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Flash in the Pan

Kingdoms of rice and chili



Mention “Bhutan” in Thailand and you’ll get a predictable response from about half the population: With glazed eyes, the women will tell you how handsome Bhutan’s new king is. Last summer, when he was still the crown prince, the king of Bhutan visited Thailand to attend a celebration marking the Thai king’s 60th year on the throne, and he made quite an impression.

Thai tourists are now flocking to Bhutan in record numbers, and the Thais I’ve spoken to are full of questions about the land of the Thunder Dragon. But such kindling of interest could not grow into a fire without a ready supply of more fuel—something more substantial than the king’s good looks—on hand. That fuel lies in the parallels between these two very different nations, the only two Buddhist kingdoms in the world, neither of which has ever been colonized.

Bhutanese monks wear maroon robes, and Thai monks wear gold. Their respective monasteries look and function differently, and the Buddhism practiced therein differs as well. Still, to compare Bhutan to Thailand is to compare apples to apples.

Or, perhaps more appropriately, to compare chilis to chilis. Anyone familiar with either place will agree that some of the hottest food on earth is consumed in these two kingdoms.

While the chili originated in South America before being embraced by many Asian countries, rice is believed to have come from Thailand. One way of saying “Are you hungry?” in Thai translates into “Have you eaten rice yet?” In Bhutan it is said that if a meal did not include rice, you didn’t really eat.

And what do the people of the rice and the chili love even more than their favorite foods? They love their kings—and the love is more than lip service.

While Thailand has made the switch to a constitutional monarchy, in which day-to-day political decisions are made by democratically elected politicians, the king nonetheless holds real power. The recent military coup to oust corrupt Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was bloodless, and generally met with the people’s approval, in no small part because the coup had the king’s blessing.

Relieved of pedestrian political duties, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej has devoted his life to improving the lives of his people. He holds 19 patents and trademarks for a variety of inventions, including cloud-seeding technology and a water purifier in widespread use in rural Thailand.

A big fan of organic agriculture, he’s been pushing it in the northern areas as an alternative to opium poppy production, which has declined 85 percent since he started his organic initiative, called The Royal Project. In addition to technical advice and assistance, The Royal Project also offers marketing and distribution channels.

At home, we often view the idea of monarchy with distrust, usually for good reason. But the work of some of these Asian kings raises an interesting question: which would you prefer, a good king or a bad president?

One problem with good kings is that even the best can sire flunky offspring. That, according to the hushed word on the streets of Bangkok, is the case in Thailand, where the crown prince is known as a partying playboy.

Perhaps, from up on the mountain in the high Himalaya, Bhutan’s Fourth King looked at this paradox unfolding in Thailand and felt compelled to safeguard his country against the vicissitudes of lineage. Whatever the reason, his recent project has been to draft a constitution, which reduces the power of the king and introduces term limits for all Bhutan’s leaders, including the king. In the process of drafting this document the Fourth King examined more than 100 national and state constitutions from around the world. After mandating a retirement age of 65 for himself, the king, currently 51, proceeded to step down.

Bhutan’s move from monarchy to constitutional monarchy will be completed in 2008, when the constitution will become active and the Fourth King’s son, the heartthrob of Thai women and acting Fifth King, will be officially crowned.

I’m staying at a Bangkok hotel called Boworn, named after the monastery across the street where the Thai king, while still prince, spent many years as a monk. Around the corner is a place where, for the last 50 years, Boworn rice soup has been served to a late-night crowd. You get a bowl of rice that’s been cooked to mush, with a raw egg, ground pork balls and pork liver slices. On the table is an array of condiments, all of which are to be added to your soup: shredded fresh ginger, chopped green onion, pickled chili slices in vinegar, soy sauce, dried chili powder, fish sauce and sugar.

It’s extraordinary, though I steered clear of the pork liver.

It reminds me of a dish they serve up on the mountain in Bhutan to commemorate the end of the monsoon, a meaty rice-based soup that’s cooked into a mush on an October holiday known as the “Blessed Rainy Day.” In classic Bhutanese style, it’s simpler than the Thai version. But in the kingdoms of rice, it’s worth trying both.

Ask Chef Boy Ari: Something smells fishy

Q:Dear CBA,

I’ve been wondering for a while what the deal is with fish sauce, and since you’re in Thailand right now I thought I’d ask. How can something that smells so gross be so popular? I mean, it smells like extra-putrid rotten fish. I’ve tried cooking with it, and the food ends up tasting like fish sauce smells.

I love Thai food, and I know they use a lot of fish sauce, so I’m wondering how they get away with it?

—Not Quite Hooked

A:Dear Unhooked,

I’ve experienced the same phenomenon back home, so I sympathize. The trick to using fish sauce is that you add it to dishes that have strong flavors in other ways, and the power of the competing flavors balances out.

There is a type of Thai spicy salad, for example, called yam, that’s made in a big mortar and pestle, with lots of chili, lime, vinegar, curry powder, pork rind, whole small crabs and other very strong flavors. I watched a guy make me some at a Bangkok market, and between scoops into the various ingredients he would rinse his spoon by squirting it with fish sauce over the salad. After a bunch of rinses, he added more fish sauce and stirred it up.

I proceeded to eat my salad, and you know what? It was one of the most disgusting things I’ve eaten in Bangkok, due in no small part to all the fish sauce.

The point is, part of your issue is you simply haven’t acquired the taste for the stuff.

But a good coconut curry, with lots of spice, lemongrass, lime, ginger, kaffir lime leaf, etc., is so strong that it can hold its own and absorb a lot of fish sauce without being overwhelmed, and even novices like you or me can appreciate it.

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