All hail the mighty khao pat gai

Boring yes, but never a dish to be underestimated


That clump of yellowish fried rice - sometimes containing bits of tomato, carrot and baby corn - topped with a solitary spring onion and even a slice or two of cucumber if the cook is in a particularly creative mood - all fastidiously arranged on an oversize white plate.

Let's all come together and celebrate one of Thailand's 'national treasures' - ladies and gentlemen, I give you ‘khao pat gai' (or chicken fried rice)

The great standby

When I first came to Thailand, I learned to order khao pat gai before I'd even learned the numbers one to ten or how to tell a taxi driver to turn left at the next intersection. It's what most foreigners do. There are tales told of expats that have been living on khao pat gai (washed down with large bottles of beer) for ten years or more.

Khao pat gai is the last bastion of the unadventurous Thai foodie. It's what you order when your pathetic attempts at pronouncing other Thai dishes draw nothing but blank stares and quizzical looks from a terrified waitress. It's that glorious dish that you can always rely on - "Oh fuck it, I'll have a khao pat gai"

In short, khao man gai is the egg and chips of the Thai culinary world.

I've never eaten an amazing khao pat gai and I've never eaten a bad one either. When it comes to being consistently consistent, the dish is in a league of its own. It's like a McDonalds cheeseburger meal - the attraction is that you know exactly what you're in for, even if you're not really in the mood to eat it.

And you can be at a roadside shack in the middle of a remote northern province on a dry, dusty road to nowhere - when the menu is leaning towards fermented intestines and things with eight legs still swimming in a dirty glass tank, the cook will always know how to whip up a chicken fried rice.

A life-saver

How many times have I been out for dinner with a group of Thai friends and that enormous bowl of khao pat gai has saved the day? You of course have done the honorable thing of taking a back seat and letting the Thais take charge of ordering the grub, only to then see the waitresses bring a succession of dishes that you couldn't possibly eat in a thousand years. And then just as you're contemplating feigning a heart attack as an exit strategy, it arrives in a bowl the size of a fucking paddling pool. Freshly cooked and piping hot, there's enough khao pat gai in that bowl to feed an army: certainly enough to get a hungry but picky farang through the evening. Listen, you lot can poke away at that cremated fish all night long but the khao pat gai is mine! Now if only that plastic serving spoon was bigger. 

Another reason this fine dish should be celebrated is that it acts as its very own menu pricing yardstick. Very seldom do you sit down and peruse a restaurant menu where khao pat gai is not the cheapest item on show.

My general rule of thumb is that anything below a hundred baht for a khao pat gai is acceptable but if we're talking about 125 baht or more, then that's just the restaurant owner playing silly buggers. You'd be wise to make a show of patting your back pocket, telling the waitress you need to go to the cashpoint machine - and never return. In fact, never even walk past the restaurant again. Ever.

I've occasionally heard stories of foreigners who have torn up the rule book: foreigners who haven't stuck to the path and who have strayed on to the moors. Not content with being able to order a khao pat gai and being satisfied when the correct dish is set before them, they've gone over to the dark side and ordered a ‘khao pat something else'.

Has life taught you nothing?

Listen to your Uncle Mickey's advice. Why make things difficult? The ‘boo' in khao pat boo (crab fried rice) and the ‘moo' in khao pat moo (pork fried rice) are basically indistinguishable to your average Thai waitress - especially when you say it. And if you ever feel the need to strike out and go for the khao pat gung (prawn fried rice) - don't. I've learned from experience that you'll get three animals at best.

As for khao pat Hong Kong, let's not even go there.

Do-it-yourself

Now call me a sentimental old fool but I've recently taken to making my own fried rice dishes at home. Chicken fried rice of course. I'm not Raymond Blanc or some bloody Masterchef finalist.

The advantages of making your own version of this incredible dish is that you can pimp it up to your heart's content. You can add obscene quantities of chicken meat and use up all those leftover veggies that are threatening to go furry at the bottom of the salad crisper.

Sometimes - and don't mention this to Gordon Ramsay will you? - I might even spoon in a dollop of tomato sauce to give the rice a sort of orangey glow. Oh, what a time to be alive.

Anyway, I'm writing this piece in an unfamiliar restaurant. The waitress looks like she's never seen a foreign customer in her life. I've managed to successfully order a Coke, all I need now is a simple main dish that even she'll have no problems with.

Have you guessed what it is yet?


Comments

Great piece. Next to knowing the hong nam coordinates in most office towers and malls food is essential. Survival skills are paramount in the Land of Sam-eye.

Takes me back a few years, your Khao pad gai piece does.
They'd just blink at me when I'd order verbally rather than point to the kai yang and ask that it be suk-suk.

The look I got rolled out in three stages.

1) She just stopped mid-shuffle, popped her eyes open in disbelief that this white-shirted boxidah with the long sleeves of his impeccably laundered shirt and non-Sukhumvit Rd. tie could possibly even know about roast chicken.

2) So you'd get her freezing up, quacking out a melodious "heh?? ??" announcing to you and (more importantly) every Thai within earshot that she hadn't understood your Thai. So you'd repeat your order.
SA-LOW-LEEEE.
You'd like a chicken leg with som tam. Well done. With some dipping sauce. Could she put 3 chillies in the som tam.

3) Years of village auntie wisdom would suddenly kick in. She'd know that if she achnowledged any direct understanding of your Thai that her colleagues might possibly jump to horrific conclusions.
She did what any self-respecting low-level worker does . . . . . . she excuses herself to get an older waitress or the boss to confirm her suspicion that you wanted somtam/Kai yang and a Coke.

Your first, but certainly not your last encounter with street-level Sakdinah

By Prufroqe, Octave Bar, Thonglor Marriot, Bangkok (1 year ago)

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