As much as I savor pasta prepared most every which way, it just doesn’t sit well on my midsection anymore; potatoes and hearty bread too, before turning forty eating either wasn’t a big deal. A natural progression altered my appetite; these days I desire a Middle Eastern diet, homemade pita bread doesn’t leave me feeling bloated. Urges for sweets also drifted away; where once ten years ago a banana creme tart from San Francisco’s Tartine was too hard to pass up. Tempt me with European dark chocolate 70% cocao, I’m all in; not the whole bar though, a three way split is quite satisfying. LouLou wanted milk chocolate for Valentine’s Day, Jeanette prefers hers dark; fortunately the western style supermarket here carries both. After sampling each Lindt bar over two nights, LouLou might actually agree with Jeanette and I; dark chocolate wins hands down.
We ventured down a side alley our first morning here four years ago to discover Saphan Khwai’s shielded open air food market. LouLou is squeamish, especially around insects, lifeless frogs, severed chicken feet, fish guts and such, this market two blocks away made her feel queasy; why torment an angel?
The last three trips to Thailand we did our grocery shopping at Big C; a Thai chain which carries electronics, clothing, furniture, food etcetera — not exactly Costco, Big C’s items aren’t super-sized. Shopping there exclusively was easy on a lot of levels: Big C accepts plastic, even American Express, it’s familiar and sanitary for any westerner’s comfort zone. To be perfectly honest, we were guilty of falling into the same old rut. Shame on me, travel eight thousand miles from the United States, only to settle for shopping cart mentality. I sometimes wonder if there were some Thai tribunal hearing internationals took for granted a twenty-four hour, three hundred and sixty-five day food market, would we have been barred from entering Thailand again? Thai’s though, aren’t a vindictive nor judgemental bunch. Because we have visited other distant regions over these last four years that didn’t offer the convenience of a western style grocery store, lately fending at random vendors blocks away is practically innate. Two additional lame excuses we didn’t return to our side alley market sooner: I’d been under the false impression sellers only supplied restaurants, not wanting to be annoyed with small quantities purchased for our daily ingredients. Secondly, locals chuckled at us observing LouLou cringe seeing fish heads being lopped off from the corner of her eye.
Contrary to popular belief, vegetarian options on menus are virtually nonexistent. Most dishes in restaurants and food carts consist of animal broth or other parts unaligned with our quasi vegetarian palates. We’ve shopped at this neighborhood market every other day now, seven times since arriving, a genuine treat indeed. They’ve gotten to recognize us and seem pleased that we keep showing up. Food carts line this narrow street, many with customers seated at shaded tables, others eating wherever they please, between available motorbike taxis, tuk-tuks and vehicles barely inching their way past what I view as pandemonium. It’s one lively carnival, a county fair of sorts, characteristically Asia; this represents Bangkok’s seemingly infinite yearlong outdoor culinary festival. Nothing is refrigerated there nor air conditioned, this market must be supplied day and night; the vendors and stalls never quite carry exactly what they did days before. Sellers provide specialty items: meat, poultry, fish, daikon to fragrant basil, alongside various onions spilling into shallots and garlic displays, plump red grapes to watermelon, pickled vegetables, heaping mounds of chili paste, tea, noodle, egg or rice purveyors, even Thai dry roasted peanuts. The market tile floor seems perpetually wet; minding one’s step dodging occasional chopping block overspray is part of this foreign experience.
We are head over heels crazy in love with these walnut-size eggplants that none of us noticed at Big C; they cook in under five minutes, sauteed with extra virgin olive oil, Thai red chili and sea salt. That’s after the Middle Eastern mood had struck us, later finding adaptation: by no means baba ghanoush, although we might prefer this new plate even more. Leaving our local market with both hands full early this morning, I saw intriguing bundles of long beans, the color of red beets; yesterday we devoured some similar, but thinner and green. Here, a vegetable basic as a yellow pepper isn’t flavorless nor gargantuan, these beauties are petite and firm. They taste the way peppers tasted when I was a kid before produce became mass manufactured.
This morning we bought four manageable boxes at Big C: Divella couscous, product of Italy, Germany’s Hahne Trauben-Nuss Sultana-Nut müsli, France’s Casino lentilles vertes and Freedom rice milk from Australia. Impossible to buy these essentials in previously traveled remote areas, the god-forsaken Dominican Republic being one. Each morning Jeanette fills our drinking and cooking water container at the dispenser located in this building’s parking garage. It makes me appreciate not having to schlep trunk loads of water by battered Mexican taxi or on foot enduring sticky hot Vietnam hikes. Famiglia di Schiavo has always glamped in other countries. There should be a word equivalent to one star before full blown resort living, for the moment, I’ll postmark our temporary stay in Saphan Khwai — prêt-à-porter resort.