I’ve Got A List Part 1
If there are any die-hard Gilbert and Sullivan fans out there today, you may understand a fervent unfulfilled wish I have. I would be in seventh heaven if I could be in London, sitting in the audience listening to D’oyly Carte perform. The question is, when the lights went down and the orchestra began the first bars of the overture, which comic opera would it be from? In alphabetical order, my three favorites are: The Gondoliers, Iolanthe, and The Mikado. Oh well, barring a rich benefactor out there, who on a whim is willing to play the part of Sawadee’s genie, I will have to continue listening to my CDs.
As I sit here now typing away, I am listening to the late (and great) John Reed, as Ko Ko, The Lord High Executioner sing about the “little list” he has of people whose heads he could put on the chopping block because they “never will be missed”.
“As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I've got a little list–I've got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed–who never would be missed!
There's the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs–
All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs–
All children who are up in dates, and floor you with 'em flat–
All persons who in shaking hands shake hands with you like _that_–
And all third persons who on spoiling tete-a-tetes insist–
They'd none of 'em be missed–they'd none of 'em be missed!”
I too my friends have a little list I would like to share with you today. No, not to worry, this is not an “enemies list”. This is not to say that there aren’t a few folks (just a few) whose demise I wouldn’t cry over, but that’s not germane to this list.
A few people are always asking me, “Sawadee, with all the kvetching you do about this or that thing you don’t like about Thailand, why the hell are you still there? Invariably I say that while there are indeed things that I most assuredly do not like about The Land of Smiles, there are still more things that I do like very much.
I never thought though to compile a list of what precisely I do like about living in Thailand.
Today dear readers I shall rectify this situation. Let me tell you just a few things that I like very much. This by no means is intended to be a definitive list. It will in fact be, just like all my other submissions, what happens to pop into my head. Undoubtedly as soon as I post this I will think of a dozen other things I wish I had mentioned…and one or two I wish I hadn’t! Oh well, what can I say? Old Sawadee’s memory is not what it used to be…in fact I should probably get started before I take another step towards senility.
To balance out my list of positives, I might as well go ahead and tell you things I’m negative about as well as those I have ambivalent feelings. This is as fortune has it, a good time to start this submission, because I am now teaching my young students to express what things they like, and what things they dislike. So, imagine the two pictures I use as teaching aids. One has a big “smiley face” on it. Written below are the words. “I like…”. The other picture has a big “frowny face” on it with the words. “I don’t like”. My lesson goes as follows. I have the two faces next to each other on an easel. I next hold up a picture of say, an ice cream cone, and ask, “Do you like ice cream”? The children then respond with, “Yes, I like ice cream”! I then hold up a picture of say, a ghost, and ask, “Do you like ghosts”? The usual response is “No, I don’t like ghosts”! I say usual, because there is often someone…usually a boy, who insists that he likes ghosts.
Okay, sorry about inserting an “educational component” into the story, but it’s just my pedagogic nature to “explain things”. So now without further ado, and in completely random order, here is my “little list”.
I like Thai fruit…or at least most Thai fruit. I absolutely love: mangoes, mangosteens, coconuts, pomelos, lychees, longan, rambutan, gooseberries, pineapples, tamarinds, pomegranates, marion plums, limes and strawberries. I like grapes, but these days those I see, especially the green seedless variety are very expensive. I know I’m forgetting some others. I like kiwi fruit, but I don’t know if they are grown here or imported. The same goes for apples.
Chestnuts are not really fruit, but I’ll include them here. Back in the U.S. it’s not easy to find chestnuts, and when you do they are expensive. Whenever I see someone roasting chestnuts in one of those enormous woks, chances are I’ll stop and buy some.
I don’t like durian (too stinky), or jack fruit (too sweet). Dragon fruit is supposed to be good for you, but I still don’t care for it.
I am ambivalent about guavas, or rose apples, which I think are pretty bland. I am not a big banana eater, unless we are talking about fried bananas, which I do like very much. The oranges here are okay for juicing, but are hit or miss when it comes to simply eating. It’s too bad the Thais don’t grow love avocados, but most of the time the ones I see here are not the tasty alligator pear variety, but the larger ones which in my humble opinion are watery and tasteless.
One of the nicest things about Thai fruit is that I can walk out to my backyard and pick so much of it. One of my little dreams before moving here was to be able to pick ripe coconuts from my very own trees. At the moment I have at two hundred coconuts growing happily away, so I can confidently put a big check mark in that box!
One thing that never fails to delight me is the fruit vendors you find around town. On a really hot day, what could be more refreshing any some freshly sliced fruit? I’ve gone totally Thai in that I always dip my fruit into the little bag of salt mixed sugar and ground chilies.
Well, since I’ve started off talking about food, I might as well continue along on that topic.
There is certainly no lack of vegetables here. With the exception of cauliflower and broccoli, I pretty much like them all. I do wish there was a greater variety of tomatoes, corn and potatoes, but I should consider myself fortunate that any of these grow in Thailand and are readily available.
I am amazed by the quality of the coffee here. I was never a coffee drinker before moving here, but I am one now, although generally I’m just a single cup a day kind of guy, and that’s always iced. Lampang is not a huge city, but almost everywhere you turn you will find a place that serves fresh espresso beverages. A few of these java joints could learn a thing or two about preparing coffee, such as storing the coffee beans out of the hot sun, and cleaning their machines regularly to remove oils that can turn rancid. Still, for 35 baht, I have no real complaints. There are several coffee shops I patronize regularly. My favorite is right across from my old school. Even though I’m not teaching there anymore, I still stop by several times a week. Not only is the coffee very good, but the shop is attractively decorated and has free high speed internet that I can use. A fair number of my submissions have been written there, while chatting with the proprietress. What a nice woman! She has a master’s degree, speaks perfect English, and has traveled extensively around the world. It is a pleasure to have a conversation with an intelligent Thai who knows a thing or two about the outside world.
My one coffee complaint has to do with the stuff that is invariably served at large work related gatherings. I’m sure many of you have sat through all day events where when break time rolls around you are handed an empty cup and a packet of instant coffee…the kind with sugar and powdered “non-dairy creamer” mixed in. Am I the only one who thinks that stuff is just plain nasty? The Thais don’t seem to mind it. Doesn’t anyone know how to make a big urn of plain old coffee? All in all this is a rather minor item to put into the “I don’t like” column.
As long as I am on the subject of beverages, one that I enjoy frequently is fresh squeezed orange juice. Some vendors pour your juice into a cap, others into a plastic bag. I’m not fussy, as long as there is plenty of ice…and no salt or sugar syrup! I know Thais enjoy this equivalent of Gatorade, but it’s simply not to my taste.
Soymilk is another popular Thai drink that I can gladly do without. Have you ever counted the number of varieties of soy milk on the supermarket shelf? I know that soymilk is very healthy, but I’ll pass nonetheless. Hell I’m not even much of a dairy milk drinker, except if you’re talking about Ovaltine. I’m happy to see that my childhood favorite is doing well in Thailand. My wife thinks it's “good for you” and makes Sam drink several boxes of it everyday.
Millions of people, including Thais drink Red Bull and many other “energy drinks”. Somehow the idea of drinking sugar syrup pumped up with a mega dose of caffeine doesn’t appeal to me. I wonder if Carabao really drinks the stuff he pitches? Oh, and did you know that Red Bull, which is a huge international brand, has its origin here in Thailand?
Another sugary beverage I will happily skip is one dear to the hearts of all Thai children. If you have never had the opportunity to quaff a tall glass of Hale’s Blue Boy, let me tell you aren’t missing much of a treat. This concoction comes in fluorescent colors so bright they might actually glow in the dark. I don’t know what they use to color this stuff, but I bet if you fed lab rats on it they would soon develop carcinogenic growths. The flavors are supposed to be that of various fruit, but the only fruit that comes to my mind is the poison apple the wicked queen gave to Snow White. Both my wife and Sam love it.
A somewhat less sweet drink I do occasionally enjoy is drinking yogurt. I don’t drink it very often, but if I am rushed to get out of the house in the morning and don’t have time for breakfast, I may stop off at 7 Eleven and pick up a small bottle. For a while I did boycott a certain Thai brand, which shall remain nameless. This was when the adulterated milk scandal was unfolding in China. This nameless company was supposedly linked to the unsavory practice of adding a toxic substance to their milk products. Nothing ever became of the accusations, and so I resumed consuming their yogurt.
If you’ve been here long enough, you probably have seen women on motorcycles selling tiny bottles of yogurt. They seem to be everywhere. It’s an interesting Thai phenomenon.
I recently wrote a story about alcoholic beverages in Thailand, but if you didn’t read I’m Not Mao, I’ll just mention that while I have nothing against Thai beer, I rarely drink it, simply because I don’t care much for lager.
One beverage I have never seen in Thailand, although I’m sure it exists somewhere is milkshakes. That’s a pity because once in a while a well-made milkshake hits the spot.
It’s funny that although it was my desire to learn how to cook Thai food that first brought me here, after six years my desire to Thai food has waned considerably. One reason is that I personally find the Thai flavor palette very limited, compared to Chinese or Indian food. A second reason is that I have found very few Thai restaurants here in Lampang that cook more than the same old things…and often not all that well.
Before I start getting enraged e-mail saying that I don’t know what I’m talking about, let me say that I know that there must be many hundreds…no make that thousands of Thai restaurants…who work culinary magic each and every day, and serve up the kind of delights food writers gush over. On the road to Buriram I can recall stopping a number of times at a tiny shack that made the best Tom Yom Kung I’ve ever had. I’m sure that many of you know of places where grandma is cooking up a storm. I’m still waiting to find these kinds of places here in my hometown. Unfortunately what I find again and again are noodle shops slinging what I refer to as “dish water soup”. Perhaps, just perhaps a chicken was quickly dunked into the pot, but only for a moment. A good chicken broth is not that difficult to make. People all over the world do it everyday, and use it in ways unique to every country. Still it takes time…a good four or five hours to make a respectable broth. I know that somewhere in Thailand a nameless cook is preparing some right at this moment, and doing it the right way. Perhaps some day I’ll find where that sainted cook is simmering her soup.
If you look at an illustrated “coffee table” Thai cookbook you will find pictures of beautifully presented dishes. In my experience, except at a top restaurant, you might very well wonder if you are actually in the same country that your cookbook portrayed. I will be the first to admit that you can find many such a fragrant oasis, if you are in Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya or Chiang Mai. Here you might feast on freshly prepared curries and plates garnished with fruits or vegetables carved into the shape of a flower. Needless to say all the ingredients will be the freshest available. All this picture perfect presentation will of course cost you more than what the average Thai is willing to pay.
If you eat at a restaurant where my frugal wife might take me, you are likely to find curry that has sat out un-refrigerated since 6:00 AM. The vegetables were probably chopped on the same cutting board where a few raw chickens were chopped up on. If you are especially lucky, the cook may have possibly rinsed off the cutting board in a tub of cold, none too clean dishwater, and if you are doubly lucky, may have used a squirt of soap…but don’t count on it! If you are triply lucky, your eating utensils were not thrown into the same tub. Oh, and if you have a fairy god mother looking down and protecting you, the cook might have used soap to clean her hands after using the toilet. My wife doesn’t take any chances at a place like this. She always brings along some paper towels to wipe off her fork, spoon and chopsticks. She also “splurges” and buys a bottle of drinking water with a straw, so that she doesn’t have to drink out of a dirty glass.
Your best bet when eating at a restaurant like this is to order something stir fried. Hopefully the heat will kill any nasty bacteria before they kill you! If you think I am being over dramatic, l recall a few years ago how the father of our poo-yai-bahn died after eating tainted pork soup at a neighborhood eatery.
My wife, like many Thais, buys prepared take-out food from a nearby market. She also is constantly running for the toilet not long after eating dinner. Why she continues to eat this stuff is beyond me. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in this regard. I rarely have had any intestinal upsets, although the few times I have were quite spectacular. Flashback almost twelve years, to Sawadee’s honeymoon in Chiang Mai. My wife and I had both eaten a bowl of a type of soup that’s popular in the north of Thailand. It wasn’t long before we were both desperately looking for a toilet. Wow, talk about being toxic! <Ah, you missed that episode at a certain Mexican restaurant in Bangkok that was absolutely spectacular. I have NEVER seen anyone else throw up like that! – Stick>
So, Sawadee, what Thai foods do you like? Well, to begin with just about anything cooked over charcoal sounds fine to me. Gai Yang, when it’s done right is a deceptively simple grilled chicken that I never get tired of. Many times for breakfast I’ll grab some skewers of grilled pork. Both go well with sticky rice, which is my preferred kind of Thai rice. Kao Tom or rice porridge is another simple dish I can get quite often. Of course there is always the ubiquitous Som Tam, which I do enjoy…provided the person making it leaves out a few ingredients. I simply cannot stand Nam Pla, or fermented fish sauce. It is my personal taste preference to be sure, because every Thai I know loves it and puts it seemingly on or in everything. I can also do without the tiny dried shrimp and crabs that some cooks put into their Som Tam. As for chilies, I can take as many as any Thai can, provided that there is some rice to cut the heat. I like Thai noodles of all kind, again sans nam pla. I like all kinds of stir fried dishes such as pork or chicken with basil.
I absolutely adore roast duck, which often takes me to MK. Thais love to go there for the “suki” as they call the cook at your own table hot pots. I enjoy it also because you can order only the ingredients you like to customize your dish. I think the service there is outstanding. The “MK girls” are super efficient. It’s nice never to run out of iced tea. I don’t know what kind of tea they use, but it really hits the spot.
Speaking of good service, one can hardly say places like KFC, McDonalds and the like serve “Thai food”. Hell, some people would argue against using the term food itself when referring to what they serve. I occasionally get something from KFC, just because it’s convenient. There is no McDonalds in Lampang, so my visits there are only once in a while when I visit Chiang Mai. At either restaurant I am always impressed with the fast efficient service, and the fact that the people working there seem to be in a good mood and are smiling. Back in Farangland, half the time you go into one of these places you get piss poor service and the staff is often unfriendly. Of course back in Farangland working at a fast food restaurant is not looked at as anything you would do unless you were unable to find any other kind of employment. In Thailand these are considered good jobs. It’s not always easy for young Thais to get any kind of job, so if they are hired by “The Colonel”, they know they need to do a good job. Also working at a fast food restaurant is considered to be, and rightly so, honorable employment. I can’t speak about what it’s like in Bangkok, here in Lampang, if I bring Sam to Swensons or DQ, I know we will be treated well.
As far as Thai fast food is concerned, there a number of things I like, including what they call here Japanese crepes. When I was working at my old school there was a very nice woman outside the gate who had a thriving crepe business, and I was a good customer who always received a big smile. For 10 baht, you can’t go wrong with one of these. I may have to pay a visit one of these days. I don’t eat them very often, but sometimes I can go for a steamed bun filled with sweet bean filling. One nice thing about Thailand is that you can find sweet corn all year round. An ear or two of steamed corn makes a nice snack. Even better although I don’t see it often enough is grilled corn. You can’t be in Thailand for long without seeing a kiosk with someone selling 5 Star Chicken. I will sometimes stop and by a piece or two to bring home with me.
For the most part I can definitely skip Thai baked goods. They look good, but are of poor quality ingredient wise as far as I’m concerned. The most commonly used type of shortening is frankly better suited to pack ball bearings than to make a cake. The most commonly used oil is palm oil, which must be the single least healthy vegetable oil on the planet. There are of course exceptions. In Chiang Mai you can find decent bread at a number of places such as Carre Four, and Jo’s Bakery, which is run by an affable German, is a good place to go for European style rye and pumpernickel. I’m sure there are quality cakes and pastries as well, but I’ve never looked hard enough to find any, and if truth be told, I shouldn’t be eating any to begin with. I know there are places to find delicious baked goods in Bangkok and Pattaya, but since I’m hardly ever in either of those places, they don’t figure into my story.
Speaking of poor quality ingredients, is there anyone out there who actually likes Thai chocolate? Whenever anyone offers me anything containing it, I always politely decline.
Thais make a huge variety of khanom, and I’m a fan of many of them. They’re pretty sugary though, so I can’t indulge myself very often.
Right at the top of Thai snacks that I enjoy are steamed peanuts. Since they are actually a healthy food, I don’t feel guilty eating them. There are other healthy snacks that unfortunately are not to my taste. I see children happily munching away on sheets of seaweed, but am never tempted to join them. I feel the same way about the dried fish they all love to snack on.
Well I think I’ve said enough about my likes and dislikes regarding Thai food, except to repeat once more for the record, that these are strictly my opinions based on my personal preferences. If your preferences are markedly different from mine, who am I to argue with you? If the mere thought of nam pla gets you salivating, my only comment is, I’m happy you enjoy it so. When it comes to matters of taste, let’s just degree to disagree, okay?
When I think of the things I like about living in Thailand, for sure the availability of food and the way you can eat out all the time is a real bonus.