musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Literary Flavors

One of the most asked questions at my bookshop in Bangkok is: “Where do you get your books?” Except for a few titles from local authors that we take on consignment, along with new travel titles from Things Asian Press, all of our stock consists of secondhand books that we get locally. We don’t order or source anything from overseas or even domestically. The only exception would be my occasional forays to Kuala Lumpur, where I usually manage to find a variety of interesting books (more about my latest trip next week) to bring back.

In the early days/years of operating the bookshop, I used to buy books from secondhand dealers at Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market to supplement my stock. But in recent years I haven’t had to leave my shop at all due to the constant stream of people dropping by to sell or exchange books. We end up having to turn down many books because we are so overwhelmed with stuff. Not only are regular customers and tourists coming to do the selling and swapping, we also have many local Thais arriving with books to sell. Most of these “dealers” (for lack of a better term) get their books from local homes, apartment complexes, or hotels, and then sell them to us. The titles can be a mixed bag of languages (we see a lot of Swedish and Russian books, for example) and genres. Sometimes there are brand-new titles and sometimes I find books that are older than I am. Inside the books we uncover sundry items; old bookmarks, airline boarding passes, naughty photos, dead flowers, dead insects, and occasionally some money! Whether the book has collector’s value or not is of no concern to me. I’m certainly no antiquarian dealer (in fact, I think it’s fair to see that I despise the whole collector’s racket); I just think it’s a lot of fun to peruse the old titles.

Last week’s cache of books unearthed a particularly cool find: Flavours: Thailand’s 200 Most Interesting Restaurants by Harry Rolnick. That might not sound like a very interesting title, until you look inside and notice the publication date: 1972. Hoo, ha, this is going to good, I thought. And yes indeed it was, akin to a stroll down memory lane, and made even more fun by the irreverent writing style of Harry Rolnick.

 

Obviously, some of the restaurants listed in this book are long gone, but more than a few ARE still in operation. One of my friends and customers, Ing, came by the shop and perused the book, saying how it brought back so many memories of growing up in Bangkok during the 60s and 70s. She bought the book, but left it with me to look at for a few days. I thumbed through it and found some real gems. For example, the listing for Chokechai Restaurant in Thonburi says:
Snake? Bat’s Blood? Bear Salad? Elephant Knuckle? If such be your taste, Chokechai supplies the dishes. The English menu once was a discarded hunting license (they’ve since gone sophisticated and mimeographed one of the most hilarious and rare menus I’ve ever seen) and the game is fresh, much of it prepared at your table from just-killed animals. Mainly patronized by country people, the Chokechai is a bit difficult to find, but the dining is al fresco, the dishes quite splendid, prices ridiculously low, and even if your taste doesn’t run to crocodile tail, you’ll be entranced by the atmosphere. P.S. Elephant knuckle must be ordered 48 hours ahead of time … defrosting, you know.

For another place, dubbed “Khao Ka Moo,” Rolnick writes:

The reason for the obscure address is that there is no real name for this restaurant, it only serves one dish, and they’re all sold out by noon. The dish is roast pork leg with rice, it is reputed by pork-lovers to be THE restaurant for the stuff, and between 6:30 a.m. and noon, you’ll see crowds literally queuing up to taste it. Not being one of the Mystic Order of the Roast Pork Leg people, I find myself unable to understand the fascination, but swineologists swear by it, so who am I to be the sceptic?

And the listing for Thaweesak Bakery on Sukhumvit Road:
If you can walk by without buying a box or two to take home, you have the culinary emotions of a Cyclops. The atmosphere is decidedly youthful, with long-haired Thai and American teenagers torn between the éclairs and the sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Remember; this was written in 1972! The book has chapters for Thai, Western, Other Asian, and Outside Bangkok. It also includes a glossary of Thai foods, and “a selected list of rarer dishes.” Even though this guide is 40 years old — or maybe that fact actually enhances the appeal — this is fun reading for anyone who enjoys Bangkok history or Thai food.

After thumbing through the restaurant guide, I was intrigued: Who was this Harry Rolnick fellow? Looking at the author photo in the back of the guide, he appeared young at the time of publication, so I deemed it quite possible that he was still alive and kicking … and eating. I did an online search and found this Wikipedia entry:

Harry Rolnick is an American author, editor and music critic. His writing often examines Asian lifestyles and culinary traditions. Eating Out In China (1979) was the first book to explore People’s Republic restaurants. His other restaurant guides, to Hong Kong, Bangkok and Macau, prompted Alan Levy to write in The Foodie’s Guide to the World, “Nobody eats in Asia without consulting Harry Rolnick first”.

Rolnick has written a history of coffee, a guide to feng shui, and a social history of Macau. He also co-authored The Chinese Gourmet with William Mark. A native of New York, Rolnick was a Merchant Marine before taking residence in Thailand, where he was one of the first editors of the Bangkok Post and later Hong Kong, from where he traveled throughout Asia and East Africa for two decades. He has written articles for Lonely Planet, Newsweek, International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, GEO and many other publications. In 1998, he edited the first English-language lifestyle magazine in Budapest, before returning to Manhattan.

Rolnick’s most recent book is Spice Chronicles: Exotic Tales of a Hungry Traveler (2008, Seven Locks Press)

 

It sounds like Rolnick has kept VERY busy since his young days in Bangkok. And his latest book, Spice Chronicles, sounds like a must-read for fans of food and travel.

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