In 2008 I moved to Thailand.
I found that all the upscale restaurants featured sushi, usually as a buffet. Help yourself to all you could eat, was the motto; and the farang (foreigner) tourists did just that – gobbling it up like potato chips and onion dip back home in Texarkana. Whether it was uni wrapped in nori or futomaki with squid, they slathered it with wasabi and sent it down the hatch. Eating in excess is part of the tourist experience in Thailand. And never a bottle of Pepto Bismol to be found!
I noticed that the Thais, though, didn’t eat sushi. This puzzled me, as they are great lovers of seafood, and will grill just about anything they catch from the ocean – including old boots and waterlogged coconuts.
When I became proficient enough in Thai to ask my girlchum Joom why the Thais didn’t like sushi, her explanation rambled over historical fact and fiction like a bitter melon vine. The Japanese fishing fleet was ruining the fishing banks along the Gulf of Thailand, plus, during World War Two, when the Thai army was beating back the Japanese advance, the wily Nipponese left poisoned fish behind for the brave but hungry Thai soldiers – so Thais don’t trust any kind of seafood dish from Japan – especially since they like to chop up fugu and put it in their soy sauce!
Her explanation did not deter me from my dream of opening a sushi bar on the beach in Rayong. I had been teaching English, which provided a steady but modest income, so I thought a sushi bar right on a tourist beach would be my ticket to the big time. Of course, I would need the help of my girlchum, Joom. A girlchum, in Thailand, is a fiancé that’s not paid for yet. You pay the parents a dowry on the installment plan.
Joom explained how easy it was to open a restaurant in Thailand. We’d find a spot outside the city limits of Rayong; that way there’d be no license needed to sell beer – as long as we gave the local cop five-hundred baht a month as “tea money”. Rent for a beachfront open-air shack that seated twenty would be around seven-thousand baht per month. Utilities would be another thousand baht per month. And the boats brought in the catch early each morning to the fish market in Rayong, where we could buy all we needed for a few hundred baht per day. The only challenge would be to find the right kind of seaweed, like nori, to wrap the sushi in. I could only find nori imported from Japan, at a frightful price. We settled on wrapping the sushi in klong weed – an endemic green that grows along the banks of every canal in Thailand. Cement chairs and tables (the only kind that can withstand the tropical heat & bugs) would set me back another thousand baht. And the restaurant-style refrigerator would cost about twenty-thousand baht. All together, we were looking at start-up costs of around thirty- thousand baht – the rate of exchange being thirty baht to one dollar, so I needed to pony up one-thousand dollars.
But before investing my life savings I needed to know if the Thais could actually make sushi, since they never ate it. Joom assured me that Thais are world-class cooks by nature; their DNA includes msg. We downloaded recipes and instructions from the Internet; Joom and several of her cousins (everybody who needs a job in Thailand is a cousin) went to work in the kitchen – and produced an inedible mish-mash that smelled bad, tasted worse, and would not pass muster for famine relief anywhere. They could not get the hang of it. I nearly cut my thumb off while slicing some squid. So we finally called it quits. I threw the mangled experiments into our fish pond, where the tilapia and turtles feasted on it happily, and took the cases of Chang beer down to the beach, with Joom and her cousins, where they disposed of it with the help of grilled clams dug straight from the sand.
I’m thinking now of trying a Tex-Mex joint – how hard can refried beans be?