50 Shades of Spinach
I was having dinner at a roadside stand - a fancy one with plastic tables and chairs - when my plate came. It was a stir-fried mix of some kind of brussel sprout, watercress, and two long stringy vegetables I couldn’t identify. And chili peppers. Lots and lots of chili peppers.
I dug in.
Somewhere during my second break to let my mouth cool down, it hit me. I was basically eating brussel sprouts and unidentified leafy greens for dinner. When did this happen?
I traced back my steps, all the way to my second meal here in Thailand. On that lunch, the plate came, and I couldn’t identify half the vegetables on it. But I was hungry, and I didn’t want to leave anything behind, fearing it would be horribly rude to a person I wanted to become friends with. So I just dove in, and ate it.
A few weeks later, some tomatoes were served up, artfully cut, as an edible decoration. I hate tomatoes. But, wanting to be polite, I ate them. And to my shock, they were good. Last week for lunch, I asked the chef what she recommended. Fried watercress. “Sounds good,“ I said, and it certainly was.
Step into the market in Thailand, and you’ll immediately be overwhelmed by the sheer varieties of fruits and vegetables. There are dozens of kinds of spinach-y things, twenty-plus kinds of peppers, and bright spiny fruits that look like they came from Mars. There are also stands for chicken, pork, prawns, and fish. But they’re outnumbered, probably 20 to 1. When you see Thai shopping bags, most of the things in them - are green.
What this means is that instead of being a strange side dish, the Thai people bring all of their world-class culinary skills to things like kale and bean sprouts and unidentified leafy greens. They turn unripe papayas into a mouth-watering, lip-burning indulgence. Meal after meal layers vegetables, spice, and obscure sauces into a symphony of taste.
Here in Thailand, I can’t imagine a parent ever saying to a child, “eat your vegetables.” It’d be nonsensical. There are vegetables in everything. It’s just food.
The result is that I’ve started to think about vegetables like the Thai do - as the normal foundation of every dish. Coming from the United States, this is quite a shift.
In the US, vegetables are a side dish. Cooked separately. Served separately. Vegetables are the sacred pariahs of the table, served one a time, without seasoning. A puritanical rite of passage for the meal.
Eating a serving of vegetables washes away the sins of a pound of steak. You’ve heard it:
“I’m totally having that ice cream. I ate a salad for lunch.”
Vegetables are holy water, sacred and special. A necessary atonement for the good life.
But they’re also about power, pleasure, and control - or the lack of it. Vegetables are the dark fetish of the dinner table, the one you’re not into, but have to swallow anyway. Eat your vegetables, we’re told, they’re good for you.
Eat your vegetables, even if you don’t consent. They’re dominant. Enforced. They pound into American minds, meal after meal, that what’s good for you isn’t good.
We carry this same attitude around for all sorts of aspects of our health. Look at our language.
“Exercise.” “Physicals.” “Stretching.”
These are some of the most soul-draining words in the English language. They’re hard-linked in our minds to cultural stories we tell around our bodies, aging, and health. And all of those stories are bitter, boring, soul-sucking downers.
But they’re also just stories. What if we tried telling different ones, ones more rooted in the moment? Stories like,
“Vegetables are just food, and good food is delicious.”
“I run because I get to feel like a kid or a tiger or sometimes, both.”
“Hang on. So, you’re saying I get to experience being alive, on a ball in the middle of space, in this fantastic and fragile body, for as long as I can keep it going? Seriously? Fuck yeah, pass the brusselsprouts!”
Turned this way, the Thai way of doing things seems obvious. If vegetables are easy to grow, cheap, sustainable, and great for the rare and wonderful bodies we each get to have, we should eat lots of them. And if we’re going to eat lots of them, it would be crazy to make them anything besides really, really delicious.
So here in Thailand, they are. Bite after bite, I could feel these tasty vegetables push the boundaries of my perspective until one day, like a shrunken shirt, it longer fit. It was time to find a new story. One I liked better:
Vegetables: they’re fucking delicious.
… especially with some mushroom sauce and chili peppers and a little fish sauce and seriously, is that prik nam pla? Bring that shit over, son! It’s nosh time!