Hot in the city

The Weekend Australian - Life - - STYLE - JOHN LETH­LEAN leth­[email protected]­tralian.com.au

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

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