Food changed my life.
I was shuffling around a large soulless supermarket, an aircraft hanger of despair, pushing a wire trolley full of soulless supermarket food and I suddenly thought to myself…. “I hate this.” I shuffled a bit further, picked up a frozen chicken and thought “I hate doing this and I hate this food.”
I walked out into the grey drizzle with my hateful food in the hateful trolley to a sea of uniform cars, none of which I recognized as my own. I had no idea where I was parked, always in a rush, always stressed, always thinking about what I should have done and what I should have said.
I walked up and down the rows of cars as the light faded from the sky and I looked to the heavens and realized that I would rather be anywhere else on earth than a cold wet supermarket car park holding a frozen chicken…and so we moved to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand.
Admittedly it was a bit of an overreaction, and admittedly that was not the whole picture, and of course it wasn’t as simple as that, but to my astonishment my wife and kids were, as they say “well up for it.” I think we just really wanted to get away and live a better life which didn’t revolve around shuffling up and down inside a supermarket the size of Belgium.
Buying and eating food in Thailand is a revelation, and it has changed me and made me think a bit (which is always dangerous given the sort of crackpot ideas I get). Like most things here it is very different to back home. Back home the weekly shop made me feel depressed, whereas out here food shopping and eating is a celebration; a wonderful, vibrant festival of food and life.
Every day I go to the local market, everybody does, and it’s like taking drugs, it’s genuinely mood altering but without ruining your life and having to go into rehab and talk to a bloke called Colin who wears a cardigan (yes, every rehabs got one). The market is a big rambling cavernous affair, open at the front and surrounded by tiny shops on the other three sides and covered by an enormous leaky tin roof. Stepping into it from the bright heat of the sidewalk is like entering another world; an Aladdin’s Cave of food.
Your senses are bombarded with sights, smells and sounds that are completely new; the slightly heady scent of orchids on the flower stalls mix with the thin strands of smoke from hundreds of burning incent sticks and flickering candles. Tables are piled high with bright purple Dragon Fruit, Snake Head Fruit, tiny bananas the size of children’s fingers, red chilies, bundles of lemon grass and fresh green coriander. There’s Thai pop music blaring out everywhere from ancient tacky radios and an old toothless blind man playing a whistle and banging a drum with his foot.
The market is alive 24hrs a day and has a rhythm and heart beat of its own. At about 4 in the morning the breakfast stalls set up on the side of the road serving steaming bowls of pork rice soup to bleary eyed early morning workers.
As the morning wears on the fresh produce arrives, either direct from farms or the massive wholesale market. There’s no refrigeration, so everything has to be really fresh. Fish, crabs, squid, shellfish and shrimps are packed in ice and carried in baskets made of woven bamboo strips. Black shiny catfish slither around at the bottom of big plastic bowls and huge plump frogs, which are farmed up in the surrounding mountains, occasionally escape their bucket to the surprise of passing shoppers. Everybody laughs; everybody is having a good time.
Slowly the market fills up, and by mid morning the first wave of shoppers has arrived to get lunch. By late afternoon, when everyone in Thailand drops in to buy dinner, the place is absolutely heaving. This is my favorite time. The excitement and buzz are as real and intoxicating as the scent from the bundles of white flowering jasmine.
Yesterday, I popped down there on my little motor scooter at about 5.30pm. The grilled sausage stall had a crowd around it like paparazzi around Tom Cruise, and the girls behind the Papaya Salad stall were pounding papaya, chili and tomatoes as though their lives depended on it. By 6 o clock the hope of finding a parking space evaporates along with the heat of the day and people start abandoning their cars and trucks in the road causing a tangled chaotic free for all.
Truck loads of dusty construction workers pile in, office workers, bar girls on their way to work, university students in old fashioned school uniforms (its still obligatory for undergraduates) and off duty traffic cops with their white T shirts and hand guns, all jostle side by side to get the best and freshest food the city has to offer.
I had a quick look around and bought some land crab pâté. I love this stuff. It’s made from the small land crabs that live in huge numbers around the edge of rice fields. It has a strong seafoody taste and is the color of burnt ochre. It’s sold in the little dainty crab shells, just like a miniaturized dressed crab for a dolls tea party. I bought some warm sticky rice, which is grown in the surrounding fields, green chicken curry and some spicy sausage and splashed out a full 5 Baht (i.e. practically nothing) on some fiery red chili dipping sauce. Everything is homemade, fresh and delicious. On my way out I couldn’t resist buying some miniature pineapples, each one the size of an apple and painstakingly peeled and left on the stalk, ready to eat.
By early evening the late night stalls set up outside in the road selling stir fry noodles, oyster omelets, banana pancakes and green sponge cake with condensed milk. These places are busy cranking out food to late night workers and teenage party revelers until the morning shift comes on again. And then the whole glorious party starts over…365 days a year.
Becoming part of this huge vibrant community of market people is a good thing. It feels like a naturally good thing, like a trip to the seaside or good art or music. It makes people feel good. It’s mood altering and life changing in a way that prescription anti depressants are…but without all the associated problems.
I’m not suggesting that we trade the wonders of modern medicine for some fresh veg and a chili dip, but perhaps just think a bit more carefully about the relationship between how we feel and the routines that western society inflict upon us…especially when it comes to the all important food shopping.
It was, after all my hero, the eighteenth century food philosopher Jean Brillant-Savarin who rather perceptively said “tell me the food that he eats and I will show you the man.” I’m completely sold on this idea and am happy to confirm that scuttling about in a wet, dark supermarket car park with a frozen processed chicken doesn’t exactly make you feel a million dollars. Eating it makes you feel even worse.
I’m sure that if we spent less time in the clutches of powerful multinational supermarkets and more time directly involved with the joys of buying and eating good and exciting food, I can’t help thinking that it might, as it has done for me, made a world of difference.
So, let’s dump the Prozac and flush all those other sinister SSRI’s down the toilet and get back to some basic things that really matter, that really make us feel good, like buying and eating really good fresh and exciting food. I’ll send you some Land Crab Pâté to get you started. Let’s start a Food Therapy revolution and eat ourselves better.
Happy eating food comrades.