Why does it take traveling all the way around the world to realize that the way we Americans go about food shopping is so ass-backwards? I know we acclimate to what’s normal and don’t think much to question it, but my god we do it all wrong! The grocery-store-supermarket concept, the shopping once a week, the perfect little faceless cuts of meat (I mean really, chicken breasts? Come on, people. It doesn’t even bleed. Is it meat? I still don’t know), it’s all so perfect for distancing us from our food. It’s a different experience all together going to your butcher in the market, pointing out the cuts of pork you’d like and watching him hack around the bones, graceful but direct with his knife, coming away with perfect chops or a slab of pink ribs. That is knowing where your food comes from.
How have we come so far from our roots that we find farmer’s markets novel or special – do we not realize that’s how the rest of the world still does it, and that not too long ago that’s how we all did it too? I seem to run through this rant every time I travel, but it never fails to stun me.
I know the industrialized food system is to blame for the market set-up in our country. The grocery store is all marketing ploys, all twists on human psychology to get people to buy shit (like packaged food) that they don’t need, all to support an industry that has anything but the public’s best interests at heart. I know farmer’s markets and the emphasis on real food is on the upswing in the US, but it’s still a shock to me that we see that as forward progress, when in reality we’re trying to get back to how things used to be.
I think of Thailand as a great example of the market culture, but in reality everywhere else I’ve been in the world does it just as well. Europe, Latin America, Asia…all of these places depend on the market for almost everything. From fresh produce to meat to soap to underwear to bread…it’s all found at the open-air markets, and the markets are all around town. They are the pulse of the local culture. Where else can you find housewives shopping for their families, teenage kids getting fresh tacos and socializing after school, men on their lunch break standing at a juice stall slurping down fresh squeezed passion fruit juice or gnawing on fried chicken necks? This is one more reason I love market-stalking in every country. Not to mention the amazing variety of fruits and vegetables (and pieces of animal) that I’ve never seen before. The locals love to see how excited I get over a chopping block of deep fried chicken heads, bowls of congealed cows blood and piles of steamed morning glory (yes! Morning glory! The weed we so abhor in the US, I had for breakfast!). Great fun.
Here in Chiang Mai, there is a market that sets up twice weekly in the old town as one long street is converted into a pedestrian avenue and stalls pop up hawking everything from palm sugar sweets to hand painted parasols. Musicians set up on the ground in the middle of the street serenading passers by with acoustic Thai renditions of American songs (last night I caught a bad ass version of Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” sung by a fourteen year old Thai boy who formed maybe every sixth word in English and the rest sounded like a Thai-gibberish medley), and by 7pm the street is so crowded you can barely get across to snag the last plate of mango salad with crispy fish (don’t worry, there’s always more).
Most people go for the shopping, which I will admit is fantastic, but me? I go for the food! So many little carts with so many delicious things I’ve never tried! Last night I got a little over excited and decided to myself that it would be my ‘secret mission’ to find the most delicious things possible and consume them, but making sure I only got things I hadn’t tried and that maybe intimidated me. (I know, me intimidated by food items? Sounds crazy. But as much as I love all things food, there really are things I have no desire to try, or that kind of repulse me. Like bugs. Larvae. Animal hearts. Tripe. Stomach. These things are a little hard for me to get excited about…but I’m determined to try some while I’m here. Or maybe I’ll look at them up close and appreciate that they exist and that people eat them. That’s enough, right?)
So as I embarked on my super secret tasty nom nom mission last night, I kept my rules in mind. As other tourists wandered around me, stopping at every stall to examine carved elephants, floral patterned purses and musical instruments, I saw before me only an obstacle course leading to Delicious. In completing my mission I consumed: pork sausage balls in chile sauce, grilled sweet pork with cilantro, lettuce and cucumber on the side, chicken necks in a Szechwan peppercorn spice blend, green mango salad with shrimp, a plate of fried quail eggs and coconut ice cream to finish it all off (and to try and put out the fire in my mouth more than anything else). Ok, a few of those things I’d had before, but the mango salad and Szechwan peppercorn chicken and pork balls were new! And scrumptious. Oh joy. Will I ever be able to cook without Thai flavors? Will I ever want to? Only time will tell.
Chiang Mai is starting to feel like it may serve as a ‘home base’ for my trip…not that it’s logistically the most convenient location, but the size of the city, the energy, the food, the CrossFit box…it has me a bit hooked. It is comfortable. Trendy, metropolitan, but also culturally diverse and traditional. I can get a kick-ass cappuccino with in-house roasted, local coffee for breakfast at a totally Portlandized coffee shop, baggies of pineapple ginger pork curry and fresh mango from the street stalls for lunch, wander around ancient temples in the heat of the afternoon, eat more, and have a gin and tonic at some trendy bar by sundown (for 2$. Just sayin). The best of all worlds. The surrounding areas are beautiful, it’s easy to get out of town and spend a day in the jungle hiking or laying by a lake. Honestly, it’s pretty idyllic and I can see why people just up and move here after a short visit.
But honestly the comfort of it all kind of bothers me. I know what cities are like, I know what bars are like, I know how it feels to wander around finding cute cafes and markets and art galleries.
I’m finding myself wanting a little less ‘same same’ and more ‘different’. I am sure I’ll find it.
At this point I’m interested in more time in smaller towns, more time outside, and another Vipassana retreat (true proof that I am a masochist). Those things, plus the cracks that will fill themselves with the unknowable details and detours, will certainly provide me with a dose of ‘different’. Of course, my constant will be the quest for the most delectable edibles and my systematic cataloging of the things I’ll be adding to my repertoire when I return! Already I plan on finding ways to incorporate lemongrass and kaffir lime into literally everything I cook. I head back to Laos on Wednesday for a couple weeks and I can’t wait to explore more flavors there! I did a bit of market stalking with my parents a couple weeks ago when we were in Luang Prabang, but there is certainly more, and I will find it!