The tentacle jumped and hissed the instant it hit the searingly hot grill, making me jump too. As it cooked, it curled and writhed around as if it were alive rather than just the disembodied limb of some unidentified sea creature.
Having never cooked tentacle before I wasn’t sure when it would be done so I figured I’d give it a generous amount of time on the grill. It had shrivelled to half its size by the time I was ready to tackle it. I picked it up with my chopsticks and turned it over, taking in its suckers and wormlike aspect before dunking it in sauce and tentatively taking a nibble.
We were eating at Sukontha Buffet, a moo kata restaurant in Chiang Mai, and we had absolutely no idea what we were doing but we were enjoying every second of it.
A moo kata is a cooking device that, if you believe what little information is on Wikipedia about it, originated in Chiang Mai. I had certainly never seen anything like it before and I can only describe it as the offspring of a happy coupling between a hot pot and a skillet.
I had found the restaurant while looking for bakeries on an old-timer’s map of trusted addresses in Chiang Mai. I noticed a little pin very close to our apartment marking an all you can eat and drink buffet for about $6. Hmm, I thought, never heard of that one. Is it for real?
A day later we found our way there and were astonished that, tucked away at the end of an alley off the busy Huay Kaew road – a road we had ridden on almost every day – was a restaurant the size of an aircraft hanger.
We felt a little intimidated but ventured in behind a Thai family and their kids, who immediately peeled away and ran straight for the jungle gym by the entrance. A solo man on a stage to our left belted out rock songs above the din of eating and merriment.
Glancing around I estimated there was easily about 300 diners yet the restaurant was barely a quarter full. Empty tables stretched away into every corner yet it still felt bustling and chaotic. I imagined at capacity the noise in the place would be deafening.
The decor was basic and unpolished with concrete floors and mismatched tables and chairs, many with burn marks on them. It had the feel of a place aimed at feeding as many large families as possible, at good value and with none of the frou-frou of the nearby Nimmanhaemin eateries.
A waitress quickly welcomed us and led us to a table. As we followed her we passed table upon table of raw meats and vegetables, followed by cooked dishes and salads and, finally, desserts spanning the widest spectrum of imagination and artificial colourings. It was the biggest buffet I’d ever seen.
Shortly after we sat down a flurry of action happened around our table. Plates appeared, followed by a kettle of broth and then a heavy pan filled with red-hot coals on top of which was placed a metal sombrero – our moo kata on which we’d be making our dinner.
Stacker sent me to attack the buffet. Taking my cues from the people who seemed to know what they were going I filled some bowls with dipping sauces and loaded a basket with vegetables – straw mushrooms, trumpet mushrooms, wood ear mushrooms, chinese cabbage, morning glory, Thai basil, bok choi and mung bean noodles all made their way in.
I deposited them back on our table. In the meantime Stacker had scored a pair of pink tickets from the waitress. The only problem was he had no idea what the tickets were for. I left him to ponder and went back to tackle the dizzying array of meats.
The trays of safely identifiable chicken, pork and beef were accompanied by trays of what was probably tripe and liver and outnumbered by the trays of meat I couldn’t identify. I took a moderately adventurous cross-section.
On the seafood side I gingerly plucked out a whole squid, a couple of octopuses, a few chunks of white fish and threw in the aforementioned tentacle. For a splash of colour I added an angry bird, two blue kittens and an orange penguin. No, really.
And so began an evening of cooking and feasting. As we grilled the meats, the cooking juices streamed into the bubbling moat of broth below, flavouring it. In that broth we cooked the vegetables and noodles, replenishing it from the kettle if it ran low or if we’d drank too much of the delicious liquid.
Just like raclette or fondue, the moo kata is a sociable eating experience and the idea is you spend a long time over your meal; slowly cooking and sharing the food while you enjoy the experience and the company of your fellow diners. The heat and steam made our faces turn pink as we gradually cooked our way through the plates of food, perfecting our moo kata skills along the way – it turns out balancing all that meat on a tiny curved surface is not as easy as it looks!
A friendly Asian couple to our left explained what to do with the pink tickets – a quick trip to a counter and we were handed a basket of shrimp. The value of the shrimp alone in Europe would have exceeded the price we were paying for the entire buffet.
Luckily they weren’t expecting us to cook all those shrimp on our little moo kata, instead I found myself competing for space on a communal bbq grill, sweating in the heat and inventing proverbs like ‘a watched shrimp never turns pink’. Just behind me a woman was lowering a basket of clams into an enormous vat of boiling water. I went over to investigate and was glad, when I saw the thick layer of greenish-brown mollusc-scum on top of the water, that we hadn’t been offered any of those.
The whole experience was starting to feel a bit ridiculous. We were getting used to the portion sizes in Thailand, which are about half the size of back home, but here we were stuffing our faces as if this was an episode of Nomad Vs Food.
As our bellies filled our adventurousness ebbed and, as I chewed on the tentacle, I felt my insides rebel. I covertly deposited it in Stacker’s plate.
For once dessert was the last thing on my mind but I felt I owed it to the buffet to have a look. My favourite Thai dessert – the build your own dessert soup – was there in force. A whole table of tapioca balls and jellies of every kind was waiting to be floated in a bowl of sweet coconut milk. A further two tables were stacked with pastries.
We made a valiant stab at a few sweets as the broth in our moo kata ran dry and the scraps of meat stuck to the skillet began to smoke but pretty soon we had to concede we’d gotten our $6-worth. A worker came to take our moo kata away using a long metal prong and I leaned away as the hot grill passed my face, wobbling precariously. We looked around and realised we were some of the last people there. Nearby some other workers were taking the tubes out of toilet paper and placing the deboned rolls into serviette dispensers.
We paid the ridiculously small bill and hobbled out, pregnant with full-term food babies and smelling of barbecued mystery meat. All either of us could think about was falling belly-first into bed.
Moo Kata How-to
1. Load up on sauces, vegetables and meats from the buffet
2. Fill the ring of the moo kata with broth and grease the skillet with a fatty piece of pork lard (if the lard is not given to you, you’ll find it in the buffet)
3. Designate one pair of chopsticks to use for putting raw meat on the skillet and turning it.
4. Cook meats on the skillet and vegetables, noodles and fish balls in the broth.
5. Use a different pair of chopsticks for eating and for lifting cooked items from the soup or skillet. Ensure everything is well cooked – meat from a buffet is not meant to be eaten rare!
6. Don’t forget to dip your meats in the tasty sauces and to drink the soup as well (it’s the best part!).