25 August 2008

The scent of Bangkok

After years of buying the occasional incense stick or two and always being overwhelmed by its intense smoky grab on my lungs, I now finally understand its use. Over 5,000 years old, incense plays an important role in Thai culture as a ceremonial tool. I have found it to be a rare day when I don't pass a roadside Wat (temple) cloaked in a mask of wafting incense.

But, today, when I say that I finally understand incense I'm referring to a much simpler observation. Spend a full day in Bangkok and you'll be treated to a cacophony of scents unlike any you've experienced before. While the individual components of Bangkok's nose easily conjure up a label of bad or good (Are you ready to play? Try it out: sewer = bad, curry = good, musty water = bad, tropical flora = good), Bangkok's scent is neither good nor bad. Instead, as I have learned, it is one of the ingredients that makes Bangkok unlike any other place. 

Throw the doors open wide in the early morning and you'll smell what I did this morning... the smell of a variety of curry dishes being started and left to simmer throughout the day. Then, an hour later, a drift of sewer and dampness permeates the vents, mixed with the faint smell of burning plastic from our under the sink, on demand hot water heaters. Wander the city at almost any time of the day and you'll catch diesel and deep fry oil and chilies so hot they'll make you cough from a good solid block away. The daily thunder and lightening storms, that we're experiencing in this monsoon season, bring a whole different scent to the late afternoon: a hot scorching scent of heat hitting both pavement and green trees, mixed with a dewy damp humidity. And, as the day winds down, the smell of both chlorine and some soon to be identified tropical flower clings to us as we exit the pool and prepare for our evening meal. 

Living in a city that provides such a beautiful assault on your senses, brings me to better understanding of incense. Sometimes you just want a scent that unifies all the good and seeps deep into the cracks to eliminate all of the not so good. A couple sticks of night jasmine incense and the smell of curry in the morning, heat in the afternoon and tropical foliage of the evening appear and everything else moves to the background.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 5:
Bangkok Watermelon Salad
A deliciously fragrant salad that combines the freshness, spiciness and sweetness of Thai cooking. We enjoyed this last night as an accompaniment to our fish and rice.

2 cups of watermelon, diced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated finely
1/2 cup fresh basil, finely chopped*
1 teaspoon of honey
1 teaspoon of water
black pepper to taste

Add watermelon, ginger and basil to a serving bowl. Heat the honey and the water until warm and pour into serving bowl. Toss thoroughly and add black pepper to taste (just a couple turns of a pepper mill will do). Toss again and chill until ready to serve.

* I like using Thai basil because its local and delicious, but any in-season basil will taste great.

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