Monday, January 10, 2011

Heroes Are Bold With Food

Location: Phra Singh, Mueang Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai, Thailand
I don't recall where I first heard/read that slogan (I'll be embarrassed if it was only from a fortune cookie) but it sounded like a reasonable concept to live by. Food is a cultural identity: local dishes in any region tell you what resources are or were available in the area. Cuisine is the testimony to thousands of years of self-preservation, the tradition that formed after passing down all knowledge of edible or poisonous plants and animals from generation to generation. Many or most animals have food preferences, but what is so capriciously human as the need to have as much variety available all the time?

More than anything, food is the most obvious connection that spans all nations. We don't agree on how affection should be expressed, we have radically different ideas about shelter and clothing, but food is what makes brothers out of strangers. When I travel, the most important thing to me—more important than a museum or ancient landmark—is finding the cook who makes the local dish. With each spoonful, I begin assimilating the culture, the climate, the emotions and the spirit of the region in which I find myself; every plate provides a lesson that can't be imparted through conversation or guide books. Some people travel and see all the sights but still hide in their homeland's food, camped out in McDonald's or some expensive Western-style restaurant (that never quite gets it right, in my opinion), but I prefer to plunge into the new and expand my palate.

I think I kicked it off right on New Year's Day: Rebecca and I went down to the South Gate at Chiang Mai City and found a large, long structure of food booths, filled with food booths with more food booths lining outside the front and yet more food booths across the street. This is Pratoo Market and other things may be had there, souvenirs, home necessities, but why would anyone want to shop for disposable razors when Thai sausage or fried chicken were so readily at hand? Or, for that matter, one food item that has challenged me for many years: the fried chicken foot. I got one at a wheeled cart, resolved to clear this up for myself and start the new year correctly. The vendor, a cute young woman, stared at me and asked me twice whether I was absolutely sure this was what I wanted. I'm guessing she's been in this situation before and seen it turn sour. I assured her of my intentions, got the fried chicken foot, and sat down at a table to try to figure out how the hell one eats the thing. At any rate, I felt good about expanding my horizons and attempting something new.

That said, there are some borders I can't quite cross. When I was in Iceland I tried puffin but couldn't override my moral misgivings against the Minki whale dish. I've had squid fried rice and cuttlefish jerky in South Korea. At the Minnesota State Fair I've had ostrich, alligator, bison, and stranger animals than those on a stick, I've tried frog's legs and escargot and liked them. I'm not one of those "top of the food chain" braggarts, but I do believe it's important to be open to as many different resources as possible, just in case some get cut off. Allergies permitting, of course.

But bugs have been my final frontier. I keep hearing that, pound for pound, they provide more protein, consume fewer resources, and are more easily renewable than any ruminant of which I'm endeared. I used to grill a mean steak and I miss an authentic hamburger: hard to get in nations with any Hindu influence. Yet there were always bugs, proliferate and alien, part of the cuisine in many world cultures but I was raised with all sorts of negative connotations with these.

Until last night. It was Sunday Walking Market and Rachadamnoen Road, the street by our hotel, was packed full of vendors once again. Booth after booth for block after block were full of t-shirts, keyrings, wallets made out of anything from rice bags to fish skin, wood carvings, home furnishings, beautiful multihued lights and lanterns, but most of all food. Black jelly, waffles, banana fritters, "ancient ice cream," Thai coffee: a heart-stirring array of exotic beverages and snacks and meals to be had for only a few Baht. It's my dream, it's my living, waking dream to wander down and peruse all the options. I only wish I had the internal capacity for it all.

I started out with a black waffle in chocolate sauce and warmed up with fried quail eggs, aroi maak (very delicious) with a little soy sauce. I thought I'd keep an eye out for BBQ squid: I passed up on them on New Year's and have been kicking myself ever since. They weren't on display out here, but then we found a food stand selling some small insect, stir-fried in seasonings. One small styrofoam tray of fried crickets for 20 Baht (US 65¢). Rebecca looked at me and reminded me of my erstwhile slogan, and she was right to do so. But a cricket? Could I seriously do that, and could I throw 20 Baht at finding out?

The vendors saw the conflicted emotions on my face and offered me a sampler, placing one crispy, blackened blighter in my palm. Well, that was that: I was up against it. Who couldn't man up and down a single bug like this? I looked at Rebecca and she just shrugged back at me. I had to remind myself: lots of people all around the world ate bugs and not nearly as fancily prepared as this one. I took a deep breath, popped it into my mouth and aggressively masticated it into a paste.

My eyes widened. "It's good," I told Rebecca. "It's good!" The vendors laughed at my astonishment and moved on to serious customers.

I'd seen people grilling what looked like little boats full of beaten eggs, little vessels of folded banana leaf used to cook scrambled eggs with a variety of toppings. From a distance it seemed they came with chives, mushrooms, garlic, sweet corn, or any of the usual fillers in dishes here. But then we saw the sign behind the chef and I realized I was wrong on a few counts: not garlic, but "bee & ant eggs." That is to say, one kind had bees and the other featured ant eggs. What really surprised me was when Rebecca agreed to split one with me. Too ooged-out by the thought of eating a bee, she requested we get one with ant eggs. We were surprised by how large they were, though, since we figured the eggs couldn't be much larger than the ants themselves. Or maybe these were the eggs of very large ants? That would make harvesting them a little easier, I imagine.

Rebecca added a variety of sauces to our little omelet and I realized what her game strategy was: a thick layer of denial. That's fine. We split the snack between us and grew a little more from the experience. I was so impressed with her bravery—I don't hold everyone up to my personal motto—and told her so all night long.

After that we took it easy, with candy and fruit juices and food items that were well familiar. No reason to go mad with this stuff, after all.

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