Any visitor to Thailand quickly learns one obvious fact: this is a food paradise.
There are restaurants and street stalls everywhere you go, open at all hours of the day and night, each one offering up its own regional style and specialties. Women ride around on bikes that have been converted to tiny mobile restaurants. Fruit vendors patrol the busy squares and streets laden with perfectly ripe and unbelievably sweet pieces of pineapple, mango, papaya, guava. Take a bus or train and at every stop a kid with some sort of exotic snack jumps on the bus until the next stop. And the food is outrageously delicious. There is so much flavor, so many layers of sweet and spicy and salty and umami. There is so much variety; each region of Thailand has its own signature dishes and flavor profile, from the rich coconut curries of the south to the tangy, spicy lime and chili pepper and sticky rice dishes of the northeast and all the various other Asian influences that converge in the central lowlands and northern highlands. And then there is the freshness: the touches of bright fresh herbs and greens and fruit that keep the food reasonably light and healthy. But my favorite part of Thailand was exploring the street food. They say the only way to truly appreciate the cuisine of the given region is to eat at someone’s home, and not just at restaurants. The cool thing about Thailand is, the home cooking is brought right out to the street. There are curry stalls, green papaya salad stalls, paad thai and noodle stalls, fried chicken with sticky rice stalls, stalls that serve only soup, stalls that serve only sweets, and on and on. And you realize that the Thai food you are used to in America is nothing like the Thai food that you find in Thailand. Which is crazy, because everyone comes back from Thailand raving about the food. And then you go to a Thai restaurant in America and you get something that’s more like Chinese food with fish sauce. I traveled and worked in Thailand for over a year, and I don’t think I EVER saw a green pepper. But go out to a Thai restaurant in the U.S. and those damn green peppers are in every single dish! They serve green papaya salad and laab gai without sticky rice! Oftentimes they don’t even have sticky rice period. They put peanut butter in the paad thai instead of crushed peanuts and think they’re fooling everyone. You will almost never see green Thai eggplants in your coconut green curry, let alone pea aubergines. No, it’s a sad state of affairs for anyone craving authentic Thai food. The solution: make it yourself. Most of the ingredients are out there these days, and while you might not get the exact vegetable or herb you’re looking for, you’ll come pretty close. Here’s a recipe for one of my favorite dishes that I ate all the time in Thailand, but have never once seen on a menu here in the States. It’s super easy, fast, healthy, and delicious, and totally authentic. I’ve perused many recipes for this dish online, and to date haven’t found one that nails the authentic ingredients and presentation (with a fried egg) that I found in Thailand. Thais call it pak kanaah moo grawb, but you can call it Thai fried greens with crispy pork. Recipe is below, with tips on substitutions that will still retain the authenticity of the dish. Enjoy.
There are several variations of this dish in Thailand, all using slightly different greens. Thailand is a haven for leafy greens, and they have way more variety of cooking greens than here in the states. Your best bet for authenticity is to find an Asian market and ask for Chinese broccoli greens. You can also use yu choy, a more slender and leafy version of bok choy. They are the perfect for this dish: not too tough, not too tender, with a nice sweetness and crunch that holds up well to quick, high heat. Baby bok choy can be used, though you end up with more stalk than leaf. If you don’t have an Asian market nearby and your store doesn’t carry Asian greens, collard greens work fine, especially if they’re a bit younger and tender. But any greens will work: you can also use mustard greens, beet greens, morning glory greens, napa cabbage, regular broccoli greens,
You can usually spot a pak kanaah stall by the big piles of greens and a big piece of cured pork belly. The chef will cut off a thick slice and cut it into chunks; these go into the hot oil and are fried until crispy. Chinese and Asian markets will usually have crispy pork belly, but thick sliced bacon works well and gives a nice, smoky flavor to the dish.
Oyster and fish and soy are easy to find in almost any grocery store, but another key ingredient to this dish is the addition of a little bit of fermented yellow soy bean. Again, an Asian store will have several varieties of this staple, but the Asian aisle in your local grocery store will usually have some black, whole-bean fermentedsauce (often with chili, which is fine) that can be substituted. But don’t leave it out, as the subtle, umami-salty flavor of the fermented whole beans makes the dish truly authentic.
And of course, what Thai dish wouldn’t be complete without some addition of Thai chilis? Thai chilis are usually red or green depending on ripeness; this dish usually gets the red variety because it stands out nicely against the dark green vegetables. These are sometimes called birds-eye chilis and they can be hard to find in typical stores. The closest substitute are long, red chilis or in a pinch, red serranos, although the flavor is definitely different. And of course, if you must have some heat (and you should), good old jalapenos will do in a pinch. But when you do find Thai chilis in your store, grab a few handfuls and freeze them for later use, as they are key in many recipes. If you just can’t do spicy, you can leave the peppers out and still have a really nice dish.
Two other ingredients that I like to add that aren’t usually mentioned are mushrooms and sliced onion. I’ve had this dish in Thailand with halved button mushrooms and it’s a great addition, but any kind of mild, fleshy mushroom will work (avoid black or shitaake, as their flavor takes over). And I love to add some sliced onion towards the end for extra crunch, sweetness, and “body”, as the greens do cook down a bit.
1 lb Asian or collard greens, rinsed and chopped (separate thick stems from tender leaves)
1/2 lb crispy pork belly or thick-cut bacon
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
2-4 red thai chilis (depending on your heat threshold)
1 1/2 cups straw, button, or crimini mushrooms, chopped coarsely
1 medium yellow cooking onion, sliced lengthwise
1 tablespoon peanut, vegetable, or refined coconut oil
1 teaspoon fermented yellow bean sauce
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar (palm sugar if possible)
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
Fish sauce with chilis (naam pla prik) – recipe
Jasmine rice – recipe
Eggs (one per plate)
Heat oil in wok on high until lightly smoking. Add chunks of pork and fry until crispy. Add chopped garlic and chili peppers and fry until golden brown, creating some nice browning and caramelizing in the bottom of the wok. Add mushrooms and soy sauce to deglaze, cook until tender. Add greens, starting with the thicker stem pieces first, then add the more tender leafy parts. Add fermented soy paste, oyster sauce, sugar, and just a touch of water. Cook on high, stirring frequently, until greens start become tender and bright green. Add sliced onion, toss mixture, then turn off heat to keep the onions slightly crispy.
In separate wok or frying pan, fry up one egg per plate. Thais usually fry their eggs in a wok with a half-inch of oil, and spoon the hot oil over the top of the egg with a large spoon or hammered wok shover as it’s cooking, giving a slightly-less than sunny side up appearance. But you can go ahead and fry to your liking; I usually keep it over-easy so the yolk drips down into the greens, giving it the final ultimate flavor and texture component.
On a plate, put a nice mound of cooked plain jasmine rice, with a couple spoonfuls of the fried greens on top. Place a fried egg on top of that, and sprinkle with fish sauce and chilis to taste. The fish sauce gives it the final punch that brings this super-delicious and popular Thai dish together. We eat this for dinner, lunch, and breakfast all the time. You’ll love it.