I know, I know. If you are like me, it seems like it would be something close to excruciating, right? I mean, it is not like I am the greatest conversationalist of all time. But I am doing this thing where I am trying to say “yes” to more things. So I’ll be meeting up for that drink with you soon, @bigboobs88! Until then, I’ve been filling up my time with more food-related activities, like sampling the food tours on offer at withlocals.com, a website that connects diners with local “hosts” who foolishly welcome them to the dinner tables at their very own homes.
Withlocals has hosts in a smattering of Asian locations including Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Nepal, and has recently found some hosts in Thailand. I wanted to go with someone who hadn’t been reviewed before, so I chose Som, a young Thai engineer whose home is on the outskirts of the city. My husband and I weren’t expecting much: Som promised “three sets of food and Thai fruit” for the reasonable sum of 15 euros, making it seem like a quick-turn-of-the-tables kind of evening where we would say our good-byes and I’d make a quick stop at Burger King before heading home.
We were pleasantly surprised by Som’s beautiful house, and when we got into the kitchen to meet Som’s “grandmother” — Som’s very own personal chef, mind you — we felt like Johnny Depp in a scarf store. The “three sets of food” were a delicious nam prik (chili dip) of minced Thai mackerel with all the fixings (Som had asked ahead what I like and I, of course, told her I have a weakness for chili dips), a stir-fry of prawn and vegetables, eggs stir-fried with preserved cabbage and a big steaming vat of freshly made tom yum goong. It’s home-cooked food, but the kind of home-cooked food that Thais make when they have guests over — all served alongside big Mason jars brimming with homemade roselle juice (nam grajieb). Som’s mother and Big Som joined us as well, and at the end of the dinner they served up a big bowl of green mango with nam pla waan (sweet fish sauce augmented with shrimp paste, palm sugar and chilies). Needless to say, we were completely stuffed.
Sometimes people ask me about hosting dinners at my house and, well … I’m too much of a miserable bastard to do it. But spending the evening with Som, her mother and Big Som — people who open their home to others almost nightly — revived my faith in humanity for a little bit. There are lovely people in the world, yinz guys. Not at my house, obviously, but elsewhere, in homes as warm and hospitable as Som’s. If there is anything that “marketplaces” like withlocals shows us, it is this.
4 responses to “Dinner with strangers”
These days so many different types of expats from the Indian subcontinent are crowding Bangkok that I definitely feel that gourmets like you should initiate a move to ask them to start home-cooked meals. Initially, they will be shy, but perhaps not to someone like you, and to food writer friends.
Bangladeshis are a good example of Muslim cookery of interesting to exceptional fish and meat dishes. With a climate much like Thailand, they are home. Be sure to ask about the subregions, like Dhaka upperclass, Nawabi, Sylheti, Chattagrami, Borishali, and other local cuisines. You will be loved and praised to the skies for knowing so much, and people definitely take pride in cooking their own local dishes with a special flair.
Tell them you want them to cook it exactly as they eat it, mustard oil, chillies, dry fish, ducks, oil and all. Since you eat beef, you will have no problem. There are Bangladeshis from the Hill Tracts, all Buddhists, for whom ngapi, or fermented fish paste is the staff of life. Actually, fermented fish begins to appear right at the Sylhet and Manipur regions, marking the transition to Southeast Asia sphere of culture along with Parkia (stink) beans and abundant use of bamboo shoots!!! Of course, pork, too, and soybeans.
I am from West Bengal, and from a group that employs no onions, no garlic, and has a very restrictive view on what can or cannot be eaten, including types of fish. No snakeheads or other Channa species, eels, no turtles, chicken, chicken eggs, beef, and much else ! Water Ipomea only at times of the day determined by the religious almanac, and never eaten by the truly orthodox!
The South Indian Vaishnava brahmans termed Ayangars are even more orthodox than we are and will not eat a vast range of vegetables and spices like cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, palm sugars, etc.!!!! And they produce the best mathematicians in the world, bar none! The cuisine is fabulous in spite of its apparently limited range and you should definitely make a point of tasting true Ayyangar cuisine, and contrast it with true Iyer cuisine. All available in Bangkok. Advertise you want to sample the different types of authentic South Indian brahman cuisine and see the interest you arouse!
It is worth learning the flavor palettes of each community one by one, and studying the incredible variation in Indian cuisine before it all gets muddled and lost. Eighty per cent of all the dishes and most of the delicate vegetarian preparations of my childhood are lost forever. The landscape has changed, those who know how to cook them are gone, and those who truly can appreciate are also rapidly disappearing.
Imagine if the only ones who “appreciated” Thai cuisine left in the world were the ones who loved what the New York takeaways served, and this is what they deemed to be the real and the true! That is what is happening to Indian cuisine in India.
I wish I knew more Indian-Thais or expats from the Indian subcontinent — this is a great idea. You are right; there is a big South Asian community here with a lot of great culinary knowledge. I, for one, wish I could learn more about it! The more I learn, the more I realize I know next to nothing.
It’s a shame that 80 percent of the dishes of your childhood are lost forever. It’s worth doing research on them! I feel the same thing about a lot of Northern Thai dishes and I am slowly but surely collecting those recipes. It’s a pain but better than losing those dishes forever!
Such a great idea …. if Melbourne was a foodie destination I could be tempted to host! And – Chow, don’t underestimate your conversational skills … we had a brilliant time with you and Karen and we were all strangers then!
True…I felt like I knew you already though!