Catfish cereal

Sunday morning found me breakfasting on leftovers from UFO’s birthday: yum pla dook foo, which translates literally as fluffy catfish salad. You can find it at some Thai restaurants in the States now. It’s basically catfish filet that’s fluffed up with a fork and deep fried, so that it’s got the same fluffy appearance and texture as the exterior of a woo-gok (the fried taro turnover you get at dim sum). The fried’n’fluffed catfish is served with a julienne of green mango (or green apple), peanuts and the typical Thai salad dressing of lime, chili, sugar, fish sauce, maybe some tamarind, shallots, garlic, dried shrimp.

I didn’t think of it as a to-go type food, but they packaged the dressing, the green mango and the catfish in separate bags. I mixed it all up in a bowl. Even straight from the fridge, the cold catfish fluff was still crunchy. Hence, catfish cereal.

My breakfast was punctuated by the parade of nurses (and three doctors) coming in and out to check on the patient (no, not me). All the nurses are slim, graceful, and polite (as if they could be any other way!) Their long black hair was pulled back in bun with a decorative hair clip. Their uniforms are form-fitting and relatively short, above the knee. They all have the pale skin and light make up that is a la mode in Bangkok. In fact they all looked alarmingly alike in their prettiness.

When I mentioned it to UFO’s dad, he grinned. UFO and his brother had been born at the same hospital, so he knew what I meant.

I went out and bought a set of checkers and a set of dominoes. Neither the patient nor I could remember how to play either game, it had been so long, 20, maybe 30 years? I went online to look up the rules for dominoes.

When I was a child, this hospital was wooden bungalow. The waiting rooms were filled with nothing but New Yorker magazines. The black and white text-filled pages were of no interest to me, I would skim them for the cartoons. I only understand the punchline of half the cartoons. Eventually I would be called into Dr. Ettinger’s office, either the wife or the husband. If it was her, more often than not, she’d be smoking. Curly brown hair and glasses framed the face, liver spots on her thin arms. After seeing the doctor, I always looked forward to getting khao mun gai (Hainan chicken rice) from the shop across the street on the soi corner. They’re still there, a shop without a name, or air-conditioning. At 7:30 AM on Saturday morning, the day before, I’d been their first customer of the day.

Now the patients’ meals and the hospital coffee shop are catered by Sodexho. Although even a Thai Sodexho has better food than an American one!

Today the hospital has revamped itself to compete aggressively for medical-tourism dollars. In the elevators were ads for HPV vaccinations, at $500 per 3-dose course; heart check-ups of varying intensities. The patient wards and rooms have been redecorated like those of a five-star hotel. The décor in the public areas consisted mostly of posters: explosively colourful orchids all labeled “THAILAND”. Interspersed were renderings of tuk-tuks and noodle vendors. The only difference from a hotel was that rooms had no keys; when we went for a walk around the corridors I had to take my handbag with me.

Of course, there were well-to-do Bangkokians who were patients here too; a khunying was in the room down the hall. But if this hospital had been geared solely towards locals, the wall art would have all been oil paintings of flowers.


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