|Chapter 19||JUST EAT - DON'T ASK|
One question that all our visitors to Thailand, including many Alliance Youth Corps college students, asked was, "How do I get out of eating what I feel I just can't eat?" They did not wish to offend the Thai people, but their question was a valid one. Just what does one do when your stomach turns flip-flops at the very thought (or sight) of something strange? I always felt great empathy for the visitors, for I shall never forget asking myself exactly the same question on a certain occasion.
At breakfast one morning, our Thai hostess said, "I have a very special treat for you!" With that, she placed a dish full of fried silk worms in the center of the table! Elmer and I, as honored guests, were seated at that very table. I had to think fast. As my stomach cartwheeled involuntarily, my eye caught sight of a group of women and children sitting on a mat nearby. Pointing to the group, I said, "Is that fish they are eating?" The hostess replied, "Yes, would you like to have some?" With that, she went to the kitchen and soon appeared with some "regular" fish. She was so anxious to please me that no one even noticed (I don't think) that I didn't eat the silk worms. Elmer did eat the" special treat."
In response to the question about how to avoid eating certain foods, we usually told our visitors: "Just eat and don't ask." We knew that they would certainly not eat some of the "special" Thai food if they asked too many questions. Of course, we made sure that the food we encouraged them to eat would not make them sick.
In every Thai community, large or small, there were open-air marketplaces. Most Thai families did not own a refrigerator, so a daily trip to the marketplace was a necessity for them. We always took our visitors to see the market, but it was usually after they had eaten at our house. We knew that they would consider the meat section of the markets especially uninviting. Huge chunks of beef and pork, brought in daily from the slaughterhouses, hung from hooks over open counters. Pigs heads were displayed on tables, along with various slabs of fat, intestines and other curious cuts of meat.
We did our household shopping in the same markets. But personally, I thought it was better if I didn't see the meat section or even smell it. And besides, our Thai helper knew how to bargain much better than I did! She would get to the market very early in the morning in order to get the best of everything, especially the choice cuts of meat. Many other unusual things could be found in those markets - dried beetles, toasted frogs, lotus nuts, slabs of honeycomb, barbecued chicken on a stick, eels in pails of dirty water, fresh or smoked fish and dried squid-one of our children's favorite snacks. Thai Food
There were also piles of fresh red peppers and crocks full of fermented fish sauce. Authentic Thai food always includes those hot, red peppers and that fish sauce. Counters overflowed with mangoes, papayas, onions, yams, bananas, string beans and seasonal vegetables. Baskets containing all kinds of food filled the narrow aisles between the counters. Brown duck eggs and white chicken eggs were stacked on the floor. Large pans and all sizes of bowls were filled with ready-made Thai curries and various kinds of peppery sauces.
The basic customs and manners of the Thai controlled every marketplace transaction. Bargaining was an established way of life that not only saved money - it also prevented cheating. But bargaining had strict rules: (1) Never bargain unless you intend to buy; (2) If the price you offer is accepted, you are obligated to buy; and (3) Don't bargain too much. If you are not satisfied, go to another store.
The market also provided a place where friends met, gossip was exchanged and romances were kindled. Thai women always dressed in their best finery when they went to the market. Exchanging goods for cash was also an important function of the markets. In country areas especially, the people ate mostly rice and fish. Women got up early to catch fish in nearby streams or ponds. The men worked in the rice fields and sometimes the children hunted for leaves and plants to eat. They seldom had meat. It was too expensive. Even their own chickens were not eaten, but were sold for cash to buy other things.
Often, if we were staying in a Thai country home for three or four days we would buy some beef or pork and vegetables to share with the family. It was a very special treat for them. Usually only two meals a day was served, the first at nine or 10 in the morning and the second about five o'clock in the late afternoon. The meal was served on a mat on the floor. In the center of the mat were several small bowls of hot, spicy fish sauce and three or four round baskets of sticky rice (called "cow neow") that we ate with our fingers.
Rule # 12 in our orientation notes stated: "When eating sticky rice, take a small handful from the basket, tear off a bite sized piece, dip it into the meat or vegetable dish in the center of the table and place the rice in your mouth. Never bite off from a large piece and then dip that larger piece back into the center container."
During our first years in Thailand, we had to order staples and canned goods from Bangkok. But because of the high prices and the cost of shipping, we tried to buy as much as possible at the local market. I wrote to my sister: "I feel like Mother Hubbard here. My food closet is always bare. We eat almost entirely from the local market. Sometimes I dream of all the canned food in the USA. But we get along all right. Bangkok prices are double the price of your foods there. As prices go up in America, they go up here, too. Once in a while, when someone sent us money marked for a special treat, we ordered cold cereal. Corn Flakes was all that was available then. We called them Gold Flakes because of the exorbitant price.
Many changes have come to Thailand since those years. Now there are grocery stores and even American-style supermarkets in the larger cities and towns. Most staples can be obtained in these stores, though prices are still high, especially on imported goods.
We always had to be prepared for the unusual. I recall one experience that I shall always remember as "The Toasted Python Episode". We parked our Land Rover beside a wooden chapel after a long and tiresome trip to reach a small village. Three Thai Christians ran over to welcome us. The leader, old Father See, pointed to a blazing fire in the distance and said, "Adjan (Teacher), we are sorry that our special meal for you isn't ready. Do you want to wait an hour or so or do you want to eat right now? We have sticky rice and fish that you can eat now."
I suspected immediately that they might be cooking something that would not appeal to me. That word "special," when associated with food, always worried me! I asked, "What is the special treat?" Father See answered, "Yesterday we caught a 10 foot python. We must pull the thick body slowly through the fire in order to toast each part. We have toasted only about half of it and it will take at least another hour, maybe longer." "We'll take the rice and fish," I replied without hesitation.
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