THAI FOOD 101 — Humans are always drawn to what’s bad for them. This is why things like tanning beds and electronic dance festivals exist. And nothing is rifer with potential peril than food. Since the juicy apple made a nice snack in the Garden of Eden, human history has been littered with culinary treasures that beckon the stomach at the expense of … everything else.
As it turns out, in Thailand we’re enjoying some specific tasty treats way too much, if you consider 70 deaths per day to be “too much.”
A study in a leading scientific journal, USA Today, came out earlier this month listing foods that safety experts say are prime breeding grounds for deadly bacteria. Not surprisingly, raw or undercooked meat and shellfish are on this list. Perhaps less surprising: unpasteurized milk, cantaloupes, and sprouts of any kind ‒ including bean sprouts, those watery, flavorless ruiners of good soup noodles everywhere. You now have food safety experts’ permission to banish them from your noodle bowls.
But sometimes people simply cannot help themselves. Sometimes, a food may be so delicious that diners feel compelled to stuff themselves with it despite the obvious health risks. Much has been made of the dangers posed by Western innovations such as trans fats and corn syrup, but far less has been written about the danger lurking in some of Asia’s most popular dishes – particularly those in Thailand, home to one of the highest incidences of bile-duct cancer in the world.
The culprit? Parasites known as “liver flukes” which live inside the freshwater fish used to make up raw Isaan (northeastern Thailand) dishes such as plaa som (fermented fish coated in toasted rice kernels, garlic and salt) and larb plaa dib (spicy raw fish salad). In spite of local “re-education” programs exhorting locals to fry or boil their fishy treasures, many are loathe to give up old habits, reasoning that if they have lasted this long, they must be okay. Unfortunately, as The New York Times reports, it’s the accumulation of these parasites that leads to bile-duct cancer, which claims 70 lives a day in Thailand.
“I try to eat only the cooked versions of these dishes,” said Chin Chongtong, a food guide at Chili Paste Tours who hails from Ubon Ratchathani. “But people eat these dishes because, like in Japan, they want to have the freshest possible fish. Unfortunately, the water in Isaan is not clean enough to eat fish that way every day.”
It’s not just liver flukes that lovers of Thai food have to watch out for. There are health risks lying in wait in other prized culinary offerings as well. In plaa ra (fish that has been pickled with salt and rice grains and left to ferment for three months to one year), diners have to beware of diarrhea-causing bacteria that are so prevalent that a 2005 survey by the Medical Services Department found 83 percent of som tam (green papaya salad) made with the fish to be “unsafe,” according to The Nation. Pickled raw crabs (pu dong) fared similarly, infecting 73 percent of the som tam tested. Interestingly, perhaps because of the salting process, these dishes weren’t found to be good hosts for liver flukes.
The bad stuff isn’t relegated to the stuff you find in the ocean, although you could write a whole other, just-as-boring article about all the dangerous pollutants found in the water (fecal contamination, mercury, radiation, you name it). You may also find stomach-churning stuff in piggy crowd-pleasers like naem, a fermented pork “sausage” that is made by salting the meat and leaving it for three-to-five days and enjoyed in both Isaan and northern Thailand. Health experts recommend cooking this dish before eating it, but, like the people who insist on sticking to the raw freshwater fish mentioned above, I will only eat naem as-is. So it would seem as if none of our favorite disgusting Thai ingredients is immune, and that no one (yours truly) is immune from thinking they know better than health experts.
One bright spot: the “century egg” (known in Thai as kai yiew ma, or “horse urine egg”) is actually really good for you. Made by coating an egg in a sort of clay mixture and leaving it to “petrify” for three-to-four months, “century eggs” have been found to help stave off blood clots … unless they are the focus of a food safety scare in China. In 2013, 30 companies were closed down after they were found using toxic chemicals to halve the eggs’ fermentation period.
Sprouts, bad. Ancient eggs, good. Logic defies again.
So aside from the possible traces of arsenic, cadmium and lead, “century eggs” are healthy.
Bottom line: If you want to live forever, never eat anything, ever.
More Thai Food 101 lessons: