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Bangkok, Thailand  |  August 7, 2000

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After three months of eating Nepalese, Tibetan and Chinese food, we exuberantly walked out onto the streets of Bangkok. Food is everywhere. More precisely, Thai snack food vendors clamor for sidewalk space on the major streets surrounding our hotel. For just a few dollars, you can sample a feast of Thai delicacies.

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Nepalese and Tibetan food are not exactly appetizing. With lentils and yak meat as the basis of the respective countries' cuisine, you do not go to either place for culinary tours. While Chinese cuisine is diverse and quite appealing, it is always cooked. The Chinese believe that uncooked food is unhealthy. I quite agree, as often times I saw them washing their vegetables in the same canal that they wash their clothes, hands and children and take the occasional nature break. Furthermore, it is quite difficult to be a vegetarian in China. Even though I speak Chinese and consistently asked for dishes with no meat, they arrived with meat. I would tell every waitperson specifically, "wo bu chi rou, wo bu yao rou, wo chi su." This translates to, "I don't eat meat, I don't want meat, I only eat Buddhist vegetarian food." But, each time I bit into my mapo dou fu (chili and bean curd), I inevitably discovered meat. I would then politely inquire why there was pork in my vegetarian dish. "Oh, it is just a little pork," they would explain, "just for flavoring." What about Buddhist vegetarian did they not understand, I ask you?

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What a relief to arrive back in Bangkok. Everything is spicy, fresh and tropical. And, as I have allowed myself to be the occasional fishitarian while in South East Asia, to ensure I get some protein, there is a plethora of tasty dishes to be consumed.

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Will's mother was with us for our first few days. One afternoon we took her out to lunch on the street, Thai style. At first she was a bit reticent. It was ninety-plus degrees and humid. Air-conditioning did sound more appealing, to all of us. We persisted, as this was her last day in Asia. Street style is how the locals eat. As a caterer on a quest to experience the quintessential Thai taste, she gladly excepted the challenge.

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We embarked on our culinary journey about four blocks from the hotel. Our goal was to make it back to our rooms in time to pack and watch bad movies on HBO. The first stop was the fish cake vendor. As she leisurely plopped gobs of brown goo into a huge vat of oil, we ordered one fish cake and cucumber. The fish cakes are a mixture of fish and flour with just a slight hint of curry. They have a slightly crispy exterior with a pleasantly spongy interior. They are served in a plastic bag with sliced fresh cucumbers and a spicy-sweet chili sauce. While Prisca, Will's mom, munched, I moseyed onto the veggie spring roll lady. For fifty cents, or 20 baht, you get four large rolls. They have a delicately thin wrapper. The not overcooked stuffing consists of cabbage, carrots and rice noodles. While you wait, the vendor cuts the rolls into bite size pieces and pours a sweet and sour sauce on top.

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Luckily, as our thirst had started to build, a drink-in-a-bag vendor approached. In Thailand, when you buy a drink, it is never in a cup. It is served in the ubiquitous plastic bag. In fact everything comes in plastic bags: sauces, cut fruit, entire dishes, sweets, you name it. There is so much plastic that if it is not already an environmental garbage disaster, it soon will be. Well, at least it's not styrofoam. I grabbed an iced coffee with condensed milk, in a bag, and moved on.

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Prisca had wanted to try a grilled banana. Unfortunately, it was mealy and none too tasty. Next was a satay and fish ball vendor. She served single skewers of barbecued pork, chicken and fish balls in a sweet fish sauce marinade. The implement of choice for each vendor is a bamboo skewer, basically a toothpick on steroids. It is used to poke at the food, while hopefully avoiding puncturing the bag or your hand, and deliver it into your mouth. Or it is used to barbecue the snack over open coals. When you have completed shoveling your snack in your mouth, the skewer serves as a dual-purpose tooth cleaner.

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Next stop was what I call coconut tacos. While you are waiting a woman smoothes a small thin crispy pancake over a scalding skillet. She then smears what looks to be marshmallow cream over the pancake and sprinkles sweetened orange-colored coconut and dried dates. Then she quickly folds over the pancake into the shape of a mini taco and delivers her masterpiece. It is a twelve cent crunchy sweet.

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By this point in time we had amassed quite a few plastic bags. Prisca utilized one vendors trash bucket and spied his wares. She pulled us over. We had never tried the opaque glossy white dumplings she pointed out, but we were game. Upon biting into one, I realized they were made from glutinous rice flour. I am not a big fan of glutinous rice flour in savory snacks. I don't like the texture; biting into a steamed glutinous rice creation reminds me of jello or raw flesh.
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I do not mind it as much in sweets. But, Prisca and Will had no such compunctions, and enjoyed the texture very much. One was filled with bamboo shoots and tiny unshelled river shrimp; the other was filled with scallions. Right next door resided a scallion pancake vendor. The pancake was thick and also made with glutinous rice flour, but it was grilled giving it a crispy crust that added some personality. Prisca enjoyed the smoky flavor. Our next snack was rice crackers with a pork and peanut curry. I abstained of course, but Will and Prisca happily dipped the fried crunchy rice cakes into the red curry.

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