Thai Food

While my relationship with Esso remains strong and passionate, there is one area where I thought we would have more synergy. Before we had our own place, we were fantasizing about living and cooking together, and she talked about how much she would enjoy cooking Thai food for me. I imagined that my enjoyment of Thai food would meet her openness to new tastes, and we would be able to share most of our meals—a great benefit of living together, as well as a fundamental tool for cementing interpersonal chemistry.

Instead, our food preferences remain divergent. I had underestimated the complexity of “Thai food.” I have been learning that there are many kinds of Thai food.

Now, I’m just a beginner at this, so don’t rely on my report as definitive.

The style that Americans are familiar with, that gives rise to Thai restaurants in great numbers in California, is Central Thai. When I was in Bangkok, much of it was familiar.

Going to Phuket or Krabi puts us in the Southern region, which is spicier; but since we don’t go far off the tourist trail, it’s watered down for us farangs, so the difference is interesting, but not critical.

Here in Chiang Mai, we are in the North, where Lanna style is indigenous. Again, the spices are a bit different, I’d say more of the “warming” kind like cumin and turmeric, and maybe a bit less of the astringent (lemongrass, green chili). Certainly not threatening.

But Esso is from the Northeast, the Issan region. The style of food she is at home with is quite a bit different. Along with ferociously hot peppers, their favorite, defining flavoring agent is bhupaaraa, a sauce made from fermented fish , which to me makes an awful stench. Fish sauce is an important ingredient in all Thai food, as much as salt is in the West, but Issan-style fish sauce is orders of magnitude stinkier than Central Thai style.

Home cooking aside, Chiang Mai has plenty of outlets for all kinds of food. But I wasn’t prioritizing that when we were looking for housing. I figured, if we can run out to a nearby street and find something to eat, it will be good. But it’s not so simple.

For quick, local meals, Esso can run out to the main street, Thunghotel Road, and be back in 5 minutes with all manner of things she loves. There are many cheap fast-food carts, like the main street of any neighborhood here. Most specialize in one or two dishes: pork sausage on a stick, fried chicken, papaya salad, sticky rice. Noodles in pork broth, with blood. All things Esso can enjoy, but me, not so much. On those occasions, I have to prepare my own meals at home. So I make many trips to the supermarket for ingredients. That’s 10-15 minutes driving each way, plus parking in the garage, long walk to the store. Isn’t there an easier way to shop?

IMG_5709 shopping
Supermarket food

Yes, there is, and again, Esso found it. A bit further down the main street, away from the busy fast-food carts, vendors park their pickup trucks with farm-fresh produce. Esso finds fresh pineapple, watermelon, durian (which I don’t eat), bananas at ridiculously low prices.  Then, most days, one entrepreneur drives his portable grocery store right into our Soi, 50 meters from the house. Fruits, vegetables, fresh culinary herbs, even meat (usually pork, sometimes chicken and fish).  He’s only there for 30-40 minutes, but all the women in the soi know to come here then. Everything is very fresh and very cheap–a fraction of the supermarket price. I can’t imagine how he works it out, but it’s a great service.

When Esso prepares lunch at home, her favorite is green papaya salad (or green mango, fresh off our tree), drenched in Issan-style dressing, as I’ve already described. Other times, she will relent, and bring me a ripe mango, which I can enjoy. Then she makes cucumber salad the same way. I love cucumber salad, Japanese-style (sunomono) or German-style. I ask her, why don’t you just use the kind of fish sauce I can eat? I can adjust to the other spices (including lots of red chili).

Still waiting for that to happen.*

For dinner, she will cook stir-fried meat, flavored with chilis and either basil or other, more exotic (to me) herbs, with rice or rice noodles. Vegetables, no so much. This is not a good fit for me either; I need more vegetables in my diet, and my doctor warned me against high-glycemic white rice.

(above: Esso picking a mango from our tree, right outside our bedroom. She made salad and ate it green immediately)

I could (and do) cook, too; but that doesn’t solve the problem. I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Meanwhile, we eat out a lot.

This can be a very economical option. There is one lunch place nearby with a great menu, even available in English. Full lunch costs 30-40 Baht, about $1. Esso belittles their cooking as “not delicious much,” which I guess means not spicy or pungent enough to interest her. And because they are only open for lunch, in the midday heat I might want to go indoors to an air-conditioned seat, even if the food costs 2-3 times as much (as it invariably does).

So we often go farther afield. Ten to twenty minutes on the bike (or car) gives us lots of options.

Sometimes, we go out to try another kind of Thai food. This is usually fine. Local restaurants serve spicy, full-flavored food, but typically they hold back a little so customers can add their own seasonings to taste. Here is a typical set of table seasonings:

IMG_4755 condiments
Typical table condiments: red chili sauce, red chili powder, green chilis in fish sauce, red chilis in vinegar, sugar, white pepper

One day, invited by a friend of Esso’s, we went to a restaurant that specializes in Issan cuisine. Here’s the menu, thankfully translated into English:

Lab GaiNotice how many items appear twice, with only the one option being “cooked”? I didn’t dare ask if that meant that people are eating raw chicken, raw pork, etc. I didn’t ask about “cows veins”, either. I did ask about the Frog—frog legs are a somewhat familiar delicacy in parts of the U.S.—but I was advised that it’s mostly skin.

On another visit I made the mistake of experimenting with an order of roast lizard, another Issan indigenous food. The few flecks of meat were quite delicious—surprisingly, more like beef than chicken (or frog, or caiman, or even crocodile meat). But 90% of it was a tough, rubber-like skin, and bone. They eat that? Well, in a culture where chicken-feet soup is a favorite delicacy, they might. That helps explain why Esso and I have such deep differences in taste.

(Nearby Natwat Cafe has upscale Western-inspired cuisine)

More often, we go out for something non-Thai. We both love sushi, although I’m cautious about having it too often, so far inland. Pizza is an easy option, although Esso shies away from most other wheat and cheese products, and I’m not too thrilled by the nutritional profile, myself. We have to travel a bit farther for good Mexican food, something completely new to Esso. (She loves the green chili salsa, but rejects the beans).

I seek out Indian cuisine whenever possible. At first try, Esso couldn’t eat it; “too spicy” which makes no sense, on the surface, but our shared vocabulary for food flavors is very limited. Gradually, we found things on North Indian menus she can enjoy (notably Chicken Jalfrezi, which I had never seen before). South Indian might be even better, but I haven’t seen any around here. It uses spices more familiar to the Thai palate than the usual Masala-based curries.

Then, most important, there are things I cook at home that I hope Esso can adopt into her diet (and maybe her cooking). Scrambled eggs, sure—and she instantly became a genius at fixing them. French toast, a big NO, so I’m not even going to try waffles. She likes my garlic-and-tumeric spiced popcorn, more so than most of my California friends.

For dinner, I would normally make stir-fried veggies, but she’s selective about this. If I include meat, it’s usually okay (although I never have cooked meat at home much, before). Tofu is barely acceptable. Tempeh, my probiotic salvation, is an even bigger NO: “taste too strong.”

This makes me think that our tastes are governed by our gut bacteria. It’s the fermented, probiotic foods—her beloved fish sauce, my tempeh—that seem to arouse the strongest attachments. This is going to take years, not weeks, to work out.

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