When I find myself in a foreign place, I’m like a sponge, absorbing as much of the culture as I possibly can. To me, this is the only way to travel: with an open mind and a big appetite. It’s this very attitude that propels me into strange, unusual, and (at times) uncomfortable situations all for the sake of food. Some of my most memorable meals have been in restaurants that were located in the wrong part of town, ones that had no name, ones that couldn’t be found except by the most seasoned residents or suspiciously long lines. These are the places where you order by pointing at other tables because they have no comprehensive menu, names of dishes may never be known, nor ingredients revealed. But in these places, it doesn’t matter. These are the places where food memories are born.
While I was living in Thailand, my inquisitive appetite took my mother and I on one such adventure. We found ourselves propelled down an uneven Thai street on the back of a rickety tuk-tuk. Careening around turns and blowing past stop signs, our driver turned to us with a toothless smile to reiterate he had no idea where we were going. After a grinding halt and a lurching start, we shot off again, assaulted by the thick, pungent Bangkok air in search of a restaurant with a name that not even a native speaker could pronounce, let alone a farang like myself. Sweaty, hungry, and intrigued we started down an alleyway allegedly housing Chotechitrl, an infamously tiny and life-altering restaurant.
As we turned the corner, we smiled knowingly and inhaled the rich, fragrant aroma. Our nostrils filled with the scents of sugar, salt, acrid fish sauce, and sour chili-laden vinegar. Our brows were wet with perspiration and our eyes stung with the biting heat as we sat down at a small table in this hallway-like restaurant. We were greeted not with menus, but tall glasses of Chang beer poured, Thai-style, over ice to battle the ferocious heat. We looked around eagerly, admiring the ample plates of food that surrounded us. From that moment forward, our entire dining experience rested in the capable, calloused hands of an older Thai woman, who waved her spatula in the direction of others diners and demanded, “Chai/Mai Chai?” Yes or No. That’s how we were to order. Like I said, we were entirely in her hands. We sat back and let the heat and our success wash over us as sipped our beers and laughed at each other. We had made it this far, and we were not the least bit concerned about what was about to happen.
These are the moments we remember. Adam Gopnik describes these as moments of arrival and expectation, “when we sit down for a meal and our nerves alight with anticipation”. Some of us never get over the thrill of the chase. Luckily, when it comes to food, there’s always another food adventure around the corner.