Sunday, August 10, 2014

You say ข้าวคลุกกะปิ, we say bagoong rice.
It's funny how different each country's experience of a specific cuisine can be. I had never eaten pad thai prior to moving to New York, even though our family loved to frequent both Thai restaurants and Thailand itself. Where pad thai is the go-to order in the US, bagoong rice tops every Filipino's picks of Thai entrees. Bagoong rice is not the actual name of this dish; it is khao kluk gapi (more accurately written in Thai script above), which translates as shrimp paste rice. We Filipinos call it bagoong rice after the moniker of our own pungent blend of fermented shrimp paste.

Various Southeast nations have their own names and recipes for shrimp paste, but this much is universal: you either love shrimp paste or you hate it. The smell alone can be rather challenging to stomach if you weren't raised eating the stuff. Its highly concentrated flavor profile doesn't hold back, pummeling you with salty, sweet and umami even with the tiniest dollop. Hence, the automatic question of every server when you attempt to order this dish: "Have you had this before?" Answer with a vigorous nod indicating you are part of the club and you'll be rewarded with a plate artfully layered with green mango, red onion, egg, chili, tiny deep fried shrimps, sweet and savory pork, and that heavenly jasmine rice generously flavored with shrimp paste. Mix it all up, dig in, swoon. Repeat.

As with most sublime food experiences, this one isn't that easy to come by. In my seven years in New York, I've only seen the dish on Thai menus twice, with the very best version at SriPraPhai deep in Woodside, Queens. It is a trek worth taking, if the smell and taste of shrimp paste makes your heart sing.

SriPraPhai is located at 64-13 39th Avenue, Woodside, New York.

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