My life in ten dishes, continued…
Bangkok in 1990 was at times a grim place to live. Heavily polluted, congested with traffic, noisy and crowded, a literal concrete jungle. Like other Western governments, the New Zealand government rented a property on the beach a few hours to the south, for the R and R of the Embassy staff. We were allocated use of the bungalow every 6-7 weeks, and so would brave the Friday night traffic for a weekend of fresh air, peace and quiet by the beach.
The bungalow (as we called it), was a basic holiday home, built in the traditional Thai style on stilts, in a compound with other similar, privately owned houses. There was nothing fancy about it. There were three bedrooms, with rickety but functional air-conditioning units, a simple bathroom with a shower, and a rudimentary kitchen downstairs. The joy of the bungalow was the large, open air living area. We could lie on the couch and read or snooze, breathe the fresh air, listen to the waves lapping against the shore, or entertain friends and family.
But all good things come to an end, and by Sunday morning, we knew it was time to go home. We usually began heading back to Bangkok about mid-day, simply to avoid spending hours in the Sunday afternoon returning-to-Bangkok-after-the-weekend-away traffic that set in later in the afternoon. Our treat was stopping at another beach (Bang Saen) further north, about half-way back to Bangkok, for lunch. Bang Saen was, in 1990, a beach frequented by locals only. It was quite common for us to be the only foreigners on the beach.
Right next to the beach, there were lines and lines of street vendors.So much to choose from, but we always knew what we would order. We chose khao neeo, gai yang, and somdum – sticky rice, barbecued chicken, and green papaya salad. I think this is the best picnic in the world. Yes, it even beats bacon and egg pie.
This is strictly an “eat with your hands” meal. The chicken is marinated, squashed flat and barbecued on sticks. There are as many recipes as there are cooks in Thailand. Ginger or coriander root, garlic and lemon grass, are common ingredients in the marinade. The khao neeo or sticky rice is soaked overnight and steamed, and when served cold, you can mould it into small balls to use almost as a spoon, to pick up the salad and juices, or to dip into the sweet chilli sauce. Somdum is a very famous north-eastern dish. When the staff at the Embassy would have it for lunch, I was the only farang (foreigner) invited. Someone once scoffed at me for eating “peasant food.” They miss out on a lot if they never figure out that so-called peasant food is usually the best food in the world. Somdum is made from green papaya, peanuts, fish sauce, lime juice, dried shrimp, and of course, plenty of chilli. I find I can take a “one-chilli” pack quite easily, though still with a smarting mouth and running eyes at times. My husband was never a fan, so there was always plenty for me!
So in Bangsaen, we would order our food, sit under the palm trees, enjoy the gentle breeze and listen to the waves, and enjoy. Just last weekend we were talking about our next trip overseas, and whether we would fly via Thailand or Singapore. My husband sighed, yearning, and said “it would be nice to have khao neeo and gai yang again.”
At home in New Zealand, we try to recreate this most-loved of dishes. We’re rarely organised enough to soak the rice overnight, so follow a Thai friend’s advice and soak the rice (Thai glutinous rice) for about 30 minutes in warm water, drain, then cook in the microwave with a smaller amount of water than with normal rice. This can be done quite quickly. A barbecued chicken from the supermarket takes the place of the gai yang, and grated carrots take the place of green papaya. It’s not the same, but it brings back the memories.