The Competitive Edge
Somsak was the youngest of four sons and as such didn't merit an education. Perhaps merit is the wrong word: his two older brothers had attended school and did well enough but then rice prices took a tumble and there was no money left for fripperies only essentials. His father and his brothers worked every hour of daylight but the land never gave them a profit, merely sustenance. Whilst the others were out in the field Somsak helped his mother round the house particularly with the cooking. He found, to his surprise, that he was rather good at it. His brothers had started out jeering his efforts but eventually gave him praise – especially for his Som Tam.
His mother taught him the basics – the four main tastes of Thai cuisine: sour lime, hot chili, salty fish sauce and the sweetness of palm sugar. Then he began to experiment with different ingredients. He would scour the fields and canals for pu khem, the brined black crabs the Isaan folk loved so much. He watched proudly as his family crunched them whole. Many neighbours began to stop by to sample his concoctions.
Soon he became a familiar face on the market held twice weekly in his little village of Selenium in Surin. Queues formed and there was good natured jostling to buy before his supplies were exhausted. Some days he came home and gave his parents a thousand baht. Eventually it was decided he would go to Pattaya. Some of his customers were young girls who worked in Pattaya during what they called the High season. They always seemed to have plenty of money and told him his Som Tam would sell out before lunchtime for double what he charged now.
He was nervous as he boarded the bus in Prasat but one of the girls had told his mother she would take care of him till he found his feet. She even knew someone who would sponsor him. He discovered that this meant the sponsor would provide him with equipment, supplies even a pitch in return for a daily share of the profits.
Somsak was a success from his first day. He found lots of new and exciting ingredients in Pattaya markets. He had an instinctive flair for adding just the right amount of nam pla, fish sauce and shrimp paste and garlic and a dozen alternatives that brought the customers back again and again.
He used only good quality meat but sparingly to keep down the price. The money came rolling in and he was able to open a Bangkok bank account and transfer money home every week. The only irritant was his sponsor, Kong.
Initially he had had demanded a flat rate – a sum of money for the hire of the utensils. As Somsak's profits grew, Kong got greedy. He was a greasy-haired, pudgy, thirty year old who had been living off his girl friend for years. Originally he hailed from Chiang Mai and was viewed as an interloper. In the early years he had driven a motorbike taxi but recently had given this up in favour of lao kao, rice whisky. One morning, reeking of the sour smell of last night's binge, he announced he would be expecting fifty per cent of all daily takings from now on.
Somsak now had enough money to buy his own utensils, ingredients and even a motorized shop rather than the handcart he pushed now. Naturally he refused Kong's offer and told him from now on he no longer needed anything from Kong and had decided the partnership was over. The older man pulled out a wicked curved knife and held it to Somsak's throat. 'I'll tell you when you no longer need me.' To ensure Somsak learned the lesson he sliced open the youth's cheek to the bone and rich red blood spilled onto his shirt. 'Now get back to the kitchen and make me some money.'
It was four days before Kong saw the boy again. His cheek had been crudely stitched and he looked pale. 'I did not give you leave to take a holiday, where have you been? You owe me four days takings.'
'Master, I had to return home. I needed to speak to my family and decide what my future holds. I will give you your money tonight but I will need to work till late to make up four days.' The boy promised he would come to Kong's lodging at eleven.
Kong sat nursing a nearly empty bottle. He looked at his watch again for maybe the tenth time since eleven. The boy was half an hour late and would need a lesson in punctuality. Finally he heard the downstairs door slam and footsteps on the stairs. Barely able to contain his rage, he threw open the door to his room. With difficulty, he saw, in the gloom of the corridor, not only Somsak but three bigger versions of Somsak. They pushed him back roughly into his room. It was the boy who made the unnecessary introductions. 'Master, these are my brothers. They have come to sever our partnership for ever.'
Kong watched in mute horror as the three closed in on him, drawing their own knives. Before he could utter more than a single half-strangled cry, they pulled him to the floor and the darkness enclosed him. The brothers went to work with a vengeance.
The next day Somsak went back to work on his usual trek down Soi 6, along Beach road to Sois 7 and 8. Each time he stopped, queues formed. He was exalted and exhausted simultaneously. He had worked all night cooking an extra big batch. His brothers had helped. By mid-afternoon he had completely sold out. The clamour for more touched him and he returned to his meager lodgings to make another batch.
Now his brothers had returned to Issaan on the Nakkon Chai Air bus, he felt lonelier than ever. He looked round the small space that served as his sleeping quarters and kitchen. He would soon be able to afford a bigger place. The room was dominated by a huge chest freezer where he kept ingredients fresh after buying in bulk. He lifted the lid, the words of his customers still ringing in his ears, 'Somsak, today your food is so much tastier; meatier.'
'I am glad you like it. It is my new recipe. I call it Chiang Mai Curry; I've put in plenty of pig meat. But it's only for a limited period….there's a secret ingredient that's very hard to find.' He could barely suppress a giggle as he stared into his freezer at the clear plastic bag containing Kong's head – his face frozen in horror at his last view of the world – Somsak's brothers closing in on him, knives glittering cruelly in the murk of his own room.
The boy murmured to himself again the words he had spoken at the time. 'Thank you, master, I owe you so much.'