catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 4 :: 2014.02.21 — 2014.03.06


Tasting Thailand

I’m a good Southerner: I know that food means something. Food is connected to memory, family, place, time. I can’t think of the words Crisco, Velveeta or Miracle Whip without thinking about my mother. Whenever my mother cooked one of my grandmother’s recipes, she’d have stories to tell, too. Fried cornbread patties: Mammy still made them even after her MS confined her to a wheelchair. She’d sit in front the stove, flipping the cornbread carefully so the oil didn’t pop into her face. Dumplings: “My mother would roll out the dough like this,” Mom would say, as she flattened the dough she’d just mixed up from flour, water, salt, and Crisco. “Then she’d slice it into long strips, and she’s always give me some raw dough to eat.” My mom and I would each grab a raw dumpling and eat it, the flour powdering our lips.

I applied my mom’s food-is-meaning lessons once I became a missionary kid in Thailand. One of my favorite stories to tell is how the street vendors would give you Coke in a bag. Their carts would be full of glass-bottled soft drinks, but they didn’t want you to keep the bottle because the vendors got money if they returned them. So they would dump a few ice cubes in a sandwich baggie, pour the entire bottle of Coke into the baggie, and then they’d somehow finagle a rubber band around one corner of the baggie. You would put the rubber band around your wrist and drink the Coke through a straw. You would have to be careful with the baggie, of course, or the Coke would spill out. Coke in a bag became one of my favorite treats in Thailand. The idea that one could drink out of a sandwich bag was so novel and unheard of in my experience that I always wanted to do it to feel like I fit in with the Thais.

The Thai food that always reminds me of my church friends there is somtam and sticky rice. It’s a dish from Isan, the northeastern part of Thailand, which is where many of our church members were from. Somtam is a “salad” made from grated papaya. And it has some kind of hot pepper in it, which is why it is always served with cucumbers or cabbage leaves, which are both Thai remedies for a burning tongue. You eat somtam and sticky rice with your hands. After church on Sundays, sometimes my youth group friends and I would walk to the mall and get somtam and sticky rice at the food court. When the food court ladies asked if they should make mine bland, my friends would tell them to make it hot just like they’d make it for Thais. I desperately wanted to be like the Thais despite my tall, chubby body and white skin. My youth group friends made me feel like I was one of them. Recently I went with my husband to a local Thai restaurant in Nashville and ordered somtam and sticky rice. I ate every bite with my fingers while other patrons sneaked frowns at me. I wish I could’ve said, “Don’t you understand? This food means that people different from me loved me!”

Thai fruit was delectable. The English word for my favorite Thai fruit is rambutan, but the Thai word was ngaw. Yes, they use the ng sound to begin words over there. Our nickname for this fruit was “hairy berry.” It looks like a round strawberry with green hairs sticking out all over it. You peel off the red skin, much like you would peel a clementine, and inside is a little white sphere of fruit that tastes a little like a pear. You pop the white sphere into your mouth and juice runs everywhere. You have to spit out the almond-like seed from the middle. Once I went to an Asian grocery store here in the States looking for ngaw. They had it pre-peeled and in a can. I bought the can, took it home, and opened it. It stank, but I ate one of the spheres anyway. It tasted terrible. Another fruit I loved over there was guava. Thais had a sugar mix they would sometimes dip slices of guava in. The sugar was mixed with dried chili, so you got this fantastic taste of sweet and spicy with each bite. The Thai word for guava is farang, which is also their word for foreigner. Same exact word — no change in tone or anything. I was the butt of many jokes about the farang eating farang.

Great descriptions, but what does all this mean? It means I had become bicultural. It means that my heart had grown to love that place. It means that it was no longer a foreign land; it was home. It didn’t matter that I didn’t look like them or that I spoke their language with an accent. My heart was wider than an ocean, flowing with love for the people, landscape and culture of that land. As I tasted their fruit, I tasted Thailand itself. I tasted the hands of the harvest worker and the very earth from which the fruit came. I tasted kneeling in front of a Buddha statue with an incense stick between my hands. I tasted stringing jasmine buds together to make a flower garland. I tasted the salty sea and the warm sun and the monsoon rain. I took that place into my body, and I took that place into my heart. And there it remains to this day. 

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