Thursday, February 10, 2011
Thailand: Sea Snails Cooked In A Clay Pot
I have just got back from a rather mercurial evening involving delicious sea snails and the evil tuk tuk drivers who plague the streets of Chiang Mai. I’d headed out to the night bazaar a little concerned about the major food poisoning investigation there over the tragic death of a New Zealand backpacker on Sunday.
But any concerns were put aside, and perhaps put into context, by the journeys to the market and back. I wanted to walk there, really I did, but the food market was much further than I realised and after the 58th tuk tuk driver had slowed down and beeped his horn at me, I relented.
I slid into the back and the driver sped off, cutting up two mopeds, narrowly missing a stray dog, and taking the first bend at such a speed that it made the back wheels wobble.
It soon became obvious that the contraption’s brakes were down to the metal when we hurtled over a canal bridge and almost into the back of a passing car. When the driver did actually stop at a red light, he looked at me in his rear view mirror, cranked up his radio, and said: “Why you want to go to night market? Many ladies, many bars here!”
At another stop, he tried again: “You want lady massage? I take you there.”
Finally, after another test of wills and his shot brakes, he dropped me off at the night bazaar. The place was packed with tourists and I headed around looking at the stalls, and then stopped off at a restaurant called Seafood Mho-O-Cha boasting “the best and fresh seafood in Chiang Mai”.
The fish and shellfish were packed in ice and looked as fresh as anything you’d get on the harbourside, even though Thailand’s second city is hundreds of miles from the sea. There were the usual mud crabs, blue crabs, lobsters, prawns and fish, and then I saw something I hadn’t seen so far in Thailand, and knew I had to have them.
The sea snails were piled up in the corner, like fat brown conches, and the manager only wanted 200 baht (about £5) for half a kilo. I asked how they cooked them, worried that they might turn out dried to foul-tasting grit like the cremated cockles I’d had in Bangkok. She said grilled, or something I didn’t understand. I asked how she would have them and she said something I didn’t understand, so I went for that.
After taking more pictures of the seafood, she wrestled me back to my table and I sat down and looked across at the next restaurant, which also boasted the “the best and fresh seafood” in town. Trying to put Chiang Mai’s seafood scare out of my mind, I bought a cold beer and a sang som, and then a steaming pot arrived at my table.
The waiter removed the lid and I was hit by a delicious smell of lime leaves, chillies and the sweet scent of fresh and best seafood. I hadn’t eaten all day, apart from three mussels a barman had given me that were as small as my tiny fingernail, and got stuck in.
The broth the snails were cooked in was absolutely fantastic. It was hot and sour, and filled with whole pink shallots, lime leaves, fresh basil sprigs, lemon grass, thick coins of galangal, and slices of red chilli. The snails themselves were beautifully cooked, and much firmer than whelks. There was no chewiness though, just like you get when you order fresh whelks at a decent seafood restaurant in Europe. They really were superb.
The shells weighed a tonne and were quickly scattered across an empty plate. They were so sturdy, I imagine if you dropped one on your foot you’d be hopping round for weeks – beholden to those merciless tuk tuk sharks. I finished the meal and drank the soup and sat there wondering whether to have another pot full.
The manager returned and I thanked her for her recommendation and asked her the name of the dish again. She asked someone else and said it roughly translated to “Thai-style sea snails cooked in a traditional clay pot” and was a speciality of the restaurant, and the only place you could get them in Chiang Mai.
Full and content, I headed out through the market again, but my good mood was quickly destroyed by another evil tuk tuk driver. It was obvious he hadn’t heard of my hotel, but kept insisting he had.
I knew it was all going to go horribly wrong and sure enough it did. After another Grand Theft Auto race through the streets, he headed the wrong way past the canals and kept ignoring me when I told him to turn round.
He took me up a couple more dark streets, and suddenly I was outside a neon-lit building in the middle of nowhere. It looked more like a boutique hotel than a go go club, but it was obvious what it was from the scantily-clad young women waiting outside. In fact, surrounded by dark warehouses and no witnesses, it looked exactly the sort of place you’d be lucky to get out of with your kneecaps intact.
The driver turned his engine off and the girls descended. The trouble with tuk tuks, apart from the criminal bastards who drive them, is they offer no protection to pulling arms. There are just three chrome poles, which means you can get attacked on three sides. But after a few minutes, I managed to get him to drive off again.
Then it was another chicane through the canal area, and more areas I didn’t know, and this time he dropped me off in the centre of Chiang Mai’s red light district.
“Bar here,” he kept saying. “Many beautiful ladies for you!” I’d had enough. I’m not a prude, but there was no way he was going to get his free gasoline bar kickback from me. I slid myself out of the tuk tuk, scowled at him, and told him I wasn’t going to pay him and walked off down the road.
I went into a bar and ordered a drink, and the driver followed me in, trying to get commission off the owner, who pointed out that all I’d ordered was a Pepsi Zero, and there was no money in that. Eventually he left, and sat outside in his tuk tuk staring at me darkly for 20 minutes, and waiting for me to leave.
When I left, he shouted at me again, and things looked like they were going to turn nasty, so I jumped in another tuk tuk and kept looking round half expecting him to be following.
But what might have saved me was the complete ineptitude of the new driver, who quickly got lost and after a few minutes we were on the city ring road. I started getting panicky thinking he was in cahoots with the other driver, and we were going to end up in some horrible Tarantino lock-up.
But there was no gimp, thank Buddha, and after another 20 minutes of dark alleys, he somehow found my hotel, which by then had closed. I eventually managed to find my way in, past the air conditioning units and rubbish bags at the rear of the guesthouse, and thankfully my key fitted the back door.
I headed off to bed trying to restore my good mood by wishing excruciatingly painful deaths on all tuk tuk racketeers, and thinking about what a splendid meal I’d had. There is only one thing for it though – tomorrow I hire a mountain bike.