The only reason I go anywhere is for the food. I don’t think this should come as a surprise to anyone. It really is my only requirement. I mean, everyone has their “thing”: some people need bathrooms in their hotel rooms, or to see the most popular sights, or to get a proper grounding in the local history. I do not require even that. My only desire is to be properly fed, and by proper I don’t even mean for the food to be served on nice plates, in pleasant surroundings with decent servers. I mean the food must be proper. It must be cooked with some semblance of sincerity and even pride. It must say, I did this for you to enjoy, I did this just for you because I think it is good. Treat it accordingly. It’s one of the biggest acts of generosity, to do this for someone you don’t know and might not even like if you did.
Food that is meant for tourists doesn’t always say that. Sometimes it says, I just need to get through this shift. Four more covers and I’m done. Get out of my face as quickly as you can. Please. It seems to be the attitude that underlies a lot of the street food still in parts of the West, as something made with haste for people who don’t know any better and are in a hurry themselves. Food as fuel, eaten to live. That kind of food, I would rather not eat. To some, it makes me a difficult traveling companion.
Take the German Christmas market as an example. Full of people, food, drink and games, it would seem like the ideal place to take anyone with even an inkling of some joie de vivre. For my part, I thought the Christmas market would be like Aor Tor Kor, but cold and with Christians. It turned out to be more like the Suan Lum Night Bazaar. And while that pleases most, normal people — tourists and Germans alike — there are only so many cups of gluhwein and eggnog to slog through, so many sausages in hot dog buns to consume, so many bites of flammkuchen and langos slathered in ham, cheese and sour cream to take before it all becomes an indiscriminate blur of sameness, all folded neatly under an all-encompassing cloak of German-ness. The culinary boundaries to Brandenburg, Thuringia, Bavaria all become blurred. This is what all Germans are, it says. Don’t look any further. It’s the same thing that Thais do: hiding behind the gilt-edged screen of culture, religion, green curry and smiles. You don’t have to work any harder, it all says. This is as far as you go.
It got me thinking about the tourist restaurant experience. To my mind, Bavaria is the German equivalent of Cantonese cuisine: the region from which the country’s most popular culinary exports hail. Everyone with even a passing knowledge of German food knows the sausages, the sauerkraut, the deep-fried pork knuckle, the potato soup and the light-as-a-feather dumplings that adorn every platter on every table ever set in the shadow of an Oktoberfest sign. It’s also the food that appears on nearly every “traditional German” restaurant on the road, from Berlin to Munich. One would think that this food is what all Germans eat, everywhere, regardless of whether they live in Stuttgart or Dresden.
Thai restaurant menus are the same — even in Thailand. While regional specialists shilling Isaan or Northern Thai do exist, it’s the rare Thai restaurant that is brave enough to leave off central Thai favorites like green curry, because that is what most people definitely like. It’s like presenting your best face to strangers at a party. Everyone sees your best face — your pad thai, your tom yum soup. It’s only the people who really want to who get to go further. Some day, I am hoping to return to Germany to get a peek at what’s underneath that mixed sausage platter.