It’s always an adventure to eat in foreign countries. Strange smells, curious colours, tantalizing tastes. (And, occasionally, uncomfortable gastronomic conditions which go by many colourful names but my favourite is from Syria, where I got to experience a bathroom-related temporary condition which the locals called “yallah yallah” meaning, literally, “quickly quickly”.) But lately I’ve spent a lot of time in Thailand. There are many pleasant surprises for the foodie in this tropical kingdom.
For starters, I’m very happy to report that the food we get in North American Thai restaurants is indeed authentic and would be familiar at any high street establishment back home. Compare this to the typical “Chinese” food we get at home which, while tasty in a deep-fried kind of way, bears no resemblance whatsoever to actual cuisine found in the world’s most populous nation. Japanese food in North America is more authentic, but our beloved and ubiquitous sushi is a rare delicacy in Japan – usually reserved for wedding feasts – and actually quite difficult to find in a typical Osaka eatery. Not so in Thailand. Phad thais, green curries, kao phads – all were in abundance from Bangkok to Bunyasiriphant’s Roadside Cart.
This concept of humble authenticity really hit me after I’d given a presentation at a government office and our hosts had arranged for lunch with a row of steam trays in the corridor. I joined the line, slopped some rice onto my plate and took a polite sample of the offering in each stainless-steel tray. Typical, institutional food, and it was obvious by their casual behaviour that my hosts didn’t think the meal anything special. But it was! It tasted like the food served at Sabhai Thai, my wife’s favourite restaurant in our local village. So there I was, eating run-of-the-mill, cafeteria food, and feeling like I was dining gourmet. Seriously, folks, they eat like this all the time.
(Full disclosure, I skipped the dessert of what looked like jellied eyeballs.)
But the biggest surprise actually came at one of the hotels I stayed at in Bangkok – Le Meridien, if you’re curious. I ordered breakfast in my room so I could get on the phone to Vancouver while folks in the office were still at work, and a typical selection of scrambled eggs, bacon and pastries arrived. But then, nestled in a pretty, wee basket, were some tater tots. I can take tater tots or leave them, but these were – without question – the finest, most delicious tater tots I have ever had. I seriously wondered if they filtered the oil in which these were fried through virgin, $100-bills. I never would have placed tater tots in the realm of fine dining, but these little golden beauties were like nuggets of sunshine, captured and deep-fried in a land that knows how to make good food.
And I think that’s it. If food is important to a culture, they take every meal seriously. It reminds me of a time I was in Antibes, France, and I ordered the cheese platter because I was hungry and I figured that would be quick. The waiter obviously didn’t hear me properly, and assumed with a sniff that this ill-cultured North American had ordered the cheeseburger, not cheese platter. Can you hear how they sound the same? I’m being charitable too. Anyway, the cheeseburger eventually arrived, and I was so hungry by this time that I wasn’t sending it back and waiting even longer. I am North American, after all, and who amongst us can say no to a cheeseburger when it’s sitting right in front of you? And, mon dieu, was that not – without question – the finest, most delicious cheeseburger I have ever had. It’s like the chef was ordered to put cheeseburgers on the menu because of the international clientele, and with an exasperated sigh he decided that if he was going to be forced to offer the symbol of the nouvelle bourgeouisie americaine, it was going to be the best damn burger this world had ever seen.
But I digress.
Another, shall we say, exciting element of eating in foreign lands is that you are not always sure exactly which animals are considered eligible for the menu. At one beachside café we were enjoying a wide variety of local dishes ordered in Thai by our host, the lovely Akanit. Everything was delicious, but one dish consisted of breaded and lightly-fried packets – perhaps thrice the size of those tasty tater tots – that my colleague Ken and I agreed were fantastic. I was in the middle of chewing my third sampling when Akanit turned to us and said (we both swear we heard the same thing):
“These are made from cat meat.”
I fought down the gag reflex. Hard. “What?”
Ken and I exchanged wide-eyed glances. He nodded in horror.
She repeated herself, speaking very clearly. Thankfully my ear was well tuned to the Thai accent and I understood her properly this time: “These are made from crab meat.”
Phew. Lunch staying down. When we explained the misunderstanding, Akanit laughed out loud and assured us that dogs and cats are considered pets in Thailand, not delicacies. While I’m still not sure about the jellied eyeballs, I feel pretty safe in Thailand eating what’s put in front of me. Even the “hundred-year-old eggs” were quite good.
So amongst all the many reasons I’d recommend a trip to Thailand – beautiful beaches, gorgeous weather, ancient temples, friendly people, and good value for money – the food has to top the list. It’s seriously like eating at your favourite Thai restaurant every day, and even the non-Thai food can be spectacular when made in the kitchens of this kingdom. Best of all, because the food is generally very healthy and spicy, you can eat as much as you feel like and maybe even lose weight on your trip.
Sounds like a tasty slice of heaven to me.
All photos by Bennett R. Coles – All Rights Reserved