How a soft-boiled egg taught me that all food is a gift
Is there a lovelier, more relaxing thing on Earth than a hot spring?
Of all the surprises the planet has to offer, who’d have thought that one would be a 24/7, open-air bathtub – where hot, crystal-pure water gathers in smoothed rock like a masterpiece of natural plumbing.
God’s hot tub.
And if there is one thing more indulgent than a hot spring, it’s a hot spring in Thailand.
A day’s drive from Chiang Mai, the Tha Pai springs sit in a gentle strip of jungle – where the Thai genius for pleasure takes indulgence to the next level.
As the hot water makes its way downhill, some inspired soul has channelled it into ever bigger, deeper pools. The result? A chain of open-air, organic spas, where the temperature of each pool cools by a few degrees as you descend the valley.
The choice is yours. Each pool has a wooden sign, with gold-embossed letters announcing the temperature… starting at a steamy 36 C, and cooling gradually into the 20s.
(For reference, 36 C is HOT. The International Plumbing Code states: “any temperature above 102 degrees Fahrenheit/39 degrees Celsius can affect a person’s health…”)
Tha Pai is a magical place. Set in pristine jungle, the hot pools are bordered by trees which seem to want to relax into the stream. In places, branches dip below the water like lazy limbs – creating the perfect headrest for your soak.
As part of a two week stay with my nephew – who lives and works in Chiang Mai – Adam and I added a side-trip to Thai Pai. Arriving in the late afternoon, we’d soaked in the pools for a couple of hours: simmering in the shallow 36 degree water before cooling off with gentle laps in the cooler, deeper spas.
It was bliss. Your senses simply said: ‘Yes’
The only thing saying ‘No’ were slightly baffling signs (also gold embossed) reading: “No boil egg”.
We didn’t get it. You couldn’t hope to boil an egg in any of the pools, even at 36 C. Had something been lost in translation? Was this an instruction, or a statement? The signs were everywhere, and we were pleasantly baffled.
Comfortably numb after our hours in the water, we were about to leave when Adam suggested following a path up the hill. He’d seen Thai villagers walking up, and wanted to see where they were going.
It was the discovery of the day.
And for me, one of the discoveries of a foodie lifetime.
Ten minutes from the pools, the path reached a small plateau – less tended than the slopes below – and with a sense that you were off the beaten track. This was somewhere tourists didn’t come.
Several Thai families were grouped around a spot, and even from several metres away – the strong mineral smell told us we were at the source of the spring.
Ten to twelve feet across, and three feet deep, the source was brim full with bubbling water at 100 C. Perched like fishermen around the edge, each family had a bamboo cane reaching into the water.
Following the line of the canes under the surface, we saw – on the end of each – a basketful of eggs.
Using the spring to cook nature’s most hermetically-sealed food-source, the villagers were borrowing the energy they needed – and leaving the pure, unsullied water to flow downhill to the bathing pools and their village.
In theory, the source would cook anything – veg, meat, noodles, whatever – but any by-products would quickly turn the whole watercourse into a kitchen drain.
By cooking eggs – and only eggs – the villagers and their hot spring can co-exist indefinitely.
Helped by Adam, who speaks Thai, we got to understand the micro business at the source. Young men rent out the bamboo canes and wicker baskets to the families who come to cook. Nothing goes into the water that either doesn’t grow next to it – or could pollute it.
It was a timeless moment. As the evening air started to cool, Adam and I watched the families tend their clutches of eggs with the diligence of mother hens.
Thanks to the generosity of one family, we got to taste our first thermally-cooked meal. Pulling their basket from the water, they handed us each an egg – lopped off the top with a knife – and drizzled it with soy sauce. Standing inches from the boiling water, and wrapped in the smell of minerals, we drank the soft-boiled liquid from the shell.
It was beyond delicious.
The family gave us each another egg. They wouldn’t let us pay. Apologising, they explained they had to leave to get the eggs home for the evening meal.
And then I got it.
For the first and only time in my life, I’d eaten cooked food that had consumed no energy, polluted nothing and left things in perfect balance.
All of the other meals I’ve eaten have taken something from somewhere.
Eating is borrowing.
If this sounds hippy and ‘tree-huggy’, I don’t mean it to. Standing next to the spring at Tha Pai, I came face-to-face with a simple truth:
every time you eat, the planet gifts you part of itself.
I’m sure that the point I’m trying to make about sustainability is implicit in ‘food miles’, veganism and other approaches to eco-friendly eating.
But the thing that blew me away at Thai Pai was the perfect sense of partnership and balance between man and nature: the one-in-a-million combination of a fresh spring and thermal heat producing an endless, controlled flow of boiling water – which cooked the food we ate.
As I said before, it’s the only cooked meal I’ve ever eaten that didn’t require a single man-made calorie to warm it. Not a match, not a flame, not a hob. Nothing.
In the precise moment that I write this, a plane flies over my London flat, mocking the fact that the carbon footprint of my flight to Thailand rubbishes anything that I can do or say about food. I get the irony.
But I am left with the fact that a soft-boiled egg scrambled my head.
I’m lucky enough to be able to buy the food I want. But that doesn’t change the fact that food is a finite commodity.
Today, looking at what I eat, I try to ask myself what I’m doing to look after the planet which provided it.
I don’t have many answers.
In his landmark book, Collapse, Jared Diamond forensically unpicks the implosion of different human civilisations: from Easter Island to the Maya. In every instance, the society collapses because it slowly consumes all of the natural resources it needs to survive.
Diamond is explicitly asking us to look at our own behaviour.
Is it possible for human appetite and the natural world to exist in balance?
At Thai Pai, I’ve seen human beings display amazing humility and restraint to do just that.
But back home, what am I doing to play my part?
First, as often as I can, I try to eat things which have consumed the least energy and resources. I fail often.
Next, I try to remember – as inspired by the generosity of the Thai family – that food is all about sharing. It’s been gifted to you; the least you can do is share it with others. I am slightly more successful at this.
Finally, I ask these questions via this blog:
Is food a commodity that’s ours to take, or is it a gift from our surroundings?
And if it’s the latter, what are we giving back… before it’s too late?