Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Motherland Visit, Part 4: A Love Letter


A while back, I wrote this: A Thai Person’s Guide to Thai Food in Los Angeles. In this short post, I explain why if “Food” was entity of Facebook, my profile would simultaneously say “I’m married to Food” and “It’s complicated.” Then I proceed with discussing my favorite Thai restaurants in LA. Just putting that out there because I don’t want to repeat something I’ve already written. So, let’s get on with it.

It has always been a keen interest of mine to take note of how contexts influence human interaction, behaviors, and thoughts. Much like the premise behind The Botany of Desire (fantastic PBS documentary), I am enamored with the “novel” idea that certain things we thought were under our control actually can influence us in major ways. It is a symbiotic relationship that we often forget.

For example, when I was in Berlin, Germany, the refrigerators were smaller. Yes, this was a function of smaller living quarters (at least the apartments I stayed in), but the limited amount of space forced users to continually buy less items that needed to be refrigerated, but shop more often. This almost ensured that most items were fresh. Think about your American refrigerator and how many groceries it can accommodate and how long it would take you to eat all that. This is just a small but effective interaction between a kitchen appliance and humans to encourage different food choices.

In Thailand I was fortunate enough to eat healthier as a result of the proximity of where I was staying to where food was being produced and the tropical climate.

How long have nutritionists been touting the benefits of fish? And how long have we heard the horror stories of how fishing is dangerous for the environment or eating too much is bad for your health? These two ideas can and have caused cognitive dissonance within others and myself for a while, but in Thailand I freely ate as much seafood as I could get my hands on. There must be some mediating factor(s) to this fish / seafood = good + bad relationship... I propose two: freshness and a connection to the source. And I can provide two examples of how I encountered them firsthand: one delicious example and the other, not so much.

Delicious example: My father’s side of the family in Thailand owns a fish farm. And have friends that own fish farms.
And that’s what the fish farm looks like. A building that houses the people that tends to the fish. In those “plots” of water. That’s it! No crazy contraption in the ocean, no big nets to catch other animals while targeting “wild” fish. The fish are raised and to my knowledge there’s no funny genetic modification business going on. For the most part, people knew where their fish was coming from.

Not so delicious example: So, as you know, any traveler, from time to time when they frequent “developing” countries, gets Montezuma’s Revenge. In my case, it was Don Hoi Lot’s Revenge. Don Hoi Lot is a small town off the Bay of Bangkok (gulf side) where locals go to dine on the finest street seafood, often buying it from the stands or carts and sitting bayside to enjoy the tasty treats.
And hot damn, do they look good…
None of these were the culprit; it was these damn mussels we bought as gift for my mother’s friend! I felt like I was in rehab: sweating, tossing and turning, running from bed to bathroom, and drinking this Thai re-hydrating concoction of flat 7-Up and salt. This is where I was holed up for about 24 hours of abdominal pain:
In hindsight, the overheard comments of how the sea was dirty that day are the perfect example of how fresh and connected to the source those damn mussels were. Let’s not talk about this anymore and think other food related good thoughts, like this one:

Our local cook-it-yourself joint called Moo Gah Tah (Pork Pot)

Another factor that contributed to my healthy eating was the tropical climate. Fruits and veggies flourish there! Whenever I think of affordable and easily accessible fruits in the US, I think of apples, bananas, and oranges. Boring as hell, right? After a couple dozen times, even the LA fruit dude’s selection doesn’t seem appetizing. Not in Thailand! Here’s my janky inventory of fruits that I had the pleasure of eating. This list is obviously not exhaustive of all the fruit in Thailand and please ignore personal thoughts, dream lab notes, and especially bad spelling and grammar:
I call you your attention, the Makhamm Tate.
This is a delicious fruit as it is part of Tamarind family, due it's overgrown pea-pod shape. However the edible part inside is unlike anything I've encountered. It looks like a mini-white cabbage encasing a black seed and tastes sweet and peppery. They literally got offered to us after lunch at a roadside noodle shop for less than $1.

Other fresh fruit, vegetable, and related photos:

Thailand’s famous Floating Market
(The rightmost boat holds my favorite Thai fruit that I encountered:
The Rose Apple / Chompoo)
The real deal Coconut Bliss
Again, the simple notion that I want to convey is that I was pleasantly surprised to find that by simply being closer to the source and in a different climate that my eating habits changed. While this is not a profound notion, I think that it has implications for how one interacts with their environment to promote healthier eating habits. You say you can’t stop eating McDowell’s? Think about how many McDowell’s you pass on your way to and from work … If they weren’t so accessible and you had to drive out of your way to get it, would you still want it? If the answer is YES, don’t talk to me. Gross.


I have to say that I found it completely fascinating that I did not eat red meat and virtually no cow by-products while I was there. Upon doing a little bit of research, I found out that my family in Thailand doesn’t eat beef as a personal household choice and that it tends to be more expensive than the other white meat. There goes my profound epiphany about beef… Dairy farming, on the other hand, is a relatively new enterprise in Thailand. There are very few large-scale dairy farming operations and number of small farmers, but, in general, the demand is not that high, leading to an expensive price tag that perpetuates that unpopularity. Personally, I can understand that drinking creamy milk or a grilled cheese sandwich in a hot climate does not sound that appealing.

Why does everything in Thailand have to be so DAMN sweet? Where did this need for additional sweetness in drinks, food, and dessert come from? My father’s answer:
I don’t know why. If you ask most Thai people they don’t think its’ too sweet. They just say, “It just has to be that taste.”
I guess I just don’t know how to eat it.

Two words why you will never go hungry in Thailand … Street. Food.

Finally … Monks gotta eat too.