Under the Temple, the Oldest Way to Eat

Senior Editor John Birdsall is on a two-and-a-half-week eating tour through Thailand. Here’s the first of three reports he’ll file from the road.

James turns to me; he’s walking ahead. “Is there anything you wanted to try?”

We’re in an enormous parking lot, transformed into a night market: unbroken long rows of food stalls, a few CD sellers at the margins, filling up with people. We’re in Nakhom Pathom, a city northwest of Bangkok in central Thailand. It’s still daylight—the sun is dipping low over the trees but the brightness hasn’t vanished, not at all. It’s warm and sticky.

Towering over the market is the huge stupa of a Buddhist temple, Phra Pathom Chedi, tallest in Thailand. It looks like an upside-down golden chalice with the base broken off, tapering to a dangerous point. It’s an idyllic, low-rise setting in the brightness of a late-summer evening, but it’s spoiled by the voice of a wiry, white-haired gentleman at the temple’s booth, delivering Buddhist lessons over loudspeakers that have to be cranked as high as they go. It’s so loud, a bass-heavy, croaky thrum that vibrates in your skull.

Our driver took us here—we’re staying at the Sampran Riverside resort and organic farm, 15 miles to the southeast. On the ride up, on a dusty arterial fronted with small factories, open-air bars, and uniformed schoolkids spilling out on the sidewalk, I noticed how the Latin alphabet disappeared from road signs and shop signs—it’s all Thai script where we are. Here at the market, I think I’m the only non-Asian.

Not the only farang—foreigner—though: I’m with James, his cousin Eric from Fremont, and Manuel. This is the work of our trip: looking around, figuring out what to eat. It helps to have a driver and an 11-seater van, kindly provided by the Singha beer company.

We’ve already been up and down the stalls once. Eric’s already bought a stick of khao lam, sticky rice sweetened with coconut syrup, studded with red beans, wrapped and stuffed into bamboo logs and roasted over coals. The vendor lady pulled out the upright log she uses as a cutting board and took a machete to the bamboo, splitting it in three or four places before prying out the pudding. It was warm, farinaceous in the way that comforts, sticky, all four of us pinching off hunks as we strolled.

Manuel and Eric hit up the chicken lady: a skewer of grilled chicken tails, rubbery, slick, and chewy, with a taste of charcoal so strong I scrambled to take a breath. A skewer of hearts, still blood-pink at the center, chewy in a more yielding way than the tails.

Then James’s question: Was there anything I wanted to try?

“The mussels pancake guy”—the one making hoi tod.

We’d passed him, stopped to look at his setup: a huge round iron slab, on a cart, standing on a platform in front of a huge basket of bean sprouts. He was working two long-handled metal spatulas, one in each hand, but still could grab a ladle, spoon some tapioca-flour batter on the slab, flip others. Another guy (his son?) stood next to him, dumping raw shucked mussels on top, cracking and slinging an orange-yolked raw egg onto approximately the center of each pancake, throwing on a handful of mung bean sprouts.

We order two; a girl shows us to a rickety metal table and four stools. When the pancakes get to us—on plastic plates, with empty plastic dipping bowls to fill with sweet chile and garlic sauce from bottles on the table—they’re hot and very crisp, the mussels tender. I use a fork and spoon to skive off pieces, try to dip it in the dish but half of it falls in. Manuel dunks sauce all over his piece; I copy him.

Photos by John Birdsall

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