Culture

A formative food experience

My Koh Tao sunset, March 2011

My Koh Tao sunset, March 2011

The question I am most often asked by friends is ‘Are you eating again?  In an attempt to explain this, Thai people just eat all the time. My family are no exception, in fact on a six hour bus journey from Phitsanulok to Udon Thani, my aunt nearly missed the bus during a comfort stop while buying crunchy unripe mango to add to our growing collection of snacks. As the bus started reversing I had to plead with the driver for time to search for her, and it wasn’t hard to guess where she might be. She climbed on board and crashed front ways onto our seat, swinging plastic bags full of goodies from her arms. The best part was her cackle, a unique squeaky laugh that sounds a bit like popping space candy, which she produces when she gets excited, (usually due to acquiring money or food), and then she said ‘khon gaa mai bpen rai’ (‘it doesn’t matter, I’m old!’).

This was a particularly beautiful journey for me. We had just finished a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat, my first and her twenty-somethingth, and after 100 hours of meditation I was feeling a little nervous about my reintroduction to the outside world. I hadn’t spoken to another human being in 10 days, and unlike the rest of the participants who rushed to share their experiences and chat with the people they had gotten to know by sight only, I had no desire to begin talking again, I just felt hassled at the thought of it. Too much effort.  I knew I had to make an effort, it just felt like an assault.  My nerves were calmed by snacks, and now I realise why Thai people are so easy going –they never have to look very far for food.  They never have to worry that they won’t a) find food, b) be able to afford it, c) that it won’t taste good, or d) if they don’t make up their mind in a timely manner they will miss out on something they want, need, or can’t live without. This is because there is always more further along or just around the corner. If this wasn’t enough, in Thailand the food comes to you.

Later on the same bus journey, a couple of vendors boarded the bus.  Squeezing through the aisle, flaunting seemingly modest fare such as peanuts in the shell and something in a bamboo stick, my aunt was already yelling her order and rummaging for change. It took me a moment to realise that I had already had numerous food surprises today where something humble turned out to be heaven in an environmentally problematic plastic bag. Yes, I want peanuts, and yes, we will take one each of the stick things. Turns out I nearly missed out on sweet black sticky rice roasted in a bamboo stick. Idiot! And the peanuts? Well, they were no ordinary peanuts. They were boiled young peanuts, yes, glistening nubile nodules of salty delight. Break open the shell to find a texture so soft and delicate, like edamame but the colour a transparent shimmery lilac pink. Foodgasm!!! We cleaned out the whole bag in about ten minutes. That was after regrettably only buying two sticky rice canes that did not last long. I’m still dreaming of excuses to go back to Thailand, and track down this vendor.  As snack food goes it is genius. You crack open the warm cane, soft enough to break with your fingertips, but sturdy enough to heat and transport and shelter the contents. Once open, the rice appears in a kind of sausage-skin like casing, the inside paper-thin layer of the cane, which serves both to keep your fingers clean while eating it, and to provide a satisfying crack on biting into it. During that six hour bus ride, in addition to the crunchy mango, peanuts, and sticky rice, I ate a mountain of fresh tamarind (at 6.30 that morning we left the retreat on a motorbike taxi each, my aunt whizzing ahead managed to stop and buy a huge bag of shelled tamarind, the first of the day’s acquisitions), more fresh fruit, pineapple, watermelon, and a bag of salty chips, while my aunt also ate some MSG-on-a-stick porkballs, and a bag of very sweet, syrupy, gingko nuts.

Feeling like a princess from an ancient time, showered with delights beyond anything I could imagine, I just didn’t have any of the stress related to obtaining food that I feel here in the UK.  And I started to feel good, in a way that I’d pretty much forgotten.  And my, how some of the simplest things are the best.

In Thailand most people are in work, children receive a good standard of education, and there is little homelessness.  Good food is integral to daily life. Hospital food is great.  If visiting a relative in hospital the cafeteria food is great (every kind of noodle dish, fish, meat or seafood including crab, oysters, shrimp, delicious sweets, fresh fruit, juices), university cafeterias boasting similar fare. It’s not hard to see why Thai society remains so cheerful and entrepreneurial, and just downright functional. Everybody eats, and can eat whatever they want. What this must do to the general mood of the population, the nutrition levels, and productivity in the workplace, is something I wish we could emulate in the West.

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