|I love to write and share my experiences with
anyone who will listen. So be forewarned, this section is a bit lengthy and
sometimes rambles, but it is my life's joy to have experienced living in Thailand and traveling throughout Southeast Asia. So overpowering
were those experiences that I chose Lowell, with its large immigrant
population, to continue my journey in life near people whom I think show the
greatest amount of love for life, and more tolerance for other's beliefs than any
other people I know.
In addition to serving absolutely authentic Southeast Asian fare, I believe it is also incumbent upon me to educate the American public regarding the culture and eating habits of the Southeast Asian people. This section of our web site is dedicated to giving you an insight into how food is integrated into everyday life in Southeast Asia.
Please keep in mind that there is more
to life than "Phad Thai"
The second most popular dish might very well be an individual order of Guiteeyo Laht Nha, which is a fresh wide rice noodle sautéed with an egg and placed on the platter. The Chef then concocts a magnificent oyster sauce topping with small pieces of meat, garlic and Chinese broccoli and pours (Laht) it over the top (Nha) of the cooked rice noodles. When done correctly it is perhaps the most unforgettable single dish you'll ever taste.
The evening meal could be the same as the lunch meal, but more often than not it might consist of a bowl of rice, a crispy fried fresh water fish or stir fried vegetables with small quantities of pork or chicken. One of my favorite dishes was Hoi Tod, an omelet of pan fried mussels without eggs; but held together with a corn starch mixture. My second favorite at the evening market was Mhu Dang, Red Roasted pork. Those two dishes with a small bowl of rice and I was indeed a happy trooper. Later in the evening, say 11:00 P.M. or so, I might stop back at the market and order "To Go" a magnificent Cowe Phad Gai, Chicken Fried Rice. Interestingly, at that time, To Go packaging was a huge banana leaf wrapped and tied with the stringy part of the leaf vein. Bio-degradable packaging to say the least.
The second most popular group of dishes, usually consumed at the evening meal involves "with rice". In Thailand, a bowl of white rice along with a curry and small quantities of meats, a Tom Yum Soup, and stir fried vegetables are very popular. In Laos it might be Lap with sticky rice and a Gao Lao Soup along with a platter of fresh garden greens. In Cambodia it could be a bowl of white rice, Samlaw Michieu soup and a crispy fried fresh water fish along with a platter of fresh garden greens. In Vietnam it might be a bowl of white rice, a light fish soup along with a pan fried ocean fish, and a lightly sautéed vegetable. In Burma it might be a Bowl of white rice, a soup, a curried fish dish and fresh garden greens. All these dishes and more are available at the evening market or Talahd Lang.
Interestingly, in all of the world, it is only the Laotians that eat sticky rice as their staple rice of choice. Due to its high gluten content, sticky rice must be eaten with the hands and since it is inconvenient to take wet foods from the central dishes using sticky rice as the primary implement, clutched between your fingers, the cuisine of Laos has evolved such that Laotian dishes are prepared, in general, with less liquids and dry ingredients like the leaves of herbs and fresh leafy vegetables.
Country Dwellers and the Agrarian
The evening meal is devoted to quality family time and an assortment of dishes. Perhaps a Tom Yum soup, pan fried Pok Boong (Thai Morning Glory) with yellow beans, a crispy fried fresh water fish, and maybe a dish of mixed vegetables with pork. All the dishes are placed centrally on a straw mat and each person with their own rice bowl takes a small spoonful from the central dish, transferring it to their own rice bowl. When that morsel has been consumed they might take something from another of the central dishes and transfer it to their own rice bowl. And so it goes until everyone is full.
The Indian Connection
One King of India, King Aschoka, after having slaughtered several hundred thousand of his own people in a war of conquest to control all of India, encountered a Buddhist Monk about 500 years after the death of the Buddha. King Aschoka was so impacted with his guilt of the slaughter that he made it his life's work to spread the compassionate word of Buddhism. It was during his reign that Buddhism spread through the farthest reaches of the Indian frontier... Burma, Siam, Khmer, Malaysia, Indonesia, and even into Vietnam. This accounts, in my opinion at least, for the widespread use of curry throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. For reasons of geography, due mostly to easy access from China, the Vietnamese and the Laotians never developed a big desire for curry based dishes.
Due to the mountainous terrain separating Laos and Cambodia with Vietnam, the Vietnamese culture was barely impacted by Indian encroachment. The many mountain passes between China and northern Vietnam account for the much greater Chinese influence on Vietnamese culture. Interestingly, both flavors of Buddhism (Hinayana and Mahayana) exist in Vietnam. Hinayana arriving via the southern sea route and Mahayana arriving out of China from Tibet.
Buddhism and Food
Just an aside... Buddhism is the only religion I know that is totally tolerant of all other religions. There is no notion in Buddhism that you will go to hell if you don't believe in Buddha. In its simplest form, Buddha taught that to eliminate pain and suffering one must eliminate desire. That's it... He simply developed over his lifetime a methodology for eliminating desire. It is not inconsistent with being a devout Christian, or Atheist for that matter, to study and follow the basic Buddhist precepts. Of course other religions will tell you that if you worship before idols and icons you will go to hell. And in extreme cases, if you are caught thinking these things, you might even be stoned to death. Buddhism has great regard for life and never would you be harmed by any Buddhist for not believing in Buddhism. Nor will a Buddhists proselytize, attempting to convert you to their religion; it is just unheard of.
Since Monks may not prepare their own meals, lay believers are obligated to feed the Monks, it's a form of performing alms or doing good deeds. Long lines of saffron colored robed Monks leave the Temple and along their route you see lines of people placing their offerings of food into the special container (Baat) that each Monk is given on their day of ordination. It has been thus for more than 2500 years in all Buddhist believing countries around the world.
In Laos, believers will put sticky rice into the Baat along with a piece of fruit or banana wrapped steamed sweet packet. In Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Burma the scene is repeated but instead of sticky rice, white rice is used.
While the Monks are out of the Temple collecting alms, other believers congregate at the Temple preparing, for the Monks return, to offer up their alms of cooked dishes and soups. When the Monks return and take their places, the believers one by one kneel before each Monk and do the obligatory bow three times to show their respect and place their offerings before each Monk. It is all amazingly orderly.
Most Temples have a contingent of elderly women who live in separate quarters in the Temple complex. Many of these women, known as Mae Cow (Women in White), have a deep sense of their own mortality and choose to live out their final years in the confines of the Temple doing alms on a daily basis. Some, who might have a living husband and older children, may decide to live in the Temple compound for a brief period of time, two weeks to three months is not uncommon. It is their duty to keep the Temple clean; and to make sure that the Monks are sufficiently fed. Therefore, they will prepare additional foods for their alms to the Monks. Once the Monks have consumed their food, the remainder is set out for all in attendance at the Temple to consume.
I am known as being politically incorrect in many of my beliefs... so here goes just one more comment that might get me into trouble. There is no social welfare system in Southeast Asia. Whether you are a believer or a non-believer, it just doesn't matter. Go to any Temple at the right time every day in Southeast Asia and you will be fed. If in need of housing, go to any Temple in Southeast Asia and you will be welcome to sleep in the Sala (the veranda or portico of the Temple). The system in Southeast Asia represents to my way of thinking a perfect harmony of life and is totally consistent with helping others by a virtue known as compassion. There are no inefficient Government programs that attempt to feed the less fortunate. The less fortunate don't look upon the system as one of entitlement and protest for more other than basic sustenance and shelter. The society is based upon a common notion of giving from the heart and not from the wallet. The system works, and works well; there is no widespread starvation in Southeast Asia such as might be found in African countries. The system is based on respect for human life and compassion.
The Buddhist Temple is also the center of everyday life. In the rural areas the Temple Sala is used as the public school and as if they believed in separation of Church and State, the Buddhist religion is not taught during school hours. That activity is reserved for parents and family and is taught mostly by providing a good example. Every boy child usually enters the Monk hood at some point during his lifetime, some for a period of two weeks, others for a few months and yet others for a life time. One is always free to don the Saffron robes and stay for a while. Many men do so several times in their life.
City Workers and Dwellers
Eating at the Open Air Markets through out Southeast Asia is a truly memorable experience. The markets are open for business 23 hours per day with one hour set aside in the wee hours of the morning for a general clean up. The general lay of the land is that stalls are set up row upon row with common seating between the rows. Smaller markets might be as large as a half acre, Larger markets might occupy several acres. The customer sits in front of the stall of the vendor whose foods he wants. So how do you know whose food is best? Just find the stall with the biggest crowds.
At the Morning Market, known as Talahd Dawn Chow, we see the coffee vendors selling Thai hot coffee along with Cha Quai a form of fried dough. In the next stall, another vendor is selling the famous Guiteeyo Nomb and more Cha Quai. Every imaginable breakfast dish is available: Rice porridge, egg omelets, and much, much more.
I did not intend that this writing would have such a religious bent. But because Buddhism, having had its roots in India and being so culturally dominant in Southeast Asia, it was all but impossible to avoid the subject.