Tuesday, November 17, 2009


The softness of the air is what happens first, an enveloping welcoming softness and warmth, when the plane doors open in Bangkok late in the evening. And so it was last night at around midnight. The rest of arrival, stairs and the bus to the terminal, and queueing up for passport control and waiting for luggage, etc, passes in a kind of dream, partly induced by the dislocation of jetlag and what day is it? tiredness, and partly by that soft air.

I stayed at a small hotel near the new airport. It's in a kind of small village still surrounded by rice fields (I say "still" because probably development will come soon and cement them all over, but for now...), with temples and small street vendors, like a slice of Thailand in the eighties. I strolled out at 7 this morning looking for my first meal of the trip. There were school kids in uniform walking along the village lanes, and women doing early shoppig, and men and women walking out to the main road to catch the bus to work.

I stopped at a street stall where a woman was grilling pork on bamboo skewers to ask if she also had sticky rice and som tam (pounded green papaya salad). With a yes answer, I went and sat down at a table in the back. Soon the pork came, succulent, with a little fat here and there to give it flavour and moisture, and so did the sticky rice.

Meanwhile another woman got the som tam ready. She asked me whether I eat chile heat: "gin pet mai?", and then showed me the three chiles she proposed to add when I answered "gin pet dai" (="I can eat chile-hot"). Other ingredients at the start include peanuts, dried shrimp, garlic, and tomato (they can include small crabs, but I don't like them so asked her to leave them out). Because it was early, she hadn't yet prepared the usual pile of shredded papaya, so she had to start by peeling the fruit, then chopping it with long paralllel cuts, then slicing off the thinly chopped flesh. The result, a handful of long julienne-like shreds, then got added to the large ceramic mortar and pounded with a pestle to soften it and blend flavours.

The salad came mounded on a plate, sweet with palm sugar, hot with chiles, acidic with slices of tomato and the green papaya and lime juice, and salty and pungent with fish sauce and small dried shrimp. What a wonderful opening to a trip to Thailand: sticky rice, moo yang (grilled pork) and som tam!

And it was a great reminder, after my three days of immersion at the Worlds of Flavor conference, which was focussed on world streetfoods, that there is indeed something magical and special about food made on the spot with skill and care, to order.

I want to say one more thing too, about the conference (there are so many things I could be adding here, about great conversations, new poeple met, old friends, new ideas, great energy and creativity...). There was so much going on: sessions about streetfoods and comfort foods from many places, from Peru and Brazil and Mexico (and John T Edge on streetfoods in the USA) to those from the Mediterranean and southeast Asia. But as Jessica Harris emphasised in her talk on Saturday, we are all very ignorant of African food traditions, even though they are the original underpinning of many foodways in the Americas. She's right of course. But as she was talking about acaraje (from Brazil) and other foods of South America, and linking them to west African foods, I realised again how long and slow the process is of getting familiar with new foods new vocabulary.

We take it for granted that most people will know penne from rigatoni from fettucine, but in the sixties all pasta was spaghetti, or maybe lasagna. It took a good while for the new vocabulary and new dishes to penetrate. How much longer and more difficult will it be then to get a handle on the African and Latin American ingredients and dishes? And that means we had better get started!!

It's good to be a beginner, to not-know, to experience the disorientation of not-knowing and the pleasure of slowly coming to new understandings about things that others know well. Outsider status, or beginner status is what keeps us reminded that we are not all-powerful. It keeps us tuned and humble, and hopefully respectful of others too.

So let's make a commitment to start engaging with the unfamiliar, whoever we are, wherever we are, in at least one part of our lives. In the food world, there's a lot to learn everywhere, but Jessica is right to push us to engage with African traditions. We'll be so much more appreciative, and we'll be enormously enriched too, by what we learn...

Now I'm here in Chiang Mai, the sky clear, the hills that rim the valley visible despite a little haze, the light turning golden in the late afternoon. I've already seen a few friends, and hope to catch up on more of the news this evening at supper. But I do want to remember to just be here, breathing it in, looking out for bigger horizons. It's too easy to get caught up in setting targets, in rushing to get the next thing done, the next appointment made and kept, the next plane trip booked. Those things are important. And I agree that ambition and plans are what get us doing things and completing them.

But targets and goals, specific ones, are also limiting. I want to leave room for the serendipitous things, the events and people that I can't anticipate ahead of time. For those, the lovely unplanned in life, are the things that enlarge horizons, extend the possibilties beyond the boundaries that I can imagine right now...


Robyn said...

Naomi - wonderful to see you last wknd. Your last 2 paragraphs ring so true. Landed in KL and even before we'd had our first meal I'm penciling in deadlines on the calendar, thinking of leaving for assignments. Which is great of course (no complaints from this freelancer at a time of shrinking budgets in the publishing industry), but also limiting.
Have some kanom jeen nam ngiaow for us! See you again soon, we hope.

Edmund Rek said...

Lovely reading your post. I could smell Bangkok. In a good way. Hot cement. Palm trees. And the way you described your first meal it was as if I was there, too; wondering if you'll every get over your crab thing.

kainah said...

Ah, Nom, your closing comments are so appropriate because all those mundane, got-to-get-them-done obligations that somehow end up dumped on our heads, have kept me from reading your wonderful blog for way too long. So I'm happy to be back, luxuriating in your sweet, soft, colorful, imagination-inspiring prose. Enjoy your days in Chiang Mai and remember to take your own advice, as will I!