A week before I had to leave my hometown in Thailand for my first study abroad program at UW, I started to pack my best winter clothes, souvenirs for my cousins in Seattle, and most importantly, a lot of Thai chili paste. Having Western food most days seemed fine to me, so I thought I wouldn’t need to bring so many Thai spices to cure my homesickness. After all, American brunch looked so appetizing.
However, my mom insisted that I bring two packs of Thai instant noodles, six jars of Thai chili paste, and a variety of Thai snacks. She also encouraged me to look up Thai restaurants here in Seattle. To my surprise, I found that there are Thai restaurants on nearly every corner of the street.
After I arrived in Seattle, I was amazed by the ethnically diverse restaurants; there are Vietnamese, Japanese, Mediterranean, Italian, Greek, and the list goes on. Interestingly, my place is also surrounded by A LOT of Thai restaurants. I excitedly informed my mom, who was previously worried that I would be complaining to her about craving Thai foods. However, as Winter quarter slowly passed, I still had not visited any of them.
One day, my Thai friends recommended a small Thai restaurant named “Wan Yen” nearby.
I was confused at first, because I believed I had checked all the surrounding Thai restaurants near the UW and had never heard of the name. They told me that the owner was Thai, and the food was incredibly “authentic”. I was startled but pleasantly surprised, making a note in my head to visit.
After my hectic schedule filled with big projects ended during winter quarter, I invited one of my Taiwanese friends to join me for lunch at Wan Yen. We were both excited because it was our first time stepping into the restaurant. As I pushed open the rusted white door, I saw old-school Thai posters, snacks, and games covering the walls from top to bottom. The entire space is small with not much room to move around, but the atmosphere felt extremely warm and lively since the customers were sitting close to each other, chit-chatting over their meals, just like in restaurants back in Thailand.
My friend and I were greeted by the friendly lady at the counter, and we looked at the menu filled with Thai comfort food. The famous and iconic Thai dish, Pad Thai, was there on the list; Pad Ga Prow Kai Dow, a no brainer option my Thai friends and I ordered for lunch at University’s cafeteria, was on the menu as well. Finally, we went with “Khao Man Kai”, a Thai take on Hainanese chicken rice.
I happily requested Khao Man Kai with only chicken thigh to the lady behind the counter, which is exactly how I like to order it back in Thailand. However, I made my order in English, since I was too nervous to assume that the lady was Thai and felt awkward to suddenly start speaking Thai to her. After that, my friend and I squeezed ourselves into a little table and waited for the food to arrive.
Our Kao Man Kai was served in a metal plate patterned with red flowers, which is often seen in Thai Chinese households. It also came with an essential combination; winter melon soup, spicy sauce, and a spring roll. As I was about to ask for an extra plate, the lady spoke to me in Thai, asking if I needed anything else. I was astounded and overjoyed! As I promptly started a conversation with her in Thai, a sense of warm nostalgia washed over me. Yet again, this place brought me a little closer to home.
The word to describe my first taste is indeed “authentic”. The familiar aroma, filled with Thai herbs and spices, reminded me greatly of my childhood. My favorite mornings were moments when my mom brought me to have breakfast at Thai Chinese street foods, and “Kao Man Kai” at Wan Yen was exactly like it. The rice and chicken complemented each other extremely well, not too salty and not too bland. I guessed I was enjoying myself so much because my Taiwanese friend could see it on my face.
I could not have known that just a simple food could lift up one’s day as much as I felt. Being in a nostalgic environment, speaking to someone you just met in your mother tongue, and tasting the authentic food has made me feel more in touch with my own heritage than I ever did. When I was back in Thailand, I took these wonderful and unique cultures for granted. Yet being 7,439 miles far from home, tasting Thai food has made me get closer to my identity.
- Arisara Pornratanaraksa