Thursday, February 21, 2008

No Country for Aged Cheese

I'm back! Not just to my blog, but also to the U.S. For most of January and the last few days of 2007, I was away in Thailand, visiting friends based in Bangkok and exploring the country's northern and northeastern provinces.

During my four weeks in Thailand, I was surprised by how interested I became in the history of Southeast Asia and in the well-maintained remains of its past. I spent a good deal of my vacation touring ruins, some of which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

What didn't surprise me was the lack of cheese in Thailand, beyond the Italian ones my friends in Bangkok generously bought for me at the fancy food market at Siam Paragon. Southeast Asia is not the place for cheese. But it is the place for many other foods. Never before have I been to a country where there was so much food available, anywhere anytime. There were restaurants and food stalls everywhere: in markets, on main roads, on sidewalks, in parking lots, on the beach, in homes, in night bazaars, down side streets, just about everywhere! And there was an incredible variety of food. Usually, after a few days in a new country, I can figure out a country's or a region's typical dishes, especially the vegetarian ones, but in Thailand I just couldn't. The variety of food in Thailand is so great that it's impossible to sample it all. Just as soon as you buy something to eat from one food stall, something else tempts you. Full from whatever you've bought earlier, you decide to eat your new treat later, but when it comes time to eat it, you find yet something else to try. And I'm a vegetarian! If I ate meat, the extensive choice would have been even more overwhelming!

Pork is popular at markets and food stalls. You can sample easily identifiable pig noses, feet, and ears; pork balls, sausages, hot dogs, and even Hello Kitty, grilled on thin bamboo skewers; and a limp tangle of pig skin that I myself bought and ate, thinking that it was a dish of broken, cooked noodles. If you don't want pork, there's chicken: feet on skewers and in stews; slabs of raw poultry with shell-less yolks still attached; and grilled quarter chickens on thick wooden skewers, sold from wicker baskets on trains. If there's chicken, there are eggs: white, brown, pale blue, and shocking pink; scrambled and mixed into noodles or rice, prepared in portable, street-side woks; or hardboiled and then grilled on skewers, deep fried, or sliced to reveal their vibrant orange yolks. These can be served in a tart salad of onions marinated in lime juice, fresh chili peppers, fish sauce, and cilantro. For the daring, there a bowls of deep-fried bugs: crickets, grasshoppers, grubs, dragonflies, some of which are ground into curries.

And this isn't even the half of it. If, like most Bangkokians, you constantly think of what to eat next, then Thailand is the place for you. You'll be in like-minded company. Bring a spoon with you (Thais use chopsticks only for noodles) and know that there won't be any cheese.

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