It all started with a seizure...I suddenly found myself on a plane compacted between two screaming infants and their equally distressed mothers for 13 excruciating hours. I was bound for Thailand.
I wish the trip's purpose had been a pleasurable one however my father had suffered from a heart attack and it was time for the family to rally around.
I arrived in Bangkok, worn, weary and stressed. The next leg of the trip was not much better and included traveling six hours by bus to Khon Kaen in the north-east of Thailand. Not a fun prospect.
My mother and I spent several days with my father in the hospital watching him steadily recover. When visiting hours were over, I would seek solace in a part of Thailand that was comforting to me: the food markets.
Despite having lived in Thailand for 10 years, its sites, smells and sounds never cease to intrigue me. I remember my mother always saying that you could live in Thailand your whole life and not have to eat the same dish twice. I never believed her, however, on this last trip, I discovered many new and revelatory dishes.
In Thailand, social eating is an integral part of daily life. Family get-togethers, what ever the occasion, happy or sad, always include a veritable feast.
Food is everywhere and can be eaten at any time of the day. Some of the best dishes are made by street vendors who whip up deliciously simple noodles in a mobile kitchen the size of a shopping cart.
Even in some of the poorer markets, fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood and meats were in abundance. And as I walked through them each day, I would often wonder if anyone would even bother cooking at home with all this inexpensive and mouthwatering food available 24 hours a day.
And so it was, that over the next two weeks, my days were filled with family and food.
The first market stop was in Nonburi, Bangkok. Located just a short distance from Tha Nam Nonburi (the Nonburi Ferry Pier), the Nonburi markets are a must-see and are busiest in the early morning. It is mostly locals that shop in the heady maze of the little stalls and food-sellers.
This woman was selling Betel nut packages: the nut is often mixed with tobacco and lime and then chewed for its stimulant effects caused by psychoactive alkaloids. It also causes the chewer's mouth to go a ghastly red colour. The practise of chewing Betel nut dates back thousands of years in east and south east Asia.
These fish, known as Pla Salit are coated in salt and sun-dried for strictly one day only. Any longer and the fish becomes inedible or over-cured.
The Water Lily grows in abundance in the Chaopraya, or wherever there are bodies of water. It can be seen being washed down the river entangled in big green clumps of lily leaves, or found decorating garden ponds.
Only the stem can be eaten and is sometimes consumed raw with Nam Prik, a spicy fish paste condiment. Being an aquatic plant however, people should be careful when eating the stem raw. Other methods of preparing it include stir-frying the stem with pork, garlic and pepper, or poaching it in coconut milk, shrimp paste and red onion.
When I took this photo, the yellow petals of the Dok Snow (pronounced Sa-now) appeared to be moving. On closer inspection, I could see dozens of little bees hovering over the fragrant mass. The Dok Snow, or Snow Flower, is used to make a dessert called Kanom Snow. The flower is lightly steamed and mixed with sugar and freshly grated young coconut. For something savoury, Dok Snow can be fried with eggs, to make a kind of frittata, cut into litle squares and then topped with the Nam Prik fish paste.
Whilst on the topic of bees, check out this huge raw slab of honey comb with buzzing bees and all in the Khon Kaen markets. The seller would just gently break off a section of the honey comb and pop it into a plastic bag. The bees didn't seem to mind.
Khon Kaen is located in a region known as the Issan, in the north eastern part of Thailand. Issan culture shares many Laos characteristics, especially in terms of food. One of the most famous Issan dishes is Gai Yang and Som Tum, or BBQ chicken and Papaya salad. The food staple in the region is Kao Niew, otherwise known as sticky rice and can be seen steaming in big straw baskets.
When I finally left the market, a big writhing bucket caught my eye. To my horror, I saw about a hundred small snakes or eels, squirming around in the water. Eek.
However, it was still upsetting to think that these little creatures would be eaten...Not so. To my relief, I later found out that the eels are actually 'merit eels'. You can buy one and release it into the river, and good luck will be sure to befall you due to your good deed.
I think I'll just stick to tossing coins.
There is more to come on the tastes and textures of Thailand. But until then, sawasdee ka.