The company sent our quality systems engineer and me to Thailand for a first production run for a organic rice partnership project, and I think I’ve fallen in love with the land and the food. I always knew that I enjoyed Thai food – the Malibu and Thousand Oaks-based restaurant Cholada got me absolutely hooked in college. But the food in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Kanchanaburi surpassed even my wildest imaginations.
The ingredients in Thailand are obviously different and a different freshness, flavor profile, and variety than those found in the US or imported. The food, therefore, tastes like a completely different and more vibrant food.
The typical dishes that I knew and ordered often were Pad Thai, several curries, some appetizers, and Mango Sticky Rice. I made it my mission to eat these dishes whenever given the opportunity.
For the most part, our hosts ordered the meals, and we were treated to some of their favorites. In Bangkok, we were hosted at the Blue Elephant cooking school, and we learned how to cook Tom Kha Gai (Coconut chicken soup), fried fish with chilies, mushrooms with black pepper sauce, and sour green mango salad. I had no idea that a mortar and pestle were such a significant part of the Thai kitchen.
We also experienced strong, bright orange, totally-not-bitter Thai tea (Thai Cha) served in a plastic baggie with a straw jabbed into the crushed ice. One must hold the baggie carefully, but the drink melts so fast, and you’re so hot, there’s not enough time to risk spilling it.
In Chiang Mai, we were treated to a saltier Mango Sticky Rice dessert (we ate it twice for breakfast), and the mangos were almost caramel-sweet. We also sampled Mangosteen fruit (the super fruit!), Rambutan, and Durien with our American expat host and his Thai wife and chef, who runs a canteen for a local government office. The Mangosteen was tart-sweet and came out in sections, almost like an orange. The Rambutan was sweet fruit similar to a lychee but a slightly less cloying.
Chef Noy selected a few durien lobes for us to taste, and the family looked on at us with some slight aprehension. Many folks dislike the pungent fruit. The samples she chose for us smelled like overripe banana peels with a slight sour-ripe finish. The texture was custard-like in that it was creamy once bitten into. The flavor had the almost-offensive over-ripe sweet fruit flavor, like you would get from bananas best suited for baking or cheese that has sat out for a little too long and has gotten sweaty. It wasn’t the rotting flesh or gym sock flavor/aroma that I had imagined.
One late night, my coworker and I finished wandering a night street market and went hunting for food. When the cafes seemed boring – why eat western food while vacationing?? – we resorted to a packed little food stall across from a western-style hotel. With just three little tables, a main wheeled cart plus 1 wheeled standing-height cooler; the cook and his aide cranked out all sorts of stir fries, curries, and sauced dishes. For comparison-sake (for science!), I ordered the Pad Thai and the Khao Pad Prik.
OMG – probably the best I’ve had. Cooked in a smoking hot wok over a crazy high gas flame, the noodles took on a caramelized richness that could only be achieved at such extreme temperatures and lots of smoke. My colleague ordered a chicken green curry that had her sniffling and sweating in the 90+ degree night.
In Kanchanaburi, we stayed at a local hotel that felt more like a resort. Situated on the River Kwai and very close to the origin of the Burma railway, which was built by POW labor during WWII, there was a thriving expat community and bars, hostels, and hotels built to host them. We were directly across the river from a temple, and we were wakened on our second morning by the morning prayer or chants. It gave a romance and mystery to the sunrise over the river to be sure.
The weather in Thailand was pretty much what one would probably expect: HOT, HUMID, MUGGY. Then again, everyone has AC, so our little group of Thai and American hosts and business partners dashed into 7-11 to cool off several times. This is how sweaty I got in just 15 minutes in the factory.
In addition to some of the great sights and food, we also rode tuk-tuks and checked out some night markets. What an amazing area!
If you haven’t been, get yourself to Thailand.
If you have, what did you like?