CUSTARD’S LAST STAND
By Andrew Biggs
It’s been a hectic few weeks for your columnist as he entertains visiting family members and tries to work.
Work and family. Just that would be enough, but I had to go and eat a piece of chicken that gave me the worst food poisoning I’ve had in years.
My doctor wanted to admit me to hospital, but my mother was flying in that night and it might be a little melodramatic if she went directly from Suvarnabhumi to a Samut Prakan hospital where her son lay dying.
So the doctor wrote me an extensive prescription. “Er … can you throw in some Xanax as well? Four would be enough,” I said as he wrote, trying to sound as casual as possible.
He stopped writing momentarily and looked up. “What is the reason?” he asked.
“I have half a dozen family members arriving in the next 48 hours,” I said.
“I’ll give you ten,” he replied, bless his heart, and went back to his writing.
Family, food poisoning and work … thank goodness a lot of that work took place in lovely Hua Hin.
The first time I ever drove from Bangkok to Hua Hin was in 1991 with two Thai colleagues. A little more than halfway down we hit the city of Phetchaburi.
“We have to stop!” my colleague who was driving announced, to which the other Thai lady in the front seat nodded vigorously then looked to me, sprawled in the back seat reading “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance” (big at the time; I was only reading it for show).
“There it is!” the first colleague shouted as she pointed to a big sign. “Mae Gim Lang!”
Phetchaburi is famous for its palm sugar, and thus it is the Thai capital for all things sweet, sticky and sickly. If there is a Hades for diabetics, then it’s Phetchaburi.
One big store that sold these products back then had the name “Mae Gim Lang”. “Mae” means “mother”, and I was a little disappointed not to have seen Mother Gim Lang in the flesh. I did, however, walk away with enough sugar to bounce a hyperactive kid into the stratosphere.
For all the amazing tastes Thai food has to offer, I just can’t seem to get off on Thai desserts. To me they are all water and sugar and ice cubes in a dazzling pastiche of colors that reminds me of “Strutters”, the Sunnybank Hotel’s discotheque of the late 1970s.
There was one dish that was delicious at Mother Gim Lang’s, and that was the Thai custard known as mor kaeng.
Every time I went to Hua Hin after that, it was mandatory to stop at Mae Gim Lang to pick up some Thai custard.
Two weeks ago I made that trip to Hua Hin after not doing it for several years. Mae Gim Lang is still there, but boy oh boy does she have company.
There is now a Mae Gim Lai store selling Thai custard. A little further along is Mae Gim Lui also selling Thai custard.
Gim Lang. Gim Lai. Gim Lui. What a coincidence – three mothers with similar names all selling similar custard!
If only that were the end of it.
Also beaming at me from the side of the road were signs for Mae Samarn who, surprisingly, sells Thai custard. Not far away is Mae Luan who has Thai custard. As you pass Phetchaburi city and head towards Cha-Am, there is now Mae La-Miad and -- as shocking as this may be for some of you – she is selling Thai custard.
Would you believe me if I told you there was also a Mae Tom, a Mae Ploy and a Mae Boonlam selling Thai custard?
(I spotted a single father -- Por Kheng -- in Phetchaburi selling Thai custard. I hope his friends don’t make fun of him.)
What is it about the proliferation of these mothers whipping up thousands of square tins of sweet Thai custard every day? Market forces mixed with a dearth of copycats, and Thais are very good at this.
Down in Chinatown there are entire streets where you can buy identical Buddhist paraphernalia. Near Nang Lerng is a stretch of road where three different fried banana shops try to peddle their wares as you sit in traffic – which one started it all?
The road to Surin reminds me a little of the mothers of Phetchaburi province. This road is in the Isan heartland, home of sticky rice and somtam and … grilled chicken.
“ONLY 30 MORE KILOMETRES TO THE MOST DELICIOUS GRILLED CHICKEN IN THE WORLD!” the sign trumpeted at me as I sped along the highway observing the sign for a speed limit I’d exceeded by a good 20 km per hour.
Grilled chicken! The best in the world? How exciting! Then:
“ONLY 15 MORE KILOMETRES TO THE MOST DELICIOUS GRILLED CHICKEN IN THE WORLD!”
This time there was a giant statue of a smiling rooster as if being killed, drawn and quartered was a fun thing. By this stage I was getting really excited.
“ONLY FIVE MORE KILOMETRES TO –” you know the rest. I wouldn’t be lying if I told you I was slightly aroused by the thought of eating the most delicious grilled chicken in the world. Thank goodness there were no traffic cops to pull me over – how embarrassing would that have been in my aroused state?
Then finally up ahead, two big roosters with happy smiles and the restaurant sign: “THE MOST DELICIOUS GRILLED CHICKEN IN THE WORLD.”
I parked the car and purchased two whole chickens. I took a piece of breast and sank my teeth into it.
Star Wars fanatics who waited sixteen years for The Phantom Menace will understand how I felt. There was nothing superlative about the chicken at all; it was dry and withered and didn’t have the spice one can find on the side of any road in Thailand – except for where I was.
Ten kilometres down the road came another sign:
“17 KILOMETRES TO THE MOST DELICIOUS GRILLED CHICKEN IN THE WORLD!”
All in all I counted four “MOST DELICIOUS GRILLED CHICKEN IN THE WORLD” restaurants and not one of them would have withstood a polygraph test.
It is the same anywhere in rural Thailand. In Samut Sakhon, it is a small stall selling plastic bags of salt. One hundred metres down the track, there’s another … and another … and another. Nothing different about the stalls at all; exact replicas selling exactly the same thing.
This used to upset me. I mean, couldn’t there at least be a token attempt to make your stall different to your neighbors? I had got myself really worked up when I was informed of the truth. They are all the same owner. The one company creates 15 similar stalls and sets them all up on the side of the road.
Not so in Phetchaburi. Capitalism and competition are the driving forces in that city of sugar, but I just worry Phetchaburi is going to suffer the same fate as Strutters, that disco at the Sunnybank Hotel 30 years ago.
It wasn’t long before Sunnybank had a “Bell Bottoms” and “Groove Factory”, not to mention “Disco Ball” and the intimate “Funky Niche,” which died a quick death because nobody in Sunnybank could understand French.
The point is, saturation comes to all things on the market, be it Sunnybank discos or Thai custard. Some of these mothers are going to end up with a lot of excess sugar on their hands.
These days I dare not stop for Thai custard. There are too many mothers and I have my one and only mother with me this week in Thailand, and that is enough. With her and another five family members staying, I don’t need any excess sugar. Xanax? That’s another story.