Hot in the city
We’re walking through the Silom BTS station, part of Bangkok’s essential public transport network (unless you want to have your next birthday in the back of an old Toyota taxi), when two Japanese girls approach.
No, actually, they approach the fresh-faced, always smiling, lightly tanned 30-year-old Mark Wiens, not me. “You … Video,” says the bold one, gesticulating the shape of a rectangular screen, half asking, half stating a fact. Yes, concedes blogger, videographer and professional eater Wiens. “I video.”
She already has a camera out; these girls need a snap of themselves in a cuddle with the famous young man who has become something of an international legend to the hardcore food travellers of Asia who want real, no-frills ethnic eating and couldn’t give a spoonful of foie gras about celebrity chefs and all that awards tossing. Satisfied with their digital souvenir, the girls run off giggling; that’s something to show the folks back home in Tokyo. And on we go.
Wiens and I have just finished a crazy good lunch in a place down a back soi close to the Sala Daeng BTS station that, with two (glass bottled) Cokes, a 500ml water and five dishes plus sticky rice, has cost about $15. The price is not the thing to concentrate on. It’s the extraordinary quality and authenticity of the take-noprisoners Isaan food Wiens has led me to. Mission accomplished. So how do I find myself lunching primitively with the guy behind the blogs eatingthaifood.com and migrationology.com, the chap whose down-to-earth videos reveal such a knowledge of and passion for Thailand and its food? Easy.
Last year, holidaying in Thailand, my web browsing inevitably led me to Wiens on many occasions. And it seemed pretty clear that his food knowledge and sense of adventure was in inverse proportion to his ego.
“I like the cut of this bloke’s jib,” I said nautically to the lady pulling the jib sheet of our rent-a-yacht. “I’m going to look him up next time I’m up here, find out what his story is.” So I did.
I wrote to Wiens and asked if he’d take me somewhere fascinating, somewhere I’d never find on my own, that would deliver a real Thai eating experience.
Which is how we find ourselves strolling into a kind of lean-to or garage — you just couldn’t use the term restaurant while looking for somewhere to sit at Som Tam Jay So.
We pass two things of note on the way in: a bank of charcoal grills cooking amazing chicken wings and a lady with a mortar and pestle preparing many variations of the Isaan specialty som tam, the shredded green papaya salad known the world over (although rarely is it a salad anything like what this smiling assassin produces).
Turns out Wiens grew up in a family that moved around, although he eventually graduated from high school and college in Arizona. The childhood travel (lots in Africa) and his Chinese-American mother fuelled a lifelong love of food, and eating.
His backpacking stalled in Thailand where he felt “at home”; seven years later, he is married to a Thai woman and the blog he started (“just to do something with my food pictures and kind of document my eating experiences”) has led to the kind of grassroots research and eating that has a value to travellers with authentic eating high on the priorities list.
He and his wife make a living by selling selfpublished e-books and merchandise via his websites. The rest of the time they blog, produce basic videos on what they’ve found eating around Asia, publish the material online and eventually channel all those facts into new e-books.
An early flirtation with advertising at the sites ended, but such is the couple’s reputation that, as we speak, they are in Jordan at the invitation of that nation’s tourism authority. (“I don’t accept invitations from private companies,” Wiens says; “they want things I’m not prepared to compromise on.”) I let Wiens order (der).
Pik gai yang, golden and utterly delicious marinated and charcoal-grilled chicken wings with a dark mystery dipping sauce; tom saeb moo, a fresh coriander and green chilli-garnished broth filled with all sorts of pig bits including plenty of tail, which is apparently an Isaan standard (sensational); a larb (salad with toasted, ground rice) made with fried catfish, young galangal and, I think, some fresh turmeric, one of the best things I’ve eaten, particularly with a big pinch of sticky rice dunked into it; a bean shoot salad that was neither here nor there, really.
There’s also some kind of som tam with chunks of lime, a dark fish sauce, tomato, green papaya, smashed crab and shedloads of dried — not fresh — red chilli. And garlic, obviously. And a generous blanket of petai, or stink beans, which purportedly are effective in treating depression, premenstrual syndrome, blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and constipation. (Can we get these little babies in Australia? If it’s true, they tick a lot of boxes.)
Anyway, as you know, there are different kinds of heat from different chillies, but when your ear canals are hurting you know you’ve reached — or even gone past — your limits.
Wiens had done awfully well. Check out his sites; if you’re heading to Thailand, buy his e-books. Get yourself a T-shirt. In a blogosphere of fakes and hand-out queens, he’s the real deal: an eater.
Mark Wiens fuels his lifelong love of food