Two curious incidents happened in two separate canteens in Bangkok earlier this week. Who would have thought that ordinary canteens could be such a happening place, and that there are things “too hot” for Thai canteens.
This article examines the first incident which might have ramifications of national importance.
Hot basil fried rice in the Thai Army canteen
The first curious incident that happened involved hot basil fried rice locally known as Pad Kaprao, a favorite Thai dish. The said dish is common everywhere Thai food is served—at home, on the street, in canteens, food courts and restaurants. With garlic, red hot chilies and a generous amount of hot (holy) basil leaves as the key ingredients, Pad Kaprao is a quintessential Thai fast-food dish that not only satisfies your hunger but also gives you a kick Thai food is famous for.
So what happened to this hot, delicious Thai dish?
It was banned! In a Thai Army Headquarters canteen. As it turns out, Pad Kaprao has proved too hot, or rather too pungent, for the Thai army top brasses. Numerous patrons at the Thai Army HQ canteen were reportedly surprised and more than a little disturbed by the sign placed in front of a food stall that screamed:
“Attention All Customers.
Order of Pad Kaprao is
How on earth…? It’s practically sacrilegious. It’s like you go into an American fast-food chain and be told burgers are no longer on the menu, or a Mexican hole-in-the-wall that won’t serve tacos.
So Thai investigative reporters were put to the task to dig deeper and uncovered that Pad Kaprao at the Thai Army HQ canteen has been a source of nuisance for some time. While hotly delicious with holy ingredients, the cooking of this popular dish has been disturbing the concentration of senior army officers whose offices are within the odor zone its unholy smell. The canteen management tried to address the problem by installing cooker hoods to every food stall, but to no avail. According to a vendor who told Khao Sod:
The Army had spent so much money on dealing with the smell, including the renovation of the building and the installation of the cooker hoods… But they weren’t very effective.
So the unspecified Army staff took a drastic measure and banned on-site cooking of Pad Kaprao, although the dish can still be had in the pre-cooked (and slightly cold) form.
Stank to the top
Culinary affront notwithstanding, I must confess that I sympathize with the senior officers at the Army HQ. You’d understand if you’ve ever been in a Thai kitchen when Pad Kaprao is being prepared. Unless you are a hardened cook or a kitchen fanatic who loves pungent smells or has a defective nose, enduring 10 minutes of Pad Kaprao cooking once or twice a week is usually the limit. Enduring it everyday would be beyond the tolerance of most mortals—yes, including the Thai ones.
No one has been more disturbed by this whole stinking Pad Kaprao business than the top boss himself, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, the Army Chief. Thai media have been too hard on him on this matter, I think. What with a headline like “Prayuth Blew His Lid on Pad Kaprao” (or something to that effect). This incident actually put Gen Prayuth in a new light for me. Now that I know about the chronic Pad Kaprao problem at the Army HQ, I appreciate why the good general’s lid is blown every so often. Mine would be blown even more often, if there’s always the stinking Pad Kaprao smell in my office. That he even manages to smile at all is impressive.
In one of his most explosive interviews of late, Gen Prayuth said that the food vendors know the rules but he suspected that they wanted to please their customers so couldn’t help cooking the offending dish. They should have sympathy for others, he said, because (believe it or not) not everyone likes Pad Kaprao. He suggested with strong feelings that anyone desiring to eat freshly cooked Pad Kaprao can eat it outside of the Army HQ building! I totally empathize.
Making a mountain out of a Pad Kaprao mold hill
Senior army officers have quickly clarified that there has been no official ban on Pad Kraprao. It was actually the (still unspecified) army staff’s idea to ensure that the concentration of their senior officers is not disturbed by the pungent Pad Kaprao. After all they have a lot of responsibilities which require stink-free concentration.
The sign that caused the whole brouhaha has now been put away. The top brasses complained that the sign caused an unnecessary fuss about an internal gastronomic business of soldiers. Gen Daopong Ratanasuwan, Deputy Army Chief, told reporters that there would have been no fuss at all had the food vendors just verbally told their patrons about no order of Pad Kaprao instead of putting up such a sign.
Pesky, smelly nonsense
The canteen is situated in a closed space inside the official Army HQ building, not set up for open-stove, stir-fried style Thai cooking. On this, the Army Chief said that all food vendors in the building agreed to the condition that the food served be pre-cooked. “Soldiers have rules and if everybody demands everything they want, then there’ll be no nation, just criminals,” he went on as his lid was beginning to rattle.
To the question then why the Army installed the cooker hoods at all if cooking was not allowed on site, the top boss was now in a hot steam,
Because there is the smell! Tomorrow I’m going to take off all the cooker hoods! That’s it. Who wants to stay, stay, who wants to go, go. Why still complain even when we did them service? Why need the reason? The cooker hoods are for sucking the smoke! Isn’t it better to have them than not? Otherwise take them all off! Or close up shop. That’s how soldiers are. Or go eat somewhere else!
And to the suggestion that perhaps the cooker hoods aren’t really effective,
If the cooker hoods aren’t working, then replace them. I don’t know about everything, do I?, because I haven’t got a report… It’s trivial stuff that doesn’t have to be made news. The Army HQ Secretariat must look into it, whoever is responsible for food vendors will look into it. I don’t see anyone making complaints. Go get the name of the person who made a complaint so that we could make an investigation. What nonsense! Everyday I have a lot on my plate and there’s this kind of pesky nonsense. Such a petty matter doesn’t need to be news causing headaches. If anyone wants to eat [Pad Kaprao] so much, come to me, I’ll give you the money to eat it hot outside! (Sanook News)
A proposed solution to this pesky, smoky problem
My heart goes out to the poor Army Chief, a man of such important responsibilities pestered by not only a pesky, smelly nonsense but also pesky reporters. Anyone’s lid would be blown, smokes would come out of their ears.
I haven’t seen any follow-up news on the fate of the cooker hoods in the Army HQ canteen, if they’re still in tact. It’s too early to tell if or when or how the Army will investigate their effectiveness. We also don’t know if a panel of “smell experts” will be employed to inhale and measure the environmental impact of Pad Kaprao cooking, or if investigators will look into the procurement of the cooker hoods to see if they might have come from the same source as the GT200 devices? But for the sake of our Army Chief, I say no more on GT200.
Look to the future and focus on the solution. We have a problem of offensive fumes in the Army HQ. Could there be an alternative use for these fumes? I am not a chemist, but one possibility might be worth investigating. Hint: it flies. Sort of.
You see that Thai Army’s airship (aka blimp)? I understand it’s now lying wobbly somewhere in Pattani. Considering the thing isn’t flying anywhere on a surveillance mission since a crash in December last year, why not find a way to put it to use?
What with its propeller problem and leaks and what not, the airship solution could be killing two birds with one stone. The airship needs the H-gas—helium. The Army HQ has a lot of H-gas—holy basil enriched with chilies and garlic. (OK, H-smoke, if you want to be fussy about it.)
Patch up the leaks. Substitute the H-gas with the H-smoke. The expensive but idle airship could be airborne once again, carrying Pad Kaprao fumes from the Army HQ down south to smoke the insurgents out of hiding. And for that octane kick, add durian gas and that airship might soar high enough to knock out any spy satellites.
The insurgents might claim chemical warfare but I doubt it’d come to that. If the Army HQ is a precedent it will only disturb their bosses’ concentration, and insurgents distracted are insurgents defeated.
In that case, all of the cooks at the Army HQ should be given medals for fueling up this potent weapon.
Note: This article was originally published on SiamVoices, Asian Correspondent on 29 September 2013.