Mother: What are you making?
Me: Pla Nuea Yaang Gub A Ngoon.
Mother: That sounds like a baby is drowning.
Me: Wait until you taste it.
Paradise has its price — and the check came shortly after my arrival on the idyllic Thai island of Ko Chang.
“No electricity. You can write by candlelight!” harped my friend, a Southeast Asia-based travel writer. “Pristine beaches. Friendly locals. Very cheap,” he promised. So I’d come 10,000 miles and spent more than four times the average Thai’s per capita income to find out that I couldn’t afford to live in Thailand’s capital city. Now I was about to discover that the isolated island where I’d envisioned myself writing the Great Asian Novel was nothing more than a malaria- and scorpion-filled postcard where has-been hippies, tattooed trustfunders and clueless Eurotrash came to smoke pot. I could have saved a bundle and gone to a Grateful Dead concert instead.
My traveling companion, on the other hand, had found his Shangri La. White sand, topless Swedish chicks reading Nietzsche, ice-cold Singha beer and $3-a-night accommodations.
We were here to write. His first novel had just been published, the second was making the rounds in New York and he was here to research the third. I was writing food and travel articles and researching a cookbook as well as finding fodder for fiction. But we were also on this yearlong journey to learn something about ourselves and Asian culture. We were on a quest to disrupt our workaday lives and glean a broader worldview — or in his case view a few broads.
We were standing fully clothed on a practically nude beach, my partner acting like a middle-aged extra in a Gidget movie. To lure him out of his adolescent fantasy, I suggested lunch.
“I would like to eat Pla Nuea Yaang Gub A Ngoon,” I thought. Like somnambulists we glided over bodies, driftwood and sandy, half-buried copies of The Lonely Planet until the smells of Thai cooking — lemongrass, tamarind, salted fish, coconut and kaffir lime — lured us into a lean-to.
We sat down, and as our 9-year-old waiter proudly practiced his English and dropped jagged chunks of beige ice into our glasses of Singha beer, I thought back to our first taste of Pla Nuea Yaang Gub A Ngoon.
We had been toiling for about a month on research for our projects (mine a feature for Bon Appetit on Bangkok’s Oriental Hotel Cooking School and his a novel set in Bangkok), when within 24 hours he learned that his second novel had been refused by three publishers and I was informed that my feature was getting the ax.
To celebrate this turn of events, we pooled our dwindling cash and went in search of nourishment. We found it in a local’s joint on the city’s Chao Phraya river. He was morose. I was close to panic. The beer tasted good.
He said, “Relax, what are we gonna do, quit writing? Why don’t you order us some dinner.”
In my slipshod Thai, I ordered a plate of barbecued squid and one of our favorites: Yaam Neua, a spicy beef salad tossed with pounded palm sugar, coriander root, fish sauce and lots of Thai chilies. When our waitress stopped giggling at my Thai, she said, “No can.” After much back and forth she said, “You try Pla Nuea Yaang Gub A Ngoon. From the south.” The three of us grinned and signed the universal okay.
We savored the slight variation of our favorite dish, the coriander root, palm sugar and fish sauce pumping unknown life into the peppery beef. We rolled the skinless grapes on our tongues until we couldn’t stand it and had to grind our teeth into the flesh. We succumbed to the burn of the chilies and let the sting of the peppercorns torment our tastebuds. We didn’t speak a word.
The next day, thanks to our buddy, and the inspiration of a simple meal, we were on our way south with a couple of paltry advances from magazines, a portable Olivetti, two duffels of threadbare clothes and ziplocked research notes.
And here we sat again, ready to savor another dish of Pla Nuea Yaang Gub A Ngoon. I called the waiter to order and before he could utter ,“No can,” I said, “Bring us something you make good.”
He said, “My family is from the north. We will make you sticky rice with Laab salad. But you must eat with your fingers.” The three of us grinned and signed the universal okay.