My Lonely Planet guide claims Kanchanaburi’s night market has the best hoi tod (fried mussels in batter) in the whole of Thailand. Even though the guide has a fairly comprehensive food section, I’m always sceptical of such claims, and usually take them with a few buckets of salt. I mean, have the authors really tried every street food vendor in the country?
But, regardless, I thought it would be a shame to leave the town without at least trying them. The stall was perched halfway into the market (Th Saeng-hchuto), near the bus station, and if customers are anything to go by, it certainly looked liked it had a great reputation.
There was a large queue waiting for fish supper-style wrappers of hoi tod, and after ten minutes with nothing for company but a cold bottle of Tiger, I got to try them. But I was quite pleased really for the wait – it gave me the chance to watch every part of the operation rather than just standing there making them feel uncomfortable like I normally do.
Unfortunately, hardly anyone at Kanchanaburi night market has more than a few words of English, and my Thai is worse than dreadful, so I had to guess at certain parts of the recipe. The stallholder had a flat wok in front of her, about the size of Pluto, which was heated underneath by a calor gas burner.
She poured vegetable oil onto the wok and within seconds it was spitting away like a trapped cobra. Next she added a few gallons of batter. I couldn’t ask her what was in it, but most Thai recipes contain tapioca flour, seasoning and soda water, and eggs are cracked in during the cooking process. But she definitely didn’t add any eggs so they must have already been in the batter, which was about the thickness of single cream, and quickly formed a massive pancake in the oil.
After a minute she scattered in some chopped spring onions, coriander stalks, and a few wheelbarrows of shelled raw mussels that were lined up on ice next to her stall. Using two enormous spatula-type objects, she kept pushing the mussels around the pan until they were well mixed into the crispy batter. After a couple of minutes of circling action, she threw in half a ton of beansprouts and let them wilt in the mixture. She then scattered huge portions of the hoi tod, garnished with coriander, on to sheets of paper next to her, folded them up with a small pot of chilli sauce inside, and handed them out to the waiting crowd.
I grabbed mine and headed for a table. The flavour was mild and slightly under-seasoned, but extremely moreish and fresh, and worked perfectly with the chilli sauce. I reckon they would make a brilliant tapas dish or starter.
When I got back to Bangkok I tried them again, and they weren’t as good. I’ll have to take Lonely Planet’s word that those in Kanchanaburi are the best in Thailand.
Hoi Tod (Fried Mussels in Batter)
The following recipe is my approximation of what I saw and tasted. I think it was the cooking process involved that was the secret to the dish rather than the exact ingredients and seasonings, so adjust it to your taste. If you can’t get tapioca flour, just use an equal tempura mix of plain flour and corn flour – it won’t make much difference.
500g fresh mussels
Cup of tapioca flour
Salt and white pepper
Ice-cold soda water
2 tbsps vegetable oil
Small bag of beansprouts
2 spring onions, finely chopped
Two sprigs of coriander, chopped
1tsp finely chopped ginger
1 tsp finely chopped garlic
Remove the mussels from their shells, de-beard them, and wash well in cold water. Make the batter by putting the tapioca flour and seasoning in a bowl, and whisk in the egg and enough soda water until it is the thickness of single cream. You will probably end up with more batter than you need, so store in the fridge and use for something else.
Heat a large frying pan (you may need to do this in two stages, depending on its size) and when it begins to smoke, pour in the oil. Then pour in a cup or so of batter and swish the pan round so the bottom is covered. Add more batter if needed, but the pancake shouldn’t be too thick, otherwise the dish will become doughy and unpleasant.
Using a spatula, push the crisping batter round the pan so it doesn’t catch and scatter in the drained mussels, ginger, garlic, and spring onions. Then stir again for a couple of minutes until the mussels are cooked. Finally toss in the beansprouts and coriander, allow to wilt, and serve immediately with chilli sauce.
Lennie Nash is a journalist, writing about his failure to make it as a professional chef.