She broke up a relationship – this Pa Yai. Okay, fine, so that’s not exactly how things went down. But, yeah, this nocturnal Bangkok street food vendor with a huge cult following was indirectly involved in what eventually led to a fermented pork-related breakup.
I’m going to assume you want to know the story. Here it is.
A few years ago, in Bangkok, I had the misfortune of sitting in the same room with some acquaintances two of whom were dating. As we were chatting, the girlfriend suddenly inquired about her boyfriend’s whereabouts a few weeknights prior. The boyfriend’s presence was unaccounted for that night and, apparently, he had been vague about where he was, what he was doing, and why in the infernal regions phone calls were unreturned. The girlfriend wanted to know the answer right at that moment. Why they couldn’t do this in private, I never figured out.
He answered regardless: one of my coworkers ordered some yam naem khao tod ¹ from – you remember, baby? – that lady we, uh, saw on TV the other day, and, goshdarnit, I got dragged along with him and, um, so we, uh, were out there waiting until the wee hours, and next thing I knew it was, hooboy, almost five o’clock in the morning.
Was it good? Er, the salad? Yes, honey, the salad. Oh, man, it was the best. She’s generous with the peanuts, isn’t she? Oh, yes, so aromatic and crunchy. What about the ginger – they say she only uses the freshest and the youngest, most tender ginger in her salad? She does, and it was delicious.
I caught a smirk on the girlfriend’s face as the room fell silent. If one of us had dropped a feather to the floor at that moment, it would have hit the carpet audibly.
This is something Pa Yai’s fans know (heck, even someone, like me at that point, whose exposure to Pa Yai’s food was limited only to mooching a couple of bites from other people’s purchase without having been to the actual stand, knows): In contrast to the normative versions of yam naem khao tod (YNKT, henceforth) found all over the city, Pa Yai’s version does not contain peanuts or ginger.
It was clear to everyone in the room that the boyfriend had never seen or eaten Pa Yai’s food. He’d merely heard from other people that she sold her food into the early morning hours and the queue was always ridiculously long. And he fell for the trick questions.
The rest of the story … well, you can guess. Moral of the story: know your street foods and don’t fib.
Pa (Auntie) Yai is a septuagenarian who has run a YNKT stand for over two decades. Having been a source of sustenance for Bangkok night owls for years, Pa Yai has become a local celebrity of sorts after a series of TV shows featuring her YNKT stand. The attention got so overwhelming at one point that she had to resort to a system that has worked well for her over the years.
This is how it works:
1. She turns on her cell phone at 3:00 pm daily which is when orders are taken.
2. You let her know how many orders you want and she’ll tell you the approximate time you can come pick up your stuff.
3. You go pick up and pay for your food in person, being prepared to wait longer as your pick-up time is never guaranteed (alternatively, you can pay a bit more and have your food delivered by Pa Yai’s trusted motorcyclist who charges you according to the distance).
Walk-ins are welcome, of course, although you could walk out empty-handed. But you can try your luck, if you’re the type that enjoys waiting, standing, for your food for up to 6 hours.
In other words, if you want Pa Yai’s YNKT, plan ahead. Store her number on your phone, set aside what you do at 3:00 pm that day, and hit that “call” button over and over and over and over until you get through.
Having had her food before but not been to the actual place, I got curious. One day, during my recent trip to Bangkok, I started calling Pa Yai at 081-628-4885 at 2:55 pm only to be sent to her voicemail every 30 seconds. Finally, at 3:26 pm, I got her on the phone. An order was placed and I got my queue number (apparently, there were 7 people before me). Then, with his girlfriend’s permission, I bullied my best friend T into coming along with me.
Here’s a homemade, extremely amateurish video clip of my trip to see Pa Yai that night. This was shot with my pocket camera, so the quality isn’t that high. Also, initially this wasn’t meant for public consumption; otherwise I would have narrated in English and spared you the pain of having to read the subtitle. My apologies.
- Pa Yai seems extremely particular when it comes to arranging things on her table. She takes her time making sure everything is exactly where it’s supposed to be, forming a perfect angle to everything else in its vicinity. She reminds me of Monica Geller from Friends.
- I was told to come by around 10:00. She didn’t show up until 11:00.
- Pa Yai is very personable. Cute, actually. T and I enjoyed chatting with her and the time we spent waiting went by very quickly. Pa Yai felt so sorry for us that she fulfilled my order before the person holding the first queue number showed up. We would have had to wait until after midnight if she hadn’t done that.
- For what it’s worth, Pa Yai uses Tiparos fish sauce.
- The reference to “kindergarten level” in the video is in regard to Pa Yai’s system of classifying the levels of spiciness. Pre-school has no chili at all. Kindergarten is mildly hot. Then we have everything from elementary school, middle school, high school – all the way to PhD. The assumption is that you know your oral cavity, esophagus, stomach lining, and intestinal tract best, so order accordingly. Let me tell you, though, that the kindergarten version which I got was pretty hot. A PhD would have murdered me.
Do I like Pa Yai’s YNKT?
Yeah, I do, but not to the extent where I’d be willing to go through all this with any regularity. Pa Yai’s rice balls are very crispy, have texture that’s almost like Grape-Nuts when crumbled, and give off the “nutty” scent and flavor which I believe comes from finely grated coconut. This, I think, is what sets her YNKT apart from the rest. Plus, she uses very good quality naem from Don Mueang area which is known for producing some of the best fermented pork in Bangkok. And she gives you tons of it.
Below is my best attempt at replicating YNKT in the style of Pa Yai. I hope you’ll give it a try.
- 1 cup cold cooked long grain rice
- 1 cup unsweetened fine, desiccated coconut (you'll find this at South Asian grocery stores)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1½ tablespoons Thai red curry paste
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch (corn flour)
- ¾ cup rice flour (you can get away with using all-purpose flour)
- Cold water
- Vegetable oil for deep-frying
- 8-12 ounces naem
- Dried red pepper flakes (ground up into a fine powder, if necessary)
- Fresh lime juice
- Fish sauce
- ¾ cup chopped green onions
- ¾ cup cilantro leaves
- Fresh vegetables and herbs to serve on the side: cabbage, lettuce, fresh ginger, cilantro, long (or green) beans, etc.
- Heat up vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Make sure the oil is at least 3 inches deep.
- While the oil is heating up, mix the first five ingredients together and form it into nice and compact 1.5-inch balls.
- In a separate bowl, make a batter by mixing the rice flour with enough cold water to make a thin batter that has the consistency of heavy cream (it should not be anywhere near as thick as pancake batter).
- Once the oil reaches 350 degrees F, dip the rice balls into the batter and gently drop them into the hot oil, one by one. Separate the rice balls with a spoon to keep them from sticking together. Once all the rice balls are in the hot oil, they should float to the surface in just a few seconds. At this point, you want to lower the heat so that the oil temperature is at 250-280 degrees F and stays there.
- Keep frying the rice balls, flipping them around to make sure they're evenly browned. You know the rice balls are fried adequately and crispy almost all the way through, the way Pa Yai likes them, when they stop spewing air bubbles (it takes about 20-30 minutes for me, but your mileage may vary). At this point, fish them out onto a paper towel-lined plate and let them cool down to room temperature.
- To make the salad, crumble up the naem in a large salad bowl. Add the cooled rice balls to the bowl and crumble them up with your hands. Season with fish sauce and lime juice to taste. I can't tell you exactly how much fish sauce and lime juice to use, because this depends on how salty and sour your naem is. It's best to have 3-4 juicy limes and at least ½ cup of fish sauce on hand. You probably won't need all of those, but you know you'll have enough.
- Once the salad tastes right to you, mix some dried red pepper powder into it. The amount corresponds with your heat tolerance. If you make this salad for people with different levels of heat tolerance, it's best to put in just a little and serve the salad with extra dried red pepper powder on the side for those who want more of it.
- Serve the salad with fresh vegetables to be consumed along with it.
1 Official transliteration: yam naem khao thot