I just saw “Black Panther”, and plan on seeing it again this weekend with my son. Part of the thing I love about “Black Panther” are all the great think pieces that it’s inspired. But don’t you worry. I am not going to write a think piece about “Black Panther”. There are plenty of far more qualified people writing things about it.
One of those think pieces that really struck me — Jelani Cobb’s in the “New Yorker” — basically says that, yeah, Wakanda is a fictional place, but the “Africa” depicted for the rest of the world for hundreds of years was also fictional. As with most things, that got me thinking about food. Because food is also a cultural construct, and people actively choose how to showcase it to others. How many times have you seen images of Bangkok, streets heaving with locals in coolie hats and live animals (“Bridget Jones Edge of Reason”), or sidewalks choking with street food carts selling God-knows-what (every Bangkok food documentary), or intrepid, good-looking adventurers gamely chomping on crispy grasshoppers or freshly grilled intestines (everything else). I’m not criticizing it, because that’s what people want to see if they haven’t been somewhere; they want to see something that’s different from what they know. I do this too. In Harbin, China, where I spent four days freezing my ass off in -40-degree Celsius temperatures, I wasn’t really all that interested in taking photos of the deep-fried fish and steamed dumplings that everyone eats over there. It was stuff like this:
This is why you get the Africa you see in “Tarzan” and all those colonial safari movies and Taylor Swift videos. Who wants to see some dude grabbing groceries at Big C before trudging to his condo in On Nut after a long day of work? I don’t even want to see that, unless it’s to pass judgment on the quality of his food haul (probably instant noodles and beer, amirite?) It’s why I don’t watch reality TV shows like “Dance Moms” or “Real Housewives”: if I want to hear some lady yelling at me, I can just call my mom.
What I do want to criticize, because hello, this is me, nice to meet you, is Bangkok’s reaction to it. When Bangkok does crazy shit like build a “tasting robot” to judge food authenticity (a losing proposition if there ever was one) or try to “declutter” streets by taking away people’s food choices, they are reacting to this construct, this culinary jungle Tarzan idea, that is completely out of their control. This seems about as useful as complaining about anyone who is still Facebook friends with your ex-boyfriend (didn’t they hear what a dick he was? Omigod Taylor.)
There’s a flip side to this Tarzan, though, and that’s Wakanda: something that is awesome because it is different, something that you want to seek out, and not as a foil to show off the superiority of the mundane. When you go to a different country, you want to find that sense of wonder, Wakanda even, in your food. In Japan, that usually means stuff like sushi or — since sushi is ubiquitous all over the world now — delicious chicken bits on sticks like this:
It usually doesn’t mean stuff like pasta, even though a form of it is what Japanese people (and Asians everywhere) eat all the time, either with the tomato sauce, cream sauce or pesto that you recognize and love, or with fish eggs, seaweed, shiso leaves and a crapload of freshly ground black pepper, like at my favorite restaurant in Tokyo (no joke), Spajiro:
In Thailand, the food that gets fetishized as “exotic” varies, of course, depending on who you are. There are insects, sure, and pad Thai and soup noodles, but if you ask me (no one asked me), nothing screams “Thailand” and “exotic” and “Other” like Isaan food: grilled meat, chilies, spicy dips and relishes, baskets brimming with lush local fauna, and the holy food trinity of pounded papaya salads, grilled chicken and sticky rice. For the truly die-hard, the bona fide Thai chili head, it’s Isaan food that moves the emotional needle, the thing that screams “Thailand” whether that’s what a majority of Thais are eating (quite a few suggest that might be the case) or not.
Right now, there is nothing more “Instagram-ready” than what you would find on the menu at the extremely buzzy 100 Mahaseth, an Isaan specialist that I can unabashedly say I am a big fan of (hence the write-up of a place that is not even close to being street food. (Also, Instagram is destroying food, but that’s fodder for another day’s thoughts. Also, microherbs=millennial parsley)). Yes, there are descriptors like “nose-to-tail” and ya dong (moonshine) on tap and its Thai hipster clientele and its very buzzy location on the very buzzy Charoen Krung Road, but it’s more than those parts. It’s well-made food that still surprises even the most jaded Thai palate and gives umami up the wazoo:
The cassia leaf and braised oxtail curry (tom ki lek), the fish sauce-marinated pork chop with young green chili dip, the curried pig’s brain with rice noodles, the grilled bone marrow dressed in perilla seeds, even the house-made ya dong: there is so much to try, so little time. Like the next showing of “Black Panther”, I am already planning my next visit.