The Master of Claypot Crab

The “claypot” shrimp at Somsak Pu Ob

Mother’s Day in Thailand falls every year on August 12, the birthday of Queen Sirikit the Queen Mother. At Emporium, there has been a Mother’s Day promotion involving a campaign somewhat creatively called “Master of Mom”, in which mothers get the chance to put on a cap and gown in the color of their choice and take a professional photo with reluctant children and accommodating spouses, replete with bouquet and good lighting. Alas, I did not get the chance to take a “Master of Mom” photo myself, and the thought of my getting a Masters in Mommery would probably make my children, who do not think I am a good mom, laugh. In any case, I enjoyed watching participating moms enjoying themselves from the perch of a table at the overpriced Marimekko Cafe across the room.

There is no “Master of Street Food”, although I’m sure some Singaporean foodie has already hatched a plan to create some sort of government certification with that in mind. I like to think that Thailand is more chaotic and rebellious (in its own way, and the people who live here know what that’s like, especially in traffic). But if there were to be such a program, then Nai Somsak would surely be included.

For people who have yet to enjoy the culinary delights across the river in “Fang Thon”, Thonburi is awash in great street food, with everything from wonderful egg yolk-streaked ice cream to Isaan dishes to vegetarian food. But even with all of the options on offer, Somsak Pu Ob stands out. Yes, there are the Michelin accolades for the past five years running, yada yada yada. The surprising thing here is that Nai Somsak has only been at this for a few years, taking over for his father who was revered in the neighborhood for his delicious claypot seafood. The other surprising thing is that there are no actual claypots involved; steel pots are used instead, as Somsak deems the claypots to take too much time.

And Somsak needs to be quick, because after 5pm, he is busy, placing fresh prawns or eggy crab bits atop a mix of pork lard, peppercorns, coriander seeds, garlic and scallions, with the final layer of glass noodles meant to “steam” the seafood in its own juices. Once the pots are on the burners, it’s all a matter of timing, with Somsak judiciously peeking under the noodles occasionally with his trusty flat metal fork, a conductor to a symphony of fire, steam and metal.

The maestro at work as Lucas, Joe and Nick look on

The “pu ob woonsen” might not even have happened if not for a drunken customer who requested that Somsak’s father stir-fry some fresh crab he had picked up at Mahachai Market, then promptly failed to show up. The enterprising vendor, who did not want to waste the crab, instead threw it into his claypot with the vermicelli noodles and a local legend was born. Today, Somsak thinks of the drunken no-show as a “thewada”, or angel. We should all be grateful to this person, who drank so that we could eat.

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