on hot dogs and mayo on pastrami.

Veal Cutlet Parmesan and Italian Ices

Availability in Chiang Mai:     Nowhere to be Found
Similarity to the real thing:   The possibilities are endless
On the scale of 1 to 10:           0

Ending sadly with food that’s beyond delicious but simply unheard of in Asia, I always make sure I eat this amazingly perfect and better version of a similar dish made with chicken that’s relatively common in Asia. By definition, Veal comes from young bovine animals aged 6 to 7 months. When the calf reaches the age of one year they are called a cow/bovine animal. The veal is then called beef. … Veal has light color, a fine texture, a smooth taste and is more tender. (from Wikipedia). Apparently another victim of left wing PC crap similar to the shit that allows Trumpism to thrive, veal underwent a period of unfavorable treatment thanks to alleged issues with cruel raising procedures. Unfazed in New York, no reputable (or even shitty) pizzeria or Italian restaurant in New York would ever exclude this staple dish from their menu

And finally, one last Italian treat you’ll be giving up if you move to Southeast Asia (or Chiang Mai, anyway), is Italian Ices. Guessing the Australians and Europeans have no clue what I’m referring to, Wikipedia says;

“There is an immense difference between Italian ice and Gelato. Italian Ice is a purely American invention that is somewhat similar to the Grattacheca, which is merely shaved ice topped with flavored syrups. … The difference between Granita and sorbet is the size of the ice crystals.

So while I’m not expecting to find veal and Italian Ices anytime soon in Chiang Mai, here’s a reminder what you’ll be giving up if you come join us on our Experimental Overseas Early Retirement. I ate the sandwich in the picture at a childhood staple called Nino’s Pizzeria. Unfortunately, each new set of Mexican owners usually learn how to keep the quality and integrity of the Italian dishes that are slowly disappearing in this new millennial generation of debt-laden wannabe millionaire homeowners demanding new trendy shit. Changing the menu entirely, the sandwich was still good but they changed the pizza recipe and started putting crap like brocoli and chicken on top of Brooklyn pizza and that’s a cardinal sin.

Concluding part one of my North American versus Thailand Expat Food Comparison, please come back in a few says when I’ll talk about burgers, ribs and other delicacies like real pastrami, New York style cheesecake, Mediterranean food and the strangest Canadian food ever invented (poutine). Meanwhile, it’s time to go eat a piece of Diane’s homemade dark pumpernickel bread with golden raisins which we prefer over just about any European style bread sold here in Chiang Mai.

Happy eating and cheers from rainy Northern Thailand.

Please share your favorite homeland food missing from your expat life. Or just leave comments and say hello

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