Friday, April 8, 2011

Isaan Odyssey, Part 16: Udonthani BBQ

An Udonthani BBQ cook preparing a dish at an open-air buffet

[This is Part 16 of a series. If you found this via a search or just happened upon it some other way you can find parts 1 through 15 by clicking HERE.]

It was late afternoon as we approached the city of Udonthani. Suphot had been correct in estimating around six hours to get there from our morning stop at Muang Tam, and I was tired; it had been a long drive on a warm day with very few breaks along the way. I'm sure if I'd asked to stop more often we would have, but I was also anxious to get to our destination and settle in for a few days so I hadn't.

We sailed along highways that were well maintained, for the most part; through farmlands and long stretches relatively undeveloped, save for the occasional farm dotting the land. With the rainy season still ahead it was nowhere as lush and green as the area can be, and I hope to try the journey another time along a different route when it is.

Suphot speaks English fairly well, so we talked of life, work, relationships, music, food we liked, places we hoped to see in our lives, and just rode quietly for some stretches; me nodding off here and there as Pot kept a close eye on the road. Occasionally we'd get stuck trying to describe something to each other and would talk in circles trying to make the other one understand, but that's half the fun; stopping and getting the English/Thai dic (dictionary) out of my bag seemed like it would have been cheating, so we didn't.

The lobby of the Charoen Hotel in Udonthani

I'd pre-booked two rooms at the Charoen Hotel, and as I looked out the window past the pool after tipping the bellboy the sun was setting off beyond the pool area.

OK, so the air was full of particulate matter. The sunsets were great.

To respect his privacy I'm going to call my friend Jeab for now, and explain another time.

Jeab showed up at the hotel soon after we arrived, with a female friend in tow we'll call Dao. She was very pretty, but at first I wasn't sure if she was a she. Jeab saw my puzzled look and explained "Everybody think she's kathoey (ladyboy) because she have no boobies," he laughed; and it was true, she was fairly flat-chested. Dao laughed along with him and gave him a playful slap on his shoulder. "Have, but not for you - you gay boy!"

[As an aside: more often than not a kathoey is a male living as a female, often accepted by Thai society and referred to as "the third sex", but can also mean a transvestite or merely an effeminate man in the vernacular. The Thai don't have quite the rigid hang-ups we tend to have in the West, thank goodness.]

After introductions were made all around it was decided that we'd head out to a traditional outdoor barbeque restaurant that Jeab knew of. It wasn't the one we'd usually visited but I was hungry and really didn't care where it was at that point. BBQ is BBQ, and so far I hadn't had any in Udonthani that I hadn't loved.

One SMALL portion of the "ingredient" buffets, including the attended cooking area

I don't have the name of this place in my notes, and the signs were in Thai (of course), but it's right by the runways for the airport - guaranteeing you a "roaring" good time every so often. We were told the place seated over 400 people, and that seemed like a reasonable figure.

A traditional BBQ restaurant there consists of a tables with holes in the center of the top, about 20"/51cm across, into which a heavy, thick-sided concrete pot full of brightly glowing wood charcoal is placed, topped by a stainless steel collar, again topped with a separate cooking pot/grill piece, such as the one above. The top has slits around the central domed portion that allows the heat to vent and cook whatever you put on top of it. Around the edge is a ringed "moat" of sorts, several inches deep, that water is added to. The water boils and becomes soup as you add ingredients to it.

You can get a better look of what one of these places look like before darkness sets in in the post "The BBQ Boys Of Udonthani" where the tables are more visible.

The ingredients are found on long tables; sometimes done up fancy, sometimes looking more like a Western picnic, sometimes a combination of the two, like below.

The tables of meats looked less appetizing, so here are the greens and things.

There's no right or wrong way to do this, but if you find yourself in doubt, just look around you and see how others are doing it. Basically, you bring what you want to eat from the buffet tables nearby back to your table, sit down, and cook it. Naturally, there's rice and usually salad and other things, but the best part of the meal is in the socializing while you cook, share and eat.

As he often does, Jeab took the lead and loaded up a few plates of chicken, vegetables and squid (the man loves his squid) and set to cooking for us, which was a nice start. A waiter came and took our drink order, and between us we covered all bases: Coke, water, tea and Leo beer.

Minutes later, as the delicious aromas of barbecuing chicken and the savory simmering soup began to rise from our cooker, I began to feel the effects of the long day settle over me. I leaned back in my chair and listened to the band beginning to tune up on the large stage nearby and paused to be grateful for this gorgeous evening and the fine company I was sharing it with.

Gazing about I could watch locals doing the same thing at table after table for almost 100 yards across the seating area, and as a dedicated people watcher I was in hog heaven, so to speak. The couple below appeared to be on a first date: shy and tentative they sat side by side, but would often look away when looking at each other became a little too nerve-wracking. It was cute, and brought back memories of early dating experiences for me, too. The photo was from a distance without a flash (I didn't want to butt in), but you get the idea.

These two reminded me of the couple in the "Hello, Young Lovers" post

The band was set up before we were halfway through the meal, and as we were close to the stage and dancing area we got an earful that drowned out the jet noise from across the road, which was somewhat of a mixed blessing. Isaan-style music filled the air, and Suphot may have been the happiest to hear it, saying how much his partner would love hearing it and dancing to it.

The singer was either acknowledging me or saying "I wish that guy with the flash would STOP", one or the other.

We took our time and enjoyed cooking, eating and visiting for well over an hour and a half, but by that time I was completely done in for the day. Jeab called me aside to say how happy he was I'd finally made it back to Udonthani and said he would try to come up with something special to do the next day, both of which were nice to hear.

Jeab and Dao left at the same time we did, and I was very glad to see my bed waiting for me back at the hotel.

Finally. We'd made it to Udonthani.

[Coming up next in Part 17 - Udonthani football crowds and the night market.]


Was Once said...

Your BBQ is really called Suki. Oh, by the way, I'm jealous. The guy in the band was probably honored to have a farang in the audience.

khunbaobao said...

I think Suki is used more by the Japanese, but I could (easily) be wrong. More often than not I recall this type of tabletop BBQ cooking referred to as "moo kata" or "moo krata" in Thailand. I'll email a Thai friend for clarification, though... probably should have done that already, sorry!