Monday, April 9, 2012

You are what you eat?

One evening I trained with a group of Thai policemen who were Muay Thai practitioners. Muay Thai, for those who don’t know, is the national martial art of Thailand, also referred to as Thai Boxing. It is a kickboxing form that relies on strikes with the fists, feet, knees and elbows, and even with the head. It is the Thai national sport and a large contributor to the repertoire of many Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters. I have been training for years American style kickboxing. Sometimes I have been told that this was Muay Thai, but it turns out to be almost nothing like real Muay Thai, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to train with a former competitive Thai boxer and his friends and in exchange shared some softer style combative and open hand fighting techniques.

After we were done training they invited me to go out to eat with them and about an hour later we ended up across the street at a restaurant that specializes in sumtam and dongnam. Sumtam is a dish of meat, seafood, fruit or vegetables, minced up together and sautéed in a spicy sauce. It is more a kind of dish than a dish in its own right and can be made with almost anything. One of the best sumtam’s I have had here was made with apple, grape, carrot, coconut, peanuts and hot Thai peppers. Dongnam is a soup made with meat and vegetables.

Since I don’t speak Thai, and the wait staff doesn’t speak English I usually do the pointy-talky thing with the menu. This time, however, I was with locals and the one RTP (Royal Thai Police) officer who did speak some English assured me that they had everything under control and proceeded to order all the food for me. When it arrived I quickly discovered two things: first I discovered why the Thai restaurants never seem to be able to split up the bill unless they are used to catering to Westerners. In Thai culture no one orders a separate dish. They all order the dishes which go on the center of the table and everyone serves themselves from them as they please. (That explains why some of the Thai’s thought we were rude for eating off the serving plate when we dined out.)

The second thing I discovered was why the RTP officers insisted on ordering for me. They had ordered the spiciest, rawest and creepiest dishes on the menu, and were all watching me with huge grins to see if I would eat them. We had a roasting hot spicy papaya and blue crab salad. The blue crabs were simply chopped in half raw and tossed in the dish. They ordered super spicy minced pork entrails and were more than happy to explain exactly what organ each piece came from. They had ordered a plate of deep-fried duck mouths (yes, you read that right), and to top it all off they had a plate of spicy raw minced beef with herbs. (They had also thoughtfully ordered some deep fried pork neck with ketchup and placed it within easy reach of me.)

So I started eating. I put some of my sticky rice on my plate and spooned some of the pork entrails onto it and ate that. They laughed at me and showed me how to eat it properly, by rolling the sticky rice up into little balls in my hand and dipping them into the dishes (the dipping is called jom and the popping into the mouth is called but. That’s what they taught me, but they may well have been teaching me dirty words for all I know. I certainly didn’t see any of the classier looking Thai families jomming or butting(the interpreters later explained that this was legit, but it was authentic north-eastern style dining, so not in vogue in my area)).

But I ate everything on that table. I ate the entrails, crunched the crabs and bit the beef and loved every bite of it (except the bite in which I mistook a green pepper for a green bean and ate it. That gave me the hiccups and left my mouth on fire. It was so hot that the snot running down my face was hissing and bubbling like molten lava, and it felt like it was melting my chin. Those green peppers are no joke.) After I had cleaned up all my sticky rice, ordered another basket of it and ate all of that too, and every scrap of food was gone, the guys all looked at each other and shook their heads. One of them said something in Thai and the English speaker translated for me, “They say, if you can eat this, this, this, this, you can marry Thai wife and live anywhere in Thailand.”

To which I laughed and said, “Sweet. Sounds good to me.”

The next day I told the story to one of our interpreters and he looked at me shocked, “What you want a Thai wife for, man, I thought you were the one who really loved your wife.”

I laughed and explained that I’m not married. My reasons for not chasing Thai girls every weekend are mostly religious.

He didn’t say anything for a little bit, and I thought the topic was over. But then I heard him muttering to himself under his breath, “Hmmm. Good job, good face, good personality.” Then he looked up at me and said, “Okay, man, if you want Thai wife you let me know, I hook you up with one.”

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