Monday, April 25, 2011

A Clean, Well-lighted Place

Yesterday a friend took me away from the hot, crowded, demented weekend market at Jatujak Park to the clean, orderly, coherent food market known as Aor Tor Kor. The minute we walked through the portals, I was in awe; "It's like Whole Foods," I babbled and indeed it was. The lighting was clear, the displays were artful, the aisles were spacious, the floors were clean--and the food swept as far as I could see, beautiful, luscious, perfect food.

Neither of us were hungry since we had already made a commando raid on Jatujak's food stalls and we both regretted it. Making plans to return later in the week, we wandered through still lifes of fruit and fish, as lovely as anything to be seen on Yaowarat Road at night but in gleaming, almost pristine surroundings instead of on a set for Blade Runner.

I woke up last night as thunder crashed and lightning flickered through my bedroom and the thought that was uppermost in my mind was it's too easy. We had wandered through a subway station tunnel where the food market's exit was clearly emblazoned on a wall graphic, we strolled past pretty little boutiques in the tunnel that were as colorful as they were well air-conditioned, and we emerged exactly where we wanted to be. This was not Bangkok as I had ever known it.

So of course today I had to go back on my own for breakfast. Heading directly for the beautiful glass case that displayed egg tarts like Tiffany jewels, I bought two. They were picture-perfect--yellow satiny filling enrobed in flaky Macau-style pastry. Tearing into the box the attendant had reverently placed them in, I pulled one out and took a bite.

I've had egg tarts in four cities: Hong Kong, Beijing, Penang and in Bangkok's Chinatown. I know what good ones taste like and this one was not of that ilk. The crust was flabby and damp; the filling was pallid and flavorless and without the lovely silken texture that keeps an egg tart from being baby-food. I tried the second with the same dismal discovery. "Disgusting," I shuddered as I looked for the nearest waste receptacle.

But ever an optimistic when confronted with beauty, I walked past packages of cut-up fruit, bags of prawn meat extracted from the shell, roast pork that made me salivate. I was on a mission. The day before my friend and I had passed a pan that was filled with hoy taud, the mussel and egg pancake that I love, and I had stifled a moan of disappointment that I had no appetite.I did now and I was going to find that pan.

I ordered and then looked for something to drink--there was guava juice, nam farang, the drink of my people. I sipped it as I waited for my food; it tasted nothing like the smaller bottles that I bought on the Skytrain platform that were filled with a tart juice with the distinct flavor of fresh guava. This was watery and bland like the boxed fruit juice that I had bought only once. Did they buy the boxed juice and pour it into bottles here, I wondered, or was it simply not fresh? It was wet; I finished it only because I could no longer bear to throw any more nourishment away.

I barely recognized the dish that finally came to my table. It was crisp, brown lace with a few minute bivalves poking through. It crunched in my mouth like cereal, leaving a fine overlay of oil in its wake that an hour later is still with me. As I left, I peered into the vat of batter that was the mainstay of my pancake. It looked like gruel, not the thick paste that I've seen in other places.

Aor Tor Kor is a beautiful place to visit. It's a fine spot for food photography but for eating? I'll take my chances on the street, thank you. Chaos and dirt are okay by me; I've tasted the alternative and I'll never do that again.


Dr. Will said...

Not until the sad denouement did I realize why there were no photographs to illustrate such a visually startling market I hope you were able to clean your palate quickly with some satay and beer.

dithers said...

splendid writing.

Chawadee said...

So sorry to hear about your disappointing morning. There really is some good food to be had there, promise! Maybe it's more of a take-home-and-eat kind of place...