Almost 23 hours after stepping on Cathay Pacific Flight 102 at 12:30 AM in San Francisco, Diane and I stepped out of our hotel in Bangkok, breathed in the torrid tropical humid air and stepped on the Chao Prya Express Boat. Famished, tired, jet-lagged and excited, Thailand was our first visit to Southeast Asia and part of our annual Expat Destination Research Vacation. Like Anthony Bourdain, I also believe a perfect bowl of noodle soup is the world’s most perfect food. Seeking an unknown destination and any available delicious bowl of perfection close to the hotel, we traveled two stops and hopped off the boat.
Although Penang, Malaysia is our intended retirement destination in about six months, Thailand has always been a close second and our “Plan B”. Awesome experiences awaited us on the trip including a village homestay with a hill tribe, an elephant rehab farm adventure and strange signage. Acclimatizing our stomachs to spicy food every day seemed important when considering a move to neighboring Malaysia so we tasted and photographed. Bon Appetit !!
In no particular order, her’s my list of 15 interesting foods from Thailand. You saw the pig snout so this is obviously not a “Top Foods of Thailand” list. Some were good, some were bad, and some were so gross by Western standards that even I didn’t taste them. Number one on the list ranks as the best reason to become an expat in Southeast Asia as far as I’m concerned
1) Noodle Soup
Realizing we probably exited the boat in an industrial area with little food, we meandered our way through some back alleys soaked with dirty water and followed our noses. Stumbling into the dregs of whatever was behind the main street, a small noodle stand appeared in the middle of nowhere. Speaking no English, the woman motioned for a few Thai Baht and began preparing her specialty. Ironically, my first bowl of noodle soup was the tastiest on the trip, dripping with deliciousness.
80% of the entire world’s cultures eats bugs. As a great inexpensive source of protein, it’s 20 times more efficient to raise protein than beef, takes up to 1,000 times less water and I’m told some even taste like bacon (not the one I ate). Most edible insects are highly nutritious and you probably already do it since the FDA allows 150 insect fragments per 100 grams of wheat flour according to the strangely interesting blog Girl Meets Bug. Still hungry after my noodle soup, I sampled them right after I finished.
Considered the world’s smelliest fruit, the durian is banned from many public places in Asia. Available frozen in most Asian markets, I think it’s an acquired taste. I’ve had durian cakes, pastries and candy but the amount they use is paltry. Probably needing to be born in Asia to really love them, Penang holds an Annual Durian Fair and considers them “The King of Fruits” so I’d better learn to love them fast.
Usually illegal in many North American Chinatowns, I always thought frogs were only eaten by Chinese people but obviously I was wrong. Since we didn’t have an efficiency unit at the hotel I figured cooking one was too difficult and passed on whatever delicacy was available using frog meat.
5) Warm Meat
Freshness is the difference between most Southeast Asian diets and North American ones. Rarely eating more costly processed and preserved supermarket style meats, most Thai markets carry a plethora of fresh meat. Wondering how all the meat remains unspoiled in the sweltering heat and humidity, I asked several stall owners and the obvious answer is buy it early in the day. Lacking ovens, most Asian households simply buy fresh meat daily and throw it in the wok. Unclear how nobody ever gets bacteria from all the bugs and flies, perhaps our diet will always be cooked at a hawker stall in Penang rather than dragging home warm smelly meat on the bus.
6) Intestines and other organs
Yeah, notice all the flies sitting on the organs. This one actually qualifies as gross in my book even though I do enjoy most organ meat. Chopped liver counts as organ meat as does the gizzard on a Thanksgiving turkey which is totally irrelevant to anyone moving to Southeast Asia. I’ll let the hawkers cook this stuff also and keep it out of my kitchen.
7) Birds (huh?)
As an avid bird watcher, this one was quite irritating. Resembling sparrows, cute little birds covered in something appeared one day as we perused a local market. Perhaps this is not food although we observed them right next to other live creatures for sale as stew meat. I’ve heard birds are good luck in Asian culture so maybe this picture took the place of a rabbit’s foot in the mind of a vendor?
Considered a delicacy in Singapore and countries outside North America with large Chinese populations, turtle soup was not something I expected in Thailand. I’ve never eaten it and had no real desire to try it after seeing the poor little creatures swimming around the muck. Curious about other uses, I scoured my smart-phone and sure enough, found this article from “Mother Earth News, an original guide to living wisely”, proving that turtles are not just cute little pets from my childhood:
One way that some fur trappers and other rural people maintain their household cash flow during the summer months is by trapping turtles and selling the meat to fish wholesalers and restaurants. While the yards-long, hoop-and-net turtle traps used by the pros are too much work for the recreational natural eater, taking turtles by unattended hook and line, where legal, is a productive method for adding another gourmet treat to the camp menu.
9) Anything at the Night Markets
Clearly one of my favorite things about eating in Southeast Asia, night markets are quick, easy, and almost always delicious. Opening roughly at sundown, throngs of daytime vendors close shop and turn their attention to woks filled with fresh spices, meats and vegetables, all cooked to perfection. Replacing my current House Husband Duties, night markets will render my culinary skills useless once we arrive as expats in Malaysia. With equatorial heat blazing all year-long, evenings are the best time to enjoy Thailand’s famously spicy food. Unable to remember what stalls were the best, the picture was a simple but awesome dish and with most dinner budgets settling in at $10-15 USD for two, it’s hard to see us running low on cash thanks to the food budget for some time.
10) Thai Chilies
Dominating every aspect of Thai food, the flaming hot Thai Chili is a cultivar from the species Capsicum annuum. Commonly found in Southeast Asia including India and Sri Lanka, the fruits are pungent and the chili measures 100,000 to 225,000 Scoville units, only half as hot as a Habanero chili. Yeah, whatever.
Famous for its combination of sweet, salty and spicy, all I noticed for two straight weeks was heat and profuse beads of sweat dripping off my already noticeably wet head. Although I love Thai food, understand nothing you’ve ever eaten anywhere in North America is “authentic”. By our second week, Diane started asking for “mild”. Petite little Thai waitresses smiled but didn’t understand so we tried pointing at pictures of chili peppers in menus and motioning while uttering “No Spice”. Laughing, they obviously didn’t grasp the concept. Simply put, if you enjoy Southeastern Asian food but not Thai chili peppers, visit Hong Kong and stick to Cantonese style dishes.
11) Fish, Seafood and Other Swimming Things
Contributing to trim waistlines, seafood abounds in every region of Thailand. Every imaginable fish, sea creature, and crustacean is found throughout markets all over the country. Unlike warm meat, most seafood is kept fresh in tubs of smelly albeit slightly cooler water and I’d feel more comfortable cooking a fresh fish should I sleep in (past 4:30 AM) and miss the day’s best catch. Unable to identify more than a handful of any market’s daily inventory, I dined mostly on delicious fried Thai-style tilapia more than three times. (at least that’s what it looked like)
12) Fresh Coconut Juice
Diane’s favorite Southeastern beverage, fresh coconut juice refreshes and it’s served right out of the fruit. Although not usually very cold, the sweet juice quenches your thirst and cleans the palate after a day of sampling exotic street food. Used sparingly, coconuts don’t pose a huge threat to blood glucose levels although the saturated fat content is high. Ranking 45 on the Glycemic Index, I will no doubt limit myself after 18 months of diligent eating.
13) Green Things
If it’s great to be green, Kermit the Frog must love Thailand. Used like sugar in America, limes dominate Thai food almost as much as chiles with their sharp and zesty flavor. Packed with flavor and juice, Thai limes are smaller than their American counterparts and produce a noticeably distinctive taste when cooked as Diane and I learned in our half day Thai Cooking Class . Clearly a vegetarian’s paradise, green vegetables dominate the markets as much as meat, seafood and pork, making Thailand a perfect place for the always slim hippies and earthies that dominate Thailand’s expat community.
14) Turkish Ice Cream
No doubt an original from the Silk Route Merchants of the Medieval Days, Turkish Ice cream is available all over Thailand. Consisting primarily of milk, sugar, salep (a flour made from tubers of the orchard genus) and mastic (a resin often called Arabic gum), its technical name is Dondurma. Churned right in front of you or commercially crafted for sale at retail stores, it’s a refreshing treat and Diane and I plan on enjoying it in Malaysia since we both hate most Asian desserts.
15) Mickey D’s
When all else fails, there’s always McDonald’s. America’s most unhealthy fast food is found almost everywhere on earth and most visitors wind up there at some point in the trip, usually out of curiosity. Refusing to eat foreign crap, I didn’t attempt a Thai Big Mac but we did enjoy this awesome picture of Ronald McDonald and Diane engaged in the traditional Thai greeting. Visiting Thailand rewards travelers with a cornucopia of incredible tastes. McDonald’s is not one of them.
While this post may not send you dashing out for a bowl of turtle soup, a side dish of frogs legs or some pork intestines, please remember that trying new things is half the fun. Oddly enough, my stomach didn’t revolt once during the entire trip. Two years later in Singapore and Malaysia, I thought I accidentally stepped off the plane in a remote village of India and spent half the trip sitting on the can. Hoping you enjoy Southeast Asia as much as we do, please come visit if you’re ever in Penang. (Not yet of course; we’re still stuck in the Status Symbol Land of suburban San Francisco).
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