Before her was a bright, shiny salad of krill-like shrimp, dices of crimson and emerald chilies, chives, mint, and cilantro. It was beautiful. She saw my hungry eyes, laughed, and thrust her plastic spoon in my face. I chewed on the crisp prawns, and they burst in my mouth, still wriggling. Then the herbs popped, and the chilies exploded. It was the best thing I've ever eaten in a toilet, and better than most things I've eaten in fancy restaurants. That was six months ago.
Last week I found myself on the Mekong, just outside of Chiang Khan, as fisherman drifted just above the fast water at Kaeng Kood Koo, a swirl of river currents and restaurants that draws tourists. They were casting small mesh nets into the water, fishing for tiny prawns. I was in the perfect spot for a plate of goong tem.
We sat under a thatch sala, on cushions in our bare feet, and stared out at Laos on the other side of the stream. I thought about how many majestic trees there were in Laos, and wished there were more on our side. Then a dish arrived covered by another plate. It was speaking to us.
'Thop, plop, dunk!' it said, warning us of the action inside. A few determined little prawns wriggled their way out the sides, making a run for the water (sadly for them, the Mekong was an unhoppable distance away - maybe 200 yards). As I removed the lid, prawns popped like grasshoppers out of the dish - one flew up about two feet, and landed right in the middle of my spoon, like an acrobat. I gobbled him up, like an acrobat-eating ogre. They were sweet and fresh - not muddy or fishy - but most of the flavor from this dish comes from the lime juice, herbs and the roasted glutinous rice that, when ground, holds Isaan's salads together.
Better than the bathroom!