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My thwarted quest for life-changing prawns in Hua Hin

A day before I left for a friend’s wedding in Thailand last week, I frantically googled for local places to eat in Hua Hin, the city where the wedding was to be hosted over the next three days. Hua Hin is around two and a half hours outside the city of Bangkok, and much to my disappointment, receives few, if any, rave foodie reviews online. Or at least too few in English. Of the search results that did turn up, I automatically discounted the commercial and touristy sounding dining guides, where practically every restaurant was undiscerningly described as ‘delightful’ or ‘charming’ or ‘really the place to be.’

The only site result that looked promising was one written by a foodie who describes himself as a ‘kitchen cockroach,’ and who seemed to be well aware of the authentically local Thai joints. Excerpted from a write-up of his recent visit to Hua Hin:

…this fantastically hidden treasure of a roadside restaurant named J’Daeng.  This was the best Thai food I’ve had in Thailand outside of Sorn Thorng restaurant in Bangkok.  Tough luck to any foreigners trying to find this place.

-- by Nick, in . . a life of travel, shameless gluttony, hedonism and occasional enslavement

This was exactly the kind of local Hua Hin gospel I was in search for.

Nick went on to describe an epiphany-inducing prawn dish that he’d eaten at J’Daeng in Hua Hin:

This prawn dish has changed my life, no bullshit.  I will return to Huahin just to eat this dish…The flavour of the herbs, the sweet/sour/salty dressing and smackingly fresh prawns made this a ‘where have you been all my life’ moment.  I can only think of 2 other occasions where something in my mouth has affected me this deeply.  This was THAT ridiculously good.

Having read this, I just couldn’t bring myself to visit Hua Hin and not make a pilgrimage to J’Daeng for those prawns. I’d have to find a way to squeeze this trip in somewhere between the wedding festivities. It would be practically blasphemous if I didn’t.

But in that brave-hearted moment of conviction, in a foreign city armed with a mission to visit one restaurant that had the potential of changing my life like it did for that of Nick, little did I know that Murphy’s law was chuckling in the background, waiting to heave its nasty jinxed breath all over me.

What could go wrong with such a noble mission and pure-hearted intention? Well, let me explain just how Murphy’s law works. For the rest of this post, I want you to imagine yourself in my shoes (partly because it's more fun that way, but also because its too painful for me to experience this firsthand all over again)

Murphy’s law, part 1:

The law states that you will be thwarted from the start. You could approach the Sheraton front desk and ask if they know the location of a local restaurant called J’Daeng. They return a blank questioning stare and engage in a recursive line of pointless questioning which tells you that let alone foreigners, even locals aren’t aware of this hidden gem.

Murphy’s law, part 2:

The law also states that your back up plan, Google, will turn up zero results in English about J’Daeng’s location. And Nick’s website doesn’t have a specific address on it either – most likely because this is some roadside shack hidden away from prying tourist eyes.

How am I supposed to find you, oh creator of life-changing prawns?

Murphy’s law, part 3:

The law does cut you a bit of slack - your assigned taxi driver would have heard of the place, though can’t fathom why a faint-hearted tourist like yourself would want to venture outside the Sheraton to a local shack.

P.S. Don’t celebrate yet, this ‘slack’ is the fake calm before the bigger storm to come.

Murphy’s law, part 4:

As predicted, Murphy’s law kicks back with a vengeance when the driver, midway through your journey over to J’Daeng, gestures that there are “maaanieee restaurants, same name, same area, which one you go to?” Um, why didn’t he mention this to you at the start of the journey. Now you’d have to trapeze all over the city checking out the menus of every possible J’Daeng until you found the right one.

Murphy’s law, part 5:

When you finally pull up into the first roadside J’Daeng, you decide to administer the test of authenticity by seeking out the famed prawn dish on the restaurant menu. At this heroic point in time, just as you're going to publicly annouce yourself as the seeker of the glorious prawn dish, Murphy’s law ordains that everything - except for the Hero scooter that spunky granny chef zips into the restaurant on, wearing no less than her pink socks and white crocs. Both strangely comforting sights on this foreign soil. - shalt be in a language and of a style totally foreign to you. Everything from the second you hopped out of your air conditioned camry was scrawled and/or spoken in Thai, with zero benefit of English subtitles critical to determining whether that prawn concoction has its home on the menu.

Murphy’s law, part 5.1:

You quickly toughen up - this is what getting a taste of the true local experience is about right? Right, sneers M's Law in your face, except that your carefully taken notes describing the exact name of the prawn dish - your ticket to ensuring that you correctly ordered the best thing on the menu - is missing from your bag. Your sticky note to prawn salivation has been carelessly forgotten at the hotel front desk, where it’ll stay put until your J’Daeng escapade is over, not to be seen, not to be ordered, and only to be vaguely known as 'the prawn dish.' No point going to any other restaurant with the same name at this point, you’d be in the same rut everywhere without your notes and with your non-existent Thai speaking skills. (Ever tried describing a monumental prawn dish to a group of Thai chefs and servers? I failed miserably. I was never any good at dumb charades anyway.)

You finally throw your hands up in resignation and leave it to your semi-English speaking driver to order for you. Murphy’s law has reduced you to this ignobly low point where you know, just know, that no matter what you do, the cards are turned against you that day and your life-changing prawns are out of reach. The least you can do is to not go hungry, and go back to your friends at the hotel saying that you were a true adventurer, a true warrior of the local culinary battlefield. You look over to the driver pleadingly, ‘just get me anything with prawns please.’

Murphy’s law, part 6:

Things are almost starting to pick up, you’re anticipating the arrival of the food that you’d enjoy in this traditional, 100% local roadside joint, even though it’d be devoid of the esteemed prawn dish. Twenty minutes later, the server comes out with plastic bags of food. Wait. Did someone say plastic? What the…??!! Yep, Murphy’s law has smacked you in the face yet again. It dictates that your driver would have somehow assumed that you wanted everything to go. A wonderfully local experience would now die a slow, painful death in the precious confines of your air-conditioned Sheraton suite.  You would now be celebrated as nothing more than an imposter, who’d gone out to find real local food only to bring it back to your ivory tower in the resort.

(Faced with such a situation, knowing that Murphy is with you all the way that day, never try to reverse your fortune, which in this case would have meant asking the server to unpack your food and serve it at the table. Just go with the flow. Violating the law could open a Pandora's box of even worse luck.)

Switching back to myself for a second, I started to unpack the surprises that the driver had ordered for me back in my hotel room. The man has ordered a feast for four people, all for the dirt cheap price of 420 baht. Plus another 100 baht for Sheraton’s room service to bring me plates and cutlery so that I can spare myself the act of drinking lunch out of plastic takeout baggies.

First up, the gigantic steamed fish, with its head and fins intact. It was completely flavourless. The fish just tasted of brine and well, of smelly fish – with the taste being only marginally improved after coating each bite in the sweet and spicy soy sauce that the J’Daeng family had kindly tossed into my takeout bag.

The second dish was a mixed seafood soup, with prawns and squid and potentially other unfamiliar seafood entities floating about in a hearty vegetable broth. I didn’t care too much for the squid – rubbery seafood textures are not my cup of tea – but the prawns and the broth, steeped in a natural veggie stock combining the hearty flavors of beans, corn, broccoli and carrots, made for a warm, comforting combination. I’d go so far as to say that this savory, full-bodied broth alone almost silenced out the ominous Murphy’s law that had been muttering behind my back all afternoon long.

And on this exponentially more positive note, I happily moved on to my third and final conquest – shark soup. Strange, but I could barely find any pieces of shark in the soup, unless they were those mushroom-textured tasteless pieces of white flotsam drifting about in the pungent garlic and lemongrass flavoured liquid. I should have left it at that and walked away, thankful that lunch had not been totally disastrous. But in my relentless pursuit for one satisfying forkful of shark (especially since I’d never tasted it before), I mistakenly bit into a hot pepper that had deviously sneaked its way onto my spoon.

Murphy’s law, part 7:

Never be so bold as to presume the exact time at which Murphy’s law is done dealing with you. And now, you personally didn’t have time to contemplate this 7th instance of the law. All you remember after that one explosive chilly bite are tears streaming down your face, your rushing to the bathroom to shovel water down your throat, and then when that fails to extinguish the fire ball that has erupted on your tongue, you scarf down the one lone banana left on the complimentary fruit platter in your hotel room. The painfully fiery sensation still refuses to die out, to the point where you sprint down the hotel corridor to the Sheraton’s lunch buffet layout, in desperate search for yogurt or ice cream or frankly any substance that could numb your torched tongue.

In my version of this adventure, my saviour at this point was a frozen scoop of sorbet from the Sheraton buffet, served up in a baby coconut cracked open through the centre. Most of the coconut meat had been scooped out from the core, except for a few crunchy, jellified bits of tender coconut flesh that had been strategically left behind to add that refreshing coconut flavour and texture to each spoonful of sorbet.

As I sat icing my tongue with sweet sorbet and coconut, I wondered, maybe Murphy had some mercy on me after all?

Wrong. Murphy's law, part 8 firmly admonishes ANY show of mercy for its victim. If you were starring in this story, your afternoon would end with a terrible migraine – a remnant of the chilly that had skyrocketed right to your temples and pounded out whatever little was left of your brains after your ill-fated afternoon adventures. And the ultimate blow, which you only realize as you go to set a phone alarm for an afternoon nap to recover from the migraine, is that your blackberry phone had been lost or stolen somewhere between the start and end of your hunt for those evasive prawns.

Moral of the story - If you ever sense Murphy’s law creeping up on you, just sit tight on your white hotel linens and order room service.

(PS. My story does have somewhat of a happy ending. Nick, the blogger who set off my crazed search for J’Daeng’s prawns in Hua Hin, was kind enough to share the recipe of the prawn dish with me. Check it out in the comments section of this post. Call me silly, or even superstitious, but I’ll hedge my bets and wait for a few months for the jinx, or Murphy’s law, or whatever factor X afflicted me that day, to wear off before experimenting with these prawns in my kitchen back home.)





4 Comments

  1. Saleem@dahbashi.com

    Guess you need a Thai / English speaking boy friend to take you to the right places, find one for next time.

  2. I am so sorry about your misery, but I couldn’t help chuckling from the start of this post to the very end. What an anti-climactic end to your quest! Better luck next time! :-)

  3. Arzan

    haha wow.. now I’m craving those life changing prawns as well! I doubt my cooking skills would be able to match the local flavor. I guess a Thai-English transalation guide would have been helpful!

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