Monday, November 3, 2008

The Different Approach

So I’ve decided that trying to play catch-up with my blog posts isn’t working because I’m now 3 months behind, and I suspect some readers are starting to jump ship. I was keeping field notes for awhile, which became the basis for some of my blog entries, but even those have fallen by the wayside in the last month. So, I’ll just start from today, and fill you in on the recent past as I go along.

Election Day is Wednesday Thailand time, Tuesday American time. Although it looks very promising that the only qualified candidate will win, anything could happen. If it does, don’t blame me. I voted correctly.

Twice, thanks to New York State not being on top of their absentee ballots.

So, I have this way of obsessively focusing on certain themes that recur through my days much the way annoying songs run in your head. In the last few weeks I’ve become fixated on this single observation about Thai food: I’ve got excessive flavor overload.

Actually, the main complaint isn’t the flavor so much as the extremes of salt, sugar and oil that are used to “enhance” flavors. I think one of the theories behind Thai cooking is that different flavor groups are used to balance each other out in a single dish. So in many dishes you have salty, sour, hot/spicy and sweet all in one.

But, finding the correct balance is a finely-honed skill that most Thais don’t actually possess. Instead they are good at salt-oops-sugar-oops-salt-oops-sugar-oops-sour-oops-sugar-oops. Until you get a dish that is way too salty, way too sweet, way to sour and way too spicy. Ta-da! To the untrained palate this passes as delicious. To me, it gives me a headache.

In Thailand I’ve stopped cooking altogether since I’m not allowed to have a gas stove in my apartment, and street food is cheap and tasty compared to the effort of going to the market everyday and cooking dinner after a long day. But when Elsie came to visit a month ago, and now that Brady is visiting, we’ve been cooking our own meals. The verdict? I sure miss eating stuff that tastes like it did before it was salted and sugared to death, or smothered in sauce.

This whole realization about Thai food makes me understand why most Thai people don’t like Japanese food. “Too bland,” they say.

In contrast, I love Japanese food. It tastes like it did back when it was alive. Chinese food is similar. The principles of Chinese cooking, I think, are based on the idea of appreciating what the food actually tastes like, instead of matching it with the most appropriate flavor counterpart. I’m told that there are all these different types of basil that have specific purposes in Thai cooking. So, pork gets one type of basil, chicken gets another, shrimp gets another and so on. Amazing.

Anyway, this weariness of Thai flavor overload has informed some of my recent cravings. Not so long ago I was hoping that the hotel buffet where I was eating would serve French onion soup with lots and lots of melted cheese on top. No such luck of course. It was a Thai hotel with a mostly Thai clientele, and I had to settle for shrimp tom yum.

Then today I was at Tops Super with Brady, looking at salted peanuts, and I said, “Right now I would really really like a baguette with brie, salami, tomatoes, fresh basil, cracked black peppercorns, watercress and maybe some hickory smoked turkey breast. Because it would be nice to eat something that tastes like its original food source.”

“But you said salami,” he pointed out.

“Salami tastes just like a pig,” I said. “And that’s really what I need right now.”

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