Part 3: The Patawngo Connection (A Fantasy)
by Timothy Hoare
Timothy Hoare is Professor of Humanities and Religions at Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, KS (a suburb of Kansas City). While all of his previous published writing has been academic in nature, these essay selections represent his first published creative non-fiction work. They also represent his ongoing love affair with the Kingdom of Thailand, which has been the focus of his personal and professional life for twenty-five years.
Some things in life are, purely and simply, non-negotiable. Kansas City Strip sirloin. Chicago-style pizza. American peanut butter. My mother's tuna salad. There are no substitutes; these acmes of experience serve as fleeting links between our temporal day-to-day existence and the realm of the eternal. This is not a point to be argued; it is simply how it is. Now, this uncompromising worldview would be lacking in scope if it did not also acknowledge the unequalled excellence of the often-disregarded morsel of Thai cuisine known as ปาท่องโก๋ or patawngo.
"What the heck is a patawngo?" the uninitiated and untraveled soul might inquire. What is a patawngo—why, you might as well ask, what is love, what is God, what is the source of life, or what on earth possessed me to wear stretchy polyester shirts during the disco era (although the more fundamental question would be what on earth possessed us to have a disco era in the first place). Some mysteries are not open to discursive explanation. But I will do my utmost to address the essential question of the patawngo.
A patawngo is, for want of a better word, a kind of deep-fried doughnut. Or, perhaps "cruller" is a better way to describe it, as a patawngo is lighter and crisper than a doughnut, not circular, but X-shaped, and not nearly as sweet. What little sugar they contain is brought out by eating them with sweetened Thai coffee, which is a breakfast made in heaven. 7AM, a café table along the Jao Praya River in Bangkok, hot coffee with milk, a bag of freshly-made patawngo, and The Bangkok Post. Life is good.
The patawngo is Chinese in origin, but the Thais, in their uniquely Thai manner, raised it to unparalleled heights of glory. If you tend to sleep late, you will probably never see a patawngo, as they are usually freshly-made on the street, in a roht ken (a two-or-four-wheeled, hand-pushed food cart like what one might see outside a sports stadium in the West), and only in the early hours of the morning. Depending on where you happen to be, i.e., in an urban or a rural area, patawngo will range in price from one to two baht apiece. Therefore, no one purchases "a" patawngo. At the very least, you buy a dozen, in a small plastic bag that is usually lined with a small piece of newsprint paper to absorb any excess oil. While they can be re-heated, patawngo should ideally be eaten well within an hour of purchase. So if you are taking them back home or taking them to work, it doesn't do well to dawdle about en route to your destination.
In the past, I have always been fortunate to be staying in places where patawngo were readily available each morning, within walking distance—e.g., hotels in downtown Bangkok, or my sister-in-law's home in the suburbs. And so imagine the look of dismay that darkened my countenance when I was informed that there are no early-morning patawngo available within walking distance of Mae Fah Luang University, the site of my sabbatical teaching semester in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand.
"How can this be?" I asked my colleagues.
"Well, it's not like there are no patawngo in Chiang Rai; it's just that there are not any in the food areas around the campus. You would therefore need transportation to find them."
"With all of these students around? Well, I guess they are still too young to know and appreciate 'patawngo consciousness'."
"How true, Ajahn Tim. But no market, no patawngo."
Five months in Thailand with no morning patawngo. The prospect of such a dietary impoverishment was difficult to fathom. Somehow I would have to make my way through it. For a week or two, I experimented with substitutes, such as pre-packaged pastries and the like, but to no avail. Tasty as they are, even freshly-made banana muffins were but an illusion, a Platonic shadow, unable to capture the eternal essence of true Thai patawngo-osity.
Although the physical convulsions that often accompany patawngo withdrawal had yet to set in, I felt that I was close to reaching the end of my mental tether. And then suddenly, a life line seemed to appear; or, in my delirium, did I only imagine it?
"Ajahn Timotee ka…I understand that you are looking for patawngo."
It was Khun Lek, one of the front-desk administrative assistants for my academic department. My mind raced. Be careful, I thought to myself; this could be bad news. Had I not recently seen a televised report about illicit patawngo production in the north of Thailand, near the Myanmar border? The ingredients had been smuggled in past the customs officials. There was a joint Thailand-Myanmar government sting operation up in Mae Sai; dozens of unregistered roht ken had been seized, and scores of people rounded up, mostly distributors, but also naïve consumers like myself, in desperate need of a patawngo fix. I could envision the headline in The Bangkok Post: Visiting professor arrested at Mae Fah Luang University for possession of illegal patawngo; this was not what I needed on my academic resume.
I tried to keep my composure intact. "Maybe…why do you ask?"
"Your suffering has not gone unnoticed, Ajahn," she said, with seemingly genuine concern in her voice. "You look worse and worse every morning when you come in. People are beginning to talk."
Was it that apparent? "Forget about it," I replied dismissively. "I'll be fine."
Yet she continued to press. "But I can get them for you, as many as you want; no clones, no fakes, the real thing."
In my weakened state, my curiosity took the wheel. "Safe and legal, are they?"
"Of course, Ajahn. I'm not looking for trouble." I detected no hint of hesitation in her face or her voice. Perhaps she was being straight with me after all.
"So…tell me where you get them," I ventured further.
"I pass by the place every morning on my way in to work. A little roht ken on the street; he's been there for years. All Thai, all fresh, all real. Jing-jing si!"
"Chin la baht ka (one baht apiece)," she replied in an even tone. "Just tell me how many you want and when you need them. Everyday? Twice a week?"
Everything she had told me thus far in my visit had proven to be on the level—how to work the office printer, where to get my monthly allotment of copy paper, which restaurant had the best moo bing. I could come up with no reason to doubt her.
"OK, Khun Lek, here's what I can do. I'll give you twenty-five baht this Friday, and you can buy me three small bags—seven or eight patawngo per bag—for the next week: one bag on Monday, one on Wednesday, and one on Friday. Just leave them on my desk when you come in. We'll see how it goes. Deal?"
"Deal gaw dai ka."
And so the patawngo connection was on. Khun Lek was on the level—these were indeed the genuine article. Three times a week became twelve times a month, and so it went…
"What are you eating?"
"Really? Where did you find them around here?"
"Let's just say that I…know someone; perhaps you might be interested in…"
7AM, an office desktop at Mae Fah Luang University, Chiang Rai, instant coffee, a bag of freshly-made patawngo, and The Bangkok Post online. OK, so it's not a café table along the Jao Praya River in Bangkok. But life is still good.
Or did I only imagine it…?
What do you think? Please send us your comments, including the name of the work you are commenting on.