Comfort Food, A Tale of Three Cities

I’ve been writing essays lately for Silverkris, the magazine of Singapore Airlines. They don’t have an online site, so the only way to read my magazine articles is to take a flight on Singapore (highly recommended!). But that’s not always possible, so I’m going to share them with you here, after they’ve flown around the world in the seat pocket for a few months.

This one is my meditation on comfort food in three of my favorite cities: New York, Hong Kong and Bangkok:

I thought I knew everything about som tum–the yummy shredded papaya salad that’s one of the most famous dishes in Thai cuisine. But that was before I invited my friend Tip out to lunch.

Tip lives in Bangkok, in a soi, or lane, off Samsen Road that straddles a muddy canal near the Chao Phaya river. But her roots are in the Northeast of Thailand, the dry rice-growing region called Isaan, where som tum is almost as ubiquitous as rice itself.

Overthe years, migrant workers from Isaan have moved to Bangkok, and brought their taste for som tum with them. Now, when you walk down lanes in certain Bangkok neighborhoods (like Rangsam Road, near the Victory Monument), it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll be greeted bythe melodious thunk! thunk! thunk! of stone pestles gently pounding green papaya, garlic, tomatoes, salt, sugar, fish sauce, dried shrimpand hot peppers into a scrumptious snack.

Tip is a skilled practitioner of traditional Thai massage, and she’d just cured the pain in my back that had defeated two doctors, a chiropractor and an acupuncturist. To thank her, I had invited her to a fancy lunch at Senses cafe in Gaysorn Plaza, Bangkok’s upscale shopping mall. I’ve eaten at Senses a lot, and I thought their som tum was pretty good, soI ordered some, since I figured Tip, being Isaan, would like it.

But I noticed, as we were eating, she barely picked at it. “Isn’t it spicy enough?”, I asked.

She answered, reluctantly. “It’s okay…just not…right,” she said.

Her answer intrigued me, since I couldn’t taste anything wrong with this som tum. The papaya was fresh, the tomatoes ripe, the flavors balanced perfectly at the intersection of salty, hot, sour and sweet. The restaurant even served the dish with its traditional accompaniment,sticky rice. Still, Tip had been eating–and making–som tum all her life. I could appreciate the dish, but Tip was the cultural authority who knew it. So I wondered, what was she tasting that I was not?

Curious,I asked Tip to lead me to some som tum that was “right”. She pulled out her cellphone, called her boyfriend, and soon the three of us were weaving in his car through traffic choked streets on a quest for the best som tum in Bangkok.

Food is, more often that not, the key ingredient of my best trips. I like to travel in a way that allows me to share and explore other cultures, and have found that eating local food–preferably with local people– is a sure way to break the ice.

One thing I’ve discovered along the way is that most big cities have a “signature” food. It’s usually something simple and homely, inexpensive yet utterly satisfying, and almost always you can eat it in on or near the street. In Shanghai, itis the little handmade dumplings called xiao lan bao, that steam in wicker baskets everywhere. Tokyo has the onigiri, the ball of rice molded into a triangle, then wrapped in crisp norimaki seaweed.Denizens of Madrid stand at busy counters and nosh little sandwiches of the delicious Spanish jamon serrano.

There’s another thing I’ve discovered about these urban signature foods–you don’t really “know” a city until you’ve staked your position in the eternal argument over where the “best” is to be found, whether it is croissants(Paris), cheesesteak hoagies (Philadelphia), roti (Port of Spain,Trinidad) or falafel (Tel Aviv).

I know these contentious discussions well. My adopted city is Hong Kong, where we engage in a constant battle that I call the “Won Ton Wars.” That is, in which of the city’s tens of thousands of noodle joints can you get the mostperfect, most delicious, most “traditional” bowl of won ton mihn, theclassic Hong Kong noodle soup with hand-wrapped shrimp and pork dumplings?

The won ton wars rage on the websites devoted to Hong Kong food connoisseurship, like, and the China forums of They also simmer, more quietly, in the prejudices and particular habits of my Hong Kong Cantonese friends. David, for instance, shuns the venerated Wellington Street institution calledMak’s Noodles, even though its soup broth is a dense, complex wonder of shrimp and pork flavors, its won tons are tightly wrapped and perfectly bite-sized, and the kitchen uses as garnish the more expensive white chives instead of the cheaper green ones. “The bowl is too small forthe price,” he sniffs. “You finish and you’re still hungry.”

David,and our friend Leung, prefer a little storefront on the edge of WanChai, near the Bowrington Market, called “Freedom Noodles.” It does not appear on any of the connoisseur websites, and to be sure, its broth is not nearly as exquisite as the fine wine of Mak’s (although its wontons, each one containing a whole shrimp, are little bundles of treasure). But in the universe of signature cuisine, “Freedom Noodles”has an important edge with my friends–there’s an emotional connection.David is a schoolteacher, and the noodle shop is in the building directly beneath a teacher’s union headquarters where he has spent much time over the last years. He’s been a “regular” at Freedom for tenyears. When he comes in, they don’t even have to take his order, and inthe won ton wars, familiarity counts at least as much as white chives.

I’m not a native born Hong Konger, but I’ve lived there long enough to form my own noodle soup opinions, which I’ll admit, have emotional as well as culinary bases. My favorite won ton minh is served in Wing Wah, a modest storefront shop on busy Hennessey Street in Wan Chai.

Icould say that Wing Wah won my allegiance because of its noodles, which is partly true. This is one of the few noodle joints left in Hong Kong that makes its wheat noodles on the premises, pulling them out on a bamboo-pole in the old-school method. But the real reason I became a Wing Wah partisan has to do with the way I was introduced to the place.One night, shortly after I moved to Hong Kong, I went out to a pub with two interesting local characters, a writer and a politician. After we’d been chatting and drinking beer for a few hours, the writer realized it was past midnight. “Let’s eat,” she said.

Hong Kongers love to”sik siu yeh”, to eat a late night snack. After midnight, almost any of Hong Kong’s most famous snacks–curry fish balls, grilled cuttlefish on sticks, stinky tofu–can be found in stalls or storefronts if you know where to go. Sharing siu yeh with your buddies is a local tradition, a rite of passage.

And my first siu yeh was won ton minh at Wing Wah. If I had to judge the place like a restaurant critic, its broth would fall short of Mak’s. But for me Wing Wah’s soup will always be deliciously connected with that wonderful Hong Kong ritual of late night snacking, of friends, and shared good times–and of my initiation into the life of a city not my own.

New York is my native city. We New Yorkers are no different from the Cantonese who turn up their noses at a bowl of too-salty won ton noodles. We cherish, savor and argue over our local “signature”foods–the cheesecake, the knish, the hot dog. But the “local” dish that we hold most dear is a beloved import from Italy: pizza.

In New York, we prefer to eat our pizza standing up, by the slice (which always seems to cost exactly as much as a subway fare). We even have a special way to eat it. When I’m at my neighborhood pizza joint in Brooklyn (it’s called “Pizzatown”) I always buy a “regular” slice. When it comes out from the big steel oven, I take it, and fold the triangle in half, upwards, so I can take the first bite without losing any of the cheese topping (or burning my mouth).

Lately, New York’s pizza has gone all gourmet and trendy. One of the famous old handmade pizza stands, Di Fara’s, has even raised the price of a single slice to$5. New pizza restaurants are springing up everywhere. These places boast wood-fired ovens instead of the usual gas-fired ones. They use artesanal and sometimes organic ingredients. And instead of costing the same as a subway fare, the pizza in these new New York joints have aprice that’s closer to a cab ride.

The best of these new artesanal pizzas can be sampled at Franny’s, a popular place in Brooklyn with lines outside that are almost as long as the selections on its fine wine list.  The crust is super thin, a bit blackened at the edges, redolent of woodsmoke. Fresh buffalo mozzarella and just-snipped basil leaves adorn this crusty canvas. You wouldn’t dare fold this pizza–it’s made for a knife and fork. I lift a bite to my mouth:everything about it, from the tang of the tomato sauce to the crunch of the crust, is impeccable.

And yet, I hear the echo of my Bangkok friend Tip’s voice in my ears: “It is okay, but just….not right.”

A city’s signature food is more than the sum of its parts. The “best” wontons, or steamed dumplings, aren’t just the products of a great chef or a perfect recipe. They are little bites of local culture, morsels of emotion. I eat pizza and remember how I shared slices with old boyfriends; in Hong Kong, my friends do the same thing, only with noodles.

And in Bangkok, on a hot humid night, Tip’s boyfriend drove until we reached a narrow busy street called Rangnam Road, and asmall restaurant with an open facade called, in Thai, “Isaan Rotdee”,which means “Northeast Taste”. As he parked, I could already hear the familiar thunk! thunk! of the mortar and pestle. Tip placed her order,instructing the som tum maker exactly how much dried shrimp, pepper and peanuts she wanted in the papaya mix. She grabbed handfuls of longbeans and Thai basil as side accompaniments.

We ate the som tum out of plastic bags in the car. Tip showed me how to press the sticky rice into small balls, to soak up the juices.

“This is right,” said Tip, smiling. “Tastes just like when I lived on the farm in Isaan.”

Thesom tum was, indeed, tasty. And what made it “right” wasn’t just the ingredients or the preparation. It was the Bangkok night, the moment of sharing with friends, the experience.

Someday, I hope I will have the chance to teach my friend Tip to fold a New York slice of pizza.

Signature Food: in Bangkok, Hong Kong and New York

Won Ton Soup in Hong Kong

Wing Wah Noodle Shop 89 Hennessy Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong, China. Tel: +8522527 7476

Freedom Noodles G/F, 15 Canal Road West, Causeway Bay

Mak’s Noodles

77 Wellington St., Central, Phone: 2854-3810

Som Tum in Bangkok

Tida Esarn Restaurant
1/2-5 Rangnam Road, Rajthevee, 0 2247 2234

Isaan Rotdee
3/5 Rangnam Road, Rajthevee, 0 2246 4579

Senses Restaurant
999 Gaysorn Plaza, 1st Floor
1 Ploenchit Road

Pizza in New York

Franny’s 295 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn (718) 230-0221

V&M Pizzatown, 85 5th Ave, Brooklyn (718) 789-4040

1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn (718) 258-1367