Author Archives: Bangkok Glutton

About Bangkok Glutton

Eating and writing in Bangkok.

Impossible Dream

There has been some valuable discussion lately on the need to diversify viewpoints in the world of food publishing, sparked in part by a story in the New York Times. I have absolutely nothing of value to add to this conversation. What I will add is that, to friends who send me links to NY Times stories about Thai food: This is probably a waste of your time. I will not read it. And it’s not solely because the NY Times will never publish me. It’s because I’m not the intended audience for this article. If your friend Tracy comes to Thailand, you’re happy to see her, even if she brought an extra suitcase full of goldfish crackers and candy bars with her, “just in case” because you know, Thailand. Tracy is still a kind, smart person and a beloved friend with a great sense of humor and a lot to add to conversations. But if she went back home and wrote something about the food she ate while she was here, I confess I would only pretend to read it, because I want to avoid as much cringe in my life as necessary that is not of my own doing. No offense. I love Tracy. She’s just not very adventurous when it comes to food.

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Guess I’m not pitching to the New York Times

(via GIPHY)

What I also love is that this sparks a discussion, all of it important, about what is and what is not possible when it comes to writing for a wide audience now. The NY Times comes under fire often — the “both sides” headlines, the horrible Tom Cotton op-ed — because it is the accepted authority on “everything that’s fit to print” among Americans, and an important news outlet for English speakers around the world. That’s cool when sources are all too happy to be interviewed by you, but not so cool when people start to dissect what you say. Everything that is being consumed all over the world — media, entertainment, and yes, food — is being reexamined and the old ways of writing about other cultures, genders, even politics, are no longer cutting it. There is an ad on CNN for Michael Smerconish that never fails to irritate me because he asks, “Whatever happened to when we were united against a common enemy?” The answer to that is,  minority people simply weren’t saying anything because they had more than one enemy. What he’s really saying is, whatever happened to when people kept their mouths shut?

One story that I absolutely loved in the New York Times Magazine by Isabel Wilkerson talks about how this reawakening has led to a necessary examination of the old structure that has held up this status quo for decades in the U.S. She likens the American race problem to systemic rot that has seeped into the foundations of a home, threatening to send it all toppling down if not addressed. But one of my favorite moments was of her recollection of attempting to interview a Chicago store owner for a NY Times “Miracle Mile” story, and being brushed off by him because the NY Times reporter was due “any minute now”, refusing to acknowledge that Wilkerson herself was the reporter he was so eagerly awaiting. Things like this have happened to me many, many times, and I don’t even write for the NY Times. I saw myself in that moment, on that page. That doesn’t happen very often to me there.

As a middle-aged woman with all the life draining from me as we speak, I had come to accept that my cultural limbo — an Asian with a hard, inedible little American core — was ultimately a story that’s been “told before”, worthy of hearing only once before heading to the next “OMG durian!” or “bargirls eating bugs!” story. To hear that there may be more places for this “novelty” point of view, as well as many others, is something that I never dreamed possible.

 

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No more

 

 

YELLOWPERILBLACKPOWER

From artist Monyee Chau at chinesebornamerican.com

While watching the horrible video of George Floyd’s “arrest” on the news, I couldn’t help but also try to get in the mindset of the Asian officer Tou Thao, watching everything unfold in front of him. He seemed silent, looking around, at times watching with the detachment of a bystander who just happened to stumble upon the scene while out buying milk. He looked like the very illustration of a man who was just looking to get on with his day. This, to me, embodied the attitude of the Asian community as a whole. “Not our fight,” they said. “I just work here.” “Go along to get along.” “I’m just here doing my own thing.” “Don’t make waves so we can make money.”

I’m not talking about the Asian activists who are out there fighting against police brutality and racial injustice. They are awesome and far braver than I. But too many of us Asians have been sheltered, shielded literally by black and brown communities from a barrage of overt aggressions. These aggressions hit us sometimes — “Go back to your country!” “You guys are dirty and disgusting!” “Apologize for coronavirus!”(not linking to Fox News) — but are often expressed as microaggressions instead of outright hostility. As a result, Asians often bend over backwards trying to explain to white people that “we aren’t those kinds of Asians that you don’t like, whomever they may be” or taking on all of the burden to make white people like us.

Many of us, including me, have been silent for too long for fear of alienating our white allies. We can’t do that anymore. For my fellow Asians who align against the Black Lives Matter movement, please take a good look in the mirror, and I mean that literally. What do you think the man whom you support sees?

I pledge to do better. I hope my fellow Asians do the same.

That said, I just can’t with this right now. It’s too much of an easy dunk. This is from @Bangkokfoodieofficial’s Facebook page.

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Look, most of Thailand has no idea about race relations in the U.S. And they clearly have their own issues with colorism.  But at the very least, I hope this company donates some of their proceeds to the Black Lives Matter movement that they are championing here.

 

 

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Out of the Box

squidsalad

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.)

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(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.)

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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.

thaimorningglory

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

friedfish

Tiny local sardines, wholly edible, scales and all

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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