Spending millions of marketing dollars on ways to relax, unwind and spend more quality time with loved ones, corporate America often implies we’d be happier if we only had more free time. As one who’s now spent almost 24 hours of every day with their spouse since our Experimental Early Overseas Retirement, allow me to clarify things. Having been plunged into our situation thanks to my unexpected layoff, one of the first things you’ll learn is too much “quality time” together often leads to bickering. After four years, neither of us has embarked on a new career, pursued higher education, started a business or even had an epitome of “the next great thing”. While that’s not really bothered us because it’s allowed us to travel, cook fresh meals, spend time with friends and stay fit through walking, swimming, and the gym, it inevitably leads to the occasional argument.
While we love being together, our personalities are quite different and this often leads to clashes. For instance, I get irked about stupid shit in developing nations like incompetence in retail supermarket inventory and supply chains. Often asked about what’s different in Asia compared to North America, I respond by talking about bread. Considering how many choices are in North America from 12 grain to dark rye and dozens of artisan varieties, I often get frustrated how hard it is to find a good loaf of bread in Thailand. (Or Malaysia). Before being ripped by the non-North American expat crowd, let me explain something. It’s not that there’s no bread here; Europeans eat lots of bread. And to me it all sucks. Dry, hard and almost always tasteless compared to a delicious ciabatta, fresh hot loaf of San Francisco sourdough or a classic New York Italian hero bread, all the bread in Chiang Mai the expats rave about is about as appetizing to me as a piece of Hardfiskur (with apologies to Icelanders that enjoy dry salted fish).
Having tried every highly rated bakery and cafe in the area from Nana Bakery to Chiang Mai Bread, Diane and I learned to taper our expectations because almost every new place we try is a repeat of the same dry, rock hard bread they apparently love in Europe. Then there’s the Thai versions. As I’ve touched on before, every nation tailors their food to their own cultural preferences. In Malaysia that usually means lots and lots of spices that overwhelm any actual flavor and in Thailand it means 10 chili peppers in every order of som tum (For perspective, most westernized Thai places might put one or two chili peppers and since they’re grown in Mexico for foreign export it’ll never be as hot). Extending to bread, the Thai never like too much of anything so whole wheat or grainy bread almost looks like white bread and you can’t really taste the flavor of the grains.
Interestingly, you’ll find variations of sourdough bread all over Chiang Mai. Having spent 20 years living in San Francisco, sourdough bread that’s not sour is as foreign to me as calling bell peppers “capsicums” and traffic circles “roundabouts.” (We love the looks we get from our Australian and European friends when we tell them words and expressions that apparently only Americans use). Even processed American sourdough beats the European style you’ll find in Asia. Thankfully, despite the issues like the burning season, horrible driving and a mess of an immigration system, thousands of expats still love it here and every now and then we stumble across a culinary surprise. Having opened to rave reviews, we’d not yet been to a place called Feast Society by Salsa Kitchen but heard they bake sourdough bread that American expats say comes close to the real thing so we gave it a shot.
Strangely, the proprietor’s name ends with one of those one syllable names that sound Chinese but belongs to a white guy. Expecting an American, we didn’t get to chat with him but he did respond to every nice comment someone made when I posted a review on Chiang Mai Eats, the city’s largest Facebook group devoted to food. Glancing at his personal page revealed little information but the key to determining North Americans versus the rest of the world lies in their “about page”. While only making a picture of his child and a few likes available to the public, his sports likes indicated “Chiangmai FC Fan Club”. Thus, clearly not American. For all the North Americans only follow four sports (three if you don’t count hockey), let me clarify. “FC” is an acronym for “Football Club” which isn’t actually football at all. It’s soccer.
Why don’t soccer teams have names?
Yet another example of how Americans (and Canadians by default) segregate themselves from the rest of the world, “footie” is the world’s most popular sport, but most of us know little about it. Everyone outside North America loves it and for reasons I don’t understand, soccer teams don’t have names like Dodgers, Patriots or KIngs but instead always go by the name of where they play followed by “Football Club” or FC for short.
Returning to the topic at hand, one thing we love in Thailand is how almost every business answers a text within a minute or two so when you get a hankering for a good loaf of sourdough, some protein powder or need to know what to fill out before arriving at the immigration agent, you can usually simply write, arrive and have it waiting for you. So anyway, while I’m clueless how this European guy learned to bake American style sourdough, he also makes a hell of a meal so please so patronize his restaurant should you find yourself in Chiang Mai anytime soon.
Financially speaking, were it not for import taxes on foreign products, we’d live on a surprisingly low budget because good quality fresh proteins (pork, beef, chicken, and fish) at the western supermarket are the cheapest thing on the bill. For an average weekly shopping trip, we can buy striploin steak, chicken breasts, pork chops, boneless pork loin, ground beef, salmon steaks, and top round or chuck for about 1,200 Bhat (about $38 USD). Supplementing with fresh veggies and salad daily at the fresh market adds no more than $15 a week more. But unlike Diane, I can’t live without my imported items. And that’s where my issue with third world inventory control comes in.
Every Southeast Asian nation has a high-end quality supermarket where you’ll find loads of processed frozen shit like from fish and chips to frozen burritos and stacks of canned, jarred and bagged goods from all the continents. In Chiang Mai, the choices are Rimping Market and Tops. Priced as much as 60% more than home, familiar items like Vlassic Kosher Dills, T. Marzetti’s roasted red peppers and Newman’s Own salad dressing sometimes appear on the shelves. But of course, for all the obscure things I like, each store may get as little as one or as many as three of each item. Almost always having about 30 days until the expiry date, I’m thinking it either takes 36 weeks to arrive via ship or exporters send the leftover shit nobody buys at home (like they do with clothing; we routinely find Old Navy, Roots and J. Crew shirts for about $2 to $5 USD). Unfamiliar with import/export, I’d love to hear from anyone with experience why keeping imported items on shelves in Asia is so mish-mosh. Or why a small pretzel company from Pennsylvania like Pretzel Pete’s makes the grade as one of the few American made snacks found in Thailand.
With no rhyme or reason, some products are always sent often (Del Monte pickle relish, A1 Steak Sauce and Prego pasta sauce). Others are rare treats like the time I found four boxes of Triscuits (I bought three of them, all on different trips), or Litehouse French Onion Dip (a perishable item) which comes in twice a year, usually with expiry dates about three months ahead, and literally sits in different places in the store’s large refrigerated section all year long; usually until I buy it. Before we left for our smoke escape vacation, I found one isolated group of Athenos crumbled feta with sundried tomatoes and herbs and wanted them all. But I knew they’d stay unpurchased and sure enough, 52 days later, I bought the last one. With my guilty pleasure being cheese, I’m usually stuck with European processed slices because cutting anything fresh with a slicer is taboo for the Thai; probably because they can’t miss out on wrapping it in four layers of plastic. I did find Kraft singles from the USA twice in two years and despite a cheese section as big as any gourmet store in the Napa Valley, everything I’ve tried from Europe in Asian supermarkets is tasteless.
Inevitably, every time I find something great from home, it never comes back. Strangely, each developing nation seems to prefer certain countries for import items. Consistently stocking six different kinds of pickles from Germany that nobody buys and one brand of only green olives (Crespo) with about 27 variations, it’s obvious Asian importers feel only Europeans shop at high-end western markets despite the fact that many European expats in Thailand are dirt poor and can’t afford to go home. And another pet peeve is why developing nations keep the import shelves (and even the Thai processed meat products) unstocked for days at a time when appealing to foreigners. And during national holiday periods in Asia, stores look like Costco two hours before a hurricane as they decide foreigners don’t need to eat. Nobody wants to work at restaurants and the supply chain from Bangkok (or Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia) stops dead and takes weeks until supermarkets return to normal.
Then there are companies who license the name and make the product in Asia or Thailand which lowers the price but dilutes the taste. (Sunkist nuts and Heinz ketchup). Ironically, the ketchup made in Thailand has no high fructose corn syrup (not used in Asia). But anything made in Singapore or Malaysia by multi conglomerates like Mondelez International (Ritz crackers and Pringles) always contains copious amounts of palm oil, fructose and dozens of other poisonous chemicals that Asians consume daily. Sweet tooth treats like Kit Kats never taste the same and the only Canadian item I’ve ever seen are frozen McCain’s french fries (in Malaysia). So I avoid the Asian crap and seek out “made in the USA” condiments, side dishes and snacks. And yes, I pay $4.50 for my fill of Simply 7 Quinoa Chips. Making no apologies, it drives me batty that every time I need something for a recipe or simply want real California cheddar, it’s never there.
And this one even made the social media chatter. Sometime in January, all the Lea and Perrins Worcestshire Sauce disappeared from the shelves of every store in Chaing Mai. As one of those products licensed and made in Asia as well as being carried for twice the price for the UK version, the Great Sauce Mystery remains as one of the most ridiculous stupid things I can think of when it comes to Asia and its inventory. While I did find an inferior small bottle of French’s brand, to this day it’s permanently gone. Providing a great base for sauces and marinades, if anyone can solve The Great Chiang Mai Condiment Caper, please do chime in. Steak just isn’t the same with twelve alarm Thai marinades.
Oh where, oh where is my beloved Worcestshire Sauce?
But what gets me the most is the processed bread supply. Although Diane often used to make delicious bread from scratch in a bread maker, finding the ingredients is tedious and expensive so I’ve settled on the half loaf package of whole wheat processed Thai bread called Farmhouse for my morning lean protein fix of an egg, ham, and cheese with a can of sardines or mackerel in tomato sauce. (Despite an abundance of Thai brands of canned mackerel, I scour four stores and buy 10 at a time of the King Oscar brand; imported from Norway at about $3.25 USD each). As Thailands’ biggest corporate bakery, the Farmhouse company bakes 365 days a year but for some reason, Rimping Market decides to have them skip deliveries every other day so “day or two old bread” is the norm. And as for the other companies, they often slap on dates that say today and when you open them, it’s clearly three or four days old.
And that’s something thing that makes me irritable, angry and upset. Usually leading to bickering because Diane hates hearing me complain about this regularly for four years, she yells and I shut up. Eventually. By the way, the bread in the featured image isn’t from Chiang Mai. One of many unexpectedly good surprises on the southern island of Koh Changhttps://kochangisland.com/, we ate that Lavash Puff Bread at a Turkish restaurant along with the amazing platter seen below. Not having yet discussed our 47-day escape from the unlivable Chiang Mai burning season, I planned on putting it in a future post. But that’s the best bread picture from Asia we have so I cheated and used it now. Hopefully, that won’t lead to another argument.
Obviously, your early retirement may yield different reasons for arguing than bread. Ending on that note, I’m open for suggestions on what normal early retirees argue about.
Cheers from still blazing hot and now humid Chiang Mai.