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
has nothing do with taste or edibility -- good
God, its all delicious -- its a weight
thing. Im finding it more and more difficult
to maintain any semblance of a diet in this country.
In fact, Im losing this war of poundage
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
youre sounding the death-knell in this land
of lemon grass, coconut curry, and chili sauce.
In some ways, its an enviable way to go.
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.
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
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 dont
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
to all this bounty the freedom to augment as you
please: what is good food, after all, if it doesnt
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 hearts content. This mixing is a timeless
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 cant
think of anything else. Theres just too
much else out there.
experiment I do.
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 smokers "coffin nail" for
the cholesterol-challenged. I, of course, crave
coconut milk curries.
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.
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.
Theyre 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.
to wash all this down with are
Thai iced teas and coffees. Thais arent
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.
Theyre beautiful to look at all swirls
and colors; a consumable lava lamp with just as
much nutritional value.
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.
is the problem child. The "King of Thai Fruit,"
(thats 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 shells
cavities. The taste, which Ive become obsessed
with, can be best described as whipped custard
mixed with sugar, almonds, and onions.
Durians arent 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.
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 Ill give it a try.
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 Swensons
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 (McDonalds
chicken burger with holy basil), and the Som Tum
Shaker (Thai papaya salad in a little plastic
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
to hell with it.
us with your comments.