Friday, August 19, 2011

The Original Locavores

I want to tell you a story.

As you may or may not know, I was in Thailand recently.  Hence, the reason I didn't write for the last few weeks. Being my usual anal self, I researched the crap out of this trip, including what to eat and what not to eat.  I found out that you can eat cubed ice because it means it was made in a factory and hence, is safe, but cannot eat crushed ice because it may come from a big block of homemade ice, which is not safe.  You can eat pineapple because it was peeled and not washed, but cannot eat an apple, because it is washed and not peeled. I was advised not to eat any seafood because of questionable food storage methods but then also read that being a mostly coastal country, Thailand has amazing seafood.

Starting to get confused?  It gets worse.

I also read that Thailand is famous for its street food and it should not be missed yet I read (in the same publication, I might add) to avoid most street food because of unsanitary food storage and safely issues. If you've ever been to Thailand, then you will know that when walking down the street, smelling and seeing cart after cart of barbecue, noodles, freshest fruit, and yummiest desserts, it is almost impossible to avoid the street food  But avoid it, I did.  This would become my one and only (but major) regret about the trip.

The only problem is, Thailand is pretty proud of its independence and traditions and , for the most part, are not going to change any time soon.  This initial culture shock meant that I felt that the majority of the foods available were unsafe for us to eat.

So what did we eat when we couldn't find "safe" food?  Pre-packaged and factory produced foods, like chips and frozen, imported burgers with processed cheese, cans of soda, and french fries.  Needless to say, I did not feel very good for those first 48 hours or so.  It should be noted that this would be one of only two times I had a tummy ache on the trip.  The other time was also due to my paranoia: I took anti-malaria medication for two torturous days even though there is no malaria in the area we were visiting.

A few days into the trip, we were at a night market (basically a parking lot of street food carts) and our tour guide for the day was telling us about what they eat in that region, which included a ton of chicken, eggs, river fish, chilies, pineapple, and rice.  But not really much beef or dairy.  I asked why not and she said because they don't have the land for the cows to graze. I also noticed that at the market in one city, almost every stand had the same fruit but in another city only a couple hours away, they all predominantly sold a different fruit.  She once again explained that those were the fruits that grew best in each of those regions. Huh.  Imagine that.  Eating foods that are only available locally.  What a novel idea.  What haven't we thought of that?

This is when the proverbial light bulb went off over my head.  Travellers, like me, were avoiding fresh, locally grown and cooked food like the plague, but were piling into McDonald's and other such restaurants that contained chemically modified, frozen, imported foods that had been opened in Thailand solely to appease our ignorant and fearful attitudes.  When you think about it that way, which food is really the one to be avoided?

I shared this epiphany over dinner with some fellow travellers and our new Swiss friends laughed.  In broken English, it was shared that the only time they had fallen ill so far had been after eating at McDonald's.  We all laughed and from that moment on, I (slowly) learned to embrace the food traditions of Thailand.

There are some things that I could never wrap my head around and get the courage to try, like deep-fried insects, frogs, and Durian (known as the king of fruits in Thailand but I could not get past the pungent odour of sour milk and sweaty socks) but I feel I did pretty good.

Before our epiphany: Safe, yes.  But who comes to Thailand to try their "famous" frozen chicken schnitzel and french fries?

After my epiphany: My "personal" Thai chef barbecuing a fish that I chose from a stand on the side of the road.  There may not be any refrigeration, hand-sanitizer, or separate prep areas to avoid cross-contamination, but it was the freshest, most delicious fish I ever did eat.  Turns out I don't hate fish, just fish that isn't fresh.  
No offense.  

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