Thursday, 23 November 2006
Thai-m for Lunch
Owen Powell – 23rd November 2006
My girlfriend, Rachel, and I met Alex in Shadwell, near the scene of our recent triumphs in Wapping, and headed south on the East London line, towards New Cross. The East London line is one of the weirder tube lines – all the others have semi-graceful curves on the map, but this short orange oddity just goes straight up and down, with a fork at the bottom. If you turn the map upside down, it's almost like south London sticking two fingers up to the north. In fact, it's the only line with more than half its stations south of the river, so maybe the gesture is one of pride, rather than confrontation.
Almost as soon as we arrived, we started looking for a place to have lunch. Alex had heard of a Caribbean café he was eager to try, and we also liked the look of an Italian-style "slow food" restaurant, but our tastebuds (and wallets) were most easily stimulated by an establishment simply called 'Thailand' which offered two course lunches for only £3.99 a head. It's one of Rachel's favourite places to eat if she's studying in Goldsmith's library, just over the road, and even though its recent makeover has left it looking less authentically Thai, the food was excellent. I'm not very good at restaurant reviews (as the last sentence perhaps indicates), so maybe it's enough to say that we had chicken satay, chilli mussels and vegetable spring rolls for starters, and had two thai green curries and beef with ginger for main courses. They were all super.
While we ate, Alex and I told Rachel about how the project was going. We discussed an idea we'd had for the obvious sequel – trying to find a person in every country in the world who had originally come from London – as well as some more esoteric ideas about nationhood itself. Most geo-political problems around the world can be simplified into disputes over land – one area is claimed simultaneously by two separate groups, as is the case in Kashmir, Israel/Palestine, Taiwan, even Northern Ireland. We had yet to meet anyone who disputed their UN-given nationality, but we all agreed it would be interesting when and if it happened. Lots of people around the world, of course, live in a country without knowing it – tribespeople in places like Papua New Guinea and areas of South America, but it was unlikely that any of them would be in London. As a counterpoint, what if we found someone from somewhere that wasn't a country at all, for example, someone who was born in Antarctica? Antarctica is the only land mass left in the world that is not ruled over by one nation's government. It appears to have the same legal status as the bottom of the ocean, or the surface of the moon, but unlike seas or satellites it would be possible to be born there. As far as we know, no-one has been (what pregnant woman would decide to live at the South Pole, for starters?). We put all these thoughts into the category of bridges to be crossed when come to.
After the meal, I sat down at a spare table with our waitress and grilled her a bit. Her name was Thida Smith, and she had been in London for two years and nine months. She had an English husband, who she had met in Thailand. I closed off this line of questioning for fear of uncovering a cliché. Not being a trained journalist, I sometimes find it hard to phrase questions in the right way, so I thought it was safer if we stuck to food. After complimenting her on the meal we had just enjoyed, I asked how it compared to real Thai food. Thida said that it was broadly the same, but there was a real difference in the amount and type of spices used. The food she cooks in the restaurant is significantly milder, as most of her clientele are not Thai ex-pats but Brits like me, with our less adventurous palate. She even seemed to imply that she wouldn't enjoy eating the food she cooks, saying that at home she sticks to original Thai recipes and ingredients. I made a comparison with the oft-quoted story about the British invention of the Chicken Tikka Masala. Thida nodded. I asked if she thought we'd manage to complete the project, and she seemed fairly optimistic on our behalf, adding that the area we were in now should provide us with lots of opportunities to find people. Well, for the next hour at least we were going to give it a go.