Whoever said it was a Bengali who did not think his meal to be complete without the fishy smell has never been to Thailand.
I have long since suffered from the twin malaise that seems to dog the true-blue Bong—a bad tummy and an adolescence that seems to last and last. Therefore, last year, when I was offered a job in Bangkok, Mother asked me to stick to vegetables, as one couldn’t possibly go wrong with them.
“Would you have phak?” I asked the portly lady in a headscarf, manning one of the 20-odd stalls that served around 2,000 customers every day at the spit-polished office canteen.
She smiled back sweetly and went on slicing the steamed chicken.
“I mean I want just khau and phak, rice and vegetables. No plaa (fish), ka (egg) or kai (chicken). I want to eat vegetarian.”
The lady smiled benignly, like a steamed pork dumpling.
What I got at the end of the five-minute interaction and 15 minutes of live cooking was boiled shredded cabbage with slivers of fish, topped with a tangy nam plaa (fish sauce).
Fish tale: From creepy crawlies to succulent prawns, Thailand caters to fish lovers.
The fishy smell was ubiquitous—light and whiffy in the 7/11 stores dotting Bangkok, strong and prickly in the few retail markets that still had not been turned into malls, and mixed with the delectable aroma of barbecue sauce that rose from the roadside shops to gently ensnare the passer-by. Even biscuits and crisps came with a seafood flavour. And seaweed—resembling, in its dry avatar, a paper thin version of the bottle-green scrub used to do the dishes at home, and gooey tar when wet—seemed to be a huge favourite.
At lunch, most of my colleagues would have a whole fish, fried or curried.
“You don’t seem to like fish all that much, do you?” said Doi one day. He obviously knew little about the venerated Padma Ilish or the kind of sway chingri malaikari held over the part of the world that I came from.
“Sure I do,” I said. “But if I were eating that stuff on your plate, I wouldn’t spare the skeleton, the tail fin and definitely not the head. In fact, you wouldn’t see any remnants on the plate at all. But you won’t allow me to discard the cutlery and use my fingers, would you?”
That was a bit of a culture shock for Doi, who did not know human beings could simulate cat-like behaviour while eating fish. In Thailand, it’s impolite to place the fork in one’s mouth while eating.
The best place in Bangkok to shop for fish and other marine creatures, and that includes anything from a sea horse (which I did locate) to a walrus (which I didn’t, but won’t be surprised if someone did) is the Chatuchak market, arguably Asia’s largest bazaar. One rainy afternoon, we lost our way in the torturous labyrinth and kept going round in circles. We walked past never-ending aquariums inside which scissor-tail gobies and other fish in fluorescent purple and yellow swam placidly. Minuscule tortoises lay huddled together looking rather pathetic against the backdrop of sophisticated nets, wheels, rods and other fishing equipment.
At the food court, light bulbs burnt with a suffused glow. A humongous array of barbecued fish balls shone happily, bathed in fish sauce. When we came to the stalls where roaches, ladybirds, grasshoppers, millipedes and other creepy crawlies, deep-fried and sautéed, were being sold in plastic bags, Dipu, my husband, became wildly excited. He insisted that 10gm of assorted insects for 20 baht was a steal; argued that shrimps and squids were bugs living in salt water; and finally accused me of not possessing a sense of adventure. But I put my foot down. Medical treatment was far more expensive in Thailand than in Kolkata.
One of the best seafood-based meals I had in Thailand was at a roadside stall on Khao San Road, the slightly grungy backpackers’ haunt off the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The funny thing, of course, was that we had not ordered any seafood in the first place. The Thai chicken green curry—an island of succulent nuggets of pearly chicken, red and yellow chunks of bell pepper, delicate green strands of lemon grass and small, tight green tomatoes floating in a thick, green sea of coconut milk, blended with generous amounts of coriander and basil—was simply divine. But the aroma and the taste, said proprietress Nok, came from a specially prepared shrimp paste. The tangy hot and sweet taste of the green mango salad, decorated with neat rings of squid and a garnish of shrimps, we were told, also came from a liberal use of fish sauce.
At the night market in Chiang Mai, where our middle-class unfamiliarity with nightlife in the pleasure hubs of the world was suddenly jolted by a trio of statuesque topless dancers lip-syncing hits from 1970s’ musicals, we sat down to a meal of whole salmon, steamed and garnished with lemon and garlic. The fish, netted from the aquarium a few steps away, looked at us with eyes that had more appeal than the bovine composure of the dancing girls. The lemony lightness slid smoothly down my gullet, even before I could put my teeth in it.
Wat Phra Kaew, a popular tourist site in Bangkok, translates into Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Be it the frugal meal of shrimps boiled in water and salt with noodles that we had at a tribal hut in Chiang Mai, or the assortment of shrimps, squids and baby octopus that inevitably stuck out like gems in a typical Thai curry, there was no missing the fishy smell.
Tucked away in the second floor of an obscure building in Pat Pong, Bangkok’s notorious sex district, we found the cosiest, warmest and most authentic Japanese restaurant serving the best sashimi in town—slivers of salmon, haddock and halibut laid out like a multi-hued lotus, served with wasabi.
Finally, I landed up in the middle of Thailand’s seafood-production hub, in a quiet fishing village by the sea, about 60km south of Bangkok. In Samut Sakhon’s rather spare marketplace, gloves are probably the biggest merchandise in terms of volume, after basic edibles such as rice, potato and yam. In the endless factory sheds, a bit like army barracks, thousands of men, women and children peeled the shells, clipped claws and antennae, washed and de-veined flesh before passing them on for packaging.
More than 90% of these labourers, I was told, came from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia and did not have valid papers. The powers that be, apparently, were aware of the practice (they would have to be blind to not know about such a flourishing Brobdingnagian establishment), but a steady supply of cheap, unskilled labour with no rights served the country’s interests well.
Now that’s what I would call more than fishy. It stank.
How to get there:
Flights: Jet Airways operates daily flights from New Delhi and Kolkata to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. Current round-trip economy fares start from Rs16,000.
Visas: From the Thai High Commission, New Delhi, or Thai consulates in Mumbai, Chennai or Kolkata. For Indians planning to be in Thailand for 15 days or less, tourist visas are available at immigration checkpoints.
Where to stay:
Most mid-range boutique hotels (Rs3,000-3,500 a night for two people on a twin-sharing basis) to high-end hotels (Rs6,000-7,000) are located around Siam Square and Ploenchit Road, and in the area between Rama IV Road and Charoen Krung Road (New Road), as well as along Sukhumvit Road. The swish hotels are found along the scenic banks of the Chao Phraya river (Rs6,000-15,000). Log on to www.bangkok.com/hotels.
Where to eat:
Lip-smacking meals of rice and seafood are available at roadside eateries for as little as 25 baht (Rs31.50). The same would cost around 40 baht at a food court in any of Bangkok’s ubiquitous shopping malls. A wafer of seaweed costs as little as 10 baht at Chatuchak market, and a cone of assorted deep-fried worms and insects for 20 baht.
A sumptuous meal of fresh and tangy seafood salad and chicken green curry with rice for two costs 50 baht.
For ‘sashimi’, the Japanese restaurants in the colourful Pat Pong area are recommended. A filling meal for two with dessert won’t cost more than 300 baht.
What to do:
A trip down the Chao Phraya river will give you an overview of the things you might want to explore at leisure. There is no dearth of temples (Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew), museums (don’t miss Jim Thompson’s house and his collection of ethnic artefacts), architectural marvels (the futuristic elephant tower in the Chatuchak area) and palaces in Bangkok. But there’s nothing to beat Bangkok’s charming, lively markets—floating, static, weekends-only, night bazaars—so vibrant and full of character. For details, log on to www.bangkok.com/shopping-market/index.html.