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Thai Curries — Kaeng (or Gkaeng or Gaeng)

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, March 7th, 2010

To most Americans across the country, the word “curry” brings to mind the golden yellow spice mixture found in small jars or tins on supermarket shelves. But for those with more sophisticated palates in world cuisines, the word conjures up an array of images of rich saucy dishes, making their mouth salivate with the memory of such invigorating tastes and tingling scents ranging from the Indian vindaloo to Thai red and green curries.

Curry vendor in Krabi

Curry vendor in Krabi

Although the origin of the word could be traced back a few thousand years to a particular spiced food in India, curry has since come to be associated with any kind of dish in which meats, fish or vegetables are stewed in a spicy sauce made with a mixture of dry spices or fresh herbs. Most of them are rich foods, having cream, yoghurt or coconut milk as a base, but there are also very light, though searingly spicy, broth-based curries, especially in the heartland of Southeast Asia. Because of the tremendous varieties of curries that exist today throughout world, I prefer to define curry broadly as a way of cooking rather than any spice mixture or group of finished dishes.

Goat Curry in Kasma's Class

Goat Curry in Kasma's Class

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Curry-making, as a way of cooking, was introduced into Southeast Asia by Indian immigrants over the past two to three thousand years, through trade, wars and the spread of religion. While dry aromatic spices from seeds, dried roots and bark figure prominently in Indian curries, they are used sparingly in many Southeast Asian curries. Instead, fresh herbs and roots, stems and leaves, bulbs and vegetables, as well as fish products, constitute the essential ingredients, making Thai, Laotian and Cambodian curries refreshingly herbal, robustly pungent, lusciously tangy and distinctively Southeast Asian.

In Thai cuisine alone, there are dozens of different kinds when the several distinct regions of the country with their diverse mix of ethnic peoples are taken into consideration. Each is a unique combination of herbs, spices and preparation techniques that enhance the tastes and textures of particular foods. Some curry pastes are fairly simple while most are complex symphonies of tantalizing flavors. Most have at their core lemon grass, galanga, kaffir lime peel, garlic, shallots and fermented shrimp paste. To them are added innumerable other herbs, roots, seeds and spices in varying proportions to create almost endless combinations. Often the specific herbs that go into certain curries reflect nature’s diversity and the earth’s bounty.

Preparing fresh ingredients

Preparing fresh ingredients

The two most common curries are red curry (gkaeng ped) and green curry (gkaeng kiow wahn)), and because of their fresh herbal flavors, they go quite well with seafood. Red curry paste is used not only in making the saucy curry known in many American Thai restaurants, but also in dried wok-tossed curries called pad ped (literally “spicy stir-fry”) and steamed or grilled custardlike curries called haw moek. Both are very popular in Thailand and exceptional ways to cook seafood. While haw moek is exquisitely rich with coconut cream and eggs, pad ped is light and intensely spicy – the seafood or meats tossed in a hot wok with a little oil, the curry paste, a profusion of fresh aromatics and little or no coconut cream.

Pounding green curry paste

Pounding green curry paste

Red curry paste is red from red chillies, usually in dried form or a mixture of fresh and dried, giving the curries made with it a fiery red color. Green curry, on the other hand, has a greenish tint from the fresh green chillies and leaves it contains. Green curry paste is a relatively simple paste, made mainly of fresh herbs, whereas red curry paste comes in a number of permutations ranging from simple to complex.

Pre-packaged green and red curry pastes come in tin cans, plastic pouches, plastic containers and glass jars in a number of different sizes and brands with varying qualities. I find them to be fresher-tasting and to have a greater depth of flavor than pastes that come in tin cans, mainly because the process of canning destroys some of the more subtle flavors. I often bring private curry paste brands home from my trips to Thailand; when those run out, my preferred brand that is readily available in the U.S. is Mae Ploy with a good saltiness and nice hot bite. Mae Ploy curries are readily available in Southeast Asian markets. Gourmet grocery stores that carry a wide selection of international foods may sell small jars of specially bottled and labeled pastes suited to milder western palates.

Red curry frying in coconut milk

Red curry frying in coconut milk

Curry pastes keep indefinitely in the refrigerator; but once opened, they gradually lose freshness of flavor. Keep the containers well-sealed and always use a clean spoon to dish out the amount you need.

However, none of the pre-packaged pastes compare with the fresh flavors of home-made curry pastes. Some of these made-from-scratch pastes are fairly easy to make and produce wonderfully delicious curries. Curry pastes can be made a day or two ahead of time, allowing the flavors to mingle, marry and peak, and although they keep for weeks in the refrigerator (the salt, chillies and garlic preserve them naturally), use them fairly soon before the flavors dissipate, losing the advantage of freshness that makes them superior to store-bought pastes.

Jungle curry

Jungle Curry

Most Thai curries are made with coconut milk, but there are a number of very spicy, souplike dishes without coconut milk which we also call curries. Among them are jungle curry (gkaeng bpah) and sour curry (gkaeng som). Although brothy like soup, they are served more like curries – spooned over and eaten together with plain rice.

Crushing the fibers of herbs releases the full range of essential oils they contain and give chilli sauces and curry pastes a greater breadth and depth of flavor than just chopping them in a food processor can achieve. This is especially critical when working with fibrous aromatics and roots, such as lemon grass, galanga and kaffir lime peel; they appear dry when chopped, but reduce to moist paste when pounded. Also, when these herbs are pounded together, their flavors meld into one, yielding an immensely aromatic paste in which the parts are inseparable from the whole. (See Kasma’s article on Making a Curry Paste from Scratch.)

Haw Moek Curry

Haw Moek Curry at Or Tor Kor Market

For accomplishing the task of crushing herbs, a mortar and pestle set is essential. In Thailand, there are several different kinds suited for particular purposes. For making curry pastes, a heavy stone mortar and pestle, carved out of granite, is the most efficient – able to reduce fibrous herbs and hard seeds down in no time. The pestle and the inside surface of the mortar are polished smooth and are not rough, coarse or porous like the kind used in Mexican cooking. Very dense and heavy, they do not chip and last for years even when subjected to vigorous pounding daily.

Look for this dark-grey stone mortar and pestle set in a Thai or Southeast Asian market. It is available in small, medium and large sizes and ranges from about sixteen to twenty-five dollars. Buy the largest size since you can use it for big as well as small jobs. It also enables you to pound more vigorously without worrying about bits and pieces of herbs spilling all over your work area.

(See Kasma’s Blog entry: The Mortar and Pestle.)

Here are four curry recipes, one “from scratch” and three using pre-made pastes:

Note: Because Thailand uses a different script than English, there are various ways of transliterating Thai words into English. The official transliteration for แกง (usually translated as “curry”) is kaeng. However, the initial consonant (ก) is a letter that is pronounced mid-way between a “g” and a “k”. So Kasma transliterates the word as gkaeng. (See A Note on Thai Pronunciation and Spelling.

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, March 2010.

Yummy Thai Snacks (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Yummy Thai Kanom

Six Sticky Rice Snacks

Four Sticky Rice Snacks

We seem to be blogging a lot about Thai (sweet) snacks (kanom wahn) lately so I’ll post one of my all-time favorite photos of snacks, this one taken at Bangkok’s Or Tor Kor Market back in 2004. I love the presentation (in banana leaf cups) of these artfully decorated sticky rice snacks with different toppings. The snacks on the top right and lower left have a custard (Sangkaya) on the sticky rice. The other ones are various sweet toppings. Too pretty to eat? Actually, too tasty to NOT eat!

The Wednesday Photo is a new picture  each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Or Tor Kor Market in Bangkok

Michael Babcock, Sunday, September 13th, 2009

For many years, one of our favorite markets in Bangkok has been the Or Tor Kor (pronounced “Aw Taw Kaw”) market that is out by Chatuchak market (the weekend market, sometimes called “J.J. Market”). In Thai it is ตลาด อตก. If it were translatable to English, it would be the “ATK Market” because aw, dtaw & gkaw are Thai alphabet letters. It’s usually transliterated from Thai to English as Talaat Or Tor Kor; a more phonetic transliteration is Dtalaat Aw Dtaw Gkaw.

Note: Re-reading this in May 2020 there is nothing I would change. We continue to love Or Tor Kor and visit several times during our stays in Thailand.

Front Aisle at Or Tor Kor

Front Aisle at Or Tor Kor

(Note: you may want to read our article A Note on Thai Spelling & Pronunciation. In many instances, such as this one, the official Thai transliteration – Or Tor Kor – will lead to wrong pronunciation by westerners. Although Aw Taw Kaw is more phonetically correct, you’ll probably have more luck finding information on it using the official spelling of Or Tor Kor.)

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

You can get there via the MRT subway – get off at the Kamphaengpetch Road station. If you’re going by cab, make sure they take you to the correct Or Tor Kor – there’s also one out on Sukhumvit Soi 105 (Soi La Salle) that we’ve heard is not as interesting.

Prepared food at Or Tor Kor

Prepared food at Or Tor Kor

As Thai markets go, it’s a little more upscale. By American standards, it’s still a great bargain compared to what we have here in the states. It’s actually housed indoors, under a large roof (with open walls) and is very clean and somewhat orderly. I say somewhat orderly, because it’s a very popular market with Thais and it can get very crowded, particularly on weekends. Kasma says that it’s a place that many Thai movie stars like to shop and that you can sometimes see them going through, fashionably-dressed with their entourages.

Fruit vendor at Or Tor Kor

Fruit vendor at Or Tor Kor

What do I like about Or Tor Kor? Perhaps it’s just that every stall seems to have their wares displayed immaculately and in mouth-watering fashion. We always start by walking down the first aisle at the front of the market and it’s a challenge not to buy something at most of the stalls: there are luscious grilled prawns, roasted pork with dipping sauce, shrimp cakes, sticky rice treats in banana leaves, tropical fruit of all varieties, grilled sausage, and on and on. There are stalls with pot after pot of prepared food, some familiar, some not and nearly all appetizing.

Sausage at Or Tor Kor

Sausage at Or Tor Kor

Although Kasma and I go every year, I don’t take nearly as many pictures as I would like. Why? Because after about 5 minutes, we’ve bought so many items that I’ve got so much to carry that I can’t get to my camera easily. This is a dilemma not easily solved because I find that when we buy something from a vendor, it’s more of an even exchange; and they are generally happier to have their picture taken if you’ve made a purchase, as well. As with the other markets we visit, Kasma often brings pictures that we’ve taken the previous visit to give to the vendors: their astonishment that someone would do this and their happiness to receive the pictures is ample reward for our efforts.

Crabs at Or Tor Kor

Crabs at Or Tor Kor

One excellent reason to visit Or Tor Kor is to try the Durian. Or Tor Kor vendors tend to get top-of-the-line fruit of all varieties and durians are no different. I’ve already posted a couple Wednesday Photos about durian at Or Tor Kor that will guide you in your tasting. See

Food area at back of Or Tor Kor

Food area at back of Or Tor Kor

In addition to the mouth-watering prepared food that makes grazing down the aisles so irresistible, Or Tor Kor also offers basic ingredients of all kinds from vegetables and herbs to fresh, fresh seafood of all kinds, meats, any sauce you might need to cook a Thai meal, mounds of fresh curry pastes and (in the very back), rice of all varieties. The fruit can be fairly pricey; but if you are wanting to get a fruit out-of-season, it’s either pay a bit more or don’t get to taste it. Everything is top of the line.

Where we get Basil Duck

Where we get Basil Duck

We always plan our visit to include lunch time. There’s a section in the back with many stands that cook food to order (assuming you aren’t too stuffed from all the good things you’ve grazed on). We’ve already written about the stand that sells delicious pad Thai and mussel omelets (Pad Thai at Or Tor Kor Market). My other favorite dish is called (in Thai) Pad Gkaprao Bped – Basil Duck; it’s your basic stir-fried with basil recipe, such as Kasma’s Spicy Basil Chicken (Gkai Pad Gkaprao), made with roast duck and served (of course) over rice. I’ve included a picture of the stall that sells this so you can give it a try.

For drinks, look for one of the stalls that have the plastic bottles filled with many colorful-liquids; particularly good is the yellow passion fruit juice, but the fresh-squeezed orange juice and the young coconut are really good as well.

Look for these colored bottles for good things to drink

Good things to drink

Next time you’re in Bangkok plan a visit to Or Tor Kor. It’s well worth the visit. As you wander the aisles you may wish you had your own kitchen, the fresh ingredients look so good, but all the prepared food will compensate you many-fold.

For more pictures of Or Tor Kor (and other markets), check out our markets pictures. There’s also some photos on this Travellerspoint blog (opens in new window).

Grilled chicken at Or Tor Kor

Grilled chicken at Or Tor Kor

Written by Michael Babcock, September 2009 & May 2020.

Durian at Or Tor Kor Market (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Durian for Sale

Durian for sale!

Durian for sale!

Note: Or Tor Kor is pronounced Aw Taw Kaw.

Durian (thurian, in Thai): the fruit that people either love or hate.

Unfortunately, many people hate it because they try one that’s not very good. People who eat a good variety, ripe, and a reasonably large portion to begin with, usually like it.

It’s a fruit like no other. I think if you were tasting it blind and had never had it before, you might not believe it’s a fruit: perhaps a custard of some kind. It is very rich.

Or Tor Kor Market in Bangkok is an excellent place to get durian. It can be pricey there; but you can also get very, very good durian indeed.

This picture shows one vendor’s wares at Or Tor Kor. She’s offering two varieties of durian: the sign to the left says (in Thai script) mawn tawng (“golden pillow”) while the one to the right says gan yao (“long stem”). Of the two varieties, mawn tawng is much more common; gan yao is the tastier (and more expensive) variety.

Vendors there are typically generous with their tastes, trying to rope you in: they hope you’ll buy a package. I’ve never seen them sell an individual piece, just a package, such as the three in front – those large yellow lumps are the fruit, which grow incased in the brown outer coverings above. Don’t ever sleep under a durian tree! They are as spikey as the look!

The gan yao variety is truly delicious. However, it can get expensive, even in Thailand. One time we bought a plate that had perhaps 6 or 7 of the fruits and it was 2,000 baht — at today’s rates (about 34.5 baht to a dollar), that’s over $50.00 U.S. And it was worth it!

For more on Or Tor Kor Market, see Michael’s blog entry Pad Thai at Or Tor Kor Market. For more on Durian (including photos), check out Kasma’s article on the website: Durian, King of Fruits.

The Wednesday Photo is a new picture  each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Roasted Pork (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Roast Pork For Sale

Roasted Pork at Or Tor Kor Market

Roasted Pork at Or Tor Kor Market

In nearly every market in Thailand you’ll find a display of roast pig for sale such as this one, photographed at Or Tor Kor (pronounced Aw Taw Kaw) Market in Bangkok – It invariably has the skin on, crispy from the roasting; next to the skin is a good sized layer of fat before you get to the meat underneath. It’s sold by weight. If you get the smaller, bite-sized pieces (such as in the lower center), it’s placed in a plastic bag and you’re given a sharp, long skewer to use to stab a piece  and also a smaller plastic bag of chilli-dipping sauce.

Thai people, like most Asians, love pork. 

Or Tor Kor (Aw Taw Kaw) Market in Bangkok (near Chatuchak Market) is a fabulous market, well worth a visit (don’t eat beforehand). You can read our previous blog entry on Pad Thai at Or Tor Kor market.

This photo continues with last week’s pork theme.

The Wednesday Photo is a new picture  each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Pad Thai at Or Tor Kor Market

Michael Babcock, Saturday, April 4th, 2009

Outside of Or Tor Kor Market

Kasma always gets a chuckle when people talk about Pad Thai as “the signature dish of Thai cuisine.” In Thailand it is  just one of many noodle dishes, available mostly as a street food or at noodle shops and not particularly popular dish amongst Thais. It’s mainly a fast food. Kasma does have a very good recipe for Pad Thai and used to teach it in her Thai cooking classes.

Note: The official Thai spelling for this market is Or Tor Kor. This, unfortunately, leads most westerners to the wrong pronunciation. Aw Taw Kaw is closer to correct for pronouncing but less recognized.


Aisle at Or Tor Kor Market

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

The one place where I sometimes order Pad Thai for myself is at a stand at Or Tor Kor (or Aw Taw Kaw) Market (Talaat Or Tor Kor, in Thai) in Bangkok, which also happens to be one of our favorite markets in Thailand. Although Or Tor Kor is considered “high end” and the prices are higher than at other markets, the selection of food and the presentation makes it worth the extra few baht. I still find it very reasonable by United States standards. Our collection of Thailand market photos contains many pictures of Or Tor Kor Market.

Pad Thai Stall at Or Tor Kor

Pad Thai Stall at Or Tor Kor

Or Tor Kor market is very near to the well-known Chatuchak Weekend Market. You can get there via the MRT subway – get off at the Kamphaengpetch Road station. The first picture above shows the outside of the market from the street. If you go on a weekend, you can also enjoy Chatuchak, with it’s estimated 8,000 vendors selling any and everything you can imagine. We usually go to Or Tor Kor on a weekday because it can get very crowded indeed on a weekend.


Pad Thai Cook at Or Tor Kor Market

If you’re going to Or Tor Kor, eat lightly beforehand. As you browse the aisles you’ll see pre-cooked food such as grilled prawns, satay, sour sausage, shrimp cakes as well as numerous kanom (snacks) such as sticky rice and kanom krok (rice pancakes) and it will be hard to resist grazing. There are, however, numerous food stalls that cook food to order in the back of the market and many of them are worth a taste.

The stand with the delicious Pad Thai is back in the eating area towards the outside edge of the market. The third picture shows the stand with the stall number (11/40) visible in the background. I actually had taken and delivered pictures of the woman making the dish many times before I actually ordered the dish, though Kasma had been ordering it for her trip members for many years.


Pad Thai Ready to Eat

Most Pad Thai recipes call for egg, usually (as in Kasma’s Pad Thai recipe) scrambled lightly. This woman’s adds eggs in a different way – she uses them to make a covering for the noodles in the center, sort of a Pad Thai omelette, if you will. Kasma tells me that this presentation is relatively common in Thailand, particularly when Pad Thai is served in a restaurant. In fact, there are as many different Pad Thai recipes as there are cooks. (Kasma’s article on The Spirit of Thai Cooking talks a bit about how Thai dishes can vary a great deal depending on the cook.) It’s served (as you can see to the left) with a banana blossom, some scallions (underneath), fresh bean sprouts and a lime. The lime is squeezed over the noodles and the fresh ingredients are eaten along with it.


Pad Thai with Outer Egg Opened Up

As you can see, once you open up noodles it looks very delicious indeed. It bears little resemblance to some of the Pad Thai noodles you find in the states – it is savory and tasty and completely without ketchup!

For more information about the origins of Pad Thai, check out Kasma’s Pad Thai Notes and Pointers.

One other dish that the same woman makes is an mussel omelette. It is also very tasty (see picture below).

We’ve since done a whole blog post on Or Tor Kor Market in Bangkok.

And as of February 2020, she was still in the same spot and cooking up a storm. I believe her daughter is helping her now.

Note: When asking for directions or taking a cab to Or Tor Kor, be sure to refer to it as Dtalaht Aw Taw Kaw – the usual spelling is talaat, meaning market, but dtalaht is closer to the actual sound in Thai. (See our Note on Thai Spelling & Pronunciation.)

If you are taking a cab, make sure that the driver takes you to the correct market. There is also an Or Tor Kor Market (Dtalaat Aw Taw Kaw) on Sukhumvit Soi 105 (Soi Lasalle, pronounced Soi “La-sahn”) – it is not as interesting a market.

Mussel Omelette

Mussel Omelette On the Griddle

Written by Michael Babcock, April 2009. Updated May 2020.