Before coming here, I was aware of rice as a part of a Thai meal. In New York, I would usually order a side of rice to go with my giant bowl of massaman curry. Paige and I were sitting down having a coffee near our apartment in Chiang Mai, when I noticed a young Thai woman passing by. She was carrying a tote bag with the perfect slogan printed on it. It said: "RICE IS LIFE”.
Early on in our Chiang Mai experience, we were still looking at menus through western eyes. At a local restaurant for lunch, we ordered gai yang (charcoal-roasted chicken), som tam (green papaya salad), and sticky rice. I expected a huge plate of chicken, a sumptuous papaya salad, and a little bowl of rice. That's what I was accustomed to at Thai restaurants in the U.S. When our food came to the table, we exchanged a glance that said, “what the hell is this?”. The chicken was just one drumstick and thigh, cut into slices. The papaya salad could have been served on a bread-and-butter plate. The rice, in comparison, was huge, almost of equivalent volume to both of the other dishes combined. I was pretty sure we would order more food, but we started with what we had. "How are you feeling?" I asked when the food was gone. She was full and I was satisfied as well. In retrospect, it wasn't a great restaurant. But the experience seeped into our consciousness anyway. Slowly we started to learn how to eat Thai food.
The term "khin khao" is a way of imploring others to eat, but translates into English as "eat rice". In a typical Thai meal, the entrée is rice. Everything else on the table serves to season the rice. That's why the intense flavors that are indicative of Thai cooking are so important. Rice is bland, so it's eaten with fiery dishes like naam prik noom, a dip made from grilled green chiles. On its own, naam prik noom is way too spicy. When eaten with some rice and a bit of crudités, also very popular in Chiang Mai, the chile inferno yields to a delicate smoky flavor and a pleasant saltiness.
Naam prik noom is just one of the many dishes used this way. A wise man from the northeastern area of Thailand, Jon Jandai (see our post on PunPun), explained the Thai way of eating over dinner. In the middle of the table was a large pot of purple rice. Next to it was a plate of crudités, including raw chiles, raw eggplant, raw garlic, shallots and lettuce. The meal was tied together by a small bowl of a dip he called jaew. The jaew was much different than the ones typically served with grilled meat in Chiang Mai province. This jaew was made from fermented shrimp paste, red chiles, cured fish, garlic and some extremely bitter Thai olives. These were all mashed together with a mortar and pestle. A group of us sat around the table and took turns grabbing clumps of rice, bits of this or that, wrapping them in lettuce, and popping them in our mouths. I was baffled. It was delicious, but by my standards it shouldn't have been. I had never even considered eating large chunks of raw garlic, or whole chiles as part of a meal. The dip was extremely salty and pungent. Jon explained: "Growing up, I ate this three times a day." He looked at me to make sure I understood the gravity and continued, "on their own these things don't taste good, but we find ways to make it work." He smiled. His explanation over, he went back to eating and chatting in Thai with the others at the table.
I continued to eat until I had my fill. Only then did his meaning dawn on me: This way of eating comes from necessity. Rice is the cheapest and most widely available ingredient in the world. When you’re poor and all you have is rice, a few fish to feed many mouths, a handful of vegetables, and some chiles, ingenuity becomes the only option. While Jesus was feeding thousands with two fish in Bethsaida, the people of Southeast Asia were figuring it out on their own.
I like rice a lot, but in my upbringing, meat was the centerpiece of a meal. In Thailand meat is historically a luxury. This vastly different perspective has given me new eyes to view my own foodways. We have been experimenting with the Thai diet in our home cooking. In many of our meals, fish sauce is the only meat. Even so, our cooking satisfies our palettes and our stomachs as well. It makes me wonder why we have found it necessary in America to produce such large amounts of meat when so little is actually needed. Whatever the reasons for this immoderation are, the Thai way of eating has taught us how to be happy with less.