The Coffee Chronicles: BangkokPosted: August 31, 2011
My interest in writing about food started with what I call the Coffee Chronicles: journal entries written at coffee houses and after coffee experiences in various cities and countries. These stories were rarely about the coffee itself – they were about the atmosphere or circumstances, about the experience of drinking a coffee in a particular place or time. So here’s a first sip.
Coffee by the bag
First I should say – controversially — that I don’t always like the taste of coffee or the caffeine kick. Sometimes I love it, if it’s been well made (for example, the flat white I’ve just been served here at the Missing Bean in Oxford) and if I’m in the mood … or eating cake. Other times the caffeine makes me jittery or the taste just doesn’t do the trick, and I order herbal tea instead (shock! horror! for the true coffee devotees out there). For me, the pleasure comes from coffee’s association with distinctive moments, like right now, in a noisy cafe in Oxford, at a wobbly table, the Rolling Stones on the speakers, cups and saucers clinking around me. I associate the bitter taste, the milky top, with flashes of clarity while writing, watching people, listening.
These associations don’t always involve coffee houses, though. I remember standing in line at a coffee kiosk next to a jetty where we waited for the ferry in Bangkok. Around me was a dusty, bustling place, with people coming and going and many waiting for the next ferry to take them down the Chao Phraya River. It cost pennies to ride the ferry, so there were people from all walks of life – middle-class business people, working-class men wearing cement-dusted boots, old men with tattered clothes carrying massive bundles on their backs. As I got nearer the front of the queue to order coffee, I noticed the menu was in Thai. Fortunately, two women in front of me offered help reading it. They pointed out which coffees on the menu were grown and roasted there in Thailand – in the northern hill areas, often by indigenous hill tribes – and what the different concoctions were: espresso, with steamed or frothed milk, filter coffee, etc. They explained that that particular coffee kiosk was part of a Thai chain – Black Canyon – inspired by Starbuck’s but totally Thai owned and operated.
I got my coffee in plenty of time to catch the next ferry. It was fine, but not memorable: not unlike a coffee I could have had in any city in the USA or Europe, and served in a disposable paper cup with a plastic lid. I have to admit to a prejudice against disposable cups. This is in part because of the environmental implications of another piece of rubbish being sent to landfill, all to indulge my fancy for coffee. Equally though, I enjoy the sensory satisfaction of coffee in ceramic or glass – the feel of the warm cup, especially while seated and relaxing, noticing my surroundings. As a result, I tend to avoid coffee to-go unless I bring my own thermal cup, and even that is a rarity (and it never tastes as good). My next taste of coffee, though, was to challenge what I thought I knew about drinking on the go, as it wasn’t served in a cup at all.
It was a hot spring day in an upscale part of Bangkok, and in the shadow of an ultra-modern shopping center, with floor after floor of giant tinted glass windows, I spotted a Thai man next to a metal cart. I said hello in Thai (the only Thai I knew), and asked for a coffee, unaware if there was a choice of coffees, content just to take what I was given. The man poured boiled water from a dented tin kettle through a cloth coffee filter into a glass, then placed another glass beneath the filter and poured the same liquid through again. He did this multiple times, each time making the coffee darker and stronger. Next he filled a small, clear plastic bag with ice, poured in the coffee he’d just prepared, and added sweetened condensed and evaporated milk. He popped in a bendy straw, and sealed the bag around the straw with a rubber band. This kaafae yen (iced coffee) or kaafae tung (bag coffee) was, as I’ve heard it described by others, like liquid candy. (I’ve never made it myself, but if you’d like to try, here are two recipes: from the guardian.co.uk and MyRecipes.com.) I’ve since heard that a hot coffee can be ordered from a street vendor and is served in a glass, which you hold by the rim to avoid burning your fingers, and drink right there standing in the street (note to self: learn a bit of Thai, at least enough to order coffee in a glass).
Sweet Thai iced coffee is not to everyone’s taste, but I enjoy a really sweet coffee now and then, especially in Asia. Spicy food, hot sun and a sweet, strong coffee brings back memories of travels in Thailand, and also Malaysia, where breakfast was nasi lemak: coconut rice topped with fried egg, cucumber slices, dried anchovies and very hot sambal (chilli sauce), washed down with super-sweet, strong coffee.
That day in Bangkok, the street vendor’s cart happened to be next to one of the hundreds of Starbuck’s that now serve American-style coffee in Thailand. I sat on the steps of that ubiquitous coffee chain, sipping my sweet Thai iced coffee from a plastic bag, a local, home-grown coffee experience amidst an increasingly homogenized global coffee culture. However, I don’t want to get too precious about this: Starbuck’s is part of modern Thailand, and its cafes are filled with laptop-tapping young Thais and middle-class white-collar workers, who generally look like they’re quite enjoying themselves. So perhaps my search for ‘authentic’ experiences could lead me to over-romanticize traditional things a bit.
While the best way to experience a culture through its food and drink is never as clear or straightforward as I would like, that day I followed the only rule I know when it comes to eating well: relish the moment and the food on my plate (or in this case, in my bag).