Nam-Pla Prik

The other night, Terry and I discovered a new Thai restaurant that was one of the best I’ve been to in a very long time. As you can imagine, I can be pretty picky about my Thai restaurants.

Unfortunately, it seems like the restaurants I’ve frequented lately has served a pale facsmile to authentic Thai food.

When I was growing up, my dad once explained to me that Thai food is the pursuit of a harmonious blend of the four “S’s.” The four S’s comprise of Salty, Sour, Spicy and Sweet. If you can combine these four things seamlessly, then you have the perfect Thai dish.

Of course, it’s subject to interpretation, as all food is. So, my perfect blend would be different then say…Terry’s perfect blend.

In fact, we’ve often joked that I may be half-Thai, but he has the Thai tongue. That’s because I don’t like super spicy food and Thais are notorious for their ability to spice any dish up.

I remember the first time Terry and I went out to eat with my grandparents, Dad, and his girlfriend, Nuch. All night long, Terry would be reaching for the spicy condiments. Every time he’d get it near to hand, my grandma would calmly take it and move it to the other end of the table.

I don’t think she even realized she was doing it! I suspect it was an unconscious gesture to save his poor, wimpy, white tongue from the cruel ramifications of the common Thai chili called, prik kee noo. (Which, little factoid, literally means “mouse-shit chilies.”)

Little did she know that Terry LOVES spicy things. So, every time he’d watch her move the condiment away from him, he would enlist the aid of Nuch to retrieve it and pass it back.

I think this must have happened a dozen times throughout the course of dinner. It became a game of sorts to see how long it would take for my grandma to notice the forboding condiment putting my husband in harm’s way.

While Terry likes the peppers, his absolute favorite Thai condiment is called nam-pla prik. Nam-pla is fish sauce (Nam = “water” Pla = “fish”.) Prik means chili. So, basically nam-pla prik is spicy fish sauce.

Nam-pla prik is one of those sauces that’s ubiquitous in Thai dining. It’s on par with how many western cultures apply salt and pepper, and can be used in just about any rice dish. Terry adores it and any time we go to a Thai restaurant he never fails to request some.

Most Thai restaurants will often supply some free of charge if you request it. I think it’s seen as a sign that you know how to eat Thai food properly, as we always get knowing looks once they realize we like it.

One time, when we were visiting Thailand, my grandma and I took Terry to meet grandma’s older sister, Grandma Glang. Although Grandma Glang was barely mobile, and largely stayed in her house, she was one of the most vivacious and warm-hearted women I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.

Grandma Glang had a smile that welcomed anybody who saw it and a hearty laugh that came straight from her soul and out through her belly. Her health had been failing for quite a long time, and it was important to me that Terry get a chance to meet her, because I wasn’t sure how long it would be before we’d be back to visit.

So, there we were, sitting in her living room, and the two grandmas are talking up a storm- with only one problem, it was all in Thai. I know a smattering of Thai (what I like to call “Taxi Thai”) but neither one of us were following the conversation. We were basically just sitting there politely and maintaining slightly vacant smiles on our faces.

After awhile, my grandma stops and turns to Terry and teasingly says, “HaHa! You don’t know what we’re saying!”

At which point, in an effort to engage us, Grandma Glang turns to Terry and says, “Have you learned any Thai words since you’ve been here?”

Now, there are a few basic vocabulary words that most travelers will learn when they head to Thailand. Since Thai is gender based, females will end their words and sentences with the suffix, “ka.” Men, end theirs with the suffix, “krup.”

For example, a greeting in Thai for women is “Sawa-dee, ka” and for men it is, “Sawa-dee, krup.” This universal acknowledgement serves the purpose for both hello and good-bye, which makes it a pretty useful first phrase for most people.

Another common phrase is how to say, “Thank you.” “Kup-koon, ka” or “Kup-koon, krup” is another one of those handy words that people learn right away.

However, instead of either one of these expected phrases, Terry turned to Grandma Glang and said, “Nam-pla prik.”

Grandma Glang threw her head back and bellowed out a roar of laughter! My own grandma’s eyes got huge and twinkly. She broke out into a giant grin and said, “What did you say?! Nam-pla prik?!”

As this revelation was confirmed, Grandma Glang’s eyes were streaming with tears and she was just laughing and laughing. Her cheeks were damp with humor. She just couldn’t get over the fact that out of ALL the words Terry could have chosen to learn, he chose his favorite condiment first.

Unfortunately, Grandma Glang has since passed away, but every time I see nam-pla prik, I remember her joy in that moment. I love that my last memory is of her laughing about Terry and his nam-pla prik.


Foreign Language Folly

Despite having taken Spanish classes for three years in high school and two years in college, it is my everlasting regret that I do not speak a foreign language. Don’t get me wrong, I did manage to retain a smattering of words and can somewhat communicate in Spanish. However, I’m restricted to speaking only in present tense (conjugation-wha?) Apparently, nothing ever happened or will be happening to me in Spanish- it’s all RIGHT NOW!

Luckily, I’m not a shy person, and I’m usually pretty open to trying new things, even if that means making a fool of myself. Which, when dealing with a partially known language and a foreign country can be a recipe for mass embarrassment! Yet, isn’t that half the fun? Traveling is all about opening yourself up to new experiences and perspectives. What’s always amazed me is how varied and unique humans can be, and at the same time, we’re SO similar.

My husband, Terry, and I went to Peru for our honeymoon. Peru is a beautiful country and the people there are warm and lovely. It was a whirlwind trip. We flew into Lima, Peru and then spent two weeks hopscotching from the Nazca lines, to Cuzco, Machu Picchu, and to the Amazon Rainforest. Each time we would come back to Lima before going out to the next destination. Most of the time, we would have transportation already planned to pick us up from the Lima airport and take us back to our hotel. However, our flight from the Nazca lines ended up being delayed by several hours. Unsurprisingly, by the time we arrived, our car was no longer there.

No matter, Terry and I decided we’d just procure our own taxi. Terry hasn’t had any Spanish classes, so it’s basically up to me to communicate and figure out a way to get to the place we’re staying. I’d been walking around the country speaking my pidgin Spanish for about a week at that point, and we’d managed to do fairly well, so I wasn’t too worried.

The taxi situation at the Lima airport is pretty chaotic. Instead of having all the taxis lined up in a queue, they stand in a mass crowd around the exits from the airport and all jockey with one another to try and attract a customer. With our slightly rumpled appearances, carry-on bags in tow and tired, slumped shoulders, we must have seemed like the easy pickings type of tourists that generally means good business. As we exited the building, there was a swarm of about thirty-five men all calling out prices for rides.

“Qurante-cinco soles!” A Nuevo Sol is the currency denomination of Peru. In plural form, most people just called them soles, pronounced “so-lays.” This man was offering us a ride for forty-five soles.

“Quarante soles!” (Forty soles)

“No, Treinta Soles!” (Thirty Soles)

Terry and I looked around in amazement as the men tried to outbid each other. I love haggling and am really getting into the feel of the moment, enjoying the energy that suffuses the air. Lower and lower the price goes…until someone cries out, “Veinte Soles!”

Wow, twenty soles. That’s the best price we’ve heard so far. All the men step back and look at the guy who has cried out the lowest number. Now, anybody who has ever had experience with haggling knows that there is an art form to it. It’s not just an exercise to try and pay a lower price. It’s an exchange that should leave both parties feeling happy and satisfied. When you’re traveling, it’s also one of the few honest ways you can initiate an exchange with the locals. It should be done with humor, grace, goodwill and in the manner that is befitting of the culture.

For instance, haggling in Thailand has a completely different attitude than haggling in Peru. Maybe it has something to do with all that fire, passion and machismo that is found in Peru. Or, it could just be that we were surrounded by a group of taxi men. Whatever the case, I knew that haggling would require a certain amount of audacity and flair.

I step forward, give a flourishing wave of my hand, and say, “No! Cinquenta Soles!”

Ugh! The moment it came out of my mouth, I KNEW that I had messed up. Instead of bidding fifteen soles, or “quince,” I had bid FIFTY soles! In essence, what one guy was willing to accept twenty soles for, I had offered him over twice as much.

There was an uproar as thirty five men all simultaneously burst into laughter – at me. My face turned beet red as my new husband was looking on in confusion. He knew something had happened, but couldn’t figure out what, exactly.

So, what can you do in a moment like that? All you can do is shrug and join in laughing at yourself. Everybody who has ever traveled has experienced a moment where you realize you are out of your element. I lowered my head, looked right at the lowest bidder and said, “Ok, ok…veinta soles.” As far as I figured, I had lost the right to haggle him down any further.

At least I got a good story out of it!

“American Style” Popcorn

My mom is an international school teacher. Not only does that mean she’s been able to live in some pretty incredible places, but I’ve been lucky enough to have occasion to visit her.

One of the schools she used to teach at was in Lausanne, Switzerland. As you can imagine, with the Alps in such close proximity, it’s fairly common for schools to host winter outings for the teachers and students.

Although our whole family knows how to ski (part of the joy of growing up in Colorado,) Mom ended up having a pretty bad accident on the slopes one year. Meaning a yard sale of winter clothes and broken bones down the slopes, BAD. I ended up flying out and staying with her for three months to help her while she mended. One of the duties I adopted was the grocery shopping and cooking.

Now, my mom loves popcorn. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly a common food item where she was living at the time in Switzerland. Nonetheless, I decided to go to the local store to search for her desired munchy item.

Luckily, as I was perusing the aisles, I came across the one brand offered in the supermarket. I knew what it was because it was clearly labeled “American Style” popcorn and came conspicuously wrapped in a bright red and blue box. So, I made my purchase and headed back with my prize in hand.

When I got home, I decided to prepare the treat right away and eagerly pulled the popcorn bag out of it’s cellophane wrapper. I noticed that there were cooking directions in German on it. Then I noticed there were also directions in French, Italian and Spanish. I’m pretty impressed, but not altogether surprised. Afterall, I am in Europe. Switzerland alone has three official languages.

I lifted the trifold flap on the package; that’s when things really started getting surreal. There were instructions in Dutch, Russian, Arabic, Greek…I’m started thinking this is pretty funny. Our country’s politics may not be very well liked by the global community, but our snack foods seem to be doing quite well. Overall, I counted eleven different languages on that one bag of popcorn, including two I didn’t even recognize! Ironically, very last- and on the inside bottom of the bag- was English.

America may be considered a melting pot by some, but perhaps the world as a whole is just a big bowl of popcorn!