Bangkok's Middle Eastern Oasis
Preamble: If cliché were a neighborhood in Bangkok, it'd be called Nana. Strangely, this movable canvas of head-turning sleaze is also where many honest tourists enter Bangkok's atmosphere. Because the sensory experience of this red light district is so powerful, it has come to characterize a town that, elsewhere, is not much like this at all. Even just across the street. Which brings me to my story:
"Hey, what are you looking for?" said the girl, with her arm strung round the street sign in a lazy embrace. An ink panther was climbing out of her tank top, and she flashed a blithe smile.
"Ummm. I'm here for the Arabic food," I answered, with a steady command of the shy, awkward response. There is no graceful way to refuse a prostitute.
I could still hear her laughing as I crossed into Bangkok's neon-lit Soi Arab.
Seedy neighborhoods and tales of arch thievery haven't put off the Middle Eastern tourists--in fact, the restaurants of Soi Arab always seem packed.
This street--whose proper name is Sukhamvit Soi 3/1, lies smack in the middle of the city's most sordid neighborhood. Yet inside it's an oasis of conservative Islamic culture (with the occasional, scantily clad interruption). Women in chadors hold onto their children's tiny hands, guiding them to dinner. Men smoke shisha pipes on the sidewalk, filling the air with the confectionary scent of fruit-laced tobacco. Mint tea is sipped, rather than Singha.
Tourists from across the Middle East stroll the block, stopping to smell incense. It's sold in about a dozen shops that are sandwiched between restaurants. The incense is made from agarwood, or more precisely from resin inside the Aquilaria tree. It is extremely expensive, and when burned the sap inside bubbles and hisses, releasing a musky, cologne-scented smoke.
For about 30 years, traders have frequented this stretch of Bangkok to purchase oud, as agarwood is called in Arabic, while others came to find domestic servants. The latter doesn't always work out well, as the House of Saud found out in the Blue Diamond Affair, which remains one of Bangkok's most fascinating crime stories.
Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
But seedy neighborhoods and tales of arch thievery haven't put off the Middle Eastern tourists--in fact, the restaurants of Soi Arab always seem packed, while other stretches of tourist-dependent Bangkok have appeared empty lately.
Over the last few days I scoured this street for good things to eat--from lamb kebabs to Lebanese kibbeh, a mixture of raw ground meat, bulghur wheat, and minced onion.
The mezze at the Shahrazad Restaurant--from creamy hummus to smoky eggplant moutabel--were refreshing and comforting to eat. The simplicity of this food is pleasing in Bangkok, a city whose food marches to the chaotic beat of sweet, sour, bitter, salt, spice.
At Shahrazad our table pounced upon crisp bread straight from the oven, stuffing it with dips and tender chunks of lamb heart, sprinkled with cumin and grilled medium rare. The hearts had a wonderful, concentrated essence of lamb, without the grainy texture of organ that throws people off offal. It's worth trying.
There were also misses, like a few lifeless, greasy kebabs, and a bland fava bean stew. But I then I stumbled on the Petra Restaurant, which, though it borrows its name from Jordan, is run by a Yemeni family.
There, we ate mandi. I had eaten this dish once before, on a floor and with my fingers, in a neighborhood Dubai would probably like to excise. Here it was again in its greasy, soulful glory: chunks of slow-roasted baby lamb served over fat laced rice with impossibly long grains.
The rice was infused with cloves, cinnamon, saffron, and browned bits of sweet onion and served with a sour relish of tomato, coriander, and more onion that isn't far removed from salsa. We ate this with cool, homemade yogurt spooned on top, while sitting in big, swiveling office chairs.
I asked the manager, Rashid, for his recipe and he laughed. The restaurant is run by Rashid's family, and they don't part with recipes. "We are cousins, uncles, and brothers, some of us have lived here for 18 years," he said. "I can't tell you the recipe for the dish but I will tell you this," he said, smiling, "In Yemen, it takes only an hour to make al-mandi because we cook the lamb over coals, in a hole dug in the desert. In Bangkok, it takes much longer."
Shahrazad Restaurant: 6/8 Sukhamvit Soi 3/1, Bangkok, 66-2-2513666.
Petra Restaurant: 75/4 Sukhamvit Soi 3/1, 66-2-6555230.