Last October, when my friend Sam and I met up in Bangkok, we had both already been travelling for some time. Sam had gone to Shanghai, I had toured around Australia, and it’s safe to say that we both considered ourselves fairly savvy little wayfarers — a notion only further reinforced by our wrinkle-free first taxi ride through Bangkok to get to our hostel.
Our first morning there, we grabbed a couple of sizzling, syrup-drizzled street rotis for breakfast and mulled over our guidebook in the lobby. We spent an hour or so reading not only about the temples we wanted to hit, but also about the numerous scams enacted in their vicinities in order to part silly tourists from their baht. But just look at us! Not even in the country for three (conscious) hours, and already eating street food like it’s nobody’s business — we were practically locals already. Nothing to worry about.
Surely you must guess where this is going. By the time we were two blocks away from Wat Pho, we were in disagreement over which direction the temple was in, and we dragged out our gigantic, glossy map for help. A local appeared within seconds, laughing at us, telling us that we were making ourselves fairly conspicuous as tourists. We grinned sheepishly. He guessed we were looking for Wat Pho and pointed us in the right direction, but before we could make off, he gently informed us that our clothing (gesturing to our exposed calves and feet) was not appropriate for the temple and that we would be turned away. “Better today, you buy the right clothes and come back tomorrow,” he said. When he saw our disappointment, he suggested that instead we take a tuk-tuk tour around the city, and he even offered to help bargain the price down.
What a deal! Or so we thought, until the tuk-tuk driver brought us to such glamorous tourist destinations as:
1. A gemstone factory, complete with aggressive ‘gift shop’ area
2. A bespoke tailoring shop
3. A phony Tourism Authority of Thailand agency, complete with a travel agent who quoted outrageously inflated weekend trip prices at us, and who, when pressed, told us his name was ‘Siam’
It did not take us very long to discover that we were — quite literally — being taken for a ride, but we had a good laugh at ourselves, and in the end, thoroughly just enjoyed the thrill of being on the tuk-tuk itself, careening all over town.
Now, just in case you — like me — have some conception of yourself as someone who enjoys spicy food, let me tell you that Thailand is going to show you what a wimp you truly are. This green mango salad is spicy, spicy, spicy in a way that will leave your tongue tingling for ages after you’ve finished it off — and I’m using half the chilli peppers recommended by my teacher in Chiang Mai. But between the tartness of the mango, the sweetness of the peppers, and the savoury crunch of the peanuts, I must say that this is one fantastic dish. It would pair well with any just about any Asian main, but might I suggest some Thai green curry, or this very easy broccoli stir-fry?
Spicy Thai mango salad (som tam)
Serves about 4.
Note: if you’re having trouble finding any of these ingredients, you should boogie on down to Chinatown, or any Asian grocery store near you. Also, if you don’t have a mortar and pestle, not to worry: I made this at a friend’s house and used the back of a metal measuring cup to bash the ingredients in a metal bowl — feel free to be creative with your pulverizing techniques.
- 2 green mangoes, julienned
- 1 red bell pepper, julienned
- 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
- 2 Thai chillies, sliced (seeded, too, if you like a lower spice level)
- 1 Tbs demerara sugar (or 1/2 Tbs brown sugar)
- zest of 1 lime & 2 Tbs lime juice
- 2 Tbs fish sauce
- large handful roasted peanuts, chopped
1. Set aside the julienned mango and pepper.
2. With a mortar and pestle, pound together the garlic and the chillies until almost a paste. Add the sugar, lime juice, fish sauce, and peanuts, and stir together until incorporated and the sugar’s dissolved.
3. Dump the sauce in bowl with the mangoes and pepper, and add the tomatoes to the mortar. Gently squash them with the pestle, then add them to the rest of the ingredients. Stir everything together, and serve immediately or cover and refrigerate.
If you’ve got leftovers, this salad keeps for about three days in the fridge, but gets increasingly garlicky and spicy as time wears on! You’ve been warned.