Throughout the years on this blog, I have pretty much demonstrated a Taliban-like commitment to eating Thai food the way Thai people eat it. It seemed like a no-brainer to me because a fork and spoon are so obviously the best eating utensils ever created. Why on earth would you struggle with a fork or, god forbid, a pair of chopsticks, when presented with a curry and a plate of jasmine rice? Because, no duh, the best way to eat something is the way locals have been doing it for years, and that this was obviously a rule that would apply to every cuisine, no matter what.
Then I went to Vietnam, and discovered that I have been eating the Vietnamese fried crepe — banh xeo, supposedly named after the sound the batter makes when dropped into a sizzling pan — wrong for years. It turns out the brittle, shell-like crepe is not the vehicle for the herbs: it’s the herbs that are meant to enclose the crepe, the leaves rolled up like an egg roll and dotted inside with bits of crepe crunch like croutons before they are dipped in a sweet-tart sauce and brought to the mouth.
Somehow, in all my years of patronizing Vietnamese restaurants all over the globe, no one thought to tell me that Vietnamese people eat their crepes differently than I was eating my crepe. They would just set the plate on my table and walk away, possibly resisting the urge to tell me, just like I resist/don’t resist the urge to tell other people, “You are doing it all wrong”. They simply seemed happy that I was there. This is because Vietnamese waiters are better people than me.
I was resolved to learn from my mistakes and to eat things properly from then on. But what happens when you don’t want to do it, even when presented with incontrovertible evidence that you’re DOIN IT ALL RONG? When our friend May took us to a banana curry leaf place called Raja Restaurant on a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur, I was forced to face this very question.
Because, let me tell you, eating gloppy food with bare hands is definitely my gastro-Achilles heel. Meaning, THERE IS NO WAY THAT IS HAPPENING. I mean, I’m Northern Thai and I can barely eat sticky rice with my fingers. The thought of all that unseen hand guck coating those grains of rice just makes me want to scrape my tongue with a chainsaw. So apologies, banana leaf curry originators. To the first people who thought of tearing a leaf off of a tree, tipping delicious curries from pails onto those leaves with a hefty mound of rice and a dollop of pickles and then having at it with their gross-ass bare hands, I say: hell naw. I say, I’m sorry. I say, it’s great you are eco-friendly and all, but thank God for the fork and spoon. Cuz when I see people doing like they’re supposed to and eating banana leaf curry with their hands, the grains of wet rice sticking to their fingers as they maneuver their way through their meal, it makes me think of this:
Stuff I would rather do than eat wet curry rice with my hands
- Get a painful charlie horse in the middle of a great dream
- Wear a repurposed garbage bag for two weeks
- Go to a Michael Buble concert
- Wash my face with sand
- Drink creme de menthe instead of water for a month
- Stub my toe really hard on something
- Go without sleep for three days
- Go camping (same as #7)
- Watch a “Glee” marathon from start to finish
- Eat a raw hotdog from current-day Leonardo DiCaprio’s crotch
In conclusion, I have to say thank everything worth thanking that the folks at Raja Restaurant are not judgmental asses like yours truly and happy to give a fork and spoon to anyone who finds themselves manually challenged. That’s pretty great of them. Because their food is really wonderful, and it would be a shame to miss out on that incredible curry due to my dumb neuroses. As for eating Thai food like Thai people … well, who am I to say how people eat? It’s nobody’s business but yours.