1950s Archive

Food without Words

Originally Published June 1950
We found Ruth Tao Kim Hai, an American woman, through her husband, Andre M. Tao Kim Hai, a Vietnamese writer who'd done a few stories for us in the '40s. We suspect that he came to our attention through The New Yorker, for which he also sometimes wrote. In our first 30 years, the two magazines shared many social and professional connections.

I began to appreciate Siam as my husband, Hai, and I bumped along 18 miles of it between the airport and Bangkok in the Siamese Airways Company's ancient bus. The sun was coming up on the left, its level rays gilding the surface of canal and flooded rice field, silhouetting murderously horned black buffalo and shaggy thatched houses on stilts. Women squatting on front porches over the water fanned their charcoal burners as they cooked breakfast; fishermen in dugouts too small to sit down in cast their nets into canals narrow enough to jump across; families of children took their baths under little bridges arched over the water. And all down the road toward us, singly and in groups, came shaven-headed bonzes in saffron robes, their begging bowls swinging empty at their sides until they stopped to pray before a peasant's house and to accept his gift of rice.

When we had unpacked summarily and gone downstairs, we found that all the Suriyanond Hotel's cuisine was European. This, for two gourmets on an international bender, was unthinkable. So out to breakfast we went.

We didn't have far to go. The Suriyanond is on the grandest avenue in Bangkok, where the royal architect has decreed that space be left between the buildings. Pleasantly tucked into the grass plot between the hotel and the next building was an ambulating kitchen. Later we found that there was a similar kitchen tucked into every available inch of Bangkok, but this one was our first, and we fell on it with all the joy of novices.

The young proprietor smiled at us over the cauldron of boiling broth on his soup wagon and asked us something politely in Siamese. We shook our heads and tried English. He shook his head and tried something we took for Chinese. We shook our heads and tried French. Then we all tried combinations of everything all at once and got nowhere.

There was only one solution. We looked at what the other customers, seated on stools at low wooden tables around the kitchen, were eating and made our choice. Pointing impolitely, we indicated to the cook that we would like some of that. With a comprehending grin he took out a ladleful of raw noodles and dunked them in the boiling broth. From a little glass case—something like the one on a peanut roaster—he selected a reddish piece of pork such as you see in New York's Chinatown and expertly hacked thin slices off it with a cleaver big enough to dissect an elephant. Scallions and mushrooms followed the fate of the pork, and all of them got dumped in with the noodles, to be moistened with a spoonful of broth.

The bowl was placed on our table, and the cook motioned his ten-year-old assistant to bring the sauces and implements. Of sauces there were several bottles: the familiar soy sauce, the less familiar fish sauce which seems peculiar to the Indochinese peninsula, and a pepper so hot I gave it up after the first try. Of implements there was a choice, too, and the little boy hesitated between Chinese and Siamese cutlery, not sure that we were used to either. We helped him out of his dilemma by choosing our own: I settled for a fork and an enameled spoon (the unbreakable counterpart of the Chinese porcelain one), and Hai atavistically picked up a pair of chopsticks, with a spoon for gravy insurance. In spite of our willing cooperation, the little boy still seemed disturbed. He addressed us earnestly in Siamese and held out his hand. Were customers supposed to pay extra for cutlery? Hai fished in his pocket and offered the child a baht note; the child laughed and gave it back, then firmly grasped the chopsticks and spoons to take them away from us.

A grown man can't fight with a ten-year-old child over a pair of chopsticks. Hai gave up, and we surrendered all our eating implements with a sense of complete futility. The little boy dashed away with them, dipped them lingeringly in a ten-gallon tin of boiling water, placed them across a saucer, and brought them dripping back to the table. "And they always told me the Orient was dirty," I said in an awed whisper.

Our noodles finished, we looked around for means of obtaining tea and dessert. The idea of tea I gave up immediately when I saw that it was served in tall glasses with milk and sugar already added. The dessert idea I gave up more lingeringly while I looked over the case of cakes. There were a few iced monstrosities covered with violent pink curlicues and flat, stonelike cookies of a poisonous yellow. Neither variety looked edible. "Don't you have any fruit?" I asked of no one in particular, sure that no one would understand me. "Fruit?" A tall, brown tricycle boy had wandered closer to observe us and, wonder of wonders, had understood me. "Fruit, you like?" he repeated. "I take you," and he motioned to his tricycle. "Come on."

The effort of speaking English wiped the grin momentarily from his friendly, sunburned face, but once the agony was over, the grin came back like the sun out of a cloud. He stood before us expectantly, radiating goodwill and helpfulness.

After ten minutes of dodging cars, little wagons drawn by little horses the size of calves, and other tricycles, we conquered one last bridge and coasted down a street full of fruit sellers. There were strange apple-green grooved fruits that give a star-shaped cross section and have a crisp, refreshing flesh that is translucent; fruits that look like little red apples and taste like flowers; fruits that look like overgrown hedgehogs and have inside delicious, apricot-colored sections carefully packed in their own homegrown excelsior; bananas as short as your finger and as delicious as anything you ever tasted. We wandered through the market, down a market street, over a bridge, and down a narrow alley lined with shops where everything from dresses to bicycles was for sale. By the time we got to the end of the alley, my mind was so battered by new impressions and my body so battered by fighting through the alley full of humanity that I wanted to sit down on the curb to rest. Our boy noticed my pitiable state. "Never mind," he said. "You eat," and he indicated an open-faced restaurant behind us. "I bring tricycle. Yes?"

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