I just got back the first draft on a feature I wrote about Bangkok, and the food scene. I've lived here for 14 months now, and finally feel up to the task. More specifically, the piece is about shophouse cooking culture, and (even more) narrowly how shophouse cooking has been deeply influenced by the Chinese who migrated here two or three centuries ago. It was covered in red ink and queries from the editor - usually a nightmare for any writer. But as I went through it line by line, I realized how much I had left out, and how much more I needed to add to explain things that seem pretty simple.
In the article, I write about a curry shop called Khrua Aroi Aroi (Delicious, Delicious Kitchen). It's close to my heart, this shop, and it sits across the street from a temple. Religious chants ring in the distance as old ladies spoon long-simmered curries over silky, tender rice noodles, adding a dash of spirituality to your lunch. But Wat Khaek is a Hindu Temple, smack dab in the middle of Buddhist Bangkok.
I write about the place because I love the food, but the editor's got some questions. Namely - why are Thais going to a Hindu Temple? To pray? Well, yes they are, I say. Theravada Buddhism, the predominant sect in Thailand, was influenced by Hindu beliefs (that's the extent of my knowledge on the subject).
Later I find out that the cook at Khrua Aroi Aroi, a cheerfully soft-spoken woman named Varita (pictured above) was the cook at the Royal Thai Embassy in Delhi for many years. As we talk, Indians enter the shop to eat her Indian-style chicken curry, and I ask her if the location of her shop was deliberate. She doesn't really understand my question, so I rephrase it. "Oh, no, this place was cheap and nice, so we took it" she explains.
I return home and answer the editor's questions, finally arriving at the dish which I feature in the story - Aroi Aroi's Gaeng Massaman. I write about this Massaman curry because it's probably their best dish; it's rich and sweet and has a gentle complexity that reminds me of pumpkin pies and mulled wine. But there is chili and pepper in there too, and tender chunks of fatty braised pork, and peanuts. Massaman is an interesting curry because it's made mostly of dried spices from the Subcontinent - cumin, cloves, bay, cassia, cardamom - but it's cooked in the style of Thailand. And it's served across the street from a Hindu Temple.
Behind my computer screen I smile and let out a laugh. Massaman in Thai is transliterated from Musselman, meaning Muslim. It was probably first cooked in the south by Muslims, and is often made with beef.
"We would never cook with beef, across the street from a Hindu temple!" I remember Varita explaining to me, as she spooned a bowl of curry for me earlier that day.
And so I'll keep eating. I'll keep trying.