On the surface it’s a simple question. I mean, it’s just food. But when asked whether I prefer Thai food or Chinese food, I sink into an epic quandary of dietary analysis and unnecessarily deep reflection. After all, it is perhaps the hardest question ever conceived by the human mind.
So here I am, sitting at a large circular table enjoying a traditional style feast in China. I’m the guest of honor at a small gathering of colleagues indulging in Chinese delicacies and the baiju is flowing like water. This is one of the best meals I’d ever had the privilege of enjoying and I make damn sure that the host is aware of how thoroughly I am enjoying myself. Everything is merry, until…
Out of nowhere—like a train colliding head on with my face—I hear it. “So Kevin, which do you prefer, Thai food or Chinese food?” My eyesight gives way to onsetting tunnel vision as a weak, dizzy feeling washes over me. From this moment on, those few fateful words will forever be known simply as, “the question.”
The existence of everything I once thought worthy of consideration and attention vanishes as my feeble mind struggles to wrap itself around the question. When asked to choose which is the best, Thai or Chinese food, I’m morally and intellectually stumped. The human psyche is not capable of withstanding such consternation.
With a table full of eyes looking hopefully at me, leaning closer, expecting an answer, my entire life flashes before my eyes. Am I having a stroke? No, just sinking into a dream. A delicious Asian food dream.***
I’m in Thailand. Oh dear lord, Thai street food—the street-side pad Thai vendors selling the single dish they’ve spent decades perfecting for one measly dollar a pop—is too delicious for description. And let’s not exclude the ample, succulent, fresh tropical fruits available at my beck and call on every street corner. Or the grilled meats and seafoods lovingly prepared at the Thai market down the road from my apartment every evening at 5 pm.
It seems like just yesterday that I was enjoying Kra Pao Gai (Thai chicken with basil) on a scorching Thailand afternoon with a tall glass of Leo on the rocks. Another fond reminiscence brings me back to a time when I ate Pad Kana Moo (Thai pork with kale) paired with an ice-cold 24oz Beer Chang.
The best thing about eating in Thailand—and any self-respecting person who’s ever been to the Land of Smiles should agree—is that you know you’re in store for an outstanding authetic meal when you sit down at a small shaded food stall with little plastic stools, a wobbly folding metal table, and the standard Thai condiments. If all of these components are in place then the stars are aligned, my friend.
If you come to a road-side food stall in Thailand, you’ll almost certainly see a small basket holding four little jars placed on each table. These jars contain the condiments which compose a mouth-boggling quartet of flavorfully distinct reverie. Fish sauce, chopped chilies, vinegar and sugar, once mixed together in a single bite, unlock a sense that will forever change the way you perceive flavor. After eating with Thai condiments, it’s impossible to taste food the same way again.
Although Thai food will always have a special place in my heart, I can’t forget the second Asian love of my life: Chinese food. Still in a transe-like state, my mind wanders over to lustful thoughts of Chinese barbecue, spicy hotpot, and scrumptious Chinese pancakes. I’m back in China.
Chinese hotpot will forever be engrained in my mind as the greatest culinary accomplishment of this millennium. Everyone sits around a table, each person has their own small pot filled with one of many flavors of broth, a small fire stove to light underneath each pot, and gobs of raw meats, vegetables and other Chinese delicacies to cook inside your pot. It’s a glutton’s wet dream.
And who could forget Jianbing guozi? As the first—and only—vegetarian meal to bring me to my knees in unadulterated ecstasy, this Chinese burrito wrapped around kelp, tofu, scallions and other formidably fibrous greens, is the yin to my stomach’s yang. It brings an animal-loving tear to my eye every time I eat it.
One thing that China does waaay better than Thailand: bread. Damn near everything in China is paired with toasted bread something or other on a stick. Crispy, doughy, fried, steamed bread, often stuffed with meat and/or vegetables. The bread-inspired dishes are endless in China—like a carbohydrate conveyor belt that just keeps dumping delicious pastries and rolls into my mouth.
But above all Asian edible delights, the sit-down restaurant experience in China is the trump card to end all dietary debates. A large circular table with a rotating glass centerpiece—almost the circumference of the table itself—spins round and round, covered with a colorful variety of Chinese dishes. As the circular centerpiece rotates, you can pluck off bites of everything from seasoned noodles to Peking roast duck until you’re so stuffed you can’t remember your own name.
***In an instant I come back into my body. Everybody is still staring at me around the circular table, eyes wide, waiting for an answer. Have only seconds passed? Years? I blurt out an answer. “Chinese food is the best!” The nods of agreement ensue, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve done something terrible.
I’ve cheated on my Thai food girlfriend. I know she’s out there somewhere crying because I picked Chinese food over her. The pressure was just too much to handle. Forgive me, Kra Pao Gai, I’m weak!
Fact is, I love them both. The question will always pose a quandary for me. If I’m with Chinese people, I’ll tell them that Chinese food is better. If I’m with Thai people, I’ll tell them that Thai food is better. That way, nobody gets hurt and I won’t have to delve into this awkward explanation every time somebody asks me such a simple question about my taste preference.
God forbid I’m ever in the same room with both Chinese and Thai people when the question is uttered. In that instance, space and time would collapse and the universe as we know it would cease to exist. But enough of this nonsense. I’m hungry.