We all process cultures in different ways and through different filters. One of my favorites is food, and in that respect, Thailand is truly a feast: delicious cuisine that is often much more complex than it appears. Even the Thai equivalent of fast food is a treat. A few nights ago, we trucked out to the big weekend market in Phuket with an international group of cruisers (Aussie, New Zealander, Danish, American) to do some sampling from the food stalls.
We start with the simple stuff. This is easy, because there are more edibles on a stick than the Minnesota State Fair. Unlike the Fair, most of them are identifiable (let’s ignore the mystery meat kebabs- but hey, look at those baby octopus!) and barbecued instead of deep fried. Mmm, smokey blackened squid with a fiery chili sauce…
Other times you kind of have to just look the other way… like the fly swatter getting a little too friendly with the crab. I’ll pass. On the other hand… see those shredded veggies in the bag at the right side? That’s a green papaya salad. Pounded in a large mortar with a dressing that brings together the key elements of sweet, salty, sour, spicy, it’s one of my favorite things to eat in Thailand.
I looked forward to finding find new-to-me treats. I did not expect that to include insects, but there they were, and there was the vendor with a big thumbs up and a smile, saying “arroy!” (delicious!). Living in Bali in 1991, it was a while before I learned that my favorite dish was not in fact vegetarian, but included honeybee larvae as a key ingredient. At a gut level, you know these aren’t going to be bad. It’s just cultural, right? It’s only our western lens that says “ew, insects!” In fact, insects are a staple feature of many regional Thai food traditions.
Walking by suddenly was not an option, and raising my camera to take a photo wasn’t really satisfying enough. So we bought a bag.
I admit it: I had to close my eyes for that first one. The vendor watched me with rapt concentration, and I gave her a completely honest reaction. “Arroy!” Holy cow, but little fried crickets are GOOD. Think of it this way: it’s a crunchy, salty snack. How far off can you really go? I don’t know what else was mixed in when the vendor gave them a quick fry up and another shake of some mystery marvel powder, but it was delicious!
Two ingredients that show up over and over: lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. You really can’t substitute for the flavor of either, and their unique citrusy tang is getting worked into meals on Totem now too. These are finely sliced and mixed into fried rice, then topped with a sate of your choice and a selection of sauces.
If you’re going to eat, you’ll want to drink. There’s plenty of chilly Chang beer, but when else can you have fresh sugarcane juice? Stacks of sugarcane sit next to the machine that pulverizes them into juice, then decanted into recycled glass pop bottles. It’s sweet, not as sickly sweet as you’d expect.
Time for dessert! Two kids demonstrate a universal truth, watching with unbroken intensity as a vendor prepares their custom order of frozen goodness. Ice cream here is prepared by hand, to order, by blending the base flavor with mix-ins like fruit or sprinkles over a cold plate.