Every day, 3,20,000 eateries set out to serve 10,000,000 people in Bangkok across numerous narrow lanes.
I am house-hunting in one of the most aromatic cities in the world.
Every day, 3,20,000 eateries set out to serve 10,000,000 people in Bangkok across numerous narrow sois (lanes). The warm scent of kaffir lime, shrimp paste, and fish sauce rises through the air and floats like a piquant cloud over the city. Here, in the culinary capital of South-East Asia, where street food stalls carry Michelin stars, and where one can stick out one’s tongue and taste the fat melting away from meat resting on charcoal grills, I found that real estate agents kept asking me if I cook “too much”.
I pressed for an explanation. “Thai landlords don’t like the smell of Indian food,” I was told. Any declaration of a love for cooking would obviously reduce my prospects as a tenant.
“Do you cook too much”, as I was soon to learn, was shorthand for something pricklier. It was an admission of discomfort in renting out property to a khek, a Thai homonym that means guest and is a pejorative for dark-skinned South and West Asians. One property agent dispensed with this guile. Following up on a query for an apartment, she messaged: “Are you Indian?” When I confirmed it, her response floating up in a text bubble left me speechless. “Sorry the owner of this property do [sic] not accept Indians.”
The polychromatic commingling that one witnesses in malls and restaurants in touristy Bangkok gets subverted in the discreet residential sois and troks (alleys) of upmarket neighbourhoods. Preferences for tenants are not decided by the colour of their money but by the colour of their skin. Colourism has a long history in Thailand, but like caste in India, it is something people do not want to talk about.
But the slip shows. Repeatedly.
Most explicitly in commercials for cosmetics, where models have been recurrently shown in blackface. In 2016, the Thai skincare company Seoul Secret advertised their skin-whitening pill Snowz with the slogan “white makes you win”. The public outrage that followed reached the pages of The New York Times and The Guardian. It called into question the long-standing valorisation of sii khao (white complexion) and the indignity meted out to sii dam (black complexion).
The fetish for whiteness shapes neighbourhoods in Bangkok.
I fell in love with a quaint apartment in Phrom Pong. The road leading to it was lined with laburnum trees, Thailand’s national flower, in glorious summer bloom, rekindling memories of my neighbourhood in Delhi. The apartment, with its porcelain-tiled flooring and tasteful furniture, had remained unoccupied for almost six months. The landlady had waited, hoping to find one of the most coveted demographics in Bangkok’s rental market, a single Japanese woman or, failing that, a farang—Caucasian—girl. COVID-19 travel restrictions had spoiled her chances. “I have never had Indians as tenants before,” she whispered dispiritedly, unsure of how to navigate her second thoughts. The next day, she enquired through her agent: “I hope they don’t cook too often?”
“It’s okay,” I told the apologetic and kind agent, “please tell her we are not interested in the property any more.”
I finally found an apartment in Thong Lor. Unlike the glitzy and neon-wrapped neighbourhood of Phrom Pong and the skyscraper-smothered Asoke, Thong Lor used to be quieter, greener, and more residential, known for its street food. Now, only a handful of vendors remain. In 2017, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration decided to erase street vendors from all 50 districts in the city in the “interests of cleanliness, safety, and order”. Thong Lor was the first neighbourhood where the axe fell.
A disproportionate number of Bangkok’s street food vendors are dark-skinned rural migrants from the Isaan (north-eastern) region of Thailand and people from neighbouring Laos and Myanmar. As soaring upmarket condominiums take over old neighbourhoods, light-skinned upper-middle-class Thais, Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, and Caucasian owners and tenants move in, who order food online on apps and eat out in malls. The streets are emptied of dark-skinned migrants who cater to the working class and whose labour earned Bangkok forex and sobriquets such as “Kitchen of the world” and “World’s best street food city”.
As the rental contract was being signed, a particular clause stood out. The tenant, it said, must “not cook foods with a strong lingering smell in the premises [sic]”. We spent a quiet moment, contemplating. It was tiring, and we were on the verge of giving up. Then something stirred. We wrote a message urging the agency to remove this discriminatory clause. After a long parley, they finally agreed.
We cooked khichdi that night. The familiar whiff of bay leaf and cumin sauteing in ghee was comforting. I could only hope that some of it wafted out into the rain-washed night sky, joined in with the rest of the smells arising from kitchens in neighbouring homes, and became part of that redolent scent cloud that otherwise hangs lovingly over Bangkok.