I have always loved Thai food. As a child, when I had the chance to pick where my family would eat out for dinner, I always chose Taste of Thai in North Raleigh. When I was ten, it closed down and I was devastated. For years, I refused to even look in the direction of the shopping center where it had been. While I chose Thailand because I was interested in learning more about its education system and I wanted the opportunity to work with primary school students, the country’s traditional foods were a great added bonus. Food is such an important piece of any society; I was excited to have an opportunity to participate in this cultural facet, which hasn’t always been possible in other places where I’ve traveled.
When I arrived in Thailand, however, eating was one of my biggest challenges. I have a few dietary restrictions; the big three are gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegetarian. Between my knowledge of American Thai food and what I’d studied about Buddhist practices, I was expecting a great variety of options. But my first week, I found myself sticking to salad and eggs because everything else seemed to be accompanied by mystery sauces or surprise pieces of meat. Soy sauce contains gluten and it was more prevalent than I anticipated, and “vegetarian” didn’t always translate correctly for the food vendors I tried to patronize. There is also a value in Thai culture that supports providing the best food and service, so people try hard to make sure you are getting a great meal. When I asked for my food without meat or soy sauce, I got a lot of concerned looks and “are you sure?” They couldn’t believe that anyone would want to eat something so bland.
Eventually, my Thai language skills progressed from nonexistent to basic survival level and I was able to communicate better about my food needs. I also learned more about the ingredients in the food so I could ask for dishes like omelets without soy sauce and Pad Thai without fish sauce. It helps that, wherever I am in the world, once I find a few foods that I like, I tend to stick to them. One of my favorite moments from the orientation in Bangkok was the last day’s lunch. I headed straight to my regular food station where the main chef surprised me by repeating my order word for word the moment I arrived at the counter. As hard as the beginning had been, this experience reassured me that I would be able to develop similar relationships in my town.
However, after Bangkok, starting all over again was a big adjustment. My host teachers were really understanding and helped show me to the few food shops that had vegetarian options. It was still a little challenging, though, trying to explain what I could and couldn’t eat to the shop owners, given their limited English and my limited Thai. While the vegetarian cuisine is widely understood, allergies aren’t very common in the Thai community, so those issues were a foreign concept. Add to that the abstractness of gluten, something many English speakers don’t really understand, and it was almost impossible to ensure that my meals were completely safe for me to eat. I spent a lot of days with varying degrees of sickness and pain.
Complicating my early days at school was the cultural facet of gift-giving. Offering presents, especially food, is very big in Thai culture. It was hard explaining to people that I couldn’t eat the little snacks that they kindly gave me or the dishes that teachers bring to share with the lunch group. My school provides lunch every day, which is so nice, and they have gone above and beyond making sure I always have something to eat even though I can’t eat the meal that is prepared for the students. Receiving a special meal did feel weird though, and I was afraid of giving the impression that I was too good for the school lunch.
Eventually and miraculously, I was able to find gluten-free soy sauce in my local grocery store. I started using it in my own cooking and even brought it with me to the food shops and stands that I frequent. Each proprietor thought this was a little odd, but kindly accepted it and now has come to expect my weird golden bottle of sauce along with my visits. It has been so gratifying to feel like I’m experiencing true Thai food, albeit with a slight twist.
|Dai, my Pad Thai lady in my town|
Before coming to Thailand, my idea of Thai food was limited to noodle dishes and curries. Over the past few months, I’ve come to appreciate that my Thai food knowledge was missing one major category: fruit. Luckily, I don’t have any dietary restrictions when it comes to fruit, and that’s allowed me to bond with different teachers over the fruits that they’ve brought from home and invited me to try. One of my host teachers, P’Pete, and I both love pomelos. We fell into a habit where one of us brought one to share every day for lunch during the sweet pomelo season. A former English teacher brought jackfruit from her tree to lunch several times. By her last visit, she brought a special bag for me because she knew how much I loved it. There are so many incredible Thai fruits, some whose names I don’t even know, and I’ve really enjoyed the chance to be adventurous in this aspect of Thai culture.
While many parts of Thai cuisine are closed off to me, I realized early on that I could use cooking as a way to introduce my school community to my own culture and cuisine. One of my favorite fall treats is pumpkin bread with chocolate chips, a specialty of my mother’s. Thanksgiving in Thailand felt weird without it, so I decided to bake a batch the following week to share with the teachers. The results were a little different since I didn’t have all of the necessary spices, and Thai pumpkin has a slightly different taste and texture from North American pumpkin, but it was still fun to make and share. Seeing how well the pumpkin bread went over with the teachers at my school was also gratifying.
|One of my host teachers, P'Pete, trying my pumpkin chocolate chip muffins|
A few weeks later, I invited teachers over to my house to celebrate Hanukkah with me. It was quite a production, especially with my limited kitchen facilities, but we had such a fun night. My fellow teachers made the latkes better than my first attempts and loved the peanut butter “gelt” cookies that were a tradition from my student group in college. The gluten-free pasta wasn’t a huge hit, but it was worth a try. Altogether, it was delightful getting to celebrate and share a tradition with my new community. Since then, I’ve made different baked goods for special occasions or just to use up ingredients in my house. Baking is one of my favorite activities back in the States, so it’s terrific getting to share my culture through something I love so much.
Over the past few months, there have been so many breakthroughs and successes in both finding foods that I can eat and connecting with my community through food. It is still quite challenging, though, and doesn’t always go smoothly. Overall, I feel like my community and I have come to a place of understanding, which was one of my main goals for the year. I also really appreciate the effort that my school has taken to work through the challenges. Whatever event I’ve attended, from funerals to weddings to English camps, they always make sure that I’m cared for and have plenty to eat. While not what I pictured originally, my food journey has been a great cultural vehicle for learning more about my town and the incredible people who’ve allowed me to be a part of the community. I’m so grateful for their kindness and hospitality!
|Celebrating Hanukkah with some of the members of my school community|