Feeling like an eternity ago, I recently found myself reminiscing back to the long 18 month stretch when I played House Husband and Diane kept working. After the new economy ended my thirty-one year financial services career prematurely, I was in charge of chores while we waited for my 50th birthday, the magical day that made filing our MM2H visa financially reasonable. Deciding to take advantage of my time to get healthier and fit, I changed our diet to include mostly lean protein, veggies and lots of salad. Plotting how to cook healthy in America’s most expensive metropolitan area and continuing to invest for early retirement, I determined it takes multiple trips to all the local supermarkets and while healthy doses of marketing tell us that Whole Foods is “America’s healthiest market“, most middle class Bay Area residents know it as “Whole Paycheck“. Never really understanding why supposedly fresher foods rip away what little disposable income most working people have, living in Southeast Asia quickly teaches expats another example of how reliant America is on free trade.
Growing almost nothing relative to its population, America is sorely devoid of real fresh foods. Even shopping at weekly “farmers markets” usually means paying a premium for the luxury of living healthier. Importing rice from Thailand, fruits from South America and almost everything else that’s grows from Mexico, the food industry then polishes up everything with artificial colors and chops off “unsightly” things like chicken heads and feet because Americans think it looks primitive. Gaining an understanding that the western way of eating mostly processed foods leads to nothing but obesity and diabetes is one immediate benefit of living in Southeast Asia. “Fresh fruit and veggies” that travel across oceans or rack up frequent flier miles to arrive at the local supermarket are about as fresh as the leftover mystery meat in your freezer. Sadly, we know some European expats that still shop only at our local supermarkets. Charging exorbitant prices to import canned and frozen European processed food, these conglomerates cater to unhealthy consumers and while we obviously get certain sundries at the supermarket, exploring wet markets is high on our shopping list. Having already done the main tourist attractions as working vacationers, our recent trip to Bangkok gave us a chance to explore Thailand’s largest fresh market.
Removing any doubts that feeding a nation’s citizens by maximizing agricultural opportunities makes more sense than government subsidies of one primary crop, a visit to Khlong Toei Market opens one’s eyes to a plethora of fresh food that makes Whole Foods look sorrier than the Republican nominee for president. One of the biggest markets in Southeast Asia, it’s roughly 10 square blocks long and there’s so many stalls selling so many things, it’s hard to know where to start. Easily accessible from our hotel on the Riverside, we hopped on the BTS skytrain at the Saphan Taskin station and traveled three stops to the Sala Daeng station. Transferring to the subway, it’s a short two stop ride to the market and on mid morning weekdays you won’t find many tourists exiting there. In fact, it’s far down the list on TripAdvisor reviews of things to do in Bangkok and I’m guessing that’s because it’s not a tourist trap like many floating markets and weekend craft shops. And that’s exactly why it’s fascinating beyond anything we’ve ever seen.
Realizing what green veggies should look like, the market would make Kermit The Frog drool with stall after stall of amazingly fresh produce. If you’ve ever thought about becoming a vegetarian but thought you’d be bored from lack of variety, this market might change your mind.
As much as I love salads and green vegetables, meat is my thing and there’s more spectacular beef and pork here than I’ve ever seen. Looking forward to trying life in Chiang Mai next year, their market’s not as big but you get the picture. Shopping fresh every day is healthier and saves money by eliminating factory packaging and logistical transport. Every imaginable cut of beef is here and the array of aisles goes on and on. Always craving great pork since it’s harder to come by in Muslim nation, walking through the market feels like dying and going to Hog Heaven.
The further we walked, the more crowded it seemed to get with merchants, residents and everyone else screaming out orders. Restaurant and food court owners get their supplies here but they don’t drive it all back. Utilizing a system of hired help, multiple lanes of numbered food haulers sit, wait until they’re needed and then somehow carry hundreds of pounds of goods on their backs. Throwing the fresh food into a motorbike or truck, the inventory quickly heads off to its destination. Weighing an astounding 45 kg, a fully loaded basket weighs almost as much as the little Thai guys carrying them and makes you realize your job is not really that hard.
Possibly the biggest culinary disappointment in Malaysia is the seafood. Charging a premium for prawns and sotang (squid), Penang’s seafood is OK but can’t hold a candle to Thailand. Visiting Hua HIn last year was a gastronomic treat with enormously large fish and prawns practically everywhere at prices no higher than beef and pork. But there’s no shortage of anything in Bangkok and we marveled jealously as we walked through stall after stall selling beautiful red snapper three times the size of Malaysia’s version, giant prawns, all types of crabs and fish they only identified for us in Thai but looked great anyway.
The market seemingly goes on and on and left us craving seafood for dinner. Planning on visiting Samboon Seafood, later for dinner, we worked up an appetite watching it all. As one of Bangkok’s busiest and best seafood restaurants, it’s pricey by our Thai standards but their famous crab curry looked irresistible. (pictures to follow in another post). By afternoon, the rain started coming down which forced the restaurant owners to work faster and harder. Barely able to squeeze by, many large trucks shipping large quantities of products headed for various businesses somehow inched their way through the narrow alleys and everybody cooperated with one another to help quickly clear lanes and aisles. Operating with a degree of efficiency unmatched in other countries we’ve visited, we think Thai people work harder and longer than other neighboring countries, exhibiting a work ethic unknown to cubicle dwellers and spoiled westerners (ourselves included).
Although they inundate North Americans with chicken, I was never really a big fan. Moving to Southeast Asia quickly teaches westerners that what passes for chicken in the name of economics is unnatural. “Plumping” chickens means artificially injecting them with hormones so they grow ridiculously big and that’s one reason they’re drier and less flavorful. I’ve never eaten chicken I don’t like in Asia and even though they look small and undernourished, that’s actually what they should look like. Even processed chicken at supermarkets falls off the bone like tender pork ribs when cooked thanks to the freshness factor. Unsure why whole chickens repulse westerners is beyond me but given the recent wave of nationalism throughout Europe and the USA, it doesn’t surprise me that closed-minded people think their unproductive wealthy nations reign superior. But I assure you the picture below is much less gross and offensive than what Tyson’s slaughtering rooms look like.
Granted some items are a bit more unconventional like pig snouts. Commonly sold throughout Asia, I’ve never indulged nor do I know what to do with them but according to a website called seriouseats.com, it appears they’re big, have lots of meat under the fat and taste like a cross between fatty tongue and bacon. Suggesting a pig snout and some peas for a perfect cold night soup, maybe I’ll try it some day. Probably not.
Granted there are some unusually gross looking items for sale like these skinned frogs.
And of course it’s hard for me to look at the poor innocent ducks destined for the dinner table. Yes, I love eating duck but I also love watching them in ponds so I’ll pass on personally slaughtering them myself. But non skittish Asians wouldn’t think twice about turning this cute guy into a nice serving of duck rice.
The market also sells dry items, literally tons of dried fish and of course, insects. Probably the place to buy them, the touristy areas charge money just to take a picture which you should never pay unless you like wasting cash. High in protein, they don’t taste like much to me but North Americans are among the minority that think eating insects is also primitive or simply gross. (Over 70% of earth’s people eat them).
And of course, Thailand wouldn’t be Thailand without thousands of chili peppers. Found up and down practically every alley we visited, there’s more types than you could cook with in a lifetime.
Spending about four hours exploring miles of vendors selling the freshest array of food we’ve ever seen, it seemed anti climactic once we got home and returned to the simpler and smaller wet markets in Penang. Clearly an education in how much of the world gets its food, Thailand is among the world’s most self-sufficient nation. Sadly, America produces less than 20% of what it consumes domestically and would no doubt use military might to forcefully take food from nations that have it if there was ever a catastrophic interruption to the world’s food chain like a massive crop failure.
Given that the entire Republican political party officially denies climate change, who knows if severe droughts might decimate the world’s food supplies. Should that happen I’d sure want to be living in a place that doesn’t need illegal immigrants to pick crops because farming and fishing is just a normal part of a healthy economy. Personifying that better than most places, we highly recommend a visit to Khlong Toei Market if you have some extra time in Bangkok.
Cheers from Penang and happy eating.