Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chef who spied his way to fame

Thai Takes

“NO, impossible to get a table. You need at least one month,” my Thai colleague Orawan Chanovit said two weeks ago when I suggested Jok’s Kitchen for a farewell dinner.

“Never mind, just try calling ... You never know. We might be lucky,” I insisted.

Orawan called. And we had a dinner appointment with one of Bangkok’s most sought-after chefs, Somchai Tangsinpoolchai, whose nickname is Jok.

Jok’s Kitchen is located in a one-unit shophouse in one of the meandering alleys in Bangkok’s Chinatown. There’s no menu (you eat what Jok serves) and you have to make a reservation in the unassuming restaurant which serves two or three tables.

On Thursday night, eight of us were sitting elbow-to-elbow at a round table, munching the appetiser (gingko fried with garlic) while listening to Jok’s explanation on how his home became a restaurant.

Initially, Jok’s home was a meeting place for close friends who brought their own cooking and whisky for potluck dinner.

His home was ideal as his family runs a seafood distribution business and his friends could raid the stock (which Jok would cook).

Through word of mouth, friends of his close friends’ friends started appearing uninvited for Jok’s arooy (Thai for delicious) dishes.

Three years ago, a Thai-language female magazine ran a story about Jok’s pot luck dinners.

“Strangers started coming and they wanted to pay me to cook for them,” related the 55-year-old Thai Chinese of Teochew descent.

Pressured, Jok left Thailand for Aceh in Indonesia to run a business exporting crabs to China.

“I was not ready to turn what started as a treat for friends into a business,” he explained.

Two dishes – fried shrimp wonton and seared snow fish with iceberg lettuce – arrived. Noel Velasco, my Filipino colleague, went for the snow fish. Jok stopped him and said in Thai, “you must eat this first”, pointing at the shrimp wonton.

On Jan 21, 2007, the chef finally opened Jok’s Kitchen for business. And Mathichon, a Thai-language newspaper, ran a glowing write-up, and the restaurant’s telephone has since not stopped ringing with requests for reservations.

Jok’s story on how he learnt to cook is a James Bond-like culinary espionage tale. At the age of 17, the budding chef would “spy” on famous restaurants in Bangkok when he delivered seafood.

“I would peek into the kitchen and observe how the master chef prepared the restaurant’s signature dish,” he related as Thais who were celebrating a birthday were beginning to fill the only other table in the room.

If that failed, Jok had other ways of extracting the secret recipe.

For instance, he tried to learn how to cook crab with vermicelli baked in a clay pot by watching the master chef of a restaurant known for that dish.

After a few months, and 50 damaged clay pots, he still had not mastered the dish. So he bribed the master chef with whisky for his secret.

“I’ve also given massage parlour coupons and branded watches to master chefs in exchange for their trade secrets,” he added.

Mai choop (don’t like),” he said when asked why didn’t he learn the trade by taking cooking class.

“I want to learn through experience (cooking it himself), and also the best chefs do not teach you the tricks,” he said.

Jok’s famous steamed crab (from his seafood farm along the Gulf of Thailand) arrived.

I grabbed a claw while my colleague Yasmin Lee Arpon asked Jok about the photograph of Princess Sirindhorn, the daughter of the Thai king, together with the chef and his family.

The photograph was taken when the princess patronised the restaurant, he said.

And Rupak D. Sharma, whose farewell we were celebrating, asked whether he had cooked for other famous people. Jok gave a long list of who’s who of Thailand – prime ministers, tycoons, politicians and coup makers.

He has even traded cooking secrets with former prime minister Samak Sundaravej, who is a celebrity chef.

The sauteed clam with mushroom was too peppery for my liking. Jok explained that his Chinese cooking was adapted to the Thai palate.

After the eight of us finished dessert (gingko with sticky rice), the waitress presented the bill. Jok took it and rounded up the figure to 8,000 baht (about RM800).

(Published in The Star on January 31, 2009)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

In search of a Muay Thai ‘jaguh’

Thai Takes

WHAT would you do if you won bronze in an international Muay Thai competition?

If you were Ramazan “The Punisher” Ramazanov (pix: right), you would tear up your return ticket to Moscow and stay back in Bangkok to train to be a world champion.

In 2004, while his compatriots returned to Russia after fighting in an IFMA (International Federation of Muay Thai Amateur) championship in Thailand, the 19-year-old Russian middleweight champion chose to remain behind and be a professional fighter.

“My mother was shocked. But she said ‘all right’ when I told her I wanted to be a world champion and Thailand was the place to learn Muay Thai,” the Russian recounted.

His decision paid off.

Last year, he was ranked No 1 in World Boxing Council Muay Thai (WBC Muay Thai) super cruiserweight and World Muay Thai Council (WMC) heavyweight. He is also the World Professional Muay Thai Federation (WPMF) heavyweight champion.

Ramazan’s manager Iskhandar Syah @ Tytus wishes there are Malaysians with the Russian fighter’s attitude.

On July 5, last year, Tytus was at the Stadium Malawati in Shah Alam because his fighter, Zidov “Akuma” Dominik, was in the curtain raiser for the Malaysian edition of The Contender Asia qualifier.

There he spotted a 19-year-old jaguh kampung (village champion) who could be the next Ramazan.

“The first time I saw Hashim Ramli fight I told myself, ‘I want this guy.’ I could see his potential,” recalled the 29-year-old Bangkok-based Singaporean.

Hashim also has a marketable face, one Tytus described as “having the look of a Malay actor.”

Early last month, in Bangkok, a Muay Thai fight promoter approached Tytus about Ramazan fighting in a title bout.

But the Russian was unavailable as he was recovering from a nose job (to straighten his battered nose). Remembering Hashim, Tytus proposed to the Malaysian.

“The promoter was not interested as no Malaysian has made it in the Muay Thai international scene,” he related.

“It would be difficult for him to sell tickets for a fight featuring an unknown Malaysian.”

After much persuasion, the promoter relented. Tytus then called Hashim, telling him “I’m giving you a chance of a lifetime. If you win this title you will be big.”

“Winning a title belt is a stepping stone for Muay Thai fighters. All great Muay Thai fighters — Yodsaenklai (the winner of The Contender Asia) and John Wayne Parr (the runner up) — have won this belt.”

Hashim said “yes.” He was on his way to making Muay Thai history, the first Malaysian to fight in a title bout.

However, the next day Hashim called Tytus, saying: “Abang (big brother), sorry, I have a little problem. Can you please speak to my father?”

“His dad wanted to know how much Hashim will be getting for the fight. I told him the promoter will be paying RM500,” Tytus recounted.

“I told him not to think about money because no promoter in the world will pay an unknown fighter RM10,000. I told him that this was an opportunity for his son to make a name for himself.”

Hashim’s father agreed. However, “little problems” continued to crop up with each passing day.

Six days from fight day (with the fight posters printed and press statement released), the jaguh kampung called to say his father had forbidden him to travel to Thailand.

Hashim, in a telephone interview, admitted that although he regretted letting slip a golden opportunity, he was bound to listen to his father.

“Yes, the fight is very important for me. But my father wanted a flight ticket so that he could accompany me as I’ve never been to Bangkok and I don’t speak English or Thai,” he said in a heavy east coast accent.

Tytus, however, was willing to provide a flight ticket only for a Malaysian Muay Thai instructor who could assist Hashim in his fight.

Still angry at Hashim’s withdrawal, Tytus said: “He had a shot at the title, and he did not grab it.”

Tytus, whose parents live in Johor, has not given up on Malaysian fighters, however.

“But their mentality has to change. They have to think of getting out of Malaysia to improve.”

He is still searching for Malaysia’s Ramazan.

(Published in The Star on January 24, 2009)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Peas in a pod they are not


HANDSOME, articulate, 40-something, a politician and his name is Vejjajiva. Newly-elected Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva?

No. The description is of Abhisit’s first cousin Suranand Vejjajiva.

But that’s where their similarities probably end. Suranand and Abhisit are as dissimilar as Thai Rak Thai (TRT, the disbanded party headed by Thaksin Shinawatra) and Democrat Party (Thailand’s oldest party).

Suranand, 47, who is among 111 TRT executives banned from politics for five years, is three years older than Abhisit, the leader of the Democrat Party.

The military coup in 2006 that ousted the TRT government resulted in Suranand, then a minister in Thaksin’s government, having his political fortunes crushed, and Abhisit seeing his rise.

The Vejjajiva clan are seventh generation Hakkas who migrated to Thailand from China through Vietnam and married into prominent Thai families. Suranand’s father is the older brother of Abhisit’s dad.

“Our family is quite close although it is a large family – my father has seven siblings,” said Suranand, now a media pundit.

When the Vejjajiva cousins were young, they took a different route. The Newcastle-born premier went through the British education system whereas Suranand (whose father was a roving ambassador, including to Malaysia) went through the American education system.

Because of their different educational backgrounds and careers – after graduation Suranand went into government, business and politics, while Abhisit plunged into politics after a short stint as a lecturer – “we think differently”.

“Not to discredit him. He is a well-intentioned man. He has good intentions for the country. He worked hard to become prime minister. And the Vejjajiva clan is proud that he became prime minister. But that is his world,” said Suranand.

“I tend to be progressive – adapting modern business management skills for the bureaucracy – whereas the Democrats are very conservative. They want to work through the bureaucracy and the old elite.”

Asked about his relationship with Abhisit, with them on opposing sides, the now politically neutral Suranand said: “Of course, he is much more successful. He has been MP since he was young (27) whereas I joined politics much later (becoming MP at 40).

“Since we are in different parties and adopt different styles in terms of work (and ideology), when we attend a family meeting we don’t talk about politics. We talk about the weather or ask ‘how is your son’?”

How long will your cousin last as prime minister? I asked.

The affable Suranand chuckled. “I hope he does the best. It is hard to predict in the present political situation.”

He then spoke about the manner in which Abhisit’s government was formed (the Democrats is a minority party which managed to cobble together a coalition government – with the alleged intervention of the military – when the court disbanded the ruling government led by People Power Party, the reincarnated TRT).

He also noted that with a budget session coming up during an economic downturn, the prime minister must be able to satisfy the pork-and-barrel demands from his party and coalition partners.

“It’s a tough job,” he added.

Asked whether Thaksin or Abhisit would make a better premier, Suranand said they were different people in different times.

“Thaksin (who became PM in 2001) was appropriate for the post 1997 economic crisis,” he explained.

“During that tough economic time Thailand needed a leader who was dynamic, possessed business skills and understood that the world was changing.

“Is Abhisit appropriate for this time? Probably he is. Because Thailand needs someone with a fresh look, integrity and who is well versed in Thai politics.

“If Abhisit can use his skills to effect real reconciliation (among politically divided Thais), then he would be judged well by future generations. But if he cannot, he cannot be compared with Thaksin.”

Will he benefit with a Vejjajiva as prime minister?

Suranand laughed, and joked: “I don’t think his becoming PM will make more people read my columns (in Bangkok Post and Siam Rath) unless I criticise him harshly.”

The radio and TV talk show host’s boyish face then turned serious.

“We don’t go that way (obtaining business deals or political favours),” he explained. “Anyway, we have different ideologies.”

(Published in The Star on January 17, 2009. Photograph of Abhisit [left] and Suranand courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The last executioner

Thai Takes

THE last time Chavoret Jaruboon shot a man tied to a cross was at 5.21pm on Dec 11, 2002. He fired eight bullets, instantly killing Sudjai, a rapist and murderer.

That historic kill earned Chavoret the distinction being Thailand’s last prison executioner. Since 2003, death row inmates in Thailand are executed by lethal injection.

Chavoret’s first execution was on Nov 23, 1984 – one day after his 36th birthday. On that day he killed two criminals.

“I did not feel much anxiety and I felt sympathy (towards the condemned man),” he recounted when asked on his “first time” execution.

He went on to kill a total of 55 men and women out of the 319 convicts executed at “Bangkok Hilton”, the nickname of the notorious Bang Kwang Central Prison, about an hour’s drive from the Thai capital.

“I performed the most executions (compared with other Bang Kwang executioners) and the last,” he said in Thai through a translator during a lunch interview at a hotel a few kilometres from Bang Kwang, which also has prisoners who are Malaysians.

Have you executed any Malaysian? I asked. “Mai mee (Thai for ‘none’),” replied Chavoret, who with Nicola Price co-authored an English-language memoir titled The Last Executioner.

For 10 years, Chavoret worked his way up as an escort (handling the prisoners), to gun adjustor (adjusting and aiming the gun used to kill the convict), to “the most prominent position of all” – the executioner.

The job of an escort was more challenging than that of an executioner, he revealed in his book. “It’s probably one of the most emotional roles in the whole process of execution because you personally pick up the prisoner from his cell.”

Death row inmates would know that one of them would be executed when lunch for the day was served earlier than usual.

There was dead silence as the escorts (who he described as “death’s messengers”) walked into the cell. The atmosphere was gloomy. And inmates – even the troublemakers – avoided eye contact with the escorts.

“When I called out (the condemned man’s) name and he looked at me, I would see the light going out of his eyes. It was as if his spirit had left him,” recounted Chavoret.

Those who had nothing to lose – those whose their parents were dead, or their wife or lover had ditched them, or those that had lost all their money – were calm when walking to their death.

So were hitmen. Chavoret usually apologised to the prisoners when escorting them to the execution room. And a hitman’s typical reply would be: “It is OK, I’ve killed so many people in my life.”

Those who struggled (they were so terrified that they could not walk and had to be transported by wheelchair) were those who claimed they were innocent, or had failed to exhaust all legal means to escape execution.

He would advise them: “It is going to happen anyway so please calm down because, as Buddhist, we believe if you were terrified when you die, you would be born in a bad place.”

The executioner’s job was easier. “All I had to do was pull the trigger. It is very easy to empty your mind and just shoot,” he confessed in his memoirs.

The escort blindfolded the convict and then secured him to a cross. The condemned man was tied with his back to a machine gun loaded with 15 bullets. And a screen – with a concentric circle pinned on it to denote the heart – separated the convict and the executioner.

But still, Chavoret admitted, before pulling the trigger, he hoped not to miss so that there would be no screaming.

Has he missed?

“They all died. But not all of them die instantly. I needed to keep shooting for three to five minutes for some of them to die,” he recalled.

“If the escort did not tie the convict to the cross tightly, the convict could wriggle. And when the bullets missed his heart there would be lots of agonising screams.”

Can you sleep at night? I asked.

“I’ve never had any sleeping disorder. And I never used sleeping pills,” the last executioner said without emotion.

“What I do is empty this story (the executions) from my mind. If I don’t do that I don’t know what (the executions) will do to me.”

(Published in The Star on January 10, 2008)

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Fire and fury mar New Year


ON New Year’s Eve, a Malaysian friend who was visiting Bangkok SMSed me, asking where to celebrate the death of 2008. I replied: Try Zeta, an all-women’s club.

Santika, a mega-club whose crowd Lonely Planet’s Bangkok city guide describes as comprising a “predictable cross-section of Thai jet-setters, children of politicians and luuk khrueng (offspring of Westerner/Thai couplings) models”, had crossed my mind.

But I dismissed it. Santika was too predictable. Zeta was a delicious novelty.

As fate would have it, moments after the New Year countdown, an explosion (probably from fireworks) was heard inside the three-storey Santika. A fire started on the top floor, and spread swiftly. The death toll was 61 people (including foreigners).

It was a horrifying start to 2009 just as Thailand ended a politically turbulent 2008 that saw a record four prime ministers occupying office in a year, the seizure of two Bangkok airports (which wrecked the country’s vital tourism industry) and bloody street protests.

On the first morning of this year, I read Thailand’s two English-language newspapers, The Nation and Bangkok Post, to get a feel of what was in store for the kingdom.

Bangkok Post’s editorial was gloomy: “Tighten your belts for 2009. The writing is on the wall: the Year of the Ox will be a very tough and unhappy year for most of us, economically and financially.” The Nation’s editorial was the exact opposite: “A new year, a new chance to reconcile. Thais must begin 2009 not with a sense of doom but with unified determination to end division.”

Needing more details on Thailand’s political future, I spoke to Michael Nelson, a German academic specialising in Thai politics. Nelson presented three factors that the newly-formed coalition government led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the 45-year-old leader of the Democrat Party, should look out for.

The Democrats came into power by cobbling together a coalition with parties that had been part of the previous government. How long the fragile government will last, according to Nelson, depends on whether the Democrat Party can contain an expected conflict with its coalition partners.

The positive point about Abhisit’s coalition government is that the Bangkok-based elite – media, the military and Privy Council that advises the Thai king – backs it.

“The mass media strongly supports the Abhisit-led government. We’re not going to see a heavy onslaught (by the media) against the PPP,” the German academic noted, adding that the defence minister (a former army chief) had the military’s backing.

“Prem (Tinsulanonda, a retired general who is Privy Council president) is in favour of Abhisit. And having the backing of Prem is very important.”

(On Dec 28, when the premier and his Cabinet members called on Prem to exchange New Year’s wishes, the Privy Council president proclaimed that Thailand was fortunate to have Abhisit as the prime minister.)

The outside threat for the Abhisit government, observed Nelson, is the pro-Thaksin red-shirt protesters. And they’ve imitated the tactics of the anti-Thaksin PAD (People’s Alliance for Democracy), which had stormed Government House, parliament and Bangkok’s two airports besides heckling former prime minister Somchai Wongsawat of the PPP.

On Dec 29, thousands of red-shirted protesters surrounded parliament, forcing the new prime minister to postpone his maiden speech to the next day and to change the venue to the foreign ministry.

And on New Year’s Day, about ten Thaksin supporters – armed with foot-shaped clappers, banners and wreaths – heckled the premier. Their goal: to pressure Abhisit to call for an election.

“The red-shirts can create nuisance but I doubt they can muster enough strength to bring down the government,” Nelson says, adding that the movement might not have the staying power of the PAD, which was supported by the Bangkok-based elite.

Taking into account these three factors, Nelson predicts there is a higher probability the Democrat-led coalition government will be relatively stable.

Thai politics, however, can be as unpredictable as a blaze at a nightclub.

(Published in The Star on January 3, 2008)