Eating our history

The excellent e-mee at Yim Yum in Chinatown

I finally got around to watching “Hunger” on Netflix, and I have to say, I’m not sure any chef would saddle their restaurant — much less a private chef service — with that name. Too on the nose, or maybe just plain too pretentious, I think; I mean, can you imagine excitedly asking your friends, “Have you been to Hunger yet” without wanting to punch yourself in the face? But what do I know, I don’t have either a restaurant or a private chef service.

One of the major points of this movie, if you haven’t seen it yet, is that food is purely a status symbol, aspirational, with people only eating things like caviar, foie gras, lobster, wagyu et al because they signify the diner’s wealth to the world. Although I am sure this might be true for some people, and why many chefs garnish their dishes with these ingredients like an edible (INSERT BRAND NAME HERE) logo, I think this far too simply summarizes what fine dining has become. It’s true that, with the world as it is now, the old model of the 3-Michelin-star restaurant that has stood for centuries is fading; no one can afford three servers per diner anymore or the enormous kitchen brigades of Paul Bocuse’s time. Instead, you get “chef’s tables” where oftentimes the chef is cooking in front of you, and who ever said that was guaranteed to be terribly exciting? So you end up with nonsense like a chef cutting up a cow carcass from a hook suspended in the middle of the dining room, or a dude self-immolating on his restaurant floor during the dessert course alongside his team and his diners (these things did not happen irl). This is why some chefs have been put up on a pedestal like a Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp, marketed as celebrities that are wholesome (Jamie Oliver, aka “English Spice”) or “artistes” (Hunger’s Chef Paul, aka “Artistic Thai Spice”). This is what you get when restaurants become purely interested in making money, but in a way where they can still look down on Olive Garden and Taco Bell even though that is what they are, at heart.

Another reason why “Hunger” approaches fine dining too simplistically: Can you imagine the overarching sadness of the person who only eats something so that other people can see it and then define them for it? I like the occasional caviar and foie gras terrine (never foie gras pan-seared), but really: how joyless would that kind of dining be if personal enjoyment was not a factor?

That said, while aspirational eating is a thing, the eating of our pasts is much more obvious and far-reaching. This is because it’s frequently the happiest and most comforting eating to be had, what we ate in our childhoods. And although a lot of that food, in my case, seems incongruous (I grew up in a mainly Italian town in Western Pennsylvania, so my comfort food is wedding soup and cavatelli with meatballs, not kai jiew with rice), it makes it no less nostalgic.

I did not grow up in a Thai-Chinese household, but I did marry into one. We ordered e-mee (pan-fried crispy egg noodles with shredded chicken and ham and Chinese vinegar on the side) every Saturday from a place called Bamee Gua on Langsuan, which no longer exists. I had not had this dish since Covid, but I was lucky enough to get in touch with Thai journalist Pailin, who has Teochew roots and who recommended having e-mee at Yim Yim, a very longstanding restaurant on the corner of an offshoot of Yaowarat Road.

The restaurant is on the second floor only and well into its second or third generation — I honestly had lost count. I was busy with the food, as Pailin had also ordered an or suan, or traditional-style oyster omelet, fried rice with Chinese olive, a handful of nice kanom jeeb, or steamed pork-filled dumplings under a shower of deep-fried garlic, and sausages stuffed with chestnuts, which our dining companion Adam said he hadn’t seen on menus outside of China.

But the highlight was definitely the Chinese mullet, steamed under a blanket of garlic and pickled turnip, which Pailin usually ordered cold but which today arrived hot. Fatty, juicy, salty and meaty, if this fish was a food that could connote high status to the diner, I would have no problem showing off every day (if you are curious, it costs 600-700 baht a fish, depending on the size. Not really Jay Fai crab omelet-level prices).

But we weren’t done. Pailin took us on a walk through the market after lunch, showing us where to get her favorite snack, e-guay, a hand pie stuffed with savory things like cabbage, taro or beans. I ate it as we walked, getting cabbage all over myself and oil all over my face and hands. Strangely, no one seemed to mind.

We ended our walk, which was really hot and sweaty, at Pailin’s favorite bamee wan (sweet egg noodles with ice) stall on Trok Issaranuphap. Almost magically, we felt better again, even if it only leant us enough energy to hail a cab back home.

There is a lot of talk in “Hunger” about how noodles are “humble” and how cooking street food is simple. When the heroine decides (SPOILER ALERT) to go back to cooking this kind of food, there is a sense that we are supposed to be surprised. But why would that be? If food has no emotion, there is no point to it. Isn’t that why (SPOILER ALERT) her grandmother’s recipe “ngo ngae” noodles are presented at the climax of the movie? Chef Paul then (SPOILER ALERT) shows his cynicism and moral bankruptcy in response, but does that mean he is supposed to be (SPOILER ALERT) the personification of caviar and foie gras? Come on. These can be good ingredients, when not plopped onto a ramen or hamburger haphazardly in the name of high prices “art”. Capitalism is the villain, not champagne! (Wagyu however … maybe).

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