Ann was a tough bitch. Unfortunately the same could not be said about her stomach. But that didn’t mean she’d back down; she was always game to try whatever we ran across on the streets of Bangkok that someone decided to identify as food. In fact, she hunted down the most unappetizing looking dishes. The only plus in dining with her streetside was that the vendor often spoke no English, so you had no idea what in the hell it was you were putting in your mouth.
I made several trips with Ann to Thailand. After the first visit I realized, on any trip, a day or two needed to be set aside for Ann to spend in bed. After a quick jaunt to the nearest pharmacy, pantomiming a case of the trots, and getting a miracle bag of pills for her to ingest to overcome the powers of whatever it was she’d recently ingested.
I like Thai food. Even when I don’t know what it is. And I really like eating from streetside carts in the Kingdom. It’s always cheap and often an incredible meal. I can usually identify fish, no matter how they’ve tried to disguise it, so I always pass on those places. Fish is not a favorite of mine and if you have concerns about the safety of eating food off the street, staying away from fish is a good rule of thumb.
I know a lot of visitors won’t touch street cart food. They’ll usually use sanitary conditions as an excuse for being pussies. All that accomplishes is to tell me they have never actually seen what goes on in restaurant kitchens. I know some people, perhaps many, just don’t have a constitution strong enough to handle the occasional bug. Pity. Ya’ll just don’t know what you are missing.
I don’t know how anyone can walk out of a disco or club at two or three in the morning, after a night of drinking and partying hard, and not be tempted by the aromas wafting down Bangkok’s streets. Small barbecues, red lights warming up meats of dubious origin, soup bowls steaming and filled with bite-size pieces of something only a Thai would call food . . . it’s all good. Unless you are Ann. Then it is good until an hour or two later when your system decides to remind you it is American.
Food, and water, from an area your body is not used to can be problematic. It does not mean unsanitary conditions are at fault. Having lived in Hawaii, I am very familiar with touri from the mainland visiting and getting ill from what is still American fare. Though sometimes it is their stupidity to blame. Watching honeymooners share straws poked into the top of a freshly shucked coconut is always good for a laugh. You know part of their honeymoon experience will be a battle of major proportions over who gets use of the toilet first back in their hotel room. Ah, memories are made of this.
The trick to eating whatever comes your way in Thailand is, first, know your own body. If you can’t handle a few odd bugs, use your head and stay away from anything that has come into contact with water that isn’t boiling hot. If your system is a bit more resilient, just look for the stalls that have a nice big pot of brown water used for washing plates and utensils . . . that’s usually tea, not dirty water, and it is an excellent way to sanitize the kitchenware.
If you can pretty much eat anything with no problem, just go for what has been freshly cooked. Streetside vendors are always willing to cook up a raw portion for you; you do not have to accept what has been sitting underneath their glow lamp for the last two hours. And if you are like me, and your body is too stubborn to react to what you forced down your throat, gross out your travelling partners by eating the most disgusting looking things you can find. Choose right and you can send them scurrying off for a toilet even though nothing has passed through their lips.
I ruined the fun of a local in Chiang Mai we’d hired for a boat trip down the Ping River on one trip. Part of the excursion was a stop at his family home, a small waterside farm. Among the few crops he grew, much more like a backyard vegetable garden than farm, was one of the local varieties of chilies. The small red ones.
His normal routine, which I’m sure he quite enjoyed, was to get one of his guests to taste a freshly picked chili. He even had a small bowl of sugar at hand to douse the flames that would appear on the unsuspecting touri’s tongue. My taste buds love heat. So after finishing off the first chili, I snapped another one off the bush and had seconds. He spent the rest of our tour giving me wary looks. I think he’d decided I must be some kind of demon and should not be trusted. Good instincts, wrong reason.
Ann was always willing to join me in trying local fare. The only time she balked was in Kowloon on night when we passed a small booth that had tiny little crabs for sale. Each had a string tied around one leg to keep it from scuttling off the table. Like many Americans, being confronted with the actual animal your meal originated from was an unappetizing idea to Ann. Vegetarianism would become much more popular if you had to actually kill whatever you planned for dinner that night.
I’m not as squeamish. I’ve cut the head off a chicken (and yes, they do run around headless if you let them), plucked the sucker over a pot of boiling water, and chowed down at dinner, savoring the taste of what had been alive an hour earlier. I’ve never butchered a cow, but do plan on blowing one to bits with an RPG the next time I’m in Cambodia. But that’s more about sport than dinner.
Ann’s partner Char was not as much of a fan of foreign food. To put it mildly. Char refused to take any chances. Period. The free breakfast buffets at the hotel caused no problem, she could always find at least one dish that was known and acceptable. But for lunch and dinner? It had to be chicken. Fried chicken, none of that odd crap Thais throw into the pot to Easternize the fowl.
Every afternoon and night we had to peruse menus outside of possible dining places to ensure fried chicken was offered. If not, down the street we sailed until we could find a place that would serve Char the only dish she’d accept. Which after the first two days you’d think she’d have realized was an iffy proposition in its own right.
Like with many American foods offered by Thais, fired chicken is defined in many different ways. The only thing you can be relatively sure of is that it is chicken (usually). But travelling with Char’s taste buds, there were very few meals when what landed on the table would ever be considered to be fried chicken back home. Even when it was, trying to identify the cut was a non-starter. I don’t know why we spent so much time ensuring fired chicken was on the menu for Char because half the time what came out of the kitchen didn’t qualify. And she wouldn’t eat it.
You’d think someone that picky about foreign food would just settle for an all-American meal at McDonalds. There are few places you can travel to in the world where a set of golden arches isn’t visible. But Char refused to eat there. She was in Thailand. And wasn’t about to be eating American fast food. Good thing she found a suitable version of friend chicken at least every other day. She needed her strength to take care of Ann when her gastronomical adventures caught up with her.
As willing as I am to eat pretty much anything that hasn’t come out of the ocean, the one dish I stay away from in Thailand is Char’s choice as the only acceptable food: fired chicken. The American version is readily available at KFC. But I refuse to eat that crap at home, so I’m not about to visit a branch in Thailand.
McDonalds in Thailand has fried chicken on the menu too. Thais seem to love it. I’m not above eating at a McDonalds in Thailand, though why you would is beyond me. But I am above eating their version of fried chicken.
There are plenty of streetside carts selling fried chicken, too. My fiend Noom can not pass one without grabbing a few pieces, even if it is for consumption hours later back in the hotel as a snack. But whether it is McDonalds or a street cart, the fired chicken in Thailand always has a ghastly smell to it. I’ve no idea why. I can’t imagine what it is they do to it to make it smell that bad. Chicken, by itself, doesn’t have much of an aroma. Unless its sell by date was a few weeks ago. But fried chicken in Thailand stinks. I’m too chicken to get anywhere near that stuff.
Maybe that’s the trick to eating safely in Thailand: follow your nose’s lead and you’ll never go wrong. Unless you are Ann. Then eat whatever you want, just plan on spending one day gobbling down nothing but handfuls of Thai pills.
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