“You know what they say about a husband who keeps his knives sharp?”
“He’s not afraid of his wife.”
I giggle at Pom’s joke, and she smiles, continuing to pound lemongrass and galangal together. She’s making green curry paste, a long, intensive process that fills the house with the sound of her mortar and pestle. She’s just explained how the Thai used to say that a man could judge a potential wife’s character by standing outside her kitchen and listening to the rhythm of the pestle. A slow “thump…thump” indicates laziness. An irregular “thumpthump…thump…thump…” indicates an unfocused woman. A solid “thump thump thump” indicates a good work ethic.
I ask her what else indicates a woman’s character. “They say that women who sing in the kitchen will marry old men.”
“Well, I don’t know… something about not being a good wife,” she grins. “Maybe it’s because the old men know what is important in life.”
I laugh again. These are the lessons that are rarely written down, the jokes passed back and forth while preparing the daily meals. And these are the lessons that I search out. It is here, in this kitchen, that I am learning about Thai culture, because some of the best bits of culture are stored in the universal, daily necessity of eating. And the Thai, more than almost any other people I’ve been around, not only joke about, but truly celebrate, the joy of eating.
Some Thai say that they have “two appetites”, one for meals and one for snacks and desserts. This is one of my favorite parts of the food culture- no relegated three meals a day, but a sort of grazing. In a city, food is accessible everywhere; one can find small snacks or entire feasts on the same block. With Pom and U, we eat throughout the day, structuring it around our work that is concentrated in the early morning and early evening.
On Valentine’s Day, an imported holiday in Thailand, I ask Pom if she expects flowers. She informs me that instead, U treats her to Swensen’s ice cream. We go to a nearby mall, choosing all our different flavors and toppings (though I haven’t been to a Swensen’s in America, I’m guessing that they don’t carry sweet sticky rice. But it was by far my favorite topping). While sharing our bowl, we joke that there is another appetite, solely dedicated to ice cream. I share this appetite with Pom.
One day, while Pom and U are out making deliveries and I am home watering the vegetable garden, some of their friends come to visit. They enter the house bearing snacks from the long car ride from Bangkok, so we quickly become friends. When those snacks are finished, we decide to drive to the town market for more food.
I love shopping for food with people who love to eat as much as I do. As we walked through the market, my new friends chatted with every vendor, simultaneously collecting fresh ingredients for dinner and securing free samples from just about everyone. Someone buys grilled, marinated pork, someone else hands me a sticky rice dessert. I follow them around the market, eating and asking questions.
I can’t help but notice how friendly they are with all the vendors. They joke, they laugh, and I see that the vendors are sending them every which way. When I ask for some translation, they tell me that every vendor is asking what they will cook tonight, with these ingredients. Before I know it, seemingly half the market is yelling back and forth, telling them where to buy what for dinner- we can’t eat this fish without this vegetable, we really must buy some of that sauce for the chicken, and aren’t we interested in some coconut ice cream?
After we finish shopping, we kill time outside the local 7-Eleven for twenty minutes, waiting to buy beer at 5 pm (there is an odd ban on the sale of alcohol between 2 and 5pm in stores in Thailand). I ask what we will cook for dinner, and they assure me that if I make the rice, they will take care of the rest.
Dinner takes a few hours to make, and we are slowed by the mosquito hoard that descends at sunset. Swatting mosquitoes, I watch the visitors pound chilis and steam fish, fry chicken and scrub vegetables, chatting all the while. When dinner is finally ready, we gather around the table, and for an instant, everyone is quiet.
And then, the chorus of “aroy” (delicious) commences, and everyone’s hands grab from the bounty of bowls. We’ve been eating all day, and yet I cannot seem to stop.
At least I’m not the only one.
I’ve always found connections through food quite naturally, because it is usually the first thing on my mind. Many evenings, Pom and I would sit around after dinner, talking about our lives and cultures, and the conversation would turn to food. It was a lens through which we could talk about our backgrounds and our influences. After Pom pointed out the natural direction of our conversions, we couldn’t help but laugh, because it was irrefutable. Pom, as much as she may deny it, loves food as much as I do, and it led to an immediate bond.
Pom told me that there is a Thai saying about how flies stay with flies, and bees stay with bees. True to that statement, I prefer the kind of people that find joy in sharing food, because that is what brings me joy. The Thai people that I know bring their enthusiasm and humor that I love to their food culture. These are people with whom I would share a meal any day, and that is a gift- I’m staying with these bees.