31. May 2011 · Write a comment · Categories: Food

Last weekend The Daily Telegraph published a clutch of so-called Thai recipes. Let’s look at one of them, by Rose Prince. The ingredients start OK with monkfish. Local Thai fish aren’t going to be readily available in the UK, so the substitution is fine. Lemongrass – that’s Thai. Then things start to go awry: pink peppercorns (never used in Thai cooking), parsley (never used). Rice vinegar – OK. Muscavado sugar – no! Half a washed, chopped anchovy!!! My Thai acquaintances universally loathe tinned anchovies. They’re sometimes called plaa raa farang. Plaa raa is a foul fermented fish that most westerners find virtually impossible to eat, and certainly impossible to enjoy. Thai people feel the same way about anchovies.

The recipe continues with lemon. Lemons are virtually unobtainable in Thailand – there isn’t even a Thai word for them. Thai cooking only uses limes – never lemons.

The recipe plunges into further depths of absurdity in calling for “white radicchio castelfranco”. Needless to say, this is not a staple of Thai cuisine.

I’m not saying that this dish isn’t delicious. In fact, I respect Rose Prince as a food writer, so if you’re tempted to try it the recipe’s at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/8541808/Coconut-milk-shortage-top-Thai-recipes-without-coconut-milk.html. But why, oh why, oh why is it necessary to call this “[one of] our top Thai recipes”?


On the day of the full moon Buddhists gathered to celebrate Visakha Bucha, the day of the year on which the Lord Buddha was born, became enlightened and passed away. They gather, as I did last year, to hold incense sticks, lotus bud and a lit candle and promenade around a temple’s ordination hall thrice. But in Wat Suan Kaew in Thailand’s south, this didn’t happen this year. The last two monks had been blown up by a terrorist bomb the day before as they made their alms round, padding bare foot, heads bowed, humbly accepting the food offered by the villagers.

Monks are an easy target. Despite having an armed guard, they are defenceless against 20 kg of explosive buried under the road. What defence is a begging bowl and a saffron robe? Also defenceless are rubber tappers, working alone in the forest, who are routinely targeted and beheaded. Teachers, policemen and soldiers, however, are more usually blown up or shot.

Though the perpetrators are oft described as Islamic terrorists that is far too easy a label. Yes, they are followers of The Religion of Peace, and yes their numbers include jihadis imported from places such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and yes, they want an independent Moslem state covering the four southernmost provinces of Thailand, and eventually a universal caliphate. However, their 4,000 and counting victims include both Buddhists and Moslems in roughly equal numbers. The terrorists seemingly have no spokesman, no manifesto. They seem solely to thrive on creating fear and division between neighbours, Buddhist and Moslem. One wonders what the role of foreign countries is in all this? Are these terrorists in it for the filthy lucre they receive from abroad to sue their holy war? Who knows?

But for now, the last two monks are dead, and all now is silence.


14. May 2011 · 1 comment · Categories: Daily Life

A few months before I left Ayutthaya a family moved in next door – a grossly fat Dutchman and his foul-mouthed Thai wife. The Dutchman had a penchant for sitting outside his house shirtless. The sight of his hairy, pendulous belly was enough to make anyone wretch. He’d then drink beer to ensure there was no danger of his hirsute pride-and-joy would shrink to more natural proportions.

His wife was equally repulsive. I’m guessing from her language and demeanour that she’s a former prostitute and that’s how he met her. (And, how shall I put it? I somehow doubt she married him for his good looks and charm.) Anyway, these two and their family made my life a misery.

Almost the first thing they did on moving in was to put up a large screen made of green plastic sacking which obstructed the view from my front door. It looked so cheap and vile (much like the family).

Then they installed a massive satellite dish immediately outside my landing window.

Then the building work started. They extended the house at the back, putting in a new kitchen, to one side (fortunately the side away from my house) and at the front. The building work went on for weeks and was hardly quiet. But then, neither were the youths who used their front drive as a makeshift motorcycle garage late into the night.

Once the building work finished they started on the front garden and turned it into a water feature resembling nothing so much as a public urinal. Once finished they’d leave the water running all day just to ensure that their annoying noises were incessant. (Of course, they shut all their windows so they couldn’t hear the torrent.) I’d hate to think the state I’d be in if I had a bladder problem.

Their offensiveness wasn’t limited to sight and sound. On occasion the fat Dutchman would park his pickup truck outside my gate so I could neither leave nor enter. I’d end up blowing my car horn for a good few minutes before he’d deign to appear and move his vehicle. Never an apology forthcoming from him, though, for the inconvenience caused.

There’s more – lots more – but I don’t think writing about it is too good for my blood pressure.

Anyway, in my new place the neighbours behind have managed to prove a tad inconsiderate even before they’ve moved it. This was the view from my dining area when I opened the blinds late this morning.

Dining Room View

(Just to clarify, the breeze block wall wasn’t there last night.)

Room with a view? Don’t count on it – not in Thailand.


Billie Joe Armstrong may have imprecated us to “live without warning”, but there comes a time when I feel I must warn the world of a terrible, terrible danger.

Now, I’m not one much for high-end toiletries, though I do love my L’Occitane en Provence Citrus Verbena Shampoo and rather wish that I had enough hair to warrant buying the corresponding conditioner. I also love my Kiehls Ultimate Man Body Scrub Soap – quite possibly the best soap in the world. That said, I still love my Boots Amazon Forest Brazil Nut and Vanilla Shower Gel too – it smells just like being in a wonderful bakery. However, one high end product I recently tried has proved a bit of a disappointment. It’s Lab Series Maximum Comfort Shave Cream. It claims its “advanced formula softens and prepares beard for a close and comfortable shave. Rich, concentrated texture allows for excellent razor glide and protection.” Does it heck as like! Each time I use it my face ends up looking like it’s had an overly close encounter with Freddy Krueger. To make things worse its “patented formula system provides immediate relief of irritation and stinging” really means that it numbs your skin so that you don’t realise that you’re slashing yourself to shreds until you notice the blood torrenting down your face. This has to be one of the worst shaving products ever! Avoid!!! As for me, the tube is going in the bin, and I’m going back to my cheap and cheerful Nivea Shaving Foam.

Picture provided for warning purposes only.

Probably the worst shaving product in the world


I rarely watch Thai-language TV – the content is usually pretty uninspiring and, to be honest, it’s still a strain for me to listen to Thai for more than a few minutes. However, one soap opera beckoned me to the screen yesterday evening – Dork Som Sii Thorng (ดอกส้มสีทอง – literally Gold-coloured Orange Blossom). This raunchy soap might not have come to my attention had the Culture Minister, Nipit Intarasombat, called for the censorship committee of Channel 3 to be dismissed. He bewailed that some of the characters in the series “acted extremely aggressively” with “overly strong emotion” – but that’s pretty standard for Thai soap operas. (Also standard is extremely wooden acting, cookie-cutter plots, rampant product placement and long, lingering shots of an actor’s face at key moments as they slowly contort their features through a range of emotions.)

Dork Som Sii Thorng

Of course, the real problem is that this soap is an accurate depiction of high society life. There’s rampant adultery by both men and women (the female lead has particularly voracious needs), drug taking, black magic rites and lots of screaming rows. Consumption is particularly conspicuous, with large houses and flashy cars. Shocking! There are elements in Thai society that take a nanny-knows-best view of the world and try to control what the ordinary Thai people read and watch.

(It’s of note that a prominent US human rights organisation has recently downgraded Thailand’s rating for press freedom from “partly free” to “not free” – one of the contributing factors being Thailand’s ramping up of its already rampant Internet censorship as well as overt political control of TV.)

Anyway, Channel 3 has responded by changing the programme’s rating from “13” to “18” (and there’s a nice big DOG on the screen to remind you of this throughout the program) and added a scrolling message every couple of minutes reminding viewers that soap operas aren’t reality, this isn’t Big Brother, and that under-18s should not be exposed to such corrupting filth. (At least, that was the gist of the message. I paraphrased.)

No doubt Channel 3 is enormously grateful for the Minister’s concerns, and is equally grateful for the terrific ensuing boost in viewing figures.


So, the United States thinks it’s OK to fly a bunch of helicopters laden with trained assassins into another, sovereign nation, attack a private home and in cold blood murder the householder and his son? They then steal the householder’s body and dump it in the sea. They also take all his computers. Who died and made Uncle Sam King of Everything?

Osama Bin Laden was a sick man, unarmed, living a life of quiet seclusion. If he had done wrong (and in all probability he had), then why wasn’t he captured and brought to trial – preferably in Pakistan. After all, Pakistan is an ally of America. In fact, it’s so popular that it receives billions of dollars each year from the USA for … well, I’m not quite sure for what.

Uncle Sam and Satan
[Cartoon by Peter Till, from The Independent.]

Suppose the tables were turned. Suppose that Pakistan decided to go after the American contractor who earlier this year for his jollies decided to shoot and murder a couple of Pakistanis. What would be the American reaction if Pakistan sent in its elite troops to dispense with Raymond Allen David – or even capture him and bring him to trial in Pakistan?

Double standards, methinks.

As for who is the greater Satan, that’s for others to decide.


03. May 2011 · Write a comment · Categories: Food

In his book The Anatomy of Disgust William Miller argued that when we are disgusted we are trying to impose limits in a chaotic universe and attempting to keep disorder at bay. However, each culture has its own set of the disgusting. In Britain we don’t eat snails, frogs or horses, but it’s but a short hop across the Channel to the land of Frogs where these things are considered a delicacy.

Historically, in Thailand, people have eaten a wide range of meats. Not horses (they aren’t common in Thailand), and some people don’t eat snails (in their mind they are associated with toilets), but frog is still quite popular, along with fish, prawns and other shellfish and wild birds. In the past chicken was a luxury – you wouldn’t want to kill an animal that provided you with a steady stream of eggs. So was pork – it took a long time to raise a pig, and then you had to put from your mind that in its lifetime a pig will have eaten a lot of rather revolting stuff (yes, including human poo).

Cows and buffalo held a particular place in the affections of the Thai farmer. They did a lot of the hard work on the farm, and were treated with great affection. A farmer wouldn’t usually eat his own beast, but would rather give the meat to neighbours, or sell it in the local market. A particularly belovėd animal would be buried and its skull mounted on the wall of the house.

City dwellers were somewhat less sentimental about the cow and the buffalo: beef was a delicious meat, to be enjoyed salted, dried, grilled, or eaten in a curry or soup.

Bangkok’s building boom of a few years ago triggered a massive influx of labour from Isaan (the high plateau in the north east of Thailand). Life as a peasant farmer was hard; working long hours on a dangerous building site in the capital seemed like an easy option. Soon there were food stalls – and later restaurants – all over Bangkok selling Isaan food: grilled chicken, barbecued pork, somtam (spicy green papaya salad) and sticky rice, as well as laap (spicy salad made from barely cooked minced meat with lime juice, coriander and mint). Thankfully such local delights as red ant eggs and part digested buffalo stomach contents dipped in blood were left on the plateau. However, in travelling to the capital the food mutated. It became less spicy and beef was increasingly used. Dishes such as nam tok neua (literally “waterfall beef”, a salad of grilled, sliced beef with herbs in a spicy, sour sauce containing ground roasted rice named after the drops of moisture that fall off the beef as it grills), seua ronghai (grilled beef, but literally “crying tiger”, named after the sound the dripping fat makes as it hits the barbecue coals) and neu tun (beef tendon soup). (Winnie the Pooh fans will be relieved to learn that seau ronghai was never actually made from Tiggers.)

More recently beef has started to disappear from the menu. Nam tok is now more usually made with pork and laap is more commonly seen made from chicken, duck or pork.

It’s not only Isaan food that has seen a cutback in the use of beef. Other Thai dishes have changed radically to eliminate beef: gaeng khiaw waan (green curry) was traditionally made with beef, but is now rarely seen made with anything other than chicken or fishballs; gaeng kii lek (curry with a distinctive local leaf) used to be made with beef, but now is usually found with pork; and panaeng neua (beef in a thick curry sauce) is now almost invariably made with chicken or pork. Curries, soups, yams, noodle dishes – all have changed.

With this decline in use, beef has become harder to find. Of the two big supermarket chains, Tesco-Lotus usually has a small selecion on its shelves, but Big C doesn’t stock it at all. And in the local markets, in smaller ones beef’s unobtainable, though larger markets might have a stall or two selling it.

Why the decline? In part, I suspect, it’s because of price; beef is much more expensive than pork or chicken. And in part it may be because of Mad Cow Disease. However, there’s also a significant feeling that large animals such as cows are more sentient than smaller ones, so consuming them is more “sinful”.

How long before the only place you can find beef in Thailand is under the Golden Arches?