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Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

“There’s such joy in good simple food.” I said that to my blogging friend, Dona, this morning, on her daily delights blog. And with that, I knew what I was going to write about today.

Thai food is a real joy to me. When I first went to Thailand as a 17-year-old exchange student, I had never eaten Asian food. Rural New Zealand in the 1970s was not a place to find even Chinese food. I remember celebrating when our small town first got a burger truck. Food in Thailand was an adventure. We faced it with a bit of trepidation when we first arrived at a hostel where we spent a week’s orientation, learning a bit about the language and culture surrounding us. But as soon as I arrived with my host family, I fell in love with the food, cooked by my Thai mother and a maid. It was a revelation to me, and it is still my favourite cuisine. I had a lot of favourites, but one dish in particular was a dark, sweet, soup-like sauce with hard-boiled eggs. The sauce was phalo, and I knew the dish as Khai Phalo (Egg Phalo or ไข่พะโล้), but it can also be made with pork or chicken. I tried to make it once or twice when I got back to NZ, but without success. (I do make Thai curries once every one or two weeks though.)

I can’t remember specifically eating it when I lived in Thailand for three years, and so I hadn’t eaten phalo again until our trip to South Australia, when we stayed in a small village in the middle of the famous wine-making Barossa Valley, and found a Thai restaurant just down the street from the old stone cottage. It was the first time I’d seen it on a Thai restaurant menu outside of Thailand, and I was overjoyed. They made it with eggs and pork belly. It was amazing. Just a week or so ago, I hunted up a recipe that sounded right. I searched out fresh coriander with plenty of roots attached (coriander root is a critical ingredient in many Thai dishes), and made it. It transported me back to the dinner table in the garden of the house in Navatanee village on the edges of Bangkok, and the delicious food we ate there.

Then last night, because I still had some coriander bunches left, I decided to make my favourite picnic food. I soaked the glutinous rice overnight, then steamed it, as they do in the north and northeast of Thailand. It became perfectly sticky rice – which actually isn’t sticky at all. You can roll it into a ball in your hands, and it doesn’t stick to your fingers at all. It soaks up sauces perfectly, and has a unique flavour. I love it. To go with the sticky rice, I marinated some boneless chicken thighs in a paste made of mashed coriander root and stems, garlic, salt, pepper, and garlic for several hours, before barbecuing it until it was nice and charred. It was classic gai yang, or barbecued chicken, that you can find on roadside stalls all over Thailand, and the best I’ve ever made it. And I steamed some veges and made a Thai dressing with lime juice, nam pla (fish sauce) coriander stems and root, and a bit of sugar. The papaya salad (somdum) that would normally go with khao neeo (sticky rice) and gai yang (barbecued chicken) isn’t possible here, as I just almost never see papaya for sale, let alone green papaya that is essential for the salad. I adore somdum, and miss it, but at least the dressing I made was reminiscent of it.

Two meals that were transformed from mere fuel into a walk down memory lane made me so happy. It has been eight years since we were last in Thailand, and we had been planning going this year, but a global pandemic put paid to that idea. Still, if I can’t go there physically, maybe I can keep trying to recreate it in my kitchen.

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#18 of Blogging with Friends

“What is the scariest thing you’ve ever eaten?” one of my blogging friends challenged us to answer last week. I assumed she didn’t mean the overcooked schnitzel my husband made once, and so my mind immediately went to Asia. I specifically didn’t eat a bowl of huge (it seemed to me at least), grey, rubbery-looking octopus tentacles in Taiwan, breaking all diplomatic rules by refusing this offering, but delighting the Taiwanese men around me by sharing my uneaten tentacles with them. I also specifically didn’t eat from the buffet of bugs in a Filipino restaurant, when I was taken there by some of my local staff members on a project. The most unordinary thing in the buffet were brains or offal. The bowls of bugs  – big ones, and small ones – were not sufficiently appetising to either me, or Phil, yet we had both spent years living in Asia, and were not usually too squeamish (despite this post) about foreign foods.

As a student in Thailand, I went out with my host family to restaurants quite a lot. (I should note that before I went to Thailand I was not a particularly adventurous eater – mainly perhaps because I simply never got the opportunity to eat a variety of food. And I was quite picky too. I lost that almost as soon as I joined my host family and fell in love with Thai food.) My Thai father, in particular, liked Chinese food, Bangkok was renowned for having great Chinese food, and I suspect there was an elevated status in being able to eat at and host meals at these restaurants. Even when we coincidentally were in London at the same time about 30 years later, we met at a Chinese restaurant. So we had either bird’s (or is it birds’?) nest or shark’s (sharks’?) fin soup, and always Peking duck (my favourite, and that of my Thai host siblings), and other stuff. I discovered then that if you don’t know what you’re eating, it is always best not to ask. The black slimy stuff on your plate? Just eat it! At a different seafood restaurant once, instead of the copious numbers of prawns the siblings and I always devoured, I was given sample after sample of food I couldn’t identify, and didn’t want to. One of the dishes was sea urchin. The others shall remain unknown. And that’s fine by me.

But probably the most adventurous and scariest thing I ever ate was at a party in Thailand with a big bunch of other AFS exchange students. Nicki, a fellow kiwi AFS friend, and her school, hosted an AFS Weekend. A large group of us converged on her remote town in north-eastern Thailand for several days of fun, and after a long bus trip to get there, we were billeted out with different families. It was a poor town – few cars, or telephones amongst the 3000 inhabitants. Nicki’s host family was a single mother who survived by making kanom (sweets) to sell at the markets, and her older sister. So the arrival of a group of conspicuously foreign teenagers was a big event for them.

On our last evening, the local Police Chief – who had, I think, been hosting one of the students – put on a farewell party for us. The highlight of the meal was the wok filled with stir-fried grasshoppers (or were they crickets? I’m not sure). It was compulsory, our host declared, to eat at least one. They had a large wok heated over hot coals, and it was full of these large insects (about 5-6 cms long) which they stir-friend quickly. I don’t remember who ate the first one. I know for certain it wasn’t me! But my friends tried them and declared they were okay, and I knew there was no backing out. I didn’t want to be the last to eat either, so I took one. The key was to pull off the scratchy back legs, which would rip up the inside of our mouths, before eating. I dreaded the squish of the body between my teeth; it’s one of the things I don’t like about sultanas, the way their little bodies (well, that’s what they feel like) burst in my mouth! But there was no “squish”. They were crunchy, and tasted of oil, and were not at all offensive, if you forgot what you were eating. I don’t really recall any other flavour. In the end, the reality of eating the grasshopper/cricket was a lot less scary than the idea of it.

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Week Seven of Blogging with Friends

Are you free for brunch on Saturday? Weekend brunch is the perfect meal to catch up – it doesn’t take all day, but it can if you want! And, if you’re so inclined, you can have an afternoon nap to recover later. It’s also great if you’ve over-indulged the night before. Skip breakfast, and choose brunch, anytime from 10 am to 1-1.30 pm. We regularly go at 1 pm or just after, giving us time to build up an appetite if we’ve slept in! But if we’re meeting friends, it is often earlier, to give us time to linger and enjoy.

Let’s meet at Taste, our favourite brunch place, in a lovely old house on the corner of the Khandallah shopping village. When we were both earning, we used to go regularly – fortnightly and sometimes weekly – but these days we have to ration our visits. It means that they are appreciated so much more when we do get there.

When we arrive, Gary or David or both will greet us, throwing a bit of shade, making a few quips, making sure they welcome every person in the party, and then show us into the light-filled dining room. We’ll sit in the tables at the end, and half of us will snuggle into the banquet seating, settling in for the long haul. Or perhaps if we’re there on a hot sunny day, we could sit outside on the porch, and not worry about disturbing the other patrons. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any opportunities to do that this windy summer.

This is not a brunch café, with a box of toys for the kids, ordering at the counter, and lots of noise. It is not a child-friendly restaurant, and you see the occasional baby in a carrier, or older children who know how to behave. They’re not unfriendly though. Many children who come see it as the height of sophistication, and choose it for their birthday dinners! Decorated in calm neutrals and white, this is a restaurant inviting you to relax, to enjoy good food and good wine and good company, in a little break from the chaos of the world.

Given the occasion, I think we should start with a pre-meal champagne – or prosecco, given our budget these days – toast. Though they have a few cocktails on the menu, and would love to have the chance to make them. And they’d no doubt be delighted to figure out the recipe of anything that you wanted. Here’s to friendship, companionship at the table, and long-lasting relationships.

Their brunch menu ranges from their delicious pate, a vegetarian soup, or a blue cheese toast on the light side, through to some of the usual breakfast suspects – French toast, eggs any which way, with a salad or roast potatoes, bacon or mushrooms, and a delicious tomato relish – and their own twists. One of my favourites is their seasonal asparagus with poached eggs on Turkish bread, with a cheesy sauce. In winter it turns into a toasted ham and tomato sandwich, with poached eggs on top, with the same cheesy sauce. Some days, when we turn up at 1 pm and I’m starving, that’s all I want! The do a couple of more substantial meals, a chicken and bacon sandwich with a yummy salad and Indian curry-flavoured mayonnaise that is to die for, and a fish dish that always looks good when other diners order it, but which I always overlook for one of the other options always mentioned. And in winter, I adore the creamy sherried mushrooms on Turkish bread, though it doesn’t always appear on the menu. Hint, hint! (Just in case Gary or David see this.) The Husband loves their chunky chips (you might know them as fries), and I’ve been known to eat a few from his bowl too, when he’s looking elsewhere.

When we’re there in a group, the service is unobtrusive, unless we all get chatting to our hosts, or they have a recent anecdote to share. Our hosts are funny, kind, and meticulous, and it always feels rude to ignore them, because they are as much a part of the experience of Taste as the food. When I go here, it’s usually just with my husband, though occasionally we’ll meet up with a group of old friends, or I’ll take guests who are staying with us (when I can’t be bothered cooking breakfast at home). But how wonderful to have you all here with us today!

This is a great opportunity to get to know each other better, meeting in person for perhaps the first time. Any nervousness at this will have been dispelled with that first glass of prosecco, and one of Gary’s jokes, and by the time we turn to the Elephant Hill Chardonnay, Peregrine Pinot Gris, or Bird in the Hand Shiraz (these are our favourites), we’ll be relaxed and old friends. After all, thanks to technology, we’re already old friends.  We’ve witnessed life-altering events, shared happiness and loss, watched kids grow up, and showed each other our inner selves. We’ve just not met yet.

As it’s a special occasion, we might indulge in dessert – profiteroles filled with ice-cream and chocolate sauce, a trifle or white chocolate mousse might take your fancy. We usually share their sweet treats – a tiny triangle of a lemon slice – that goes perfectly with their excellent, strong coffee. But I’m sure they’ll try and tempt us with a dessert wine or port or something stronger! By now, the restaurant is emptying out. They close at 2 pm, but are happy for us to stay longer. It’s a peaceful, happy environment. And we can always regroup down the road at our house, after a post-prandial hike back up the hill to work off the calories. Wine on the deck, anyone?

 

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