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Friday, October 12, 2007

Gone the Way of All Things

My first taste was about fifteen years ago. I was nineteen. It happened at Sawatdy on Bainbridge Island.

Leslie Colombo, a tough cookie from back East and a damn good cook, took me to Sawatdy to try Thai food. She seemed to think it was pretty interesting fare... Interesting enough to drive all the way out to a remote part of Bainbridge to have dinner. I liked Chinese food well enough, plus she told me that it was easy to get vegetarian options, so I was sold.

She was very specific about which dishes we would try. Most vividly I remember that first taste. The appetizer was tom kah tao hoo, a hot and sour soup with deep flavors I had never encountered before. Woody and spicy galanga root, lemon grass and magrood leaves. Lime juice sour and chili paste hot. My first spoonful of Thai food was mindblowing. I held the broad white spoon to my lips, letting the vapor waft up to my nose. I tasted the broth, and then bit into a delicate straw mushroom steeped in that magic blend. Never had I conceived of combining these flavors. It was, to trot out an overused adjective, orgasmic.

Courses followed. I don't remember all the details. I think I was introduced to the ideas of mixing fried cashews with noodles, and cooking eggplant in a coconut milk with green curry. All of it was amazing. It was a true "where have you been all my life?" experience.

And now... now something has changed. Perhaps the bloom is off the rose. Maybe all that has changed is that my palette no longer feels any delight or novelty in tamarind sauce or lime leaves. I barely feel satisfaction, let alone any excitement, when I look down at a plate of phad see iew.

But I suspect something different. I suspect that Thai food is becoming Americanized. The other day I had a combo lunch from Jamjuree with phad thai and swimming rama... and I thought... this is so freakin' typical: A sweet and tangy noodle dish with a sweet and savory peanut sauce dish. It was almost nauseatingly sugary. It seems like the American fascination with corn syrup has infected Thai cuisine. When I look back on that first dinner at Sawatdy, I don't remember thinking any of it was sweet. On the contrary, I was amazed that hot and sour could coexist without being tempered with sweetness. The sweetness seemed to come from accents of ground peanuts or the coconut milk... never from added sugar.

Much the way that ketchup now tastes like vinegar and corn syrup (rather than tomatoes,) Thai seems to be losing all its characteristic greatness and settling into a phad thai and peanut sauce coma. I blame the proliferation of low-priced Thai restaurants all over the Puget Sound. I think I can recapture some of the lost magic, but I have to stop going to crappy restaurants. So please, dear readers, where can I find that lovin' feeling? Give me your recommendations.



At 10/12/2007 01:56:00 PM, Blogger soapysteve said...

Canada. Try moving there.

At 10/12/2007 05:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Eric tells me November is the best month to visit.


At 10/17/2007 06:29:00 PM, Blogger Origami Nightingale said...

Do you find Tamarind Tree's offerings too sweet?


At 10/17/2007 10:10:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Well... lately I've been on a 7 Stars Pepper binge. I'm thinking Szechuan Chinese might be the solution. But no sweet and sour, no moo shu, and no hoisin sauce.


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