New Year’s East

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I had been bouncing around the Andaman Islands and landed up in Krabi.

A party crowd washed down to the coast for the long weekend, bought fireworks by the armful and let them off on the beach. Street food stalls appeared all the way down the road through Nopparat Thara. Chicken skewers and air-dried squid were piled up on trestle tables; gallons of chilli sauce, hundreds of quartered limes. Smoke from the grills drifted towards Ao Nang. A vendor made som tam in an earthenware mortar, bashing the garlic and chilli, the shredded papaya, the snake beans and tomatoes.

I expected a party on New Year’s Eve on the ponderous curve of peachy sand. But the only poster I saw was for a buffet and live band at a hotel in Ao Nang, and that was hardly worth staying up for.

But, with half a day left to run of the year, I spotted a flyer for Luna Bar (presumably the model for Moon Bar in Richard Arthur’s I of the Sun) which promised deep house and EDM, fireworks and whisky buckets. More fun than a live band and buffet, for sure.

Luna was ominously quiet at 10pm, when I wandered in and scooped up a bucket of the sort which I took to the beach as a child. It came with a quarter of Sang Som whisky, a bottle of Coke and an energy drink and I tipped them in and walked through to the beach, where the holiday crowd was still exploding ordnance. (The firework sellers did well that night.) The bar began to fill up as the year faded out and the crowd spilled onto the beach. They crammed together in raggedy rows, like rush hour commuters, holding up paper lanterns half their own size, lighting them and letting them go. The flickering lights stretched the length of the beach. There were forty, or fifty, or more in the air at a time. A few, swayed by gusts, caught fire and dropped to the water: the rest floated out over spectral karsts, way out into the Andaman Sea.

Then, at midnight, the music stopped and giant Roman candles sputtered into flame on posts along the waterfront. Explosions reverberated like howitzer shells and the glorious colours spilled across the sky. Lines of racing yellow tadpoles mutated into pin cushions of pink, blue and green, distorted, collapsed and came back to earth as a glittering, sparkling downpour.

All the stresses and disappointments I had run away from back home seemed a lifetime ago right then.

Happy New Year!

© Richard Senior 2014

Salty, Spicy, Sour and Sweet: Eating in Bangkok

All along the street, there are pushcarts piled up with food; with fried chicken, grilled octopus, satays, spring rolls, meatballs, noodle soup, and pad thai, which the vendor will make to order in seconds. She throws diced chicken into a hot wok, adds beansprouts and rice noodles, an egg if you want one, then soy sauce and tamarind, tosses it together and tips it onto a paper plate. You add a handful of chopped peanuts, a few dried shrimps, a sprinkle of sugar, a glug of fish sauce, chilli flakes, chilli sauce and pickled chilli slices.

My guidebook grumbled that the pad thai from carts around Khao San Road is not authentic, and doubtless it is not, but it was at least as good as I would get in my local Thai restaurant, and I was not complaining for the price of a packet of crisps back home.

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The first few times I ate out in Thailand, I tried to order a starter, a main and a side; but it either all came at once or in whatever order it happened to be ready. Thai meals are not structured like that. Rice – a side dish to us, a change from potatoes – is the heart of the meal for Thais. Khao means rice, but it also means meal. Everything else, the soups, the salads, the curries, the grilled fish, is a garnish for the rice. The idea is to have a balance of flavours: Salty, Spicy, Sour and Sweet, the cornerstones of Thai cuisine (and perhaps also the members of a Nineties girl band).

The fish was laid out on ice at the door of the restaurant and the eyes were black, the gills bright red. I had fish every night for a week. Always on the bone, grilled or deep-fried whole, served with a dipping sauce of fish sauce, chilli, lime juice and sugar. Salty, Spicy, Sour and Sweet.

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There is a lot more to Thai curries than the soupy green and red clichés the whole world knows. Fiery jungle curry, for instance; and the subtler turmeric, lemongrass and coconut flavours of Massaman curry. Yellow curry paste is smeared over seafood before grilling; red curry paste is stir-fried with pork and green beans in pad prik moo.

I like chilli well enough, but it took me a while to build up the tolerance for incendiary dishes like som tam, made with shredded papaya and enough birdseye chillies to win a bet. I asked a Thai girl how many chillies she would use in a papaya salad. “Hmm, four, six,” she said, as if that were not many.

(c) Richard Senior 2014