Thursday, July 21, 2011

And It's Right Outside Your Door

I have seen this before.  Not metaphorically as in a shared human experience oblivious to borders, or a place reminding me of somewhere else.  I have seen this before. 

Giant Swing
Wat Suthat

After months of the mundane becoming an adventure­–where to sleep, what to eat, figuring out if what you are paying for a ride is reasonable or if they’re just trying to rip you off, again– the slightest breeze of familiarity is warmly welcomed.  Chuck Norris’ favorite element in the periodic table, the element of surprise, is thrown out of the equation.  But, not too far.  It lurks waiting around the next corner, eager to increase your heart rate. 


Making Plans With Genghis Trooper


Rotee for Lunch

It’s the first morning back in Bangkok.  I race across the street, like a kid chasing an ice cream truck, but what I’m after is not moving.  I’ve been waiting for this moment for months.  I tried plenty of rotee throughout Thailand and Cambodia, but these rotee right here…are at a whole ‘notha level.  Well to be honest, I might be biased.  These were the first ones I tried, they are the prototype. 
I approach the cart, full of smiles, excitement and slightly out of breath.  The lady looks at me and chuckles, her face perfectly framed by her hijab.  I flash her back my ivory, a quick greeting and place my order pointing at what I want, all in one miniscule breath.  “Sabadee kap.  Banana and egg, please.”   

A small ball of dough comes out of a tub and is slammed against the flat metal surface.  She gently punches it, further flattening it to form a disc.  Holding one end of the disk, she whirls it around returning back to the surface with a smack.  Flip, smack, flip, smack until it is paper thin.  The burner is already going; the hot surface receives the dough that immediately starts to bubble.  An egg gets cracked open on the edge of the cart and quickly laid on the middle of the dough.  The spatula, which drizzles a little oil around the dough, flattens the yolk and spreads the egg around the dough.  A banana zooms in from the right like the Goodyear blimp and it says “The Rotee Is Yours”.  End sliced, peel, peel, chop-chop-chop…the thin slices of banana take the short trip through the humid air from the peel to become part of the object of my desire.  The ends of the dough are folded over the filling, all becoming one.  The bliss-filled pocket is flipped a few times over, some butter being added to the surface to avoid sticking and enhance the browning.  If this story sounds familiar it’s because I’m so obsessed with these rotee that it’s the second time I write about them.  

The finished rotee jumps out of the hot plate and the same spatula that has been flipping it pierces through dough, egg, banana, dough slicing the pouch into 15 squares of joy.  Condensed milk is generously drizzled on top and finished off with a sprinkling of brown sugar, as if it needed any more.  I drop 25 baht ($0.83) in the lady’s palm, grab my rotee and run.  I quickly move through the crowded sidewalk to the end of the block and find a spot on the edge.  I tune out the thousands of bikes, cars and pedestrians all around me with only one thing in mind.  Good for you that half way through I had a moment of clarity and remembered to take a picture.


Pad Thai for Dinner

Beyond the Force Field

As is the case when options are plenty, some will be good, some will be bad, some will suit your tastes, and some won’t.  The challenge is finding the right one.  The right one for me was just across the street. 
I stand surrounded by hundreds of intoxicated farang clustered around dozens of food carts, buzzing like flies around rotting pieces of meat.  I look across the street and there it is: an old lady cooking up plate after plate of noodles almost exclusively to locals.  Now I just have to cross the street.  Here’s where the Hanoi Frogger training comes in handy. 

I venture across Thanon Tanao and on first glance I already know that this is the place.  No menu, only the sign on the cart that reads “Pat Thai”, cut veggies, tofu, condiments and a small ice box with some meats.  The lady looks up from her wok to greet me and quickly inquires “pat thai?”  I simply reply “please” as I shake my head yes!  She points at the small tables on the sidewalk inviting me to sit down.  As I sit there waiting for my food I look across the street to see hundreds of tourists browsing around the food stands on “the other side.”  I think to myself: why won’t they cross the street?  But, who knows, I just know that I’m waiting to get mine.  As I debate the possibility of an invisible force field that impedes their progress, and that I somehow managed to escape, the lady gestures for me to come to the cart.  She shows me some raw chicken while she motions to the wok.  I quickly say “no, no, no”, but notice some nice looking prawns staring at me and I point at them.  She nods and smiles, goes back to the flaming wok.  

I stand there to appreciate her technique.  Prawns go in first, a loud sizzle bursts up when they hit the wok.  Tofu and bean sprouts follow.  A few quick snaps of the wrist to mix them up.  Two spoonfuls of sugar hit the mix.  After all it’s Bangkok, everything is sweeter in Bangkok.  Precooked noodles are then added, followed by a good drenching in fish sauce.  Mix, mix, mix.  An egg goes on top, more wrist snaps follow.  Less than a minute later it’s out on the plate quickly topped with dried shrimp and fresh bean sprouts, green onions on the side and grilled banana flower. 
I grab the plate and sit at the little plastic table, in awe of the simplicity of my dish.  I dress it up with the green onions and some dried red chili flakes.  I take a bite and just savor the moment.      


Surprise is a chameleon, keep your eyes open.   


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