WHILE IN BANGKOK I was offered a job writing for an online “lifestyle magazine” based in Paris. I’d applied for the position even though their ad was short on details. It simply said, “Writers Needed”. In their contact e-mail they asked for a sample article of around 300 words. The problem was that they wanted me to write for their Cuisine section. There was nothing in my background, or in my job application for that matter, which would have qualified me as a foodie. True, I’d worked in a restaurant for ten years, but as a waiter. I didn’t read culinary magazines or watch the Food Network. In fact, the only reference I had was having seen a comedic skit on the show Absolutely Fabulous in which a food critic assesses a restaurant in London as “Comfortable in the grand manner. Stuffed with plutocratic goodies and a decent duck. Dining room: boudoiresque fantasy, very eclectic and still fashionably uncomfortable. A melange. Possibly a post-Orwellian version of an Edwardian eatery…”
Since my philosophy is to write about what I know I chose the subject of street food, and crafted the following tongue-in-cheek review:
Street food is the new black, and winter is no reason to shun the offerings à la belle étoile. If you live in a cold country, simply follow Bill Murray’s advice in Lost in Translation: “We have to first get out of this bar, then the hotel, then the city, and then the country.” Bangkok, for all of its shortcomings, is blessed with an availability of street food throughout the year. My first experience was in Chinatown, a short tuk-tuk ride from the hotel where I was staying. Even though my dinner of fried rice, crab roll and Singha beer was briefly interrupted by a monsoon rain, I have to give the experience five stars – mainly for the Chinese busser who held an umbrella over my head during the downpour while helping my companion open her cockles. Quite a show! Next on the list was a streetcart. These entrepreneurs serve everything from sliced watermelon to fried insects out of wheeled carts that often double as kitchens. Some are equipped with small braziers while others have hot plates that quickly transform wads of dough into golden crêpes. I chose a vendor with a wok full of black, boiling oil, into which he tossed the fish balls I’d ordered. After a few moments of stirring he lifted out the steaming morsels with a perforated metal spatula and placed them in a plastic bag along with a wooden skewer and a dollop of fish sauce. I stabbed one and bit into it, tossing it around my mouth like a hot potato as the fish sauce – an amber-colored poison – ate away at the lining of my tongue. The pain persisted for half an hour and the fish balls were rubbery and tasteless, but what a bargain at less than a dollar!
It received an immediate response: “We would never recommend our readers to eat from street vendors.”
But it was too late. I was on a roll. I’d already written two more articles on food, warming up to the subject as the possibilities became apparent. While no one would be publishing these tidbits I found that I enjoyed the research and figured I might be able to cadge the occasional free meal if I let on that I was doing a review.
My next article was entitled “Pretty in Pink”:
Melting Moments is charming. The first time I passed it, nestled between Sois 21 and 23 on Silom Road in Bangkok, I thought it was a boutique for pre-teen girls. The decor is mostly pink and there are tea cozies and stuffed animals for sale in the window display. But this is a restaurant, run by the equally charming “Bo”. The restaurant might more properly be called a dollhouse as you are everywhere reminded of youth, surrounded by teddy bears, red hearts, bright colors and lace curtains. I ordered a bowl of corn soup, but I would not have been surprised if Bo, who might be a pre-teen herself, had brought over a toy kettle and joined me for a pretend tea party. Melting Moments is one of several restaurants in this small square, but it is perhaps the most durable. Next to Bo’s place is a Finnish restaurant, which replaced a Japanese restaurant, which is across from a Turkish restaurant, which has recently gone out of business. Bo, however, has been here for years. Her corn soup is wonderful, and the simple menu includes other expat-friendly fare such as tuna sandwiches on multi-grain wheat bread, smoothies and pizza. Before you leave, if you are so inclined, pick up a small box of candies. The individually wrapped bon-bons sit neatly one atop another in a clear container that is itself wrapped in ribbon with a bow on top. One cannot help but imagine the girls, like Keebler elves, gently placing each candy in the box with care before tying the ribbons and bows. When you leave, the girls wave goodbye, and you understand that it is not you to whom they are bidding farewell, but rather the candies which they have cared for, and are wishing them well in their new home.
This was followed in quick succession by the following article, which I entitled Monsoon Dining:
Harmonique epitomizes the old maxim that success depends on location, location, location. In order to dine at Harmonique, you first have to find it. The entrance is barely discernible down a relatively quiet pedestrian walkway off of Charoen Krung road in Bangkok. The neighborhood is eclectic in the extreme: unsung eateries of every stripe line the winding alleyways, Muslims breeze past on their way to the Haroun Mosque while French nationals, relieved from embassy duty, wander the labyrinth in their new linen suits purchased from Silom tailor shops. Gem dealers from Equatorial Guinea lounge in the lobbies of nearby hotels, complaining openly about how difficult the blood diamond trade has become. And occasionally a young American couple will stumble upon the area. The entrance to Harmonique, which is practically indistinguishable from the wall, whispers to the passerby like a sly whore. But this louche introduction serves only to discourage the faint of heart, because within these walls is a pleasant enclave of vines and broad-leafed plants in a patio setting where the only sound is of running water from the numerous fountains. As we took our seats beneath a leaf-strewn awning and ordered our plates of Pad Thai, the manicured calm was interrupted by a torrent from the sky. The monsoon rains, which were in their final month, beat down upon the plants in the garden and frightened geckos up the walls. It was a thunderous appeal from the heavens and stopped all conversation as diners paused their forks in midair to watch. It didn’t matter where you were seated, the rain spattered everywhere. Women drew their slim, silk tippets around their shoulders while the men sat mesmerized, seemingly reduced by this show of force. The young waitress arrived with our order and I realized, without taking a bite, that this must be the best food in Bangkok, considering the hassle.
This was good stuff. I began to see that food, like fashion, was not really about the product at all. You weren’t buying a pair of shoes, you were making a statement about yourself and your place in the world. You weren’t eating a meal at a restaurant, you were channeling its leitmotif through the medium of your very bowels. I was excited now and wanted to learn more. I also understood how limited in scope the lifestyle magazine had been. It was only concerned with haute cuisine, ignoring all others, which was like celebrating a single deity in the Hindu pantheon. There are thousands! My attempt to graft the language of fine dining onto street food had offended these monotheists, but I was now determined to push the boundaries even further.
I would go to McDonalds.
I knew that this was a dangerous step. In the world of gastronomy I would be regarded as a false prophet, but I had to cross that desert, and when I returned I would bring with me the good news…*
* Editors Note: It is unclear what happened to the author at this point as there is a gap in his journal of about forty days. What little we do know of this period was gleaned from his scribbled notes on what appear to be food wrappers, most of which is illegible due to copious grease stains. Consequently it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions except to wonder at the lengths some Americans will go in order to justify a trip to McDonalds when they’re abroad.