Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

Journey to the Land of Spices, Tea & Coffee

The first week of the Rotary Peace Program is behind me, and I feel that I am settling into Bangkok, slowly getting my bearings and marking my footprint into the local milieu.

My colleagues here, from around the world, are stimulating many ideas and thoughts in regards to social justice projects, debates on injustice, pursuing the righteous and yet challenging path of a single individual’s efforts to fight for basic human rights, to strive towards freedom, and the duty to provide protections from exploitation. I have decided to sketch my blog about cultural cuisine as a point of commonality for a diverse population.

Growing up in the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia, specifically in Croatia, food was always a vital component of our existence, but very much beyond the essential place it holds in our hierarchy of needs for survival. It’s also more of an illustration of decades and centuries of history, political and social changes, invasions and intercultural migrations of diverse ethnic groups. For us, food had a role as a focal point of familial and cultural interactions.

The Balkan food scene is somewhat muddled, and at the same time, a clear depiction of five hundred years of rule by the Ottoman Empire in some regions, as well as the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the northern parts. The result of so much historical and political ebb and flow have influenced, and continue to do so in the present, many streams of foreign and domestic migration. These migrations and movements and interactions created a tapestry of small communities, rich in a diverse ethnic, linguistic and cultural milieu.

In 2001, I moved to Portland Oregon, USA, and aside from some basic personal belongings from my parents’ new home in Serbia, I brought with me a small container of the most important spice from the northern part of Croatia and Serbia, a Hungarian ground paprika, that to this day continues to evoke intimate memories of my childhood and the motherland.

On the plane to Hong Kong, I watched an endearing movie, The Hundred Foot Journey about cultural and ethnic identity, change and transformation within the context of food culture.  Borrowing from reviews to best describe the film,
The Hundred-Foot Journey is a 2014 American comedy-drama film directed by Lasse Hallström.  It tells the story of a feud between two adjacent restaurants: one operated by a recently relocated Indian family, and the other managed by a Michelin-starred French chef.  It is about how the hundred-foot distance between the new Indian kitchen and the traditional French one can represent the gulf between different cultures and desires.  A testament to the inevitability of destiny…”

It’s a great film about migration, strength, and one’s perseverance and re-invention cycle, but above all, it made me think later on, after our first week of class, it’s more about a Single Story.

A Single Story is the notion of one’s assumptions and prejudice about other people, cultures and all that is unknown and foreign to that person.  I have to shamefully admit, my Single Story assumption about scary street food vendors, unidentifiable food objects, etc. were all debunked by a single and most amazing person.

I am dedicating this blog to a wonderful stranger, a woman who after only one day stole my heart and disarmed me with her utmost kindness, the highest level of care; and yet so humble and beautiful inside, that it left me feeling confused, ashamed and uncomfortable in a way.

Her name is Ms. Paeng, and she is a cook, or I have to say a chef, and server at the restaurant at the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University.  The Rotary Peace Center is kindly providing snacks and lunch during our academic course.

Here I was, on the first day, armed with Paleo snack supplies and Lara bars, rationing my American food supplies I had brought with me.  During our morning break, I stepped into the hallway and was approached by a lively petite woman who took me by the arm, and offered me a plate with a perfectly rolled omelet.  One of the Thai staff members told me this woman will take care of me while in the class, and will prepare my food to accommodate my dietary restrictions.  I was not only surprised, but most moved by such kindness and the level of care, that it made me a bit teary-eyed.

So, I unwrapped the plate and took the first bite of my very first ever Thai omelet.  It was a perfect omelet, with red peppers and some uniquely shaped mushroom of superb texture.  It was a perfect balance of fluffy eggs, veggies and some unknown spices.  I felt, what I can only imagine Helen Mirren felt in the Hundred foot journey when tasting that omelet in the movie, heavenly.

That day, I went back to my room, processing not only the class material, my amazing fellow mates’ stories, but mostly thinking about my Single Story affected by a single woman, and her graciousness and humanity.

Ms. Paeng totally disarmed and charmed me with her organic kindness and care, traditionally displayed by a mother or a dear family member.  Yet, I am receiving this level of care by a total stranger, and words cannot describe my gratitude for her.  (Can she adopt me, and be my Thai mom?)  And it only continued for the rest of my first week here, that she would come up to me, and hand me a new daily creation, elevating and broadening my understanding and appreciation of the local food culture.

I can easily become addicted to sticky rice bars filled with mashed banana and beans, or tamale-like wraps of blissful coconut and some fruity paste concoction!  One can dedicate an entire blog series writing about Ms. Paeng’s daily creations.

Because of her, I feel empowered to venture out of my food comfort zone and embrace the unknown culture, history and food language, more confidently.

Exploring the food aisle at local grocery markets and learning about an abundance of unique and ethnically specific spices is my Hundred Foot Journey that I’m planning to conquer in the months to come.

I can already envisage my luggage stuffed with local spices and culinary recipes to take away with me as one of the most powerful cultural and ethnic adoptions.

Natasha Haunsperger, USA/Croatia
Rotary Peace Fellow
January 2015 Session


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