28 January, 2015

Please Eat This

By Eve Ben Ezra

Eve Ben Ezra is from Albuquerque, New Mexico. She graduated from Lewis & Clark College with a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics. She is a 2014-2015 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Mae Moh Wittaya School in Mae Moh, Lampang, Thailand. After Fulbright, she would like to teach kindergarten or mathematics, preferably in an immersion school. Or else she’d like to be a career diplomat. Or maybe a doctor. Or perhaps an astronaut. Her narrative encompasses some of the food culture of Thailand that she’s experienced, and how it is somewhat reminiscent of her Jewish heritage.

I grew up culturally Jewish. This meant that most aspects of my life revolved around food. A big part of my mother’s job was making sure that I was well fed, and I mean this to an extent above and beyond that of the typical mother. If I got a good grade on a test, if there was something to celebrate, the first question that my family would ask was, “What sort of food should we make?” The answer was usually brisket. And mashed potatoes. And also macaroni and cheese, and bagels. Oh, and don’t forget lox, because you can’t have bagels without lox. And hey, let’s throw in some fish, and while we’re at it some lamb chops. Oh, there are only three of us? Well, we’ll put it in the freezer, it’ll be good until your grandchildren are done with college at least. I cannot begin to understand what it must be like to have a meal without leftovers.

So you’ll understand how I can say that I felt right at home when, in my first week in Lampang, I found myself with sixteen pounds of fruit on top of being given dinner every night.

One of the first things they told us during orientation was that Thais loved food. We had somewhat experienced this already. It’s hard to miss a love of food when people keep giving you food. I’m asked frequently, at every time of day, in English and in Thai, sometimes multiple times in a row, gin kao lao, “have you eaten lunch?” I answer, gin kao kha. Sometimes I am then given more snacks, which the Thais call kanom. The word kanom can refer to a wide array of food. Sometimes it is fruit, sometimes it is something that might as well be a second lunch.

There are several aspects to the Thai way of food. The first is the taste, the second is the community and culture. The third, frankly, is the volume. All of these come together to form the beauty that is Thai food. Thailand would not be Thailand without it, just as my mother would not be my mother if not for her paradoxical freezer.

My host teacher in Thailand is a kind and funny woman who I call Kru Yao. We first met during, appropriately, lunch. Sitting across the table from me, she explained the four tastes that Thais like to combine with every meal: sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. She asked me, do you like spicy food? I tell her yes, but probably not as spicy as she likes. She nods her head and then leans in close to me, gesturing that she wants to tell me something.

“Do you know the word aroy?” she asks me. I rack my small list of Thai words and remember sitting at the canteen at Chulalongkorn University one day. I was sitting alone when a woman sat down across the table from me. “Aroy?” she asked. I stared at her. “Aroy?” She repeated. I gave her a confused look and a thumbs-up. She laughed and said something to a boy sitting next to her. He looked at me for a few moments and then said, “is it delicious? Aroy?”

“Yes, I know that word.” I tell my host teacher. “It means delicious.”

My host teacher nods. “Everything you eat in Thailand, you must say aroy mak kha.” I repeat the phrase a few times and she laughs. Aroy mak kha. Aroy mak kha. Aroy mak kha. It’s very delicious. My host teacher tells me again, I must say this after everything I eat.

“What if I don’t like it?” I ask. She shakes her head. “In your head, you can say mai aroy. But never say it. Only in your head you can say mai aroy.” Not delicious.

We practiced, and with every bite of food she would ask me, aroy mai? Is it delicious? Aroy mak kha I would answer, every time. She would ask me, “And in your head you say what?” This continued for quite some time.

This lesson stuck with me, and though there have been few times where I have wanted to say mai aroy (the experience of when one of my students gave me a bag of beondegi, which are steamed silkworm pupae, comes to mind), I have tried to refrain myself. If anything, it has widened the spectrum of what I would eat. Foods that might sound unappealing (like jackfruit, a relative of the very stinky durian) end up being not-that-bad or even good. One of my first days in Amphur Mae Moh, my neighbor gave me a bag of kanom that looked like little breaded shells. I asked her what was inside. Happily, she told me, “fermented beans.”

“Oh,” I said. “Thank you.” I realized that she wanted me to eat some, and so I did. If I hadn’t tried some right there, I probably would have just thrown out this strange and seemingly unappealing food. As it turns out, I love the small strange breaded fermented beans. They are much sweeter than they sound, and they make a good snack.

Something quite well-known about Thai food is that it is generally spicy. I grew up in New Mexico, where the state question is: red or green? The question refers to the two types of chili that New Mexicans enjoy in their food. If you were curious, the correct answer is, “Christmas.” New Mexico spicy is nowhere near Thai spicy, and after spending four years in Portland, Oregon, my spice tolerance had substantially dropped.

One of the most common dishes that I eat at home in Thailand is som tam, or green papaya salad. Som tam is made most often with bird’s eye chili, which measures 100,000-250,000 Scoville heat units, lesser than or equal to a Habanero chili. Som tam is made in a mortar and pestle with these chilies, garlic, lime juice, liquid palm sugar, fish sauce, green papaya, tomatoes, long beans, peanuts, and dried shrimp. It’s simple to see the four food tastes present in this dish.

When I order som tam, I am always asked, pet mai? Do you want it spicy? It depends on where it is being made. Often when I first arrived in Thailand, I would answer pet nit noi (a little bit spicy). This often lead to food that was barely spicy at all. One day I decided to experiment. Pet mai? I was asked. I answered, pet kha. I have had varied results with this, from my food being as spicy as if I had ordered it pet nit noi, to watching in horror as handfuls (yes, plural) of chilies were added to the mortar. I’ve noticed something about the way that the Thais eat their food, mixing the four tastes. Som tam is definitely better when it is more spicy, as the garlic and palm sugar overpower the dish without any sort of spice. But if it’s too spicy, as was the case with the plural handfuls of chilies, I find that I can’t actually taste any of the dish. I’ve resigned myself to a somewhat erratic food experience in Thailand, but that’s some of the fun. I never know exactly how my food will taste from one day to the next, and whether or not I’ll be fine or whether or not my host teacher will laugh at me as I cry because my food is too spicy. Of all the adventures I thought I would experience in Thailand, this was the one I expected least of all.

My first few days in my province were complicated ones for me emotionally. My first day, after shopping for some necessities, I remember sitting in my living room and feeling apprehensive about the next day, when I would introduce myself to my school. There was a knock on my door. I opened it to meet my neighbor, Kru Noi, who was standing with two bags of fruit. She introduced herself, and as she pushed the plastic bags into my arms she told me, “For you!”

Since then, I’ve had a somewhat complicated relationship with the amount of food that I am given in my province. As I am the first ETA who has no food restrictions (following two vegetarians and one woman with celiac) my host teacher and other teachers at my school love to feed me. I have cooked for myself exactly twice. And I find myself feeling strangely reminiscent of living at home, with a freezer full of food that will never be eaten. I have two refrigerators, both of which are mostly filled with food. A lot of it is fruit. For about two weeks straight I was given at least a papaya a day. I’ve been given pumpkin, eggs, palm sugar, chilies, peanuts, starfruit, papaya, bananas, passion fruit, longan fruit, tamarind, watermelon, boiled rice, fried rice, soup, egg tofu, mushrooms, various leafy greens, bottles of tea, noodles, and many different kinds of kanom. At one point I had two kilograms of passion fruit, three papayas, a watermelon, and a kilogram of Chinese oranges. There are occasions where I’ve returned from dinner with a neighbor to find a second dinner hanging on my door. While these gestures of kindness are never anything less than appreciated, there’s also quite a culture in Thailand surrounding weight gain and body type. Gain weight I have, which is just one more aspect of this new situation that I have at least somewhat learned to accept.

In Thai, the guava (eaten while unripe and crunchy so that it resembles something of an apple) is called a farang. Foreigners are also called farang. This had lead to at least ten ice-breaking conversations where I point to a guava and myself and call us both farang and everyone laughs. Sometime in my first few weeks in my province, I was given a farang (the fruit, not the type of person). For some reason, this one fruit was the breaking point in all the gifts of food that I had been given. So I did the only thing I knew how to do in a situation like that. I tried to find humor in it. So I took a selfie of myself and the guava, uploaded it to facebook, and added the caption just a farang and her farang. #Selfieswithfruit.

Since then, I’ve taken many selfies with fruit. I even dragged a second ETA into one. The absurdity of posting pictures of myself looking emotional next to pieces of fruit makes me feel a little better about all of the things that I can’t understand. It makes me feel better, somehow, about the fact that there is no way I can possibly ever consume all the food that is given to me. And it helps me accept that that’s okay. I will never know the complete intentions behind all of the food gifts. I’d like to think that they are given less in the way that a Jewish mother gives food (you’re too skinny, eat or you’ll give me malnourished children) and more that they are a gift of acceptance. I’d like to think (perhaps completely incorrectly) that my neighbors and fellow teachers want me to feel at home here. So they care for me in the way that they know how. They give me food.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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