PHUKET: It’s not easy to find staff for a boiled rice shop in Phuket Town. Sometimes new employees run away after just one day. It might have something to do with the starting time… 4am, or the regular days off… none.
But Nalinee “Ann” Sukjaroen has been working at the Boiled Rice Shop on Dibuk Road for the past 25 years, first washing glasses and wiping tables, then taking orders and now cooking.
Her parents opened the shop when Ann was just a child.
“At first, my parents worked really hard,” Ann said. “They did everything themselves. My mother went to the market at 2am and then cooked. When the shop closed, they did all the clean up by themselves.”
Now the shop has five staff who prep and clean up, but there is still plenty for Ann to do.
A recent morning found her navigating the dark and quiet streets of Phuket before dawn. She was headed to the market, where she goes every other day to buy vegetables. The air was cool, which made Ann happy. “My customers will want to eat hot soup,” she said.
Back at the shop, her staff – two of whom have worked there since Ann was a child – go about their duties in focused silence, julienning ginger, slicing pork liver, de-stemming cilantro, cutting chilies, preparing the two soups and the two styles of rice.
Ann’s mother, 72, still works every day, and this morning is snipping off the ends of spring onions. Ann’s sister, Aom, appears to take the orders and act as cashier.
Ann readies her kitchen, a metal structure with three burners that is pushed to the entrance of the shop each morning. Here she mixes boiled rice or congee, with soup, then adds pieces of pork intestine and liver as well as minced pork.
Deng, her assistant, prepares the empty bowls, adding small spoonfuls of MSG, soy sauce, preserved vegetables, dried seaweed, and a soft boiled egg – the eggs are sourced from Phang Nga.
“They’re more expensive, but the yolk has a nice color and looks good in the bowl,” Ann says. Deng garnishes each bowl with chopped green onion and golden fried garlic bits, then it’s whisked to the table.
The first customer appears at 5:30am, a man who leaves his truck parked askew and running in front of the shop. He arrives before the delivery of ice and sticky-rice snacks – “We make a good profit on those”, Ann says – and before the monk who comes at six o’clock to accept an offering and give back a prayer.
School children brought by their parents, civil servants in uniform, and working people fill the shop by 7am. Ann compares the current customers to the ones from the old days.
“Back then, they were local people. They grumbled if we charged 45 baht,” she said. “The customers now are ‘office people’ and don’t blink an eye at paying 80 baht for special orders.”
During the rush, Ann and Deng focus on the orders. There’s a decision tree, like choosing ingredients for a sandwich: boiled rice or congee? Pork stock or rib soup? Everyone likes it their way: two eggs, not much rice, double the seaweed, ribs but no soup, a little minced pork but lots of liver. Not to mention that customers can order three different kinds of noodles instead of rice.
Deng chooses bowls that reflect the order – the more expensive, the bigger the bowl – and lays them out for Ann, who is silent, remembering.
The dish is surprisingly bland, given Thailand’s reputation for highly flavored food, which explains the army of condiments on the table: two kinds of soy sauce, black pepper, julienned ginger, cilantro leaves, sugar, chili powder, chopped chilies in vinegar. Pieces of fried dough can be ordered for five baht, and add a rich mouthfeel to the soup.
Running a breakfast shop means getting up early, and napping is a must: “Three afternoons in a row without sleeping is my maximum,” Ann says. Late afternoons she exercises at a nearby fitness club, and occasionally meets friends for an early dinner. If there’s a good series on TV, she’ll stay up late to watch it, but is “a blur” the next day.
The shop closes during the local vegetarian festival, for weddings or other ceremonies, for yearly vacations, and every once in a while, when everyone is worn out. Aom estimates they take about 20 days off per year.
Ann, who likes to travel abroad and spent a summer as a university student working in Yosemite, dreams of adding new dishes. “Other shops have already added fish,” she says. “I want to add mushrooms and cheese.”
With Ann, the Boiled Rice shop on Dibuk Road – which for the record is on Phang Nga Road (click here for map), they moved years ago but kept the name – is entering a new era.
The Boiled Rice Shop is located at: 185/11 Phang Nga Rd, Phuket Town. Telephone: 076 215 731.
— Leslie Porterfield
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