The pigs I stumbled upon yesterday got me thinking. I was wandering around my Bangkok neighborhood, beside the Rama 3 highway, as motorbikes whizzed past and trucks thundered above. It was 3 p.m., and my head felt leaden from jetlag. The air, heavy with wet, wasn't helping. The sidewalk fit together like broken puzzle pieces.
Just 39 hours earlier, I'd been in sunny Pennsylvania, eating and drinking with family and friends. Because I haven't lived full-time in the U.S. for many years, I find myself in the role of tourist whenever I return home. Much of the time, I process things with a visitor's sort of judgmental wonder. And after seven years spent in Asia, so many American foods seemed obscenely convenient.
Strolling through the grocery store there, I saw remarkable things. Chicken nuggets that had taken on the form of prehistoric reptiles. Almonds that were no longer almonds--instead, they were coated in crispy cocoa and spit out of plastic dispensers with nozzle tops, like a magazine of candied ammunition. There were new fleets of salad dressings, battalions of 'organic' canned soups and 'ethnic' marinades and premixed peanut butter and jelly. Perfectly good snacks from my childhood had been treated like film franchises, with countless derivative spin-offs. (I know...I have a lot to catch up on.)
My nieces and nephews gaped at a photo of a grilled fish I'd eaten in Southern Thailand. Its head and fins were still affixed, and this was deeply troubling to some of them.
And because of foods like these, there is a great distance between so many of us and the food that we eat. On this same visit home, my nieces and nephews gaped, with their own judgmental wonder, at a photo of a grilled fish I'd eaten in Southern Thailand. Its head and fins were still affixed, and this was deeply troubling to some of them. Proximity to food, it seems, is a privilege.
39 hours later, on a street around the corner from my Bangkok home, I stumbled upon those pigs at a restaurant on Rama 3 Road. The owner, Nai Pipatsantihong, was prepping for the evening service. And her food had faces.
Nai is representative of an older Bangkok. She is, like so many cooks here, the product of a Chinese family that emigrated from Guangdong Province, north of Hong Kong. Her restaurant is called Song Pi Nong Moo Han, which, loosely translated, means Older Brother and Younger Sister Pig Roast.
Later that night I returned to eat Nai's suckling pig, which they cook in two ways: a Hong Kong-style pig, which is de-boned and eaten primarily for the crisp skin, and Thai style, which is cooked whole, with meat and bone. We chose the latter, ordered a few other dishes, and sat back and waited.
Each night this restaurant, lit by the vertical fluorescent tubes that are commonplace at Thai roadside restaurants, fills with large groups of Bangkokians. The other dishes here are forgettable, but the pig certainly is not. People sit at tables spread on the sidewalk, sipping whiskey or beer, staring out at the fire as the cook twirls suckling pigs over coals that spit and sizzle.
"It's a method that I learned from my parents," said Nai. "They first cooked pigs for other restaurants here in Bangkok, for nearly 20 years, and I was the one that took the orders." I told her that I'd never seen pig cooked like this in China--where they are now usually roasted in large electric ovens. "That's because we cook them better in Bangkok," she said, with a wink and a smile.
The pigs are brought out around noon each day, split and placed on spits, and then par-cooked and left to dry. Before they are cooked once more, they are painted with maltose, for a caramel color and a crisp skin. Then they are twirled, very fast so that the pig fans the flames, over a box of charcoal and burning wood. It's a fascinating process to watch, as the cook expertly prods the pig with a long poker, checking for doneness, while painting it with a long brush.
That night, we ate the pig in stages. First the skin, which was crisp and paper thin, with just a hint of smoke. Then the carcass was removed from the table, and later the meat returned, chopped and deep-fried with garlic. Finally we were served the ribs, which were grilled indirectly over slow coals.
We savored the pig. A friend at the table raised a toast to its sacrifice. And we felt the great privilege of our proximity to good food.
Song Pi Nong Moo Han is located in Bangkok on Rama III Road, between Narathiwat and Nang Lin Chee, on the west side of the street, in the middle of the block.