The Isaan Diet
I grew up a skinny, string bean of a kid. But when I reached forty my father’s genes kicked in and my waistband size followed my age rather closely. Lawyers tell me I can’t sue the old man for playing this dirty trick on me – especially since he had the temerity to die several years ago. Even when I came to Thailand as an ESL teacher and started to sweat buckets each day I managed to only lose a few pounds of water weight. But here in Thailand they view embonpoint not as some kind of leprosy but rather as a laughable human foible. It is not only tolerated but sometimes even admired as proof of prosperity. I knew my students called me “Mr. Pig” or “Mr. Giant” behind my back at school, but I didn’t mind; I could sense they meant it with affection more than spite. Besides, teachers world-wide are given nicknames by their long-suffering students, whether it’s “Skinny”, “Stinky”, “Lard Pants” or “Death Breath” (that last one is a direct reference to my fifth grade teacher, who was fond of garlic baloney sandwiches slathered with something akin to Limburger cheese for lunch; one puff from him would make my young eyes water and send me reeling to the nearest window for potable atmosphere.)
So if you’re a fat English teacher in Thailand you really have nothing to worry about.
On the other hand, if you have a Thai fiancé your troubles are just beginning . . .
Oh, when we first met she assured me that she loved a jolly fat man. Her favorite farang was Santa Claus. Joom and I quickly settled into a cozy relationship where she did all the cooking and I did most of the eating. Like all couples we bickered over the grocery bill from time to time, until I realized that if I let her cook just the meals she loved best, meals from Northeast Thailand – Isaan – we really would save a bundle.
And, by golly, I started to lose some more weight!
So I hereby offer my Isaan Diet Plan to the chubby masses yearning for svelteness. You can expect to see the book flying off the shelves at Barnes & Noble in a few weeks, and my agent is setting up an appearance on Oprah even as I write this. Please, no autograph requests!
· Somtum. This is green papaya salad, pounded in a mortar with a pestle and can include dried shrimp, peanuts, limes, and even a whole crab (I’m not sure it’s dead when it first goes in the mortar; a true Isaaner can spit out the bits of shell like watermelon seeds). Isaan folk don’t consider this dish any good unless it contains so many chilies that a blowtorch would seem like an ice cube. You eat it with sticky rice. Of course, you eat everything with sticky rice. I’m not supposed to eat anything else starchy like potatoes or bread, but when Joom goes home to visit her mother I sneak out at night and have illicit relations with croissants!
· Fried dried squid. Why Joom considers this seashore delicacy an Isaan specialty I’ll never know. Last I heard Khorat is some miles distant from salt water. Be that as it may; it is both chewy and pungent and goes well with . . . surprise! . . . sticky rice. It keeps well, too – so Joom can fry up a mess and we can pack it as a picnic lunch when we go to the beach. If you didn’t have braces as a child I would strongly advise you to keep a container of toothpicks handy – the squid meat likes to lodge between the tiniest crannies of your teeth and you’ll go crazy trying to pick it out with your fingernail. Besides looking like a lout to any Thai who happens to see you.
· Laab. This is a minced pork or beef dish, thickened with roasted rice powder, with liberal amounts of raw onion, mint leaves, and garlic. I know there is some offal in it as well, although Joom will not admit it. She chops it up so fine that I usually don’t find any evidence. But anyone who’s ever eaten Mexican menudo or tripe will recognize that rubbery, slippery texture, and Joom’s laab has some of that. Some Isaaners eat it raw, but I don’t advise that unless you want to be able to cough up your own worms when you go fishing.
· You’ve probably heard a lot of nonsense about eating bugs. Joom tells me her family never ate ‘em, no matter how hungry they were. You’ll notice that most of the customers at the fried bug stall in the market are farangs. I personally think it’s a national scam and that the Thais are laughing their heads off at us bug-eaters behind our backs.
· Fresh veggies. The first thing Joom did when she had her own place to live was plant edible bamboo, Thai eggplant, cilantro, mint, basil, and some weird gourds and melons that grow over the fence like morning glory back home. The bugs won’t let us keep any tomatoes or cukes, we have to buy those. Isaaners can make a meal of just sticky rice and a bowl of freshly picked vegetables. They don’t believe in chopping things up and then adding croutons, boiled eggs, olives, and salad dressing. Just wash it and eat it, and never mind the few grubs you might encounter on the way.
There are a lot more dishes, of course, but you’ll notice a conspicuous lack of coconut milk, salt and sugar in all of them. Joom is certain that my weight drop is attributable to her cooking, and for once I’m inclined to agree with her. You can’t argue with having to have your pants taken in.