The quick fix bane of street food
Despite the proliferation of som tum carts in every nook and cranny of the city, do you realise how hard it is to find a really delicious som tum nowadays?
In fact, it's just as difficult to find a really delicious bowl of roadside noodles too.
Som tum used to be a staple diet at home. If we couldn't think of anything else to eat, we'd run out to the som tum lady (it's always a lady, never a guy) and order a plate of som tum, grilled chicken (thigh and drumstick) and sticky rice. It's no-brainer, a dish that always satisfies. You could eat it every day and still not get sick of it. And it's tops in terms of health benefits. You won't get fat or high cholesterol from eating som tum, I can assure you.
I can't say the same about noodles, but they are delicious, nevertheless. Man might not be able to live on bread alone, but I sure could live on noodles.
I think convenience and cost has taken its toll on Thai-style "fast food". In som tum, every ingredient used to be fresh off the tree, from the raw papaya, string beans and cherry tomatoes, chilli and garlic to the palm sugar and lime juice to heighten its zesty taste.
Clean food, slow food, fast food, all in one. But now, due to its seasonal high price, the little green lime has been forsaken for the artificial, chemical version of lime. This lime-in-a-bottle might look like lime juice, and smell like lime juice, and perhaps even taste like lime juice, but it sure isn't lime juice.
My son is an even more avid som tum fan than me, and he likes his som tum spicy to the maximum degree. He's a sadist in that way, eyes and lips burning as he alternates the som tum with some sticky rice to help tone down the heat. When he started complaining of stomach cramps, I waved it off as being due to the excess chillies, and felt no sympathy for him at all. Next time, don't order phed mak, I told him. Then, when I started having similar symptoms -- stomach cramps followed by a runny tummy -- I began to put two and two together. Those ubiquitous plastic bottles with the light green liquid are everywhere. Noodle vendors use them when they make tom yum noodles. Even the barbecue restaurants and sukiyaki hotpot outlets use them instead of the real thing now.
And why wouldn't it cause stomach cramps? After checking the internet, I found that the main content of artificial lime juice is citric acid. This is what Wikipedia has to say about citric acid: "Citric acid is an excellent chelating agent, binding metals. It is used to remove limescale from boilers and evaporators.... Citric acid is the active ingredient in some bathroom and kitchen cleaning solutions."
Is that any wonder that it does strange things to your insides?
So that has put a dampener on my culinary pursuits, limiting my menu choices to anything that is not seasoned with citric acid. And no more tom yum noodles for me.
Speaking of noodles, we used to have one of the most delicious pork noodles in my soi. A couple started selling from a cart, and they did such brisk business that people came from other soi to buy takeaway noodles.
Not long after, their son took over, and he upgraded to a pickup truck. He would park on one side of the soi, and open the back to reveal a little kitchen with steaming hot pot, a glass case with all the fish balls, slices of pork loin, liver and gizzard and all the unsavoury sounding things that combine to make a great dish!
As I travel quite often, the first thing I'd want to eat upon returning was pork noodles from this pickup truck. Then, for no reason I could fathom, he suddenly disappeared. Perhaps he had made enough money to last a lifetime. Perhaps he was sick and tired of noodles.
But rarely do I find noodles today in my neighbourhood worth fantasising about. And the reason, I believe, is that vendors no longer go for the hard-core fried garlic in pork fat with crackling. They buy ready made dry fried garlic, then add vegetable oil which they then use to mix with the cooked noodles. It might keep the noodles from sticking, but it does nothing for the taste.
The good news is that pork fat is now back in vogue, and better than soy bean oil they say. So, I eagerly await the return of tasty noodles.
But don't hold your breath.
Usnisa Sukhsvasti is the features editor of the Bangkok Post.
M.R. Usnisa Sukhsvasti is Bangkok Post’s features editor, a teacher at Chulalongkorn University and a social worker.