This morning, I served Chinese donuts (bpaa thong goh) for an hour and a half at the local rice soup (khao dtom) place down the road. The rice soup place is a family-run operation, and it’s packed every time I go. Ever since the first time I went there, I felt welcomed by Bpa Noey and P’Rat, who were delighted when they found out I could speak Thai and gave me extra tea and treats to try. When I asked about the delicious tea, P’Rat gave me the thing it was made from, told me how to make the tea, and then told me that if I ate it every day it helps make you beautiful (too bad I still don’t know what it is).
Bpa Noey is the old matriarch of the rice soup establishment. She is the only Thai lady who I’ve seen smoke (does it while she’s cooking, too), she’s balding a little, and her arms are plump, a little like the flour-covered dough before it goes into the hot oil. Unlike most Thai people, Bpa Noey saves the money she earns and uses it to travel, even inviting me to go to with them to China and Vietnam with them over Christmas break.
P’Rat is the sweetest man alive. He has no interest in Thai women, he told me. He wants to go to America (and presumably find a wife there).
One of my roommates and I stop by the rice soup place almost every day before going to school. One time, they were closed and we didn’t know where else to eat, and nothing else sounded quite as good. I have a fierce loyalty to them — I think the jok (rice porridge) place across the street pales in comparison, even though some people like it better.
My rice soup family took me to the dentist when I wanted to go get a filling – and picked me up when I was through. I went to Bpa Noey’s son’s wedding in Nakhon Si Thammarat. For my birthday, they prepared a crab feast for me and my friends, and then they took me to Khanom, a quiet beach nearby. Do people at home give their foreign customers the same treatment? These are the things that make Thai people so special to me – their generosity, their openness, their consideration.
One morning I came alone to the rice soup place on a Saturday morning, and P’Rat called me behind the counter and handed me a long chopstick. He showed me how to flip the Chinese donuts over in the large wok of oil after two minutes, and then told me to scoop them out after another two minutes. Pretty soon, they were telling me how much 8 donuts cost (10 baht) and directing me to put them into paper-lined plastic bags or on to plates for customers. Some of the regulars smiled to see a foreigner serving donuts; others never batted an eyelid. Somehow I just got absorbed into the mix. I was surprised that I was “allowed” to go behind the counter to cook, handle money, and serve donuts – but it’s not strange here; everyone seems to just pitch in whenever they can.
It turns out I’m slow at remembering who ordered what, but I’m definitely getting better, and the time passes so quickly that it doesn’t feel like work (although I think some of my roommates think I’m crazy for going there on the weekends at 7 am). I see it as an excellent opportunity for me to improve my Thai. I usually sit with P’Rat and Bpa Noey after all the donut dough is used up, and they explain various things to me, like how people in southern Thailand have different slang than people from Bangkok. We sit and we laugh at not knowing exactly how to explain things to each other, and they feed me rice soup, iced coffee, donuts, dim sum, scrambled eggs, and whatever else they’d like me to try.
When I first heard of rice soup, I thought it’d be bland, but the way they make it, it’s perfectly seasoned with pepper and green onions, thin but not too watery, and you can add pork and egg. The donuts are crispy and especially delicious when dipped in tea or covered in condensed milk.
When I was in college, I took a class on slow food and my professor was adamant about telling us about how much fast-food sucks the life out of you, while food made slowly and with care and love nourishes you. This is one of those places where I get as much satisfaction from eating there as from being around the people there.