You must know by now that I’m a sucker for a good market. For some reason produce markets in foreign countries hold so much interest for me – it’s not that I’m a great cook or anything, but I’m an avid eater, so maybe that’s it. The market provides a rare glimpse of local culture, a place to gain insight into what makes a place tick, through the most universal currency of all, food.
So when I was lucky enough to be invited to ‘market day’ near the home of a new friend, I was delighted.
Whilst we sipped tea and chatted at the house, the market was evolving before my eyes as I peered through the banana trees into the empty plot of land next door.
“How cool is this,” I thought “the market is right next door!”
Once it was sufficiently set up, we headed over with our shopping bags to do what women do best- buy stuff. A large round tray of geometrically arranged frogs, splayed out to display their pale bellies provided a good introduction.
I tried not to appear freaked out as I glanced into another tub, this time containing live ones.
The elderly couple who ran the stall had fashioned a simple but effective “fly shoo-ing contraption” above the dead frogs which I found at once both impressive and bizarre.
The vast array of vegetables eased my discomfort as I turned my focus on the vibrant green leaves, bright red tomatoes, pungent garlic bulbs, and of course, chilli – their diminutive size in direct opposition with the ferocity of their heat.
We tasted sour fruits, fondled mangoes and shoved our noses in bunches of Thai mint. All the while my friend haggled and joked with the vendors, whipping out twenty baht notes and pocketing change so fast I had no idea how much any of this was costing.
When I offered to pay, or at least contribute, she looked at me innocently and said, “You can pay if you don’t like to come to my house again.”
It took a few seconds for the penny to drop, but I eventually understood that this was her sarcastic way of telling me that she didn’t want my money. She didn’t seem like a woman I wanted to argue with.
Armed with all our supplies, we made the short journey back to the house.
Myself and the children of the house were given the important task of removing the leaves of two huge bunches of mint and placing them in a bowl of cold water, whilst my host pounded chilli and garlic in a large mortar and pestle.
Before long the first dish was ready, cubes of pork fried with green vegetables and garlic.
This was my sort of cooking- quick! I did make an effort to observe the preparation of the next dish, however, the popular “Thai fast food” Pad Krapow, a fragrant, spicy stir fry of meat, garlic, chilli, soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce, mint and basil.
Soon, it was time to eat. Despite the quick preparation, the meal was unbelievably flavoursome. The perfect balance of sweetness and spice. Crispy fried eggs and piles of steamed rice accompanied our delectable dishes.
A few years ago I did a Thai cooking class in Bangkok, which I really enjoyed despite the fact that I never really brought any of the skills home with me as I had envisaged. I think because there’s more to this paradoxical cuisine than just throwing ingredients together, or learning a recipe. It’s simple, but the flavours are complex and perfectly balanced. This food is just so natural to them- they are raised on it, getting dragged along to the market as children, and helping out with small tasks in the kitchen.
Though my delightful host did most of the hard work, we were all encouraged to help in some way, even if the children weren’t all that excited about it at first. But soon, they were setting the table with pride, and afterwards they cleared the plates away and delivered a colourful platter of cut fruit- mango, watermelon and a chalky, pale fruit called falang, which is strangely the word they use for ‘foreigner’. I wonder if they think we look like them…
I’d brought some chocolate bars as an offering, but when I’d asked my host if I could give them to the kids earlier in the day, she replied with “oh no, make them crazy!”
When I finished the delicious meal so generously prepared for me, fulfilled by so many amazing, enriching flavours of mint, lime, sugar, salt and chilli, I understood that there was no need for chocolate bars on a day like this.
I lay my cutlery on the empty plate and feeling utterly compelled to do so, bowed my head over my hands joined in prayer and said “thank you” in Thai.
My host was taken aback and looked at me in disbelief. I thought she must think I’m nuts.
“Why you do like that?” she asked me, “I never see foreigner do like that. I do that.”
“I don’t know,” I responded, somewhat confused myself, “I’m just very thankful.”
And when she finished eating her rice a few moments later, she bowed her head, placed her hands in prayer and said “kup kun kaa”. I realised that somehow the food had brought me more than just a full belly; it had connected me to a culture and a place that I was otherwise an outsider of.
As my teeth sunk into the tart sweetness of a cube of firm mango, I was extremely thankful for such a nourishing day – physically, spiritually and mentally. The produce, the food preparation and of course the eating had provided me with the sort of day I dream about when traveling, but the warmth, generosity and humour shown to me by my new friend, who opened her home and her heart to me was a surprising gift I didn’t expect.