Daily Archives: October 8, 2020

Pastime

There are manythings that might get listed as the Thai national pastime. It could be chit-chat พูดคุย. It could be music. But to me, the quintessential Thai Pastime is eating. It is an activity central to everything. Eating in Thailand is an art form. How to eat? What to eat? Where to eat? Why eat? With whom? When to eat? The topic was brought to mind by a Facebook friend whom I have never had an eyeball with, never met face to face. She is quarantining in Bangkok, on day three of fourteen. She has been posting pictures of her food. They deliver it to her room. I have been looking at it and it has been making me sad. It seems inhuman. The first question that comes to mind”How can you serve that kind of food to a Thai person?” Then when you realize that they are doing so in Bangkok, City of Angles, the impregnable city of God Indra, city of the 9 gemsฯลฯ. How can it be true that you serve cold breaded cutlets of some sort with gloopy sauce from a bottle? The pictures she has been posting on Facebook have been provoking a Thai response from her family, homemade food delivered. Half way around the world I am relieved. How could this happen? I teach at a university. We often have Thai students. I want to meet them. I cannot tell a Thai person from someone from Cambodia or Vietnam. But I want to meet Thais. In general they are happy to meet me. I have friends of over ten years now that I met on campus. We have helped each other. The first Thai I met was while I was in school. For various reasons, I have no way to meet them. Sometimes I don’t know that there is a Thai student until I see their name during graduation. But about five years ago it dawned on me. I can tell Thai people or at least often can by how they eat. It is rare to see a Thai person in our cafeteria eating alone. You eat with a pyan เพื่อน , a companion. You share food. This might be dipping sauces, it might be the main dishes, it might be fruit. Food is generally eaten by pushing it onto a spoon with the back side of a fork. That is, unless its Chinese food, in which case its eaten with chopsticks. Exactly what food is on the spoon, each spoonful, is likely arranged. A small amount of sauce might have been gathered first, there might be a piece of a vegetable, there will likely be rice unless its a noodle dish. Spoonfuls are not too big. As this happens you see hands moving around the table, like a dance. It can be quite graceful. Things are shared. Foods have very specific sauces, often have vegetables that accompany them and side dishes. One of my favorite dishes, in some ways a simple, plain dish, is Kao Man Gai. Kao Man Gai is served with some cucumber slices. The rice is cooked in oil and broth of the chicken. The chicken is served on top of the rice. There is some cooked chicken blood on the side and a sauce that is very flavorful but usually not too spicey. This sauce is specific to Kao Man Gai. Cucumbers are a frequent side in street cuisine. I think that this is because they keep well all day. The soup that is served on the side is usually very mild thin broth. It reminds me of my mothers’s matzoh ball soup. The broth for Kao Man Gai has very little yichus. Yichus are the solids in soups, like vegetables or lentils. But Kao Man Gai broth does have Chinese winter melon or in the US sometimes cooked daikon radish or something mild like that. There are often fresh vegetables at the Thai table. These can be quite exotic tasting, bitter, sulphury, astringent -like or just crunchy long beans and cabbage. The taste “bitter” is important in Thailand. Bitter foods are often seen as good for the health, maybe like cod-liver oil in the West. I would not know. I have never had cod-liver oil. I have had many of the bitter vegetables in Thailand. They are “interesting” to eat. It would take something to get Gail to eat any more of these. And she is an adventurous eater. Some times of the day ask for certain foods. Where I lived, at Chez Umdang, late afternoon was time for Som Tum, Green Papaya Salad, the favored dish of Isaan, the Northeast region of Thailand. Who made the Som Tum varied. Usually it was one of the wonderful young women helping around the house, Gaw Wow named for the song of a bird, or Fon whose name means rain. These women were helpful and gratious in a way that cannot be overstated. They made awful days bearable, and had thier hands in making our good times in Dankwian magical. Green papaya salad is an exercise in balance of flavor, spicey, sour, fishy, garlic, and some textural variety. It is hard to get right, but Som Tum varies a lot, and there seemed to be people whose Som Tum was prized. But usually Som Tum was made by Gaw Wow or Fon. Green papaya is full of enzymes, and papaya juice is used as medicine in parts of the world and my thoughts about it are that its daily consumption might be a way to keep intestinal parasites under control. They are a problem in the Northeast, and Som Tum is endemic. Some som tum each day keeps the doctor away. If you are leaving me food to eat when I am buried or a ghost, skip the alcohol and leave me som tum. I will be grateful. I got picked up at the train station. It had been a long day and there was no food on the train. I was hot, tired, thirsty, and there were 4 adults and two children in the car. There was no air conditioning but fortunately it was in the cool part of the day, ตอนเย็น, interestingly named “cool time”. I was asked what I wanted to eat, I said “Duck Soup”. Its one of my favorite forms of street food. This question being asked of me was in some ways an honor, a choice like this having some real importance. I don’t think I would have picked up on this on my first trip. Duck soup. “Oh duck soup is very good” . “Jum, who makes the best duck soup?” . “Certainly its the vendor on the Dankwian Road”. “I like the stand in the old market”. “There is a new place by the Seven (11) by the mall, Its pretty good”.” Well the Vendor on the Dankwian Road does not open until 10pm. But its really good. Maybe we should see if he opened early”. “No its too far to turn back, lets try the place by Ghost Gate Market”. We turn and drive towards there. “Jum, do you really want to eat that soup? The flavor is weak” “Maybe there is some by the night market, Some vendors open early”. We drove around for two hours looking but not finding. My “lets eat something else” was not apparently acceptable.