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Here's a Salad With Social Purpose : Bangkok restaurant serves a mix of shrimp, cabbage and, uh, condom look-alikes.

March 22, 1992|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BANGKOK — The Thais make salads with raw garlic, cashew nuts, fried eggs, sardines . . . almost any ingredient they can think of. But a salad made with condoms?

It's the signature dish of a Bangkok restaurant called Cabbages & Condoms, which partly exists to raise funds for AIDS prevention and family planning. But not to worry. The "condoms" are only simulated, the creation of an ingenious Thai chef who makes them from translucent noodles rolled into tubes and tossed with shredded cabbage, carrot, chicken and shrimp, in a tangy dressing fired up with red chile.

If the description sounds, uh, less than appetizing, the result turns out to be a great tasting salad with a serious social purpose.

Cabbages & Condoms, or C&C, as it's called for short, occupies a two-story Thai house that looks fresh and folksy, like a country cottage on a pleasant, tree-lined street that branches off traffic-jammed Sukhumvit Road.

Walking toward the restaurant, you pass a line of establishments that--each in its own way--pertain to the same topic: the Darling Turkish bathhouse, the Non-Scalpel Vasectomy Center and a large building that houses the Population and Community Development Assn., a nonprofit organization established in 1974 to try to curb Thailand's soaring birth and AIDS rate.

PDA's founder, Mechai Viravaidya, is not only father to the condom salad, he has prompted the use of condoms as decoration on key chains, T-shirt logos and cigarette lighters. He is so thoroughly identified with the prophylactic that he is known locally as Mr. Condom. Conversely, a condom is jokingly called a Mechai. And today, as a minister in the Thai Prime Minister's office in charge of tourism, Viravaidya is still spreading his message of birth control and condom use as a protection against AIDS.

It was five years ago that Viravaidya decided a restaurant would be a good way to swell PDA income. And so he prompted the founding of Cabbages & Condoms, and it was named to reflect his view that birth control should be as obtainable and cheap as vegetables.

First-time visitors snicker at the novelty of drinking in the Vasectomy Bar or dining in the Condom Room, which boasts a framed display of condom packages on its back wall. And souvenir hunters love the foyer shop, which is stocked with humorously explicit T-shirts, condom lighters and condom key chains. (As a way of spreading its message of safe sex, the PDA gave out more than 5,000 of the condom-decorated key chains, jokingly nicknamed "survival kits," to delegates attending last fall's World Bank and International Monetary Fund conference in Bangkok.)

In addition to all this, the restaurant has an extensive menu of Thai dishes that are all very good. In fact, the only difference between C&C and other Thai restaurants in Bangkok is that a waiter may unobtrusively place a card of AIDS safety tips on your table.

Dishes are served on Thai blue and white china placed on woven straw mats, and dining in the Condom Room offers a soothing view of the lush, steam-heat sparked garden. Should the monsoon rains strike while you're dining, you can watch, as I did last October, the violent downpour rattle the leaves.

Most of C&Cs customers are Western expatriates, but well-heeled Thais show up, too. Prices are low. The condom salad, called yam tung yam, costs about $1.95. So do fried chicken with crispy basil leaves, sweet and sour pork, mee krob (crispy noodles) and chicken wings cooked with red wine. A substantial meal that includes a cocktail will run about $6.50. That's what I paid for an excellent Margarita, a condom salad, nam song kraung (a plate of tiny conical pork sausages, each one striped with a murderously hot green chile) and a cool dessert of Chinese orange segments in iced syrup.

Whatever profit the restaurant makes goes toward promoting birth control, disease prevention and village development in a country that is 80% rural. Beyond family planning, the PDA has moved on to projects such as sanitation, agricultural development and the promotion of small industry in the villages. The idea is to enrich rural economies and keep villagers from moving into already overcrowded Bangkok.

The latest profit-making venture is Cabbages & Condoms Handicrafts, which opened last fall in Sukhumvit Plaza, a short walk from the restaurant. Craft items brought from the villages and sold there range from handworked Chiang Mai shawls and Surin silver jewelry to an occasional small piece of Khmer lacquerware and inexpensive ceramic cats.

The fruits of PDA's village labors sometimes revert to the restaurant. When available, village produce is used in the kitchen. Jars of Mechai honey from Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai are on sale in the foyer shop. And fresh or canned juice from Khao Khor, a district in Phetchabun province north of Bangkok, provides welcome refreshment in the humid heat. What kind of juice is it? Passion fruit, of course.

GUIDEBOOK

Cabbages and Condoms

Cabbages & Condoms Restaurant, 10 Sukhumvit Soi 12, Bangkok. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Takes major credit cards. In Bangkok, telephone 251-5552, 2510402-3 or 2560080-97. Cabbages & Condoms Handicrafts, 212/42 Second Floor, Sukhumvit Plaza, Sukhumvit Road at the corner of Soi 12, Bangkok. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Telephone 2560080-97.

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