'Is there street food?'
'Green curry's nice but it's so spicy.'
'Do they eat dog?'
Yes, 'street food' is commonly found, even if most of it is in dedicated markets selling pre-prepared foods to take away and eat. If Thais need a snack or drink to keep going then 7-Eleven is usually the first choice. Service stations, sports arenas and public transport hubs will have vendors around selling precut fruit, lightly fermenting in plastic bags, grilled chicken or pork skewers (gai ying and mou ping), soda poured over chipped ice in plastic bags, noodles and a huge variety of dried and salted fish. Most of this street food is sold from a mobile cart or roofed sidecar attached to a 125cc scooter: a few family members with a well-equipped cart will usually offer three or four dishes, with the most popular being chicken with rice and broth (khao man gai), red pork on rice (khao mou daing) or variants on pad thai and papaya salad (som tam). However, my colleagues and friends will usually go for lunch in one of the many semi-open restaurants. A large but sparsely equipped open kitchen is usually run by two or three cooks, each one with a wok burner: rice cookers, chopping blocks and prep areas for salads face outwards. The dining area is usually covered by corrugated roofing but open sided, and faces onto an earth car park. The cutlery is very light, thin gauge aluminium and the plates are usually pastel-coloured square plastic things. Why, I have no idea. A typical meal of 'something and rice' will include free iced water, and cost between 30-50BHT (currently no more than one whole pound).
The food available will differ hugely depending on the region. I've spent my entire time out here in the northwest Isaan region, the poorest area of Thailand with historical and ethnic links with Laos and latterly, the entry point for Vietnamese immigrants. The Mekong flows through the area and the high plateaus contain large lakes - freshwater fish are in abundance here and the local cuisine extensively uses pla ra, made by packing fish and salt into large earthenware jars and leaving the whole thing to rot down for months. The liquid is drained off and used as the local version of fish sauce (nam pla) and the really evil-smelling debris at the bottom (pla ra) is scraped out and used in salad dressings, condiments and fried dishes. The coconut milk curries and grilled seafood common in the south are very difficult to find here: partly through lack of available ingredients, but also due to the large Muslim population in the south creating a largely halal cuisine that isn't necessary in the Buddhist and Catholic Isaan. The difference is so marked I had to go to a national chain restaurant to find even well-known grilled chicken with turmeric, garlic and peanut (satay) and massaman and with rice or roti. Coming from the UK, where finding pasties in Carlisle or Cumberland sausages on a Dorset pub menu is hardly a stretch, it asks a lot of questions about the state of regional eating back home. Eating local produce here is not a middle class or ecological choice, it's mostly a necessity imposed on Isaan due to poor infrastructure, small scale production selling at town markets.
Organic, low fat, reduced salt or sugar are alien here. Dieting, however, is incredibly common and beauty drinks containing collagen or advertising testosterone boosts, increased skin radiance and other quack benefits are in every 7-Eleven fridge. Alongside the meteoric rise of the supermarket and the dominance of 7-Eleven processed foods, the heavy use of salt, sugar and MSG in all cooking means Thai food's reputation as being healthy is largely undeserved. From purely personal experience, obesity and diabetes is a far bigger issue in Thailand than the UK, not helped by widespread ignorance about nutrition. Friends tell me about siblings, parents and cousins that are affected and more than one has told me that it's the second biggest killer after all cancers. The trend amongst young Thais towards eating unhealthily whilst convincing themselves otherwise is not purely thanks to the availability and content of certain foods. If you think images in the UK media are unrealistic and damaging then come to Thailand: every billboard features very slim, pale models. Several of the women and two men I work with confess to 'dieting' - eating nothing at all during the day, only drinking mineral water and vegetable juice then having a half bowl of noodles in broth at dinner, to which most add a couple of teaspoons each of sugar and MSG flakes before going to meet with friends over two litre bottles of spirits mixed with Coke. Apart from sustaining a range of expensive vegetable juices, this kind of diet does them no good. Eating at McDonald's is a status symbol thanks to comparatively high prices, and chains like Dairy Queen, Auntie Anne's, KFC, Mister Donut and Swensen's are in every shopping centre for the young to eat like farangs whilst feeling guilty about the content and cultural origin of their burgers, ice creams and pretzels.
Between the coups, Thailand is largely under the radar in Europe. It is a fiercely nationalist country with very conservative attitudes that does little to conceal its intolerance, and this extends to food. I was very surprised to be invited to cook farang food for some friends and colleagues, and whilst shopping I remarked on the easy availability of premade spice mixes and curry pastes for Mexican, Indian, Moroccan, Vietnamese and Chinese as well as Thai dishes. On asking how often my colleague bought the foreign products, she replied that she never bought them, and the only people she knew who did had lived abroad and wanted to keep eating their food.
'Why do you never cook using the foreign things? Indian food is similar to some southern Thai, if you'd like to try it.'
'Oh, India is bad. Thai people don't like it.' Regrettably, the all-too-frequent Thai attitude towards the Indian subcontinent is nothing short of racist. Try asking ten Thais what to do if you see a snake and an Indian in front of you, and count the responses.
Thailand is not a country poor enough to make food a matter of life and death for the majority of its population. The people theoretically have a choice about what to eat. Rice is certainly a staple in a way that nothing in the West can get near, providing the bulk of at least two meals a day. Occasionally egg, rice or mung bean noodles are used in soups, but the shredded vegetable salads and southern roti breads don't constitute meals in themselves. Certain regions will have their own expensive specialities, but the history of these dishes often predates Thailand's wealth and so genuine and typical Thai dishes such as tom yum kung or som tam are food for the working classes. Isaan is known for the quality of its beef, known locally as pon yang kam. This is always served with a miserly portion of anaemic crinkle-cut chips, a curious coleslaw of shredded white cabbage and carrot cut with a wavy blade topped with sweetened Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise and an Asian equivalent of ketchup: even a small cut of rump will cost more than a similar steak in a UK pub.
With the rise of shopping centres comes the rise of chain restaurants. Without ever knowing about these or seeing them in the flesh, I knew instantly that Jeffer, MK, Hotpot and Shabushi were chains. There's a plastic modernity and incandescent anywhereness to these places; a laminated menu featuring Thai dishes and the odd bit of tourist appeasement (sauerkraut and garlic sausage in a boiling monsoon, anyone?) meets staff in branded polos serving up plates of microwaved pre-prepped veg, steamed or reheated meats and syrup-based sodas. This doesn't happen in the roadside shack. The hot pot is as popular a Thai restaurant concept as bento boxes and conveyor belt sushi is over here: a sushi and dim sum buffet starter precedes various slivers of meat and fish you boil to a rubbery and insipid completion in a clear or tom yum soup mix. Thais I spoke to couldn't understand, at all, why such a restaurant would never work in the UK. Insurance reasons, people expecting the food to come ready to eat, the massive and real risk of bacterial transfer between chopstick, raw meat or fish and cooked product being shovelled into mouth and simply not being willing to fork out cash for more expensive bits of meat that all end up tasting the same, and are too thin to appreciate. We have the benefit of experience and choice in making judgements, if we feel the need, about huge corporations with the face of a restaurant. In Thailand, these places are like barbecue or Peruvian food over here: places to go because they're different and interesting and offer a new experience, the only difference being that over there they aren't confined to the capital.
A conclusion along the lines of 'I like/dislike Thai food' would be pointless: nobody who's read this far will find that useful, and you can work out my thoughts pretty easily along the way. Personally, the reliance on ingredients verging on the rotten and the difficulty in finding decent produce in the first place make the chances of somewhere other than Nahm (which is run by a Western chef) regularly making the top end of best restaurant lists a long, long way off. That is not what Thai food is about. What's stranger to me, and more enjoyable, is the Thai manner of eating. The communal rice dish, the different methods of preparation and variety of dishes, these are what make Thai food appealing. I love that 'eating out' is normal, doesn't have to feel like an overblown occasion that we feel the need to invite people to. Nobody agonises over menus and wine lists, then feels guilty afterwards. It's common food, but pleasantly so, eaten with the desire to share a moment of happiness with those close to you. Denied a cook's solitude of assembling a quietly luxurious dinner for yourself with bits and pieces from around the kitchen, you can still be happy over there. Contrary to so many other things I learnt about, Thai attitudes to food seem to make a self-assured sense.