There is nothing Thai people understand less than the desire to be alone. When someone slopes off, declaring an interest in taking a solitary walk or — heaven forbid! — a meal alone, the obvious conclusion that most Thais will draw is that there is something wrong. Because there is nothing worse than being on your own, with nothing but your thoughts for company. There is strength in the collective “we”. In the solitary “I”, there is just you.
The tendency to leave ingredients unadorned is another thing that Thais would rather not do. Sure, there are the raw vegetables that go with salads or dips, but they are the supporting players, the antidotes to things that need balancing in the ultimate battle for harmony on your palate. But everything is just that: a force to be counteracted. Everything is meant to be manipulated for the greater good, no stray acacia leaf or shrimp paste ball left to its own devices. What would fish meatball want to go off on her own for, anyway? Who does fish meatball think she is?
This is what makes Vietnamese food so interesting to me. There is the furious jumble of salads where lightly blanched slices of beef vie with pickled onions and julienned bits of carrot and glass vermicelli, and soup noodles heaped high with greens and christened with a bit of fish sauce and a dash of lime juice. But it’s just that — a mix that comes apart in the mouth, free to remain carrots and coriander leaves and noodles despite being part of a dish, readily identifiable and unobscured by a paste marinade or egg netting or any other highfalutin culinary trick seeking to meld every component of the dish to some higher ideal.
And then there is the issue with the chilies: ultimately why I think Vietnamese food resonates with so many people in a way that Thai doesn’t. There isn’t the cloud of chilies literally obscuring your tastebuds. Vietnamese food isn’t a food-based “Fear Factor” where you are expected to endure varying levels of pain in the pursuit of eating like a local. It’s just there, a similar mix of textures and sweet, salty and sour tastes, but presented much more simply and accessibly. As Karen says, it’s “gently flavored”.
I think this sort of laissez-faire attitude is exemplified most by Ho Chi Minh City’s “Lunch Lady” (Nguyen Thi Tranh, Phuong Da Cao, District 1), who cooks something different for lunch every day and still has no problem expecting people to come to her streetside stall for a bite. In Thailand, where people are so hospitable it can become an affliction, there would inevitably be the worry that people might not like what you are cooking that day. Here, the attitude is, “This is what I’m cooking. You can take it or leave it.” Paradoxically, diners appear delighted to be told what to eat. These are the same diners that probably enjoy being yelled at by irate Asian ladies. Future street food cooks, mull a little on that.
I should add: diners are happy to have their choices taken away, as long as that food is very good. On the day we arrived, there were thick, glassy rice noodles like glittery udon — what Thais would call guay jab yuan — in a lurid, Will Arnett-colored broth flavored with pork bone and chili. The soup held slices of fatty pork, deep-fried shallots, coriander, bits of fried pork rind, boiled quail eggs and cooked prawns, and the noodles were inevitably heavy and difficult to eat. This bowl was accompanied by both fresh and deep-fried spring rolls and an iced green drink that tasted like pennywort, or bai bua bok. Whatever they chose to plonk onto our table, we ate, and we enjoyed it.