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Day 21 – A Cultural Snack (An Exploration of Packaged Thai Food)

March 24, 2010

Dateline: Khao Lak, Thailand – Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It‘s hard to experience culture. You can’t know what it feels like to be a citizen of a communist state or feel the weight of a history of oppression under the Khmer Rouge. You can’t experience a culture’s poetry or literature unless you’ve mastered the language, but even then you can’t appreciate the connotations of every word. TV only takes you so far. God forbid the world thinks Baywatch is America.

In my opinion, the easiest avenue to experiencing culture is food. You may have noticed a lot of pictures of the edible on this site. That’s partially because I love to eat and partially because food is culture. I’m here, in part, to experience culture.

Every culture’s food is different. A cuisine reflects a country’s environment, geography, its wars, its peace. Food is functional art. Form and function are balanced into one.

Take Thailand for example. It’s at the crossroads of Asia. In Thai cuisine, my novice tongue can taste a bit of Indian curry flavors and Malaysian spices. It has a touch of Chinese to it. I’m not breaking any new ground here. In fact, I’m sure I’m bumbling along a well-worn path. I’m sure I could look up more facts about food and culture, but facts take research and frankly, since I’m traveling, I have better things to do with my time. Things like sleep and wonder what the world would be like without mosquitoes. The point is, food is a quick way to experience culture.

Thing is, everyone knows about Pad Thai or Pad See Ew or that Thai food always has to have spice or sugar added to it by the customer at the table. You can go to your local Thai restaurant and learn that. Those are the big things.

What interest me are the little things that you can only get in country. To Thai people, this stuff is perfectly ordinary. So ordinary that they don’t even know it’s unique. That’s the way of ordinary things, you don’t notice them. I, for example, don’t really know what snacks or condiments are uniquely American. Perhaps Easy Cheese and Cool Whip?

Take the picture below. It looks perfectly ordinary. It’s a Thai omelet (egg, onion, seasoning) that I had for lunch today. Look closely at the Heinz bottle, though. That’s hot sauce. Heinz, an American company, makes a ketchup-like hot sauce just for Thailand. That stuff’s everywhere here. It is as plentiful as ketchup is in America.

And that’s what I mean. It’s the little stuff. Today I’m going to focus on the littlest stuff of all: snacks. The picture at the top shows shelves at a 7-Eleven. 7-Eleven is a cultural gold mine. Here, 7-Eleven serves the same function as Wal-mart, Vons, Walgreens, and a Verizon store, all miniaturized and as ubiquitous as Starbucks. At the Bangkok southern bus station, there were three 7-Elevens—two within 20 yards of each other.

But I digress.

7-Eleven is a Western invention, but has been given a Thai twist. Same goes for snack food. Let’s examine the potato chip. It’s not a Thai food, so the cultural investigator must ask, how has it been adapted for Thai people? What appeals to the Thai gastric soul? Walking through a 7-Eleven, one must conclude that it is crab, BBQ, and spicy chili, all of which are Lay’s potato chip flavors here in Thailand.

One of my favorite Lay’s flavors is below, Nori seaweed flavor, a Lay’s “Best Seller.” It’s addictive. It’s like munching on sheets of sea weed, except the flavor is milder and the crunch is more satisfying because the chips are thicker.

Another Lay’s flavor is the one below. All the writing on the package is Thai. There appear to be pieces of meat, but is that chicken? Pork? Fish? There’s also a prominently displayed chip on the bottom right that’s being dipped into a sauce of some kind. Could it be that this is pork gravy flavored? Or are you supposed to dip this in a separate sauce?

Turns out it’s black pepper pork chop and gravy. There are actually two kinds of chips in the bag. One, the ridged chip, has black pepper and pork chop. The other, a barbeque looking non-ridged chip, acts as the gravy. The flavor is actually quite good. You can really taste the black pepper. The two textures aren’t that noticeable, but it does allow you to mix and match your pork and gravy. Pretty cool.

It’s not just chips, though. There’s sweet stuff, as well. There’s something called coconut-pandan custard filled bun. Pandan is a kind of leaf that has a bit of a sweet flavor to it. (I could do more research on this, but see above.) It’s common in Asia and, when put it in processed food, it’s usually accompanied by a dye that makes whatever it’s in a ghastly green color. Eating this, I felt like I was eating more preservatives than food. One bite and I could feel the white flour in the bread binding up my gastric system. Not bad, flavor-wise. I don’t understand the sesame seeds though. Like my mango and sticky rice, I’d prefer mine plain.

Next up is a personal favorite of mine. According to the packaging it’s called asdfpoainewewef. I call it Chocolate Thing. Its chocolate melted center is surrounded by a crunchy chocolate outside. It appears to be an approximation of those little panda cookie/cracker things with the chocolate centers. They are the same shape and they also employ chocolate. The selling point is that Chocolate Thing is cheaper. The chocolate, however, is much thinner, as is the crunchy outside. When you bite into one, instead of a gooey center, it feels like you’re munching on chocolate flavored mist. In the spectrum of snack foods, it’s probably just “okay.” In other words, I like it a lot.

The drinks are different, too. Lipton has an ice tea called “Red.” Lipton “has combined the power of red Rooibos tea from the wild Cedarbergs with delicious Guarana to naturally stimulate your body and your senses.” It “gives you power that accumulated in its leaves years after years in its rough environment.” I swear to you that’s straight off the package “years after years” and all. They may have this flavor in the U.S., but I doubt it has the same poetry. Drinking this is like drinking tea that’s been steeped for a couple of hours too long and then drowned in sugar. It’s not terrible.

There’s also canned grass jelly drink. This was a wild disappointment because I was expecting cubes of grass jelly. Instead, I got flecks of grass jelly and that only after I flipped the can over into my mouth and pounded its bottom like it was a whining three-year-old. I like grass jelly. It’s in the picture, dammit. It’s like going to a topless bar and finding all the waitresses in burqas with a little square cut out near the left ankle. You find yourself wanting more jiggle. Ahem, we’re still talking about grass jelly.

Finally, let’s look at a soda. I believe this is a Fanta flavor. If it’s not Fanta, it’s a decent knockoff. The flavor is banana orange. That may sound horrible, but it’s not. I like it a lot. It’s way too sweet, but if they’d tone down the sugar, I’d be using it to create new ways for my dentist to afford another boat. Coca-Cola Company, you need to get on this thing and start selling a tamer version in the U.S. It will be like crack cocaine for hyperactive kids.

From my little snack survey, I surmise that Thai people like their Western products grafted with Asian flavors. No surprise there. They also have no problem with mixing potatoes and meats. It also seems like they like their food a bit sweeter than my taste. It’s ordinary for them. Extraordinary for me.


Stupid Travel Tip of the Day: Don’t try to do all your “research” for a column about snack food in one day because it will make you nauseous; apparently processed food is processed food in every culture.

Not So Stupid Tip: If you’re thinking about a liveaboard in Khao Lak for the Similan Islands, here are some questions you should ask before you book:

*How many people is your boat designed to hold?

*How many spaces are on your boat are for divers?

*Do you leave in the morning or in the evening? Will we be diving on the last day of our trip or is that a travel day?

*How many divers will there be per dive guide?

*How experienced are your dive guides?

*Do your guides wear gloves? (I have a feeling that if the answer is yes, they’ll be touching the reef more. You don’t want to support a company that encourages touching the reef.)

*Do you go to Richelieu Rock? Koh Bon? Koh Tachai? (You want to go to all these places.)

*Does your price include park fees? Does it include rental gear?

*Will I be with the same people the whole time? (Some liveaboards cycle people off the boat. You want one that doesn’t, since getting to know other divers is part of the fun.)

Programming Note: Today I boarded a boat with a bunch of strangers and headed out into the ocean to dive and eat and sleep and eat and dive and you get the idea. I write this in the present tense even though this occurred four days ago. Obviously, I’m alive so the dive trip was a success. I’ll continue to write in the present tense as I try to catch up with the dive trip.

My plan is to continue to post on a daily basis then post the four-day scuba thing all at once when I’ve finished it. The liveaboard entries may be a bit shorter because I have a feeling it’s not entertaining to read about what fish I saw and where. Turns out divers are a lot like bird watchers when it comes to fish ID stuff. Really. It can be kind of oppressive.

That said, I had a good time. I’ll try to post a sticky for the dive trip. Look forward to lots of pictures, too, including some of people breathing underwater, reef creatures, tattoos, and Naked Dive Guy. Them Russians is crazy, I tell ya.

Stay tuned.

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