When I visit a country, I like to open myself up to the culture through its food. If the food is served at a place locals frequent rather than a tourist trap or if the food is ordered for me by a local, I know I’m getting an authentic experience.
In past posts about my eating experiences in Portland, Iceland and Germany, I was able to name what I ate or at least describe what I ate fairly easily. In Thailand, however, the numerous, unfamiliar ingredients used in Thai cooking, the complexity of the Thai names for dishes, and the poor English translations usually meant I had no idea what I was eating half the time.
So I ate cat, and maybe dog, too.
While living with Samart, my host in Chiang Mai, he would often and suddenly get on his motorbike, speed away, then return home with bags of street food for us to dig into. This meant he’d order whatever he wanted and then I would sit there, haphazardly putting different foods in my mouth.
I usually insisted he tell me what things were before I ate them, but sometimes he would insist right back, “Try!” After I gulped it down, he’d say, “You don’t want to know.”
He was also very fond of talking about how Westerners just aren’t used to the idea of eating dog and cat. He’s right. We’re not. In Thailand, stray dogs and cats rule the streets. They’re like pests, rather than pets. But cultural differences aside, some sources point out the real issue: the Illegal dog meat trade in Southeast Asia which involves inhumane slaughtering practices of both stray and domesticated dogs.
“Dog makes you strong” Samart says. I think he just found making foreigners eat Fido and Fluffy for dinner amusing.
There was one occasion on which I am certain I ate cat. After shopping at the Sunday market, I met Samart for some Thai BBQ. I’d been wanting to try it for weeks.
All sorts of yummy meats, vegetables, and noodles went into the big clay pot together. I was careful to watch Samart put cat to one side, seafood next to it, pig on the opposite side and then chicken and beef. Soon, everything was boiling together, and he was pulling things out and placing them on my plate to taste. I was pretty sure he pulled out a piece from the seafood section, but then I tasted it. “This is not squid.”
“You ate cat!” He announced with a smirk on his face.
It was tough and relatively tasteless, masked by the flavors of all the spices and ingredients floating around in the boiling water. After getting sick from eating bugs with the locals in Pai, I just counted myself lucky my stomach handled it.
I definitely ate raw pig’s blood.
Yes, pig’s blood salad is a thing. This is no blood pudding like in Europe. Nope. This stuff is as red as you see it trickle onto the floor in a farm slaughterhouse. It’s mixed with all kinds of ingredients—no idea what. Here I was with Samart, a French couple, and two Brits putting on the pressure. “You eat this, you a man,” Samart told the table. Challenge accepted.
At least I know what I ate from the street vendors.
Roasted squid and veggies. Served with that typical Thai spice. You know you’re eating authentically when your mouth is on fire. I loved that Thai heat!
Coconut ice-cream. From an adorable lady with a push cart during the Yi Peng and Loy Krathong festivals.
Crispy fried leaves. I was obsessed with this potato-chip-like snack.
Mango and sticky rice. Sweet and salty and oh-so-good!
Dragon fruit! I had been dying to try this brightly colored, scaly looking fruit for ages. Sometimes they sell around New York City, but I always seemed to miss the season. I finally got to try one.
More awesome fruit and fruit smoothies! I had a smoothie almost every day.
And bubble tea!
I ate typical Thai food.
Back home, I love Thai food. But what I had at my favorite Thai dining locations in New York was not real Thai food. Regardless, there’s nothing like eating some typical Thai favorites in the country from where it originated.
Green Curry Chicken
Red Curry Chicken
Chicken and vegetables
Oh, if you’re wondering why there’s so much chicken here, it’s because I was trying to counteract the pig blood.
Veggie Thai-style omlette – this one I know, it’s called Kai Jeow.
Also, Pad Thai w/ coconut water (from my first post about Bangkok)
Are you hungry yet? I'm not finished.
I ate Farang-style, too!
I only ever ate Farang (Westerner) food for breakfast. After a few mornings of Thai food at Samart’s place, I realized I just could not evolve out of my American breakfast-loving habits. The breakfast I ate the most often was muesli. Ironically, muesli is not what I normally eat back home—it’s something I first tried in Germany! But I’d have it with yogurt and fruit while in Thailand and it was delicious.
Aside from the Om Garden Café in Pai, Thai cooks could rarely meet my high standards for an American breakfast. For example, this sad plate of one piece of bread cooked in some egg and cut into fours, otherwise known as “French toast.”
This breakfast was usually one of the higher priced and less full-filling items on the Farang menu. After too many disappointments, I just stuck with the muesli option.
I ate the random packaged food from vendors and the infamous 7Eleven
There’s something really exciting about going to a market or a 7Eleven in Thailand and just buying an arm full of packaged pastries. The stuff for sale is so typically Asian I just couldn’t resist. I went a little wild at a small market near the south gate in Chiang Mai…
Most of it is not that good but some of it is amazing! Like these addictive buns from 7-Eleven filled with deliciousness: taro, black bean sesame, and thai custard fillings. Nom!
I also ate just for the luxury of it.
On my last night in Thailand, I decided to do something a little different. Bangkok has lots of luxury rooftop bars and restaurants. I wanted to check one out. So I hopped in a tuk-tuk and sped down the street to Distil on the 63rd floor of the famous Lebua Tower. Getting off the elevator, I stepped out into a gorgeous room with a huge circular bar and was guided to a balcony seating area overlooking the city toward the west.
A waitress handed me a menu and I took a seat on the leather couches lining the edge of the balcony. As I expected, the prices were unlike anything I had seen in all of Thailand. I decided to have shrimp and salmon sashimi and their least expensive whiskey on the rocks. The bill would be twice what I would pay for the same in at my favorite sushi restaurant in New York, but the service and experience was worth it.
Before the rolls came out, they served addictive pistachios and olives which they kept refilling. They brought a hot towel to freshen up and then a napkin they laid for me across my lap. So weird to be catered to like this after such rougher hospitality the last 30 days. I savored the 6 pieces of sashimi, chatted with the couple next to me, and took in the nighttime view of the city.
Finally, I prepared and ate a salad.
I gave it a try, but the posh lifestyle is not quite “me.” I was incredibly hungry after my expensive sashimi, so I hit the Bangkok markets. I found a vendor selling tons of vegetables. Perfect! After all of the above food all month long, I needed a healthy, fresh, homemade meal.
Grabbing lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, a cucumber, and carrots, I hurried back to the guesthouse. On my way, I was lucky enough to see a vendor selling a kind of peppercorn salad dressing. Perfect, again!
I had enough for dinner and lunch the next day. Even though it was only a simple salad, eating something made by my own hands after a month of eating out was just what I needed. I felt ready to depart for New Zealand.