Feb 24 2012
It’s with a heavy heart that I admit I’m leaving Bangkok; life is pulling in other directions. People wonder why I love living here — it’s hot, chaotic, sometimes heart-breakingly cruel, but I’ve never been happier, or better fed. For me, being well fed apparently makes anything bearable. I respect a culture that in the midst of flooding didn’t forget to send tiny portions of fish sauce with emergency rations or feels that a riot is also a sensible place to have a barbecued chicken stall. Not much about Bangkok makes sense, but that does. And so, in a spirit of unbridled melancholy about the approaching departure date, I present five foods for five trials. They’re not just to soothe your hunger, but your soul, too.
Five foods for five trials
Heartbreak requires time to mend, but right in the beginning you need tears. Natural or induced. Som tam mamuang is your answer — sour green mango is shredded and pounded with garlic, chillies, lime, tomato slices and long beans. Ask for this dish (or its green papaya-based sister, som tam thai) with as many chillies as you think you can handle. Serious heartbreak requires serious work to recover; ask for eight chillies (sai prik baat met) and you will be able to see through time (into the future when you have a better, sexier, smarter new girl/boyfriend).
Shame is best treated with heat, but not in the same way that heartbreak requires. Shame comes with that bitter admission of guilt — and you need a bitter remedy. Gaeng paa are (fabulously spicy) curries that are never tempered with coconut milk, and are just slightly (in an excellent way) medicinally bitter with the addition of galangal and grachai (brother to ginger, cousin to ginsing, respectively). Your mouth will be on fire in punishment, but the bitter tang will remind you that you’re an idiot so don’t do that again. Also, it tastes great.
Death is not welcome news anywhere but it’s compounded when you don’t have anybody to talk with about your gran because everyone is asleep at home and you’re halfway round the world. It’s lonely — you need food that comforts, demanding nothing in return. You need noodle soup. Steaming hot as you sweat sitting on a plastic bench, baa mee noodles floating with pork and shrimp wantons, you can almost remember what it was like before you heard the news. It’s automatic to eat so emotion processing can take up all of your mental space. Nothing gets you ready for grief like good soup.
Hangovers are not exactly on the level of heartbreak or death, but they are not to be ignored. Feeling shame about your previous night coupled with the fact it’s a thousand degrees out and you’re dehydrated? You need massive infusions of fried noodles, stat. Pad see ew is the grown-up’s choice of noodle-based salvation; marinated pork, chinese kale, and slick, slightly dark-soy-sweetened rice noodles are wok fried until they start to caramelize a bit. Top with chilli-infused fish sauce, ground white pepper, the tiniest spoon of sugar, and crushed chilli flakes. It’s like Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. [Note: Pad kii mao is the grown-up’s choice for noodles while still drunk and anticipating tomorrow’s hangover.] Also to be considered: coolie noodles.
Defeat is never avoided. For all travellers, for all people who live, defeat comes at some point. In Bangkok, you’ve accidentally dropped your bag into a canal. You’ve definitely just been cheated on a taxi fare. Traffic is a nightmare and you’re too tired to fight any more. There are times when we just have to say: fine. I lost. And that’s when we eat pad sataw muu thawt. Sataw are strange, slightly astringent fresh beans (think the texture of fresh lima beans or edamame) that are sauteed with slices of pork belly that has been marinated, fried, and then sliced into lardons. It’s fatty and crispy, and the slight, pleasant bitterness of the sataw cuts through the rich pork fat expertly. We might be defeated, but with full stomachs, we live to fight another day.
Where shall I eat for which trial?
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