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LAce Posted Monday, December 1st, 2003
Practicing Asia: A Taste for Thailand
Nicholas Beem

In Thailand, corn is a regular addition to ice cream. Chips are flavored with shrimp or squid rather than cheese (which only exists in stores catering to tourists). Imagine, if you can, that the smell of not-so-recently-dead fish made your mouth water, rather than gag. Thailand has all the dried minnows covered in sesame seeds that you'll ever want, and even a few desserts with a distinctly "marine" aftertaste. I kid you not.

Gross, right? But of course it makes sense that a country woven from ancient fishing villages would have an appreciation for the fishy side of life. I can recite this rational explanation to myself, yet the differences between Thai and Western taste still strike a curiously strong, almost palpable dissonance within my psyche. This speaks of the primal role that food plays in defining one's sense of "normal life," and I have found that many of my most intriguing, and pleasing, encounters with Thai culture have revolved around food.

When we first got to Bangkok, we connected with a kind woman nicknamed Meaw who let us stay in her three-story bacherlorette pad for several days. My memories of that time consist mainly of whirling around a sweltering Bangkok in a mercifully air-conditioned car, stopping every hour or so to buy small bits of food that we just had to taste. Roasted bananas in sugary coconut sauce, fried pork balls, steamed buns with taro filling, coconut milk in a plastic bag with handles. Everything comes in a plastic bag in Thailand. A single order of pad thai may arrive in 4 different bags to hold the noodles and the associated condiment, each deftly sealed with a rubber band in a quick, elegant motion that leaves the bags bulged tight with trapped air. Oh, the joy of each new delicacy! It became apparent that our approval of the food was also approval of Meaw’s culture, and her generosity as a host, so even when our stomachs were full to bursting we were obliged to continue sampling, and continue our cries of Aroi maak maak, “very delicious.”

Refrigeration is almost exclusively a status symbol in Thailand. In the few houses that can afford a fridge, it holds mostly water. Meat sits out. Cooked food sits in a screened-in cabinet or beneath a rattan hemisphere. Cooks prefer to buy all of their fresh ingredients from the local market, moments before they start cooking, but they'll keep a few staples around. Huge sacks of garlic and shallots. The necessary bottles of fish sauce, soy bean paste, oyster sauce. And maybe a dozen eggs, sitting in a bowl for days on end. It was the eggs that struck me most. Surely you need to refrigerate eggs? Yet the Thais have been surviving quite well on unrefrigerated eggs for centuries. The other option: the Western urge to refrigerate does not derive from necessity, but rather the Judeo-Christian-scientific imperative to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." (Genesis 1:28). Harken, even the decomposition of matter shall be halted!

At the opposite end of the command-and-control spectrum: a Thai kitchen. Almost always outdoors, filled with all manner of dirty dishes waiting to be cleaned and tomatoes quietly going to mush. A can of condensed milk will be left out for a whole day, becoming an impromptu graveyard for the ants that attend all food preparation. Half the time it will be thrown out, but then again you can just scoop out the ants and keep using it. The inevitability of insects and decay is so painfully obvious in this tropical climate; the only sustainable "solution" is to submit. Let the ants make their long trails across the floor - they'll go away once they finish eating the spilled curry.

While the Thais are resigned to occasional rooster shit on the table at home, they can be meticulously hygienic when business is on the line. I am so glad this is true, because it means we can eat from the panoply of food carts with abandon. We still steer away from the balls of fried meat that glisten at us suspiciously, but vegetables and fruit are no problem. Even the intoxicating iced drinks are made with purified water. I have heard it opined that food vendors cannot risk ruining their reputation by serving contaminated food, and given the Thai propensity to talk trash about each other (I cannot exaggerate this propensity), this seems a well-grounded fear. Food is typically sold at a tiny margin above the cost of ingredients; profit comes from lots of customers. And there are certainly plenty of customers. Indeed, the greatest danger of contamination comes from Western-oriented restaurants that are sparsely attended, leading to cost-cutting and shoddy sanitation.

Because the food is so cheap, Thais eat out often (or vice versa), and they care little for ambiance. They are serious eaters. There is an initially-disconcerting uniformity to the standard Thai eatery: red and blue plastic stools, folding tables with condiments, the requisite Coca-cola posters and of course an image of the king. There are only menus if tourists are nearby. Rather, the cook indicates the basic genre of food by placing different foodstuffs in a multi-tiered glass case that is visible from the street. If there are noodles, you can order any dish that contains those noodles. If there are balls of meat, you can order different types of soup. Sometimes an old woman will hang a sign outside of her house advertising "khanom jiin" and customers sit amidst the blaring television and family shrine while she ladles sweet, spicy peanut sauce over rice noodles.

It appears that Thai customers enter a restaurant knowing more or less exactly what they want to eat. After seating you, the waiter will usually just wait by the table until you are ready to order. The certainty with which Thais order food contrasts strongly with the ponderous, anxious manner in which American go about ordering. The entire menu must be consulted, and the best food selected, for the best price. It is a bit unnerving to be handed an 20-page menu that offers Thai, Italian and Mexican food and have the waiter stand there staring at you while you struggle to read the whole menu. Often, I’ll just default to a known favorite, such as “Fried Rice with Crap” (the best casualty of Thai-English phonetic differences we’ve seen so far).

Now we’re in Phuket, the tourist mecca of Southeast Asia, struggling to find a cheap bowl of noodles amidst overpriced “steakhouses” and “pizzerias.” We finally find a place where actual Thai people are eating, and order two steaming, aromatic bowls of noodles with sliced pork. We speculate that we may be the first white people to dare set foot in the restaurant, and the Thais are clearly amused. A metaphor for Thai food culture is delivered with the noodles: a basket of four condiments. It is left to the customer to decide exactly what combination of sweet, spicy, salty and sour they like. These four flavors are considered the pillars of any taste, so with this basket I am given the chance to completely remake my food, if I wish. So much responsibility! I will miss it when I am back in America, only allowed to determine the salt and pepper content of my $10 pad thai.

Comments [post a comment]

Posted by Nicholas Taylor on Monday, December 1st, 2003 at 3:39 PM
Sounds like heaven to me. Sesame minnows!

Posted by breezy darling [ briehahaa@hotmail.com ] on Tuesday, December 2nd, 2003 at 1:03 PM
Nic! I just finished off my power breakfast of a balance bar, apple and coffee and am on my way up to Angels Landing in Zion National park. Briana is waiting for me, anxious to get in a good hike and make our way to the Grand Canyon this evening. But I had to post my comment: Down with Ketchup! ...Ask Lela about the last time she was in Zion and please pass on the work that the turkeys are still on the lawn. Love you guys, Brielle



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