How did you go about selecting places for this book?
We took every recommendation that people gave us and tried it–we must have gone through at least 150 places. Some of them were disappointing, but most were really excellent, and it was hard to whittle it down to 50. Some of them were no-brainers, but some others required going two or three more times to figure out if we really liked them or not. All the members of my family have tried every one of these stalls at least once.
What were some of the challenges of researching and writing this book?
There were some days we had to eat at five or six stalls in succession, especially toward the end when we were on deadline. That was really hard. I think I still bear the stretchmarks as testament to that experience.
Any interesting encounters or street vendor stories?
They all had interesting stories. One vendor was actually really, really wealthy, and had sent all his children to study abroad in England on the money he made from roasting chestnuts. Another said he invented pad pak boong fai dang (stir-fried morning glory with chilies). Still another was a police officer supplementing his salary by running a fatty pork leg on rice stall.
You grew up abroad. Was it an adjustment to approach street food?
Absolutely! I grew up in a small Italian-American town next to Pittsburgh. We were big on wedding soup, calzone and cavatelli. So when I first came here, I used to never eat street food, ever, unless forced to by a friend or family member. It was too hot to sit out there, and it was intimidating–the ordering, the knowing what was good, the worries about hygiene. It was very late into my time here (I’ve been here on and off since 1995) when I started trying it, and I was blown away by how good it was. It’s still very hot at times though.
You also have a blog. Tell us about it.
Bangkok Glutton started out as a collaboration with my best friend, Karen Blumberg, who lives in New York and is really into photography and eating. It was also a good way to keep track of places we had tried out for the book. Most of the time it’s really fun – I can write anything I please, and sound like an idiot, and get things through that a proper editor would never, ever allow. But sometimes it’s work. I try to post at least once a week, but sometimes I’ve got all sorts of crap to do, and I have no idea what to write on Friday. This will be one of those weeks.
You used to be a financial journalist. Why the switch over to food?
Have you ever read that stuff? I used to report on the bond market. That should explain it all, right there. Telling yourself that it’s really a story about bettering people’s lives by expanding their capital-raising options only gets you so far.
How did you go about becoming a food expert?
Because I’ve always been into food. After I got married, we took a year off for our “honeymoon,” moved to Paris and enrolled in a French cooking school, L’Ecole Gregoire-Ferrandi, which is affiliated with the French government. In order to pass, there was a written part and then there was a cooking part that remains, to this day, the hardest thing I’ve ever done, including giving birth. I barely passed, but one of the chefs, who was kind of a jerk, kept shaking his head and saying “La honte, la honte,” [“the shame, the shame”] over and over again. That is when I figured out that I maybe wasn’t meant to cook, but instead should devote my life to eating. Which is what I’ve done. I practice every day.
Are you also an avid home cook?
I cook a lot. I get grumpy if I go a long stretch without cooking. It’s just a way for me to work things out in my head, like running on the treadmill. Cooking and reading/writing about food are almost exactly the same thing, which is why I like to read cookbooks before I go to bed. I don’t cook Thai food though. I cook what I was taught, French stuff or, if I’m feeling adventurous, Italian or Moroccan. I really should expand my repertoire.
Read the full interview at tiny.cc/vfqtz
Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls will be available later this month at Asia Books and B2S for B390.