I’m learning to read and write Thai, and let me tell you, it’s quite the challenge. I’m mainly inspired to learn because I really really really want to be able to talk with people (obvious). Specifically about food. Many of the street vendors here I’ve been visiting for years and we have a very smiley relationship and we can make small talk, but when it comes to bigger issues, like ‘how are the kids?’, ‘how is the king’s health?’or ‘where’s your son who usually helps me?’, or ‘what is the marinade for that chicken?’, I have to mime; which usually results in blank stares or uncomprehending nods. I want to dig deeper to understand the culture better.
I went out to dinner with four Thai friends the other night and at the end of the evening, after much laughing and lively ‘conversation’ had over a wonderful meal, I went home frustrated that I only understood about 20% of what was actually said! As much fun as we all had together, I’m dying to be able to fully participate.
This afternoon I finally made it around to one of my favorite vendors in the whole wide world, Khun Sopa. She runs a small food shop off of Soi Phi Phat in my neighborhood. I watched my clock closely today to make sure I arrived right when they opened, because once the lunch rush hits, her place is packed to the tin walls. The wait can easily be an hour for her salads and her chicken is often reserved in advanced. So at 11 am, with a growling tummy, I arrived at her stand. She immediately recognized me and smiled and asked how long I was staying. And then asked if I wanted the usual ‘som tham thai pet pet na ka?’ Spicy papaya salad? It warms my heart to be a regular!
I sat down and watched her deftly pound my salad, while her husband picked out a perfectly cooked chicken thigh. Let’s be honest; chicken is the best. It’s hard to top a roast chicken, any day. It’s a go-to item for me when I have people over for dinner. But this chicken, slowly grilled over just-glowing embers is special. I like to think of it as angel chicken because there’s really no room for improvement. Because the chicken is cooked slowly, the skin renders out until a commercial-worthy deep golden brown is achieved. Paper thin and crispy chicken skin is like fresh whipped cream on a sundae. It’s so delicious that you almost forget about all the goodness to be had underneath! But you don’t…and you relish every tidibit until the chiken bones are bare (or the bowl is licked clean). Eating a perfect chicken deserves a moment of silence at the end of the meal.
I sat down to my table and pulled out a spoon and fork. I felt like a 5 year old waiting to be served lunch by mom and dad. They delivered each dish to my table, along with the requisite dipping sauces, and I slipped into my irreverent lunch time ritual: crispy chicken, outrageously moist and flavorful, paired with a fire-inducing papaya salad. For a total of $4 (with bottled water), lunch/life couldn’t be any more perfect.