Some like it hot: Try Thai bar food
Ronit Vered
Feb.22, 2013

Much more than just peanuts and pretzels, a 'gap klaem,' or 'drinking snacks,' meal lasts at least three hours, and liquor is a must.

Gap klaem dishes.

Photo by Dan Peretz

“It was when we were living on the islands. I was working for a fisherman who was the son of a fisherman; his family has been earning its livelihood from the sea for generations, and according to the agreement between us he provided food and drink in exchange for my work. At 3 A.M., when the local food market opened, all the fishermen used to meet in the nearby cafe to eat a modest breakfast of deep-fried foods made from dough and wait for the first light. At 5 A.M. we would put the nets on the boat, which was six meters long and equipped with the motor of an American car, and set out to sea.

“On good days we returned home by noon, on bad days somewhat later, and when we unloaded the nets I would choose the fresh fish that constituted my pay. On the way home we would go into the grocery store so he could buy me the bottle of liquor I had coming to me according to the agreement. I ended up drinking half a bottle or a whole one on the way, and I’m talking about 150 meters. When I was able to return home I would hang the loot, which was in a bag, at the entrance of the house, and my wife Lek would start cooking. When I got up after a short afternoon nap we were ready to begin the gap klaem once again.”

(A memory of food and liquor 1‏)

“Restaurants that specialize in gap klaem are my favorites, and the best ones are in Isaan, where Lek grew up. They’re no more than plastic chairs and simple tables that stand beneath the sky, a pathetic-looking kitchen and a cook, at most a cook and a half, who cooks simultaneously for dozens of people. One such cook prepares 12-14 portions within 10 minutes. When you get the portions that he ‘tosses’ into the plate and that turn out so precise, you don’t know whether to eat or cry in view of this expertise. The dishes are usually as hot as hellfire. It’s so hot that you stop perspiring and begin to feel a throbbing pain in your temples, and still it’s impossible to stop eating because it’s so good. An average Thai couple orders three to four dishes and eats them in a relaxed manner − a gap klaem meal lasts for at least three hours − accompanied by liquor. Lek and I immediately order at least eight or 10 dishes.”

(A memory of food and liquor 2‏)

The speaker is Yariv Melili, owner of the Thai House restaurant in Tel Aviv, who has been living for years on the Israel-Thailand axis. Israel is his birthplace, Thailand is his chosen spiritual homeland and the birthplace of Lek, his wife of two decades. During the 13 years of the Thai-Israeli restaurant’s existence, Melili has made sure to prepare for his circle of friends and regular customers, huge meals of authentic Thai dishes. The local clientele has had difficulty getting used to them, however. In recent months, along with the restaurant’s usual menu, he has been offering to the general public a gap klaem menu, small appetizers that traditionally accompany alcoholic drinks.

The culture of gap klaem is common all over Thailand. In every part of the country and every regional kitchen, different foods can be found. Gap klaem portions are eaten at home and in the street, but also in special restaurants that open in the afternoon and operate until the small hours of the morning. The setting is simple, there are no tablecloths, and often there is Thai wrestling and sports on TV; but men are not the only patrons of the gap klaem institution.

I once stayed in a guest house in Bangkok that had a wonderful restaurant, and at twilight the tables would fill up with residents of the city, both men and women, who had finished their work in nearby offices and came to lighten the daily routine with a drink and small appetizers.

The order of eating is almost of no importance. There are dishes made from ingredients originating on land or sea, dishes prepared with various cooking techniques. Everyone chooses appetizers from here and there, depending on his desire and alcohol level. In Thailand, as in most tropical countries, most dishes are served at room temperature, and the variety is dizzying. There are almost no foods that are specifically defined as gap klaem, but most dishes of the rich and varied Thai cuisine can be considered gap klaem if they are adjusted in terms of size, seasoning and context.

“Gap klaem is almost never eaten with rice,” says Melili. “It can be, but usually there is no rice, which is so essential in the culture of Southeast Asian cuisine, because these are small appetizers with an emphasis on flavors and smells. The small gap klaem portions are eaten slowly, but every bite is powerful. The characteristic ingredients, which have to deal with a palate that has been dulled by alcohol, include dried fish, 1,000-year eggs and internal organs with a strong meaty taste.

“At a traditional Thai meal, the cook makes sure to leave room for the diner’s personal taste: There’s always dry chili, fish sauce, sugar and vinegar on the table, so that everyone can balance the flavor of the dishes according to his personal preference. At a gap klaem meal there is no need for that. The flavors are strong and emphasized in any case.”

A gap klaem reader

1. Thai beer
− Water sprayed with fans onto faces that are red from the heat, and the taste of cold beer with ice, are two sensual experiences that will be etched in the memory of anyone who visits this beautiful tropical country. Singha, the most common Thai beer, and the most familiar worldwide, was first produced in the 1930s. Over time additional brands emerged ‏(Chang, for example‏). It is almost always lager, relatively rich in alcohol ‏(about 6 percent‏), low in malt and with a delicate flavor. Anyone who drinks it along with the strong-tasting and highly seasoned Thai food won’t complain. The golden, neutral-tasting drink goes well with the dominant flavors of the food. This is one of the reasons why almost all Westerners who are put off at first by the addition of ice cubes to the beer, quickly become accustomed to the pleasant local custom. Those who don’t must finish their beer within a few moments, or get used to the taste of a warm, murky liquid in a perpetual bath of humidity.

1. Thai beer 2. Yam khai khem − A salad of hard-boiled eggs pickled in salt. 3. Tom yam talay − Tom yam seafood soup. 4. Kanna nam man hoi − Kanna leaves in a shellfish sauce.
Dan Peretz

2. Yam khai khem
− A salad of hard-boiled eggs pickled in salt. Salted hard-boiled eggs, so common in Southeast Asian cuisine, originated because of the need to preserve fresh eggs in the damp tropical climate. The eggs, originally duck eggs for the most part, are preserved for about a month in a solution of salt water, until the salt penetrates the eggshell and changes the texture and taste of both white and yolk. The term “yam,” which refers to a large and complex family of foods and recipes, is usually translated as “salad,” although the literal meaning is “to mix together” and the concept differs from the Western one. A Thai salad contains a large number of ingredients in addition to seasonal fruits and vegetables − meat, fish and seafood, fresh and dry spices and more − and the balance between hot and cold is achieved by adding the cooked ingredients to the fresh ones.

3. Tom yam talay
− Tom yam seafood soup. The term “tom yam” ‏(literally, “tom” − to boil, “yam” − to mix together‏), which has become a classic that crosses borders and regional cuisines, refers to a large family of soups. The common denominator is the familiar Thai seasoning: lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal ‏(ginger root‏), fish sauce and chili peppers − and the characteristic sweet-and-sour taste. The additions ‏(poultry, beef, fish, seafood, etc.‏) vary from one recipe to the next and from one version to the next. Tom yam is usually eaten with rice. On the gap klaem table, which usually includes at least one soup, they sometimes skip the rice.

4. Kanna nam man hoi
− Kanna ‏(green leaves from the cruciferous family, also known as “Chinese broccoli”‏), in a shellfish sauce. The green, somewhat bitter leaves are usually stir fried in a wok with shellfish sauce and garlic. On the gap klaem table, to balance out the dominant flavors, they usually place simple dishes of green leaves ‏(bak choi, broccoli, pak bong and others‏) to balance the sharp, sour and salty tastes in your mouth.

5. Pla meuk katiam
− Calamari fried with garlic.

6. Pu pad prik pao
− Crab meat fried with an egg and nam prik pao, one of the most ancient and common spice pastes in Thai cuisine. The dominant flavor of the paste is achieved from a combination of smoked hot peppers, shrimp paste, lime juice and garlic.

7. Pla pad takrai
− A whole fish fried with lemon grass.

8. Gung chae nam pla
− Raw shrimps, which like Peruvian ceviche are “cooked” only with the seasoning, which includes fresh lime juice, fish sauce, shallot onions and chili peppers.

9. Gung prik pao − Shrimps stir fried with prik pao.

10. Pasa, or miang
− Originally a popular snack of leaves from a local plant that are used to hold a large variety of fillings. In Melili’s version, influenced by Vietnamese stuffed dishes, a crisp, fresh lettuce leaf cradles kanun chin ‏(noodles‏), pieces of fried fish, very thin rings of red pepper, lemon peel, tamarind sauce and fresh green herbs such as chives and spearmint. You hold the light refreshment in your hand, put it in your mouth and let the harmony of flavors and textures flood your palate.

11. Thai whiskey
− Lao khao is a cheap distilled liquor made of fermented rice, which is characteristic of rural areas. The types of local whiskeys, brands such as Mekong and Sang Som, are distilled mainly from sugar cane and a relatively low percentage of rice, and anyone who can afford it drinks foreign whiskey ‏(the most popular brand is Johnnie Walker Black‏). Whatever the case, they drink the whiskey in a tall glass, add lots of ice cubes, fill three quarters of the glass with water and top it with soda. That’s how you drink alcohol in moderation in a hot climate.

12. Yam pla meuk
− A calamari salad. Like the other members of the yam family, especially on a gap klaem table, where eating is relaxed, it is served at room temperature.

13. Yam pla kam
− A salad of dried fish.

14. Pet pad cha
− Duck meat. In Israel, where there is no fresh duck, Melili sometimes uses goose. It is fried with a mixture of spices, of which the main ingredient is fresh peppercorns, which in Israel is replaced by black pepper.

15. Kao niaw
− Sticky rice. Made of a special type of rice that is rich in starch, steamed in bamboo baskets − in the past in ceramic vessels − and as befits its name, it is stickier than ordinary rice. Sticky rice is characteristic of northern Thailand ‏(Lana ‏) and northeastern Thailand ‏(Isaan‏), and is usually eaten with the hands: Take a little rice with your fingertips, form it into a ball, dip it or use it to gather the various foods and bring it to your mouth.

16. Yam hu muu
− Pig’s ear salad. A typical rural dish, characteristic of the poor regions, where it is customary to eat all the parts of the animal. Internal organs have a fascinating history. In Thailand, and especially in rural areas like Isaan, even today it is hard to find internal organs, but the reason is just the opposite of that in the West: In the West those parts are tossed out already in the butcher shop; in Isaan it’s hard to find them because inhabitants of that region are crazy about them.

17. Tom super
− A soup of internal organs. Another rural dish that even the residents of Bangkok, the capital, probably wouldn’t eat. In Isaan and in other areas close to nature they continue to eat foods made of internal organs, and other foods typical of the period prior to the refinement of the royal courts.

18. Sai grop and sai oua
− Sai grop is a typical Asian sausage, made of a mixture of pork, garlic and cooked rice and fermented for several days. The fermented rice is responsible for the creation of lactic acid, which lends the sausage its characteristic sour taste and preserves the meat. Sai grop is roasted on a charcoal grill and served with ginger, fresh garlic, peanuts and fresh cauliflower. Sai oua, which also originated in northeastern Thailand, is similar but differs in the large quantity of spices − lemon grass, kaffir lime, turmeric and more.

19. Naem
− A sausage characteristic of the north, mainly the Chiang Mai region, which has become popular all over Thailand. It is made of a mixture of pork, rice and garlic and fermented for several days ‏(the hot temperature in Thailand causes speedy fermentation‏). Its meat is usually combined with hot peppers − prik ki nu − and eaten raw.

20. Som tam pla raa
− A green papaya salad. Very thin strips of green papaya are crushed in a wooden mortar together with fish sauce, garlic, chili, lime juice, dried shrimps, cherry tomatoes and fresh lubia ‏(green bean‏) pods. The original Asian version is very spicy and usually also includes small salted river crabs or pla, a fermented fish paste with a strong smell that is made of dried fish preserved in salt for two to three years.

21. Larp muu −
A chopped pork salad. Larp and nahm tok, according to chef David Thompson ‏(who translated Thai cuisine for the West in his wonderful book “Thai Food”‏), are the Southeast Asian equivalents of Central Asian tartare. Raw meat is chopped ‏(or ground in the case of larp‏) and then “cooked” in a sauce of citrus fruits and hot peppers. Later on they started to roast or cook the meat before mixing it with the sauce, in order to moderate the spiciness. These are some of the spiciest dishes offered by Thai cuisine. Larp and nahm tok ‏(literally, “waterfall,” named after the flow of liquids that bursts forth from a piece of meat while it is roasting‏) are served with platters of fresh vegetables such as cabbage or cucumbers.

Yariv Melili’s gap klaem recipes can be found on the Haaretz website.