I have resisted writing about food on this blog. Does the cyber-world really need another person taking wanderlusty pictures of their lunch and writing 500 words about it (view our gratuitous Bangkok street food gallery here)? In Thailand, however, food is more than a gateway to culture: it is culture. Literally translated, the Thai equivalent to asking how are you, ‘kin khao reu yang,’ means ‘have you eaten rice yet?’ If the responder answers ‘not yet,’ the two passers by will likely end up grabbing a bite together before parting ways.
We have come to Bangkok for a week with exactly two goals: see the Reclining Buddha and eat whatever the Thai’s are cooking up on the street. Both are transcendent experiences and I am not sure which has me more mesmerized: contemplating the spiraling mother of pearl toe prints inlayed into the soles of the gentle giant’s feet, or the coils of rice noodles suspended in the perfectly balanced broth that fills my bowl. Does this enormous golden Siddhartha hitch up his voluminous robes in the evenings and wade out across the river to the nearest night market for fresh mussel omelets and duck soup? Do his lips tingle, as mine do, with prik nam pla (chili fish sauce) and fresh Thai basil? This would explain the perpetual contentedness clearly visible in the corners of his smile.
At the center of the Thai table is the puang prik, an interactive caddy filled with an assortment of condiments designed to allow the eater to season their food to personal taste. Together chef and diner collaborate to create a symbiotic harmony between salty, spicy, bitter and sweet. Dishes like som tam (spicy green papaya salad) are mixed in a large mortar and pestle; the eater may select how many Bird’s Eye chilies they can tolerate and the chef will balance the acid and sugar levels accordingly. The Bangkok grandmother who makes my favorite version of the dish walked me through her process, winking at me as she dropped a small black paddy crab into the pungent, citrusy dressing and crushed it under her mortar.
Thais are conscientious hosts, scrupulous eaters and polite dinner companions. All food is shared and it is considered bad manners to move more than your next bite or two from a communal dish onto your plate. Utensils in hand, I observe how my Bangkokian tutors use their forks to carefully assemble their next mouthfuls on their spoons. Food is consumed more slowly this way. Each bite is consciously constructed. Smaller portions are more satisfying because nothing is swallowed mindlessly. There is breathing room between bites for conversation and laughter to bubble up and flow. Everyone has enough.
Not such a bad model for life on the whole, I reflect, dropping bean sprouts into the steaming bowl of soup before me. Strive for harmony. Take only what you need. Make sure the needs of others are met. Take time to taste each spoonful.
Kin khao reu yang?