The first memory I have of eating Thai food occurred when I was a 18-year-old freshman in college. My best friend from high school, Becca (hi Becca!) came to visit me for my birthday and we went out to dinner at the Thai restaurant in Shadyside. (For those of you who are curious, it's where Shady Grove now lives.) Becca and I were adventurous eaters. When our peers were spending their babysitting money on whatever stupid shit they spent their money on, Becca and I were taking ourselves out to dinner at nice restaurants in Philadelphia, trying to see whether the waiters would serve us the wine we ordered, sheepishly, with our dinners (sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't). Many of my earliest and best food memories occurred with Becca in high school, not least because my behavior during these early restaurant forays caused Becca to giggle endlessly, and endless giggling is always one of my main goals in life.
I digress. So we're at this Thai restaurant in Pittsburgh, and we KNOW that we're adventurous eaters, Becca and me. We order something like a glass noodle salad, and the waiter asks us, on a scale of 1-10, how spicy we'd like it to be. "Nine," Becca says, with confidence. It's a bold choice, and we both know it, but we're bold 18-year-olds who have been served wine in some of Philadelphia's nicest restaurants. We can handle a nine from a Thai restaurant in Pittsburgh. Of course we can.
Of course, we are wrong. Terribly, mouth-wateringly, eyes-tearing, gulps-and-gulps-of-water-can't-cure-this WRONG. We realize that the source of the spice is mixed in with the glass noodles, and we avoid them, fishing around instead for the green papaya and the pieces of shrimp. It doesn't phase us, this spicy food disaster, and I remember our meal as amusing and fun, and that I made Becca laugh about something or other.
Fast forward 11 years (holy crap, Becca, did you realize that was 11 years ago?!) and I am actually in Thailand, eating actual Thai food. Since I first self-aggrandized myself as an adventurous eater, I have not slowed in my pursuit of interesting food. And yet, as we were preparing ourselves for this trip, even as I was writing that earlier post about Julie's food experiences in Barcelona, I was a bit nervous. I vividly recalled that Pittsburgh Thai food experience, and it was something I hadn't thought about in, um, 11 years.
So let me tell you a little bit about the Thai food we've encountered: it is, in a word, amazing. All of it. Excecpt maybe the Nescafe they serve you instead of the much-coveted Thai coffee. But other than that, it's amazing. There are spring rolls (better than spring rolls at home, though their contents are just as unidentifiable), soups (spicy-sweet Tom Yum soup meant to be eaten with rice, as well as noodle-based soup-like meals), rice dishes (pineapple fried rice is even BETTER here), many many wonderful noodle dishes (pad thai, fried noodles, wide and flat rice noodles), curries, yams (salads), and other things that I either can't pronounce or haven't yet tasted. There's lots of fish (fresh, delicious fish), lots of cilantro (I'm dealing with this), and every single thing we eat seems to have lemon grass and basil in it, which is okay by me, because I love lemon grass and basil. There is also plenty of beef and chicken and pork, and so far, we have not contracted the bird flu from eating the chicken. Thank god for that, right?
Every single day I think to myself, "I am going to get sick of this food and want something American." But then we sit down at a rickety table surrounded by rickety chairs, and I page through the menu, past the items aimed at tourists (ham and cheese sandwich), and order another plate of noodles. Another plate of spicy, slippery, hot, and delightful noodles. See, I JUST finished breakfast and thinking about those noodles is making me hungry. Which is okay, because if I'd wanted to, I could have eaten those noodles FOR breakfast. Genius!
Most dishes come with slices of cucumber on the side of the plate, and a wee little piece of kaffir lime (the lime that might even rival key limes in flavor and deliciousness). You also get a condiment basket that's got sugar and salt, white pepper, vinegar, and a little container holding spicy chilis floating in fish sauce. There's also this bizarre little container of "napkins" which are actually just tissues. And tourists must be very dirty, for we are the only people who use them. For those of you who are worried about my consumption of raw vegetables, I can neither confirm nor deny whether I ate those slices of cucumber.
Contrary to popular opinion, Thai food is NOT eaten with chopsticks. Duh, Thai are not Chinese! So we eat with a spoon and a fork. Rather, we SHOVEL with a spoon and a fork, because the food is that good. After a week here, we've concluded that you're supposed to languish over a meal. We have come to this conclusion because this is the way the meal ordinarily transpires: we order food, a TON of food, and it comes out whenever it comes out, and we eat it (if you're us, you eat it rudely and quickly, through happy sounds of "mmmm" and "you HAVE to try this!"), and then the people who served you the food leave you alone. They're not in a rush, and they don't seem to think you should be in a rush either. When I think about it like this, I LIKE that they leave you alone, though for the first few days, it was unsettling not to see the smiling face of the server at my side every 10 mintes, asking me if I'd like anything else, refilling my water glass, urging me towards dessert I don't really want. The servers here seem to assume that if you want something else, you'll ask for it, and that you were clever enough to order enough food in the first go-round.
A word on the beer: there are three main kinds of beer here that we've seen so far, Singha (prounounced Singh), Chang (the highest alcohol content at 6.7%) and Archa. They are served in small, normal-sized bottles, or large, fantastic bottles. A large, fantastic bottle is about $3 if you time it right, and it's so economical to spend $3 on a large beer, that we do. Every day. Every day for a week, at least. There's a whisky that we haven't yet tried called Meh Kong, and our funny little bartender at the Funky Fish told us that it was too strong for him, which makes me hesitant to try it. But who am I kidding? Of COURSE I'll try it.
We haven't had proper dessert since we've been here, but I've been eating my weight in bananas, pineapple, coconut, and watermelon. The fruit alone is worth the 31-hour plane ride. I'm so not even kidding about that. Proper dessert is on the list of things to do in Bangkok.
The entire meal, from large beers down to artfully carved pineapple, comes to a whopping $10. Which means we are spending too much on food. But we can't help it because there's so much to try.
Oh, and in case you're wondering, I did have one more of those mouth-watering, eyes-bulging, what the HELL happened to that chili pepper? moment. It happened on Christmas Eve and the offensive chili was floating around in some curry that we'd ordered. I saw that it was there, noted that it was a huge chili, and bravely thought, "I'm an adventurous eater, I can handle that! I'm in Thailand! With real Thai food!" I was abruptly brought back to that moment in Pittsburgh, when, sputtering, I reached for any liquid within reach. Finding nothing to stop my tongue from falling off right there in my mouth, I quickly shoveled another mouthful of rice onto my tongue and held it there, all while making a face at Matt for laughing at me. "Ahhh," I sighed, when the burn finally subsided, "that was the hottest chili EVER!" And then, because I am a glutton for adventure, "can you spoon some of that sauce onto this rice?"
** The title of this post, "Clean Food, Good Taste" refers to the signs you see, EVERYWHERE, advertising resturants, both proper and impromptu. The title is for Eric, because I'm hoping that the reference made him smile.