Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Bangkok Sauce

Sadly, we packed and left the leafy surroundings of our gifted two nights in the boutique hotel of Phranakorn Nornlen. There had only been one aspect of our stay that had unnerved me: there were signs on various surfaces with the decree “No Sex Tourists”. Yet no matter how many times I read it, my brain kept putting a comma in and making it an exhortation to travelling celibacy on the part of foreign visitors.

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We headed down the main street towards the centre of Bangkok, checking every hotel we could find along the way. The longer I spend with guide books in my hand, the less I trust them, as the recommendations from the Lonely Planet were either ludicrously expensive or ludicrously crap. We finally hit on a little villa on a side street next to one of the canals. Despite my four years in the Sherman Cymru scenic workshop, I’m very far from having anything like a passable knowledge of wood, sheets of cheap ply apart. The entire place was built out of a gorgeous dark hardwood – my guess is that it is teak, and the louvred window shutters and brightly polished floors were a joy to behold. Clearly, though, respectable Thai hotels don’t have any truck with “loving you long time” these days. The sign on the front door was even less specific than the last one – “No Thais Allowed Please”. Can you be racist against your own people?!


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The streets outside were a riot of food stalls. The trouble is, being vegetarian means that I’m not really able to jump in without having a rough idea of what it is that is being dished up. So a lot of these places are a point and stare experience for me. Combined with an allergic partner who inflates at the mere mention of seafood, the two of us aren’t really the ideal gourmet explorers. Throw in a grumpy three year old who will eat any dish as long as it is spaghetti bolognese, and you have a recipe for culinary conservatism that is as frustrating as it is repetitive.

To redress the balance I hunted down May Kaidee’s veggie restaurant, and after a delicious massaman curry (followed by awe-inspiring vegetable tempura that the child refused to eat despite our pleas that it “was chips”), immediately signed up for her cooking class the next day. The morning started with a degree of disorganisation that anyone who has eaten in my kitchen will recognise as symptomatic of the type of cooking style I’m hoping to leave behind. I got up early to walk 45 minutes to the restaurant where I’d been told to present myself. After half an hour of sipping a bottle of water, they rustled up a bloke on a scooter who then drove me (I had my special protective baseball cap on, I didn’t need a helmet) back to the cookery school, which was at the bottom of the street where our guest house was. Well, a pointless brisk walk followed by casually dicing with death on the back of an underpowered scooter is as good a way as any to start a half day of Thai cooking.

May Kaidee then made her appearance. May is petite, beautiful, charming and bonkers in equal measures. And she can cook wonderfully. She appeared in full traditional Thai dress, and after a couple of hours of cooking instructions, had us all sit down to watch her dance for ten minutes. In the restaurant. While other people were eating their food. She then made the rest of us get up and follow her. At this point the bemused diners gave up on their dishes and just sat and filmed or photographed us. I loved her cooking school, but I think if the flyer had contained the sentence “class includes involuntary 20 minute Thai line dancing session in public view” I would have had serious doubts about attending.

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The child obviously realised that things were careering out of control and that we had sought the advice of his grandmother, for his behaviour seemed to improve immediately following the 90 minutes I spent on the phone to Belfast. This probably has more to do with us finding a moment of solace in the wise words of his Nana, and getting a bit of perspective on our collective frustrations and fallibilities. Bangkok makes generous parenting easy. There is a huge park, with working children’s playground (some of the slides we had seen in India were a rusting metal kiddie deathtrap). There are shopping centres (no, not “malls”, shopping centres) with enormous children’s amusements areas. There are soft play centres. There are also lots of western style restaurants where there is an endless supply of tomato sauce. Now that we had taken a mental breather, our fight is no longer with our own son but rather his crack squirrel addiction to tomato sauce. A good friend of mine once requested tomato sauce before even sampling the dish that I had just laboriously concocted for him. We are no longer on speaking terms. I don’t want the same thing to happen to my son. If you see a small blond child forlornly wandering the streets of Bangkok, don’t give him tomato sauce no matter what he says.