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Archive for the ‘Thailand’ 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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Forty years ago today, I spent my first full day in Bangkok, Thailand. I was with 46 other AFS exchange students for an orientation programme at a hostel in Bangkok, having arrived in the dark the night before with the ANZAC contingent. I remember being hit by the heat and humidity as we left the airport, and later, my diary recorded my disgust that I could feel so hot and sticky immediately after a shower.

As it was a Sunday, there were no classes organised. Instead, we were all sent out to discover Bangkok. The newly-arrived Australians and New Zealanders were escorted by the one New Zealander who was finishing her AFS year. We were amazed at her confidence, her language, her level of comfort in this foreign environment. Would we ever be that relaxed here?

The bus into the city was crowded, and I remember being amazed at the sheer numbers of the road, and the variety of buildings. We arrived at the Sunday Market – which in those days was a collection of stalls under canvas across a large field (Sanam Luang) near the Grand Palace. I’ve written about that day before, here and here.

My diary doesn’t say much, but I remember some things very clearly. I don’t remember having lunch at the Sunday Market, which I duly recorded as consisting of “rice and stuff on top!” I don’t actually remember going on the boat ride, shocked at the poverty side by side with the glorious golden temples. But I do remember going to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, amazed at the beauty and exotic architecture. It was the first place I went to in Bangkok, and was the last place I visited when I left Bangkok 13 years later after my diplomatic posting there. It has etched itself into my heart, or perhaps I left part of my heart there, even on that first visit.

After the grandeur of the Palace and Temple, we went back to the market to explore. It was, I noted, “very dirty and smelly!” I remember that the heavens opened for my first experience of a tropical downpour. I remember the muddy floors.

We were thrown into Bangkok in the deep end. And it set the scene for the coming year.

But how could I know that day that most of those students in the bus with me, or the ones I met at the hostel, would become dear friends? How could I know that Chai, the language teacher we met the next day, would become an important part of our year too, and would still be part of our lives? How could I predict that I would be back ten years almost to the day to live and work for another three years? That I’d get to visit Sharon and Chai in Delaware, and have dinner with Amy, or stay with Madeline in Dayton, when I made work trips to DC in the 90s? How could I imagine that my AFS friends would become part of my everyday life through social media? That Fe would make me a quilt?That I’d Skype with Cecilia on (her) Christmas Day 39 years later? That in February 2020, almost forty years later, I would be thrilled to have lunch by the beach on a sunny day in Wellington with Jane and Vicki (one Kiwi, one Californian), the first time we’d seen each other since 1981!

How could I even have imagined that we’d all have such a strong bond after that year? That love and laughter (sanuk) – with the help of technology – would keep us together, all these years later? I couldn’t imagine it. I’m not sure any of us could. But isn’t it a wonderful thing?

 

 

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