In Bangkok, Cooking in a Time of Chaos

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Jarrett Wrisley


Last week in Bangkok, things were heating up. The rhetoric from Red Shirt protestors was escalating, as were stern responses from the Thai government. In a sudden turn of events, Major General Katthiya Sawasdiphol, an enlisted Thai soldier who rebelliously assumed control of security for the Red Shirts, was shot in the head. I was at home, cooking spaghetti.

A few friends were in the area when it happened, and called me in a panic. More conflict seemed imminent. It was.

For the year and a half that I've lived here, a sweeping violent event in Thailand has seemed almost predestined. But no matter how prepared you are for something like this to happen, it doesn't make it easier. You turn loss of life over and over in your head, as scenes just outside your door become horrifying. Sleep becomes an afterthought.

As bullets started to puncture the night air near our home, it became unsafe to walk the streets in the Sathorn area. Twitter feeds kept me up to date on the action, though information flowed through the same deeply partisan perspectives that ignited the conflict. I would hear of a fire lit, and then head to my roof to view it. I would learn of gun battles breaking out, and step outside to hear them. The exhaust fan on my rooftop was knocked off-kilter by a stray bullet, I noticed on Wednesday, as I snapped photos of billowing smoke.

The last day we left our house, which was hemmed in on three sides by fighting, was last Saturday night, May 15. We went to a friend's bar that had opened recently, in a wan show of support. It's in the same neighborhood (Thong Lor) where I plan to open a restaurant and bar later this year.

As I drank an Old-Fashioned in that new bar, called WTF—Wonderful Thai Friendship, though another name would suffice in these times—the Canadian Broadcasting Company called me to do an interview. I accepted, and stepped into a dark alley to talk on the phone. The last question shook me up: "Will there be a point, do you think, if things continue the way they are, that you actually decide to leave, and return to the United States?" I sputtered, spoke of my business plans, and returned to the bar for another drink.

That night, as we drove home over Klong Toey, part infamous ghetto and part wholesale food market, angry taxi drivers were beginning to blockade the highway. For the next week, we would leave our house only to buy food.

When things go wrong, as I've written before, I turn to the kitchen to find solace. In this time of gunshots, tire fires, and curfews, cooking was about all I did. On Sunday I visited my local supermarket and stocked up on whatever was left—in this case only mushrooms, carrots, daikon radish, chicken thighs, canned tomatoes, dried pasta, and pork bones. I scoured a local fresh market for fruits, herbs, and more pork. I bought a big bag of cleaned duck bones from a roast duck vendor.

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Jarrett Wrisley

And for the next five days straight I cooked, like a rat in a cage, occasionally scurrying to my rooftop to take pictures. I went out only once more, to find usually-jammed Sathorn Road abandoned but for smoldering piles of rubbish. I stopped into my fresh market to talk to my fishmonger, whose supply had dwindled to a limp pile of two-day-old shrimp. She shook her head and smiled. It didn't hide her pain.

Closer to home, young Red Shirt "guards" now actively engaging the military resupplied energy drinks, beer, and cigarettes at my local 7-Eleven, then sped off back to Klong Toey. Many of those beer and energy drink bottles were repurposed into Molotov cocktails. Two men rode by on motorbikes on Tuesday afternoon, smashing our glass telephone booths with metal pipes, as friendly noodle sellers and fruit vendors watched silently. My Bangkok neighborhood, as I knew it, had ceased to exist.

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Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of greasy cheese steaks. More

Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of (and occasionally returns for) greasy cheese steaks. Jarrett's first trip to Asia came as a college student, when he traveled to Beijing to study Mandarin Chinese. He returned to China after graduation, and began writing about Chinese food in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. After a six-month stint in Chengdu, he moved on to Shanghai, where he worked as a food critic and magazine editor for four years before striking out on his own. After six years in China, he recently moved to Bangkok, where yellow-clad protesters immediately shut down the airport where he had just landed. Luckily for him, he couldn't leave—and now intends to stay. Jarrett is presently working on a series of modern Chinese cookbooks with Hong Kong chef Jereme Leung and writing features that focus on food and culture in Asia. He'll be bouncing around the region as much as possible and writing about things he encounters along the way. His blog trains an eye on food but addresses other cultural phenomena, tidbits of travel, and the oddball politics of East Asia.
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