The only time I have been in Thailand with my husband was during monsoon. With him there I had the urge to try restaurants all over town, but as we discovered if you’re in Bangkok during the rainy season, well you might as well forget it. I have never in my life heard or felt rain as heavy, as loud and lasting as long as this. The thunder is frighteningly loud, making me sit up in bed with my heart racing, just to make sure the house is still there. One night we planned to go all the way across town to a restaurant on Sukhumvit Road, and what a disaster it was. From where we live off Charan Sanitwong Road, we got as far as Sanam Luang, and got drenched as there was not a free taxi, or any means of transport in sight. The tuk tuk we hailed kicked us out into the rain after a minute, refusing to take us to Sukhumvit because of the traffic caused by the downpour, and so we stood hailing cabs for half an hour before finally finding an available taxi to drive us back home. It was after 10pm by this stage and we hadn’t eaten. Ba Dang and Ba Lum had cleared the evening meal away, turned off the gas and tidied the kitchen for the night, and we turned up hungry and soaked to the bone. What do you feel like, they asked us. In less than 15 minutes there was a feast in front of us of about five different dishes. How do they do that, my husband asked. He was genuinely impressed and somewhat stunned by their efficiency.
Our meals usually combine home cooked dishes and food bought from the streets. The same types of foods are eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One morning aside from eating several mangoes, my aunt made me a prawn tom yum soup for breakfast which I had with rice. I remember once being given a huge dish of crab for breakfast, an amount that I would serve to several guests at a dinner party, but this was just for me.
There are no special occasions where food is concerned. Whether cooking for a ceremony or a family meal on a normal day, nothing is out of place, too fancy or too expensive. The only difference being that on a special occasion, one is likely to find a sauce that is particularly time consuming to make, and therefore not eaten on a daily basis. Another feature of cooking in our home is that it is a rather vocal affair, involving lots of yelling, insisting that the other person is doing it wrong, being indignant that you have got it right, and stealing food off another’s plate! Now I know why I’m such a control freak in the kitchen! The uniformity of standards in Thai cooking means it’s good wherever you go, as there’s a certain way of doing things, in other words, the right way, and it’s not considered bad form to ‘intervene’. It is also normal to openly critique food, and you will often hear people giving a little commentary about the food as they eat. Each person present has their own little monologue going, mostly consisting of one syllable words describing the food. My Mum’s is hilarious, and we mimic her as she sits there like a squirrel sampling nuts – ‘mm, breeaow…mmm, waan’ (ew, sour… ah, sweet). ‘mmm, aloi…mm, mai aloi’ (mmm, good…ew, yuk)! Then two people invariably argue about whether or not it is salty enough. This bit can get quite intense!
My aunts at home: my mother’s sisters Ba Dang and Ba Lum harvesting bananas, and my Uncle’s wife Ba Nui (wearing a traditional Thai hat and bearing sweets) with my cousin Geaow (his nickname, meaning nine, as he was born on 9/9/99)
As I sit writing this late at night, in a cosy Oxfordshire village, I’m dreaming of all the comforts of a Thai kitchen, and thinking how lucky I’ve been to have had the influence of several cultures. This used to make me feel terribly isolated, and the pangs of homesickness for Thailand and NZ would be exacerbated by living in England, and wondering how I will ever bring these worlds together. It has taken years of feeling like this to realise that I was not given these gifts in order to make my life difficult or impossible, au contraire! I used to think my life was like a tropical fish tank – full of exotic yet disparate things that were not in any way connected. I looked at friends whose families and networks seemed so close and so rich, extending evermore outwards, like the ecosystem of a coral reef. Now I see that I am building my own coral reef, and not just any, but a Great Barrier Reef – a network so rich and covering so great an expanse that it can be seen from space, as it nourishes and gives life to so many. Being grateful for the cultures that I am part of, and sharing my experiences makes my world feel just a little more connected and closer.