You know those crumbs that get left behind on your plate after you’ve eaten something deep-fried, like hash browns for instance, or thick-cut and battered onion rings? Those minute little grenades of pent-up deep-fried flavour that represent the crispiest edges of the jalapeno popper? The kind that makes you want to run the back of your fork, or better still, your forefinger along the oily surface of the plate, scooping up those crusty golden brown remnants and licking them off so that they can pop and crackle on your tongue long after you’ve crunched through your last vegetable samosa or tempura shrimp?
If ever there were someone who could concentrate the texture of those microscopic crumbly bits into one, impossibly crisp and crackly mesh, all knotted up over the juicy leg of a freshly carved chicken, it was the matron of a road-side fried chicken cart in Hua Hin’s Chat Chai market.
I shudder to think that I’d almost missed it. The wedding in Hua Hin had left me little time to go out and tour the local markets – lavish dinners and spirited Bollywood dance moves stretched through every night till the break of day, and days were spent recovering from the night before. I had no choice but to leave the trip to Chat Chai, if it were to even happen at all, precariously squeezed into my last morning in Hua Hin, right before my ride back to the airport.
The ladies at the Sheraton front desk whom I approached for directions weren’t particularly encouraging of my plan either. ‘Why you go to Chat Chai? Only local market, only vegetable and meat. Nothing to see! You go to night market instead.’ The night market was a popular tourist sightseeing and dining spot, and indeed one that I’d been longing to visit, but wedding events each evening threw that out of the question. I’d have to make do with Chat Chai, which frankly, was even more exciting because it would give me a true snapshot of daily local life, without touristy paw prints stamped all over.
So there I was my last morning in Hua Hin, firmly planted in the middle of Chat Chai market, taking a big whooping gulp of meat and fish-perfumed air, miles away from my local grocery store in Dubai, but ironically, feeling right at home among the roadside stalls of fresh and cooked local goods.
My partner-in-crime was a wedding guest who had flown in from Chicago, and whose food-loving tendencies had emerged over dinner the night before, when he assigned the two of us to a systematic tasting and 10-point rating of seven selected desserts at the buffet table. We forked away at the cakes and creams, rolling them about in our mouths like serious food critics, mulling each morsel over with appropriate gravity, narrowing our eyes and pursing our lips before delivering the final verdict, all happening real time as everyone else was solemnly gazing at the bride and groom dance. The chocolate crème brûlée won by a yard.
Having Halden at the market with me was a brilliant move. The man clearly had a sense of direction, something I seriously lack and that’s got me into a fix many a time in strange and foreign cities. And in fact, more often than not, even in my home city. What’s more, he played bodyguard as I snapped away photographs in my usual self-engrossed state, steering me to the side each time a delivery boy whizzed over the briny fish-drained puddles on his Hero scooter, or each time I risked toppling over piles of fruit in my enthusiasm to take a wide-angle shot in some congested corner of the market. But most important of all, Halden has a strategic eye and solid memory. We passed by many, many similar-looking stalls – but he knew exactly which one to walk back to when we were finally ready to eat. If not for him, I’m quite sure I’d have missed the matron’s Thai fried chicken altogether.
But the fried chicken only came an hour later, after we’d first strolled about the narrow alleyways of the market, teeming with local vendors selling all kinds of exotic fruit, dead and still slithering seafood, sizzling skewers of grilled pork, carcasses swaying over meat scales, oily plastic bags of deep-fried snacks, tubs of sticky rice and mango pudding, fresh-pulled rice noodles and tiny crates of gelatinous-textured Thai sweets that looked positively vile in their slimy snort-coloured skins.
There were so many unfamiliar and adventurous things to try, none of which we could have reassuringly translated back into English, that I was at a complete indecisive loss for what to taste. That’s when Halden saved the day: I want chicken, let’s go find some chicken for breakfast.
Now Halden’s plea was no gesture of patriotic deference to Chicken McNuggets. He led me to the real deal, right up to a roadside barrow manned by a purple-aproned matron who was dunking in white dusted chicken legs, wings and heads into a wok of bubbling oil. On her right was a perforated steel bowl, with a growing pile of deep fried batter bits that she would periodically skim out of the oil each time she’d prodded the hissing chicken pieces around with her aluminium spider strainer. Halden and I agreed that those free-floating residual crumbs could be bagged up and sold to the West as an impeccably crunchy, exotic topping for salads and mac ‘n cheese, or even in white cardboard tubs as crispy brown cousins to theatre-popped popcorn and nachos.
We bagged three drumsticks that had been pulled straight out of the sizzling oil, visually inspecting them for ultimate browning and plumpness. Admittedly, my criteria for deep-fried chicken weren’t very refined to begin with. They'd been coloured by KFC growing up (till the day I consumed the publicity about their victimized headless chickens), and then shaped by a few sporadic experiences here and there, including the famed Korean Bon Chon chicken in NYC - though evidently nothing had nudged me to actively calibrate my personal standard for deep-fried chicken. Especially since I’d often slather each bite in enough sauce to drown out every other flavour and texture on the plate. And now, years later, it took just one chicken drumstick, gift wrapped in its own crackly caramelized skin, exploding with pent-up chicken juices as the wrapping was torn away, obliterating the need for my most revered sauce of all time – ketchup – to suddenly cause my slumbering standard for deep fried chicken to awaken and exact itself upon my senses at once. This is what deep fried chicken is meant to be.
Contrary to what the title of this post suggests, we didn’t actually eat chicken with condensed milk (though I’m somewhat curious now as to how that would taste…kitchen experiment anyone?). Rather, the condensed milk seemed to be the ingredient of choice for the sweet smiling coffee and dessert cart couple who had patiently accommodated us at their least rickety table at the market corner, with luxurious add-ins like toilet paper napkins or steel bowls to pour out the chicken matron’s spicy side sauce. The husband was a veritable barista in his own right, tossing instant coffee powder and sugar into a glass, and then artfully swishing in steaming water and condensed milk from above to merge the coffee and creamy layers into a cloyingly sweet caffeinated concoction. He also served us a big pot of black tea alongside, something I didn’t understand until I later came across David Thompson's excerpt about par tuhng go, deep-fried butterflied sticks of dough that I’d bought from the barista's dessert-frying wife, complete with a side dipping pool of more condensed milk.
"Every morning in every market there is always a crowd milling around this store, waiting for freshly cooked bread. Throughout the morning, a man, usually of Chinese descent, rolls and assembles the bread then deep-fries the pieces before they are served and sold, usually by his wife. They should be eaten promptly since they become stale quite quickly - within an hour or so. But there is little chance of this since they taste so good and the line of waiting people is long.
If there is a place to sit, then coffee - of very Thai variety, based on chicory and condensed milk - is served. Strangely enough, a glass of black tea is usually served with the coffee, as it helps to wash away its bitter sweetness. Some places offer a glass of sweetened soy milk. There is always a newspaper and an opinion or two passed around. While some like to dip their bread into the coffee there is usually a bowl of white sugar on the table and the bread can be rolled in it, if preferred. I prefer it. Sometimes a small bowl of light coconut custard coloured and perfumed with pandanus is offered too. It's the right way to start the day."
– Excerpt from David Thompson’s Thai Street Food, adapted by Ellie on her blog, Almost Bourdain
But mere moments after I’d happily guzzled down more condensed milk than I’d had for the last 2 years, my mind raced back to the fried chicken.
I was so deeply affected by it that I dragged Halden back to the same stall, crazed to know exactly what the matron had done to achieve such impeccable crunch and color in each piece that she pulled out of the oil. Was it panko? It must be those Japanese bread crumbs, for what else could be fried to such a flawless deep fried crisp, yet be totally devoid of any soggy or greasy patches?
Halden and I did a little ‘how-in-the-world-did-you-make-this- chicken’ dance in front of the stall, a silent comic scene interspersed with a few monosyllabic grunts to try and make the matron understand that no, we didn’t want to buy her wok, all we wanted was to see what secret ingredient her chickens had rolled in the tray with before plunging into the hot oil. We begged her to open every jar and tub around her little stall, until we spotted one with a murky milky substance, finally driving us to the conclusion that she was coating each piece with the liquid, sprinkling it with panko, and then frying it to a crisp.
Wrong conclusion. Once in the comforts of my computer room back in Dubai, I came across a blog called Chez Pim:
“If you've been to Thailand, you've seen those fried chicken carts at practically every street corner, with the giant wok smoldering like a witch's cauldron filled with dark, smelly oil that seems as ancient as the broken down cart itself.” Yes, me, me! I’ve been there!
“…What those carts produce are the bright, bright gold, impossibly crisp, mind-blowingly flavorful pieces of fried chickens, so good you willingly suspend all your hygienic concerns.” Hygiene? Hm, somehow my eyes completely sidestepped that concern at the time.
“Who cares how long those chickens lingered in the tropical heat with only the dodgiest "refrigeration", who gives a damn about how many times the oil has been re-used. I'm going to take a big bite and let that crisp, garlicky, chicken-y goodness shatter into a million little pieces in my mouth and just die happy. Wouldn't you?” Hell yeah!
“Luckily, you won't need to hop on a plane - or get a special dispensation from your doctor - before you can eat one. I've figured out how they're made. And it's so very simple. “ TELL. ME. NOW. The suspense is killing me.
“The trick is, let me just come out and tell you, rice flour.” What the…? “
Replay. “The trick is, let me just come out and tell you, rice flour.” Ok. I’ve re-read it. It’s true.
And now I feel like a colossal fool for assuming that: any crunchy coating around a chicken leg or wing = bread crumbs. On the contrary, here was just pure crisped up skin with the sugars in the rice flour caramelizing into a uniform netted coating all around the meat.
My obsession and wonder with the fried chicken in Hua Hin evidently lasted for days after I’d returned to Dubai. It’s only now, over a week later, that I look back with some regret at not having plucked up the courage to sample any of the other street side treats, like the pickled slivers of crawly bottom feeders or meat and skins of unknown animals that had been stretched into papery thin strips of jerky. Had I given in too easily to Halden’s plea for chicken, because it resolved my indecision in a market of infinite variety? Sounded relatively harmless? Had the least risk (or so I’d thought at the time) of blowing up my insides right before my flight back home?
Maybe. But then again, I’d found the one thing that that has forever changed my yardstick for something as basic and universal as a deep-fried drumstick. And just for that profound outcome, I’m glad I chickened out.