Saturday, January 16, 2010

Thai Food:

Grasshoppers, anyone?

Now that I've got your attention, let me tell you about Thai food--from my limited perspective, of course.

Four fundamental tastes dominate Thai cuisine: sweet, spicy hot, sour and salty. Thai dishes are said to combine most, if not all four, of these basic tastes, using some combination of chili, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, sweet basil, basil, lime, turmeric, pepper, shallots and coriander.

There are regional specialties, too, such as roast pork. Here in Trang, roast pork is popular for breakfast. Trang sweet cakes—the kind with a hole in the middle but no frosting—are popular anytime. (Think I’ve mentioned them before.)

Any market worth its reputation also will have a selection of more exotic fare such as…bugs. No, I have not yet tried them. I'm still working up my courage.

My culinary first impression after being here a month now is that spicy hot dominates everything, even the bugs. And like the weather, spicy comes in hot, hotter and hottest. A single innocuous-looking red fleck can render me unable to taste anything else in a dish. (So maybe I wouldn’t be able to taste a cricket?) Thai chili peppers are HOT. Of course, I didn’t grow up eating ‘em morning, noon and night so my “wuss-iness” is understandable.

More About Lunch: As already mentioned, the teachers at my school each bring a plastic container of rice and a little container of something else—usually some sort of curry or dish of ingredients chopped or shredded into small bite-size pieces. The offerings are shared—one spoonful at a time—plopped on rice and delicately eaten. We ALWAYS eat from a spoon. A fork in the left hand may be used to spear some delicacy floating in a curry sauce. (Using a fork to eat is considered very rude manners. Kind of the way we would view eating peas from the blade of a knife.)

I have shared with my lunch-mates that spicy upsets my stomach (which it does in any quantity) so they are quick to tell me when something is spicy or not. But they also urge me to try things, “Nid-noy,” or “a little bit.” So I politely nid-noy my way through lunch eating as nid-noy as I can of the flaming-hot dishes.

My own lunch (packed by Mama T, our cook) usually consists of a pile of rice (fried, brown or white) and a few shrimp or bites of meat, exactly three cucumber slices (why three I cannot explain) and maybe some lettuce leaves or what have you. If my rice has squid in it—which I seem to be finding a lot of lately—I pick it out for Wan Li to take home to her two dogs. This is not calamari-type squid. This is curling squid tentacles or rubbery chunks of the body or even a whole little cooked squid looking sad and forlorn about having come to such a sad end in life. (Sorry, but I don’t do squid—or octopus either.)

Today, we shared tiny dried fish (like minnows) and a single “salted egg,” carefully cut into four pieces (which was how many of us there were at lunch today.)

Rice or “glass” noodles may sometimes take the place of rice at meals. Children are taught to honor each grain of rice as if it were a sacred thing. Wan Li sang a song to the rice for me today that is taught to children so that they never waste a grain of rice or take it for granted. (And here I am getting a little tired of rice at least twice a day!)

We also eat lots of Thai “herbs.” Someone will bring a branch or a root/tuber of something grown at home and we all eat it because “it is good for our health.” Some are bitter or nearly unpalatable—but when you are mixing ‘em up with a spicy-hot curry, you’d never know it. (Except I do because I’m NOT mixing ‘em up in curry.)

Mama T includes a little plastic bag filled with hot chilis bobbing in a sauce in my lunch everyday. She is certain I’ll convert eventually and want to liven up my otherwise blah food. (I poke a hole in the bag with my fork and sprinkle a few drops on everything in hopes she may be right.) The teachers nod and smile, certain I’ll see the error of my Western ways before I leave here.

I kinda doubt it. Actually, the food isn’t that blah without chilis in it. It’s usually quite tasty.)

P.S. Tonight we had soup with fresh bean sprouts, pork balls, rice noodles, slivers of chicken and liver (or other livery-type thing), garnished with a fistful of sweet basil leaves. Ate around the livery stuff, rejoiced that there was no squid in the soup and thoroughly enjoyed it.

(Well, okay, I did follow it up two hours later with a bowl of dry cereal—something called Almond Crunch—just because…well, I needed it in the worst way.)

Juicy caterpillars for your dining pleasure!

Not sure what insect these were but they were fat and had wings.

The "bug man" who was kind enough to let a farang take photos of his wares. (And I didn't even buy any!)

This display of delicacies shows the Thai love of beautifully presented and arranged food.

Dried squid for 10 baht a skewer (about 30 cents). The squid is first smoked, run through a hand press to flatten it then skewered. (Smells to high heaven.)

Mounds of roast pork lined up awaiting customers. All kinds of flavors available.

Woman selling sticky rice packed in tubes of bamboo. Sticky rice can also be found wrapped in banana leaves. It's sweet and delicious.

Jack preparing to eat a spicy hot shrimp dish.

Great spring rolls! Always a hit with me. I much prefer them over grasshoppers (or the idea of eating grasshoppers! If I try grasshoppers and like them better, I'll let you know.)


  1. Oh My Gosh!!! Eating my yogart and looking at the bug food was not the best idea! I guess it's all what you get used to ... We chew on a chickens leg, chew on a pigs ribs, etc. This might sound repulsive to the Thai people.. (sounds pretty repulsive to me too) Judy

  2. Hmmmm. Eating from your menu items sounds like a good way to lose weight. However we hear that grasshoppers and crickets are both chocked full of protein. It's probably healthier than eating "buggahs" and KFC, but would have to be REALLY hungry.

  3. Pam, You have got to try the caterpillars !!!! When in Thai........ I know where to go if I ever want to lose weight!!!! Looks like you've lost some weight yourself, better eat up! Barb

  4. i love ur stories about Thai food, always makes me hungry! i watch alot of the Travel Channel and see the "bug food" on there alot! have you ever seen "Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern"?....he eats ALL bugs. yuk.

  5. Have never seen Bizarre Foods. Guess I'm missing something. Didn't know there were other bug lovers out there!

  6. Gross. I'll never eat bugs unless I'm starving to death..


  7. I was laughing out loud reading this one Pam! Just picturing you looking at these bugs saying, "no way!" And all the squid in the are being a great guest.

    How much for a pound of grasshoppers?