Thailand Travel Book
This blog post contains an excerpt of a book I have written about the legendary, brave and informative 6,002-mile Thailand tasting trek I went on in 2007-2008. The full-length book will be published in early 2016.
The well meaning but officious triathlon tyrants, fitness freaks and vituperative vegans like to make the first feeble feint of their assault on my lifestyle with their idea of a Big Philosophical Posit: “You can either live to eat, or eat to live,” often while performing some painful looking quadriceps stretch or nibbling disconsolately on a Power Bar while hungrily watching as I add some coconut cream to the curry paste in a wok. The choice for these killjoys is clear – “eat to live” usually characterized by some self-congratulatory, carefully regimented life that dourly balances exercise related injury with a diet bland and unforgiving enough to lead prisoners to riot.
I’ve made my choice. I’m going to live to eat. Bring on the flavor, uncork the wine, and I’ll see you in Heaven if I keel over while making deep fried pork belly. And I note for the record the word “diet” is suspiciously close to the word “die”.
If grown men like my sports obsessed buddy can go on holiday to watch baseball spring training or other sportsmen can transport themselves thousands of miles to go sport fishing and then release the catch (known to the fish as “Hook, Harm, and Hurl”), is it so odd that I would follow my passion to be a tasting tourist? Is my decision to roam around Thailand on a motorcycle, nose to the wind to sniff out great food, so odd?
I accept that my concentration on the pleasures of the table and the pleasure of cooking and sharing food with friends puts me outside the mainstream of Ordinary, Regular Guy society. If your own tastes find you cheering on your favorite NASCAR driver or spending masturbatory hours compiling statistics for your fantasy baseball team, enjoy. But that doesn’t get me or my friends fed. Everyone has to have a hobby. Mine is cooking, eating, and sharing the delights of dinner and the conviviality of the table. I’ve pretended as long as I could that I was interested in traditional manly things like cars and sports. But closer questioning would reveal that I never owned a car, and had advanced as far as I could in the business world with zero knowledge of sports. Every year some team wins the Super Bowl and the World Series and the Ryder Cup (that is once a year, yeah? Tennis or is it golf? Who cares?). But I could never muster much enthusiasm. The only extreme sport I want to engage in is eating extremely good food. Enjoy the game, boys – I’ll be in the other room watching a cooking show or in the kitchen cooking and drinking. And why is foodie a dirty name like you are some sybarite filling your gullet with expensive chow when it is really a celebration of the hearth and home and friends and flavor?
You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine
The New York Times published an article on January 2, 2005 entitled “Gastronauts Shooting For The (Michelin) Stars” about people who vacation with an intense focus on fine dining, and a friend forwarded it to me during my own food frenzy tour of Asia. The author dubbed these culinary adventurers “gastronauts” and described with derision a weeklong visit to Paris by a food-obsessed couple (who sounded like a lot of fun to me). “By steering clear of time-consuming distractions like museums, historical sites and theaters, they managed to visit more than 28 of the city’s better dining spots,” the newspaper reported. I thought, “Only 28 or so?”
Again, I struggled with the articles mocking tone. “One thing that sets gastronauts apart from the rest of us is the endless curiosity and willingness to sample indigenous food that, to the amateur diner, might be beyond the culinary comfort zone.” I’m not expecting everyone to eat as I do. That being said, I thought the grilled red ant eggs I had in Northeastern Thailand were as fine as any pricy caviar omelette at the Ritz. And the bull’s testicles and penis stew at the Highway Four restaurant in Hanoi was a complex and compelling dish, or however it is the fancy food writers describe something that tasted really good. Perhaps the time I had live cobra heart was going a bit too far. But how often am I going to be in Saigon in a restaurant that has fresh cobra I thought? Not often enough, it turns out. It doesn’t get much fresher than having the cobra wrangler take the serpent out of the bag and eviscerate the heart in front of you. Watching this operatic culinary feat, I thought “I couldn’t have done that better myself.” It is a marvel that the cobra heart is still beating when the waiter slips it in a wine glass with the snakes’ blood and some rice wine. I enjoy a glass of wine with dinner but this concoction was even better.
The article continued to confound me. ‘”Others take exhaustive notes on every dish or request a copy of the menu. And some resort to the crass technique of snapping photographs of every plate,” the article said. Well, how else are you going to recreate the dish at home if you don’t have some photos? I can barely print legibly, how am I going to sketch each dish? After the second bottle of Bandol at lunch with friends, my artistic skills aren’t their sharpest, but I can still tell if the chef used fish sauce or soy sauce in the dish’s preparation.
But perhaps there are many people in the world, lovely but suspect people, who don’t plan their days around what they are going to eat and where and how soon. What does such a person think about all day? Why leave home and travel if you are going to eat the same food as at home? How is it that the time honored passion of searching out great flavors and making wonderful food a subject for condemnation and derision?
For a week I observed a jolly group of young Swedes on holiday in Thailand. These were polite and earnest young men, traveling to broaden their minds before they started classes at university. They were excited to see the world, and experience new cultures, as long as it didn’t involve trying any local food. Each day they had the superb Thai chef at the hotel (known for her artistry with Thai food) serve them hamburgers and fries, spaghetti Bolognese, and eggs and toast. I showed them the food the Thai kitchen staff and I made for lunch: naam phrik kapi chili and shrimp paste relish so spicy it could strip paint off a boat; stew made with the innards of a squid’s stomach; pork belly hung in the sun to dry, then fried with greens – you know, good old fashioned food like Mom used to make, if your Mom was Thai. The Swedes nearly vomited when they saw my repast. I was honored that the chef would share this incredible food with me. Am I the odd one out here?
It takes all kinds, I guess. I just hope I don’t meet any at dinner tonight. Unlikely, I think. The Thai chef is taking me to her sister’s place for kaeng tai plaa (a pungent curry made with tai plaa (fish innards), turmeric, shrimp paste, lime rind, green beans, fish filets and enough chili to power a rocket). If you’d like a Thai food adventure, please come join us, they’ll make extra.