This morning, at a family gathering over breakfast, my husband’s aunt turned to me and whispered, “Are we the only two who aren’t wearing makeup?”
I was surprised because I almost never wear makeup, even when I do wear makeup, which always slides off about 10 seconds after I go outside. So I said, “Does it matter?”
She — this formidable lady who has a PhD and is a khunying, by the way — said, “I myself don’t mind at all, but other people might think we don’t care about them!”
And then I realized that OMG I LOOK LIKE CRAP ALL THE TIME. I go out with my hair tied into listing bun looking like the Asian female version of the Scarecrow in the “Wizard of Oz,” but only if that Scarecrow is fat and has mosquito bites on her face. NO WONDER NO ONE LIKES ME. I AM BEING RUDE TO THEM EVERY DAY.
And then I remembered when my mother would yell at me for LOOKING LIKE CRAP right before we were due to go out to dinner or church or something (and then I remembered that she still does that, and that now when she makes me turn back and change into something else, she is doing that to a 41-year-old mother of two). “You look like you work in a factory”, she’d say, or “You’re not one of those women who can get away without wearing makeup.” I used to think this was a crazy Tiger Mother thing, but this morning at breakfast, I realized it was a Thai thing. You belong to everyone. You are not on your own.
Looking nice is an expression of concern for how an individual’s actions may negatively affect other people. It’s saying, “I made this effort for you, because you are important to me.” It’s a way to show the beauty and harmony that Thais are known for loving. “Land of Smiles,” right? Even when you don’t feel like smiling? It also explains all the times Thais tell you “You’ve gained weight!” or when my parents criticized my na bung (grouchy face, which, like Jay-Z’s, is my default facial expression. That is the only thing Jay-Z and I have in common. The end).
It was deeply confusing to me as a child, because in the US we are constantly indoctrinated with the message that “It’s my life” and “You do you”. Here, it is not unusual to hear “I’m sorry I look so som (unkempt)” or feel embarrassed for not bothering to dress up. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a different way of looking at the world. And it made me think, is it really so different in the West? Especially for women? When we try to lose weight, try to look pretty, try to smile, are we really doing it for ourselves?
This is a roundabout way to get to talking about street food centers, I know. But I think they are an arrangement that fits in well with the Thai penchant for community and pitching in together. Food centers are the way Singapore’s street food is organized, but I have to admit I am not a big fan of them. I think they dampen creativity and competition, two very marked characteristics of Thai street food. However, I can see them being the future for a lot of street food in Bangkok. There are a lot of informal arrangements between friendly vendors: you sell duck noodles, I’ll sell stuffed noodles, he sells drinks, let’s share tables and maybe our customers will buy stuff from all of us.
And there are the full-on food courts, which are like what you get in the department store, only outdoors. These, too, are usually connected to a market of some kind. This is where I found myself after asking someone — at a Swiss restaurant, no less — where to find the best som tum in Bangkok. “Go to the end of Sukhumvit Soi 23, past Baan Khanitha,” they said, and so there I was, completely bewildered because there was nothing like green papaya salad to be found.
When in doubt, ask a security guard. He told me to turn left at the end of the road, right before you get onto the campus of a local university. There, past a sign reading “Petch Asoke” (Asoke Diamond), is an outdoor market selling all the types of clothes one would find at Siam Square (in all the same sizes: -2 to 2). Past those clothes, way inside, is a food court with a surprisingly wide range of Thai street food: southern Thai curries, Chinese deep-fried pork on rice, soup noodles, and, yes, som tum alongside yum (Thai spicy salad), which tells me you can’t be Bangkok’s best som tum vendor because you’re hedging your bets.
There is, however, this lady:
At Sid Paak (084-006-7597), she sells different types of nam prik (chili dips) along with all the different fixings, which are the best part of the dish: hard-boiled eggs, every fresh and blanched vegetable in Thailand, deep-fried whatever. Seeing this, I’m into it already, because I love nam prik, and I love piling my plate high with everything I can find. The most popular dips she sells are nam prik long ruea (shrimp paste and sweet pork chili dip), nam prik goong sieb (grilled shrimp chili dip) and of course the ubiquitous nam prik gapi (shrimp paste chili dip), which is my favorite here and super tasty.
That said, I cannot pass up the khao kluk kapi (fried rice with shrimp paste), which comes with dried chilies, julienned green mango, sliced raw shallots, dried shrimp, Chinese sweet sausage and, in some cases, thin strips of omelet. Here it’s a utilitarian, stripped-down mishmash, but it sure beats dragging yourself all the way to Banglamphu just for the street food version of this fantastic (and largely unsung) dish.