How much can the discovery of the best breakfast in the world change your life? Worries on your mind, low self esteem, lacking confidence…. no problem.
Before I moved to Thailand breakfast was a non event really, just a hurried bit of toast, or a couple of “pop tarts” as I rushed out the door. Things in the UK generally get more extravagant at weekends or holidays prompting Oscar Wilde’s famous quote “the English should eat breakfast 3 times a day”. I don’t think he meant the pop tarts.
The average weekday breakfast in the UK is a sorry, hurried affair, lending itself to convenience and expediency rather than culinary greatness. And this is where I think things start to go wrong. What kind of world can be built on a quick bowl of Golden Grahams, instant “cereal drink”, or a banana and Mars Bar on the bus?
The idea of eating a proper meal, a culinary masterpiece no less, every morning, in a specialist breakfast restaurant is a wonderful and life changing event, I promise it will increase confidence, self esteem and wellbeing (just don’t tell everybody back home all they’ll all be here).
The day starts very early in Chiang Mai. Saffron robed monks are out on the streets at 6am on their alms round, having already been up for a good couple of hours. Wholesale markets that fuel the city are buzzing at 4am. It’s a wonderful time of day, the temperature is cooler, the air seems fresher, a new day is just beginning and everybody is out and about looking for breakfast and if you have 20 Baht in your pocket there is really only one place that you should go; Ching Choo Chai. It won’t be in any of the guide books, you won’t even find it very easily and it wouldn’t even occur to any tourist guides on the many guided tours to take you there.
Like all things worth while it wasn’t easy at first. The first time I went I wished I hadn’t. I understood nothing of what was going on around me, who do I order from, what do I say, what do I order, I hadn’t even bothered to find out what they were serving (sometimes my capacity for world class stupidity surprises even me), no menu, no clues, everything was done on nods, a quick point at a steaming cauldron and a few code words. I could feel the 60 odd pairs of eyes staring at me. The young women that were ferrying hot bowls of something back and forth coped well by pretending I wasn’t there.
It’s easy to panic in situations like this. Deep water divers are taught about a psychological phenomenon called the “incident pit” whereby one mishap ignites panic and an inevitable downward series of accidents swiftly follow. I could feel the first few dominoes beginning to fall.
Suddenly, without warning food arrived. Thailand is a magical place. The owner and main cook had seen my desperation and organised it for me. I really can’t think of any other country where this level of kindness and thoughtfulness might happen. Of course I didn’t realise then what had happened, I just thought it was another Thai miracle.
Two years on and I’m now an early morning regular at what I have come to discover must be one of the all time great breakfast restaurants in the world. I have been initiated into the early morning secret world of breakfast restaurants, I nod, I point, I act cool and order in code.
Ching Choo Chai is a Thai breakfast restaurant on the outskirts of Chiang Mai that specialises in pork and rice dishes. It starts cooking at 3am and serves its first customer by 6am and by lunch time it looks like the aftermath of a battle. Its family run, employing about 12 people with the main food station headed up by the most skilled and fastest cook I have ever seen. His movements are so instinctual, so ingrained and so accurate I swear he could work just as effectively with his eyes closed. If ever there was a book entitled “Zen and the Art of Breakfast Cookery” he would be our guiding master. On a holiday morning he will single handily plate up over 500 breakfasts (not including take out) and talk to regulars, and oversee everything else, calling out orders to his crew and keeping the waitresses on their toes.
If you go there any morning between 7am and 8am it will be full with young office workers, bank managers in suits, traffic police with pressed uniforms, tour guides, student’s , you name it they’ll be tucking in. All 60 seats taken and a queue along the pavement waiting for take out.
Everything is made on site and everything is fresh. There’s a huge glass cabinet with ice at the bottom full of bright green fresh herbs, mountains of shredded ginger and red chillies, piles of hand made pork balls, vats of boiling stock and a huge platter of braised pork.
It doesn’t have a big menu and it doesn’t need it. It has discovered the art of only doing a few things extremely well rather than trying to do a lot of things badly; a principle that should be applied everywhere in life perhaps. Oh the power of food.
Most people order one of three dishes. Cow Ka Moo was my first love. It’s what I had on that first day. Braised leg of pork, so tender it melts in the mouth, served with rice, sharp pickled cabbage and sometimes if I’m feeling a bit reckless half a boiled egg cooked in the pork juices and home made chilli sauce. It is the most fantastic breakfast in the world.
Cow Tom Moo is a rice and pork ball soup, the pork balls being made continually throughout the morning. It is flavoured with fresh herbs, crushed roast garlic and bright green spring onions. But as all aficionados will know it is the strength of the stock that elevates an average soup to the upper echelons, and this one is right up there every morning of every day.
The third but by no means the least favourite is Jot. This is a traditional northern Thai breakfast, a rice porridge that can be flavoured according to taste. The one that I like is mined with pork balls and comes with loads of extra bits to go on top, shredded fresh ginger, pickled green chilli, sweet red chilli sauce, chopped spring onions and best of all, tiny crunchy rice noodles.
All of these dishes are world class. The cooks have made them thousands of times, they know exactly what they are doing and would be praised by top chefs from around the world. What’s amazing though is the effect it has on me and the day that follows.
This morning I had Cow Tom Moo, it was excellent as usual. It made me feel good and it made me happy. I was eating something that had been made with care, expertise, confidence and pride. And you can feel it. Compare this with eating a Strawberry Pop Tart, made on some awful industrial estate in a factory by people who couldn’t care whether I choked to death on it. Every regrettable bite says “you care so little about yourself you will knowingly eat mass produced refined sugar rubbish, lining the pockets of faceless international companies in return for food that you know is sub standard and makes you feel bad, loser”. Well alright, each bite doesn’t say all that. But it sure don’t say “hey, you’re a winner”.
So throw away those Golden Grahams, they’re not as golden as you think, no way pop tart hell with your nasty little whispered messages, flush the instant cereal drink down the toilet and get out there and find your own breakfast utopia or come down to my local and I’ll treat you to a Cow Ka Moo and a glass of iced tea. I promise you’ll have a better day.
Happy eating. Have a good week and talk to you next Monday about life in Chiang Mai.