TRAVEL MEM­OIR

No eggs, no nuts, no prob­lem. JACQUE­LINE MALEY uses ex­treme cau­tion and her best Thai to or­der din­ner.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - News -

Jacque­line Maley uses ex­treme cau­tion and her best Thai to or­der din­ner.

These days my peo­ple gather on in­ter­net fo­rums. They swap tips on the best brand of an­ti­his­tamine, and dis­cuss how to ice hives. They talk rashes and re­ac­tions. They as­sure each other ev­ery­thing will be okay, even though they know the world brims with risk, and this is es­pe­cially true in Thai­land, where the lo­cals sneak peanuts into ev­ery­thing and sprin­kle peanut dust on the breeze.

If you have a nut al­lergy, as I do, trav­el­ling to Thai­land is the au­toim­mune equiv­a­lent of a haemophil­iac walk­ing on bro­ken glass.

The Thais also love eggs, and I’m al­ler­gic to those, too.

I did a back­pack­ing tour of South East Asia in 1995. The in­ter­net wasn’t so much a thing in 1995, which means no in­ter­net fo­rums where my ten­ta­tively ad­ven­tur­ous – but of­ten itchy – brethren could gather to share in­for­ma­tion on what to do if you feel your throat clos­ing over af­ter gaily eat­ing a sa­tay stick in Chi­ang Mai. There was nowhere to con­fer on the po­lite way to be­have at a din­ner where you’re of­fered pad Thai, a dish whose ex­is­tence I strug­gle not to take per­son­ally, so well de­signed it is to kill me.

I had to go it alone. There were weeks laz­ing on the white-sand beach of Ao Nang, over­seen by forested lime­stone rocks jut­ting from the azure ocean.

The sta­ple food there was pan­cakes, of­ten smeared with Nutella. That’s a no and a no for my kind.

There was a hill trek near the Thai-Myan­mar bor­der, where magic mush­rooms were on of­fer, but they were buried in an omelette. In truth, I was glad to have an ex­cuse not to trip. I was too scared any­way.

I learned how to say, in Thai, that

I’m al­ler­gic to eggs and nuts. The Thais couldn’t un­der­stand me, but they were so kind they kept try­ing. Even­tu­ally

I re­alised Thai is a tonal lan­guage, and there was no point sound­ing out the words un­less I got the tones right.

I was tu­tored by a group of lo­cal girls who be­friended me on an old train to Kan­chanaburi, and from then on I spoke a good enough ap­prox­i­ma­tion of the long, nasal Thai vowel sounds to en­sure I wasn’t in­ad­ver­tently poi­soned.

I crossed the bor­der into Laos. I went to Luang Pra­bang, gen­tle and full of crum­bling French colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture that moul­dered, ro­man­ti­cally, in the hu­mid­ity.

The lan­guid rhythm of Luang Pra­bang is matched by the flow of the two rivers that sur­round it, where women bathed and laun­dered their clothes, and af­ter­wards, twisted their wet black hair into coro­nets in the soft af­ter­noon light.

I sat in a restau­rant over­look­ing the river, and watched these women. I was 19 years old, and hun­gry. I had a novel, and I felt loose-limbed and free af­ter sev­eral months on the road. I asked for some spring rolls, and I com­mu­ni­cated, through a bro­ken com­bi­na­tion of French, English and Lao, that they shouldn’t con­tain eggs or nuts.

The straight-backed wait­ress, el­e­gant and in­scrutable in her tra­di­tional sinh skirt, as­sured me that was no prob­lem.

About half an hour passed, then the wait, as far as I could tell, inched closer to an hour. I was sev­eral chap­ters into my book, and my stom­ach groaned. I thought they’d prob­a­bly for­got­ten about me, or given me up for be­ing too much trou­ble.

Then the straight-backed wait­ress ap­peared, bear­ing my meal aloft like a holy ob­ject. In front of me she placed the spring rolls, on a bed of fresh herbs, at­tended by a dip­ping sauce in a glazed bowl. The pan gai yoh were ut­terly fresh, and I knew at once I’d waited so long for them be­cause they’d been made from scratch, right there in the hot cup­board­kitchen of this tiny restau­rant. Some­one had spent the last hour bent over a ball of rice-flour dough, and the re­sult was this clus­ter of del­i­cate golden rolls, ex­quis­ite as edi­ble origami.

Noth­ing in them could hurt me.

I ate them as the sun set, and I can taste them still.

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