I was strolling through downtown Bangkok in August, high above the ground on an air-conditioned walkway between a SkyTrain station and one of the Thai capital’s ultra-modern shopping malls, when I had my first East meets West moment.
Looking down, I could see the glittering Erawan shrine on a street corner shimmering in the 100F heat beside six lanes of traffic. Garlands of yellow flowers decorated the altar as office workers and visitors brought offerings and prayers to the golden four-headed Hindu god within, or returned to pay the resident dance troupe to perform if their prayer had been answered.
Another East-West mash-up awaited inside the pristine white mega mall, filled with American brands, when a friend of my guide, Budsaya Rueangaram, aka Yin, urged us to try the avocado ice cream. Rounding a corner, we came across a line-up of probably 100 Thais waiting patiently to buy a cup of chopped avocado topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream for 50 baht, or $1.50.
I wondered why anyone would line up for a green-skinned avocado in a country overflowing with exotic dragonfruit, spiky lychee-like rambutans and creamy mangosteens. Yin explained that avocados are one of many “new” crops Thailand’s late and much-loved ruler, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, had encouraged poor rural farmers in northern Thailand to grow, instead of opium. The king, who founded his first Royal Project in 1969, also encouraged farmers to care for the soil without the use of pesticides and plant trees rather than slash and burn the land. Despite the king’s efforts and star power, one California expat notes that Thais don’t really like avocados, in season from July to December, but they will blend them with sugar and drink them for the health benefits. Yin said she’s bought one or two but found them expensive and difficult to ripen. Her disappointment mirrored my own experience of avocados grown close to home and expensive tropical fruit imported from afar that never quite ripens properly.
Thailand’s Western-style restaurants and hotels, meanwhile, are happily incorporating local avocados and other royal produce into their menus, from broccoli and kiwifruit to blueberries and strawberries, alongside the pink-skinned dragon fruit that graces every breakfast and post-dinner fruit tray. At Bangkok’s posh river oasis The Siam, three of the eight breakfast smoothies (at $12 apiece) contain avocado. I also enjoyed pristine, ultra-fresh salad greens at resorts across the country, another royal idea that’s sold in the colorful open-air food markets, which are still blissfully free of food safety regulations and nutrition guidelines.
Markets were also filled with value-added durian fruit, the pale yellow, kidney-shaped lobes shrink-wrapped on styrofoam trays or processed into bags of non-smelly and delicious chips. It was quite a change from my first trip to Thailand years ago when the spiky, prehistoric-looking fruit was only sold whole, suspended from every food cart. If you’re not familiar with Southeast Asia’s king of fruits, it smells like turpentine and onions garnished with gym socks and tastes of whipped cream flavored with diced garlic and brown sugar. Though it’s banned from public places and airlines, Thais can’t seem to get enough of its creamy texture, and durian is promoted relentlessly in desserts from June to October, not unlike our local strawberry season. Even Swensen’s ice cream, originally from San Francisco, offered a seasonal durian menu.
Wandering through Chinatown on my last night in Bangkok I had one more East-West experience. Next to a stall selling sweet sesame dumplings floating in bowls of hot ginger tea were two street vendors giving away a free Washington cherry to passersby. I couldn’t resist trying one, and found it big and juicy with fresh-picked flavor. Both stalls were festooned with Northwest Cherries posters, and sold the red and Rainier cherries pre-packaged in pretty bags and plastic-wrapped cardboard trays for 440 baht, or $13.
It seems fresh produce is creating a world without borders.