Food shapes a culture and a culture shapes food. Much of traveling revolves around sampling local fare, from deep-dish pizzas in Chicago to crepes in Paris. For hosts, it’s like laying out a welcome mat and inviting people into their homes—quite literally sometimes too.
The most important thing I learned to say while visiting Thailand earlier this month wasn’t please or thanks, but “aroi ka.” It translates to “that’s delicious,” but it was the equivalent of jumping across the table, giving the server a giant hug and saying “you are such an amazing and wonderful human being.”
Like most cultures, Thais are proud of the food they serve and use it as an expression of who they are as a people. We were told that if you weren’t eating from the street stalls, then we weren’t eating Thai food. This turned into lots of hand gestures and pointing to pictures on menus. This seeming inability to really communicate puts up a small wall, but the minute we uttered those sweet little words, "aroi ka," it all melted away.
And it really all was delicious.
Seafood and pork dominate a lot of the dishes in Thailand, but it’s not hard to find vegetarian options either. In Bangkok, street corners are lined with everything from fresh watermelon and mango slices to fried egg rolls and little cabbage tacos.
Apparently many of the residents in Thailand’s capital don’t have kitchens, so the city is teeming with food carts and street stalls to feed its more than 9 million people. The parade of eating gives an impression that all people do in the country is take down food, but it’s really more of a necessity than a luxury.
I certainly took part, and ate my way through Bangkok and every other town we visited. A staple on almost every menu was the papaya salad, and I made sure to taste test along the way. Sometimes it packed a sneaky punch depending on the amount of red Thai chiles, but I didn’t meet a papaya salad I didn’t like over there.
However the salad wasn’t my favorite part. It was saying "aroi ka" at the end of every meal. Even though it’s Thai, telling your host their food is delicious is a universal language.
Green Papaya Salad
5 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons (packed) palm sugar or golden brown sugar
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons dried shrimp, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 Chinese long beans, halved crosswise or 15 green beans
1 1 1/2- to 1 3/4-pound green papaya, peeled, halved, seeded
10 large cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 green onions, very thinly sliced
1 fresh red Thai chile with seeds, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped salted peanuts
Whisk first 5 ingredients in medium bowl. Set dressing aside.
Cook beans in medium saucepan of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Rinse under cold water. Cut into 2-inch pieces. Using julienne peeler, peel enough papaya to measure 6 cups. Place in large bowl. Add tomatoes, cilantro, green onions, chile, and green beans. Pour dressing over; toss. Sprinkle peanuts over and serve.
(Recipe from Bon Appetit)