Food Fest with a bit of Colour
I know; I sound like a grumpy old cynical bigot; I do not mean hordes of ex-pat Westerners retiring to Thailand. The reality is Thailand has never stood still entrenched in xenophobic fervour and ethnic tradition (excuse the pleonasm) because it is made up of the populations of Tai which included Mongols, Chinese, Burmese, Khmer, and several other tiny minorities who had no country to call home. Patriotic yes and sometimes Issan folk's ingrained preference is mistaken for racism but Issan are the core Tai. They are a five thousand year old race with handed-down belief without expected faith. Gold and land are to be acquired and Thai take pride in the accumulation of wealth but historically Siam was a trading nation, an international go between, without the modern afflictions of stock exchange and central bank so that wealth made your status and amassing gold meant when your rainy day came you could convert it into trading currency. As a result Thailand has Gold Exchanges where you can buy and sell beautifully made jewellery at a price set by the market traders. No matter where you are in Thailand, if you have a money problem you can go to the exchange and get the right price for your gold. Many other commodities such as rice, rubber, bananas, and poultry also have central governance to ensure equality. Whether price fixing is good or bad I choose not to argue but it prevents monopoly. No one can rip you off because you are desperate or in poverty.
In the same way wealth and gold is a measure of status so is colour. Buddha's are gold and emerald, monks wear orange, and women wear white to the temple. When Europeans arrived in the 16th century the Siamese were in awe of the colour of their skin. It was considered beautiful and Thai women today spend vast amounts of money on skin whitening creams and plastic surgery. You'll never see a Thai woman sunbathing. The colour white is 'khao' and is the same word for rice and while historians can date rice growing back to 3500BC it can't have just appeared. You do not have any need for farming without society so it must have its origins much further back but rice cultivation became a life saver. It could be grown, dried, and stored for one year and that meant people would not starve. That means white is both pure and life preserving. That is why Thai women find it so attractive and even want farang babies. Princess Ubolratana, the eldest daughter to the current King, Buhmibol Rama IX, married American Peter Ladd Jensen. Something that was frowned upon and not talked about because it broke the purity of Royal ascent but her children are all considered very beautiful.
The colour green is called keow. The life preserving rice is ready to reap one week after the leaves turn dark green so when mining began and emeralds were discovered they were highly prized as the life blood of the earth. That lead to Kings Palaces being built using emeralds and green walls and tiles and Buddha's are often green in colour and sometimes carved from Jade or Malachite. China was also an established peoples with a yet to determine nation when trade between the countries had already begun but they needed some form of currency. The Chinese Tai introduced the Western Tai to gold as a means of currency. Both the colour and gold is called thawng and became important to trade and so it was used to elevate the importance of Siddha the Teacher because he spread his teaching and travelled just the same as International trade.
I have heard it said that Thai are mercenary when it comes to money. I have also heard farang say Thai are the biggest racists on the planet. These things are said in jest but also without understanding why these things are important to Thai. Thai willingness to embrace other cultures and ideas has lead to both a fusion of civilizations and exploitations. Historically every time the Thai welcomed something they were flooded by it. In the 18th century the Siamese King Taksin was on a mission to unite the Tai nations. That lead to a Burmese invasion and drove the Thonburi dynasty south to the Chao Praya, today's Bangkok. Although Taksin is a national hero and drove the Burmese back out of his country it was the death of Siam. The fear of Burma led the peoples to topple the King and replace him with Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke, known as King Rama I, first king of Thailand and so named because it is the Land of the Tai people, or Ratcha Anachak Thai.
When the Japanese arrived in December 1941 they exploited their unwanted welcome (excuse the oxymoron) brutally and yet left behind a different version of Buddhism, food, music, and infrastructure such as roads and railways. A Thai favourite today is the Japanese fast food chains of Sushiko, Mizu's Kitchen, and Kaito's. Then came the Americans building airbases and fast food joints, leaving behind a legacy of English language (well almost) and beer bars, and today it is tourism. But I don't fear for Thailand in the same way I have conceded my England because the Thai will embrace change but in their own way. And it is that Asian uniqueness that is to be appreciated.
Sadly though the same cannot be said of the local market being demolished by Tesco. To be fair Tesco relocated the market and as you become accustomed with Thailand some marketers constructed their own passageway from Tesco's car park to the market. Last time we came out of Tesco Lotus with our groceries I was asked by a staff member if I wanted a Tesco store card. I shook my head in disbelief and apologised for my condescension. I couldn't think of anything more cynical than selling credit cards to third world people who struggle to put food on the table from week to week. Tesco Lotus' own floor staff have a salary so low it is below the Government's minimum living allowance. In the UK Tesco stores floor staff are paid around £57 per day, equivalent to 2750 baht. In Thailand they are paid less than 300 baht. About £130 a month. Of course the Thais want Tesco, they want supermarkets, what they don't have is the financial ability and with companies like Tesco milking the system; it will stay that way.
When the Internet forums got all excited because MacDonalds were opening up "and about time too" in Udon I felt disheartened. If MacDonalds excites you, you are 8 years old. There was a useful shopping centre called Charoensri in Udon Thani that had a low budget restaurant, a KFC that sold ice cream, several banks and exchanges, a Levi shop, leather shop, and a tailors. There was a supermarket on the ground floor and you could buy a gold necklace, certified diamonds, an orchestral instrument as well as a surgical instrument, a hi-fi, cheap copy watch, laptop, a bag of candy, pair of shoes, silk underpants, a tin of paint, and a new armchair all on level 2. When we did feel inclined to visit the new shopping centre it was mostly mobile phone shops which must number well into double figures on every floor. Welcome to the shiny brand new and biggest white elephant in Issan, CentralPlaza shopping centre, or "The Largest & Most Modern Lifestyle Shopping Complex of Northern Isan & Indochina" as the businessmen who built it with public money call it. My suggestion is don't bother. There are many good markets in the surrounding towns and villages of Udon Thani.
In Thailand a plane never takes off late, unless there's another political protest sit in, and neither do the trains and buses not run on time. Thai markets are an adventure and hotel and restaurant hospitality rarely a failure. But the more Thailand looks to the West with envious eyes and wanting investment the more endangered their inner city Asian uniqueness becomes. And that is why although I love Bangkok, I'd rather be here in this little village with its quiet and simple life, unhindered by imported culture. Unchanged in centuries. Where cockerels are your alarm clock and kwai walk along country lanes with a cowbell round their neck. Where rice is planted the traditional way and villagers muck in when it is harvest time. It isn't to everyone's taste. But neither is it meant to be. Life here is simple and moves at the pace the rice grows.
We followed the monks up to the temple for breakfast. I don't usually bother as I'd rather have a cup of coffee and a book while I wait for the women to come back. It isn't a man thing to attend breakfast, or the 'bintabaht' as it is called, because the men are at work. Someone took a couple of photos to prove I really was there and it was only when I looked through the images I realised Waan's hair with a banana tree in the garden behind her looks like the peacock behind the banana tree which in all its glory is fantailing in front of the bogs...
There's a joke in there somewhere, I just haven't worked it out yet.
Back at Mae's house was the remains of a hurried gastronomy. What looks like chaos in a villager's kitchen is actually precise food preparation. What looks to us like an impossibly unhygienic place that will most certainly instil Delhi-belly is a clean and practical area to prepare cuisine you will remember. This is the third world and the way they put things to use and maximise resources is to be admired. And so is the food whether it be minced frog and fish in banana leaf or fried gogi and chilli chicken. Not every dish is something you would like but isn't that the same back home in England with spaghetti and Stilton cheese is how I always try to consider it. But the truth is, tiles are cracked, grout is missing, chopping blocks have age old grooves that will trap bacteria, and knives have seen better days. Tap water is not filtered and is tepidly suitable to all kinds of viral contamination. Food is prepared on the floor or newspaper and cleaning materials are at a premium. If you want to experience village life you best forget about hygiene and accept the basic conditions because modern kitchen cabinets and tiled walls are way out of village people's affordability just the same as bathrooms with a full suite with shower cubicle, waste pipes, and toilet roll holders.
In the west we have been conditioned to believing we need Ajax and blue toilet water with adverts telling us how clean our floor can be and there are more bacteria on a kitchen work surface than there is on the toilet seat without defining do they mean more types of bacteria, which would be true because bacteria need food not arse contamination, or do they mean in total, which isn't scientific considering the bog seat has a surface area less than 10"sq. Either way you are being deliberately misled to make you purchase their cleaning product. The truth is you don't want dirty food and that isn't determined by the quality of your kitchen. You'll not see a Thai villager forget to wash their hands and that is what matters. You don't think twice about eating BBQ burgers and camping so why let basic living conditions bother you? The problem for me is that food dishes simply do not look good and westerners eat with their eyes which is a shame but I have learned to shut my eyes and chew a morsel slowly and savour the flavour before looking at it. It doesn't always work unfortunately and no matter how you try to cover it up steamed fish eyes are one of those. Imagine a deep fried Turkish Delight. Not a pleasant thought I know, but neither is fish eyes. Chickens feet taste OK but they are bloody pointless. Barbequed chicken liver is also edible but it is too rich so I'd rather have some pâté and toast which is something Thai have never heard of unless they are a Bangkok hotel trained chef.
But every now and then you come across something like the women were making this morning that looks unappealing but tastes fantastic and Gawp Toht is one of them. It is inevitable westerners will baulk at the thought of eating a frog, but why? If you close your eyes and eat the white meat you will think it is tender chicken breast. I'm not going to start telling you insects or some other crap taste great because they do not. Most of them taste exactly how you expect with very few exceptions. There is a giant beetle that does taste like cod roe and green ants taste like limes but then again they carry a large sack of uric acid inside them so I imagine they also taste a bit like cold piss. The question is; are you interested in the flavour or what it looks like? An example of which would be when I was asked if I'd like some steak. It had an unusual flavour, a sort of red wine aroma when you chewed and a very mature taste of black pudding. When I looked out the back door three chaps were stripping the flesh off a horses head and I'm still not sure if I wasn't keen on horse flesh or flabbergasted that they had a horses head. Thai would eat a horse but it would cost a fortune. Then again the frogs aren't cheap either. The main ingredients for Gawp Toht are frogs, catfish, and mushrooms and all the ingredients are from a local market and come from breeding farms. Thais are not that in tune with nature as to eat pond-life. I'm not sure the flavours of chicken and fish go together but with all the other ingredients thrown in the taste of chicken sort of works well.
The frogs need carefully de-clawing with a delicate 2lb meat cleaver. The rest of the frog, head an all, is then chopped into thin slices and mixed with the minced catfish and mushroom and whole leaves of Mint, Sa Ra Nae, and finely chopped birds eye chillies, Phet Prik, and then wrapped in a banana leaf, Kluay Haw before being steamed. The mixture is similar to mashed pilchards but moistened with fish sauce, nam pla, a little soy, nam see u, some finely sliced cucumber, dtang gwaa, and some lime juice, nam manow. Then comes the grand opening of the first Gawp Toht to oohs and aahs of 'can't wait' women like Christmas for foodies. I wouldn't call it one of my favourites but it is one of those rather unexpectedly palatable Issan dishes as opposed to what the women went outside to eat as a mid-morning snack.
The women were having a gathering, which isn't unusual, it's not dissimilar to a coffee morning. They see a couple of women with a plate of something and one by one they come and join in bringing with them an ingrediental addition, <-- if Shakespeare can do it it's good enough for me. Sometimes those ingredients defy belief. On this occasion we had some left over noodles, beansprouts, papaya, and shellfish. Always in stock is some mushrooms and chillies so Waan knocked up a quick Som Tam Thai, more commonly known as pok pok or papaya pok pok in Issan because of the noise made when crushing the ingredients with a wood mortar and pestle. The first woman came with toasted green chillies, the second with some oysters, and the third? She came with a bag of live shrimp. I assumed she was going to cook them but no, she placed handfuls of them over the salad. Look close, they are still wriggling their feelers and yes, the women did eat them. Welcome to the dish that will never make it onto a traditional pub menu, 'raw shrimp papaya salad'. Then again I doubt you will ever see it on a Thai restaurant menu either - not even in Thailand.
Some of the ironies about Thai words for foods are a constant source of amusement to low class, a label assigned to villagers of Issan, and after all they are low class as well as impoverished, but that doesn't mean they are unhappy and having a laugh about languages is one of their favourite muses. The Thai word for chips or fries is man farang, crisps are also man farang and so are Irish potatoes. Man means tuber or bulb vegetable and farang is foreign. It doesn't come much simpler except when the word is the same regardless of its cooked state and you know when they have understood you when they offer you a raw potato. The Thai potato on the other hand is a small red elongated tuber that is a little sweet for my liking and is called man geao in a flat tone. This is rather close to the expression mank ee ao, which means to ruffle someone's hair or tickle their tummy, an expression of playfulness that is not received as particularly playful when what you want is some ruddy man geao.
Another favourite is the word nom. Nom means milk regardless of what form be it baby milk, fresh milk, or still in its natural container hence one of the women offered me her bare breast as a joke when I said I wanted some milk. But this kind of rudeness belongs to the lower classes. It is not a Thai culture despite the occasional incident of drunken frivolity while in Issan it is nothing more than a milk bottle. Nevertheless it has its proprietary. A young girl should not expose her breasts because she is young. A young woman should not because she is a virgin. A young mum would publicly feed her baby but would consider exposure for nudities sake improper. While senior mothers and the elderly would go topless working in the fields on a hot day.
Waan's favourite grocery expression is any kind of pumpkin because it is a 'fuk'. The most common in Thailand is a fuk thong and is usually abbreviated to fuk. Thais also know the foreign loan word 'f**k' so they take delight in asking in the local market if you fancy a fuk. I did say earlier that Thai humour is childish.
Fuk Thong isn't worth eating. It's a pumpkin and they are not worth eating either. It doesn't taste bad, actually it doesn't taste of anything, and that is why all pumpkins are a rubbish vegetable. Fried banana or kluay thawt are ok but get sickly and sometimes in desperation for something remotely sweet or edible you are reduced to packaged foods or khao plat dik as Thai call it, meaning plastic food, but really they taste quite nice and not many want to share with you because they think it tastes of plat dik. Sadly I suspect for lonely Thais in a condo with only a bed, TV, and a microwave plastic food is catching on but villagers wouldn't consider a TV dinner or ready meal primarily because they are neither. In Issan fast food is bought from a street vendor and is freshly cooked while you wait like the fried banana and not from a corner shop like beng bengs, tops, delly bars, and dtuup dtaap. If you like cake the delly, especially the blackberry flavour is really nice. A light sweet sponge with a sourish real blackberry jam. But the dtuup dtaap, so named because it does exactly that across your tongue, has a flavour that I cannot describe. Thai call it aroy, which sort of means delicious, it has a flavour of peanut but all I can say is trust me and buy some because they make a great treat; although they are rather morish.
These bottles do not contain Fanta. Fanta in Thailand is the same as anywhere else; it's orange. Do not drink anything in Asia that looks like water unless it is sealed and labelled drinking water. You could literally put your life at risk. Namphet is just one of many bottled waters and is very cheap, as little as 25 baht for 12 bottles so use it for brushing your teeth as well and if you're travelling around keep a bottle in your backpack.
Namphet is also an amusing name and I was given a bottle the first time I asked for naam prik. Naam prik is that little dish of spicy dip you get when you order spicy meatballs or fried pork and though it is nam phet it is called nam prik. That's the great thing about Thai language, they keep changing the rules, so when I asked for confirmation as to what a butchers is called, my missus said it is raan khai moo. Now that means egg and pork shop so when I replied 'Not raan neua then' she answered 'yes you can say that as well'. Which is satirical to say the least when usually I try to create what I think it should be only to arouse hilarity at expressions such as 'thao put' for 'how to say', which seems obvious, but it isn't and is highly amusing apparently. Which probably explains why my missus calls gloves 'hand socks'.
Not everything in the shops has English translations on and a box of Ann Lean gives no indication as to what it is with the exception of a picture of a brown glass in the bottom right corner that says 'only 10 calories'. To be honest I don't think that tells a Thai much either because it is only ten calories presumably if you mix it with water and drink it. It does say below that they mean a 350ml glass and above that it is Halal. Which is handy...
The only other thing I can discern is that it is roht chawk gaw laeht written in a chocolate flavour colour. It is Thai Nesquik but they mix it with water. It does taste a lot better made with milk and now you know why I asked for some nom and was entertained with a display of bare breasts.
Beers can also be missing English descriptions and the safest thing to do is not drink them. The little bottle with the blue label is the infamous Lao Khao that farangs love to talk about in forums and it will make you ill. Chang is very popular though Thais drink it with ice and happily from a plastic cup if it is the large bottle. I prefer to fill the fridge with 330ml bottles like normal people but you'll struggle to find Budweiser outside of a city beer bar and there is a vast difference in price. But it isn't all doom and gloom with Issan food and drink. You just have to learn where to find it though that often requires learning what the shop signs look like. After bintabaht (breakfast with the monks in case you'd forgotten) we went into town to fetch some groceries, and in my case, ready cooked groceries, and first stop was a Thai national favourite for first meal of the day called khao mun ghai.
Usually khao mun ghai is the name of the restaurant and is all they sell. They often open very early in the morning but close around mid-day. It means literally rice with chicken and is cooked and presented in a variety of ways largely because it is not a food chain, they are all independent little businesses, but they all provide this same dish. This one right opposite the ridiculously oversized Doctors surgery on the western road by the also ridiculously oversized traffic lights generally disregarded by motorists boils the chicken and so you get rice with chicken on top with a bowl of chicken soup called clear soup and a little dish of sweet but savoury light soy sauce dip with all kinds of other secret ingredients in such as finely chopped peanuts and spring onion. The soup has a piece of fuk thong in for no reason I can explain and some brown silt made from the roasting tin remains in the bottom of the bowl and is the best soup you'll ever taste while the khao mun ghai is dressed with parsley on top with a side of chunks of cucumber and cubes of dried chicken blood. I usually ignore that or give it to the missus. It tastes quite nice but is over the top with flavour rather like raw black pudding, which I suppose is a Marmite category. In some restaurants they will top it off with a fried egg as well.
Outside the shop was an old lady selling fresh cooked bar thong goh. That doesn't translate as anything I can manage. I think doughnuts is the nearest though they are much lighter and taste nicer. Of course it is entirely feasible I have now been so long without eating a cake from a bakery that anything close would taste superior. They come with a dip, in Thailand just about everything does, with a similar texture to toothpaste and by its colour your palette expects a similar flavour. However you will be delightfully disappointed to discover it tastes more like pancake mix. Not a pleasant thought I know, which is why I dip mine an sugar, and that tastes great.
While we were still sitting a really tall farang with a really short Thai lady, who turned out to be his wife, walked in and she asked the owner who was still cooking if her husband could use the toilet. You come across this a lot in Issan because the husband is newly retired or not long wed and have yet to pick up any language skills. Sometimes they never do. There is a really nice guy who I have had a few disagreements with on the Lonely Planet forum but the truth is he knows himself and has a lot of experience of a Thailand village life. He once commented that he had tried to learn Thai but couldn't get his tongue round pronunciation, which is thoroughly understandable, so had simply given up trying. Personally I would lose my sanity if I was so isolated as to not be able to join in a conversation or buy something for myself in a shop but after 5 years of learning, although I still struggle, I'm not giving up. But what I find in Issan is a rather large number of farangs who do not speak the language while pretending to in the vain hope you also cannot. Try Gone Fishing for a prime example. But Pete was none of those and nor was his wife. He was not a 65 year old retiree with a 33 year old ex-bar girl pregnant wife. He was one of the fortunate who have retired early, visited Udon out of curiosity, and met a woman not much younger than his self. He was building a house not far from ours and proudly declared he designed it himself. He took his wife of three years to England and sent her to college to learn English to which she had a thorough grasp and spoke eloquently and travelled regularly back and forth the same as myself. Although I unfortunately have to go to work. He didn't try to explain Issan to me nor make assumptions about my relationship, though he did seem to have a pet hate of Leicester's immigrant community, but he was the kind of guy you would happily have a few beers with.
Round the corner of the traffic lights drove another farang in a 1970's US Army Jeep with a farang passenger and a couple of Thai women in the back. It was apparent even with a fleeting glance that he was comprehensively enjoying his retirement and why shouldn't he? I don't mean why shouldn't he be retired. I don't know the chap. But why shouldn't he enjoy himself in his Jeep. We once saw a farang with his own tuk tuk that was immaculate. This is the Land of Smiles so you should enjoy yourself. I have spent many hours deciding what I want for transport. I have Pa Jon's motorbike, we also have a pick-up truck, but neither of these are fun so I have decided I am going to refurbish Pa Jon's rice tractor. The missus thinks I'm mad but they are brilliant toys for boys. She suggested a taxi meter. Not a bad idea but really it's a car and I'm going to get loads of pedestrians trying to flag me down so it's the ruud thai na for me and bright red with a polished wood trailer.
Then we went home to start work..