Breakfast. The first meal of the new day. Or, if not actually a full meal, then certainly something to put in your stomach to get you started. For many it’s the most important meal. For others it’s nothing to shout about. But it’s different everywhere you go. And it’s not simply because different nations eat different things. It goes deeper than that. And to grasp what breakfast is all about, we have to look at lifestyle, too.
The idea of a hearty breakfast to start the day is rooted in the collective consciousness of working people everywhere. But here we’re talking about physical work; farmers in the fields, constructions workers, window cleaners – any job where you are on the go and using lots of energy. Office workers and clerks have different needs. As do those of us who are very young or very old. And then, tangled up with this, there’s the cultural backdrop of different nations.
What this all boils down to is a jumbled confusion which draws partly on tradition, is influenced by age, and further clouded by lifestyle and culture. And so, just for fun, in the blue corner we’ll pit the traditional English ‘Full Monty’ breakfast against the Thai equivalent in the red corner – but be prepared for some cultural clashes and astute sociological observations as the contest progresses!
The ‘Full English Breakfast’ is a cholesterol horror, being mostly fried. And the bacon, sausages, mushrooms and tomatoes, together with the fried eggs, runny baked beans on crispy brown toast that’s slathered with melted butter will cause a vegan to momentarily lose consciousness.
However, it not only crams a huge amount of calories into a working man’s body, but it actually tastes pretty good, too! But, then, the next meal will be after midday, and it’ll be a small one; sandwiches or a small take-away from a nearby café. This will then be followed by a substantial evening meal at home after the day’s work is done.
On the other hand (back in the red corner) the Thai nation has a far more laid-back approach to food. There aren’t the same rigid meal times over here. In fact it’s common everywhere to see shop workers (even bank staff) munching away happily at a polystyrene bowl of something under the counter as you walk in to get served. It’s been oft-noted that Thai people don’t really eat meals. They ‘graze’ on and off during the day, quite often hitting something like a bowl of noodle soup, a small plate of curry or some meat skewers every two hours or so, supplied by the mobile carts which appear outside at regular intervals during the working day.
This happy-go-lucky attitude to eating food is threaded throughout the Thai nation, and therefore means that really there’s only one time every day that Thai people can get together for a family meal, and that’s in the evening. But it also
means that tens of millions of hungry Thai people are on the move very early in the working day. Many are away from home and family, particularly on a holiday island like Samui. But even those who aren’t are on their way to work via a breakfast from one of the many street stalls or food markets along their way – it’s just so much easier.
Without a doubt the most popular dish for a Thai breakfast is some kind of ‘jok’ (often spelled ‘joke’). You take rice and boil it until it goes mushy, like porridge. Then you crack an egg in the middle and add all sorts to it – minced pork or liver or fish – and garnish it with thin slices of ginger and cilantro. And then there’s jok’s little cousin, ‘khao tom’, but here, instead of the rice going mushy, it’s cooked into a soup with seafood or fish and then has vegetables added.
Another favourite is ‘khao kai jeow’, meaning just rice and an omelette, and there is a variety of added ingredients you can choose from including minced pork, onions, plus a selection of small vegetables. Once you make your selection, they’ll fry a fresh omelette, put it on a bed of rice, and serve it to you with mild chilli sauce on the side.
How about grappling with the western idea in the blue corner and getting your head around something more substantial, such as ‘khao neow moo ping’? Skewers of honey-glazed pork with generous helpings of sticky rice? The sweet greasy pork is a perfect match for the sticky rice. Or if you want to level the field a little, face-off with a minimal and tie-breaking breakfast nibble, ‘khanom pang’. Sounds exotic, doesn’t it. But it’s actually the Thai for waffles! And it’s just great to eat while you’re on the go.
And then – my favourite – ‘khao rad gaeng’. This is a kind of ‘pick n mix’. You’ve seen those kind of scary (if you are in the blue corner) big steel pots filled with strange stuff which the street restaurants have several of in a row? Well you get
your plate of rice and point and say “. . . a bit of this and some of that and just a touch of this one, please.” And then get it all in a mixed goo on your rice and tuck-in selectively.
You don’t always get what you want. But sometimes you find what you need – particularly when you’re exploring breakfast in paradise!
Rob De Wet