Thai cuisine is like Mark Twain’s weather; everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Not that you can, I suppose, unless you’re a fabulously wealthy chef with a four-star rating who decides to open up a swanky joint on the banks of the Chao Phaya River – in which case you’ll never see me darken your doorway, bub, cuz I can’t afford to eat like the Prince of Monaco.
Still, I’m gonna talk about Thai cookin’ even if I can’t change it by a single drop of nam plaa. Not about the fabulous resort restaurants that feature squid stuffed with shark fins sautéed in daffodil juice, nor about the ubiquitous street vendors who offer viands and blowflies in equal proportion. I want to say something about the small ma & pa place, where you eat your fried rice out front while the family is seated in the back of the store, plainly visible and very audible, watching a Thai soap opera.
Your basic dishes in such places are fried rice, fried noodles, sweet and sour vegetables, and fried egg omelets dripping with so much grease you could slide it down the street without a trace of friction for a good two blocks. These are the places you wind up eating in if you have to work for a living, not sitting around with an executive thumb up your hoo-hah. Not that I wouldn’t mind sitting around with a well-nourished thumb up my hoo-hah, but it ain’t gonna happen in this world-wide recession (and not until fleas have to put on dog powder, either.) No sir, I am working as an English teacher here in Thailand, having gotten my certificate from TEFL International down in Ban Phe, near Rayong. If you want to read more about TEFL International, go to www.tefllife.com (This is an unpaid political announcement.)
So let’s you and I stroll into one of these establishments, take a seat, and enjoy the al fresco view (cement bags and bamboo scaffolding in Bangkok, water buffalo and rice bran fires out in the country) while Mine Host decides whether or not they’re open, willing to walk the five yards to your table and ambitious enough to actually cook something. I am not disparaging the Thai work ethic – far from it! I admire the Thai spirit of enterprise which believes that once you’ve made enough to get by for today, you can close up shop and take it easy until tomorrow. That’s the kind of spirit I wish I’d grown up with, instead of that awful ulcer-inducing Protestant Work Ethic.
There’s always a mongrel dog dozing under your table. The pooch doesn’t belong to anyone there – they kinda meander all over Thailand, like cows in India, and the Thais ignore them, unless they run over one on their motorbike. I don’t know what these creatures live on, since Thais are fastidious eaters, rarely dropping so much as a grain of rice. By the time you gently nudge the dog out of the way of your legs the lady of the house will be there to take your order. The man of the house stays completely out of the kitchen, instead popping in and out all day with cases of soda water and bags of ice.
Sweet and sour vegetables, with red pork, is always a reliable dish. There is a regrettable tendency nowadays to add thickly sliced carrots to the dish, which should be just cucumbers, pineapple, scallions, meat and sauce over rice. The sauce is simply ketchup, rice vinegar, a pinch of tamarind paste, a few chilies, and some nam plaa. It’s light but filling (as opposed to what? – dark but airy?)
Sometimes you’ll get paper napkins, sometimes you won’t. And when you do get them you may wish you hadn’t. They are thinner than toilet paper and smaller than matchbook covers. It takes a dozen to wipe your lips properly, and then you ball them up and try to jam them under your plate so a stray breeze doesn’t send them scudding down the street. After a spicy meal don’t ever try to blow your nose with ‘em – you’ll need to take a trip to the bathroom to wash your hands real quick – and the only thing they have in the restroom to dry your hands on is toilet paper. Even royalty can’t get a Bounty paper towel in a restaurant.
If the place is really on the make, they’ll have ice cream for dessert. But Thai ice cream, while undoubtedly dairy in origin, seems to have taken a wrong turn somewhere and congealed more like cottage cheese than anything else. It’s sweet, all right – so sweet your blood sugar count will start screaming for insulin within seconds of the first spoonful. You can always try a Thai dessert – they make green wiggly worms out of tapioca and serve ‘em in sweetened coconut milk.
For me the best part of the meal is selecting a bamboo toothpick from the salt shaker on the table and settling back to contemplate the world around you. If you are in a hurry and want your bill fast, you have come to the wrong country. First there is a heated family argument in the back about how much to charge you. The father is all for giving you a break, but mother is adamant that foreigners expect to be overcharged, and besides, who does all the cookin’ around here anyways? How many bottles of Fanta did the farang drink, one or two? And there was all that ice! By the time negotiations are concluded you could very well be hungry again. Finally, they send their daughter, their sweet, innocent, daughter, in her school uniform of white blouse and blue skirt, out to present you with the bill – looking at her feet, she tells you it is ninety baht.
Pay up, pal, and give ‘em all a big smile. Your digestion will be the better for it.
© Torkythai. All rights reserved by the author.