Bangkok

On one hand, Bangkok is an overwhelming introduction to Asia. Smog, heat, humidity and precariouly open sewage are the delightful first impressions of the densely-populated capital of Thailand. First impressions, however, are rarely accurate. Bangkok is in fact more oderly than first appears: public transport is cheap, efficient and comfortable, where the train won’t take you, boats will, queueing is mandatory, making Britain appear a chaotic free-for-all, and everybody is willing to help a lost foreigner. While the sheer volume of tourism can be off-putting, almost 20 million visitors per year, the benefit is that locals are accustomed to foreigners, making Bangkok the perfect entry point into the region.

Above all, there is one reason why Bangkok is the perfect place to arrive. A culinary capital, exciting and tasty meals lurk on every street corner. You are never far from an old lady with a cart, a cooker, and some produce, ready to prepare unbeatable noodles or superb grilled meat and fish. Vegetables and fruits are ubiquitous, creating a cheap, healthy food culture that even unadventurous foreigners would find tough to resist. While fancy fare is available, for those of us on a budget a filling meal will rarely cost more than $4-5, often a lot less.
Initiation came by way of an extremely spicy pork and aubergine curry with steamed rice, at a small street food market near our hostel by Chong Nonsi Skytrain station (Good One Hostel & Cafe Bar, £8 per night and very comfortable). The flavours were superb, chillies, pork, aubergines, lemongrass and garlic attacking your tastebuds with a sucker punch. My immediate thought was one of slight panic: superb flavours, but unsustainable heat levels on a six-week trip. Luckily, Matt, my travel partner, and I seem to have opted for a particularly hot dish, and subsequent fare was been more manageable. 

Dinner on day one was my chance to sample my first Pad Thai, a huge improvement on what’s available in London. Not too sweet, sour lime, and dried shrimp gave it an interesting, complex set of flavours. At around £1.50, it was a bargain! 

Pad Thai
Wat Pho

While day two was reserved for tourism, it is the food that will stick in my mind. Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaeo are two fascinating, grand Buddhist temples in the city centre. Wat Phra Kaeo is larger and attracts more visitors, being Thailand’s holiest site. The Emerald Buddha is located in a beautiful bot (sanctuary), though at only 75cm it is hard to get a good view. Wat Pho was smaller, less busy, and more beautiful; entry was also far cheaper. The 45-metre reclining gold Buddha something every visitor to Bangkok should see. But the grilled chicken hearts by the river were the real highlight.

Chicken hearts

Dinner was a feast of Thai dishes in a small restaurant in Silom, including a superb green curry and tom kha kai, a spicy soup made with coconut milk, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lime juice and lemongrass. A side order of fried pork with sesame seeds and a Korean-style barbecue sauce capped off an excellent meal.

Green Curry

On Saturdays in Bangkok the Chatuchak Weekend Market is the place to be. Open since the 1940s, over 8,000 stalls are densely packed offering everything under the sun, from clothes to household items, remedies to electronics, and, unfortuntely, several endangered animals as pets. Of course, there is top-quality food as well. A couple of hours wandering around the market led to the purchase of a shirt, some tiger balm, and possibly my favourite dish from Bangkok, thick sen yai noodles with brocolli, chicken and molasses, which made all the difference. The three cost less than a fiver.

On to Chinatown for dinner. If you’ve been to London’s Chinatown, don’t expect many similarities. In Bangkok, Chinatown is busier, noisier, dirtier, bigger, and better. Food stalls line the streets, competing with restaurants for space and customers. After wandering aimlessly for around half an hour, several old Chinese men stopping to talk or give advice, or to remark on Matt’s height, we finally found what we were looking for: roast duck and barbecue pork with noodles at a street restaurant with a few plastic tables, where space to sit can be hard to find. A dessert of chicken satay with peanut sauce and a 3-0 victory for Arsenal over Chelsea capped off a wonderful day.

Satay

Bangkok is somewhat of a love-hate city. The hedonism can be overbearing, as can the concentration of alcohol-infused foreigners. The heat, pollution and overcrowding can feel stifling. But it’s main attraction, at least for me, is the sheer variety of food on offer, at any time of the day and for any price. Just one piece of advice: eating a scorpion is not worth the novelty photograph, don’t do it! 

The perfect homemade burger made simple

Over the past few years, the burger has come into its own as the undisputed king of fast food. In a culinary world increasingly obsessed with health, if my Instagram feed is anything to go by, the humble burger has overcome the odds and thrown off the shackles of its inglorious past. No longer associated with unhygienic, environmentally dubious mega-chains, a variety of trendy joints across London have helped to raise its profile.

I must confess to being a bit of a burger fanatic, and, admittedly, a burger snob (I have never had a Big Mac). This explains my recent evolution; most burgers used to be crap. When living in America, a local, independent burger joint called Al’s Burger Shack in Chapel Hill, NC, blew my mind, and transformed my burger views completely. It remains the best I’ve ever had.

Burgers are incredibly simple. Meat, bread, and a couple of fillings is all you need. However, they are so often tasteless, overcooked, or poorly assembled. The ubiquity with which they are served at British barbecues masks the fact that they are usually made all wrong. This is not simply down to culinary naivety. I have seen several celebrity chefs, many of whom I admire, inflict miserable burger recipes on their loyal followers.

I recently attempted my own, conducting a bit of research and guided by my “less is more” mantra, and the results were surprisingly good. What follows is my advice on making the perfect homemade burger. Less is definitely more, keep this motto in mind.

You will need around 75g of minced beef per burger – if you want more, make more; small burgers taste better.

Also required:

A crunchy, green lettuce, either romaine or cos, very thinly shredded.

A large white onion, very thinly sliced.

Brown sugar, muscovado if you have it.

Balsamic vinegar

Worcestershire sauce

Mayonnaise 

Brioche buns (Sainsbury’s do a good one, you can definitely taste the difference!)

Sea salt

English mustard (Coleman’s. Make sure it hasn’t got seeds, no one wants a seedy burger – seedy buns are fine)

Cheese (American or cheddar)

A barbecue, preferably with a lid

A spatula

Some beer

etc.

First of all, get your meat ready. I got 300g of minced beef at my local butcher, enough for four burgers, and it cost under £3! You want the best quality beef you can get, of course, and you want a high fat content, up to 30%. The fat will melt when exposed to the heat, and will drip through the burger onto the coals, creating all sorts of heavenly magic. Chuck steak is the best cut for burgers, but many butchers wont have it in stock; their normal mince will still make a superb burger. I know, because that’s what I used. Put your mince into a bowl and add a splash of water and a thimble of Worcestershire sauce. Mix it together, with your hands, but not too much, you want small gaps inside the patty, which allows the fat to filter though and softens it. Otherwise, you’ll end up with meatloaf. Rest for an hour or so, covered by cling film. That’s all you need for a good patty. I have seen recipes that include eggs, herbs, onion, and, a cardinal sin, breadcrumbs. Steer clear from such blasphemes, they only increase the risk of meatloaf.

DSCN0884
Meat balls, not meatloaf!

While your meat rests, make your caramelised onions. The process is simple, but slightly time-consuming. Pour a little vegetable oil into a pan on a low heat. Add your sliced onions, and stir constantly until completely softened. This can take 20-30 minutes, depending on how much onion you have, but it is necessary to keep stirring otherwise they will brown. If it gets too hot, add a little water to the pan. When they are soft, pour in two tablespoons of balsamic and two teaspoons of sugar. Stir for another five minutes, then leave to cool. Caramelised onions are far superior to fried onions in a burger, the sweet tang perfectly supplementing the salty meat.

Mix two teaspoons of English mustard with a splash of water, which you will use to brush onto your patty as it cooks, which creates a superb mustardy crust.

Get your barbecue going, and get your meat ready. Make four even balls, between golf ball and tennis ball size, and squash. Sprinkle some salt onto each patty, and brush on some of your mustard sauce. Make sure the griddle is oiled and hot before placing the meat over the hottest area. If you have a lid, put it on now, and leave for 3-5 minutes depending on how cooked you like it. If not using a barbecue, use one. If you don’t have one, frying is fine, but barbecued burgers always taste better. Don’t grill it in the oven!

DSCN0895
Get the mustard rub going, a vital step

For medium rare, after three minutes remove the lid and flip over. You’ll now have to sprinkle some more salt over, and brush some more mustard on the other side. Don’t burn yourself! Add the cheese, put your sliced buns onto the grill, and cover again. Another 3 minutes should do it.

DSCN0896
Corn is life

Once the cheese has melted, remove everything from the grill. It’s time to assemble. Spread some mayonnaise on each side of your bun. Place your burger on top, then add your onions and some lettuce. Now eat and enjoy.

Simplicity is definitely key to a good burger. Too many toppings distract from the flavour of the beef; if you have bad-quality meat, then bacon, a strong cheese or avocado, and an overpowering sauce, such as ketchup or burger sauce, make sense. But a top burger should be simple, a perfect blend of juicy meat, a soft bun that soaks up excess juices, tangy onions and crunchy lettuce.

You can also add gherkins. I’ve heard they’re great on burgers, but I hate them. However I wont frown upon a pickle.

You don’t have to head to a hipster joint or food market to have a tasty burger. You can make the real thing at home with minimal fuss.

DSCN0898

 

DSCN0901
Taste is more important than presentation, right?