Sunday, July 29, 2007

Thai Cashew Chicken

When we finally landed in San Francisco after over three weeks in Asia, we only had one thing on our minds—hamburgers. Of course we also had to figure out where to get a hotel and how to get back to Fort Lauderdale with our stand-by tickets, but the immediate concern was a good American meal.

The funny thing is, we weren’t sick of noodles and seafood. We ate beef in Japan more than once, but the point is that we had been eating Asian food for a month, and couldn’t resist the siren call of American comfort food. We wandered the streets of downtown San Francisco passing Asian, Thai, Vietnamese and even Indonesian restaurants that we would ordinarily have been thrilled to see. We wanted to avoid chain restaurants, but in the end we ended up at the Cheese Cake Factory…mmm, sliders.

The next day, we wandered around the Ferry Plaza for hours, and I ended the day, yet again, with a juicy hamburger and sweet potato fries. It was fun to crave this food that I normally feel less than excited about. When we finally did get home, we cooked healthy American recipes, like our staple black bean burritos. The luscious roasted vegetable linguini from my last post was a re-introduction to Italian cuisine. After about 3 weeks without Asian food and craving the exotic once again, we tossed together shrimp, chicken, vegetables and rice vermicelli with a tangy Vietnamese dressing. A few days later, we revisited the dishes we learned at the fantastic cooking school we attended in Thailand and made this recipe.

This is the photo of the cashew chicken as we made it in Thailand. Our home version lived up to the delicious taste memory.

Thai Cashew Chicken (Gai Pad Med Ma-Muang)

Adapted from Bai Pai Cooking School
Mike slices the chicken as thinly as possible so it cooks quickly. Use a very sharp knife and cut at an angle as if you are slicing a flank steak. Dried Thai chiles would be ideal, but the medium-hot chiles de arbol I had on hand worked really well. If you don't have dried chiles, sprinkle in some hot red pepper flakes, since you really should have at least a little heat in this dish. The Thai chili paste is irreplaceable as far as I know. Luckily, you can get it online here and probably in well-stocked markets.

Serves 4

3 tbs. canola oil, divided
1 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts, thinly sliced
salt and ground black pepper, to taste
2 1/2 tbs. Thai chili paste (Mae Pranom brand)
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 large red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 large onion, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/4 cup oyster sauce
1 tbs. sugar
6 dried red chiles (such as chiles de arbol)
Generous 1/2 cup raw cashews, toasted (or substitute dry roasted, unsalted cashews)
5 scallions, cut into 1 inch pieces
Steamed Thai jasmine rice, for serving

Heat 1 tbs. oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add half the chicken, season with salt and pepper and stir fry until cooked through. Put the chicken in a bowl and set aside. Repeat with 1 tbs. of the oil and the rest of the chicken.

Add the remaining oil to the empty skillet and heat. Add the chili paste, stirring constantly to break it up for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the chicken broth, red bell pepper, onion, oyster sauce and sugar. Stir well and simmer for 3 minutes. Lower the heat to medium, return the chicken to the skillet and cook until the sauce is slightly thickened and the vegetables are tender, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the chiles, cashews and scallions, stir to combine and serve immediately over rice.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Whole Wheat Linguine with Roasted Vegetables and Pesto Sauce

In the last posted, I hinted that I had a great new pasta recipe. I might have even called it, “the greatest.” It’s pretty simple—pasta tossed with basil pesto and a rainbow of roasted vegetables. But there’s just something about the way all the elements enhance and complement each other when you put them together. The slow-roasted tomatoes are sweet, the eggplant is incredibly silky, the onions are perfectly caramelized, the zucchini and mushrooms are full of flavor and the garlicky pesto is bright and fresh.

I started preparing this dish early in the day so I could roast the tomatoes at a low oven temperature, but I think you would get comparable results if you turned up the heat and decreased the time. I also spent a good deal of time hanging around the kitchen roasting the batches of vegetables. I don’t mind the waiting—there’s little actual work to do, and roasting is my favorite way to prepare these veggies. I did all this on a Sunday when I didn’t mind a little fussing around.

Make this recipe for you and one lucky person, so you’ll have enough to eat again in the next day or two. I think it may be even better when the veggies and noodles have had a chance to stew in the slick, fragrant pesto sauce, the garlic has mellowed and the flavors have meshed together lusciously.

Here are some other fantastic pasta recipes I've found on other food blogs:

1) Pasta with (VERY) slow roasted tomatoes on A Veggie Venture
2) Lisa's Shrimp and Penne on La Mia Cucina
3) One that I saved way back she posted it: Rigatoni with 5 Lilies and Ricotta Salata on Orangette
4) Egg noodles with zucchini and balsamic vinegar on The Wednesday Chef
5) Fresh pasta with zucchini and sundried tomatoes on What's For Lunch Honey?
6) Bee's grandfather's pasta with thyme-flavored tomato ricotta sauce on La Tartine Gourmande

Whole Wheat Linguine with Roasted Vegetables and Pesto Sauce
Serves 4

1 cup fresh basil leaves
2 generous tbs. toasted pine nuts
2 generous tbs. grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2-3 tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 medium cloves garlic
salt and pepper to taste
pasta cooking water, to thin to desired consistency

Combine the basil, pine nuts, cheese, olive oil and garlic in a blender and puree. Season with salt and pepper. Add small amounts of the pasta cooking water and continue to blend until you have a thick, but pourable consistency.

10-12 roma tomatoes, halved and cored
olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper
1 large eggplant, cut into 1-inch chunks
8 oz. Portobello mushroom caps, cut into chunks
4 small zucchini, cut into chunks
1 large red onion, layers separated and cut into 1-inch chunks
¾ lb. whole wheat linguine (I like Whole Foods’ 365 brand)

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Place the tomato halves cut side up on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Drizzle some olive oil over the top and season with salt and pepper. Roast for about 3 hours or until tomatoes are very soft and at least half their original volume. If you have less time, increase the temperature. If you have more, let them cook until they are as sweet and chewy as you want. It will be good either way, but I have the feeling that slow roasting provides the sweetest result. Remove from the oven, set aside until cool and cut in half lengthwise.

Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees. Toss the other vegetables with a little oil, season with salt and pepper and spread them out on baking sheets coated with cooking spray. Roast until browned and tender, tossing once during cooking. Keep in mind that the vegetables will finish cooking at different times, and remove them from the oven accordingly.

Meanwhile, make the pesto and cook the pasta. Reserve about ½ cup of the pasta water, just before draining. Add a little at a time to the pesto until it has a thick, but pourable consistency.

Drain the pasta and return it to the pasta pot. Add the roasted vegetables and toss gently. Add the pesto and toss to coat. At this point, you may want to add a bit of pasta water to moisten the vegetable and loosen the sauce a bit more, but it’s your call. Take it slow and stop when things look good to you.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Vietnam Top 10- Nha Trang

Vietnam Top 10…continued

If you’re wondering what the heck has been happening on this blog, let me recap: my husband and I found ourselves with the opportunity to go traveling in Southeast Asia, so that is what we did throughout the month of June. I’ve been back home for three weeks, and I am still trying to get all the amazing places, experiences and meals down on this blog.

You see, Mike’s aunt and uncle recently moved to Singapore, a city that is the perfect jumping off point to the rest of the region. We visited them, then went to Thailand and Vietnam. On our way back, we stopped in Tokyo. I could have stayed for another month and not gotten tired of the amazing cities, exotic food and the delicious feeling of being completely out of my element.

In my previous post, I started a Vietnam Top 10, but I lied. I knew 10 things wouldn’t be enough. Vietnam is an amazing country that seems to be right in the midst of an upswing. Though the American dollar or the Euro can take you ridiculously far in Vietnam, I have a feeling it will not stay that way forever.

We spent a few days in Ho Chi Minh City and a few more in Nha Trang, a beach town up coast. The rest of the “top 10” is mostly about Nha Trang, and I will try to paint a picture of what it is really like.

8) Nha Trang’s fresh seafood- Nha Trang is one of Vietnam’s important fishing ports, so if they are not in the tourism business, the locals are likely to be fisherman. We had a seafood banquet there every day. Truc Linh was our favorite restaurant, and the owners actually operate two eateries a couple of blocks apart. We ate grilled crab, curries, noodle dishes, papaya salad… Most of the restaurants in town would display their seafood and set up their charcoal grills right on the sidewalk. And just in case, you can’t take any more seafood, you can try the little Turkish restaurant owned by a man who bills himself as “Nha Trang’s only Turkish chef.” He’s not lying.

Truc Linh, 21 Biet Thu

9) Nha Trang’s Hot Spring Center- This was one of the best experiences of our trip. What a place! Nha Trang’s coastline is sheltered by mountainous land (see the picture above) where hot, mineral spring water gushes out for your pleasure. Nha Trang is a huge destination for Vietnamese and vacationers from other parts of Southeast Asia, and they all love the hot springs. Big families come together and there is a Disneyland-like atmosphere. You put your clothes in a locker, have a quick mineral shower and are directed to a rock mud bath lining the hillside. You soak for twenty minutes in the freshly flowing mud (it’s thinned and smells of minerals, not dirt), pouring it all over yourself with a little bucket. Then you bask on the sun-warmed rocks for a while before rinsing off. After that, you get to walk through a mineral water fountain that squirts you at high pressure. Finally, you soak in a fresh pool of your own hot, hot mineral water. Awesome.

We opted for a massage after our soak, and it was the best one I’ve ever had. Using a bar fixed high up on the wall, the tiny Vietnamese masseuse used it for balance while she walked on my back. All this, including the massages, cost just over twenty dollars for both of us.

10) Perfume Grass Inn- Again proving itself to be $25.99 well spent, our Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring led us here. We took the hotel’s priciest room at $25.00 per night and got a huge room with wood paneling and beautiful wooden furniture. The hotel is one block from the beach and right in the center of the action (I’m using this as a relative term) in Nha Trang. The hotel played host to a collection of ragtag regulars who always seemed to be at their posts, kind of like Norm at Cheers. The owners were kind, helpful and gave honest feedback if we asked for it. The room rate included breakfast served in their lovely open eating area where we got perfectly fried eggs every morning.

11) Scuba Diving- My experience was previously limited to Florida and Aruba, but Nha Trang is definitely my favorite dive site so far. There are many islands off the coast of Nha Trang where brilliant coral reefs grow. Though the visibility was only to about 25 feet, most of the good stuff is at that depth. We saw a huge blue starfish, a baby octopus and a little clown fish (like Nemo) who harrassed my husband. There some cave-like rocks to swim through--a strange experience that feels like sensory deprivation for the split second before you see light at the other end. When we surfaced, the crew wasn't around to help with our gear because they were fixated on a small whale that happened to swim into the cove where we were diving. It could have been a sperm whale, and it swam around at the surface for the next hour while we watched from the boat.

For professional dive operators that take care of everything, go to Sailing Club Divers.

12) The Banana Girl- She comes at twilight, in that part of the day between afternoon and evening when the light casts a faded, pink glow over the beach. Sorry for the melodrama, but after seeing her on our first day in Nha Trang, I thought the banana girl might really be an apparition. She came up to me selling her doughnut hole-like banana fritters when I was walking along the shore. Having just eaten a late seafood lunch, I couldn’t do it, even though I wanted to. There are street (or beach) vendors all over Nha Trang selling the same few snacks, so I figured I could try the banana fritters whenever I wanted. Of course, no other vendor sold anything like this! I cursed myself for not tasting them when I had the chance. When she emerged again along the shoreline on our last afternoon, I flung out my arms as if to hug her and waved her over. There was nothing supernatural about them, but they were very tasty fritters.

13) Street vendor food, especially if you can’t identify it

Street vendors in Nha Trang often rely on the smoky scent of the little charcoal cookers set up in their carts or on the sidewalk. As sweet potatoes and corn roast over the coals, the smell of the blistered vegetables draws you in. The street vendors also sell grilled meat with side dishes, but there were plenty of things we could not even identify. There were little meatballs wrapped in what could have been grape leaves and some kind of starchy root vegetable that reminded me of yucca served with an addictive blend of sugar and salt.

In Ho Chi Minh City, what often hits your nose as you turn a random street corner is the smell of sweet egg batter sizzling on a snack-size waffle iron. One day, we had to stop for a woman and her cute daughter selling little green pancakes hot off her portable griddle. They were sweet with the faint taste of macaroons. We hoped to find that lady again on another day, but she was not in her place. The moral is, if you see it and you want it, don’t wait!

14) The smiles- Vietnamese are soft talkers, even when you shove your ear in front of their mouths in order to hear them. While they may be shy about exercising their vocal cords, they are not remotely economical with their smiles. At our hotel in Nha Trang, there was a teenage kid who was probably the owner’s son. I swear, every time we passed by the front desk or saw him around the hotel, he burst into a huge smile as if I was the greatest hotel guest ever. It was a reminder of how nice it is to smile at someone for no reason.

That’s it for Vietnam! If you have any specific questions, leave a comment or send me an email, and I’ll be happy to help. I think I will give you a recipe next time (greatest pasta dish ever--I’m feeling the hyperboles today). After that, I hope you’ll indulge me while I write about all the things I loved about Japan…sushi is just the salsa on the taco.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Vietnam Top 10 - Ho Chi Minh City

1) Pho- It really is better here. Quite a while back, I blogged about my (failed) attempts to make good pho at home. Since then, I’ve eagerly anticipated finding an authentic version of this comforting noodle soup made with long-simmered beef or chicken and served with a gorgeous pile of herbs. On our first day in HCMC, we decided to try Pho Hoa, the shop mentioned in Patricia Shultz’s recent book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die. I’m sure Pho Hoa does not have a monopoly on great pho in HCMC, but we could not resist checking it out. We unwittingly ended up walking at least 2 or 3 miles in the midday heat to get there. You see, addresses on a lot of streets in HCMC don’t just proceed with sequential numbers. Instead of 1, 2, 3, 4, you’ve got, 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d,1e; 2a, 2b, 2c… and on and on for about 2 more miles than you thought it would be.

We didn’t think it could possibly be worth it, but it was. There’s no discernible secret to this pho. It’s simply imbued with the flavor that must come from patience and years of practice. Eat it for lunch, eat it for breakfast, eat it in the middle of the night—good pho is one of the ultimate meals in any cuisine.

2) Sanho Bar- On a tip from our Lonely Planet guide, we sought out this bar, located near the big, central hotels, because the description caught our eye: a watering hole where the actual bar is an aquarium. Intriguing, but probably a gimmick that sounds cooler in theory than practice, right? Totally wrong. This place is so cool. As you can see in the photo, I got to enjoy a lovely salty dog right on top of an ornery little crocodile who watched my every move…sorta unsettling. In the tanks adjacent to the croc were some very spry turtles. It was dinnertime for one turtle, and it was surprising how quick he was when chasing down his favorite goldfish treat. Sanho has normal-sized tanks too with big sea turtles and some creepy eels. I don’t know if PETA would like this place, but they get huge points for originality.

Sanho, 102 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, 827-5593

3) Wine- I guess I have the French colonialists to thank for this one. Unlike in Thailand (read my rant in this post), wine is not a mysterious substance to Vietnamese restauranteurs. Thanks to the heat, reds may be slightly above their ideal serving temperature, but you can get good, reasonably priced French wine just about everywhere. There is even Vietnamese wine to be had, but we didn’t get around to trying it…after the wine drought in Thailand, I couldn’t stop chugging the Cotes du Rhone.

4) Ben Thanh Market- Located midway between Minihotel Alley (where all the very cheap, very decent backpacker accommodations are found) and central HCMC, the market is a perfect place to start your day with a noodle breakfast. If dodgy sanitary conditions creep you out, then just go for the shopping. We had an amazing bowl of yellow noodles and tasty fish paste patties at the stall in the picture, but if you’re worried about tummy trouble, stick to restaurants. We didn’t drink the water, but we did eat street vendor and market food and we both got a bit ill. I still give market food the benefit of the doubt because you never really know what made you sick.

Warnings aside, this is a very cool market where you can buy everything from fresh meat and fish (look for live eels flopping around), to Vietnamese coffee, to clothes and jewelery, to snake wine (yes, there’s a real snake inside—just try to get that past homeland security). The vendors are pretty aggressive and you might have a hard time convincing them that you really have no need of a knock-off Ralph Lauren polo shirt, but I love markets and this one is colorful, to say the least.

The exterior of Ben Thanh Market in HCMC

5) Lemongrass Restaurant- All the food in Vietnam was wonderful. We spent our days there wandering blissfully from one meal to the next. You can dine in a nice restaurant every night because the prices are so low. We ate dinner twice at Lemongrass, and they were two of our favorite meals of the whole trip. One of their signature items was beef, ground and seasoned to aromatic perfection, molded around stalks of lemongrass and grilled. The waiter cut it away from the lemongrass at our table and showed us how to wrap it in lettuce with rice vermicelli and peanuts and dip it into a sweet, clear sauce. We also tried a version with ground shrimp grilled on fat pieces of sugarcane that were impossibly moist and nearly as good as the beef version. Their soups (stuffed cucumber, and fish stew) and their clay pot dishes (Vietnamese catfish in a soy-based broth and pork versions) were so intensely flavorful and led us to adopt the motto, “eat anything in a clay pot.”

Our very, very helpful Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring guide led us to this restaurant. Lemongrass, 4 Duong Nguyen Thiep, 822-0496

6) Huong Lai Restaurant- Yet another great find thanks to Lonely Planet. This airy, serene restaurant on the second floor of a narrow building in central HCMC was one of the bargains of the trip. The staff is made up of previously disadvantaged young people whose excellent on-the-job training is visible in every delicious bite and considerate gesture. The restaurant offers a few set menus for lunch and dinner. For about ten dollars a person we had a lovely five course lunch that included a luscious roasted eggplant appetizer and a stir fry of beef and seasonal fresh chives, fatter and more "chive-y" than any I've ever had. This meal is a perfect example of the pristine, fresh, healthy style of Vietnamese cooking we loved so much.

Huong Lai 38 Ly Tu Trong, 822-6814 (more info and a photo here)

7) Crossing the road- Various travel guides offer similar advice on this subject, and it’s true! Just pick the most opportune moment and proceed with a slow, deliberate, confident stride. Do not hesitate, do not run in fits and starts with arms flailing wildly. The motor bike drivers know what to do, and they will dodge you. Buses and cars are a different story, so don’t attempt to cross in front of anything larger than a motor bike. You will be terrified the first time, but your initial success will give you such an adrenaline rush, you’ll soon anticipate the biggest intersections with excitement.

If you’re truly paralyzed with fear, wait for a friendly local to cross with you. Occasionally, a nice person would grab my arm and shepherd me along, totally unbidden. I honestly think the government ran some kind of campaign to educate citizens on how to help tourists avoid getting flattened in the middle of their city.

There's more (this is a Top 10 list, right?)...but it's coming in the next post. We took a break from darting through traffic in HCMC to spend three days in the beach town of Nha Trang, and I'll tell you all about it.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Memphis Barbecue Sauce (for the perfect pulled pork sandwich)

This is what I cooked on the 4th of July: slow-roasted pulled pork with Memphis-style barbecue sauce. Piled onto fluffy cornbread with (healthy) collard greens on the side, this is Southern food heaven.

As I ate, I thought about how surprising it is that things have come this. There is not a lot of food out there I don't like, but Southern food is probably the last thing I ever expected to fall for. I grew up in Los Angeles, then moved to Boston-- I'm a city girl all the way. But I am glad living in Florida led me to try Southern cooking. So much of it is easy to prepare healthfully.

This barbecue sauce, for example, comes from the July issue of Cooking Light magazine. They also include methods to prepare smoked meat and roasts from the various parts of the southern U.S. Lacking a grill and a smoker, we just made the seasoning and basting liquid in this recipe for Memphis Pork and roasted it at 275 degrees for 4 hours. The meat becomes moist and tender, but the star is the sauce--it is a little tangy, a little sweet, and not too thick or too thin. Try it, and you will never reach for store-bought barbecue sauce again.

Memphis Barbecue Sauce
Adapted from Cooking Light magazine. Here is the original recipe. I rewrote it here with a few notes for convenience.

Makes about 2 cups.

1 c. ketchup
1/2 c. white vinegar
2 tbs. brown sugar
1 tbs. onion powder
2 tbs. Worcestershire sauce
2 tbs. mustard (yellow, Dijon and spicy brown all work)
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/8 tsp. ground red pepper (cayenne)

Combine all ingredients in a small sauce pan and bring to a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring often. Remove and serve warm over shredded pork. May be made in advance and reheated. Keeps for several days in the refrigerator.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Thailand Do's and Don't's

1) Learn local customs- Take a cue from Ronny and Mike, and wai people in greeting instead of shaking hands.

2) Cook your own food- We spent one morning at the wonderful Baipai cooking school in Bangkok. It was a relaxing break from the chaos of the city and a nice opportunity to talk with other English-speaking tourists. The lovely instructors took us to their local market, then guided us through four Thai dishes. This was the best food we ate in Thailand! Take a look:

Chicken Satay cooked over hot coals with peanut sauce and sweet and sour relish.

Mango with pandan leaf-scented coconut sticky rice.

3) See the Big Buddha- If you think you'll go to Thailand and see all the temples, you're in for a VERY long trip. There are dozens of noteworthy temples in Bangkok alone, so we spent the better part of a day in the care of a tuk-tuk driver who chauffeured us around to the four most impressive ones. The Wat Benchama Bophit is an incredible structure fashioned out of Carrera marble from Italy, but our favorite was Wat Inthara Wihan, referred to by locals as the "Big Buddha."

As we walked into the courtyard that is home to the massive standing Buddha, a man handed me a little wooden cage with three tiny, energetic birds inside and told me to release them for good luck. Mike wanted to know if I asked how much they cost, and naturally I replied, "Who cares, this is sooo cool!" My lucky birds cost about two dollars, and the rest of our trip was lucky, indeed.

The Buddha is so huge, you can only see his feet in this shot.

The Marble Temple.

4) Hang out at the food court- Singapore had hawker centers, and Thailand has food courts. They are kind of like what we have in American malls, but the food is actually good. First you have to learn the drill: go to a desk near the entrance and buy vouchers in small increments of money. Then exchange them for food at any of the stalls. If you have vouchers left over, you go to a different desk to trade them for cash. The food court at the awesome MBK Center mall in Siam Square was our favorite haunt, and the place we had our first meal in Thailand-- pad thai (click here more my recipe), of course!

5) Make friends who use protection- Whether or not you plan to patronize Bangkok's legendary sex industry, be sure to eat a meal at Cabbages and Condoms. This beautiful (and very romantic) restaurant is owned by a former government official who made it his mission to promote sex education in Thailand. Profits are donated to STD prevention programs. I had the BEST green curry at the restaurant, and I got to snap this shot:

In case it's not clear in the photo, that's a sari made of the Pill and a dress made of unwrapped condoms that Mike is standing beside.

6) Eat anything wrapped in a lotus leaf- Thais love to wrap tasty things in lotus leaves. Some of the most popular treats are custardy, sugary confections. You may not be able to identify it, but if it's wrapped in a leaf, it's bound to be good.

1) Ask for the sommelier- Nobody drinks wine in Thailand! Seriously. It was a trying week for me. I like beer. I even love beer. But with a good meal, I need wine! Okay, it is possible to get wine in some restaurants, but the selection is nil, and there's nothing by the glass. I'm guessing the bars and restaurants in the major hotels serve wine, but we didn't go to Thailand to eat at the Hilton. One place where we could get wine by the glass was the 5th Flr. food court at the MBK center in Siam Square. Once, the bartender tried to pour my cabernet into a frosty, chilled glass... hey, you take what you can get.

2) Channel Leonardo DiCaprio (I mean Alex Garland) on Khao San Road- If you've read Garland's novel, The Beach (and I definitely recommend you do), you might be tempted to stay in one of the backpacker rat traps where the book opens. A lot of guidebooks will tell you that's the place for a cheap room and an occasional American breakfast to remind you of home. Don't do it! Khao San is dirty and jammed with people all the time. Not only that, but the neighborhood is isolated from most of the city. It's a good place to stay if you want to be near the shrines and buddhas, but you'll get nicer (still cheap) rooms, more accessibility and a much less touristy atmosphere elsewhere. We stayed at the Bed & Breakfast Inn right off Siam Square. The Wendy House right next door is also great.

Crazy Khao San Rd. It's a fun place to visit, but you wouldn't want to get a room there.

3) Assume a ping-pong show has anything to do with sports- You'll inevitably grow curious and venture out of your hotel after 9pm. This is a good idea. Thais seem to never sleep. There are night markets, and the city comes alive in contrast to the scorching, languid afternoons. What you do in Bangkok at night is your business, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't warn 'ya!

4) Order a salad unless you’re up for serious heat- Asian salads are spicy! See this innocent little number we made at cooking school? It's got one little Thai chile in the mix, and it will definitely put a thin layer of dew on your brow--Thais would consider this level of heat very mild. If you're not up for it, ask for the wimpy western version when you order food in a restaurant. The fresh, unique salads are some of the best, healthiest choices on a Thai menu, but take precautions.

Savory Prawn Salad with lemongrass and spicy Thai chiles.

5) Go anywhere without your own “tissues”- Bangkok is a modern city, but their "facilities" can be anything but. Always bring your own tissues and be prepared to squat.

Bangkok is an amazing place where sleek, modern shopping centers stand next to quaint neighborhood shrines. And it's hot. I mean really hot. Once we learned to nap away the afternoon, we were much better off. We had fabulous food, but there is also a lot of bad food in Bangkok. Stay out of tourist traps and try the food courts. They can be hit or miss, but if it's a miss (nothing was really awful, but we did get the occasional plate of greasy noodles), you can throw away a dish that cost you two dollars and go back for something else. Like I said above, our favorite food experience was Baipai cooking school where we got to taste homestyle thai flavor and learn about local ingredients.

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