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Thoughts on Thai Food & Culture

by Michael Babcock

You might also enjoy Michael's Impressions While Traveling in Thailand.

Introduction

I have been traveling with my wife Kasma to Thailand for seven years now (written in 1999) and there is always a new sight or insight to discover. After a total combined time in Thailand of over a year I feel as if I'm only beginning to really appreciate Thai culture.

This year I realized just how much Thai food is a part of Thai culture. You might well ask what took me so long since Kasma's book It Rains Fishes: Legends, Traditions and the Joys of Thai Cooking is really an exploration of this close relationship of food and culture. In the United States food is more of an interest or hobby for some people and ignored by most everyone else. I always think of the contrast between Thai kitchens and the kitchen of someone "into" food in the United States. In the U.S. there is as much joy and pride in the equipment – the kitchen is invariably loaded with fancy equipment, expensive pots, pans, knives, etc. A Thai kitchen might have two or three burners, a wok or two, something to steam the rice in, a knife or two, a mortar and pestle, a chopping board, and that is all that is needed to create delicious food. Who needs all that fancy stuff? It is the cook that makes good food, not the equipment. In Thailand food is part of the fabric of life at all levels, from poor to rich. This was especially brought home to me watching Thai people eat and by hospital food.

Eating Out In Thailand

I ate out several times with Kasma's Thai family and also watched other Thais eating. Except when eating at a noodle shop or a food stall, eating in Thailand is family style - real family style. A series of dishes are ordered - usually with as much care as someone might take in planning a meal in the United States. First dishes are chosen that someone particularly likes or the restaurant or area is known for. Then other dishes are chosen to complement flavors. Not all dishes are spicy - they like to have a variety of tastes and flavors.

When the dishes arrive, rather than serving as much as you want of your favorite dish and digging in, you do what Kasma calls "nibble eat." First, no one eats until rice arrives - the heart of the meal. In Thai you do not just say: "Let's eat." You say, literally: "Let's eat rice." All non-rice dishes, really all other food, are called gab kao - literally, "with rice." "I am going to buy gab kao," means you are going shopping for food. It is really a different concept than here where rice is a side dish often ignored completely. The food is really cooked to "season" the rice and dishes are flavored to be eaten with rice - they aren't meant to be eaten alone. Kasma has me so well-trained that if I don't have rice with a lunch or dinner it doesn't quite feel like a "real" meal.

After a few dishes arrive, either a waiter or whoever is closest serves the rice. Then you take a small portion of one of the dishes close to you and put it on your plate. Usually no serving spoons are used - you use your own spoon, which is your main eating implement (your fork guides the food to your spoon, which takes it to your mouth) to serve from the gab kao dish. After that's done, you see what else looks good and try that. And so on through the meal. No one hogs a dish or overeats one item - there is care taken that food is truly shared. The dishes are not passed around the table - either you reach, someone serves you, or dishes are switched from time to time. Food is eaten slowly and tastes savored and the sharing of food with others is part of the enjoyment.

It is a very different way of eating in a restaurant from here in the United States where each individual gets "my entree" and eats it all by him or herself. In Thailand food is really shared. Of course in Thailand there is seldom only one main entree - there are usually a number of "main" dishes. Bottled drinks, too, are typically shared. If three people wish to drink beer, a large bottle is ordered and glasses poured for each of the three people. Thais seem to have a hard time understanding the Americans on Kasma's tour where each person wants his or her own bottle so that they will get their fair share of the beer. In Thailand no one seems to be keeping track to make sure they aren't cheated.

Actually, this quality of sharing and lack of insistence on "this belongs to ME" is one of the main differences between Thais and Americans. Aside from food, another good illustration of how this works in Thailand can be seen in the driving. The first time you are driven in Thailand it can be a harrowing experience. Until recently most roads in the country were one lane in either direction. On this one road you would find country pickup trucks, motors scooters (with up to five people!), slow trucks, fast trucks, buses, and cars of every variety. Because of the varying rates of speed there is a great deal of passing. The first time you are passing another car and speeding forward in the wrong lane directly towards an onrushing vehicle, you are a little bit frightened. And then, miraculously, everyone accommodates by moving over and creating a third lane. The road is meant to be shared.

Another example. We were driving in Bangkok with two lanes for each direction. We were about to overtake a vehicle in the slow lane as a car at a "stop" sign (I have never actually seen a Thai stop at one) began to pull into the slower lane. In America the driver in the faster lane (us) would have sped up and loudly honked the horn so that no car would come into "my lane" - the slower vehicle would then hit the brakes to miss the new car entering the read. In Thailand our faster car slowed down just enough so that the car already in traffic could pull over into the fast lane and go around the car entering traffic. As soon as possible the slow car returned to the slow lane and we sped up and zoomed on by.

The Thai way of sharing is shown when the bill comes. Thais seldom split up a bill according to who ate what. In Kasma's family we take turns inviting one another out and whoever does the inviting pays for the meal. In other situations, it would be the eldest or the one with the most status who would pay for the meal. Interestingly, there are seldom thanks expected or offered. I think there is a sense that thanks are not needed because it is assumed that the person is paying for the meal because he or she wants to. I know that when I have paid for dinner I didn't really expect thanks. Somehow it just all seems part of the natural flow – generosity calls forth generosity and there is a very different relationship to obligation and giving. Don't, however, think that Thais are pushovers and that you can always get a free meal. One of Kasma's relatives is a bit miserly and never reciprocates so whenever possible he is simply not invited. On the other hand, if he was destitute yet generous in spirit, he would never be left out.

Hospital Food in Thailand

And then there's the hospital food. Can you imagine going to a hospital cafeteria especially to eat? When a relative was hospitalized we ate several meals in a hospital cafeteria in Bangkok. If I knew of a Thai restaurant where I live (and there are dozens within an easy drive) with food as good as they served in this cafeteria, I would be a regular customer! (We don't eat out much because the Thai food at home is better than that in any of the local restaurants.)

The best time to eat was lunch. There were three or four different food concessions with pre-made Thai dishes. You chose what you wanted, cafeteria style. Two different dishes served over rice cost 30 Baht, about 90 cents. You could also order noodles and there was food prepared to order from scratch for a little bit more, including Western food.

The Green Curry was fabulous. They had small individual fish served with a spicy chili sauce for 40 Baht, a little over a dollar. There was an absolutely delicious spicy, tasty pork laab - a type of salad made in northeastern Thailand. One of my favorite dishes was a catfish curry with lots of small strips of gkrachai, an aromatic Thai root. There were fresh Asian greens (long, thin-leaved) with crispy pork. There was loofah squash cooked with egg. There was a chicken, basil and eggplant dish. There was a dynamite basil chicken. It was all good.

The food served to patients came from the various concessions. One patient dinner was the same basil chicken we ate in the cafeteria (and it was the antithesis of "bland hospital food!"), a fish ball soup, and baby corn and pork. There was rice and fresh fruit (pineapple and watermelon) for dessert. It was delicious, tasty, Thai food. The price to the patient for three meals (and two snacks!) was 300 Baht per day - less than 9 dollars.

In fact, we joked about how people would want to stay in Thai hospitals if they knew the situation. The cost for private rooms, pleasant and homey, was 2,200 Baht, about 65 dollars.

(An aside. In Thailand hospital rooms are all provided with a long couch and additional bedding for a family member. It is just assumed that a family member will stay with the patient. There is a refrigerator provided so that the family can bring their own food. There's a small table surrounded by chairs for relatives to dine. You can also rent a suite that includes an extra room with living room furniture and a dining table. Each room has an additional 4 to 5 chairs so that up to 7 or 8 people can sit comfortably. When the patient arrived, they delivered a basket of fresh fruit and a get well card.)

(Another aside. One of Kasma's tour members this year was hospitalized overnight for some blood tests and doctor consultations. The total cost, including medical care, tests, room, food, and medication, was 4,000 Baht, about $115. In the U.S. it would have been $4,000 or more! Close to half of the cost was for medication. In many ways the medical care in Thailand is superior to that in the United States. The last time I had a medical problem, I spent two or three hours trying to get approval from my insurance company to get treated. In Thailand in that time I could go to the hospital without an appointment, be seen, be treated and come back home.)

Back to hospital food. It is because people expect good food that is so good in the hospital. Everyone in Thailand likes to eat. Good, fresh food is simply taken for granted. Good food is so prevalent in Thailand that it comes as a real shock when you do occasionally get a dish that is mediocre or not very well cooked.

When Thais travel, they always know the food specialties of each region. Traveling with Kasma is much the same. She always knows what to try and what a place is known for. For instance Thais going to Chaiya invariably bring salted duck eggs, for which Chaiya is known, home to share. If they go to Petchburi they might come back with a type of fruit known as chumpoo. People going to Nakhon Pathom often buy pomelo, a citrus fruit in some ways similar to grapefruit. If they go to Ranong, they are likely to try a type of pork bun for which Ranong is known. Every region has something different to try.

Thai Markets

As usual, this year some of the best excursions were trips to markets. I think of markets as the real heart of Thai culture. I always like markets the best - there is so much colorful, good food - vegetables, fresh fish, fruit - I inevitably wish I had access to a kitchen because it is so inviting and fresh. There are always several varieties of ready-to-eat food, including food stalls with pre-cooked dishes, noodles stalls, snack stands (the variety of Thai snacks is a book in itself), fresh cooked fish cakes, barbecue, green papaya salad, roasted or fried bananas, and on and on. A little plastic bag of kanoms (Thai snack) is typically 10 Baht, about 30 cents.

One problem traveling in Thailand is that there is always so much good food everywhere and not enough time to eat it! In fact, it is hard to find a block in a Thai neighborhood that is very far from good food. We stay at Kasma's parent's house in Bangkok. One half a block in one direction takes you to two makeshift restaurants by the side of the road. In the other direction within a block are 30 to 40 places to eat. These include open storefronts as well as street vendors and permanent/temporary roadside stalls. There is good food everywhere. Some of the best meals are in no-name storefront restaurants without printed menus - if they do have menus it is seldom in English.

These storefront restaurants also highlight the difference between Thailand and the U.S. The restaurants considered the best in the United States usually are the more expensive ones. Part of the dining out experience is to have a fancy setting with tablecloths and nice dishes - the setting is as important as the food. In Thailand, the food is much more important. Some of the fancier restaurants have food that is not so good - most Thais would prefer to spend less and get great food in a less fancy setting.

What I enjoy the most in the markets are the vendors. Probably the poorest and hardest working people I encounter in Thailand are in these markets. The markets that have not been inundated with fahrangs (Thai for Caucasian) are usually the most friendly. Vendors are often quite amused to see a fahrang eyeing a tray of fresh fish or huge mound of chili paste. I was once offered a taste of some fresh red chile paste by a vendor and we both laughed as the tears came to my eyes. Some of the most radiant smiles - encompassing amusement, tolerance, and gentleness - I've have ever received were from these vendors. Often when we take pictures the subject gets all kinds of good-natured kidding from her close-by stallmates. Sometimes the best smiles are off-camera yet they remain indelibly stamped in memory.

This year we discovered a new (to us) floating market. Because it is scheduled according to the lunar calendar it gets few tourists - we were the only ones on the day we went. It was a real living market, with locals paddling up to buy food and other locals bringing coconuts or bananas to be loaded in trucks and taken to markets in Bangkok and elsewhere. We ate a mussel omelet for 10 Baht (30 cents) and some freshly homemade coconut ice cream. We wandered there for over three hours. Kasma is hoping that her tours fall on the correct day so that she can take them there.

Resort Living

Author of article lying in hammockThis year we traveled briefly with Kasma's family and stayed in a beachfront resort that advertised itself as "a whole world of your own." Traveling with Kasma, including the tours, I don't often stay in these isolated, self-enclosed resorts. We usually stay in smaller hotels in normal neighborhoods a quick walk away from the sidewalk and living culture. It was this lack of living culture that caught my attention at the resort - there were no food stalls, no clothes stalls, no normally dressed Thais - it was just a modern and sterile place to sleep. The one sign of real life in this place was in the garden. Amidst the manicured grass and beautifully kept flowers we saw several patches of edible, non-ornamental Asian vegetables. No doubt they were planted by one of the gardeners who would harvest them when they were ready to eat

These individual signs of life are what are missing from tourist resorts. Thais are wonderfully inventive and friendly people - for me the best part of traveling in Thailand is the chance to get closer to the Thai people. You cannot do that when they are in a uniform to serve you. I think the main gift I get from Kasma in Thailand, and also the real value of her tours, is the chance to get a little bit closer to the Thai culture. To do this you must go to where Thai people eat, stay, and shop. Sharing meals is helpful, either with Kasma and her family or, on the tours, Kasma and her drivers. It is hard to exactly describe the role of the drivers on the tours. They are a combination of helpers, friends, and younger brothers. It is a treat to be able to see how Thais interact and live - the friendliness, the non-competitiveness, the gentleness. Even with a fairly poor grasp of the language you can participate some by smiling, by bargaining (it is a dance, not a competition), and by watching the people with appreciation.

From what I've heard from solo travelers, this experience sometimes can be harder to get traveling on your own. Some people in touristed areas have been approached by aggressive touts and cab drivers wanting to take them shopping or had a bad experience with an aggressive salesperson. However, and happily, I also have heard from solo travelers who disagree with me and have had the best trip of their life traveling in Thailand by themselves. I know that the times I have encountered such people, when shopping on my own near the major hotels, they were much less aggressive compared with other places I have traveled and, with only one exception, immediately accepted my first "no" for an answer and didn't bother me further. My favorite times in Thailand are off the beaten track where there's a chance still for Thais and fahrangs to meet without preconceptions. The best way to travel in Thailand is to go gently and realize you are, as it were, coming into their living room so treat everything and everyone you encounter with respect.

See also: Kasma's article on Street Food in Thailand.

Copyright © 1999 Michael Babcock. All rights reserved.

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