Monday, December 28, 2009

Vegetarian in Thailand

"Don’t forget to pack snack sachets. Else you’ll have to survive on fresh fruit and fresh air! They don’t know what ‘vegetarian’ means in Thailand,”
warned a friend well-vers

ed with the sun and sand country. This was my maiden trip and I duly adhered, even as more mock commiserations poured in. Considering I was off for a food convention, suitably titled ‘Amazing Taste of Thailand’, I wondered what was on my plate, quite literally so.

The concept was to showcase Thailand through its cuisine, a relatively new tourism initiative. About 22 countries were invited and each was exposed to a particular province. The Indian contingent got an essence of the southern region by way of its vacationer island Koh Samui, a jewel in the Gulf of Thailand, besides which was getting up close with the capital charms of bustling Bangkok, where the official finale was held.

On trawling both destinations, I pleasantly discovered that away from shopping malls, beaches and massages there indeed existed a stimulating culinary realm—equally on view in uber Thai kitchens as well as on street carts—bursting with colour, fragrance, flavour, aesthetics and above all with the unrestrained joys of preparing, serving and partaking. Herein lay an assortment of robust and refined menus way beyond the globally-recognised staples of green and red curry pastes, the Tom Yam, Sa Tae etc. Each of Thailand’s five regions had a distinct taste to boast off and getting acquainted with it redefined what ‘Thai cuisine’ had meant all these years. That apart, the prime revelation for me was getting terrific meatless food, far more astonishingly diverse than I could have ever expected.

Koh Samui is ringed by a 57-km road and a drive through provides a charming glimpse of its touristy spots, the pick being the striking ‘Grandma-Grandpa rocks’ that beckon from the middle of an oceanic cobalt. Samui has six powder-sand beaches and their shallow continental shelf, typical of a gulf, allows you to stroll a length into the tepid waters or just laze in them without a tab on time. Chaweng Beach is where the rage is and that’s sufficiently underscored by its sprightly markets open late into the night, modish restaurants and cabaret shows.

Thailand has managed to interestingly package food tourism, which entails visits to grocery markets and cooking lessons at hotels you stay, in addition to savouring a host of flavours. So amid hours of relaxation and enjoying a cruise, we spent time at Samui’s local bazaars getting familiar with herbs/spices like Prik Kee Noo or ‘bird chilli’—the tiny dynamite that fires Thai cuisine—and essentials as Prik Nam Pla (fish sauce), while tropical fruits like rambutan, langsard and durian made for succulent sampling. Beach-side cooking demonstrations competed for eyeballs with displays of fruit-vegetable carving (a Central region tradition that flourished under royal patronage) done by skilled hands that unbelievably used nothing but rudimentary knives. Epicurean applause, however, undoubtedly lay in tempting multi-course fare we were treated to at the typical Southern-décor Samui Seafood Grill & Restaurant, which had an added ingredient of graceful Thai dance in the backdrop; and at fabulous sea-side places as Zazen Boutique Resort & Spa, and the celebrated Six Senses Hideaway where every villa alluringly faced the ocean and heaven appeared to be a doorstep away.

Southern Thailand is known for its spontaneity and this reflects in its cuisine that engagingly asserts a distinct spiciness and sourness. While the rest of the group went into raptures over duck, snails, grasshoppers, minced pork, mussels etc I relished the textures of silken tofu, water cress, bean sprouts, zucchini et al, delicately flavoured with kha (galangal), lemon grass, green pepper sprigs, makrut (kafir lime) or horapha (sweet basil), in salads and soups, curries and stir-fries which are always served with a portion of fragrant jasmine rice. Deciphering whimsical names on the menu like Kaeng Khieo Wan Nuea (Green curry with beef), Thod Man Pla (fish cakes) or Pad Pak Ruam (fried mixed vegetables) added to gourmet pleasures. Though desserts are limited in Thai cuisine I found a few lip-smacking and recommend a visitor to taste Mango-sticky rice; Sangkhaya Fakthong (coconut-milk custard steamed in pumpkin) and Khnom Krok (the inimitable bite-size rice pancakes).

Bangkok, an hour’s flight away from Koh Samui, expectedly had lots to offer: from its amply-discussed down-town shopping profusion at Siam Square, Central World and MBK; the exciting weekend bazaar of Chatuchak; to its heritage zone that included the capricious Grand Palace complex, the serene Reclining Buddha at Wat Po, and the beautiful Temple of Dawn or Wat Arun, that’s a short boat ride away. I managed to pack it all in a day courtesy an efficient transport network of sky-train, taxis and tuk-tuks. Another spectacular illustration of grace and grandeur was the Siam Niramit musical stage show ( that traced the history of Thailand, and is a definite must-watch.

The highlight, though, were our lessons at Blue Elephant Restaurant and Cooking School—housed in a period building, a rare occurrence in the steel and glass city. The schedule involved going vegetable shopping by sky-train to Bangrak market and coming back to prepare Green curry vegetables/chicken and Som Tam (raw papaya salad) at individual work-stations, after having been tutored by master chefs. As we constantly saw, Thai food was as much about subtle tastes as it was about presentation. The chef was an artist and the platter his canvas. The final outcome was nothing short of culinary magic, accentuated by the presence of the bashful orchid that appeared on mocktails, starters, desserts…everywhere.

In between learning to say sawasdee kha (hello)and khawp khun kha (thank you), I managed to successfully convey my food preference, sawirat (vegetarian), praise a chef with a-roi (delicious) and address vendors with gee baht (how much). However, the Thai language has soft syllables and a musical intonation. Until you get these nuances right, you may have spoken sawirat but it could well have been Timbuktu. So usually it’s best to continue with English, which ultimately does get translated, by the ever-smiling and willing-to-help Thai citizen.

The snack packs I had taken remained untouched. I presented them to a local resident as a taste from my country. In Thailand I always had a lot on my plate!

Getting there: Thai Airways flies daily to Bangkok from all metro cities, including Chennai.

Accommodation: Easily available for all budgets. Some centrally-located option are:
The Imperial Boat House, Koh Samui
Siam City Hotel, Bangkok

For further details contact:
Tourism Authority of Thailand, New Delhi
Phone: 011-4674 1111, 41663567-69

PUBLISHED in The New Indian Express, Chennai, November 2009

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