Sunday, 15 June 2014

Tom Yum Gai

-Brian Mendonca

Apart from some enterprising in-laws who have actually been to Bangkok, and maybe Singapore, Southeast Asia remains largely unchartered terrain. Shrouded behind a curtain of secrecy imposed by ruling regimes visitors have usually been felled by the ‘night life’ touted in glossy tourism brochures about Pataya or Phuket -- felled, because sex tourism is only one way of knowing a country (or a state).

Cuisine is another. There was no way we could miss the Thai food festival organized in town. We began with Dragon Mounglet  --  prawns wrapped in steak chicken, for starters. These were pretty much like chicken momos you could pick up in Kathmandu. For soup we chose Tom Yum Gai which had diced chicken, glass noodles, mushrooms, chilli peppers and sprigs of lemon grass. Queenie calls it ‘fire water.’ Go to for the recipe. The piece de resistance was the main course, the traditional Gaeng Garee which was modso cooked in a yellow curry with coconut milk. That with a dollop of steamed rice – exquisite! A date pancake with ice cream brought up the rear.

At the same time I was being treated to a panoramic sweep of Southeast Asia reading The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh. From the glass palace in Mandalay, the seat of King Thebaw and Queen Supayalat of erstwhile Burma (now Myanmar) we are transported via Ratnagari (where the King and Queen are exiled) to Malaysia, Rangoon and Calcutta. The theatres of war play out as English and Japanese occupying forces push to overcome and consolidate their overseas territories. 

Thailand which means ‘land of the free’ is now under military rule with the recent coup pushing aside former Thai Prime Minister Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra last month. Adverse comments about the deposed PM online, cost Miss Universe Thailand, Weluree Ditsayabut, her crown weeks back forcing her to relinquish it. It shows what a small place the world is and how public opinion can change one’s fortunes.

In neighbouring Burma, opposition leader Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest for almost 15 years from 1989 until she was released in 2010. The Glass Palace ends with a description of one of her meetings with the people, ‘The year 1996 marked the sixth year of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest.’Further East Flowers of Hell a collection of poems by Vietnamese poet Nguyen Chi Thien was smuggled out of Hanoi in 1979 after the poet gate-crashed the British embassy there and pressed his sheaf of poems into the hands of one of the officials.

Circuits of publishing with their own agendas decree that we hardly seen any Thai novels, poetry or literature on the book racks of book shops. It seems like an alien country waiting to be discovered. One definition of rape is ‘crash landing in thigh land.’  The proposed Chinese rail line from Kunming to Singapore via Laos and Bangkok will unite South East Asia like never before. Are we ready? 
Published in Gomantak Times Weekender, St. Inez. Goa, on Sunday 15 June 2014. Pix courtesy:

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