Thursday, June 15, 2006

Thai Us Up, Thai Us Down

I'm just going to say it: We are Thai food snobs. No bones, no tofu about it. No excuses. No apologies. And the longer we travel, the worse it gets.

My discriminating palate was bad before because Denver's climate doesn't offer the tropical growing season necessary to harvest kaffir lime leaves and thus Thai food was never "quite right" in the Rocky Mountains. I'd whine about this to Andy and he listened patiently while enjoying his Tom Yum Koong with three chilies, not really understanding my dismay and prejudice. Then I corrupted him, kidnapped him to Thailand, India, Laos, Cambodia, New Zealand, Vietnam and next Myanmar, and it's all changed.

Andy has tasted the ambrosias of Southeast Asia, the pastiches of hot-sour-salty-sweet, multiple basils and fresh nutmeg, spicy-rich curry pastes, rice puddings oozing coconut cream, the best mangoes on earth and noodles lovingly fried and tossed with spring onion and egg by hand. Mmmmmm.... ahhhhhh......sighhhh. I've created a monster (albeit a very cute one!), and together we're a two-headed monster with difficult, discerning palates for Thai food.

How could it be, you ask? Let's just say the man now has a taste for fresh baby corn (who knew this even existed?) and watches the Thais like a hawk when they make his papaya salad~> read more

 , with 3 hotter than thou mouse dropping chilies, thank you very much! Andy is even on board with me purchasing a stone mortar and pestle before we head home. Hell, he might even carry it for me because it makes the best curries!

Hmm, you might even starting calling us monsters Khing (ginger) Koong (shrimp). I digress... It's not going to be pretty when we're back in the States and searching for authentic food to appease our appetites for nam plaa, som tam and phat thai. You should already hear us now when we've eaten away from Thailand and our taste buds were disappointed: "this soup doesn't have enough coriander root in it", "she used way too much fish sauce", "this needs a lot more lime juice and palm sugar", "they call this Penang curry?!"

Worse yet, we're actually putting our money where our mouths are and taking more cooking courses.

Chiang Mai, where we're kicking it now and enjoying all that the smallish but uber-atmospheric town has to offer with temples, bazaars and it's own moat, boasts more cooking courses and food per capita than anywhere in Thailand. There's so much here to eat, whether on the streets or at a nice table, from early morning to late at night that it's hard to have enough appetite. You step out the door from your guesthouse to put back on your shoes and see they offer a cooking course, and so does everyone of the competitors along the small soi.

Plus, Chiang Mai is home to the legendary black sticky rice pudding -- one of my top ten favorite foods so I wanted to understand once and for all how to make it. What in the hell is that you ask? Think rice pudding, coconut cream and tapioca all blended into one deep purple pudding and served warm. SO delicious. I think Andy also wanted me to learn as to alleviate any future cravings and whining about its omission or poor substitutions on Thai menus back home. He's worried about curry pastes and whether we can purchase anything close to perfect in an Asian market, so I wanted him to see what was involved in that because that is not your average kitchen endeavor.

Do you see? Homemade puddings and pastes! We are BAD NEWS! The even badder news: we're researching cooking classes and asking for private lessons--not just signing up for your average tourist course! Hello, high maintenance!!! Fortunately, we found Baan Thai and Boom. I researched online and found Baan Thai's cooking school, then Andy and I went to inquire if we could choose the menu and cook/geek out alone, and Boom worked with us to create what we wanted and made it happen. Yes, Boom, our petite and smiley Thai instructor -- though she says "Boom" with an attractive lilt of rising and falling tones that makes it sound a lot prettier than the boring onomatopoeia it is in our language.

We spent an awesome day with Boom learning more secrets about Thai cooking, and expanded our repertoire to include clay pot cuisine and a Chiang Mai noodle specialty called khao soy. Khao soy is unique to this area and unique in flavor because it's a melange of Thai, Yunnanese, Indian and Burmese ingredients. Chiang Mai is actually a centuries-old market town and the crossroads for caravans from all over SE Asia; these cultures trekked in from around the continent to meet and trade at the colorful bazaar that still runs nightly and khao soy's sweet-hot curry flavor with both crispy and soft noodles has an exotic taste you just can't quite put your tongue upon, except to know its delicious.

And yes, our desires for black sticky rice and Penang curry paste, in food form as well as written form, were satiated. Boom got the recipe for my ultimate comfort food/sweet craving from Baan Thai's owner and we soaked, sugared, boiled and blended it to perfection in the outdoor kitchen. While eating and swooning, I made meticulous notes...though the proportions are never exactly right. A Thai tablespoon is one of the those short-handled flat spoons that come with soup at Asian restaurants. There's never a Western tablespoon in sight, but I'll muddle through that through delectable trial and error. The three of us made a curry paste by hand, though Andy's hand got the worst of it because he had to mash and smash it with a granite pestle for over twenty minutes! It was a lot of work, although fragrant work because the smell of freshly pounded chilies, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom and lime make a beautiful perfume.

Indeed, those damn kaffir limes are going to be a problem. You need some of the tart fruit's knobby, emerald peel in fresh form for the paste. We may have to take our snobbery for Thai food to another level and start growing some of our own ingredients!?!

Typing that, I'm worried we'll become slaves to our palates and won't ever find jobs since we'll be too busy planting kaffir limes and pestling currry pastes by hand. That could be a problem. Or maybe this is all nonsense and we'll return to the States and forget about this Thai food obsession? Our tongues will get shocked back to semi-bland and forget about the zones that taste hot-sour-salty-sweet all at once? We'll just subsist on Chipotle burritos for him and Whole Foods goat cheese spinach salad with candied walnuts for me instead? Perhaps Andy is just humoring me by saying he tastes the difference between smashed versus processor-pureed curries so I focus on the purchase of one perfect mortar and pestle instead of 18 perfect items in Thai silk? Maybe we'll never cook at home and all of these classes will be for nothing?

I guess the proof will be in the pudding, but my hope is that it's going to be black sticky rice!

7 more fun pictures here!:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loved all the pictures and your story of Thai food snobbery. Just think of all the new restaurants you can try to find your favorite and all the new friends you'll make at the Asian grocery stores you'll now shop in! Love, Wendy

4:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good to know that I am not the only one.
I learned it all at Ya's Krabi Cookery School in Ao Nang.
Lots of ingredients here in the Netherlands so it's no problem to prepare the "real" stuff.

9:18 AM  

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