Glutton Abroad: Thai in Exile

chicken

Fried chicken and som tum pla rah at Zap 2

It was almost a full two days after the fact when I found out Ric Ocasek had passed away, in his sleep, at the age of 70-75 (no one seems to know for sure). Although I had not followed Ric’s comings and goings lately, and he had lived to a nice ripe old age, I still felt a pang of sadness for his family, his remaining bandmates and of course for myself. I still, only just two days ago even, listen to “The Cars”, their 1978 debut album. I do it enthusiastically, not by accident, not like when I end up with Gang of Four or Killing Joke on shuffle (sorry guys) and am too lazy or tired during my run to change it. I actually seek out “Best Friend’s Girl”, “Good Times Roll”, and “Bye Bye Love” in my downloads, and “Just What I Needed” remains my go-to karaoke song. They are carefully crafted earworms, but still cool, which gives my 15-year-old true inner self some plausible deniability.  The Cars were labeled as “new wave”, but they could have been considered alternative, even though they were played on mainstream radio. They rarely veered off their slightly offbeat course (save for the maudlin “Drive”, the ’80s precursor to every song by Train). Today, the Cars are classic rock.

I don’t really know what it is about them that enabled them to morph into everyone’s idea of their own particular brand of music — Was it the Boston thing? Ben Orr’s sleepy eyes? Or were the songs just simply that catchy? — but their work is classic in the way that New Order and Depeche Modes’ ’80s output is classic. It hasn’t aged badly like, say, some of Motley Crue.  It’s not “niche”. And by “niche”, I mean that it’s not Justin Bieber (which I also listen to, but only “Purpose”, and nothing before or since OK I mean I have standards OK).

giphy

I know this isn’t really Justin Bieber

(via GIPHY)

I used to have a rule that I would never eat Thai food outside of Thailand. That’s because I thought of Thai food as niche like Justin Bieber and that it needed the special fairy dust provided by authentic Thai shallots, or the tiny pungent Thai garlic. The nasty funk of real Thai shrimp paste, or dare we say it, fermented anchovies. Let’s not even go near bird’s eye chilies versus jalapeños.

But all that has changed here, of all places, in New Zealand. Or maybe it was just desperation. In any case, I found myself on Dominion Road, ground zero for all Asian food in Auckland, awaiting an actual Isaan meal at the confusingly named Zap 2 Restaurant (639 Dominion Road, 09-638-6393) (unnecessary musing: where is Zap 1? No one knows, including Google). It specializes in Northeastern Thai favorites like larb, fried chicken, grilled pork collar, various spicy-tart nam tok salads and of course som tum (including with pickled crabs and Thai anchovies!), but as this is still abroad, it also serves a full roster of Central and even Southern Thai favorites like gang som (sour curry). In short, the menu is enormous, which used to be another red flag for me but isn’t here in New Zealand.

larb

Chicken I larb you

To last while abroad, a Thai restaurant needs to do a sort of “Cars” thing where they manage to morph into every diner’s idea of their own particular brand of Thai food. Somehow this restaurant has been around for 20 years, but for some reason I was stuck noshing elsewhere on khao soi the size of an infant and stir-fried leftovers rebranded as “Thai salad”. I will not make that mistake again.

Long story short, this is Thai food cooked by Thai people, where some of the other customers actually speak Thai. The other customers, the pad Thais, the central curry lovers, the southern Thai chili heads, are also catered to. And if the som tum is made of carrots (a little more watery, what can you do, no green papaya during a New Zealand winter) and the spicy salads a little short on the herbiage and greens, it’s still Isaan food served with a big helping of hot sticky rice and the kind of solicitous care from the makrua (chef) that is the first thing to remind you of home in a long time. It also blew my head off, chili-wise. That makes it my own particular idea of Thai food.

 

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Glutton Abroad: Thai in Exile

  1. Peter Point

    I am an expat farang who has lived in Thailand for 20 years. I had occasion to visit the UK and France in 2012, the first time in yonks. My time in London and Paris was miserable. I had culture shock in reverse. To assuage my misery, I sought out the local Thai Restaurants. This was not an unqualified success, for although London is awash with Thai restaurants, it seemed to me that far too many Thai eateries were prone to serving-up emasculated Thai cuisine to match “perceived” local tastes; and Paris had an identity issue with its Thai restaurants, a sizable number owned and operated by Cambodians, a food culture that is no match to Thailand’s equivalent. I was glad to get back “home”.

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