Fruit from the stand next door. Six fruits makes about a wine glass of juice.
I thought I would cook everyday in Thailand. When I pictured life here before leaving home, I factored in my perceptions of how a wealth of time and access to inexpensive food would gently push me into the kitchen for daily play. My apartment would store a trove of native ingredients that I could throw together to make a pot of deliciousness. I would learn the best way to soak rice noodles before plunging them into a hot wok and pound chiles and spices in a mortar and pestle, making curry pastes without a recipe. With so much time at my disposal, I could finally make my own breakfast cereals, buy in bulk, and attend to items that need marinating, fermenting, or otherwise needy preparations.
Clearly, I didn’t understand how Thailand eats.
Some of the goods offered in Chinatown.
What I couldn’t pack into those visions and fantasies of an exotic, young, retired life was the culture of eating here, which is frequent, casual, and public. Most folks do not store lots of groceries at home; the idea of having food on hand without a plan to consume the items within the day is foreign to many people living here. Why make soup at home, when a professional makes it cheaply right outside your door? Vendors occupy virtually every street corner, staking out territory for their mobile food stands built onto the frame of a motorbike or into the back of truck. The carts are specialized, selling fruit, or juice, or coffee, or noodles, or sausages, or rotis, or mango and sticky rice, or curry. Tiny, narrow restaurants cram themselves in right up against another ramshackle buildings, under awnings, and on sidewalks spilling out onto the streets. The portions are small, and many people will pack down two or three meals and another two or three snacks from such places each day. Eating food prepared roadside or in a small Thai restaurant is often the highlight of my day.
Customers crowd outside popular stands and take a stool off of a stack to eat at small tables that will be packed away and locked up or taken home by the cook when the day is done. Drinking water is self-serve out of water tanks and metal cups. Each table has a box of utensils with forks and spoons for rice dishes and chopsticks for noodle soups alongside a condiment caddy with hot chiles marinating in vinegar, crushed red pepper, black pepper, sugar, and fish sauce. I can order some items in Thai, but I still point and mime a great deal. Have you ever tried to mime “noodle-stuffed pepper?” I have, and I can assure you that it looks more ridiculous that you’d think it would. Luckily, the results are delicious.
Chiang Mai street food necessities: peppers marinating in soy sauce or vinegar and a cup of water.
I like this method, this pace of eating food and the publicness of a meal or snack out. It might be the best way to experience this place, to localize it. It’s hard to eat to the point of discomfort, and little pangs of hunger throughout the day are happy opportunities to try a new stand, eat a different treat, even if sometimes it’s just a new flavor of instant rice porridge from a 7-11. I can’t be the only person who has tried to “seize the day” at a brunch establishment in the states only to find myself completely incapacitated for a weekend afternoon, body too occupied with the large task of digestion to allow for any activity. This doesn’t happen so often anymore, mostly because restaurants with many courses and large meals are mostly for the farang or special occasions, even if they feature Thai food.
This stuff is actually kind of awesome. It does not taste of anise.
In the states, eating out is just as frequent as it is in Thailand, but it feels different. When I eat out in America, it’s generally because I’m too lazy to cook or take care of dishes or because Andy doesn’t want to eat brown rice and lentils again (I don’t take offense; I do delight in guilting others to eat things like boiled kale, after all). Sometimes eating out is a destination or entertainment, a quest for great pizza or sushi. There is a certain behavioral protocol about how much to order, how much to tip (everyone reading does at least 20%, right?), and how long you can stay. While I have potlucks with a few friends, most shared meals are at restaurants, where I tend to get overexcited and try to hide all the food in my tummy. While lovely, nutritious options exist (Wheatsville Co-op’s hot bar surely misses me by now), the vast majority of American restaurants center on the most-loved food groups: cheese, white starch, fat, meat, sugar and salt.
Chiang Mai street food near Warorot Market.
To be fair, plenty of Thai food is some variation of white rice, salty meat, and sugary sauces. It’s the way people eat that is healthier, not exactly the food itself. The portions are very small and the mostly unprocessed food is consumed in small amounts over the course of day. For every MSG bomb, there are two vegetable-centric curries and green mangos with spicy sauce. The food sold on the street is super fresh, very hot, and often made to order before your eyes. From a food safety standpoint, it’s probably fine, as turnover and temperatures are high. Fruit stands abound, and vendors selling freshly cut tropical goodies make it easy to up nutrition intake. This is especially important given that several minutes after eating some pomelo or guava slices, a tempting deep-fried treat or some asshole donut will saunter into focus and make you lose your sense for a moment. I’m fine with this. What’s the point of coming to another country if not to eat ALL the food? Even the bad-for-you bits?
I’m going to cut myself off and refrain from telling you everything that I eat on a daily basis, because no one wants to read a personal website all about what the writer ate. Today, I spare you from that fate. If you read this far, tell me…what is the ideal role of food in your life? Do you prefer eating one huge meal or snacking from sun-up to sun-down? Do you like cooking or buying cooked foods? Why?
Hi! I'm Susan, and this is my travel journal. You can read more about me here.
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