Out of the Box


Fresh squid salad in a som tum pla rah dressing

I think I’ve mentioned before that two of my favorite movies ever are “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II.” It’s a controversial opinion, I know. I watch it every year, and just finished my 2020 rewatch a couple of nights ago.

This time, I found it sadder than I’ve ever found it, especially at the very end, when all of the family (sans Godfather and Mrs. Godfather) are huddled together, preparing to wish the patriarch a happy birthday. After all, as I get older, I find it is very difficult to flee one’s fate. Guts and determination aren’t enough. Sometimes it is just not in the cards. So it’s a hit in the gut to see what Michael Corleone becomes at the end of the second movie, ordering hits on people that weren’t even necessary. Young Michael tried all he could to escape his family business. He went to a fancy Ivy League college! He dated Kay! He risked his life for strangers! But when push came to shoving his ailing dad’s hospital bed into a closet, the family business is what he ended up having to do. And by protecting his father, his fate was sealed.

(This kind of thinking, that you can’t flee your fate, seems to be the prevailing sentiment nowadays, anywhere. “Que sera sera,” the people in charge say. “We are warriors.” But warriors for what? And for whom? But I what do I know? Stick to food.)


(via GIPHY)

Asian food appears to have been wrangled into a similar box. Conventional wisdom has long told us that no one will pay for Asian food beyond a certain threshold. There were various reasons for this: Asian cooking didn’t require as much skill as Western food, they’d say; the surroundings it was served in were chintzy or dingy; and because it was cooked by Asian people, who famously eat any manner of things, the hygiene was questionable. Of course, Asian cuisines like Japanese have escaped this mode of thinking, thanks to high-end offerings like sushi (originally a street food).  But for Thais, for Vietnamese, and obviously for Chinese, this is something that is so deeply ingrained into our brains that when Bo.lan first opened, more than a decade ago, even my mother complained about the prices, asking “Who would pay this much for Thai food?” No wonder, then, that foodies would flock to non-threatening fellow Westerners who offer a shiny gloss to ethnic cuisine, as the gourmet versions of Pat Boone to the more polarizing Little Richard.

No one in Bangkok asks why anyone would pay Michelin-starred prices for Thai food anymore, but in the West, it’s a different proposition. And now with the specter of Covid-19 hanging over every corner of the globe, any culinary inroads made by Asians abroad risk backsliding; the hygiene worries return, and the old ouroboros of low prices leading to cheap ingredients leading to bad food rears its head again (as much as it can, because it is an ouroboros). I watched the CNN Town Hall on Covid-19 today, and one of the questions appearing on the screen actually was, “Can I get coronavirus from a Japanese chef breathing on my raw fish sushi?” (I can answer this: sushi dude will be wearing a mask and gloves, bro. You should be worried about the people sitting next to you.)


People react differently to uncertainty, as with anything else. For example, some people discover that they perform brilliantly under pressure. I am not one of those people. Uncertainty is probably another test that I will not score well in. But, as my friend Galen said to me just a couple of hours ago, Thais are hardy people. I myself would say Asians are hardy people. That’s because they have to be.

I remember being in New Zealand with my daughter during her last months of high school, away from all of my friends and the rest of my family, wishing I was back home. I now miss those days. Recently I returned home from Phuket, where I sometimes felt unbearably suffocated and occasionally lonely. I realize now that I will think fondly of those moments too, and wish I could go back. Maybe, far into the future, some of us — the lucky ones — will look back on this time in our lives the same way.


Stir-fried Thai morning glory, with thinner stems and bigger leaves than the Chinese kind


Tiny local sardines, wholly edible, scales and all










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9 responses to “Out of the Box

  1. Steve Parkinson

    So looking forward to being on that first flight out of Australia and back to Bangkok! The worst part of isolation is that we are missing Thailand and our love of strolling around the streets of Banglamphu, River Watching and Thai Street Food.. (And Adhere 13 Blues Bar!).Fortunately we continue to enjoy many home made Thai meals and the delightful aromas emanating from the mortar and pestle. Maybe this week we might follow it up with a viewing of The Godfather🙂 .

  2. TC

    Always enjoy hearing your thoughts. No SE Asia for me this winter, hunkered down in NYC. Stay well.

  3. Alan Katz

    Maybe you’re right. Maybe we’ll look back fondly on life today. Life is taking on a sense of urgency, danger, immediacy. We’re realizing how fleeting and precious it is. Maybe we’re a little less spoiled than we were a few months ago.

  4. Always enjoy your blog. In these strange times it seems even more important to read about people elsewhere, especially Bangkok, my favourite place to visit. We are so looking forward to the time when we can travel again. Sat on the Balcony of the Chatrium Hotel, Riverside watching the boats going up and down. Heaven.

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