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From the Land of Smiles
Benjamin Malcolm

The Gastronomy Of Thailand:
Not For The Narrow Wasted


There are of course challenges to living in Thailand -- the random cultural misunderstandings, the hordes of insects, the heat, and the need to keep a calm heart amid stressful situations. But perhaps the greatest of them all is … the food.

It has nothing do with taste or edibility -- good God, it’s all delicious -- it’s a weight thing. I’m finding it more and more difficult to maintain any semblance of a diet in this country. In fact, I’m losing this war of poundage every day.

There are just too many temptations out there, hooking their spicy and sweet and sour claws into my waistline, yanking it ever further outward as I move into my middle years. Now, to add insult to injury, my forays into the world of exercise are becoming more and more sporadic. It was one thing to eat well and play hard. Take away the play hard, and you’re sounding the death-knell in this land of lemon grass, coconut curry, and chili sauce. In some ways, it’s an enviable way to go.

Food is a beloved institution in Thailand. I am surrounded every day by what I could overpay for anywhere else in the world, and I can get it for at least half the price at the same or better quality, usually at any time of the day. Thais, to put it simply, love to eat. It is one of their favorite ways to get together and spend some quality time. It is also, unfortunately, one of mine.

Now granted, there are a few differences between the Thai food I consumed in the States and what comes on my plate here. Fish comes with everything still on it (I actually eat fish cheeks), and the chicken dishes usually have lots of crunchy calcium-rich bone for you to ingest (boneless chicken has yet to make a big appearance here). Also, a few of the soups can be intestine-heavy unless you specifically request the "without intestines" option. But, by and large, the food is what we all know and love as Thai food, but in more abundance and variety.

The great art of Thai cooking is such that every sensory button of your taste anatomy is being pushed into overdrive. Thai food is the everlasting gobstopper of cuisine – sending you through an orgiastic carnival ride through the worlds of spicy, sweet, sour, and salty. And what the Thais don’t make up themselves, they borrow from the rest of Asia – adapting curries from India, noodle dishes from China, and peanut-sauced satays from Indonesia into a great hodgepodge of dishes. This is the reason that Thai food keeps appearing on "best of" lists every year and why my own shape is beginning to resemble baseball slugger Mo Vaughn’s.

Add to all this bounty the freedom to augment as you please: what is good food, after all, if it doesn’t give the individual some consumption quality control? At most tables in Thailand, specifically for the noodle dishes, there are small bowls of seasonings -- chilies in fish sauce, chilies in vinegar, sugar, peanuts, and dried chilies, giving you the option to sweeten, sour, or spice dishes to your heart’s content. This mixing is a timeless art.

When I first came to Thailand, I thought it was a big deal when I ordered something other than Paht Thai. I thought I was being original by ordering chicken or shrimp with cashews, and an occasional sweet and sour dish to "push" the envelope. Now these are the dishes I order if I can’t think of anything else. There’s just too much else out there.

And experiment I do.

In the south, where I used to live, some of my favorites were Kanome Jeen (Chinese noodles) with sweet green curry sauce, the thick-sauce beef Mussamun curry, and Kao Yum (herbs and spices mixed with rice). Here in the north, one of my favorite dishes is Khao Soy, a coconut curry dish with noodles, in which you can dump a plateful of fresh-cut shallots, lime juice, and pickled cabbage. Anything with coconut milk is the gastronomical equivalent of the smoker’s "coffin nail" for the cholesterol-challenged. I, of course, crave coconut milk curries.

My other experimentations seem to veer toward South Asia. Indian food is so intensely good in Thailand that when I go to Bangkok, I always seem to find myself gliding toward these establishments and diving wholesale into the mint chutneys, garlic nans, and chicken vindaloos.

The Thais also love to snack, to fill in those long hours between meals. And even if you manage to avoid the generally unappealing bags of chips and other bland grocery store items (which is easy to do) you have to contend with the alluring sight of freshly prepared, usually fried, snacks being served up on every street corner. Among these are fried bananas, sweet potatoes, tofu, and tarot root with black beans. The Portuguese introduced sugar and egg mixes to the culture eons ago and now these are everywhere too. Another favorite of mine are Chinese donuts, which seem to appear in the early morning and around suppertime. They’re butterfly-shaped globs of dough cooked in copious oil. These tasty little pieces of evil are specifically designed to push your body frame into the abyss of Homer Simpson.

And to wash all this down with are … high-caloric Thai iced teas and coffees. Thais aren’t all that happy with the normal versions of iced coffee and tea so these have been garnished Thai style with syrupy sweet milk and coconut cream. They’re beautiful to look at – all swirls and colors; a consumable lava lamp with just as much nutritional value.

Fruit would always seem to be a low-calorie option, but even here nature conspires in ways against those who would deign to diet. Depending on the time of year, there are piles of mangoes, bananas, oranges, rambutans (apricot-like fruit hidden in a red-shelled hairy cover), litchis and longans (brown-shelled bittersweet fruit), mangosteens (purple-shelled soft sweet chunks of fruit), and the big spiky football-sized durian.

Durian is the problem child. The "King of Thai Fruit," (that’s its official nickname) is a thing unto itself. It is a giant spiky green-shelled monstrosity that sits in fruit stands overpowering all other items with its smell (which has been compared to fermented cheese) and texture – yellow custardy globs that sit inside the shell’s cavities. The taste, which I’ve become obsessed with, can be best described as whipped custard mixed with sugar, almonds, and onions.

Unfortunately, Durians aren’t the healthiest fruits in the world -- the cholesterol value makes avocados look like light eating and they have a tendency to sit in your stomach like a brick. Again, not an option for serious dieters.

There are foods that I do manage to avoid. Missing from my culinary experimentations, and from all the restaurants in North America and anywhere else, are the peculiar varieties of Thai cuisine popular in certain rural areas of the Northeast and Laos. These include fried scorpion, black dog, and barbecued rat. Hey, dip a scorpion into some coconut milk, and I maybe I’ll give it a try.

Western food, by and large, is also missing from my diet, and I sometimes mourn for my morning bagel, a decent microbrew, good cheese, and quality Mexican food. There are Kentucky Fried Chickens and Swenson’s Ice Creams everywhere, and some pretty decent Italian restaurants in the ritzier parts of Bangkok, but most of this has a peculiar Thai aspect to it – ketchup on pizza being the most obvious example. There are also a number of laughable attempts by the bigger food corporations to capture the "local" flavors, leading to such nightmares as McChicken Bai Grapao (McDonald’s chicken burger with holy basil), and the Som Tum Shaker (Thai papaya salad in a little plastic salad shaker).

The Western food that does make it into my steadily rounding belly on a consistent basis is usually prepared by my fiancé, who happens to love cooking and likes to experiment with non-Thai foods. On the plus side, there is the sushi and macrobiotic Japanese fare. On the minus side, (again weight-wise and not taste-wise) are the buttery pancakes and cappuccinos with rich creamy milk. Did I mention that we have a cappuccino machine?

Oh … to hell with it.

Time for dinner.

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