This article first appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2014.
I never thought I'd find solace in a bowl of shrimpy porridge, but I never thought in a million years that I'd wake up alone in a Thai hospital with a serious head wound, either. However traumatizing, near-quadriplegia did have one upside. It lead me to discover a well-kept secret: that the hospital food in Thailand is pretty damn good.
A few months ago, I split my head open at a work retreat while diving into our hotel pool. Being new to Thailand, I wasn't aware of standard pool depths and hit my noggin on the bottom immediately. My coworkers and boss held my bleeding dome together while I tried to drift out of consciousness and escape the embarrassment of what had just happened.
After a hellish night of getting 60 scalp stitches (click here for the rather gruesome photo if you dare), I was awakened for breakfast at 6 AM by a nurse in the dingy-looking ER. An elderly man in the bed across from me had been vomiting all night. I had my own blood under all of my fingernails, and wasn't sure whether I had brain damage. I expected a breakfast as bleak as my situation.
I braced myself for the impending doom of the morning meal. Resting on the lace-lined tray before me was a bowl of boiled rice and shrimp, a far cry from my standard breakfast of cereal. At the time, I couldn't think of anything less appetizing than emergency-room seafood.
But with my first bite, I learned that what Thai hospitals lack in ambiance, they make up for in meals. The porridge turned out to be as delicious as any Thai street food I'd eaten in Bangkok. In fact, it wasn't very different at all from the stuff Bangkok street vendors hawk. In Thai hospitals, porridge—called joke or โจ๊ก—and rice soup are go-to meals for the sick, thanks to their mild flavors and soft textures. But joke is also tasty enough that the healthy eat it for breakfast and as a late-night snack.
Unfortunately, in the moment, I was too nauseous to eat the porridge, or the rich mushroom soup served for lunch. However, I was able to handle the white bread with neon pink jam like a true American. After drifting in and out of sleep while waiting for a neurologist to clear me, a nurse came to ask me what I wanted to eat for dinner.
I thought I misunderstood the question. What do I want to eat? I have a choice? I requested noodle soup, and within 15 minutes was brought exactly that for my dining pleasure. Not only was it what I wanted—it was incredible. Thai hospital cafeterias are clearly doing something right. I was coming from America's hospital-food stereotype of Jell-O and broth, but the food was better than most of the work-desk lunches I ate when I lived in San Francisco. The meals I was served in the hospital were shockingly fresh and flavourful, and the food had energy—like it was made by a person who gave a damn.
I left the hospital with a scarred forehead and a full belly. Back at the hotel, the staff presented me with a gift basket as a token of goodwill (or some sort of edible hush-money). Inside the massive basket were small red jars full of strange, bird-based concoctions such as "100-percent essence of chicken" and Royale Premium Bird's Nest. For the unfamiliar, those two things are exactly what they sound like.
Made by the Thai brand Scotch, these health drinks are lauded by for their alleged nutritional benefits. According to the Scotch website, essence of chicken is said to reinforce physical strength with protein. The bird's nest drink is made with sugar and actual bird's nest, specifically "the finest genuine golden thread bird's nest from natural cave known as the best source of golden bird's nest which offers one big piece of gold and smooth bird's nest." It sounded promising.
I cracked open my first jar of bird's nest and gave it a try. It was surprisingly sweet and gelatinous—not how I expected a bird saliva delicacy to be. My palate wasn't sophisticated enough to decipher the notes of natural cave, but in all fairness, it did taste good. I saved the essence of chicken for a rainy day.
A month after the accident, I took the train outside of Bangkok to check out the food situation at another hospital. I wanted to see if my meals from the head wound incident had been flukes.
After some convincing of the staff, I was taken to the hospital cafeteria. My hopes were dashed when I noticed the room was decorated with posters for Sodexo, a multinational food service corporation. I worried that my high hopes about the impressive quality of all Thai hospital food were about to be crushed.
A woman dressed like a lunch lady/scientist hybrid brought me a few different trays of food. Despite being wrapped in plastic, the meals didn't look like they were made by a soulless corporation. They were aromatic and colorful, absent of the bland mashed mysteries we've come to expect in the US.
Noodles with vegetables. Ripe papaya. Garlicky chicken and rice. Classic pad kra pao gai. A bowl of shiitake and enoki mushroom soup. This was food fit for any discerning Thai palate, not just gruel for the ill.
Though I only peeked into the culinary world of two Thai hospitals, I asked around and found widespread sentiments that supported my subjective experience. The Thai health care system seems to be quietly working against the negative associations of hospital food, serving food people actually want to eat.
In a country ripe with opportunities for injury, visiting farang are constantly faced with new dangers. Buckets of cocktails get roofied. Tuk tuks flip over. Pools turn out shallow. While bad luck can be unavoidable, there is a silver lining waiting for the wounded recovering in pastel-filled Thai hospitals. Accidents may suck, but Thai hospital food does not.