An accidental education

"Dancing shrimp" from Petchburi Soi 5

“Dancing shrimp” from Petchburi Soi 5

A lot of the things I learn about Thailand, I stumble into out of ignorance. You would think I would know more than I do, but there are a lot of things in Bangkok that they don’t think to teach you. One of those things is where to hail a cab.

How to hail a cab is fairly simple: pretend you are pointing at the taxi with your entire hand, and then beckon with your palm to the ground. Why you would do this instead of raising your hand like anywhere else, I’m not sure. I’ve heard it’s because it’s impolite to show your open palm to anyone. The best Thai cab hailers manage to beckon with a mix of insouciance and grace that minimizes effort while maximizing effect. Drivers always stop for these people. I’m still perfecting my technique.

Back in the days when I was still raising my arm for a taxi like Tracy Flick in English class, I had just moved back to Bangkok from Paris and was preparing to move back out again, to Palo Alto. I was living on Wireless Road, and on my way to dinner with my parents at a place called Shintaro near the Ratchaprasong intersection, back when there was still a Regent Hotel. To find a cab more easily, I thought I would cross the street to Lumpini Park and hail a taxi going in the direction towards Ploenchit. It seemed like an easy enough proposition, despite the deepening dusk and the cacophony of bird sounds that erupts from the trees just as the sun goes down, making it more difficult to tell drivers your final destination.

Let me tell you, so many taxis passed me by. So many. It seemed like these cab drivers were even more desperate to give up money and keep from working than they usually were. When a taxi finally did slow down for me, I wasn’t even sure if they were for hire or not, so desperate was I to avoid walking to the Regent Hotel in my hugely impractical high-heeled mules.

The taxi driver seemed deeply nervous. When I told him to take me to Regent Hotel, he actually told me no, that he would take me somewhere behind it (Thai cab drivers are so temperamental, and so particular about where they go). As long as he was taking me somewhere fairly close, it was fine by me. But when he parked in a dark alleyway next to the hotel and lit a cigarette, I started wondering what was up. His hands were shaking. It was different from other taxi rides.

There was no fare due on the meter. So I took 100 baht out of my wallet and threw it at him before leaving the cab. I was willing, at this stage, to walk down the street in my high heels. But even though I knew something was wrong, it wasn’t until much later when I realized he thought I was a prostitute. Because I was hailing a cab from Lumpini Park at twilight.

Since I am in the mood to give tips, here’s another one for you: don’t go with your Isaan friend to try his favorite childhood dish unless you are very, very sure you are hungry, or that his favorite dish is something like grilled chicken. Because you could be in for a big surprise. In my case, the surprise came in the form of a dish called “dancing shrimp”, which does not refer to fresh shrimp “dancing” on a grill, or “dancing” in a bubbling soup, or “dancing” in the proximity of any cooking fire whatsoever. No, these shrimp are alive. And they are babies.

The “dancing” probably refers to when the baby shrimp are scooped into a bowl, drizzled with fish sauce and vinegar, mixed with coriander and green onion, and sprinkled with chili powder, ground toasted rice kernels, and a small squirt of fresh lime. To subdue these little suckers, you are meant to cover your bowl with another, empty bowl in order to shake those babies to oblivion without getting any gunk on yourself. You can then eat them with minimal interference. Of course, you can opt instead to watch them “dance” on your table, desperate in their ineffectual gyrations to get away from your gaping maw.

When my friend Maitree took me for “dancing shrimp” (goong then), it was at one of the restaurants along the Isaan strip of Petchburi sois 12-14, and the shrimp were collected from fish tanks that lined the sidewalk. These restaurants no longer serve this delicacy, because the shrimp have become more expensive. But streetside baby shrimp served live in a chili sauce is still a possibility, thanks to this vendor along Petchburi soi 5.

The "dancing shrimp" vendor displaying her wares

The “dancing shrimp” vendor displaying her wares

You are meant to enjoy your baby shrimp at home with some mint and sawtooth coriander, but if you ask nicely, you can eat it right there, in front of the 7-11 with the rest of the vendors on the soi waiting eagerly for you to keel over and die. Just make sure to tell them to go easy on the chili powder. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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