On a previous visit to Thailand, one night we ate out at the “99 Baht Buffet” (on the Pattaya Thai Road, Pattaya, behind Big C). The name was a real tongue-pleaser, as was the meal (…too much?).
On our recent trip the price had risen to a less mellifluous 129 baht, but the food was still as good, and at Â£3 a head, wonderful value.
The proceedings start (oh yes, this is no simple setup) with an alarming charcoal brazier being set into your metal table. This is then topped with a shallow metal bowl with a raised hole in the centre, to which is added a conical slatted metal hat.
One then trundles off to the buffet to choose from a selection of items. First, the raw meat area, partially labelled in English but mostly in Thai. This includes various strips of marinated pork, beef, squid, prawns and some odd bits like small orange sausages and assorted balls. One must not forget to pick up a square of pork fat too.
Next, the veg and noodles area. Leafy greens, mushrooms, raw eggs and various types of noodle await.
There is also a small selection of pre-prepared items to snack on while waiting for things to start cooking, plus a pricier seafood option, and don’t forget to grab some cutlery and crockery.
When you have your ingredients, you can start to cook!
First, sit the pork fat on the top of the cooking surface and rub it around to moisten the metal. This is an ongoing process, with the fat slowly melting as cooking continues. Water is poured into the bowl area (then topped up from time to time), and vegetables and non-grillable foods can be dropped in. You can also dribble in a beaten raw egg if you fancy.
The meat is carefully laid on top of the grill area, and much poking, turning and juggling then ensues, with chopsticks constantly being sterilised in the boiling soup.
Eventually you end up being able to fish out bits from the soup, and eat from a slow but steady stream of barbecued meats. There is also a large main griddle for the whole restaurant on which to cook things like the prawns, though it looks like very hot work (judging from the perspiring face of our Thai host’s sister, who was on grill duty).
When everyone is full, you can stop topping up the water and let the soup reduce to create the ultimate stock (I don’t think this is traditional, but the rich, meaty broth is a treat). To follow, there is coconut ice cream, toppings and fruit.
It can’t be denied that having a bucket full of burning coals resting inches from one’s bare leg is a bit alarming, but it is huge fun and much less sterile than the air-conditioned restaurant versions of this type of meal.