Thailand is the food mecca of Asia. It’s where so many cultures collide to bring you a smorgasbord of textures, colors, techniques, spices and flavors. Thai cuisine is heavily influenced by its neighboring countries, Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, China and India. I have only begun to delve into the world that is Thai cuisine. Webster’s campus is located in Cha-Am, Thailand, about two hours southwest of Bangkok. Comparing northern and southern Thai cuisine is much like comparing New York’s lox bagels and cheesecake to the south’s blackened shrimp, grits and chess pie.
Slowly but surely, Thailand’s food culture is revealing itself to be way more impressive than I expected. Then again, I originally thought I would have the most amazing pad Thai I’d ever imagined, only to get here and find out that pad Thai is actually a dish that is catered to Americans. That’s right. It’s made for the foreigners (or farangs)—specifically at overpriced kitsch restaurants for farangs that come to Thailand to seek out the best pad Thai. Although pad Thai is few and far between on the streets of Thailand, the country has so much more to offer.
On the first day of exploration, a couple of friends and I hop on the back of a songthaew – a popular form of transportation comprised of a truck with a roof over the bed and two benches underneath – and are dropped off in the middle of an unnamed outdoor market. As we traverse the rugged sidewalks and streets, we see the bright colors and beautiful patterns of the discounted clothes all around us. Stray dogs play on the corner, and a couple of elderly men play checkers with bottle caps on a wooden board on the ground outside a convenience store. Thailand, “the Land of Smiles,” lives up to its moniker. As we walk we get broad smiles and head nods from the locals, with their smiles broadening even more when I greet them with a humble, “Sawadee ka!” The enticing smells of perfectly cooked pork and well-seasoned broths seduce my nose, and I know it’s time. The moment I had been waiting for and the main reason I chose to go to Thailand: the food.
My friends and I walked for an hour or so before finally choosing a promising food cart. The chef and I only communicate through nods and smiles. This man and his wife have been up preparing meat and chopping vegetables since the crack of dawn. On the side of their cart they have a large vat of broth that has been simmering all day, the flavor evolving and blooming as the day goes on. This man, like many street vendors, offers one thing and one thing only. This is the recipe they have toiled over for years and have mastered: noodles in broth with fish balls and crispy pork. At this cart we are presented with two choices. He points to three kinds of rice noodles (all with varying thicknesses), a bowl of fish balls and a slab of crispy pork. After we choose our noodles and meat, his wife escorts my friends and I to a nearby plastic table.
On most street stall tables in Thailand you will find four items: sugar, fish sauce, fresh chilis in vinegar and ground dried chilis. Sweet, salty, sour, spicy. Once the broth comes to the table, it is customary to taste the already complex broth and season it with the provided condiments. I taste the chilis in vinegar; it’s an intricate flavor, sour with a sharp hit of heat at the end. I add it to my bowl sparingly, then add a dash of fish sauce, a dab of sugar to even it all out, and nervously add the dried chilis a sprinkle at a time, tasting in between additions.y broth gradually becomes red with every dash. I get my soup to a comfortable level of heat and dig in.
Thai cuisine is all about the balance of flavors and textures. Sweet, salty, savory, sour, bitter, crispy, soft, chewy and crunchy. I put a big spoonful of the meaty broth in my mouth, and immediately all of my taste buds are engaged. I first taste the salty, succulent, caramelized meat, then the vinegary chilis cut through providing a spike of sour flavor, and the sustained level of sweetness lingers throughout the bite. Then comes the heat. The dried chilis cause a slow burn that builds with every bite and romantically brings the dish together to a smooth, yet exhilarating finish. Every bite ends in anticipation of the heat, similar to the feeling of the moment before a roller coaster takes off. Mentally preparing for the worst, expecting the best and at the end completely satisfied with the whole bite.
Ice cold drinks flow quickly down the throats of startled farangs all around the outdoor sitting area, while the locals with the red stained bowls of fiery soup snicker. A fresh fruit smoothie is my extinguisher of choice. The ice-cold liquid cools the tongue just long enough for the next spoon of broth to enter and torment the mouth into euphoria once again. Sweet, salty, sour, and here it comes… spicy. Drink. Repeat. The roller coaster of flavor is unmatched, and I know I have arrived at the unparalleled, perfectly balanced food sensation that used to be just a fantasy. I am delighted to say that fantasy has officially become a reality in Thailand.