Warning!  Weight gain may follow the reading of this post.

Before retiring, and when we lived in America, one thing we almost never did was to go to a Thai restaurant. We found that the food served in American Thai restaurants not only wasn’t close in quality to the food served in Thailand, but the flavors were quite different and it was so sweet as to be almost inedible. It was obviously made for the American palate.

And the silly star rating system on how hot the food was made was most likely an invention of someone in California since I have never seen that here. Another invention is the “peanut sauce” that everyone thinks is typically Thai. The only peanut sauce I have seen here comes with “Satay”, the dipping sauce for barbecued meat on a stick, a Malaysian – Indonesian imported dish. (Although some things are changing now was a number of restaurants and hotels are serving foods that Westerners have become accustomed to eating back home but are not things you would find in a typical Thai meal.)

A person thinking of spending any time here, but who has only tasted American or European Thai food, probably doesn’t know what a great treat he or she has in store for them.

Below I have listed some simple dishes that you probably won’t find in America or Europe but which are basic everyday fare here. It’s what I eat, mainly luncheon foods. They are one-dish affairs, a complete meal in themselves. You will find them in most food courts around the country, or in roadside or pushcart restaurants. The dish, with a drink, will cost you about $1.50 – $2.00 almost anywhere in the country (although some big hotels and fancy places might charge many times that amount and probably won’t be near as good).

Please note that when I first returned to Thailand, one of these dishes was usually not enough. I would order 2 and sometimes 3 “one-dish” meals. I had become accustomed to eating large portions, typical of an American diet. Now, diet back to normal and healthy, one dish is enough.

Most of these dishes are served in specialized restaurants, with a half dozen or so tables, that carry only one or two things on their menus, so ordering will be quite easy. If you have trouble ordering just point and you’ll have a great meal.

Most Thai luncheon meals are either rice dishes or noodle dishes. We’ll stick with my favorite rice dishes today. Because they are all rice dishes their names all begin with “khao” (pronounced like the English “cow” with a falling tone) which is the Thai word for rice. We’ll talk about noodle dishes at another time.

Note on eating like a Thai: Thais use a fork and spoon with most of their rice dishes (only Chinese food, usually noodles, is eaten with chopsticks). The spoon is kept in the strong hand and the fork is used to push the food onto the spoon. Only the spoon goes to the mouth.

Remember, we’re only scratching the Thai-food surface here.

Khao Man Gai

ข้าวมันไก่ /kâao man gài/   literally: chicken fat rice

Khao Man Gai 

Where do you find it? – Look for a shop with boiled chickens hanging in the window. Lately, instead of real chickens a lot of shops are hanging plastic yellow chickens. The ones with the real chickens in the window are usually of a better quality.

Whats in it? – This is a boiled chicken dish. You can either order white meat or dark, or a combination. It is served over a plate of white rice that has been made by boiling it with water mixed with the fat from the chicken. You may also be given a slice of coagulated chicken blood and maybe a slice of liver or gizzard. To some this will sound terrible I know, but the taste is to-die-for. A bowl of chicken broth, some sliced cucumbers, and a rich dipping sauce is served on the side.

How it’s eaten – The sauce is spooned over the chicken one spoon at a time.  Don’t dump all the sauce on the plate at once as it might be too salty or hot. If you do one spoon at a time you can flavor it just like you want (a technique you can use with all dipping sauces). The chicken and sauce are mixed with the rice. Sometimes the sauce will come with a side of chopped garlic and hot peppers. Mix them at your own peril.

Some Khao Man Gai shops will also serve sliced deep fried chicken as well as the original boiled kind. The fried chicken dish is called Khao Man Gai Tawt (Tawt = fried).

  

Khao Naa Bpet

ข้าวหน้าเป็ด /kâao nâa bpèt/ Literally: rice topped with duck

Khao Naa Pbet

Where do you find it? – Similar to the Khao Man Gai shops the ones that sell the duck will have a number of roast ducks hanging in the window. So far I have not seen any plastic ducks.

Whats in it? – Roast duck is sliced and place on a bed of boiled rice. The more skin and the fattier the better. Some greens are usually placed on the side and it is topped with a rich gravy. A sauce, usually dark soy sauce with some peppers is given on the side.

How is it eaten? – Mix up the rice and the gravy and like eating Kao Man Gai mix a spoon of the soy sauce with the duck and rice one spoon at a time.

Some Khao Naa Pbet shops also serve crispy pork (see below) or you can order a mixture of the two.

Khao Moo Grop

ข้าวหมูกรอบ /kâao mǒo gròp/  literally: rice with crispy pork

Khao Moo Grop

 

Whats in it? – It’s the skin that is crispy. This dish is of Chinese origin. The pork is cooked in large slabs,  sliced, and placed on top of rice. The trick to getting the skin crispy is need-to-know information – they would have to kill you if they told you. The best skin is crunchy but not hard –  a work of art. It is served over rice with a gravy and a bowl of pungent soup on the side. The dish is also accompanied by the ubiquitous sliced cucumbers.

Where do you find it? – If you find a shop window with hanging slabs of pork with a dark yellow crispy skin you have found the right place. It might take a while to find the shop that you will become a regular at. Mine is in a hole in the wall, just north of the 3 Kings Monument, in downtown Chiang Mai.

How is it eaten? – No tricks here. Just take a spoon of the sliced pork, and some rice and crunch on. In some of the lower quality shops the pork skin may be hard so watch out for those teeth and bridges.

Khao Khaa Moo

ข้าวขาหมู /kâao kǎa mǒo/  literally: pork leg rice

Khao Khaa Moo

Whats in it? – This is a pork rump, simmered all night, falling off the bone, and about as fatty as a meal can get. It comes with a quite hot and vinegary dipping sauce, and pickled vegetables on the side, and always has a sliced hard boiled egg with it. The whole thing is topped with a thick gravy.

Where do you find it? – You will need to look for shop with a huge pot of pork rumps simmering in a cauldron. And behind it will be the cook holding a large meat cleaver. He/She will use the cleaver to slice off and chop up your order.

How is it eaten? – The pork should be very tender. Take a slice of the pork, add a bit of the pickled veggies and some dipping sauce and eat with a spoon of rice. Note on ordering. You can order only the lean meat if you want, or you can order meat along with the skin and fat (my favorite) or if you are really crazy and don’t care at all about you cholesterol level, you can order just the skin.

Khao Tom Moo

ข้าวต้มหมู /kâao dtôm mǒo /  literally: boiled rice with pork

Khao Tom Moo

Whats in it? – This sometimes is called “rice gruel” although ever since Oliver Twist the word “gruel” has negative connotations, and sometimes it is referred to as “congee” (although in real congee the rice is boiled way down until it becomes creamy.) In Khao Tom you can still see the individual kernels of rice. A chicken or pork broth is prepared and then some already cooked boiled rice is spooned into the soup. It can come with chunks or floating pork (Moo) or fish or shrimp or sometimes squid. It is topped with sliced scallions and coriander leaves. And let’s not forget the main ingredient, deep fried garlic in oil.

Where do you find it? – There are specialized restaurants for Khao Tom but they are hard to recognize. It is best to look around and if you see people using large Chines style spoons slurping up a soup with rice in it then that’s your place.

How is it eaten? – As with lots of Thai food Khao Tom must be modified to suit your specific taste. You can add fish sauce, vinegar with sliced peppers, black pepper, and soy sauce. All the condiments will be in small bowls or bottles on your table.  Keep tasting as you add flavors until it is just the way you like it. After a few times you’ll know exactly how much of each flavor to add.

Khao Tom can be eaten at any time, especially if you are having stomach troubles or a hang over. But it is best as a breakfast meal, or a meal served before going to bed after a heavy night out. This is why some Khao Tom restaurants can be found open very early in the morning, and others very late at night.

 

Khao Neow Ma-Muang

ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง /kâao nǐeow má~mûang/  literally: mangoes and sticky rice

Khao Neow Ma-Muang

Whats in it? – I have it on good authority that when you die, if you have been a very good boy or girl down here, this will be the first food served to you in heaven.

Khao Neow = sticky rice (here it’s the sweetened kind). It is topped with a thick, sweetened coconut milk.

Ma-Muang = mango. There are more than 50 kinds of mangoes here in Thailand and only a few, the sweetest kind, are suitable for this dish.

Some ground dry mung beans are sprinkled on top.

Where do you find it? – Lots of restaurants serve this as a dessert but it can be bought at most open air markets. Look for the shop with the yellow mangoes and the large basin of sticky rice. Lots of people will buy the mangoes and rice and coconut milk separately and prepare it at home.

Aside: As a test to see if a young girl would be an appropriate mate for her son, a woman will have the girl peel a mango (they will be quite soft for the making of Khao Neow Ma-Muang). If she can peel the whole thing without bruising the fruit then she will have passed the test. Think it is easy? Try it yourself and see how good a mate you would make.

How is it eaten? – This is the good part. Mango, rice, on spoon. Enter the gates of heaven.

Bon appetite.

If you are going to be choosing to retire abroad then it is important that you know a bit about the people whom you will be living along side. As it is with your own home country, it is really impossible to lump all the people into a single category generalizing about their habits and beliefs. But it is the easy, lazy way, and that is just what people tend to do.

Thailand is no exception to this kind of stereotyping. There is a cute little saying here, “This is Thailand”, or “TIT” for short, that is meant to explain just about everything an Expat finds odd, strange, disagreeable, or uncomfortable here. Here is my take on that, if you hear or read someone saying “The Thais are …”, or ‘All Thai people …”, or “Thais think that …”, then this is someone you might as well ignore.

There are about 70 million people living in Thailand today. If our expert on the peoples of Thailand has met all 70 million then maybe he can make general statements like the ones above.  And he would still have to understand the culture of all the peoples living here. These include ethnic Thais of course, as well as Chinese, Malays, Khmers, Laotians, Burmese, Mons, Southern Thais, Northern Thais, Central Thais, Northeastern Thais, lots of tribal peoples, and lately, tens of thousands of Expats from all over the world. Kind of hard to lump all these people together.

So how does one learn about Thailand and its people? I was going to denigrate sites like Wikipedia as probably generalizing too much but after reading their article on Thailand I was quite impressed with its balance. So I would start there to develop a base from which to begin . Blogs of people living here and writing about their experiences are also a good source of information. But I find that some blogs and some memoir-type books tend to sensationalize the strange and exotic, or they talk about their sexual exploits in and around the fleshpots of Bangkok, Pattaya, or Phuket.  Fun stuff of course, but not exactly how most people live here.

One of the best ways to learn about Thai people and their culture is to talk to those who have lived here. Listen to their stories of relationships and to their impressions. A simple story about a person going through a routine day will give you lots of insight into what is going on in the culture.

So, as an example, I want to tell you of a routine day I had last weekend. I’ll put the bits and pieces that we can learn about Thailand in parenthesis to show you what I mean.

A Day Out to Buy Some Lumber

We are building a small bungalow on our property that we plan to rent out to some retired Expat in order to make a few extra baht.

(No one knows the exact number but there are probably around 40 thousand Expats living in the Chiang Mai area alone.)

We decided to build a traditional Thai house, made of wood and on high stilts.

(Although today most people build with cement blocks. If they had still been building on stilts then all their belongings would have been high above water level during last year’s floods and they would not have been so devastating. That is why Thais began building on stilts  in the first place.)

So we decided to go to a village in Lamphun, the next province to the south, which specializes in “used wood”.

(New lumber is very difficult to obtain as there has been a ban on logging in Thailand’s forest because of the terrible deforestation. Some wood is being shipped in from Burma now. Because of this wood has become the most expensive building material here. Enterprising people will look for old dilapidated wooden structures, buy them from the owners, who take the cash and put up cement structures with the money, and then the “used wood” dealers sell the old lumber to people like us who are crazy enough to still want to build with wood.)

We went to the village of Baan Ti, on the border between Lamphun and Chiang Mai.

(Originally these were two separate kingdoms and today they still retain their own languages, dialects of Thai, as well as their culture, music, arts, and history.)

This village is known for its “used wood” warehouses.

(Quite often in Thailand certain villages will be “known” for their products. Villages will be famous for such diverse products as musical instruments, dried shrimp, sweet sticky rice in bamboo, elephants, carved wooden handicrafts, woven bamboo mats, furniture, etc. The OTOP program was established to help the people of these towns and villages market their products. OTOP = “One Tambon, One Product”. A Tambon is a small district or town.)

At Baan Ti we found exactly what we were looking for, planking for our front deck. The wood was Mai Dang, or “Thai red wood”.

(Not the redwood we have in the U.S. which is a conifer and is considered a soft wood. Thai red wood is very dense and so hard that you cannot drive a nail through it without drilling a guide hole first.)

The wood had been taken from an old shop house that was falling down. We were told that it was about 50 years old and that the wood shipment had come in two days ago and that most had already been sold, so we better snatch these up while they are still here.

(Red wood and teak and other hard woods are so rare nowadays that they are sold almost as soon as they come on the market).

We needed to know how many boards we had to buy so we told the shop owner the dimensions of our deck. She pulled out her tablet, which I think had an app just for figuring out how many boards were needed for how many sq feet.

(Except that in Thailand  they use the “sawk”. A sawk is a Thai unit of measurement used solely for measuring lumber. It is now standardized to the equivalent of 50 centimeters but used to be the distance between the tip of your finger to your elbow.  The same biblical “cubit” that Noah used in building the Arc is still in use today.)

The shop owner, a young woman, checked her tablet and told us exactly how many boards we needed. She instructed her workers to lay them out for us and they would deliver it the next day.  As the workers were moving the lumber one of them shouted out excitedly. The other workers ran over and they all stared intently at his cell phone. I went over to see what all the excitement was about. He showed me. On his iPhone he had an app that was updating real-time scores from the Spanish Football League. The team he had placed a bet on had just scored a goal.

(Now remember, this is in upcountry Thailand. Tablets, iPhones, apps for work, apps for fun, all this is becoming quite normal in today’s Thailand.  Almost everyone seems to have a cell phone and the young people can text, in Thai, as fast as anyone in the world.)

On the way back we stopped at a roadside noodle shop for lunch to mark an ending of a nice day out.

(Roadside and push cart food shops are more ubiquitous here than fast food restaurants are in America, and IMHO more nutritious.)

When you listen to someone telling stories about their adventures here, and as you can see, simply buying lumber can be an adventure, see if they can add some background information and tell you the “rest of the story”. That is one way to get a feeling of what’s going on here and it will help you to understand a little better the place you have decided to live.

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Found an interesting article in usnews.com on retiring to Chiang Mai: A Low-Cost Retirement Spot in Asia.

Just came across a series of videos taken by a young couple who have decided to live in Chiang Mai.  A little dramatic but quite a nice feel to them. Check them out.

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