Hotel Unhajak, Phitsanuluk
3rd January 1986
Eating out can be an adventure. Down the road from here, on the embankment of the River Nan where in the daytime sit the tailors and vendors of LIVES jeans and lurid plaster toys (or are they money boxes?), In the evening food stalls are set up. This is a scene repeated throughout the Asia I have seen and, no doubt, in the farther East where I shan’t venture on this set of travels.
My first course was a soup of noodles (mee) with either pork or beef and a variety of vegetables. These I pointed out and indicated a large bowlful with my cupped hands and waited at my table. From here I had a good view of the next stall. A veritable wizard with the wok gave a a display of pyrotechnics and sleight of hand forever immortalised by a tourist family. (Whatever are they doing here?)
Water mixed with boiling fat over a flaring (gas) fire makes flame. A quick stir and clouds of steam obscure the pantomime figures and douse the flambé food.
This is fast food which is not imported from the States. Maybe China, though, tinged with the fiery spices so loved by Thais. A spoonful of fat is followed into the wok by the requested ingredients, all mouth-size. Morsels of meat, diced seasonal vegetables – currently cauliflower, baby sweet corn, succulent trumpet mushrooms, globular aubergines, and small green cucumbers, a dash of chilli, sugar (or is it salt?), and, one mustn’t forget, many cloves of garlic. Finally a ladle of water is added to make the sauce and flame.
It takes me longer to write this than it takes the cooking families to prepare. One chops and dices, another washes and wipes, and one serves. And the young master flexes, tosses and turns; I can’t be sure whether he wants to cool the food down, remove excess fat or, more likely, to turn his kitchen into a stage.
The lighting is yellowish neon. Above is the dark night. A flick of the wrist and someone’s dinner flies out of the wok and disappears upwards only to appear moments later back in the wok. Meantimes, the younger brother, the bejeaned server in a T-shirt, is securing a gap in the passing traffic. Another flick of the wrist and the meal is sent flying over the food stall in a high arc into the road or, to be accurate, onto the brother’s waiting plate. This is then rushed to the waiting diner. Perhaps his/her appetite has been stimulated by this display. Or their mind is so busy trying to assimilate the display that any appetising aroma dissipated in midair isn’t missed.
This episode has been recorded with the aid of some sticky rice, a stodgy coconut cake and what could have been sweetened lentils. I, like the Indian before me, enjoyed them.