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.)
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