Thai food dispatch from the Golden Triangle by Anton Pestana

Towards mastery of the Kaeng Khiaw Wan Kai and general enjoyment of Thai food.
After several levels of encouragement from my wife I decided to take a half-day Thai cooking course.
We were holidaying with our young children in the “Golden Triangle”, that lush jungle meeting of Thailand, Burma and Laos infamous for being second only to Afghanistan in the cultivation of poppies for opium and heroin. Since the Thai monarchy and government launched its royal crop substitution programme this abominable crop has been substantially eradicated on the Thai side; although, the poppy’s substitution, Thai coffee, is also quite abominable to my taste. The cause, of course is a noble one and I hope they succeed in developing a viable market, I thought, as I sipped my delicious (Italian) Illy cappuccino and contemplated the training menu.

I’ve been in Thailand for a month, and I’ll be here for two years, so my reasoning and conscience tells me to learn to like Thai food and learn to make some of it. I don’t dislike it. It’s just that I happen to live in the Tonglor area of Bangkok which has a very strong Japanese presence, including many types of their eateries – and I love Japanese food. As I’m one of those “if it ain’t broken don’t fix it” kinds of person, I haven’t really been able to break away from the izakayas (Japanese pub food), ramen noodle bars, and grill houses in the area or in the food courts of the city’s big malls.

I decided on learning to cook a three-course meal with the ubiquitous Kaeng Khiaw Wan Kai (Sweet Green Curry Chicken) as its main. Something suitably simple and useful, I thought, to painlessly get this experience over with so I could spend more time with the kids swimming in the pool or admiring the elephants doing their thing around the nearby elephant camp. All I needed to do was wake up at the crack of dawn to visit the market for ingredients with my chef-instructor and obediently follow instructions. And then, to use an exclamation, co-opted by my still-to-be met Thai chef-Instructor, Voila! – I have mastery of the Thai dish!

The next morning I beat my cellular telephone alarm by a half an hour after being pleasantly woken by the sound of gentle monsoon rain, and the externally trumpeted realisation, from the jungle below, that George Lucas must surely have obtained Chewbacca’s voice from elephant sounds. I had a quick cappuccino and rendezvoused with my chef-instructor, Thoon-Poon, a smiling person dressed in chef’s gear, who told me that to start we would be going to the market to select our ingredients and have breakfast.

I’m a queasy person, always have been: the kind that eats meat but needs to far abstract it from its living source – bird, animal or fish. So, the last thing that I need to do is walk around a market looking at fish out of water gulping desperately for breath (how long would they last?), live frogs squashed together in baskets, and hunks of meat and entrails of various sorts. Weirdly I do not remember the normally ubiquitous twisted dead hanging duck. Nor do I remember any odours, the market was makeshift, but it was clean and stench free. And while I’m queasy with the dead or about-to-be dead ingredients, I found the fruits, vegetables and herbs a wonder.

Thoon-Poon crushed herbs and passed them onto me for a sniff and a taste, he opened the lychee-like longlon and offered me a nibble and I was amazed by bunches of three foot long string beans, and deep pink dragon fruit, high stacks of nuts, and piles of fresh red rambutans (also lychee like) that he pointed out and briefly expounded upon their culinary worth. It makes up an incredibly impressive array of flavors and textures, but I think South Africa has edited its import – and indigenisation – of what South East Asia offers with good taste. We have taken their best and grow it for ourselves: especially the mangoes and lychees.

Thoon-Poon picked up two banana leaf packages each closed with a stick holding the leaf together. “Breakfast” he told me with a simple nod. “What is in it? I queried. “Khao Neaw Moul: sweet sticky rice and an egg paste (made of egg, flour, sugar and coconut milk)”, he informed me deftly unwrapping one for inspection. There it was a white mash of rice and a light brown egg paste. These Thai’s like their sweet things, and I concur when it comes to sweet sticky rice and mango. It’s dangerously tasty stuff that is far too readily available.

“We’ll eat it with Thai coffee,” he smiled. And so we did sitting at a mobile coffee vendor. I unwrapped my meal on my lap and thoroughly enjoyed filling my face with my hands. “Delicious. This would be so good with an Illy espresso or cappuccino.” I thought before gulping down some of the brutally strong and sweet local stuff. I drank two cups of lemongrass tea, but still couldn’t get rid of its bitter aftertaste. Even my patriotic instructor had to agree that it was “very, very strong”, with a facial expression that belied his euphemism.

Just before we left for the kitchen he darted over the roads to buy a forgotten ingredient. He returned with a triumphant look and a bag full of green leaves. “Kaffir Lime!” he exclaimed holding it up for me to inspect. And off we went to cook.

Back at the kitchen we started with the green curry. Thoon-Poon began by pointing at the photostatted copy of his recipe book which he had just handed me, “We don’t measure for recipe, we taste for recipe!” And so it went until I had a pot of green-yellowy curry in front of me. I had already been smitten by the first taste, some way back when the pot consisted only of green curry paste and coconut. Coincidentally, I had just finished an interesting story in Malcolm Gladwell’s “What the Dog Saw” about ketchup in which the fundamental tastes, which are all found in ketchup, are explained in that entertaining style of his. So as I tasted my way through the cooking I knew, more or less, why I was liking what I was liking. The curry had covered all five of my taste senses: the salty came with the curry paste and the fish sauce; the sweet came with the coconut and palm sugar; the sour and bitter with the Kaffir Lime, basil, and small eggplant; and the umami, which is the brothiness created by the balanced combination of everything into that thickish body of steaming curry.

Even my wife, who arrived in time to inspect, and who has little tolerance for spicy food, thoroughly enjoyed it after a spicy seafood and noodle starter and before the delicious Kluai Buatchi (banana in coconut batter) dessert, all made by me.

My triumphalism was short-lived however, as my second attempt at home was not well received. It was too spicy, lacking the balance of the first. Finding that good balance, what Gladwell refers to in his same story about ketchup, as “high amplitude” which is when “all … constituent elements converge into a single gestalt”. That’s what I tasted with the Thoon-Poon-overseen meal, and that’s what I know I have to work towards achieving on my own. Even more importantly, and I realized this only this morning as I made my way through the many busy, often steam-emitting, food stalls that line the road that I live in, is that for the first time that I’m aware of I was not “default queasy” about what they are offering.

Actually, again for the first time, I felt liking tasting a few things. I know that I have that trip to the market with Thoon-Poon to thank for that. So, here’s to my enjoyment of Thai street food, and eventual mastery of the Kaeng Khiaw Wan Kai! I think my experience shows once more how important a small but knowledgeable bit of guidance can be for anyone in nudging them forward and helping to overcome the barriers that they have created to sensibly enjoying new food. Here’s to short foreign cooking courses!

Posted September 8, 2010

Anton Pestana, coordinates the Human Security Alliance, a South-East Asian NGO network assisting communities deal with socio-economic and environmental security priorities.

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