Thailand, the Italy of Asia

A little piece of Italy lived in our home every Thursday night when I was growing up in Australia. Dinners were Mum’s spaghetti bolognaise (spag bol in Australian); it was our one night’s respite from meat and three veg, except for Sundays when we’d eat McDonalds, tinned soup or cheese on toast (whatever Dad could handle).

Spag bol was exotic and eagerly anticipated; garlic was the pungent and unusual ingredient that made it so. There’d be one clove on a normal night, or maybe two if Mum was feeling adventurous. And we could all certainly taste the difference.

This was my first exposure to "foreign" food, and I recalled it when I finally got to travel to Italy a few years ago. It was immediately apparent that the key to Italy was Italian food, and I then easily comprehended how, despite the fact that there were Greek-, Indian-, Lebanese-, Chinese- and Polish-Australians in the neighbourhood, it was Italian food that first penetrated all the way into the heart of our Anglo-Australian kitchen. How could such fervent passion for a cuisine not drive it there?

Later I came to Thailand. The comparisons between countries were immediate. Most obviously there was the utter disregard for traffic rules and regulations. I was contemplating the Castel dell’Ovo in Naples when I was first surprised by a Vespa intent on getting home quick via the ancient stone footpath; I was observing an Emporium window display in Bangkok when a Honda first did the same over a crumbling asphalt one. Then there are the frequent changes of governments and the fickleness of MPs. Governments change with the seasons in Italy; they change with the monsoons in Thailand. And fashion? Italians are slaves to labels just as devotedly as their (rich) Thai counterparts.

It was clear from the start that Thailand was the Italy of Asia. Or Italy the Thailand of Europe.

What really clinched the comparison, however, was the food. Just as in Italy, eating is at the forefront of every Thai’s mind, all the time. Vendors line the streets seemingly wherever a group of twenty or more people might be around. They fill the air with the aroma of barbecued chicken and fish, the sound of pok-pok as papaya is transformed into som tam, and the sting of frying chilli as a wok sizzles on a bright blue gas flame. In every office, people share their food and comment critically on whether or not it’s delicious; in every home, ingredients lie in wait, ready to be whipped up into a feast. "I’m Thai, Sam," a friend admonished once when I asked if bringing an extra person to dinner was all right. "You don’t have to ask that."

Stomachs rule. I’ve been thirty minutes away from a 10-hour bus trip’s destination, but I’ve stopped and eaten a meal because the driver’s stomach demanded it. Recently I left an office over an hour late to go on a photo shoot and interview. As we desperately pulled into traffic to begin our two-hour journey, the organiser clapped her hands gleefully. "Right! Let’s go eat!" And she didn’t mean takeaway. We had a proper meal in a restaurant that was out of the way but very good, and she didn’t even have an expense account to slap it onto.

Call me over eager, but even the ingredients in Thai and Italian cuisines are comparable. Pasta equals noodles. Risotto equals fried rice. Fresh herbs reign supreme in both. Sundried capsicums equal sundried chillies. Bread dipped in salsa equals fresh vegetables dipped in a nam prik. (Italian La Cadolora wine equals Chateau de Loei? Yes, over eager.) Grappa equals lao cao. Seriously. A friend of My Man’s father ran a jeep on home-made grappa for two weeks during World War II, and I’m sure that most lao cao could power a Honda for at least that long.

I learned before going to Italy that one or two cloves of garlic in real Italian food was conservative. Add half a dozen to flavour a memorable sauce; crush a few more to mix through your olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing; slowly oven-roast a cluster to eat alongside thinly sliced roast beef. But it wasn’t until I came to Thailand that I realised it was the done thing to just toss a dozen raw cloves over your khaa muu khao, or to eat a few bittersweet cloves along with your Chiang Mai sausage. We might have Thai restaurants in Australia, but they’re not that authentic yet.

A chef I interviewed once confided that top chefs fear staying in Bangkok for longer than a few months. "If we ate Thai food every day, we’d ruin our taste buds. We’d go back to France and people would laugh at our new version of cromesquis." But it wasn’t the garlic he was concerned about; Thai chilli, his theory went, would obliterate a good chef’s ability to detect fine French nuances of flavour.

Italians wouldn’t be quite as fussed. Fine Italian chefs may disagree, but to me there has always been something more homespun and hearty, more honest and exuberant about Italian food than French; sure, there are French restaurants around town, but perhaps this is why Italian has really taken over here. Italian food demands that you enjoy it loudly, that you ask for more; French food wants you to be humbled by its excellence, startled by its innovation. Which do you think a Thai would prefer?

On a trip back to Sydney recently my brother took me to a suburban pizzeria run by an Italian-Australian with a broad Italian-Australian accent. He asked what we were having, and I asked for the Napoli.

"The what?" he said.

"The Napoli," I said. "Olives, anchovies and cheese."

"The Napoli?" he repeated, incredulous, crooking his head to one side. "You gotta be kidding me!"

I shook my head.

"You mean to tell me, you wanna order a Napoli pizza?"

I nodded. He slapped down the teatowel that had been thrown over his shoulder.

"I don’t believe this. For twenny years, I been running this pizzeria, and I have sold maybe one Napoli pizza, and then today, this woman," he said, gesturing to me and speaking to my brother as if I couldn’t hear him, "she just comes in, and she orders like that, a Napoli. I don’t believe this. Why you wanna Napoli?"

"I just like them."

His belly grew rounder and his smile widened into a slow chuckle as he shook his finger at me. "Alright! I make you the best Napoli pizza you ever had."

I felt smugly like that spag bol I grew up had given me a pretty good pedigree.

He started assembling the pizza in front of us. "You see this?" he asked, twirling a big silver spoon around a bowl full of mellifluous golden oil before drizzling it across the pastry. "This is my secret. Every year my wife and daughter, they go have a vaccination for the flu. But me? I just eat pizza with lots of this. And, well, I drink a little. But this, you take some olive oil, you crush the garlic, put in some fresh parsley – beautiful! "

Italian restaurants really hit Australia in the 1970s while Thai restaurants didn’t mushroom until the 1990s. We might have motorcycles that stay on the road, stable government and people who dress really badly in Australia, but at least now we have a fantastic array of cuisine. And if I ever have children they’ll grow up with a little piece of Thailand or Italy for most nights of the week.

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