Friday, February 19, 2010

What I'm Eating in Thailand

Thai food (especially basil chicken) has been my go to takeout choice for years, so I've been looking forward to plates full of fried noodles and coconut curries and crispy spring rolls since this adventure was a twinkle in my eye. I had heard that what we Americans think of as Thai food is really only available in fancy restaurants in Thailand and that true Thai cuisine was much different -- spicier, with more questionable organs and a greater appreciation for anything on a stick.This has so far not really proved true -- while Bangkok was heavily dotted with food stands serving a million unidentifiable delicacies the rest of our trip has been a big bowl full of pad thai.

The prevalence of westernized Thai food is almost certainly due to our location -- lolling around in the south eastern islands we are ensconced on the tourist trail. We are almost always within strolling distance of a burger, though I'm happy to say that so far we've ordered only one (and this was mostly as payment for a perch at the local sports bar, the only place broadcasting the Winter Olympics).

But even from our place on the very edge of true Thai culture we have been able to get our beaks wet with plenty of yummy sauces and soups.

Thai food in Thailand is much more focused on condiments than its American incarnation. Any order of stir fry or fried rice comes with half a lime and a lazy susan full of dried chilies, fish sauce, and chilies preserved in vinegar most of which seem to be homemade. Doctoring your food with these accoutrement's is often half the battle to delicious. One popular breakfast item is a somewhat bland noodle or rice soup that on it's own hardly seems worth the 80 baht (~$2.30) but once your bowl is decked out in condiments a new breakfast of champions emerges from the steam.

Yes, we have been eating soup for breakfast. Also fried rice and the occasional green papaya salad. They're not much for breakfast food in this part of the world. I was at first able to embrace this and down spicy plates of stir fry at 8am but lately I've been opting for rice porridge with bananas and a shake.

Oh, the shakes. Mango, banana, coffee, coconut, lime -- big glasses of fruit and ice (and probably the occasional splash of sweetened condensed milk which I'm hoping does not make each one a caloric disaster). The Thais really seem to know what to do with fruit and a hot sweaty day. For about $1 you can order up these homemade slurpies on any beach or porch; I'm averaging 3 per day.

On the subject of cooling concoctions I must mention that the Thais are doing some amazing things with cucumbers. Almost every dish comes adorned with thick slices that are the perfect antidote to whatever spicy dish you've ordered. In the case of the laab salad I had for lunch a couple of days ago I'm certain that my tongue would have disintegrated into a pile of ash had it not been for the side plate full of cucumber slices (and holy basil leaves!) on crushed ice. Cucumbers are also featured as the main green in dozens of salads, doused in chilies and lime and holding up a few fat shrimp they're a welcome hot and cool reprieve from the scorching sun. Come August in New York I need to experiment with my own spicy cucumber dishes.

While it is not exactly difficult to survive on the slightly less than truly authentic meals available here on the islands, my tongue is looking forward to our travels further north. So far all of our favorite bites were purchased (mostly from stands on the side of the road) in Bangkok. On our first night in town we bought a more than delicious bowl of dark broth full of pork dumplings and greens for $1. Geoff ordered a huge plate of Thai beef salad in a restaurant across the street from the National Palace that had just the right ratio of grilled meat, chilies, vinegar and vegetables. The plate of "red pork" on the right was purchased for $1 in the Bangkok train station while waiting for our south bound night train (where we somehow got talked into a second, much more expensive ($30!), dinner that we would regret if it weren't for irresistible romance of dining while watching the Bangkok suburbs turn slowly into countryside.).

I am also starting my list of food I miss. For days now I've been craving sushi, I blame the heat. In NYC a spicy tuna roll and a bowl of edamame is my summer staple. I've also more than once wished for a margarita and a huge serving of chips and guacamole. For this I blame my California upbringing, I was raised to believe that there is no such thing as a beach without Mexican food. But give me time, next summer sitting on Water Taxi Beach or Coney Island I expect to be un-shut-up-able about my cravings for green mango salad and fried morning glory greens.


Bill Purdy said...

What I'm eating right now, in the American south:

* Nacho Cheese Doritos
* Coffee

(sounds like every other Facebook status, doesn't it?)

Matthew said...

I don't think it's your location. Granted, Shawn and I are no foodies - we eat almost exclusively in the gritty but delicious roadside stands and not restaurants - but in our experience in northern Thailand and the non-resorts it's been a pad Thai and pork fried rice fest as well (best pork fried rice I've ever had was at the Ayyathuya night market, made at a cart).

We've enjoyed some more exotic fare - like roti, which you'll see up north - but most of our explorations have been gross (pickled apricots), snacky (various street fair skewers and market chips and sweets) or not too extreme (easy-to-like Papaya Pok Pok or I-get-it-in-Hoboken Tom Yum soup).

If there is "real" Thai food we're missing, that would be a shame. But, then again, green curry, sweet and sour veggies and cashew chicken, with some fresh pineapple slices, works for me quite nicely.

Gillian said...

Cucumbers! Genius!