The tiny town of Chiang Khan is built along the Mekong River in northern Thailand, facing Laos on the other side. In the last few years, the city has embraced its heritage: all the old teak shops are now being restored, with financial encouragement from the Thai government.
During the week, the town is quiet. Come Friday night, Thai tourists arrive from Bangkok hoping to stay in a restored teak hotel along the river or sip tea amidst a sea of retro antiques. It is this sense of nostalgia for the past and loss of old Thailand that draws them here.
Every year my eldest son Andrew celebrates his birthday at the beach, amidst four generations of family campers and neighbours, old seventies caravans and colourful retro umbrellas. Whatever the chosen theme, every year his party seems to turn retro. One year it was Hawaiian – nothing more retro than an authentic Hawaiian shirt. The next year it was brown- a distinctly retro colour, especially brown Terylene trousers and Safari suits. This year we just cut to the chase and turned to the queen of Retro, Rachael, for assistance with decor and clothing, and to Maxine for culinary inspiration via her mother’s old retro cookbook.
I’m not sure why this retro obsession began but it was instigated around 19 years ago, when my daughter fell in love with old anodised soda syphons. Since then, she has expanded her collection to include all forms of anodised ware, lustre ware, ramekins, green depression glass, melamine serving platters, and more, lots more! Some of her collection lives in her beach caravan so that she doesn’t feel deprived while camping.
During the week leading up to the event, FB private messaging and texts were all a flurry with photos of the most ridiculous food. The best example was a warm salad dish of whole bananas, draped in ham, and blanketed with a Hollandaise sauce. The thought is so ghastly, this photo needs to be shared.
We decided on a sensible plan. A list of edible retro food was chosen. On the morning of the party, we acquired some more retro serving ware, since the local beach suburban op shops are awash with the stuff. Colourful retro shaped glasses were purchased at Kmart for around AU$5, a very fine investment. Clothing was distributed and the tables set. The retro cocktail of choice was the Brandy Alexander. This one drink alone changed the tone of the party fairly rapidly. They were extremely popular.
Brandy Alexander Recipe
Ingredients: 1 part fresh cream, 1 part brandy, 1 part Crème de cacao
Preparation: Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Sprinkle with fresh ground nutmeg.
Jo, who came in her regular retro attire, with Maxine
pickled things on sticks
Kai Si Ming
Kabana, retro stand by
Mr Tranquillo comes as a hippy and Chris comes in his regular gear, which seems to match anyway.
Maxine, looking glam
Leanne with a Vodka and Cranberry concoction
Andrew in Nautical atire
The musicians, Lorraine and Michael
Bruce does open shirt and chain
Another retro find at the op shop
Jack does Safari gear.
Retro Finger Food List
vol au vents, filled with salmon or tuna bechamel
sliced Kabana sausage
coloured baby picked onions, gherkins and cheddar cheese pieces on toothpicks, stuck into an orange or a pineapple
cocktail sausages ( little boys) on toothpicks and tomato sauce
French onion dip, ( made with cream cheese and a dehydrated packet of French onion soup), served in a carved out white cottage loaf. Very popular!!
corn relish dip, made with a packet of cream cheese mixed with a jar of corn relish
pretzels, nuts and small dry biscuits
cucumber sandwiches (white bread, no crusts)
smoked oysters on white bread
Claudia threads up the cheese, kabana, and onion sticks.
We also prepared something a little larger for the stayers, (everyone!) served in ramekins of course. Someone forgot to bring out the Kai Si Ming, so they had to eat this retro classic stuffed into a Jaffle for days afterwards.
Kai Si Ming
Savoury birthday cake ( recipe below)
Birthday boy, Andrew, cuts the cake with Maxine on the left and the Retro Ab Fab Lady on right.
Savoury Birthday Cake recipe, from Eve’s Retro Book.
The main thing you will notice when strolling down the main street of the small village of Chiang Khan, Northern Thailand, is that the town has turned retro! The street running parallel to the Mekong River, is lined with teak buildings that have been beautifully restored, and most of these – shops, guest houses, restaurants and tea houses- proudly display an eclectic collection of retro decor. The era is mostly 60s and totally kitsch. Open any of the photos below and delight in retro madness.
Chiang Khan or Inner city Melbourne?
The municipality won the year 2010 architectural conservation award from Architect Council of Thailand. Since that year, more than 2000 old teak houses and shops along the main road, Thanon Chai Khong and nearby lanes, have been registered with the municipality’s architectural campaign, with over 600 receiving grants to renovate. This, in the era of the uniform concrete block house, is delightful to see. The young and well-heeled from Bangkok swarm here on the weekends, to stay in ‘original’ old houses with matching decor. The young are embracing Thai architectural history they barely remember, the old teak house, which is now missing from big cities.
During the day, the town is sleepy, with only a few restaurants and coffee houses open for business. In the late afternoon, the main street transforms into a walking market, although the number of stalls vastly increases on Friday and Saturday nights when the young city folk arrive in mini buses from down south.
The other welcome feature is that the main street and series of 20 or so perpendicular lanes, are devoid of through traffic. Here the bicycle rules and has become the town logo.
You won’t find backpacker travellers here or westernised food, no pancakes or pizzas, and very little spoken English. If you go, take your Thai phrase book. There are a couple of great restaurants in town that do offer a menu in English, the best being Faikam, which does wonderful versions of most Thai favourites. The average cost for a double room, with aircon and bathroom, facing the Mekong River starts at around 600 Baht per night ( AU $24.00).
How to get there. Fly into Loei, with Air Asia, from various big cities in Thailand, then take a mini van from the airport to Chiang Khan. Or, go, as we did, along the Mekong river by car, from Nong Khai to Chiang Khan, one of the great road trips of Asia.
Every now and then, I cook a few meat dishes for the ‘export market’, reverting to retro classics, given that they freeze well and make for simple and nourishing meals that can be reheated easily. I am more than happy to cook meat for others, especially if the recipient is ill or otherwise disinclined to cook.
Searching the shelves, (and not the internet) for something French, a Chicken Chasseur perhaps, I noticed a big black French culinary hole in my cookbook collection: probably because the cuisine of France tends to be very meat focussed. On the top shelf I keep some much treasured ‘collector’ cookbooks, purchased from second hand shops and read for amusement. ‘The Art of Cuisine’ by Toulouse-Lautrec and Maurice Joyant is one of these. And very French it is!
There is a story behind this book. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Maurice Joyant had been friends since childhood. Joyant was the executor of Lautrec’s will and created the Musée Toulouse- Lautrec at Albi. The two friends had a mutual love of food which was the true daily link between these men.
‘In the last years of his own life, Joyant collected the recipes invented in Lautrec’s company and combined them with the recipes that he and Lautrec had garnered throughout their years of companionship. He embellished the text with Lautrec drawings …….The book was published in a limited edition, and was conceived by Joyant as a work of art and as a tribute.’
My copy is a new – 1966- copy of the original work, ( which was most likely published in the 1920s) translated by Margery Weiner. The only modifications are a few culinary notes, added in bold at the end of the recipes. The book includes fabulous coloured plates of Lautrec’s art, including many sketches he designed for menus.
Toulouse Lautrec’s ‘Chicken Marengo’
Put in a saucepan some olive oil, a crushed clove of garlic; heat and brown pieces of chicken. When these pieces are a good golden colour, take them out and make a roux with a spoon of flour.
When the roux is well browned, moisten with good bouillon, put back the pieces of chicken, salt and pepper, and let simmer on a low flame.
Half an hour before serving, add some sautéed mushrooms, a few spoons of tomato puree, and pitted olives. Just as you serve, sprinkle with croutons of bread fried in butter.
1966 culinary notes by Barbara Kafka
2 Tbs oil, 1 Tbs flour, 1 cup chicken stock, 1/2 lb mushroom sliced and heated in 2 Tbls butter, 2 Tbs tomato puree and 1/4 cup black olives.
My notes, 2014.
1 kilo free range chicken thigh fillets, cut into thirds, 2 Tbs Extra virgin olive oil, 1 Tbs butter, 1/4 cup white wine, a slurp of brandy, 3 cloves of garlic, smashed, plain flour to dredge the chicken pieces, 1 cup of stock, salt and pepper, 2 Tbs tomato paste, 300 grs mushrooms, quartered. No olives and no croutons.
Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour, fry till golden in oil and butter in a heavy based pan, making sure you don’t crowd the pan. Remove pieces when done, then add the garlic to the pan and cook briefly, then the cognac and wine. On high heat scrape the stuck bits on the base, reduce a little, then add the stock and tomato paste. Put the chicken pieces back into the pan, add salt and pepper to taste,and cook on very low flame. Add the mushrooms towards the end of cooking. Add more stock as needed. Total cooking time, around 30 minutes.
My version uses chicken thigh pieces as it is much faster to cook and easier to box up for the ‘export market’. The boxes will contain a side of fettucine.
And as for the word Marengo? Check here for a little Napoleonic history.
For my granddaughter, Mischa Belle, who is a French speaker but not yet a cook, and also for Deb of My Kitchen Witch, who would love this book I am sure.