We've been walking the same streets for the last few days now. We encounter the same sleepy dogs napping in the middle of the road (plastered, almost melted to the cement), the old frail woman chewing on sugarcane in the corner, and the same old man who leisurely climbs onto his tricycle rickshaw and heads 500 meters to the market around the corner. We don't live here, we aren't neighbors, but yet it all seems so familiar, so real that we've become fast acquaintances in simply a few strolls up and down the alley.
Antonio picks me up from yoga class and proposes a lunch at the "hipster restaurant" down the street. "Which one?" I ask, as a bunch of San Francisco-esque skinny jeans and flannel shirts isn't something I remember seeing on Ratchamanka Soi 6. "You know, the one with all the cool people eating outside" he says. He leads me there and I discover that this restaurant he speaks of is in fact a house, the hipsters actually are locals enjoying their 12pm lunch and cha yen Thai iced teas, the wooden picnic table and random plastic chairs act as makeshift dining stuff. We sit down, luckily there are two Chiang Mai regulars eating already, I try not to stare, but nonchalantly size up and down what they're having - pointing would likely be necessary, but it looks like I've got this one under control, I recognize the som tam green papaya salad. She spits off numerous Thai phrases, all ending in a soft and feminine belly laugh and a broad smile. She holds up a tiny, yet extremely spicy chili and nods my direction, as if to say "how many?" I hold up my pointer finger and nod "one" and with that she roars into a deeper laugh. I suppose the proper answer would have been at least three.
She fastens a surgical mask to her face - to protect herself from the smoke - pounds the chili in the mortar and pestle, grinds the peanuts and turns around to control the fire of the wok (Antonio's garlic pork and rice). Within minutes the meal is ready and presented with elongated sprigs of Thai basil. Again, served with a smile. Fresh and authentic, a homemade meal from a home.
I ask for her photo, she mumbles something to her son, and he translates for me that she doesn't feel beautiful today; timidly yet with confidence she removes the mask to reveal an ear to ear smile. She's being ridiculous of course, she appears younger than her years, but the real beauty is in the act of what this meal has meant for me. She doesn't know it, but I will remember this exact spot in Thailand, this interaction, for years to come. I will, and in fact have already forgotten the Thai pronunciation of her name, but I will remember her sweetness, her energy and enthusiasm to feed others, her ability to provide a temporary home to outsiders, cooking that is both sincere and honest, available for whomever may pass and whomever desires to sit down for a meal on this tiny Soi (road).
Thai green papaya salad, som tam, in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Let's call her Rose, my Thai grandmother and local cuisine chef for the day.
The unsuspecting storefront is a house.
Ratchamanka Soi 6/ Bumrung Buri 2
Chiang Mai, Thailand
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