Meal-Time mysteries something to chew over
- November 19, 2012
Published: 18/11/2012 at 12:00 AM
Bangkok Post / Newspaper section: Brunch
The delights of dining in Thailand are well known, but there are some idiosyncracies here _ why are all the napkins pink? _ that cannot be explained but that make the experience of dining all the richer
Thailand is famous as a place where we are surrounded on all sides and at all times by food _ a paradise for tourists, especially aficionados of street food, and for Thais themselves. If you are travelling from Lat Krabang to Nong Chok and Ramkhamhaeng, you’ll find a certain kind of food _ good Muslim cuisine, and plenty of it. But if you go from Charoen Krung Road to Yaowarat, the selection will be very different.
And the time of day is not an issue. You can head out for a meal at midnight, if you want. And when you have felt the change of atmosphere from place to place it can be fun. Enjoying a special kind of food in a unique place and atmosphere is always exciting.
There are many things about Thai food that are very familiar and invite no questions, but just as many that do arouse curiosity and questions that can’t be answered. Why do people like to eat sataw, for example. These beans are utterly delicious, but they really reek. And what about the big insects called maeng da. They look unnervingly like cockroaches, but when their scent is used to flavour nam prik, the result if delectable. These are just a couple of examples of the many questions that can come up when considering where we eat, the food we enjoy and the ingredients that go into it.
There is one question about some outstanding noodle shops, the celebrated ones that people make special trips to patronise _ for example the beef noodles at Wat Dong Moon Lek in Thon Buri, the gai cheek (hand-torn chicken meat) noodles at Wat Jao Jet in Ayutthaya, the pork noodles at Wat Prewaat on Rama III Road, the noodles at Wat San Jao in Pathum Thani, the pad thai at Wat Thong Khung in Ang Thong and many others. The question is: Why are they all located at Buddhist temples? Some of the most famous have moved from their original locations in temple grounds _ Wat Dong Moon Lek noodles, for example. But they still use their original name. This is a question with no easy answer.
Then there are those eating places located at cinemas. Some of the more famous are the khao moo daeng (rice with Chinese red pork in sauce) at the Nakhon Sanuk cinema on Charoen Krung Road, rad na (noodles topped with meat in sauce) at the Empire cinema at Pak Khlong Talat, the bamee moo daeng (wheat noodles with Chinese red pork) at the Si Yan cinema on Nakhon Chaisi Road, the jok (rice porridge) at the Prince cinema in Bang Rak, the hoy thawt (shellfish fried with egg batter) at the Texas cinema near Yaowarat, the Chinese-style pork hocks at the Siri Rama cinema on Charoen Krung Road, the lawt chong (a green, noodle-like sweet served with sweetened coconut cream and crushed ice) at the Singapore cinema on Charoen Krung Road, and the Pop or Duckie ice cream shop at the Chalerm Thai cinema on Rachadamnoen Avenue.
All of these cinemas have closed down _ some have been gone for more than 50 years _ but food shops bearing their names are very much in business. Many new places opening now will use their names _ Rad Na Empire, for example. Recently opened rad na shops will use that name, even though younger people will have no idea where the Empire cinema was. New places called Lawt Chong Singapore have also come on the scene, even though the Singapore cinema is ancient history.
Why? Perhaps because in the past cinemas were the only entertainment venues for Thais, and when they went out to see a film they would also want to find something to eat. There were many of these cinema restaurants, but the best, which have lived on in people’s memories as symbols of that old tradition despite the fact that the cinemas themselves are gone, are still associated with good food, so that new restaurants make use of their names.
Another question concerns the food itself. For example, when fried rice is served in a restaurant, no matter whether it is made with pork, chicken or shrimp, it will share the plate with pieces of cucumber, some spring onion, and a piece of lime. At some times of the year limes are very expensive, small and short on juice, but the lime will always be there. It can’t be missing, even though some people don’t even care for limes or don’t want to squeeze it over their rice because it makes their fingers sticky. But if it is left off the plate, it is as if an essential ingredient for making fried rice is missing. Why is that?
Then there is moo kata _ thin slices of pork cooked on a griddle _ which resembles sukiyaki. Restaurants such as MK that sell sukiyaki are air-conditioned, but those that specialise in moo kata are usually open-air places, despite the similarity between the two dishes.
The main piece of equipment needed is a charcoal stove that is set in the middle of the table, and the time of year when people eat the dish most often is the summer. This means that they will be getting hit by the heat from the cooked meat, the charcoal stove, in addition to the fact that smoke from the stove will be blowing into their eyes. But there is an area on the banks of the Chao Phraya River that stretches for more than two kilometres, and during the summer it is full of moo kata restaurants. Maybe the reason that people like to eat this dish outdoors is that getting together with the family and friends to enjoy it at places like this is like a picnic, with the summer heat and atmosphere adding to the fun.
Another question involves beverages, in this case, beer. Many brands are sold in Thailand. Singha beer has been on the market for 80 years and uses Hanuman or a traditionally styled lion as its logo. There is also Chang beer, with its elephant logo; Acha beer, which uses a horse; Leo beer, represented by a leopard, and Tiger beer from Singapore. All of them use animals as their logos. Why is this the case, and why isn’t there a Tarzan beer, with the apeman swinging from a liana vine on the label?
One final question, having to do with the paper napkins offered on restaurant tables. Why are the ones in informal restaurants and noodle shops always pink? Occasionally you will find some white ones, but never yellow, green or blue. A mystery.
Food and the places that serve it offer many pleasures _ delicious flavours, tempting aromas, a pleasant atmosphere. But to these attractions must be added one more _ the fascination of the question that no one can answer.