One Meal: Nonthaburi, Thailand
Story by Ted Anthony
The man and the woman have been married for 31 of their 58 years, cooking thousands of meals together on various stoves, in various pots and pans that have followed them. On this Sunday evening, in a house just outside Bangkok, they are cooking once more.
The man, Werachai Srisuwanwattana, grew up in the north. He is of Chinese extraction and favors soups and vegetables. His wife, Pornpissamai, is a Bangkok native. Her comfort food: fried pork.
“Everything in his family was vegetables, vegetables, vegetables,” says Pornpissamai, moving fluidly about the kitchen in a quiet dance with her husband. “Frankly speaking, I don’t like vegetables much,” she says. “Fried pork, fried egg—I like those.”
One meal doesn’t an entire culture make. But a single dinner can provide a looking glass into some of what it means to be Thai, and into some of the changes in how Southeast Asia’s most famous city eats as the world and its foodways evolve.
Thailand, like so many countries, comprises many cuisines and traditions. It is street and hearth, supermarket and stall, Isaan food from the northeast, yellow khao soi noodles from the north, absurdly fiery curries from the Muslim south. And those traditions are changing. Younger people go out more, rely on packaged foods, find their dumplings in now-ubiquitous 7-Elevens.
The Srisuwanwattana household does not endorse this aesthetic. As they cook and rhapsodize about natural foods, you sense a reluctance to admit that a precious few ingredients—a couple bouillon cubes, the odd condiment—are not entirely natural. “We use frozen shrimp,” Werachai says, shrugging.
Tonight’s five-course meal blends their traditions. The menu: seasoned, pot-fried chicken; pungent tom yum soup with shrimp; fried cabbage, a Chinese-style dish from Werachai’s family tradition; a fascinatingly flavored combination of fermented beans, minced pork and coconut milk that is one of Pornpissamai’s favorites; and tod mun, a pungent fish cake fried golden brown.
Werachai acquired some of his cooking skills in the 1970s on the street, if you will. As a teenager from the northeastern province of Surin, he was sent to Bangkok for schooling. There he stalked roadside food stalls, ordered the choicest dishes, watched them being made, then reverse-engineered them to cook them for himself and his siblings. Tonight’s tom yum is a direct descendant of those meals.
The typical fare of your average strip-mall Thai restaurant in America is reflected in the Srisuwanwattanas’ dinner, but it is a distant mirror. The tom yum is sourer, more biting, not smoothed for the Western palate. The tod mun, so popular on Thai-American appetizer menus, is subtler, with more depth.
Dishes come together suddenly as chopping and mincing and mixing propels ingredients into recipes. Steam rises from the stove. Werachai reaches out the kitchen window to pluck fragrant kaffir lime leaves from a tree that hangs over from the neighbors’ side of the fence; a few feet away, he explains, the Srisuwanwattanas reciprocate with a shared sweet basil plant.
The Srisuwanwattanas’ daughter, Cee, arrives with her husband. They come maybe once a week. In short order, everyone sits for dinner. The dishes are subtle yet biting, bursting with lime and chili and galangal. Crazy fresh. Deeply satisfying.
A monsoon-season thunderstorm knocks the power out. Candles are lit, and by their light the family discusses changing traditions. Pornpissamai is learning new cooking techniques—from YouTube. Cee and her husband tell of their meals, too.
During the week—busy schedules, little time, condominium living—they don’t cook much. Like many young couples, they eat out, order in pizza or sushi, fire up the microwave. It’s clear Cee appreciates the meal with her parents, the love and years and traditions poured into it. According to her parents, she knows how to cook most of the evening’s dishes.
But it is clear, too, that while Cee is an enthusiastic consumer of such meals, being a producer is, for the moment, a different matter. A new generation of Thais is busier, and—as with all things—plates and palates evolve.
“We enjoy eating, but not cooking,” Cee says. “Maybe when I have my own kid, then I’ll start cooking.”