In the airport the Indian customs official looks up at me, and then back down at my passport photo, then back up to me, and back down. Something is wrong. Could it be my hair? It’s long in my passport photo, but I cut it so I wouldn’t have these kinds of problems. Or maybe it’s something to do with my VISA?
“You have lost 10 pounds”
“Since this photo, you have lost ten pounds”
He stamps my passport and hands it back to me. At first I am skeptical, but later in front of a mirror I notice that after 11 months of traveling I now bear a slight resemblance to Christian Bale in the Machinist. Better gain some weight in Thailand. Of course, this is not exactly a herculean task. Between mango with sticky rice and coconut chicken curry (marinated with the ubiquitous kefir lime, chili, basil, galangal, and lemongrass), I have returned to my passport photo weight in under a week.
Bangkok is hot this time of year, and nowhere more so than the slum of Klong Tuey. But it is here where one of the biggest fresh food market in all of Thailand (maybe all of Southeast Asia) does a brisk trade. Whether you are in the mood for fried insects or spiky fruits which are clearly the first wave of an alien invasion, there will be row upon row of producers offering stacks, piles, buckets and bags for fewer thai bat than you can believe.
Today I got a guided tour through the Klong Tuey market by Kun Poo, a local chef who has started her own cooking school in the slum (nicknamed “cooking with Poo”). What I am looking for specifically is Pla-Ra, an indispensable ingredient in northeastern Thai (especially Issan) cuisine made of fermented fish. For a hilarious introduction, check out this ad for the Thai post office. In case you didn’t know, the Thais are crazy about their fermented fish, even when it’s consumption poses a huge health risk. I missed it at the market, but when Poo hears that I am interested she runs to get her stash so that I can put it in my green papaya salad.
Most Farangs (foreigners) are less than excited about eating fish that has been rotted on purpose, but it’s why I am here. In the next few weeks I hope to follow Pla-Ra, and it’s more refined counterpart Nam-Pla (fish sauce) from bowl to boat. Which is why next week I will be cruising down to the eastern coastline to search out the factories where this stuff is fermented (often for a year or more!) and maybe even jump on an anchovie fishing sloop. We’ll see. For now, I am sampling liberally from every street vendor and hotel café where fermented foods are on the menu. You heard the customs man, I need to gain some weight...
(The expression on my face would reflect equal parts me being ticklish and experiencing extreme fear of being eaten alive)