Ode to the Motorsai

Grilled fresh lobster with garlic chili from Fikeaw Yaowarat

I know it’s not a classy thing for me to say — and as everyone knows, I’m a real classy lady — but I absolutely adore Bangkok motorcycle taxis. I use them every day. And it’s not like I have to use them (there is, after all, the bus, the taxi, the BTS, the MRT, my legs, and the WTFETMB), but I will go out of my way sometimes to use them. I have no qualms about traversing town from Sukhumvit to Sathorn on a bike, or motorsai, as the locals say. Barreling over the bridge on Rama IV while trying to keep my skirt from flying over my head is old hat to me (sometimes extremely scary old hat, but still). Whenever I see a win, or motorcycle taxi stand, on the corner of the street and I’m stuck in a taxi, I will immediately pay my fare and exit to the waiting arms of my true love, the motorsai driver. This always results in the immense relief of my taxi driver.

Post-taxi on the way to a dinner at Clara, snapped by my friend Chris on the other bike

There is an inner glee that I feel when passing expensive cars stuck in traffic, the time saved from an interminable commute by zipping through the streets on a “Bangkok helicopter,” as John Burdett called them in the novel Bangkok 8. This inner glee is only slightly dented by menacing pedestrians going about their lives on the sidewalk (sorry!). But as powerful as that glee is, it doesn’t compare to the actual feeling when your motorsai really hits its stride on an open stretch of road, with the wind in your hair, and a sense of freedom that feels like flying.

This is why, in spite of the recent opening of the MRT stop in Chinatown, I still get off at Hualumpong station and take a motorbike to Yaowarat Road. The subway is nice and all, but it doesn’t give you the 5 minutes into your bike ride when the smell of Chinatown — star anise, incense, maybe some garlic — hits your nose. This neighborhood announces itself like no other, and I never tire of finding my way here, even if it does mean trekking across town.

On nights that I plan to do a food crawl down Yaowarat Road, I always pre-game at Shanghai Mansion, where I snag a cold beer (with ice, of course!) with my companion of the evening. This time, it was my friend Teresa, who came armed with a list of places that she hoped to try. I knew all of them but one: a place called Fikeaw, which Teresa had found on Instagram. Of course, we had to go.

If you are used to elbowing strangers out of the way at T&K Seafood (or its red-shirted rival on the opposite corner), then thank the gods because your elbowing days are over. Fikeaw (which I am not sure means “green fire” or “perfect fire”) is hands down the better Thai-Chinese seafood dining destination, boasting a fresh, frisky display of various sea creatures in front of an unwieldy outdoor cart that shields its main attraction — its busy woks — from the view of casual passersby. Once seated, you might notice a healthy contingent of tourists waiting to see the chef do his business with a bunch of flaming morning glory (pak boong), but this is not as much of a red flag as it would normally have been to me. Order the pak boong if you must, but do not sleep on the lobster, halved without mercy in front of your eyes and cooked in a giant steamer with chilies and garlic. As much good food as I’ve had since my night there, my mind still wanders from time to time to that lobster (and the squid, and the stir-fried clams…you get the picture).

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Going with the flow in Kanchanaburi

Winged bean salad and river snail curry at Keeree Mantra

Most people who have traveled to Thailand (and many who haven’t!) know about the River Kwai, and the role that it played in World War II history. Some have even ventured to the Death Railway, riding on the rickety train up to a shanty town made up almost entirely of souvenir stands before eventually picking their way back on foot along the rotting wooden tracks perched precariously over the water. They may even have seen the handsome young monk in sunglasses, happy to pose for photos during his daily perambulations along the train tracks.

But have they braved the current of the River Kwai itself? I have. It’s fast — shockingly, surprisingly fast — flowing swiftly enough to make you dizzy as you attempt to read on your hotel bed with its riverside view of the rushing current. So fast, indeed, that crocodiles dare not haunt its banks. Or so I was told, right before I screwed up the courage to jump into the jade waters from the relative safety of my raft.

Our trip to Kanchanaburi was intended to be long enough to cram in everything that everyone wanted to see while short enough to allow people to go on it. This meant a series of unspoken negotiations and compromises that omitted anything extraneous, like my desire to try a mee krob sot, or fresh mee krob with the dressing slathered on top instead of mixed in. It was totally OK, it’s not like we were starving. Instead, we dined in spots gorgeous enough to inspire customers to hold their very own photo shoots, clad in their best all-white finery to contrast with the deep emerald hue of their surrounds (a go-to image for any Thai worth their Instagram account).

Keeree Mantra boasted a wide expanse of green lawn bordered by a man-made lake with a Bellagio-style fountain, well-tended lavender fields beckoning just beyond; Keeree Tara overlooked the rushing river itself with an enviable view of the nearby bridge done up in lights. Both served the kind of traditional Thai food to be expected in an upper-tier provincial hotel: well-made, to a middle-of-the-road palate, with no surprises (except for a chu chee of a local river fish that, when steamed, has the consistency of raw pork fat. It’s no wonder why we usually deep fry our freshwater fish). I was fine with easing myself into the views. Why would I complain about wasted mealtimes? It was fun just to go with the flow.

So there I was with my sister and my nephew, floating along the current, rushing pell-mell into every branch and cockroach-looking leaf that the river could see fit to send me. If you struggled too much, you could veer off course, and crash into the muddy banks on either side. But if you relaxed into the water and let the river carry you, arms and legs suspended as if you, too, were some sort of branch or cockroach-like leaf, it would take care of you, and reward your trust with as quick a trip downriver as possible.

In that jade water, I learned to relax into the current in a way I’m never capable of when I’m on land, when some part of my body is always twitching or braced or locked in anticipation of a future impact that will inevitably rock my world. In the water, I learned how to go with the flow, even as that meant accepting that there are grave mistakes that I can never rectify, that time will only heal some wounds, that I will never beat the current, and that it’s sometimes easier to steer your way around the detritus in your path rather than crashing into it head-on. That, once in the current, the best direction you can look in is forward, trusting that someone will be there to haul you out of the water when you reach your stop.

And if that voice at the back in your mind now says GET OUT OF THE WATER, YOU WON’T LIKE WHERE THIS GOES, you might be correct; the truth is, I could not bear to write about food today. That is because I believe in an American woman’s right to her own body, just as Americans have a right to decide whether to get vaccinated, and corpses have a right to keep their organs.

As I write this, people all over the United States are positioning themselves in a current that seems overwhelmingly fierce, hurtling towards a destination that a minority of the population wants. While it is tempting to struggle and flail in the water, looking back at the raft we’ve left behind, it seems far more constructive to look ahead, and to plan. Will we always be the dead leaves and muck held captive in the current? Or will we find enough footing to help haul others out of the water when they need it?

To help support abortion rights, check out https://abortionfunds.org.

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Food Rant no. 23951

Cassoulet in Portland, not France

I dislike Facebook. I would go so far as to say that I hate it. Yet I remain on Facebook, because it seems no one in Thailand can communicate with another person in Thailand without it. Also, I like being reminded of people’s birthdays. 

But every day that I remain on Facebook also reminds me of how much of a hellhole this social media landscape can be. (Twitter, everyone knows, is also bad, but can also be funny, as shown by this thread that I love). Unlike Twitter, every new development the infernal engineers over in Palo Alto come up with only adds to the soul-sucking lameness of Facebook. Like, no, leave me alone about Kid’s Facebook. I do not want my kids to be on social media all day long. We all know how well that has worked out for our parents. And JFC, stop nagging me about this weekend’s yoga class — everyone knows I’m going already! You are not the boss of me, Facebook!

So it should have been no surprise when I caught a conversation about a Thai restaurant in the US, started by a man I do not know personally (of course), bemoaning the exorbitant prices of said restaurant with the statement, the shit cherry on top of a turd sundae, that “this is peasant food”. The comment somehow so incensed me (ed: the whole point of Facebook), a person who reads a lot of shit opinions on everything, that I actually considered wading into the cesspool of this conversation to say something. But why make comments so publicly on Facebook when I can rant and rave on my blog, which no one reads? Take that, Mark Zuckerberg!

I then thought about writing my retort to this in a very straightforward way, pointing out the provenance of dishes like massaman curry, the sheer labor involved in cooking a real Thai meal, the price of importing Thai ingredients to the US at a time when everyone in the world is feeling the heat, and a host of other extremely boring things. But then I realized the folly of my thinking. The fact is, this guy who knows everything about Thailand is right. We should not pay so much money for peasant food. After all, they are peasants! They don’t need our money. They are busy farming and drinking and hanging out with their elephants. What would they do with all of this extra money we are giving them? They are above all this money-grubbing.

We should reexamine other peasant food as well. Like, WTF is up with the prices at Giglio? Are you seriously telling me I have to spend 250 baht (5 whole bowls of noodles in peasant terms!) for an order of panzanella? Don’t even get me started on the pappardelle. Or Appia! A whopping 400 baht (read: 8 bowls of noodles) for trippa alla Romana, part of a menu inspired by the countryside of Lazio, which has never seen the likes of peasants darkening its cobblestones, ever. 

There have also never been peasants in France, a very sophisticated country whose restaurants in Bangkok feel free to charge 690 baht (or 13.8 bowls of noodles) for a serving of cassoulet aka sausages and beans, or 340 baht (6.8 bowls of noodles) for onion soup. And let’s not leave out the center for the very apex of the culinary arts, Great Britain, whose ambassadors of cuisine in Bangkok charge 410 baht (8.2 bowls of noodles) for a shepherd’s pie, a veritable steal for the undisputed pinnacle of fine dining artistry anywhere in the world.

All the same, I have yet to see loudmouthed, know-it-all gourmands posting the receipts for their French, Italian, Spanish etc. meals in a huff on social media. I wonder why that is? No matter, we will surely rectify this situation here in Bangkok (the capital of a third-world country, but still). We shall scour every restaurant, posting the receipts of our meals only after we have eaten every bite and drunken every drop, accompanied by a strongly-worded complaint of how our food was inspired by peasants. We can even do it on Facebook!

TLDR: Keep an eye out for the third edition of my book, “Thailand’s Best Street Food”, out in bookstores next month! The cover will look different from this:

This is not the third edition’s cover

This has been my TED talk.

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