A reason to leave the house

fish

Pomfret in a pickled plum broth at Hia Wan Khao Tom Pla

It’s taken me a while to recognize that the nearly month-long period I’ve spent on my couch watching Netflix is not, actually, mental health “me time”, but really depression. The reasons why could be any number of things (my husband blames CNN), but that’s really secondary. It’s the realization that counts.

It took me long enough.  I mean, the signs were all staring at me in the face. Binging the first season of “Gilmore Girls” and forming strong opinions on the sub-par quality of Lorelai Gilmore’s friendships with other women? Watching and re-watching “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” for fashion tips from Aunt Zelda and Madame Satan? Watching any episodes of “The Good Witch” ever, at all? (1. These are all Netflix-related; 2. yes, I have watched every episode of “The Good Witch” ever made; 3. and no, I have not found a suitable replacement, Netflix suggestions be damned). It’s become obvious I have been depressed, and for a while now. The silver lining is that the sooner it’s recognized, the sooner I can find a solution. Of course, my solution mostly involves food.

I unpeeled myself from my couch long enough to trek to Chan Road yesterday, a heroic Odysseus-like journey that for me involves a couple of motorcycles and multiple Skytrain stops. The reason why stemmed from an iPhone message I saved from February 2017 courtesy of my friend Nat, who said that fairly authentic (what a loaded word) Teochew food could be found at Hia Wan Khao Tom Pla (2 Thanon Chan, 02-211-0829). I am no expert on the cuisine of the Teochew region (where most Chinese-Thais hail from), but I can say with certainty that this spot checks all the boxes that one would expect from a great fish porridge place: the ice-laden front counter bearing all the fresh varieties of fish on offer (in this case, grouper, regular pomfret and deep-sea pomfret), the gentleman owner overseeing all from a perch behind the cook station, fresh bateng (soy-glazed pork) to accompany every bowl of porridge, and brown bean sauce (here, two varieties: regular and slightly spicy) on every table.

pork

Bateng on display

There’s more. The place is almost strikingly clean, even by Thai shophouse standards: gleaming tabletops, obsessively tidy dining accoutrements. Besides the namesake fish porridge — heavy on the deep-fried garlic flavor, rife with thin-cut slices of fresh pomfret, perfect with the slightly spicier brown bean sauce — “recommended dishes” include a plethora of spicy salads (yum) of various varieties of seafood as well as different seafood steamed with glass vermicelli (ob woonsen). There are special soups of gently poached pomfret in a pickled plum broth, fragrant with lots of ginger and Chinese celery. They even allow you to make-your-own-porridge, mixing and matching all of the ingredients displayed in front. And it’s a Michelin Bib Gourmand eatery, a fact I discovered from the cover of their menu. It’s hard not to find something to like, as long as it’s seafood.

As for the depression, I am taking it day by day. I have stopped listening to Post Malone, or reading about Lena Dunham. I am making time for friends. I am trying to limit my CNN time. I still find Chris Cuomo sort of attractive, but I am working on it. There is no cure-all for something like this. There is just the motivation to find a reason to peel oneself off of the couch, every day, whether it is fish porridge, or going to the gym, or buying a bag of Doritos.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Winter is coming

chormuang

Pink-hued “chor chompoo” stuffed with salmon and macadamia nuts at Blue Elephant

(Lunch courtesy of Blue Elephant and the lovely Susie H. at Krinbourne Kommunications)

This is going to be a post about women’s stuff, so if you’re not really into that, feel free to nope on out of here:

giphy

My husband tells me that winter is coming — this weekend, in fact, when the Thai weather service apparently predicts the temperature will fall to a relatively chilly 16 degrees Celsius. Of course, this is the same weather service that said the rains were going to stop two days ago.

This will be a nice reprieve for me, since I’m so het up about other stuff. Stuff like douchenozzle dudes who get to rest easy, secure in the knowledge that they will always prevail, their bumps and bruises smoothed away by people tripping over themselves to apologize for any hurt feelings. At the other end of the equation, all those scary elevator screamers who are shouting without smiling or even putting on makeup or bothering to look nice, well, they are very rude and, of course, paid, but so bad at their jobs that they aren’t paid, which is even worse than being paid. That nasty George Soros, always stiffing those contractors at his lousy casinos! The pretext behind all of this, for women only of course, is SHUT YOUR MOUTH. This system was not designed for you.

This is stirring up a lot of stuff for me, so I’ve had a lot to chew on (in every sense) for the past couple of weeks. I’m remembering all sorts of stuff, from the iffy (interviews scheduled in hotel rooms, corporate comms types who pulled me aside at conferences for one-on-one interviews with their bosses) to squicky (the PR exec who made me climb over him to get out of a taxi, the fund manager who freaked my editors out so much they drove me home) to totally gross (the groom’s friend who dragged me onto his lap). I know I’m not alone.

So now is a time for some self-care. Some things I’ve been doing, in no particular order:

  1. Listening to a lot of Rage Against the Machine, especially “Know Your Enemy” and “Wake Up”. I find it relaxing.
  2. Yoga. Lots and lots of yoga.
  3. Drinking like I’m Brett Kavanaugh at Beach Week, brah!

It’s also a good idea to celebrate and support strong women who are working to do good things for other women and are, quite simply, good at their jobs. Every year, Chef Nooror Somany Steppe of Blue Elephant presents a “Go Pink” menu to mark “Breast Cancer Awareness month” in October, with proceeds earmarked for the National Cancer Institute of Thailand.

scallops

Grilled baby scallops with turmeric

The menu is available for all of October and offers up a good-looking pile of food. Not only do you get to drown all your feelings in deliciousness like grilled fresh river prawns, dressed with a tart grated salad of Jerusalem artichoke, or a rich Rama II-era beef curry stewed in cinnamon and coconut milk, but you can also tell yourself this is all good for you — the ingredients are specifically selected for their antioxidant or health-affirming properties — while helping to boost the fight against breast cancer in the process. It’s a win-win situation, which is becoming increasingly rare.

dessert

Dessert of sago with gingko nuts and young coconut

(Photo by Susie Hansirisawasdi)

 

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Noodles from a gentler age

noodles.jpg

Boat noodles without broth at Guaythiew Ruea Gati Sod

I left my house this morning in a foul mood following a few hours’ worth of CNN, prepared to kick in the face of any man who gave me cause. After reaching my destination and spending a mere few minutes discussing the ins and outs of Thai food, I returned home in a far rosier mindset. Food can do that for you. That’s what I like about it. It’s the equivalent of puppy and kitten videos and an afternoon spent watching Youtube videos of people attempting yoga moves that are far too advanced and falling, but not falling so badly that they seriously injure themselves, because we are nice people and not gaslighting douchebags who get defensive when asked about beer.

There goes my mood again. Let’s focus on some other things that make us happy when we’re in a bad mood, like (many) glasses of wine or 45 minutes of extremely mild cardio. Watching Lifetime channel specials featuring gourmet detectives or witches with magical powers whose most serious problem is when a rare flower gets cut in the public park. Listening to Aretha Franklin’s version of “I Say a Little Prayer”. Hugging my children. Did I mention wine earlier?

And of course, stuffing my face. What is so great about Thailand is that there are so many different ways to go, and they are all good. One of these ways is boat noodles, which sprouted up around the 1940s as small bowls served by canal-faring vendors who thickened the broth with a splash of pork or beef blood. These noodles remain popular, renowned particularly in the Victory Monument area, but they also have a following in other waterborne areas such as Ayutthaya.

Nakhon Nayok is another such place, generously studded with waterlogged rice paddies and shot through by the (what else) Nakhon Nayok River. Not surprisingly, then, boat noodles also figure here, but there is a type of boat noodle that is not served anywhere else. Called “Guaythiew Ruea Gati Sod” (boat noodles with fresh coconut milk), the vendor claims to make it from an “ancient recipe”, but a little questioning will tell you that she actually invented the noodles herself.

Adding the coconut milk to the noodles is not for everyone: it smoothes over all of boat noodles’ hard edges and sweetens the broth, sort of like khao soy without all the texture or garnishes. But if you are looking for something different, or if you prefer your noodles sans broth, simply a good bowl of boat noodles, trek over to Thanon Yai Lumlukka between Klongs 9 and 10, soak in the view out over the river, and treat yourself to a bowl or three of noodles, both with broth and without. You will probably leave in a better mood than when you came.

noodles2

In coconut milk broth, with shredded basil leaves

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Back to the Future

samosas

Samosas at Klong San Market

Whenever I tell people I am a freelancer, someone invariably busts out the decrepit old joke about “working hard, or hardly working hahahahahahah” like I have never heard that one before. I think of it now because I have barely been able to post much over the past few weeks, and the normal temptation is to say that I have been hard at work. The truth is, I have been hard at work watching Netflix. Specifically, the show “Lords & Ladles”, with which I am obsessed in the way that Naomi Osaka is obsessed with “the villain from Black Panther“. As in, totally.

If you don’t have as discerning taste in Netflix shows as moi (or don’t have Netflix, I’m sorry), let me fill you in: It’s three Irish chefs with a nice, easy rapport who cook old-ass recipes from dinners held in centuries past at old-ass ancient houses. It’s a brilliant concept because it’s food porn, Fear Factor-grossness porn (offal plays a big part in every meal), real estate porn and snooty family history porn all wrapped up in one, and it is irresistible. I cannot stop watching it.

Here is where you realize that: 1) Aspic really does play a huge role in these meals; 2) Testicles loomed large as a source of protein; 3) You can eat lambs’ ears if you work really, really hard at it; 4) “Hedgehogs” are the name for a type of dessert; 5) Anything can be served if you encase it in dough; 6) Everything was served “a la Francaise” (all the dishes of a particular course served all at once instead of in succession, which makes me look more favorably on Suhring’s tasting menus); and 7) Booze has always been an important source of calories.

In the last episode I watched, “pepper pot” was served as the first of 13 dishes, which is freaking insane because pepper pot is basically chili con carne with a bunch of crazy-ass off-cuts thrown in. In the US, pepper pot is most associated with Philadelphia — a bone-warming stew of tripe, veal knuckles and whatever vegetable you could lay your hands on, said to sustain George Washington’s troops as they endured winter at Valley Forge. That would become a huge enough selling point that vendors could sell it on the streets of Philadelphia years later, when those sorts of things were still sold on the streets.

This is food ephemera in the way that recalls the origins of the dish “syllabub”, another former street food of sugar and bourbon enriched with a splash of milk straight from the udder of the street vendor’s cow.  This particular dish was so popular that the vendors (and their cows) would be invited to dinner parties so that the syllabub could be made as fresh as possible. A good hostess would often milk the cow herself. Street food in old-timey America was something else.

Today of course, street food in America is often characterized as something slapdash and dirty, meant for tourists or people with little time or respect for themselves. It’s not something you travel a long way to seek out; the stuff you travel for, like pizza in New Haven, a burger at Shake Shack or Chinese food in Flushing, has long passed the point where it could be considered street food. Also, the existence of places like McDonald’s make working hard for your “street food” to seem incredibly self-indulgent, something for a dilettante with nothing better to do. And of course, many people in America no longer depend on that street food to survive.

This would be a nice future for Thailand, when street food would be an optional thing that could be sampled as part of Thailand’s rich cultural heritage and a fun pastime for tourists. We aren’t there yet, however. We are still at a place where a vast majority of Thais buy something off the street every day. Occasionally, Bangkok authorities get the message. After public outcry following the decision to “clean up” Khao San Road (please check out the tags on this linked Bangkok Post story), the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has reportedly capitulated and decided to leave it as is.  But the message has not been lost: if developers have major plans for an area, the BMA — like reverse-Samwise Gangee-type handmaidens, or real estate Dementors — can be called on to assist them on their quests.

Few projects have as much potential impact for an area as Icon Siam, expected to open later this year (!) on the Thonburi side of the river. Fang Thon (the Thonburi side) has been percolating for a while now, thanks to new developments like Duangrit Bunnag’s Jam Factory and Lhong 1919, establishing the area as a true hipster successor to crowded Aree and played-out Thonglor/Ekamai. The opening of a huge mixed-use shopping mall like Icon Siam will tip the area over into a real hub, a full-day destination just like Siam and Emquartier have become.

Of course, this inevitably means gentrification. So the stakes facing long-time markets like Klong San Plaza are high … but you wouldn’t be able to tell from asking the vendors there. A former railroad station for goods on their way to Bangkok, Klong San is today the kind of covered market you see increasingly less of: earmarked exclusively for Bangkok locals on the lookout for crazy-good deals. Think jeans at 250 baht, designer knock-offs, discounted makeup, and the inevitable scourge of streetside Thai-style sushi, you get what I’m saying.

fish

Isaan-style steamed fish

The vendors here, who pay a fairly hefty rent at around 18,000-30,000 baht a month depending on your proximity to the river, obviously see enough foot traffic to make it all worthwhile. To them, Icon Siam and Klong San are two completely different markets, aimed at two completely different segments of the public. They can only serve to help each other. But the fear among people like my friend Trude, who is studying commercial spaces, is that Klong San’s “hyper-local” nature is what makes them so vulnerable to being taken over eventually by a neighbor with far more money, eventually to be replaced by an ersatz “street market” that really markets to the hipsters that occupy Jam Factory. Eventually, the market for bargain-hunting locals will be only what is siphoned off to them by big corporations like 7-11 and its myriad instant noodles. Think chicken rice courtesy of Burger King, congee a la McDonald’s, sticky rice and Thai-style fried chicken from KFC. Don’t pretend you haven’t already seen it.

Until then, Klong San will give you culinary bright spots like any other local market: southern Thai-style samosas stuffed with cauliflower or bamboo shoots; Isaan food catering to the construction workers next door offering spicy chili dips, pork intestine spicy soup and herb-stuffed steamed fish with sticky rice; the usual soup noodles and crispy pork on rice alongside goong ob woon sen, or steamed river prawns in glass vermicelli. And, if you have had your fill of the cheap snacks and knick-knacks, finish your jaunt across the river with something a little more substantial at — you guessed it — Jam Factory, because gentrification is here to make noobs of us all and we are nothing but the human handmaidens to our corporate overlords, but at least in this case they are Thai corporate overlords and not Hilton Worldwide. Yes, the winged bean salad is that good.

salad

Winged bean salad at Never Ending Summer

 

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Natural

crab

Crab from the Crabman

(Photo by Chatree Duangnet)

I have not posted in a while because my laptop was being held hostage by my son, who used the tail end of his summer holiday to make numerous Google slide presentations for his own amusement. I have to admit I appreciated the excuse to stop writing. Unfortunately, he is back at school so I suppose I will have to start up again.

Also during the summer holiday, I was lucky enough to be tapped to do some research work for a documentary on street food. This led me to various restaurants, not all of them street food, where for some reason or other (such as, they were not street food) they did not make the final cut. One of those non-street food places was “Jok Tho Diew” (“One Table Jok”), also known as Jok Kitchen.

Jok Kitchen has been around for a while, a little over 10 years now. From the very beginning it was a success, winning write-ups from various publications and months-long waiting lists. The funny thing about this (Alanis Morrissette would call it “ironic”) is that Chef Jok came to the success of his one-table restaurant fairly late in life, after decades of kicking around Asia doing anything but cooking.

Born 65 years ago in Chinatown to a Chinese-Thai mother and a father who had immigrated to Thailand from Shantou, Jok spent his earliest years in the hospital, cared for by nurses because of a rare allergy to his mother’s milk. Fed on a mixture of chocolate and rice water, he was given the name “Jing Jok” (Thai for gecko lizard) by the nurses because although he didn’t eat much, he wouldn’t die.

This early ailment may explain why he remained the apple of his parents’ eyes well into adulthood. Gregarious and talkative, Jok was deemed unsuited to the traditional support roles in the family business, which was one of the most prominent suppliers of crab in the country. So instead of following his siblings into management, Jok became a delivery boy.

Watching what the cooks did with the crabs he delivered sparked his interest in food. His first taste of steamed fish in soy sauce, the signature dish of famed Thai-Chinese eatery Hai Tien Lo, sealed it. Determined to make the dish himself, 12-year-old Jok convinced his father to let him apprentice with the chef, Meng Jai, igniting a pattern of incorporating, adapting and improving others’ dishes that he continues to this day.

snowfish

Fried snow fish on lettuce, inspired by a meal at Fuji

 (Photo by Chatree Duangnet)

Never at a loss for friends, Jok honed his kitchen skills by cooking for his friends, starting a “cooking club” where he would attempt to replicate dishes that he and his friends admired at famous restaurants. Even as he took on a more peripatetic lifestyle, embarking on various ventures in Indonesia, Vietnam and mainland China, the cooking club remained a near-monthly occurrence, his interest in food unrelenting. “You should start a restaurant,” was a familiar refrain from friends that he kept touch with, childhood friends who had since grown into positions in the military, banks, police, media, and of course, in neighboring shops in Chinatown.

This would become key later on, when his parents passed away and he was left to fend for himself. After a brief and acrimonious stint maintaining a food outlet at Suvarnabhumi Airport (he quit after one month over rent issues), he decided to essentially monetize his supper club, opening up the table typically reserved for guests to his house to food-loving members of the general public willing to make the trip down the dank, dark alleyway to his door.

alley

By day, a bustling market. By night, the entranceway to Jok Kitchen

The concept was irresistible to Bangkokians: one table, reservation only, serving high-end Thai-Chinese food that was championed by big-name mucky-mucks in all corners of high society. Since then, Jok Kitchen has expanded to a back room next to the kitchen that easily fits two more tables; at maximum capacity, Jok Kitchen can accommodate six. The repertoire has also expanded, including special requests from guests if made far enough in advance (although his signature dish remains the beautifully steamed, fresh crab.) Other dishes are a map to his own experience: “Prosecution Fried Rice”, a delicious mix of perfectly wok-cooked Chinese sausage, egg, and Chinese kale was hatched during a late night session with lawyers working on the prosecution case against Thaksin Shinawatra; his “hangover soup”, a clear seafood soup with pomfret, ginger and pickled plum, was born after an evening spent overindulging on whisky.

The kitchen, however, remains tiny, a condominium-sized cubbyhole with four burners and a shelf full of homemade condiments, including his own version of a famous oyster sauce from a restaurant in Hong Kong. This is used to best effect in his steamed fish dish, inspired by that first bite of steamed fish in soy sauce at that restaurant in Chinatown years ago.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

This one is about Wuanood

noodles

Beef noodles at Wuanood

Note: The owners here are actually Thais who have studied abroad in the US. The basic premise (that we cross-pollinate our culinary influences when we spend any amount of time somewhere else) holds, doncha think? 

I have never been a fan of Khao San Road. The bucket cocktails, the blaring music competing from both sides of the street, the endless parade of pad Thai/fried spring roll carts standing in for Thai street food — it’s all pretty much my nightmare, aside from being in an actual club blaring the Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get It Started” on a never-ending loop as a bunch of fraternity bros high-five each other over my head.

All the same, the decision to clear the street of its street vendors from August 1 onwards is baffling to me in many ways. It’s not just because we always thought Khao San Road would be untouched. It’s because of the reasons behind that assumption: namely, the budget-conscious backpackers who form the backbone of the clientele there, the fact that the Thai economy relies heavily on tourism, and the likelihood of these tourists wanting to see something that doesn’t look like what they left back home. What would end up taking these vendors’ place? If you guessed 7-11, Starbucks, Burger King and some nearby shopping malls in the offing, congratulations, because I guessed that too and we are officially guessing twinsies.

At a time when Thailand is undergoing a gradual strip-mallification, Thai food continues to proliferate and flourish abroad. Sometimes it is not in the form that many Thais recognize … but them’s the breaks. Was Kurt Cobain thrilled to see fraternity bros enthusiastically mouthing the words to his songs in concert? No, he was not. Was Prince thrilled to see various people maul his songs onstage during a tribute performance? No, he was not. Cooks abroad, making food for people who are not necessarily Thai, are doing the very same thing with their interpretations of these classic dishes.

Now, when I sit down to a Thai restaurant in, say, Brooklyn and am confronted with crab rangoon and a watery green curry, do I think to myself, “Gee, I wish someone would swoop in and save me/save this restaurant?” I admit, sometimes I do. But never, ever, do I ever think the answer lies in the Thai tasting robot (I will never stop talking about this forever, because it was a genuinely batshit crazy idea). I guess I am just not as proactive about these things as Thai officials are. Also, I feel like it’s a futile exercise: aside from LA, there are just not enough Thais and Thai palates in this world to ensure that dishes in Thai restaurants from Prague to Pennsylvania taste like they do in Thailand. This is unlike the situation for Chinese food in Auckland or Vancouver, where there are plenty of Chinese people around to reward authenticity. Be happy that someone else knows about green curry and pad Thai. Count your blessings.

And sometimes, something genuinely exciting happens when you grow a cuisine abroad and see it imported back to you. People saw that with Chinese-American food, a once-derided niche that is today genuinely beloved for its chop suey, moo goo gai pan, kung pao, and of course, General Tso’s chicken (all stuff that I never got to try as a kid, because my parents liked the real thing). The things that people do with sushi rolls nowadays (tempura, deep-frying, mayonnaise) are things you are just starting to see in Japan, where now even salmon is everywhere, except at serious places where it is embarrassing for you if you order it (trust me).

In that vein, Thai-American stuff is just beginning to trickle back to the homeland. Wuanood purports to serve the same recipe as longstanding fave “Nuea Grob Noodles Behind Thai Airways” on Vibhavadee Road, but they do it with a decidedly fusion-y flair. Owned by Thai-Americans descended from the original Vibhavadee vendor, Wuanood specializes in, obviously, beef noodles, but allows you — via super-detailed multiple-choice menu — to choose the cut of beef, method of cooking, and even level of spiciness, allowing a level of customization set to please even the most persnickety of diners. Beef-averse customers need not worry: you can also get pork (Kurobuta of course) and/or a plethora of sides that include yum woonsen (spicy glass noodle salad), fried spring rolls and crunchy Korea-like chicken wings. Best of all, it’s indoors and air-conditioned, so you don’t risk heat stroke from going out on your lunch hour. If this is what the coming strip- mallification of Thailand looks like, bring on the corporate overlords.

menu

Self-portrait with noodles

 

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Finding the Om in Nom

lunch

You may start with a 30-minute run, or a group barre class. It’s boring and/or excruciating, but after a week, you’re hooked — the pain is nothing when compared to the glow of self-congratulations after the fact. I AM AWESOME, you think, so you do it again. After a while, like a drug, that hour-long class seems like old hat; it’s new heights of boredom and pain that you now seek. Some find that backbreaking solace in Crossfit, or marathons, or iron man competitions. Others take a different route: meditation, a cleanse, or detox.

It’s easy to say “I’m detoxing for 30 days, don’t feed me anything good”, and then eat soup and be mean to your husband all month long. But if you really want to do it, and to be held accountable, you go to something like Samahita Retreat in Samui, where detox, yoga, and, yes, weight-loss programs are available for anywhere between 7 to 14 days.

Samahita’s slogan is “Breathe into a new life”, but my friend Trude would say a more honest one would be “Luxury fat farm”. Open since 2003, Samahita means “centered” and its default setting is its “yoga/core/cycle” program, which every guest automatically gets once they book into the retreat. This basic default mode means that you aren’t required to stay the minimum of 7 days that it takes for the detox or weight loss programs to take effect. So naturally, this is what Trude, Fiona and I chose. It was not until I arrived on the premises that I discovered that “yoga/core/cycle” means yoga, core, and cycling classes because duh (I thought it meant some sort of yoga like “sun cycle”, only “core cycle”. Whatever ok?)

giphy

Gwyneth judges me

The “yoga/core/cycle” program involves up to 5 hours of classes, including morning meditation and breath work, yoga flow, core class in the afternoon, spinning, and then a gentler, “restorative” yoga. In the evening, you get another hour of meditation if you want. There is a morning banana and coffee and tea from 6.45 on, and a “hot” breakfast available from 9.30 while you are already in yoga class, but the bulk of the eating is done from 11am to 8 at night, when the dinner buffet closes down. In the afternoon lull at 3pm, you get a “snack” that is invariably a fruit that skinny girls always seem to eat, like papaya, watermelon or dragonfruit. I am detailing this as clearly as I can because 1. I am a pig and 2. this is ultimately what Samahita is all about.

In other words, besides being “centered” and working the crap out of you with its fitness and yoga classes, Samahita is mainly about (excuse my French) “le poop.” If you have problems in this area, Samahita is there to fix it with its smoothies, its juices, its poop-y fruity snacks, its all-you-can-eat lunch and dinner fiber buffets. I can attest (again TMI) to going to the bathroom twice a day; my companions, three. In any other setting, this would be cause for alarm and a trip to the pharmacist. Here, it was merely a byproduct, evidence of our detox.

And the food? The food. The food is a portal through which any culinary pathology can pass and thrive, uninhibited. Gluten-intolerant? Lactose-free? Vegan? Wary of garlic and onions? Every food phobia you can think of is acknowledged, cosseted, tended to like the weary feet of a tourist at an upscale Thai spa. There is even a handy food index:

index

Note the “Thai food” warning

Not surprisingly for a place that must denote its Thai food dishes, the clientele is overwhelmingly Western, with a smattering of Singaporean and Japanese guests. Many, if not most, of the guests knew Thailand solely through their experience at Samahita. This might explain why the food caters to a crowd that prizes purity first and taste second: the buffet changes daily but always features a salad, steamed veggies, a dip with crudités and a “green power soup” that I strongly suspect are the pureed steamed green vegetables from the night before. The focus is on freedom from meat, from sugar, with the occasional nod to dairy, wheat, eggs and even fish.  Things that hint at “sweet” are simply nods at those things, security blankets that don’t mean anything. This comes into focus most clearly in things like the “chia chocolate pudding”, which Fiona calls “the most anorexic pudding ever” and tasting as if “a chocolate bar had been waved over it during assembly”.

chia

Perhaps this is why much of the Thai staff, when confronted with an actual Thai and a Thai-speaking farang like Trude, did not really take us to heart. Even Fiona noticed, telling us, in case there was any doubt, that “Yeah, they really don’t like you guys.” I think the underlying assumption (because it couldn’t possibly really be us!) was that farang whose only experience of Thailand would be this retreat would be expected to indulge in crazy things like vegan food and 5 hours of fitness classes a day. Why on earth would other people who really know Thailand do it though? To opt for a garlic-free mash of grilled green peppers instead of nam prik num, to content oneself with flat rice noodles in a vegetable-and-arrowroot gravy instead of real guaythiew lard na? In their eyes, what were we thinking?

What we were thinking was that it was nice, for once, to feel so exercised, healthy and self-righteous. All the same, three days was enough. So enough, that we plan to do it again, later this year. I will bring athletic shoes this time, so I can go spinning. It won’t be any longer than three days, of course.

twins

Twinsies

On the way home, I bought a wildly overpriced bag of Doritos (extra Nacho flavor) and ate them outside, in a courtyard of the cray-cray Samui airport built to resemble a suburban US shopping plaza. It was the best Doritos I’d ever had, everything I’d been missing: satisfyingly crunchy, aggressively umami, yo-yo flavors both salty and sharp. That alone seemed worth the trip.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized