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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Home Cooking Option in the Countryside

In my weeks living in the Thai countryside, I've found that in order to survive, you make do with what is available.  Sit down restaurant meals are almost unheard of here, as I'm nearly 30 minutes from the nearest sizable town.  However, this doesn't mean that there are a lack of choices.  There are plenty of enterprising villagers who set up food carts selling what they make best. There is one caveat here and of course and that is as long as you like Thai food, you'll have plenty of choices. 

Since I happen to enjoy Thai food, it hasn't been a problem for me to quickly adapt to the tastes and smells of Thai food.  Having been brought up in an environment where American food, meshed well with Chinese food, I was already used to the most pungent types of condiments Chinese or Thai food had to offer.  One thing that I have learned is that many farmers have their roots in Issan, which is a region in the Northeastern part of Thailand. Many still enjoy putting anchovies or anchovy paste into their foods, whether the food is a meat or a vegetable dish.  Therefore, as I'm coming across dishes with this aroma, I can easily identify it as Issan.

In another aspect of food, enterprising villagers set up food carts or food stalls on the sides of roads and also in front of their homes.  Most food vendors are excellent here and since these vendors are serving food to their neighbors - this is a village after all - they wouldn't want to poison them.  Generally, I've found the hygiene to be acceptable at most places.  The kind of food you would find here is what you would find in Bangkok, only in a smaller subset. For example, grilled meatballs, hot dogs, chicken, pork are universally good and most are served with a sweet chili sauce glaze.  I've found carts that sell roti, which is basically a small ball of dough that that flattened out on a hot plate.  It could be made sweet or savory. Fillings could be egg, sweetened condensed milk or Nutella and an assortment of jams, just like your favorite creperie! One of my favorite foods here in the village are noodles. You will usually get a nice dark broth made with ox bones. Once I had a broth that was very dark and I suspect that it may have contained pig blood. In any case, the noodles offered here are thin white rice noodles, flat white noodles (see ew), clear mung bean noodles (woon sen) and thin yellow egg noodles.  All were good quality and very similar to the Chinese varieties you would find in New York. 

Finally, I might add that I did not find "pad thai" in the village, except in Bangkok street carts and in some restaurants.  I came across an interesting story that said that the origins of Pad Thai were Chinese and that sometime in the late 1940's there was a competition to create "genuine" Thai dishes during a spate of nationalism at the time.  Apparently, Chinese laborers ate and sold lot's of stir-fried noodles to the the local ethnic Chinese and Thais, so someone apparently, changed some of the ingredients, if I remember correctly, adding fish sauce, peanuts and sprouts to make it more "Thai".  I don't know the validity of this story, but maybe some of my readers can confirm this.

In addition to prepared food, I had also had the privilege to try all sorts of home cooking.  Let's say that the condiments that we buy here that are manufactured by huge conglomerates taste much different than the ones that are made locally.  For example, people here make their red curries, etc, by hand, grinding chilies, garlic and other ingredients using huge mortar and pestles.  They break it apart and sell it to others or keep in handy at home to make curries.  These curries, chili oils, etc, are kept for weeks without refrigeration.  They are very tasty as crushing food imparts a richer flavor. As for other condiments, they tend to used Thai versions of light and dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, cooking oil and chili sauces.

My favorite story is the day when my wife made a squid curry dish.  She had no idea that the curry she had purchased from a neighbor was extremely hot and liberally added the red curry paste to the frying pan. I took some bites and felt that it was hot, but nothing I couldn't manage.  I had three helpings that night.  At first I thought that burning lips weren't so bad, but later, I felt that my GI tract was completely on fire! I could barely get a wink of sleep that night, so I've learned my lesson. I am no Adam Richman from "Man vs. Food."

In another observation, I noticed that Thai food is actually very protein and starch heavy.  In the area of fruits and vegetables, fruit variety is definitely the winner, with so many choices ranging from mangos, to dragonfruit to mangosteen. I even had some fruit I've never had, like this plum that had a really thin skin.  I tried rambutan and durian. The durian wasn't as stinky as people say they are. Perhaps I got the newly genetically engineered variety?  Anyhow, it was surprisingly pleasant. As for vegetables, the closest I got to substantial vegetable eating was the kailan, which is a local broccoli.  Other veggie fillers are many different types of basil, morning glory and Thai eggplant, which is small and green in color.  When I get to Hong Kong, you can bet that I'll be ordering plates of choy sum!

Finally, for those of you who are bizarre food lovers, I was offered two grilled rats on a stick.  Since the rats are "field rats" they are supposedly okay to eat since they are vermin free. This is where I drew a line and didn't partake and surprisingly, none of the others around me seemed eager to try!  The interesting part of this is that it did smell really good as it was butterflied and marinate in soy.  I was tempted but didn't.  What a wimp!  In my second bizarre food episode, we had a thunderstorm which dumped a huge amount of rain on the village.  On the following day, all kinds of critters came out, including insects that feasted on rice, lizards, mini-iguana looking reptiles and various toads.  The villagers were having a field day. During nightfall, many went out in their motorcycles catching large toads and other animals that came out for water.  Many offered to sell us some for food. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to try any of these, but maybe in the future, I'll be brave enough to ask. 

In conclusion, many people here are enterprising and eat what is available to them. I almost forgot to mention that many people here make mango "fruit roll ups" dried in the sun and pick tamarind leafs right off of trees to season their food. This shows how close people are to their food - there are mango trees everywhere - and I am now learning that the fewer people there are between the source of your food and your mouth, the better tasting and presumably, healthier it is for you!

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