A $29,000 Thai Dinner

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Saeed Khan / AFP / Getty

Michelin three-star chef Jean-Michel Lorain from France prepares lunch at a resturant in Bangkok, February 8, 2006 in preparation for an eleven course gala dinner.

Last Saturday, a very fancy 10-course meal was consumed in Bangkok. I did not partake. Mostly this was because I don't have a spare 1 million Thai baht (or $29,800) to lavish on a single eating experience. The meal, lovingly constructed by six three-star Michelin chefs flown in from Europe, sounded delectable: highlights included a tartare of Kobe beef with Imperial Beluga caviar and Belon oysters (paired with a 1995 Krug Clos du Mesnil) and a tarte fine with scallops and $350 worth of black truffles (paired with a 1996 Le Montrachet Domaine de la Romanée-Conti). Fifteen deep-pocketed global gourmands paid for the repast, which was modestly titled Epicurean Masters of the World. Their identities were not revealed, although the event's p.r. flack did let drop that two casino operators, a hotelier and a real-estate developer were among the feasters.

Given that some people spend thousands of dollars on, say, psychiatric sessions for their dogs or a suite at the newest five-star hotel in Dubai, it might seem churlish to criticize this orgy of gluttony. But the event has raised eyebrows in a country where high-living billionaire Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown in a coup last September by a more austere clutch of generals. Led by interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, who spent time in a monastery after retiring from the military, Thailand's new leaders have called for the Buddhist-majority nation to avoid capitalist excess and embrace moderation.

The junta's philosophy is inspired by the revered Thai King's notion of a "sufficiency economy," which "stresses the middle path as the overriding principle for appropriate conduct by the populace at all levels," according to a royal statement. Many Thais, including top economists, aren't quite sure what that means on a practical level — "none of us really understand it, but we can't say anything because it's His Majesty's idea," one Bangkok investment banker told me. But it's safe to assume that a $29,800 meal doesn't hew to the middle path. (In their defense, the organizers of the feast say most of the money raised will go to charity.)

Some residents of Bangkok were offended by the Epicurean Masters of the World for another reason: There were no Thai dishes on Saturday's menu. The offerings — courtesy of French, Italian and German chefs — were staunchly Western. Not even a stalk of lemongrass or sprig of cilantro to add an Asian accent. Perhaps that's just as well. Few self-respecting Thai foodies would pay more than $2.98 for a tasty meal. Some of the best dishes in Bangkok are cooked at unprepossessing street stalls for less than a dollar.

One of my favorite eateries — okay, that's a stretch to describe a gas canister, a slab of wood, a mortar and pestle and a few plastic bags of veggies and meat hung on an accommodating tree branch — is just outside my office. A man in a straw hat grills chicken, pork and fish marinated in garlic, white pepper and coriander root. His wife pounds green papaya for spicy salads and simmers broth in a battered pot balanced on what looks like a Bunsen burner. My husband and I gorge for $3 — and there's always enough for the street dogs that cozy up to our rickety fold-up table. We may not be epicurean masters of the world, but I like to think we're doing our part for the sufficiency economy.