“It’s actually easier to feed me a cricket than a ham sandwich” says Olivia proudly to the gobsmacked stranger, copying me word for word, because that’s what she does. But she is entirely right. And she’s made us realise something.
It’s time. We need to talk about eating. We set up this blog and undertook this entire trip on the basis of researching and focusing on kids, food and travel. We were really interested in what families ate in different countries and were over-excited about introducing Olivia to the joys of Indian curries and Thai noodles and barbecued creatures and strange fruit. We are, however very aware that this makes us sound like we have some kind of miracle child, the kind that was easily weaned, will try anything and isn't terrified of green things. Ahahahahaha. No.
In many ways, our daughter is a classic four year old. Carrots, potatoes and onions are as far as it goes on the vegetable front. Her comfort zone is tomato pasta and fish and chips. Mealtimes take forever. There are rows, refusals, stubbornness, an inability to use cutlery or hold a cup without throwing liquid everywhere. So far, so normal.
On the other hand, Olivia has a hugely sophisticated knowledge of food. It might well be because we watch too much Masterchef or talk too often about our next meal, but if you overhear her playing with her IKEA kitchen at home, she sounds more like Angela Hartnett than a little girl. She’ll spend hours poaching and pureeing and grilling and glazing those felt vegetables and wooden chickens like a pretend professional. So she knows about food. The only problem is getting her to eat it. And what we’ve learned, over time, is that it needs to be fun.
Now here’s the issue. We love restaurants. Really love them. But what for us is a treat and our favourite way to spend time, turns out to be boring as hell for Olivia. She can’t run around, she can’t be noisy and she reacts by eating so slowly she’s practically in reverse. We find ourselves barking “EAT!” or “hurry up!” or “you ordered it, you finish it” at her on a loop like the parents we said we'd never be. And suddenly, nobody’s having much fun at all.
So we’ve adapted. And for us, the trick to a really good food experience with our daughter is to add some theatre to a meal. A bit less commitment. A bit more excitement. Of course we still have normal meals at home at a boring old table. But the fun moments have come when we’ve spontaneously set up a floor picnic in the living room, or an actual picnic in the park, or we’ve picked out our fish together at the market or she’s eating while perched up on the kitchen worktop, giving her opinion on how much longer the pasta needs.
This approach has only been heightened by travelling. Every place we go has something new to smell, to see, to eat, and rarely is it boring. She’s gleefully taken apart an entire barbecued salmon head in Colombo. She’s caught and cooked baby clams in Hikkaduwa and she’s helped an old lady prepare vegetables (actual green ones) in a rural village homestay in the Himalayan hills.
And here, in Bangkok, we have the most theatrical food of all. Because in the capital of street food, the lantern-strung, neon-laced roads set the stage for a constant procession of wheeled carts boasting some of the most incredible dishes in the world. They don’t just line the main hyperactive drag of the Khao San Road, but also its quieter parallel street of Rambuttri. They're dotted along every soi and on every corner of every neighbourhood. Anywhere you look, there’s a lady juicing alien-looking fruits or an old man grilling skewers of satay or a mother frying up pad thai to order as her two year old sits in a chair behind her, bottle in mouth and teddy in hand. Hawkers wheel their wares along under white hot lights, shouting their menus rather than printing them. Everything is cheap, so nothing is out of bounds. We can afford to take risks.
There’s a lot about this set-up that appeals to a kid. Table manners are suspended, probably due to the fact there are no tables. People eat on the streets, with plastic chopsticks or just their greedy, dribbling hands. There is no order with street food, no starters, mains or desserts. There’s just exactly what you fancy at that precise moment in time. Small snacks and nibbles, individual skewers and paper plates and tiny cellophane bags. It’s little food for little people. And because we’ve torn up the rulebook and taken the terror of the giant plate of food out of the equation, Olivia eats. A lot. Bit by bit, mouthful by mouthful, she tries things she’d never have imagined, and she has fun doing it.
She starts with a bang, or a bug to be precise. Showing off her impressive lack of squeamishness, she inspects the cricket, giggles, and eats the lot, much to the amusement of the more reluctant passersby. She gobbles marinated pork on wooden sticks as she wanders down Khao San, and destroys prawns in tempura batter with sweet chili sauce as we navigate the chaos of Chinatown. She tries mango and sticky rice from a banana leaf and devours a 30 baht pad thai back in our hotel room.
We take the gastronomic game out onto the water later that week, as we work our way through the Taling Chan floating market. Smaller than the commercial spectacle of Damnoen Saduak, Taling Chan consists of a larger 'normal' market and a few boats on which some formidable Thai ladies stoke their charcoal fires and grill all sorts of happiness. The surrealism of the setup works again, and before long Olivia is jumping from stall to stall and rickety platform to bridge. Between all that jumping, she tries jet-black jelly, violet butterfly pea juice, grilled squid and scallops with slivers of crisped-up bacon. Somewhere in the middle, she orders pudding from a Thai cowboy, a hepcat in a brim hat who makes a killer chocolate roti. It's an entertaining, memorable patchwork of a meal.
It's an approach we're going to take forward with us, not just on our travels but back home too, whether its an adventure around our local Chinese shop in Catford, a weekend trip down to Hastings for fish, or just barbecuing things we've never tried in our back garden. We know it probably goes against all the parenting manuals, all the rules and regulations, but we believe food should be fun. And we'd far rather our kids grew up open and experimental and interesting than knowing what order to use the forks in. There's years for that later. Now, however, it's time to play.