“What are ya eating, John?” I called down the hall at school. John, 11, turns around and smiles. He’s holding a snack package with a kid friendly design and Thai writing. “It’s my favorite Miss Melissa! Do you want some?” I walk closer. It looks interesting. Long brownish strips on sticks. They look a little like beef jerky. “What is it?” I ask as I reach out my hand to accept his invitation to share. He says something in Thai and I smile innocently. Then I take a bite. Fish. Dried fish. Salty, crunchy and VERY fishy.
One of the things that you will notice when you come to Thailand is that while people are generally smaller than Westerners in overall stature, they also tend to be much more trim. Both Rick and I lost weight almost immediately after we arrived. Literally. Within about a month, I lost almost 10 lbs and Rick lost 20. And, it’s not like we were dieting or doing anything with an intention of weight loss. After years at a certain size, it was weird to move down a notch and stay there. Because of this, I’ve actually done some unscientific research on the subject. And after 7 months here, I’ve got a few ideas.
More appears to be better. You can get food EVERYWHERE. Food stalls cover almost every square inch of unclaimed space on the streets. Grilled pork, chicken and shrimp. Whole grilled and salted fish “pops”. Fruit cups with watermelon, mango and papaya. Fresh coconut hacked open for a creamy drink. Little sit-downs with spicy salad or hot noodle soup. Scooters with grills attached like a side car that drive down the street. Stuck in traffic? No problem. A vendor will sell you little snack bags while you wait in grid-lock. Kind of like a drive-in on the freeway. A while back when we went to the beach on a long weekend, I met a mom of three young children. I said something about bringing snacks to the beach since kids are hungry all the time. She gave me a puzzled look and said, “why do I need to bring snacks? There is food everywhere!” And, so her kids snacked on grilled meat, fruit and little cups of soup.
Eating all the time seems to help. I get to school every morning around 6:30am and the eating has begun. We have about 15 food vendors in our school canteen. The variety is awesome: Korean, Thai, Western, Noodle Shop, fruit smoothies and little pancake treats. My friend, John, is there every morning and always has rice (molded in the shape of a teddy bear) with a piece of grilled salmon and a seaweed strip. I grab a smoothie and a banana even though I had a yogurt with granola at home. We have a milk break at 9:15am and lunch at 12:10pm. Both offer food first and when you are finished, recess. For students in grade 2 through grade 12, children select and monitor their own food. The preschoolers and kindergarteners get morning snack, lunch and a snack right after nap time. These are prepared and delivered to the classrooms. They get super cute kitty jello mold treats or little moon cakes or something else in a “just right” size for snack. Lunch for the “littles” is traditional Thai. Grilled chicken and rice is the Thai version of “nuggets and fries.” And then there is sticky rice. Ah, sticky rice. Available everywhere in little Nona leaf packets or steamed right inside a bamboo shoot. Flavored with sweet fruit bits, mango, or of course, fish. Eaten with your hands. Very good and very sticky! Perfect kid food.
Fresh and fast. People are constantly shopping for food. Whether you are at a street market, or at Tesco Lotus (a super market chain) people shop for fresh food often. Buying fresh vegetables, fruit and meats occur several times per week. Very few homes have an oven-just a cooktop. So food is prepared quickly and in small, one meal batches. Soup just takes about 15 minutes as well as about every stir fry. Making a chili paste does takes longer but this is made ahead to be used in several meals. Or, you can buy homemade paste at the market for less than a dollar. Compared to the shoulder to shoulder crowd in the produce and meat sections at the supermarket, the aisles with canned and processed foods feel like a ghost town. Quality and freshness matter.
Flavors. Salty, spicy, savory, sweet. I’ve actually come to except a surprise when I bite into something. And when I’m not surprised, I get a little annoyed. “This has no flavor! Did I get the ‘farang’ version because I’m an obvious Westerner? Don’t they know I have a finely tuned palate after half a year in Thailand? Where are the super hot bird’s eye peppers? Where are those bitter green things that look like giant peas but are definitely NOT peas? I want my SALTY fish!” Food becomes a bit of an adventure – an experience. My 4th grade friend,Patti, said it best in a poem she wrote for school.
Sour, Spicy, Yummy
Noodles put in the mortal and with the pestle chop chop chop!
Sour, Spicy, Yummy
Then the Papaya, mmm! Now is put.
Now the lemon, delicious it will be!
It will be the best Som Tum ever.
Sour, Spicy, Yummy
After that, the chili.
I hope it tastes fabulous for me and my family to eat.
Sour ,Spicy, Yummy