Wednesday, November 16, 2016

House Special

One task that has proven surprisingly difficult is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the one that we've had in the works for the longest. Even before planning for this trip began, we've wanted to emulate the trick used to good effect by some of our widely traveled friends, who have on different occasions gotten their hands on a wallet card, lovingly handwritten  and carefully folded, saying something to the effect of "house special". One was in Mandarin for a unicycling trip to China, which they presented to the waitress or chef at off-the beaten path restaurants as a conversation starter and invitation to authenticity, a way to break out of the assumptions that might be built up around a group of laowai appearing in a restaurant that doesn't get too many foreigners. Another such card is handwritten in Thai is presented by way of passport or shibboleth at any putative Thai restaurant in the States, for the amusement and possible the vetting of the chef. (I suspect his is less of a request and more in the manner of a doctor's note, to the effect of "The gringo can take it. Make it Thai hot.")

An attempt was made, but this is *not* "the special of the house" 
There's lots to love about this idea, even apart from the unexpected menu items it might introduce us to. To our mind, it seems like a good way to break the ice and show respect for the culture and the establishment, and maybe learn something that passes by those relying on the "grunt and point" school. It seems like it should be a universal concept -- "Chef's special." "The special of the house." "The chef's favorite." What your restaurant is known for. As these increasing generalities are attempting to gesticulate at, we have never been to Thailand before, we want to see what they want to show us.

As it turns out, however, this little exercise started teaching us things about the culture even before we got to Thailand. Simply put: We still haven't managed to get one. I first inferred that we were swimming against the tide when the first puzzled reaction of a Thai-born friend was "How special?" Googling produced no clear answer, always an ominous sign that things are more complicated--indeed, usually a clue that you're asking the wrong question.

I also talked about the idea with a Thai flight attendant on the DC to Abu Dhabi leg of my flight. She was (perhaps stereotypically) enthusiastic about sharing her country and culture, but when I tried explaining our project, she was nonplussed. After some cajoling she eventually wrote down a phrase, but never seemed to click with the concept. When I had an opportunity to have the phrase translated by our expat host he explained, with a knowing laugh, that the result was "I want a plate of delicious food."

It has been instructive in that it caused me to re-think the basic project, from the perspective of the recipient. Perhaps, if I'm honest, the simple phrase "house special" is presumptuous, even brusque. It assumes a lot about the situation. As our expat host explains, the Bangkok dining scene is untroubled by market forces. It is perfectly possible, even likely, to see four noodle carts in a row, all selling the same dish. This would be unheard of in a culinary market where competitors attempt to distinguish themselves and restaurants and even individual chefs pride themselves on superior or even signature dishes. Instead, restaurants in Bangkok seem to exist primarily for the purpose of providing food to a notional hungry passerby. Although frustrating to our preconceived goal, this is actually a philosophy that I can appreciate.

The idea may not be a complete bust, however, because further discussion with our host lead to a more culturally meaningful area where such pride of place will come to the fore. In Chiang Mai and Krabi, respectively, Northern and Southern traditional cuisine will be on display. Chiang Mai is famed for complex, milder dishes that blend sweet with savory, whereas Krabi exemplifies the southern cuisine where spice is life and your safety is not guaranteed. So in Bangkok, perhaps the best you can do is ask for (and almost certainly receive) a plate of delicious food, but it seems that asking for "good northern cooking" or "good southern cooking" may evoke the right spirit.

Fried green chiles with chicken; Ayutthaya floating market
(Photo: Brittany Morton)
Finally, a discussion of Thai cuisine would not be complete without talking about rice. While we in the West think of Thai food as spicy, flavorful dishes of meat and vegetables and curry, over here it has repeatedly been made clear that the real place to start is with the rice. It is the staple grain crop, and the implicit, assumed background for every dish. The "entrees" that we're familiar with in an American Thai restaurant would be more properly thought of as flavoring for the rice in a Thai household. Want to eat authentic Thai? Order a lot of rice, and just one entree for your table. In fact, rice is even in the colloquial language: a standard idiomatic greeting, similar to the American "what's up?" is "gin khao reu yung?". The literal translation is "Have you eaten [rice] yet?" (the "rice" is implicit in the question). As Anthony Bourdain observed, if you have eaten today, how bad could things possibly be? And if you have eaten, of course you ate rice.

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