Not Pad Thai: Adventurously Eating Thai Food
I moved to Thailand with the promise of eating pad Thai every day. Seriously though, about 45% of my decision to teach English abroad was based on my love of Thai food. I wanted to learn how to cook Thai food, and I wanted to absorb the culture through it. Oh yeah… I also wanted to teach, travel and write, of course. Well here I am, almost six months into my new life abroad, unfortunately living far from any pad Thai, but with a new appreciation for the flavors of the culture.
Since I’m a farang, or foreigner, my dishes are usually prepared with less spice than normal
Thai food is spicy. Seriously. You can order your food mai pet, without spice. However, at restaurants here, they often use the same dishes to prepare the same food in, repeatedly. So, there is really no such thing as mai pet. This just means they won’t add additional chilies, but there will always be the leftovers from the previous dish. The chilies are dried, and they are hot! If you walk past a restaurant as they’re being thrown in a pan, your eyes will burn and you will find yourself choking and coughing from the intensity. Since I’m a farang, or foreigner, my dishes are usually prepared with less spice than normal, so I’ve taken to ordering normally and hoping for the best. The spice makes Thai food truly Thai. It’s where the flavor is; it’s a necessity. If you’re not sweating when eating, you’re doing something wrong.
Eating in Thailand has been an adventure since day one. I arrived at my hotel in Bangkok starving, and so I ventured out to the street to find some lunch, and came across a food cart. I ordered my first dish in Thailand by pointing to a blurry picture on a sign. For 30 Baht, or $1, I had a plate full of the most delicious vegetable fried rice, and I never looked back. Street food, prepared properly and in front of me, became my best friend. However, it hasn’t always been as easy as the fried rice. I’ve had chicken feet floating in my soup, fish balls entwined with my noodles, and pork blood on my plate.
With the language gap, ordering food becomes a lesson in trust. With my broken Thai, spoken with a Long Island accent, I order what I can and cross my fingers. I point to a lot of things, smile and nod, and am willingly served mystery meat. While I haven’t yet had a scorpion on a stick, I do feel like I’ve been adventurous in my eating. Things I’d never come close to in America have become my favorite foods.
There are dangers in eating street food, though. Never take anything that has been in the sun or heat all day, always watch your food being prepared, make sure the surroundings are as clean and sanitary as possible, and always choose places with other people eating from it. There’s always a danger in food poisoning, but you’re just as likely to get it from chicken-on-a-stick or a fish sandwich from Burger King.
I now eat pork almost every day, as it’s a staple in the Thai diet. I quickly learned there’s no room to be picky in this country.
My favorite local restaurant serves Isaan food, the traditional food of Northeast Thailand, and som tam Thai, or green papaya salad, has become my absolute favorite food. Served with khao neyao, or sticky rice, moo or gai yang, or barbequed pork or chicken, and moo dai dio, or sundried pork, this makes a complete dinner to be shared with friends. I never ate pork at home, turning to turkey bacon to satisfy my cravings, and I was shocked at how much I loved it. I now eat pork almost every day, as it’s a staple in the Thai diet. I quickly learned there’s no room to be picky in this country.
Some basics: Moo is pork, gai is chicken, kung is shrimp, and pak is vegetables. I was surprised to find that pad Thai is a street food, meaning that it’s best cooked in a steaming hot wok on the side of the road, traditionally served with tofu and shrimp. The sauce is the most complicated, with too many ingredients to be served in just any restaurant. I can happily find it in Bangkok, but in my town it’s nearly impossible to find.
Stir fries are available everywhere, though–some with noodles, such as pad see ew, thick noodles with vegetables, and suki hang, mungbean noodles with cabbage and Chinese broccoli, and some with steamed white rice. My personal favorites are kanaa moo grob, crispy pork with Chinese broccoli and oyster sauce, kratium prik tai gai, garlic pepper chicken, and khao pat kung, shrimp fried rice. Of course I’ve also tried tom yam kung, the spicy shrimp soup the country is famous for.
I’ve had whole fish placed in front of me, eyeballs and all, marinating in a boiling liquid.
I’ve had whole fish placed in front of me, eyeballs and all, marinating in a boiling liquid. I’ve had raw shrimp, sweet and sour scallops, raw oysters with a plethora of condiments, and deep-fried bacon wrapped mushrooms. There hasn’t been too many foods I haven’t enjoyed.
Next on my Thailand bucket list is to take a cooking class, so I can learn how to best replicate my favorite dishes back in the States. It’s impossible to think there will be a time that I can’t walk down the street for some som tam Thai or pad see ew, so I better learn how to make them myself and share the wealth! I just hope I can put as much love and soul into each dish I make as I’ve felt with every dish I’ve eaten here.