Someone once asked me “Why the obsession with age?” I was surprised; I hadn’t noticed how much I was writing about my old, old oldness. But why wouldn’t I be — I am staring down the barrel of 80, people I knew five years ago no longer recognize me, and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t eat like I used to. I cannot even be bothered to work, which is okay, since it gives me time to focus on the truly important things in life, like watching reruns of “Revenge”. Ah, youth! Its innate arrogance and unconscious cruelty and all the things we took for granted. Never to return again.
Another sign of my inexorable march to watching “Dancing With the Stars” on a religious basis: my newfound appreciation for guaythiew gai mara, or chicken-and-bitter melon noodles. Bitter melon, also known as bitter gourd or bitter squash and indigenous to the tropics, is one of those fruits that is hard to make out. Like taciturn people, they seem to offer nothing — wrinkled, waxy green flesh; a bitter, dry-mouth crunch — without a lot of work. But everyone that grows them has found some sort of use for them: sliced and scrambled with eggs in Okinawa; curried in India; souped up with shrimp in Vietnam. In Thailand, they are stuffed with minced pork and stewed for hours in a broth coaxed from pork bones to make gaeng jued mara yad sai, or stuffed bitter melon in clear soup. It’s one of those dishes that requires an introduction like “This is very good for you” (it’s supposed to be good for sore throats). Thais like to joke that you are starting to get old if you begin to appreciate it.
But rarely is there any mention of chicken-and-bitter melon noodles. That’s strange, because they are not hard to find at all. Tucked in amongst the ubiquitous papaya salad, egg noodle and rice porridge stalls are the vendors who display halved bitter melons and chickens on their carts, the ones who, inevitably, already have two or three people waiting in line. They are open for breakfast and lunch, because chicken-and-bitter melon noodles are a daytime dish. They are almost always mobile vendors, or vendors who, like the one between Emporium and Benjasiri Park, offer stools as tables with shorter stools as chairs (you are supposed to eat with your back to the traffic so road dust doesn’t fall into your bowl, but really, is this really cheaper than springing for a couple of tables?).
My favorite is the one on Sukhumvit 24 road, in front of a massage parlor and kitty-corner to another one (and a few feet down from yet another one). Noodle choices are thick (sen yai), egg (bamee), Mama (yes I know), and rice vermicelli (sen mee). The chicken, which from a distance looks like it is smoked, is actually gai jae, or boiled chicken. And the piece de resistance, the broth: sweet to offset the bitterness of the melon, aromatic with an almost cinnamon-y scent, stewed with bits of mara, old bones, and the remnants of my writing career.
Before you take it home, you are invited to juice up your noodles with any combination of condiments: sugar, dried chili flakes, pickled peppers in white vinegar, crushed peanuts, roasted chili paste. The end result is what the best Thai food always is: a study in contrasts between the flavors of the melon and the broth, the texture of the crisp crunchy greens with the soft give of the noodles, the comfort implied in the chicken and the spice of the roasted chili paste. Really, can you blame me for giving this a go?