In Bangkok, Cooking in a Time of Chaos

By Jarrett Wrisley
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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.

That Sunday night I cooked a Massaman curry. It's as slow and deliberate a recipe as one can find in Thai cookery. It's sweet and complex, a mishmash of cultures in a dish, a microcosm of Thailand. Smoke rose over buildings framed in my kitchen window as I smashed coriander seed, cloves, cinnamon, and cumin into a fragrant curry paste. Chunks of pork bobbed in coconut cream until tender. That night, we ate the soothing dish glued to the news, certain the worst was yet to come.

The chaos ebbed and flowed. I would wake in the night and sit in my shower—away from the hum of our bedroom air-conditioner—and listen to gunshots cracking a few blocks away. Then, at 7:00 am, I'd make French toast, eggs, and coffee. There was nothing else to do but read the news. I was too scared for my business, and too unsettled by the violence, to write anything for The Atlantic, or anyone else.

So I cooked, and my wife and I ate. Roast pork with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes, spaghetti Bolognaise, ramen with daikon radish and shiitake mushrooms, BLTs, cream of broccoli soup, duck noodles, barbecued ribs. I cleaned out my cupboards, and with each dish I tried to find a new level of comfort. But as we ate and watched the news in our room filled with soft light and air conditioning and the smells of food, I felt guilt and helplessness watching the scenes unfold outside.

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Jarrett Wrisley

On Wednesday, May 19, Thai troops pushed through barricades to force the Red Shirts out of their urban encampment. As their leaders surrendered, extremists burned at least 36 targets in Bangkok, including the city's largest shopping mall, many banks, and other places of economic and political significance. As I stirred a favorite recipe of browned garlic, white wine, chicken, and bay leaves, the smoke poured up past my kitchen window. And for the first time, I got really scared. I wondered if the violence could ever enter what was, until then, my guilty sanctuary.

But then there was calm. Yesterday we left our home for to meet friends at a home-style Thai restaurant. About 14 of us sat at a long table, picking at curries, absently sipping beer. The meal felt funereal—people nervously grateful to share the company of others, despite the circumstances. Then we headed home, before the 9:00 pm curfew fell and Bangkok's streets fell silent.

Today, the sun shines through a bright, clear sky. I have gotten some sleep, and written this to try to clear my mind. Thailand's government faces a great divide, and I wonder how all this will be mended. So many lives have been lost.

Soon, I'll go to sit in the space I signed a lease on two weeks ago on Sukhamvit Soi 55. I need to think. I need to draw lines for the bar and the tables and chairs in chalk on the concrete floor, and see if my designer's plans actually work. I need to imagine the flow of traffic inside the space, and I need to measure the kitchen, and see where I'll fit my equipment.

And I need some peace of mind. So afterwards, I'll probably return home and cook dinner. There's nothing else to do, anyway.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/05/in-bangkok-cooking-in-a-time-of-chaos/57092/