The title of today’s post, Kap He Chom Khrueang Khao Wan, means, in English, “A Procession Poem Admiring Sweet and Savory Dishes,” and refers to a poem written by Siam’s (now known as Thailand) Prince Itsarasunthon–later King Rama II–in 1800.
The opening stanza, translated by Heather Arndt Anderson, goes like this:
Massaman, a curry made by my beloved,
is fragrant of cumin and strong spices.
Any man who has swallowed—
the curry is bound to long for her.
There’s not much about the poem to be found on the English Web, but here’s a little blurb from Chulalongkorn University which reinforces the Wikipedia mention of the poem as an interesting “source for information on historic Thai cuisine.” A subject worth exploring, I’m sure. Even if just for the scent of it.
I’ve written a few times about my trip to Thailand in July of 2018 and how it is that I don’t look back either on the trip or its aftermath with, to borrow a bit of Queen Elizabeth’s phrase about her annus horribilus, “undiluted pleasure.” Still, there were sublime and joyful moments, and as it turned out, I learned a few things about myself, about some others, and about Thailand and its lovely people. About the last two, at least, I’m eager to learn more.
One of the things I learned about myself is that, even at my great age and half-way through my seventh decade on this earth (“for those of you in Rio Linda,” that means I’m in my 60s), I still travel pretty lightly and well, and I still enjoy the travel experience itself, even though the trip from Pittsburgh to Chiang Rai (via Chicago, Tokyo, and Bangkok) takes about 34 hours, end-to-end. Other than a bit of a debacle at Bangkok airport, where I was stopped by the Thai police (hard not to panic when that happens) and refused entry into the country until I gave them the exact address at which I was going to be staying (at least, after phoning my gracious host and giving the cops the information he relayed, I thought it was the exact address–good thing they didn’t come looking for me, LOL), and a further hour-or-so delay after I arrived in Chiang Rai while I waited for my host’s landlord to call the taxi stand and cough up the real address, so that my driver would know where to take me (LOFL), everything went as planned, and smoothly. Looking back on it three years later, in an exercise that Wordsworth might call “emotion recollected in tranquillity,” the little wrinkles at the end seem quite funny; I don’t recall being all that amused at the time. However, the large gin and tonic, followed by a shower (I do have my priorities straight), which was provided when I arrived at my destination smoothed any ruffled feathers, and even the jet lag (eleven hours forward–is that still a “lag?”) wasn’t too bad.
One of the things I noticed on the journey itself, as I went from American Airlines to Japan Airlines to Thai Smile Airways was how differently they present themselves to the customer in the context of their national culture. The US airline–bustling, friendly, a bit in-your-face, cheerful, rather shouty, and the standard plastic food. The Japanese airline–very quiet, a bit distant, extremely polite, delicious food, and a musical, low-pitched, spoken language (all good things, as the flight from Chicago to Tokyo takes, seemingly, forever. The one from Tokyo to Bangkok, not so much). The Thai airline–super friendly, but loud and a bit disorganized, good snacks (it was only about an hour flight from Bangkok to Chiang Rai), all overlaid with a language that (and this surprised me) sounded very harsh to my western ears.
One of the things I learned, over the course of my stay, about something other than myself is how absolutely delicious Thai food is, how cheap it is to eat “out,” and how much fun it is to shop both the local, outdoor, markets and the westernized superstores for ingredients so fresh and lovely that I can only pine after them now I’m back home.
Full disclosure: I grew up in Northern Nigeria, and for the first decade of my life it was commonplace for me to walk outside and pluck fresh, ripe mangoes and papayas from the trees. That’s a taste, and a feeling, from my childhood I thought never to experience again. But I experienced it in Thailand, together with the feel and taste of the tiny pineapples and little bananas that also grow there. The word “delicious” simply doesn’t do them justice and I do miss them.
There’s been much talk, in this second year of Covid, of the Chinese “wet market” where the virus is supposed to have launched and infected its first victims (yes, I know we’re finally allowed to question that assertion. Good thing, too. After all, Science!) Still, I know many who live in the insulated, antiseptic West, those who believe that fish is born boxed in rectangular chunks in the frozen food section of the local grocery store, and that no child labor is used to produce their expensive sneakers or iPhones, who’ll be horrified at the thought of unregulated, unrefrigerated outdoor meat markets, such as exist in many parts of the world.
And it is a bit off-putting, all the flies buzzing around. Maybe less so for me than for many, because I live on a farm with a few livestock, and flies in that environment are unavoidable, and also because I remember visiting Kano Market from a very young age, myself. (Pictured below, photos by Dad.)
My first exposure to Chiang Rai Central Market was the day after my arrival in Thailand, when my host and I had a quick look around and enjoyed a cup of tea and a few snacks at one of the many coffee stands in the inside and outside sections. But my real experience of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes came on the day we attended cooking school, and our teacher and guide, the lovely Miss Suwanee took us though the market to buy the freshest ingredients possible for the dishes we’d chosen to make. Gosh, it was lovely. No bats or pangolins (I don’t think) in sight.
The vendors come from all over northern Thailand. Regulars from Chiang Rai and its immediate surrounds. Hill Tribes from even further north, bearing vegetables, coffee beans, spices, yard goods, and tea. It’s like suddenly finding yourself, in the mid-1600s, on the Silk Road (admittedly with more car fumes), or a bit further east of the locales described in Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game. Just amazing.
It was at cooking school (which I’ve written about in another post) that I learned the importance of basic preparation and presentation as it relates to Thai food. So very beautiful, but sometimes very hard work. Making Thai red curry paste from scratch is a real challenge. But we were up to it! (That’s what the mortars and pestles are for in this photo):
Suwanee’s website is here. The recipe for red curry paste is on it, on the “Main Dish Recipes” page. Honestly, if you ever find yourself in Northern Thailand, I highly recommend you consider spending a day with the lady:
Red Curry Paste
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
6 white peppercorns
1 teaspoon shrimp paste
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
4 coriander roots, roughly chopped
1 lemongrass stems (pale part only), roughly chopped
1 tablespoon freshly grated galangal
1 long red dried chilli, roughly chopped
4 small red dried chillies, roughly chopped (or use 2 extra long red dried chillies)
2 Asian red eschalots, roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
Toast coriander and cumin seeds with the pepper in a wok or pan over medium heat for 1-2 minutes until fragrant, shaking pan to prevent burning. Cool slightly. Grind to a fine powder using a mortar and pestle. Add the rest of the ingredients, pound with pestle to a paste.
Then there was dessert. We’d decided to make sticky rice with mango. Suwanee’s mango (top left) is lovely and regular. My own mango has a bit of a Donald Trump combover aspect, and is rather sloppy. But the rice! Colored by hand with vegetable dye we made from pandan leaves (the green), and butterfly pea flowers (the blue). So much fun!
One of the loveliest days of my life. I’ll never forget it. Nor the refreshments that Suwanee provided–at one point a smoothie made from Thai basil, pineapple pulp and juice, and a little local honey (I’ve recreated this at home: Pretty good):
And at another time, Lao Khao, the rice spirit beloved of rural Thailand and which resembles nothing so much as American moonshine. (I know. Trust me.) Crimenutely. Ugh.
Lovely as that day was, though, I’m not sure it equaled what’s possibly the single, momentary, most joyful experience of what’s perhaps the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life, green papaya salad, at a tiny hole-in-the-wall place like this (I say “like this” only because I’m not sure if it’s the exact one, there were so many, all serving up stupendous food for what is, in Western eyes, a pittance):
Lord it was good. And served up by (seemingly) ancient crones. Another thing I learned on my journey is that it’s sometimes difficult to tell the age of Thai women. Very many of them look very young, even like teenagers, into their mid or late thirties, and then time and circumstance catch up with them, as they eventually do with us all. What I do know is that I didn’t see many Thai women who appeared to be of middle age. It’s a hard life for many, and those who haven’t managed, in their youth, to snare an “elderly western gentleman” to show them the world, to secure Buddhist “merit” for themselves and their ancestors, and to (in their minds) save them from what’s often regarded as a less-than-optimal marriage to a young Thai man (and what a perverse industry that is, perhaps a subject for another post), age very quickly.
But I digress. Back to more food and entertainment markets, of which Chiang Rai has several.
There’s the Saturday Night Market, which we went to on my first evening in Chiang Rai. I’d been up about 48-hours straight at that point, but it was all good–fascinating, in fact. A few streets are closed to traffic, and the town is converted into nothing so much as a street fair–food, entertainment, vendors peddling wares from designer knock-offs to locally produced porn videos–you name it; they have it.
Thai “street food.” And yeah. I’m a bit leery of meat on a stick, at times/places like this. Call me privileged. It’s OK. I’m just not all that up for it, unless I’m perfectly sure I know what it is.
This is better:
Although there’s another “deliciousness alert” coming up for something I ate for the first time at the Night Market (sadly, I don’t think I have a photo).
It’s northern Thai sausage, colloquially known as Sai Oua. I’ve tried a few Internet recipes in the last year or so, but none of them quite work. However, I’ve found a local butcher who’ll work to order, so fingers crossed: Sai Oua, and the “Bangers” recipe I have from my grandpa’s butcher shop have already been discussed, and are on the radar. Watch this space. And here’s a photo from the Web (click image for link to website):
If you miss Saturday night, or if you’re out and about on a weekday evening, there’s the Night Bazaar, a smaller version of the weekend event, and the one that we got stuck in the night the “soccer boys” were rescued from the Tham Luang caves. There was so much traffic, and so many news reporters, vans and cameras that several more streets had to be closed than usual, and, as they say, “you couldn’t get there from here.” There was, for a while, no way home. Still, eventually, we made it.
I also mentioned the western-style supermarkets and superstores. Even they have a unique Thai flair which extends beyond the ten-kilo bags of MSG that you can haul off the shelf and put into your cart. I think the largest of the chains are the “Tops Market,” and the “Big-C,” both of which I’ve shopped in:
It was sometimes quite hard, until I ran across really exotic finds (butterfly pea flower and pandan leaf dyed rice were two such things, for me to remember that I was half-way round the world from my usual haunts, because the shopping experience was so “normal.”
I should mention, on this whirlwind journey through Thai food, that we enjoyed some very nice home-cooked meals as well. Fish was sometimes on the menu (sashimi-grade salmon), as well as the lovely fresh fruit I’ve already mentioned, and a very nice dinner cooked by my host for me and a friend the night before I left:
I’d call that meal Thai-American fusion cooking. It was delicious!
On that (fusion) note, one of the oddest meals we enjoyed (considering where we were) during my stay in Chiang Rai, was on July 15, the day we visited the Baan Dam Black House Museum. On the way home, we stopped at Ribs & Co, a place specializing in American style food, especially–ribs. (Duh.) As I might have expected, the meal was delicious, served with rice, a salad, a number of dipping sauces and–TaDa! the ubiquitous tea!
Thai tea is a whole ‘nother story, and probably deserves a post of its own.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little excursion into what the future King Rama II might have called the “sweet and savory dishes” of his country. I love talking about my trip, both to people who’ve visited, who’ve lived in, or who don’t know anything about Thailand, about the friends I made, and about the sights, sounds and smells of a country which, however brief my experience of it, I came to love.
On the morning of the July 17, and only slightly the worse for wear after drinking breakfast at the little thatched hut at the old Chiang Rai airstrip, my gracious host poured me onto a plane, and I flew home. (No, I did not empty all these bottles myself):
Perhaps I’ll return to Thailand one day. Who knows? I hope so. At the moment, though, South America is on the itinerary for 2022.
Meanwhile, I’m counting on beloved stepdaughter, whose friend of very long-standing and his Thai wife own a restaurant on the other side of Pittsburgh, to hook me up with the best that the area has to offer in the way of Thai food. My plan is to dive head-first into the green papaya salad. Jenny assures me I won’t be disappointed.
**All photos, other than those noted, are my own, from my trip.