Prior to my mission call to Thailand, I had never heard of the country itself, let alone anything about its famous spicy food.
I grew up in a blue-collar, largely Scandinavian neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Lawry’s Seasoned Salt was considered to be about the most daring spice for a meal. Meat and potatoes with plenty of white bread and butter, and milk to drink was our daily fare. I loved my mother’s spaghetti, which was about as bland and harmless as a bowl of farina. Otherwise, I was such a finicky eater that my mother despaired of ever seeing me clean my plate.
When I left home to join the circus, my picky eating habits disappeared — because I now had to pay for all my own meals (and was determined not to waste a single piece of parsley on the plate I had paid for). Plus, the hard physical labor I performed as a zany gave me a voracious appetite. But still I remained true to my Norwegian heritage; I consumed large quantities of quotidian hamburgers and French fries, steak and baked potatoes, fried chicken and mashed potatoes, and an occasional apple or orange. Chocolate cake or bread pudding was dessert, or, if I could get it, Jell-O. I thought salads were for wimps.
Once I began serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Thailand, food became an altogether different experience.
First of all, wonder of wonders, each missionary household had a maid. She did the laundry, housecleaning and all the cooking. Back then, in the 1970s, there were very few refrigerators and all the shopping had to be done at the outdoor market on a daily basis — which would have been very time-consuming for us as foreign missionaries, having to haggle over every papaya.
Suddenly, I was confronted with a cornucopia of mouthwatering, highly spiced, freshly harvested and lightly cooked meals. Nothing from a box or freezer or can. Every meal featured a mountain of rice, of course. And at every meal, there was the ubiquitous bottle of fish sauce — the ketchup of Thailand. I learned to douse my rice with fish sauce until the odor resembled the local seafood market. To this day, I don’t consider rice as being fit to eat unless I can drown it in fish sauce.
Most maids made rice porridge for our breakfast — but this was not your tasteless, pasty gruel. Not by a long shot! It was made with a delicate ginger-infused broth and contained shrimp paste, shallots, pickled garlic, tamarind paste, a hard-boiled egg, cilantro, fresh basil leaves and a generous helping of the tiny chili peppers the Thais call “mouse-droppings,” with Homeric heat. And either ground pork or fish in riotous abundance. I know of no missionary, including myself, who ever downed just one bowl of this ambrosia at breakfast; I normally polished off three bowls, at least — with a prodigal dash of fish sauce, naturally.
The big meal of the day was a late lunch — by tradition in our mission eaten around 2 p.m. We would come in from long hours of tracting and street meetings in the unforgiving tropical sun, parched and famished. The maid would have a large pitcher of sweetened hibiscus water ready and waiting — a darling beverage we chugalugged with great avidity. Then we would shower and powder down with Saint Luke’s Prickly Heat Powder, the sovereign anodyne against humidity-instigated rashes. And so, to tiffin.
I use the word "tiffin" with tongue in cheek and fork in use. The rice cooker was placed on the table, so we could help ourselves directly from the source. The dishes were all set on the lazy susan, starting with grilled tilapia by the dozen, garnished with fresh basil, sliced ginger and klong weed. (I have no idea what the proper name for klong weed is — it was harvested from the klongs, the canals, that crisscrossed the country, and it tasted somewhat like watercress and was always served with fish.)
There would be two or three different curries. There was a platter of small cucumbers, scallions and sheaves of savoy cabbage to cleanse the palate between bouts of curry. A large, greasy omelet was on hand — quick fried in the wok so it was light brown and full of bubble holes like Swiss cheese and liberally sprinkled with chili peppers. If we had a very good maid, she would also bring home from the daily market a generous portion of “khanom jiin,” which translates as “Chinese sweets” but is anything but. It is cold rice noodles bathed in a delightfully piquant sauce, which, once tasted, becomes as addictive as pistachio nuts — you just can’t help yourself from eating every last shred and then licking the banana leaf it came in.
If your assigned area was near the coast, there would be an avalanche of seafood swimming in the curry. One of my favorites was dried squid fried with onions and galangal.
For dessert we had fruit. They were sweet, succulent and just-off-the-tree fresh fruits of the tropics: mangoes, papayas, tiny bananas no bigger than your thumb but so sweet your tongue would involuntarily corkscrew.
There was no official evening meal. At least not from the maid; she went home around 4 p.m. However, no missionary of my acquaintance ever starved after dark, due to the parade of food vendors on every soi (alley) and along every klong. You could snack on a bag of fried bananas for a nickel. Or grilled chicken livers trussed on bamboo skewers for the same price. Around Chinese New Year, there would appear mangoes draped over sticky rice and drizzled with coconut syrup, which were eaten with your bare hands from a banana leaf. The roti man trundled his little cart from soi to soi, offering thin rice flour pancakes spread with margarine and sugar then rolled up and placed in a sheet of newspaper. Half a dozen of them cost less than a pack of baseball cards back home.
At the end of the evening, before heading back to our apartment, we would sit down at a table at the night market and order bowls of rice noodle soup. It came with lots of bean sprouts and some mysterious, rubbery meatballs. I liked to put vinegar, crushed peanuts, sugar and, of course, fish sauce in my noodle soup. It made the remaining broth slurp-worthy.
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And there you have it. Some Mormon returned missionaries, especially as they grow older, may be tempted to dramatize and exaggerate their missionary experiences — highlighting the struggles, the loneliness and the rebuffs. But as the years speed by, I only grow more amazed at the epicurean delights of my two years as a missionary in Thailand. Roman emperors should have it so good!
Never again would I have a maid work for me, and never again would I be served such superlative viands outside of an expensive restaurant. As I contemplate my diet shake for lunch today, I am inclined to notify my bishop that I am ready to go back to Thailand on another mission ASAP.
Tim Torkildson is a passionate writer, food lover and grandparent, and he loves to write poems, lymrics, short stories and reviews of the things he notices around him.