Thursday, March 6, 2008

Out of Silence and Into Fish Ball Soup

There is so much to say about the silent meditation retreat but I've decided to wait and let myself digest before imparting the buckets of wisdom I encountered, tripped over, sank my teeth into during my six days there.

In the mean time, however, I would like to focus my attention on something much more amazing: fish ball soup.

When I left the retreat, the taxi took me to Chaiya, a small town about twenty minutes away where I was planning to catch the very next train to Bangkok. I arrived at the train station at 11:30 in the morning with two German women from the retreat, one of whom was as ecstatic as I was (although in a much more German way), the other who clearly would have preferred to have stayed behind. No matter, I was too wrapped up in what my own senses were experiencing to pay them much heed and in a bit of culture shock after the days spent in complete silence.

Like any self-respecting Westerner, I made my way directly to the only Internet cafe and plopped myself down to check my email, see how Obama is doing in the polls, and find out who's doing who in Hollywood. Happy for a little time without struggling to make conversation in broken English or attempt my irreparable German, I told the other two they could leave their bags with me. They were anxious to find some food as we passed the time until nine p.m., when our train was due to depart.

A few hours and three unsuccessful Skype attempts to D later, they returned glowing, with bellies full of pork and rice, Thai sweets and chocolate bars. It occurred to me that it was three in the afternoon, a full two hours after we would have finished our second and last meal of the day at the retreat. I thought it might be time to find lunch.

This was going to be my first real adventure into the Thai culinary world as until now, I have stayed within relatively safe boundaries, sticking to English speakers and places that people have recommended as being "healthy."

Thai cuisine is full of chillies, lemongrass, turmeric to name a few of the spices... and sugar. There is sugar in everything. In fact, the sweetness balances out the spice; and many of the spices are used for their strong anti-fungal properties -- a must in this kind of weather. But everything looks and tastes extremely fresh -- as if the plants are picked minutes before appearing on my plate, the pig is slaughtered only after a customer orders it. I wandered around the market examining the stalls closely, knowing I would not spend time here again and wanting to choose the most delicious thing I could find amidst strange-looking creatures and napping stall owners who probably would have been of little help even if they had been sitting upright. The market offered everything from raw meat submerged in big bowls of water surrounded by flies, to transparent plastic bags with greenish bulbs floating in yellow liquid, to dry-looking pastries, live crabs and mysterious parcels in banana leaves.

After a few false starts, I settled on a little shack across from the market where a woman smiled at me as she scooped red goop into baggies -- the Thai really love putting everything possible into little, transparent plastic bags (kind of like zip-locks except without the ziplock part) which they then knot and fasten a rubberband around in such a way that makes it almost impossible for untrained fingers such as mine to pry them open.

I pointed at a bunch of noodles and said "rice"?
"No, no" the woman told me and proceded to explain in perfect Thai what I was pointing at. They looked like straight rice noodles to me and I decided to chance it. Nodding, I pointed back at them and said "soup?"
"Kah, kah," she said, yes yes.
"May Pong Churot" I told her, "no MSG" -- a girl must keep her priorities, after all.
"Ah, ah," her husband, or lover or son nodded vigorously. "May Pong Churot"
I wasn't sure whether that meant there was MSG in the soup or not, but he had pointed at a seat at the far end of the room and I thought the only polite thing to do was go sit down. However there was one more question to be answered:
"Paw" he said.
"Paw! Paw!" The woman pointed into a pot out of which I can only assume there were pork hoofs sticking out.
"NO, NO! NO Paw!" I said with a smile. "Tofu?"
"Aw, tofu" he pointed at an abandoned tray at the far side of his counter, "tofu."
Next to what looked like fried tofu were little round balls that looked slightly more appealing. Now that I think about it, this is possibly because they resembled Matzo balls. Because objectively, they were far from the Claudia Schiffer of the food world. On the contrary: these were small, beige, non-descript balls of who knows what.
I pointed at them, "tofu?"
"Aw, aw, fi-bah, fi-bah" The Thais seem to be able to pronounce every vowel and consonant in their own language but, for some reason, they don't in translation. No matter, we understand each other when we need to. Besides, with my three words asking them to remove ingredients, I really shouldn't talk!

After one more foolish request -- "May Nam Ta'an", no sugar -- which brought about some panic, I waived it away, "no matter, no matter" and returned to my seat to watch them put together my "sou".

The man threw the raw, stiff noodles into a net-like contraption that he dunked in the pot with the hoofs in it -- the pot had two parts to it -- I'm choosing to believe he used the other bit. He stood there for all of fourteen seconds after which he pulled the net and my now cooked noodles out and dumped them into a large soup bowl, to which he added some clear broth, soy beans and the fish balls.

In front of me were a myriad of sauces which a kind gentleman explained were vinegar, sugar, vinegar with sugar, chilli, and vinegar with chilli. I added a bit of red chilli to the broth which had, until then, been made up of shades of beige, and slurped some noodles into my mouth followed by a bit of the hot soup.

As soon as the food hit my lips, my hunger, which I had not really felt until then, resurfaced violently. Luckily the road around me was extremely loud and busy.

For the past six days, I have been eating two meals a day, the first at eight in the morning, the second at half past noon. While I highly recommend the Thai Buddhist monk diet if you want to lose weight, it does little for either expelling or satiety. At the retreat, I ingested some of the freshest, most delicious food I have ever had. It was all grown on the premises and organic which, according to the food blessing I chanted before eating, I was not supposed to enjoy in any way other than to keep me alive so I could "follow the spiritual (way of) life."

Before the retreat started, the coordinators had asked us to store our valuables in their vault so we wouldn't have to worry about any of it getting stolen. Along with my wallet and camera, I had handed in a small bag of homemade granola from Koh Pan Ngan. That bag had appeared in my dreams, in my meditations, in my thoughts at all sorts of random times -- not so much because I was wanting to eat it as much as it had become a symbol of the worst form of what the monks were telling me was the root of my despair: craving, enjoyment, pleasure. That small bag of granola was also the first thing I reached for after leaving; only a couple of bites so I could savour it for longer. I plan to eat the rest of it on the train tonight, in celebration of my cravings, my enjoyment, my freedom.

My soup here in Chaiya may not have been organic or as fresh as what I'd been eating at the retreat, but it was delicious, and the woman who had sat down a few tables away to enjoy her own soup looked over and smiled at my delight. What a change!

It was the fish balls, however, that won me over. They were small, maybe the diameter of a quarter, if that; doughy and chewy while remainnig firm and full of flavor. They were slightly salty with a very unobtrusive yet distinct fish taste. And they balanced out the liquid in the soup and the slippery noodles perfectly. At first I thought there were only three of them and was so excited to discover a hidden fourth under a clump of cheeky parsley that I actually laughed out loud.

When I finished the bowl, I asked for more, "just fish balls" I told them, ignoring the fact that they understood no English, "and maybe a little soup." Somehow, with more gestures, licking of my lips and rubbing of my belly, the said fish balls and broth appeared. The man kept looking at me and laughing. In the back, two women kept repeating "fareng, fareng", or "foreigner, foreigner." I din't care.

In Buddhism heaven and hell are not a place where you end up after you die; they exist in the here and now as a state of mind. This afternoon, for a few moments, I found a little piece of heaven. And it's located in a fish ball.

1 comment:

Andréa N. said...

Beautiful, my friend. Just beautiful.