From traditional seafood recipes and rainbow rice dishes to various versions of tea and ‘beauti drinks’, Thailand’s capital offers a lot of local culinary discoveries. An adventurous foodie takes stock. By Lubna Salim
The fluffy bed the window overlooks colourful bungalows guarded by tall gates. The pistachio green and lemon houses with mosaic pavements sit cosily in a neighbourhood enveloped in a comforting quietude. The silence is broken sporadically by indiscernible voices of kids playing in the alley. This languor of late afternoon in Bangkok is interrupted by a lanky lad on a bicycle handing out fresh fruits from a portable cooler in exchange for 10-20 Thai baht (INR 23-INR 45).
The kids happily snack on slices of pineapple, watermelon, and fermented guava, skewered skilfully on wooden sticks, the snack redolent of satay. At last I give in to the temptation and step outside to try the refreshing cold fruits neatly packed in plastic pouches and placed on ice.
It’s the first day of my second trip to Bangkok, and this is my first meal after eight hours of recovery sleep—the only cure for jet-lag induced by a late-night flight. I am yet to unpack the box of sandesh (Bengali sweet made from cottage cheese) and home-made parathas that will go stale if left unrefrigerated.
No, I am not one of those who travel far and wide only to survive on packets of Maggi masala noodles, tangy Kurkure, spicy Haldiram Bhujia, and masala chai ready-mix. Yes, I landed with a suitcase full of these desi favourites in the capital of Thailand in an unusually chilly March. But I only did it out of familial love. When your younger sibling gets a job in a foreign country, you must ferry her favourite food items there for a taste of home.
DO THE NEW
The first food (read fruit) trial pretty much sets the tone for this week-long Thai trip, the starting point of which is the sparsely-populated Nonthaburi province, just outside of Bangkok. A welcome and surprising break from the crazy bustle of Sukhumvit and other popular tourist areas, this is where an open-minded traveller can feel like Alice in (a culinary) Wonderland.
It is here that I, a chai lover, discover the sweet delights of cha chak, the hot milk tea made with condensed milk and black tea leaves. The burnt orange-hued tea is also available in an iced avatar called cha yen—the perfect drink at the end of a hot meal on a sultry day. Thai women selling cha chak and cha yen at quaint cafes remind me of the street-side coffee joints in Vietnam.
Within the first few days of my trip, it becomes clear to me that the Thai people are obsessed with health foods and beverages. The products available in convenience stores are a dead giveaway. Among my most peculiar finds at a 7-Eleven is something called the ‘beauti drink’.
Packaged in pretty translucent bottles stamped with images of orchids, these mildly sweet, fruity, low-calorie beverages are quite a rage among Thai women. The brand Sappe advertises its products as being packed with a beauty-enhancing collagen protein formula. There are variants for radiant skin, weight management, good eyesight and hair, etc.
Both men and women also seem to love ready-to-drink soy milk, with tetra packs of the breakfast staple populating entire shelves in convenience stores. Another easy place to sample local fare is any mall food court, where locals are seen tossing pad thai noodles with a mountain of sprouts and greens at live counters and even KFC outlets serve crispy chicken with Thai green curry!
OUTSIDE THE BOX
Seafood aficionados visiting these shores revel in the deep-fried fish dish called yum pla duk fu (crispy fish topped with toasted peanuts and a side of tangy mango salad). Easily available at local eateries, this golden-brown feast of flavours and textures resembles a bird’s nest. The fish is seasoned quite simply with salt or soy sauce, while the crunchy mango salad has a robust seasoning of bird’s-eye chilli, palm sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, and a dash of dried shrimp.
If you think that this umami tsunami is hard to beat, wait till you try a plate of khao yam (southern Thai rice salad). Its key ingredient is rice that comes in black, blue, and yellow variants. While the black hue comes from cooking the rice in morinda juice, which is known to have antioxidant properties, the yellow rice is made with turmeric, which is said to relieve flatulence and heal intestines, and the blue colour is thanks to the vibrant butterfly pea flower. Khao yam also comprises a variety of vegetables and herbs, but its defining ingredient is budu (anchovy sauce).
“This dish is also made by Muslim-Thai people in the three southern border provinces, where it’s called nasi kerabu. Malay people in the Peninsula and those living on the islands of Sumatra and Java of Indonesia have this dish in common, and some versions of it are called nasi ulam in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia,” my sister tells me.
I soon discover that the most interesting part of the dish is the rich cauldron of origin stories it simmers in. One story is that nasi kerabu was cooked in the kingdom of Phraya Nakhon in the month of Ramadan. This tradition began when, during the month of fasting, people suffered from diarrhoea, stomach ache, and flatulence and the royal doctor was asked to come up with a cure. The doctor invented a recipe and recommended that everyone break their fast with it. From then on, nasi kerabu became a staple.
In Nonthaburi, nasi kerabu is sold in street-side food stalls set up by Muslim women. There’s a specific way to eat it: start by accumulating the rice in the centre of the plate; pour the budu over it generously; mix it with a lot of finely-chopped vegetables and herbs such as kaffir lime leaves, lentil leaves, lemongrass, sprouts, cucumber, parmo leaves, long beans, sprouts, acacia seeds, and the like; garnish with a sprinkle of roasted coconut and dried shrimp; and finish with a squeeze of lemon and edible flowers. People also go for grapefruit and raw mango, and spice it up by adding cayenne pepper, before tucking into this artistic and wholesome dish.
With dishes that pack such a powerful punch of flavours and stories, Thailand becomes a site of adventure for my taste buds. So, while my sister rations the packets of Maggi and Kurkure brought from India, I stock up on a dozen packets of spicy Thai shrimp-flavoured noodles and crisps, curry pastes, varieties of Thai tea from ChaTraMue, and other local specialities to take back home. I already know what I’ll be asking her to bring back on her India trips.
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