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