14 December 2008

A real giant

Wat Pho is an amazing place and, although high on every tourist's list, it shouldn't be missed. Also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho is the oldest Buddhist temple in Bangkok and houses the largest Buddha in Thailand. 

On a recent visit, we also learned that is home to more than 1,000 Buddha images, more than any other temple in the country. After removing our shoes, we entered the temple. My daughter jumped back in fright at the sight of a huge towering person looming overhead while my son said, with a tone of awe, "A real, real, real giant." Two different kids, two different reactions to a truly awe inspiring sight. 

After walking around the Buddha (who takes up the entire interior of the temple), visitors can make a donation and receive little cups of coins to toss into brass buckets lining one interior side of the temple. By tossing the coins into each of the differently sized containers, you create a sort of mysterious melody that echos throughout the temple. When you initially enter the structure, you are a aware of the haunting sound but can't quite recognize what might be making the noises. It isn't until you walk the full length of the Buddha's body and round his feet that you gain an understanding of the vessels creating the music. My daughter spent several minutes earnestly tossing her little pieces of baht and satang into the containers and was enchanted by the echoing ting-ting-ting she added to the room.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 28:
Coconut Popsicles
These are an unusual concoction of simple Thai flavors. Try serving them as a pallette cleanser between courses, for dessert or even as a passed appetizer. And, forget waiting for a warm day, the intense flavor makes for a great lick no matter the season! I recommend using the smallest size popsicle mold that you can find (or even an ice cube tray with beautiful ornate toothpicks as the handle), since they are rich.

1 cup of Coconut Milk
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 Tablespoon salt
dark chocolate, optional

Mix the above ingredients and pour into a popsicle mold. Freeze until hard. If using the chocolate, melt it over a double broiler and dip the popsicles quickly half way. Place on a greased cookie sheet and return to the freezer to harden again.

03 December 2008

Climbing in a womb

After a week of occupied airports, I am beginning to think that the color beige is a viable member of the spectrum. With yellow shirts on one side, red shirts on another and protesters in yet another location waving Thai flags (wearing multiple colors of clothing), the Thai political scene is one that is difficult to explain. Yesterday's ruling to dissolve the current government leaves Thailand without a ruling party and the future political scene involves quite a bit of the unknown.

So rather than spend another day staying home, watching the news ticker and hoping that the airports will open in time for holiday flight plans and departing family members, I wandered out with the kids for yet another everyday adventure. My father, stranded tourist label still firmly intact, joined us.

Heading out on the Skytrain, we disembarked at the Mo Chit station and went to a place the kids and I know well. A morning of play at the Children's Discovery Museum was just what was needed after spending some days at home. The museum is a weird and wacky place. While I have travelled to many different kid-centered attractions since the birth of my first child, I have yet to encounter a place that compares to Bangkok's children's museum. Where else can your child climb into a replica of the mother's womb and experience what it was like prior to their birth? Or, maybe you'd like to visit the adorable seven dwarves home (of Snow White fame) and see the truly frightening witch leering through an open window to offer your child a poisonous apple? And, if those two don't peak your interest, perhaps a play in the sand pit with a towering fire spitting dragon statue leaning over your children would make for a nice precursor to their nap time?

And, despite the odd elements of the museum, I have still spent many mornings since my arrival in Bangkok sending balls down their wonderful water shoots, waving at the Disney character statues planted around the place, cringing as my daughter scaled the (truly dangerous) sky high trapeze nets, admiring the kid-sized Thai stilt houses and watching my son tear through a contraption with scores of wrestling bags dangling in rows (that ultimately rebound against his head and knock his little two year old body to the floor).

Today's visit was no different than any of the others-- two very happy kids trailing after adults who previewed each exhibit to make sure their was nothing scary or dangerous about the place. Sure, we got locked into an exhibit, but upon release the kids were happily racing through a wobbly balance testing walkway... and happy to be doing so. 

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 27:
Thai Cabbage Slaw
A simple and refreshing spin on salad.

1/2 head of cabbage, sliced finely into shreds
1 cup of bean sprouts
1 cup tightly packed cilantro, finely diced
1/2 cup roasted and salted almonds, roughly chopped
3 Tablespoons rice vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon oil
1 Tablespoon honey
salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl, mix the vinegar, garlic, oil, honey and salt and pepper. Add the remaining ingredients and toss well. Cover and refrigerate at least one hour before serving.

29 November 2008

Stranded Tourists

With both airports closed and occupied by PAD protesters, my visiting family has now entered the "stranded tourist" category that you've read about in your newspapers. After weeks of fabulous site seeing and wandering about town, the planned visit has come to an end and I have now joined the thousands of others in looking for alternate routes for my family's departure. 

My family and I continue to watch the airports closely and follow the news along with the rest of the world. And, as we've journeyed out to the weekend markets, strolled our neighborhood and dined on fabulous food, the Thai people have welcomed us and expressed their apologies for what is happening in their country. Even during trying times, the land of smiles has not lost a bit of its charm and hospitality.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 26:
Revolutionary* Chicken Satay
It's difficult to find a corner that doesn't have a vendor with a small BBQ grilling a variety of marinated meats on a stick. I've adapted this traditional Thai dish to cater to my daughter's peanut allergies, but you can easily substitute peanuts in place of the almonds for an authentic taste (just make sure you cut the salt back a little bit as the flavor of the peanuts doesn't require as much salt).

for satay:
1 lb. chicken, boneless and cut into 1/2 inch strips
1 cup of coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon of red curry paste
zest of 1 lime

for dipping sauce:
1 cup of almonds and 1 teaspoon of salt (or 1 cup of nut butter of your choice)
1 cup of coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon of red curry paste

To make the satay, combine all ingredients well and marinate in a covered container overnight in the refrigerator. When ready to cook, skewer each piece of chicken with a bamboo stick and place on a foil lined baking sheet. Cook at 375 degrees (or place on a BBQ) and cook just until the chicken is opaque. Do not overcook.

To make the dipping sauce, add nuts to a food processor and grind until it reaches a paste. In a saute pan, add the nut paste, coconut milk, salt and curry paste and stir until well combined. Cook over medium heat until the mixture is hot, turn heat down and reduce until thick. Set aside and allow to cool prior to serving with the satay.

*For anyone who got the pun intended, I owe you a Thai milk tea the next time you're in BKK!

24 November 2008

On day three it rained again

Silly me. I thought the monsoon season may have been coming to a close. 

I've described Bangkok's monsoons in a blog entry earlier this season. But, after experiencing two dry, lower humidity days and, dare I say, actually catching a chill as I stepped out of the pool, I wondered if perhaps this was the beginning of the "hot" season. (In Bangkok, locals joke that there are three seasons: hot, hotter and hottest.) And, although I've enjoyed the insane local rainstorms, life would be a bit easier to navigate without flooded roadways.

But, true to many of my other experiences in living here, just when you think you've got something figured out a curve ball gets thrown your direction. And, voila, today's curve ball came in the form of the sky opening up and then opening wider and wider and wider....

After forty five minutes of heavy, steady rain, our street flooded again. And, not just surface flooding, but deep up to your knees flooding. A friend looked at me and said, "you don't want to go out in that kind of water." Apparently, she swears there are leaches dwelling in the floods along with other even more unmentionable elements. True or not, I was staying in for the afternoon and evening.

The picture above is taken from our family room balcony, overlooking our main gate and our street. That is a bicyclist attempting to pedal through knee high water on her way home for the evening. The water rose in forty five minutes, stayed deep into the dark of the night and evaporated by dawn.

The picture at left is of a side soi that we walk from our home to the nearest Skytrain station after a typical early morning of heavy rain. I snapped this last week during our walk.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 25:
Coconut Prawns
This is a beautiful, simple dish to prepare and would make a festive holiday appetizer. 

1 lb. of the largest prawns you can find, deveined, peeled with tail on
1 cup of coconut milk
salt, to taste
dried red chili flakes, pinch
juice of 1 lime
2 cups sweetened, shredded coconut
zest of 2 limes, divided
1 red bell pepper, chiffonade, for garnish

Combine the coconut milk, salt, chili flakes, lime juice and zest of one lime in a large bowl. Add prawns and stir to coat. Cover and place overnight in refrigerator. Spread coconut on a large cookie sheet and place in a low heat oven. Watch closely and shake the pan occasionally until the coconut is golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Stir zest of remaining lime into the coconut. Strain the prawns to remove liquid and individually roll them in the coconut mixture. Spray a large saute pan generously with cooking spray and heat to a medium high temperature. Add the prawns and cook until opaque. This will take only a couple of minutes, but the ultimate length of cooking time will depend on the size of prawns you selected. Place on a serving tray and sprinkle the chiffonade of bell pepper over the top.

12 November 2008

Float away

I just finished fishing krathongs out of our swimming pool, my daughter is reassembling them and creating a floating centerpiece to remember the evening by and my son is racing wildly around the dining room table asking for more coconut taro root ice cream. We were treated to a special evening as we celebrated our first Loy Krathong holiday.

A week in the planning, the deal worked like this. I would host a little dinner party (menu: prawn pineapple curry, green papaya salad and local fruits) and our guests would bring the krathong making supplies (banana tree trunk slices surrounded by banana tree leaves, flowers, candles and incense). 

Loy Krathong is a holiday celebrated annually throughout Thailand where people rid themselves of last years sins and give thanks for the year ahead. To celebrate, participants build little floats (known as krathongs) and decorate them with offerrings such as flowers, coins, incense and candles. They then light the floats and push them out onto the water. Any waterway is considered acceptable: rivers, ponds, canals, swimming pools (but maybe not mud puddles much to my children's disappointment as they allowed their imaginations to envision making teeny tiny floats to place on the puddles formed after a Bangkok monsoon).

After enjoying drinks and dinner, we all got to work on our floats. Placing candles and incense in the center, we then used little hand made toothpicks to plant our orchids and marigolds into the floats. The floats themselves were rounds of a banana tree's trunk, decorated with banana tree leaves around the edges. The consistency of the trunk is eerily like styrofoam and allows for the toothpicks to fairly easily hold the flowers in place. 

Picking up our beautifully finished floats, we headed to our home's swimming pool where we lit the floats and individually launched them onto the water. All of the floats swimming together made for not only a beautiful show, but a spectacular finish on a wonderful evening with new friends. Happy Loy Krathong!

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 24:
Prawn Pineapple Curry
A delicious sweet curry, perfect for any special occasion. 

1/2 yellow onion, finely sliced
1 tablespoon veggie oil
3 cups of coconut milk
1/4 cup fish sauce
4 tablespoons red curry paste
1/4 disk of palm sugar (or approximately 1 tablespoon brown sugar)
bird's eye chilies, sliced into thin rounds (1 for mildly spicey, 2 for medium, 3 for spicy)
1 fresh pineapple, cored and sliced into generous bite-sized pieces
1/4 head of green cabbage, shredded
1 red pepper, sliced finely
1 cup of bamboo
1 cup tightly packed basil leaves
1 lb. of large prawns, peeled, devined and sliced in half lengthwise

Add veggie oil to a large stockpot and over medium heat saute onions until carmelized. Add coconut milk, curry, fish sauce, sugar and chilies. Bring to a simmer. Add pineapple and cook for five minute over low heat. Add cabbage, pepper, bamboo and basil. Cook until pepper is tender. Turn off heat, add prawns and cover. Steam until prawns are opaque (approximately 5 minutes) and serve with rice.

Note: The curry base can be made a day ahead of time. Just stop before adding the pineapple and then pick up where you left off the next day.

08 November 2008

With my own two (henna) hands

In the event that you were considering applying henna to your hands, I highly recommend seeking out the assistance of a professional. Unless of course you're looking for a fun activity to soak up a lot of time and provide a challenge in dexterity.

For my birthday this year, I wanted to not only enjoy the day (who doesn't, right?) but I wanted to incorporate something into my personal celebration that was specific to southeast Asia. My hope was to create a few moments to forever remember this year's unique birthday experience. 

So, naturally, when I spotted a friendly woman draped in gorgeous saris, I jumped at the chance to purchase two of her do it yourself hand henna kits (adult-and-kid-size). She assured me that the kits were "very, very easy" and would be fun to do with my kids. The kit included some skin safe henna ink, a small pointy wood stick and a couple sets of transfers.

In the late afternoon, I sat down with my four year old daughter and my two year old son for a henna party. We set pillows on the floor, piled a few special birthday treats on a pretty plate and laid out my hand henna supplies on a little tray table decorated with fresh flowers. And the henna experience began. 

My son wandered out to look for his Little People toys after laughing hysterically at the ticklish application of a sunshine's center to the palm of his hand. My daughter was a trooper as I ventured back and forth, for close to an hour, between her hands and mine. I'll spare you the play by play, but will make note of a couple items: 
  • A four year old's naturally smooshy adorable hands don't lend themselves well to tiny precise details. 
  • Henna ink does not dry faster than the amount of time it takes for a little girl to say "Is it dry yet?" and run her hand up and down your leg to check it out. 
Her celebratory sunshine ended up looking more like mushed firework explosions (and my leg looked like it got slobbered on by a dog who just ate a red lollipop). As for my hands, well, my left hand looked somewhat similar to the transfer. Being right handed, though, will leave me shoving my left hennaed hand into a pocket until the ink wears off.

Perhaps the best summation? My son wandered back, Little People in hand, and started to giggle uncontrollably at the sight of our newly inked hands. My daughter and I, at the time pretty proud of our designs, looked a tad bit surprised and then simultaneously joined in the laughter.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 23:
Chicken Pulao
This Indian dish is one of my new favorites and provides the warm, comforting flavors familiar to Indian cooking. Don't be scared off by the long list of ingredients, this is an easy recipe that makes for a great one pot meal. Be careful not to skip the first step of rinsing the rice. It really does make a difference in the outcome of the dish's texture.

2 cups basmati rice
2 yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus extra to taste
2 tablespoons veggie oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
1 star anise
5 tablespoons curry (use whatever brand of curry your grocer sells in their spice rack)
1 3-inch piece of fresh ginger, cut into rounds
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 chicken, cut into pieces
3 cups of chicken stock or water
1 1/2 cups milk
1 tablespoon vinegar
2 tomatoes, finely chopped
1 cup of coconut milk
1/2 cup cream
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 lemon, cut into wedges for serving

Preheat oven to 425 F. Place rice in a bowl and add cold water to cover. Swirl rice with your hand, agitate the mixture for a minute, let the rice settle, then drain off the water. Repeat six times. Cover rice with fresh water and set aside to soak for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, melt the butter and add the veggie oil to a large saute pan. Add the onions and caramelize. Add the salt, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, ginger, curry and garlic. Combine over medium heat. Add the chicken and cook until lightly browned. Add the rice and stir to coat, then cook slightly for about 2 minutes. Slowly add the chicken stock or water one cup at a time (add a cup, simmer until absorbed stirring occasionally, then add next cup and continue). Add remaining ingredients (except for cream, cilantro and lemon). Cover and cook over very low heat for about 20 minutes, until liquid is absorbed and rice is al dente. Remove from heat, stir in cream and cilantro. Transfer to oven proof dish and cook for 20 minutes. Serve with lemon wedges and a bit of extra cilantro.

04 November 2008

Whew... what's that smell?!

I was forced into writing this post. When I started this blog I promised not to recount absolutely everything that is already put out there about Thailand. Tune into any 30 minute travel show featuring the country and you'll likely see an elephant tour and "the odd fruit known as Durian". 

Well, after a Durian experience to novel to be ignored... here I am, writing about "the odd fruit known as Durian".

For anyone unfamiliar with Durian, it is a fruit native to this region and is considered by many to be a delicacy. Even so, most everyone agrees that the smell of the fruit is not for the faint of heart (and many would say the same about the taste). In fact, the scent is so distinct, and potent, that many hotels outlaw its presence. The picture above is of the inside flesh of one piece of fruit.

Out for a morning of errand running, I came across a fruit stand that not only sold durian fruit, but sliced it and packaged it. Which, if you've seen the size of the fruit (giant pumpkin-like) and the number of spikes it has (a lot), cutting and packaging becomes a very big selling point. Up until now, I've tried Durian candy, Durian chips and Durian crackers--all of which had the durian taste greatly offset by sugar or other ingredients. But, since it is a delicacy of the region, I felt obligated to try the real deal. 

So, purchasing two small packages and putting one in my backpack and carrying one in a separate bag, I ascended the Skytrain platform to begin the journey home. Through triple sealed plastic containers (literally wrapped in about a yard of plastic wrap each), I already began to smell the infamous odor of durian. Waiting in Bangkok's heat, the smell encircled me and I began to wonder if others could smell it too. I didn't have to wait long to have my question answered. In broken English, a Skytrain guard approached me and said "Ma'am, you have durian?" After a nod and some brief conversation, I realized I had the choice to hand it over or attempt to find a cab that would allow my durian to travel (the guard told me that the second option was unlikely).

So, I handed over my bag and the package of durian was rather grandly escorted to the nearest trash can. The Skytrain pulled up and the smell of durian stayed with me. Ohhhhhh.... my back pack! Previously forgetting the second purchased package, I smiled now in realization that the family would still get to try durian (if I could make it past the other Skytrain personnel).

Arriving home, I opened the package. Whewwww! An odor so strong that I had to back up and catch my breath pounced out of the bag. Sending the back pack to the laundry, I proceeded to check out the durian. The smell was that of hot, stinky feet mixed with overly ripe fruit and a bit of a rotting meat that might have been left out in the sun for a bit. Forever now, my mind has catalogued "eau de durian".

The taste? If someone were to give me a piece in a blind taste test (and I could get past the smell), the texture would remind me of a runny french cheese. Cut into the durian and it oozes over your plate. And, once on the tongue, it produces a sickeningly sweet, fermented, rotten cheese type of taste--- a delicacy that I don't quite understand and don't plan to work on developing a taste for. 

Suffice it to say, I'm not missing the second package of durian deposited in the Skytrain station's garbage can.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 22:
Tom Kha Gai
Long before arriving in Bangkok, this was one of my favorite dishes to order when eating Thai food. Some recipes, intended to be served as an appetizer size, tend towards the salty. This version, intended to be eaten as a main meal with rice, provides a very eatable bowl of soup (or two!).

1 stalk of lemongrass, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
4 lime leaves, folded*
1 piece of ginger, washed and sliced (about one inch long)
1 cup of mushrooms, cut in halves
2 tomatoes, diced
1-2 teaspoons chili paste
1 pound of chicken breasts, sliced thinly
1 1/2 cup coconut milk
4 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons fish sauce
lime wedges, for garnish

In a large stock pot, add coconut milk, chili paste, fish sauce, lemon juice, ginger, lemon grass and lime leaves. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to low (do not allow to boil). Add remaining ingredients and put a lid on the pot. Turn off heat and allow the chicken to poach in the soup. Once the chicken is fully cooked, warm the soup to desired serving temperature. Serve with lime wedges and rice. Allow each person to add rice and squeeze lime over their servings as desired.

*If you can't find the leaves in your local grocery, leave them out, but add 2 extra tablespoons of lime juice.

31 October 2008

An expat Halloween accomplished

The weeks of paper mache pumpkin making, toilet paper ghost creating, spooky balloon jack o'lantern garland hanging, caramel apple dipping and popcorn ball rolling came to a grand end on October 31 in Bangkok.

My four year old began the day as one of the cutest bumblebees you've ever seen (complete with sparkling antennas and all) and ended the celebrations as a cat in a swimsuit (removing the antennas and applying eyeliner whiskers instead). My two year old son growled "arrrrr" and shouted "ahoy" for the majority of the day running around in a fleece pirates costume (yup, he was a tad bit warm by about noon in Bangkok's 100 degree heat!).

While Halloween is celebrated within the bar crawling circle with scary costumes and half price specials, kids activities haven't yet found their way here. Some of the larger apartment buildings do provide trick or treating I was told, but in our area, we were left to happily manufacture a Halloween for the kids.

Mama objective number one: Give the kids a chance to show off their costumes. The day began with a trek to the local Starbucks and grocery store, in costume. The baristas left their posts, with a very long line of waiting customers, tried on the pirate hat and oohed and ahhed over the satiny striped bumblebee. The kids were quite a sight with everyone (and I do mean everyone) stopping to stare and comment.

Mama objective number two: Provide some familiar festive fun. After cooking up some caramel and dipping apples, both kids proudly delivered plates of Halloween caramel apples to our security guards and neighbors. Then we returned home to bob for apples on the balcony. For my kids, the combined opportunity to get soaking wet and eat apples was too exciting. We spent a good forty-five minutes before returning indoors to decorate their bedroom doors with a few more spooky spiderwebs.

Mama objective number three: Create a party. T returned home from work and quietly assembled a safari guy costume. Just a bit earlier, I snuck away to create a spooky dinner (glow in the dark ghosts gathered on the closed curtains, pumpkin candles flickered on the table, millions of Halloween rings scattered across the tabletop and mingled with other Halloween goodies sent by wonderful family members from the States, while spooky cobweb soup and grilled cheese ghost sandwiches awaited). Then, both in costumes, T and I led the kids to their party.

Mama objective number four: Trick or treat. Easy. T and I took turns hiding behind various doors in the house, the kids did their thing and after collecting way too many goodies they sat down to loot their booty. Our little pirate really got the hang of it this year, tearing into the candy before paying attention to the stickers and play dough.

Still in my "one tired puppy" costume, complete with dog ears, a tail and sleep mask, my daughter looked at me and provided commentary on her first Halloween in Bangkok. "I love you mama. This was my best Halloween ever. And, I mean, ever ever ever." Ahhh... another mission accomplished.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 21:
Nam Prik
Requested by a reader, this recipe is for a condiment widely used in Thailand (and made differently from region to region). Firey hot, I'd recommend using this sauce sparingly until you develop a taste for it. Admittedly, not one of my favorite flavors, but one that my husband continuously requests more of when our fridge runs low.

8 cloves of garlic, finely minced
8 chili peppers, finely cut into small rounds
1 1/2 cups fish sauce
Juice of two limes
1 tablespoon palm sugar, optional

Add all ingredients to a jar that has an airtight cover (a canning jar works well). Seal and shake. Place in fridge for at least two days before serving. Will last for up to three months in the fridge. Serve over rice, noodles and meats as desired.

26 October 2008

Singapore Sling

"No gum? Then, I'm not going." My daughter huffed and sat cross legged at my feet as I threw a swimsuit into a backpack. That is exactly how my most recent Saturday morning began. 

After hearing that we were taking a quick "vacation" to Singapore and learning about the country's strict "no gum allowed anywhere" rule, my four year old decided that this was not the type of vacation she wanted to participate in.

Chewing gum is a new thing in our family and exclusively used for enticing young children onto various modes of transportation. (It began with an innocent enough two hour flight to California and has found its way into their mouths during difficult flights and tricky Bangkok Skytrain rides since.) Mentally smacking my hand upside my head and attempting to limit an eye roll, on this particular Saturday morning, I wish I could have taken back every nibble of gum I have given. And, so our quick dash for Singapore began. 

While my husband's passport had been stamped many times since our initial entry into Thailand, the kids and I needed an update. So, it was off for a quick stay in Singapore where we would be granted, upon return to Thailand, shiny new stamps in our passports allowing us to continue our adventure in Bangkok.

After a fairly uneventful flight and a few train rides on yet another world-class public transportation system (why don't these exist everywhere?), we threw ourselves down into an open air cafe sporting huge green awnings and bearing the famous siren's logo. Sipping blissful refreshment, we soaked up cafe culture, Singapore style, and surveyed the scene. 

The sidewalks alone were enough to make my mind spin. Having grown used to Bangkok's crumbling pathways, I was shocked to remember that smooth, wide, easy to navigate ones exist in other places. And, after our elevated train ride into the heart of the city, I would not be shocked to learn someday that yoga really is practiced, or at least sold, on every corner of Singapore and that the papayas growing in the trees beside the tracks are among the largest in the world.

As for the anti-gum upset? My daughter completely forgot about her protests when she laid eyes on the slide leading into our hotel's cool, blue swimming pool.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 20:
Fried Bee Hoon
I tried this Singapore noodle dish at breakfast yesterday (in Singapore!). I loved it so much that I came home and created the following recipe so I could replicate the dish in my own kitchen. A yummy alternative to fried rice, it makes for a complete meal at any time of the day.

1 package thin rice vermicelli noodles (bee hoon)
5 dried mushrooms 
3 cloves of garlic, finely diced
4 tablespoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons oyster sauce
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1-2 bird's eye chilies (optional, to taste, chopped into rounds)
pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon veggie oil
vegetables of your choice, cut into thin strips (carrots, cabbage, bean sprouts, etc.)
meat of your choice, cut into thin strips (or extra firm tofu, cubed)
egg, cooked omelette style and cut into thin strips

Reconstitute vermicelli by soaking in warm water for about 15 minutes, strain and set aside. Reconstitute dried mushrooms by soaking in 1/2 cup of warm water for about 15 minutes, then cut mushrooms into thin strips and reserve water. In a bowl, mix soy sauce, oyster sauce, reserved mushroom liquid, sesame oil, bird's eye chilies, pepper, salt and chicken stock. Set aside. Heat a large wok, add vegetable oil. Stir fry garlic, mushrooms and vegetables until tender. Add meat or tofu and toss until cooked and seared. Add vermicelli and just enough of the sauce mixture to coat the bottom of the pan. The sauce should sizzle and evaporate. Toss well and add a bit more stock. Continue this process until the noodles won't soak up anymore sauce. You want the pan to remain fairly dry to achieve a toasted flavor (you don't want the noodles soaking in sauce, they should be dry and "fried" a bit crispy on the edges when done). Serve and garnish with egg strips and extra sesame oil, if desired.

20 October 2008

The trundlers

Time for a confession. Recently, I've received a lot of mail with comments alluding to the fact that all sounds really great in Thailand and "wow, not a lot of bad to report." Lest you think that it is all sunny skies and blooming orchids in Bangkok, I thought it was time to note a four legged creature that is regularly making my hair stand on end.

Prior to moving here, I kept my phobias well hidden from most people (don't let a close sibling or a well connected mother tell you otherwise). But, several times a week, I have to take a deep breath as goose bumps rise on my arms, a chill comes over me in the 100 plus degree heat and I come toe to claw with my nemesis.

While I am fortunate that our home seems to be an enemy-free zone, it only takes a couple of blocks on our daily walk before I find my shoulders tensing in anticipation of a possible encounter.

In the very early days of our time in Bangkok, I was cautiously optimistic that I would never run into a rat (while my husband was realistic in knowing he'd eventually cross paths with his nemesis: the deeply hated cockroach). Rather quickly, my eyes were opened and I realized, with great fear, that the Thai rat was even worse than my previously stated phobias allowed.

These little suckers are tame and act as though you should provide them with a mini lounge chair and a drink with an umbrella in it. Thai rats are what the animators at Pixar had in mind when they created Ratatouille. Let's just say, while not as photogenic as Pixar's version, you can just imagine them having full conversations in their little communities with one another. And, my daughter seems to think they're cute (shiver!). So, to avoid my daughter's request of one coming home as a pet (ahhhgg... shiver!), the name "the trundlers" was born. 

Let me explain, all parents will recognize the spelling phase-- you know, your children's vocabulary increases and you look at your significant other and say "Should we go to the T-O-Y-S-T-O-R-E?!" Well, my daughter is particularly adept at now understanding that spelling equals a secret. So, in this scenario, we can no longer spell "R-A-T" and we don't want to point them out due to my earlier point of having to have the pet discussion (ahhhgg... shiver again!). Thus, my husband and I have created a series of code words, as needed. In this case... "the trundlers." There goes another trundler. There sure are a lot of trundlers today. Watch out: trundler at 1 o'clock.

Now, I can say that I am no less phobic and no more comfortable with rats than I was when I first landed here. However, the presence of trundlers in the street after a storm, walking lazily along the sewer lines every once in awhile or crawling past an orchid is something I try to ignore. My daughter's interest seems to be waning, but I'll continue to speak in code for as long as it will last.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 19
Fish wrapped in leaves
How do you follow a posting on rats with a recipe? You ignore it, move on and provide a fantastic recipe that everyone should try!

For the fish:
8 leaves cabbage
1 fillet of white fish (cod or snapper work well), cut into four individual portions
8 green onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
about 1 Tablespoon ginger, minced
red pepper flakes, optional to taste
salt and pepper, to taste
1 mango, sliced thinly

For the sauce:
1 mango, mashed
1/4 cup coconut milk
fish sauce, to taste (about 1 tablespoon)
red pepper flakes, to taste

Bring a full pot of water to a boil and add the cabbage leaves. Cook until tender and pliable. Remove from water, cool, pat dry and set aside. Add salt and pepper to the fish so that it is well seasoned. Place one leaf of cabbage on a work surface, add one piece of fish, top with two green onions, a pinch of garlic, a pinch of ginger, optional red pepper flakes and two slices of mango. Wrap the leaf around the fish, add another leaf and wrap so that the fish is wrapped like a package. Place in a well oiled small sized baking pan. Continue with the other three fillets, placing them closely together in the baking pan. Place in a 350 degree oven and cook until the fish is opaque. Cooking time will vary depending on the size and type of fish you selected, but generally takes about 20 minutes. While the fish is cooking, combine the sauce ingredients in a pot over very low heat. Stir until well combined. Serve by placing the wrapped fish on top of a thin layer of rice and top with the heated sauce.

Yield: 4 servings

14 October 2008

I was a human pretzel

For years I've been hearing about traditional Thai massage. And, what has made the activity so interesting to me is that everyone seems to have such a different story to tell of their experience. So, naturally, I was looking forward to finally entering a traditional Thai massage into my life's adventure log.

For those of you who have not partaken in Thai massage, its a wild ride. I am still recovering from yesterday's trip to the spa. However, for the remainder of this entry, I will attempt to keep my opinions somewhat neutral and allow you to decide, if presented with the opportunity, whether one should be a part of your future. Here are the facts, as I experienced them at a serene, reputable, highly referred spa.

Upon entrance, I was greeted by Liao-- a tiny, fifty-ish, Thai woman with a huge, beautiful smile. I was told she'd be my guide for the journey ahead of me. She led me to a sparsely decorated, quiet, dimly lit room that smelled faintly of eucalyptus oil and closed a curtain. I adjusted to the dim and took a look around. After changing into the traditional Thai pajamas left for me, I reclined on the floor mattress and breathed deeply until she returned. So far, so good.

During a Thai massage (known at nuat phaen boran, which translates to ancient-manner massage) your masseuse puts your body into various yoga-like poses. Then, moving very slowly, she applies pressure to different points of the body while you are to stay completely still. The masseuse uses their feet and hands to do the massaging. According to an official definition (which, for the record, I read after going to the spa) Thai massage includes pulling fingers, toes, ears, etc, cracking the knuckles, walking on the recipient's back, and arching the recipient's back in a rolling action over the masseuse's body. 

With fear for stating the obvious, let me just say this, I have discovered that forearm bone pressed at full body weight against a shin while your body is perched sideways and your head is looking the opposite direction is not comfortable. 

While I was busy cursing at myself for scheduling a two hour massage (why? why be so greedy... you could have been out of here in an hour!), my masseuse moved to my back where I literally had my breath taken away. With a woman walking on top of me and my lungs expelling guttural sounds, I buried my face deep into the pillow and began a series of non stop laughter. What was I doing here?! 

I composed myself in just enough time to be hoisted by the elbows, and rolled backwards over my masseuse. After being wadded up into a pretzel shape (which was already slightly uncomfortable) my masseuse stood straight up, reached for the sky and launched her body on top of mine (remember, I was already awkwardly curled up into a pretzel). I heard joints crack that I didn't even know existed. A few moments in that position, a few deep elbow digs and she removed herself. With a deep bow and khap koon kah later, she exited.

While I do now understand the thrill of Thai massage (an odd combination of adrenaline rushing through your body, with deep intense stretching does leave you feeling invigorated), I also understand that I was more thrilled to exit the spa in one piece. So entry number 1,824,644 in my life's experience book: Get Thai Massage. Check. Been there, done that.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 18
Mee Goreng (pronounced Me-Gor-Ring)
This is one of my favorite newly discovered noodle dishes. I'm told that this recipe is locally regarded in the same light at chicken soup is to most Americans-- good ol' comfort food and exactly what the doctor ordered after a potentially bone breaking experience.

10 won ton wrappers, cut into thin pieces and fried until golden
3 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon chili sauce
pepper, to taste
2 eggs
2 packets of ramen noodles, cooked until al dente
1 tablespoon coconut milk
tsp of veggie oil
5 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup choice of meat (pork, chicken or beef), sliced thinly
2 bird's eye chilies, finely chopped
1/2 cup carrot, julienned
2 cups spinach (or as my kids now like to call it, as it is more locally referred to, "rocket")

Combine the soy sauce, sugar, chili sauce and pepper in a small bowl. Set aside. Add coconut milk and veggie oil to a wok with the garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Add carrots, meat and chilies and cook until meat is done. Add spinach, cooked ramen noodles and previously mixed sauce combination. Toss until warm and dish into large individual serving bowls. In a hot fry pan, fry eggs until desired doneness is reached (most authentic version calls for sunny side up). Place one egg on top of each noodle serving. Add fried won tons on top of the egg and serve immediately with extra soy and hot sauces on the side. Makes two very large servings.

11 October 2008

Pardon me, you have a little wing in your teeth

A fantastic morning out was made all the more brilliant when I came upon the fried bug vendor. If you've kept up with the blog, you already know my adoration for the mighty street vendor. But, this morning's discovery tops them all. I'll keep this short and let the pictures do the talking. Hold on to your stomach if you're not a big fan of a little wing in your teeth.....

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 17:
Vodka tonic with thai limes
After some encounters, you just need a stiff drink mixed expertly by your significant other!

1 shot of vodka
tonic water
juice of two thai limes (if you can't find thai limes, use juice of two regular limes with a twist of lemon)

Fill a glass with ice, add vodka and lime juice. Fill with tonic to the top.

09 October 2008

Hold on to your stilettos!

For all of those who love me, I feel oddly compelled to apologize for my actions today. Zipping through our sub sois on the back of a motorbike taxi was thrilling!

Ever since our arrival in Bangkok, I have watched our neighborhood burst with life. And, a huge, colorful part of that life includes the motorbike taxis. In our neighborhood, this means about 15 guys wearing orange cotton vests rapidly riding, sans helmets, through the side streets, picking up passengers and then delivering their passengers to main roads. The incentive for the passenger? Cheap fare, fast and readily available service.

So, since it was too early for our driver and I had already spent numerous weeks declining the request for a motorbike pick-up, I figured it was time to take part in the motorbike taxi experience... just once.

Local women sit side saddle, with their 3-inch stilettos daintily crossed, holding on with one hand as they fly down the middle of the street. Truly an impressive feat and one that I appreciate even more so after today. I opted for the "jump on the bike, hold on for dear life (in my 3-inch stilettos, naturally....) and wrap my arms way to tightly for his comfort around the driver" position. This barely served me well enough as we careened down the streets at what I gathered was farang-pace (aka slow, for the scared foreign gal). 

Frankly, though, the combination of fear for my life, running over already squished frogs in the roadway and sweating from the grip I had on the driver was enough for me from the local motorbike scene.

As thrilling as it was, for the sake of my family, it will be a long, long while before I hop on the back of a bike again.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 16:
Philippine Ribs
A new friend cooked these for us and my kids lives have never been the same since! They devour these and then ask for more.

2 racks of spare ribs, cut into seperate pieces
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup terriyaki sauce
3 tablespoons brown sugar
Juice of 4 limes
1 bird's eye chili, diced

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl and marinate overnight. To bake, place ribs on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil or parchment paper. Cook for approximately 30 minutes at 375 degrees (or until meat is tender and almost falls off the bone). Serve with rice, fresh pineapple and a lot of napkins!

03 October 2008

Oil Slick

For the sake of this blog entry, I decided to subject myself to serious investigative journalism this morning. I kissed the kids and headed out for a morning of pampering at one of the local spas. Now, I must confess, I'm not a first-timer to the spas here. But, again, for the sake of really making sure I had the facts straight, I thought I should check it all out again before I posted an entry.

After a quick car ride under very gray skies, I arrived for my ten a.m. appointment. Kicking off my shoes upon stepping onto the salon's glossy white floors, I was greeted by a spa guide who escorted me to a raised massage chair. I sunk my feet into the bubbly water bath, ordered a complimentary roselle tea from their beverage menu, dipped my hands into the awaiting salt water dishes on either side of me, leaned my head deep into the cushioned chair and closed my eyes.

After almost two hours of intense arm and leg massages, a couple coats of beautiful metallic silver lacquer, at least several buckets of salt scrub and almond oil, my pedicure and manicure ended. I continued to bliss out as I paid about a fourth of what the experience would have cost me in the US.

Feeling treated myself, I stopped at the local grocery to pick up an item that's been heavily requested by the kids and not responded to (yes, they wanted the "macaroni in the blue box, plllllllease"). Then, I headed home. Finally, the thunder cracked overhead and knowing what that meant I picked up the pace. Already committed to walking home, rather than taking a taxi (which were now in short supply as I entered the smaller side roads that led home), I felt a twinge of anxiety and discomfort. The thunder grew to an intense rumble (boy, that happened fast today) and my feet began to slide around on my flip flops as the humidity further liquefied the salon's pedicure oil. Helpful Note: When in Thailand, don't wear already slippery flip flops to a pedicure... especially during monsoon season!

And, then it happened. Still several blocks away from home, the first pellet of rain struck. And, just as it had done on days previous, the sky opened up, sheets poured and my oily feet began to create a slick. Pushing panic to the side, I threw my flip flops off, grabbed my grocery bag closer (to protect the precious blue cardboard box inside) and moved a little further into the street. Watching my sparkly toes hit the now very wet pavement and feeling my stringy soaked hair stick to my neck, I couldn't help but laugh out loud. I wanted to throw my arms up in the air and say to the heavens, "I'm in Thailand, walking to my home in the middle of a monsoon... and I'm having the time of my life!"

Cooking in Thailand: entry no. 15:
Thai "BBQ" Chicken
A really easy and delicious take on one of our favorite street vendor's "gai" (chicken). A great dinner when served with rice and fresh fruit.

1 whole chicken, cut into parts
1/2 cup of soy sauce
3 tablespoons ketchup
1/4 cup terriyaki sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 onion, minced
2 bird's eye chili peppers, diced (use only one if you like a little less spice)

Mix all of the above ingredients together in a large shallow pan, to be used for marinating. Add the chicken and turn to coat. Cover and set in fridge overnight. Line a baking pan with heavy duty aluminum foil. (Ideally, use a pan that is only large enough to put all of the chicken in so that the pieces touch and form a tight layer. You don't want the chicken to be spread out.) Place in a preheated 350 degree over, uncovered, for about 35 minutes or until the chicken is opaque in the center (depending on the size of chicken you use, the baking time may vary a bit). Remove and allow to rest for 15 minutes before serving. Also good cold.

02 October 2008

Aging gracefully

My daughter is exactly 4 years, 6 months and 7 days old and she knows how to hail a taxi. I'm not sure about you, but I never saw that developmental milestone coming so early!

We've had a bit of conflicting advice on how to pronounce the name of our street (in Thai). So, for the past several days, I've been using our taxi ride home from the Skytrain to try out all of the different variations. 

Each day, after we descended from the Skytrain stairs, I held my arm out and produced a downward waving gesture (a local gesture I've been instructed to use to hail a cab). And, day after day, the kids and I were greeted by a friendly driver. "Sahwahdee-kah!" I started. "Soi.... (insert variations on the pronunciation here)- kah." 

After each and every try I was met by a confused expression and I resorted to dropping my bags and holding up the appropriate number of fingers to communicate our street name. From there, understanding was reached and I was able to happily "trong-pai" my way home ("go straight"). And, every day, we got home, but apparently none of the pronunciations worked coming out of my mouth.

So, yesterday, my daughter looked at me as we departed Skytrain and said "Mama, let me take care of the cab today." Hmmmm, let's see what happens.

Her little feet hit the pavement and, without missing a beat, she identified the car that would be hers. A miniature version of the wave I'd done on days previous was thrown into the world for bait and, much to my surprise, she caught her taxi. Looking at me with an odd combination of hysterics and fiery accomplishment in her eyes, she said "Mama, this is mine... I got it, I got it!" Far be it for me to get in her way. 

I opened the door, she leaned in and, in perfectly understood Thai, she greeted the driver and politely directed him to our street. He spoke back a signal of exact understanding and we were home about three minutes later.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 15:
Egg Fu Yung
For anyone who picked up on the pun, linking my blog entry's title to this recipe, I'm sorry... I couldn't resist! Plus, this has quickly become one of my, and my kids, favorite breakfasts! 

3 tablespoons veggie oil
3 eggs, well beaten
1/2 carrot
8 mushrooms
1/2 cup bean sprouts
4 green onions
salt and pepper to taste
oyster sauce, about 1 teaspoon per person
a set of chopsticks

Shred the carrots and mushrooms (using a food processor makes the job really fast) and add, with 1 tablespoon of the oil, to a large saute pan. Cook, adding water if the pan becomes dry, until the carrots are tender. Add the green onions and bean sprouts, cook for about 2 minutes more so that they are hot to the touch. Move veggie mixture to outskirts of the pan and add the remaining oil to the center of the pan. Heat. All at once, add the eggs, using your chopsticks move the mixture quickly in a figure 8 pattern, adding the veggies into the eggs. The eggs should be firming up and the veggies should be well distributed. Use the chopsticks to push the sides of the egg down from the edges of the pan. Once the mixture becomes firm, use a large spatula and flip it. Cook for about a minute more. The Egg Fu Yung will look like a large pancake. Transfer it to a cutting board and let rest. In the meantime, heat the oyster sauce in the same pan you cooked the Egg Fu Yung in. Slice the Egg Fu Yung into wedges, serve with rice and a small dollop of oyster sauce (the sauce is strong so use lightly).

23 September 2008

Thinking of my sister

To make my homecoming easier after the birth of my daughter, my sister stocked my refrigerator with small containers of beautifully prepared fresh fruits. She assumed, correctly, that fresh fruit would make a perfect grab and go snack for a new, tired, nursing mom.

Today, as I prepared fresh fruit for my family, I was reminded of that wonderful gesture of love. So, thoughts of my sister, prompted me to share a few of Thailand's many exotic fruits that we're enjoying on a regular basis. 

The wildly brilliantly colored dragon fruit, native to South America, is grown with great commercial success in Thailand. And, they are at their plumpest and freshest, of course, before they are shipped around the world. So much so, in fact, that the few dragon fruit I've seen in the US don't even look like the same fruit. As you can see from the picture, it is a small football-like thing with "scales." Bright magenta with lime green tipping, the fruit's exotic skin is only the beginning. Peel back the skin like a tangerine and you're greeted with, depending on the variety, either a bright white flesh studded with tiny black edible seeds or a flesh the same color as the magenta skin. (Note: Unless you want people to question what you've been up to, don't cut a purple-fleshed dragon fruit and schedule a manicure, like I did, for the same day!) The taste of a fresh dragon fruit is earthy-- like a great aged red wine is earthy. And, the seeds pop like tiny little pieces of caviar as the white (or purple!) flesh gives way.

Another fruit that you may not have seen yet in the States is the mangosteen. Little purple globes, about the size of a golf ball, hold just a few white fruit segments inside. They take some work to pull apart, but inside you are rewarded with a taste that is unparalleled. Think about the cross between a mango, a sweet grape, a tiny burst of lime and, if you can imagine what warm sunshine might taste like, add a dash of that too. They make a nice one bite treat when you're up for a little bit of work in the shelling/peeling process.

Other fruits we have been loving, but aren't quite as exotic, are:
* Pineapples (Did you ever realize that there are lots of varieties? We have easy access to Phuket pineapple which is really golden and sweet, similar to the Hawaiian variety, and the Siriachan pineapple which is mellower with a bit of a honey flavor and a firmer texture.)
* Mangoes (Delicious! And, again, a ton of varietal choice here.)
* Papaya (These are the biggest I have ever seen, full of flavor, and the Red Lady variety with some rice on the side make for one of our family's favorite breakfasts.)
* Pomellos (Similar to a grapefruit, this has become my absolute favorite afternoon snack. Peel, remove the membrane on the sections and snack away!)
* Chiang Mai bananas (Small and a bit starchier than your typical variety, these are sold in small bunches for about 50 cents per bunch. The kids love them and they make for a great banana bread!)

So, here I am, in my Thai kitchen, missing and thinking of my sister. Four years after she prepared containers of fresh fruit to fill my refrigerator, my daughter is opening the fridge's door and removing a freshly prepared container for her snack this afternoon.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 14:
Fruit Salad
A spin on the classic, use whatever fruits you enjoy and have access to.

A selection of your favorite fruits, sliced in thin rounds or as uniformly as the shape of the fruit dictates (I like oranges, papaya and mango)
Juice of one large lime
1/8 cup Mint, chopped
1/8 cup Basil, chopped
black pepper

On a large plate, place your fruit in a flat layer, slightly overlapping the slices. Squeeze the juice of one lime over the fruit. Sprinkle with mint and basil and a grind of black pepper. Enjoy!

Would anyone help?

Yesterday, the kids and I were wandering aimlessly through Chatuchak Weekend Market. (In reality, we were just a bit lost. But, that's beside the point of this tale!) Nearing the end of our wanderings and preparing to head back to the underground for a return trip home, we took a break by one of the ice distributors stands. The market is open air, hot and humid. So, in order to keep various foods from spoiling and drinks worth drinking, ice is delivered regularly to the market's vendors. The deliveries are made by about a half dozen young Thai men, pushing hand trucks loaded to the top with giant bags of the cool stuff.

We spent a few minutes people watching and F enjoyed noting the "giiiiiiaaaaannnnnnttt" stacks of heavy bags of ice. Market goers strolled by with their own bags full of purchased items, eating various snacks and enjoying their day in the heat. One minute later, we heard a giant crash. A hand truck full of ice was on the ground and on top of one of the young delivery workers. He was buried under the stack after it fell backwards on top of him. 

I only had time to blink and like ants on an ant hill, several dozen passerbyers were already digging the man out. Bags of purchased items were abandoned in the market's "street," food was literally thrown aside and the entire bustle of the market focused in on helping a fellow human being. The man was out from the bags in seconds and appeared, other than being a bit embarrassed, to be alright.

Watching such a natural reflex that the the Thai people exhibited in rushing to a stranger's aide made me sadly recall a news story I read a few months before leaving for Thailand. As captured on a DMV camera, a person was hit by a driver, who fled the scene, and laid in the street for 14 minutes before anyone stopped to offer help. The camera's view showed cars and motorcycles slowing and driving around the person in need of help. The camera also caught many pedestrians gathering on the sidewalk to watch. When some of the pedestrians were asked later why they didn't offer help, several said that they either thought it was a prank or were scared that the person was trying to pull a scam.


Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 13:
Thai Whipped Milk
A new favorite of my kids when visiting the weekend market. A cooling special treat!

Add the following ingredients to a blender and process until smooth:
1 cup of milk
1 cup of fresh fruit
1/2 cup of ice

Pour into a tall cup, serve with a generous amount of whipping cream, topped with sprinkles and a cherry. Spike with two straws and share with a good friend (or, in the case of my kids, head to head with a favorite sibling!).

16 September 2008

A picture of tenacity

One of my favorite things about living overseas is captured in this picture: spontaneous discovery of how other people live and work. 

C and I were out for some early morning mommy/daughter time. We were strolling along, snapping pictures together (she brought her fantastic, new V-tech camera given to her by some of the best friends one could ever ask to have!) and came upon a street we've crossed many times in central Bangkok.

On this particular day, with cameras in hand, we lingered a little longer on the raised platform overlooking the street. Rush hour was building and we witnessed the best of Bangkok traffic. A huge melting pot of transportation options... the train zoomed overhead, tuk tuk's raced by carrying tourists, cabs every color of the rainbow (hot pink, bright orange, lime green, purple, yellow) zipped through the "lanes", motorcycles jockeyed for positions and my favorite... the mighty street vendors pushed their carts right along with their gas guzzling, fume spitting companions. 

I have so much respect for Bangkok's street vendors. They work hard and are experts at what they do. They start their days early and work later than I have stayed awake to witness. All the while, constantly chopping and frying and preparing some of Bangkok's most critically acclaimed local food. Look at any list featuring places to eat in Bangkok and I challenge you not to find several food vendor stalls listed right along with your typical bricks and mortar restaurants. Often described as the cart on the corner of XYZ road across from XYZ landmark, vendors seem to find a regular location and reap the rewards of familiar customers.

But it is the tenacity, which the picture hints at, that I respect the most. Pushing huge movable feasts, Bangkok's street vendors set up shop from scratch every morning. An early walk through our own neighborhood reveals little more than a few wooden stools cleverly stashed in trees. A few hours later, full restaurants will be set up with folding tables, stools (taken out of the trees!), condiment trays and, in some cases, brightly printed vinyl table clothes. With the cart's propane hissing and oil bubbling and the chef's knife chopping on a huge wooden block, it's hard not to be in awe of how dedicated people in this profession are. Their persistent determination to serve high quality food, from recipes that have been passed down for generations, (after pushing a heavy cart and setting up shop each and every day in Bangkok's heat!) has made me redefine my former definition of hard work. 

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 12:
Yellow Harvest Curry
A sweet and mildly spiced curry, this brightly colored combination takes advantage of Fall's wonderful harvest ingredients.

1 tablespoon veggie oil
Yellow curry paste, to taste (approx. 2 tablespoons)*
2 cups of coconut milk
1/8 cup fish sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar, optional
1 whole bird's eye pepper, optional
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 squash, cubed (use your favorite locally available variety)
1 carrot, cut into large rounds
2 potatoes, cut into large cubes
1 cup loosely packed basil leaves
2 stalks of celery, cut into large pieces, stems and leaves included

Place the oil and onion and celery in a large stock pot. Cook over medium heat until the onion is completely caramelized (add a little bit of water once in awhile to keep the onion from burning). Add coconut milk, curry paste, sugar, and fish sauce. Bring to a simmer and taste. It should be very strong in flavor. Check the level of spice and add a whole pepper if desired. Add all remaining ingredients, turn heat to low and cover. Simmer until the squash and potatoes are soft. Serve hot over rice.

*Look in the Indian foods section of your grocery to find yellow curry paste. If you can't find it, you can either use red curry paste and add a large pinch of turmeric or you can use the yellow hued curry, sold in your store's spice section, and add extra fish sauce to your curry base.

15 September 2008

Welcome monsoon season!

I'm struggling to find the words to explain what I'm viewing right now. And, given the situation, that's an odd statement coming from a girl who was raised in the U.S.A.'s Pacific Northwest! 

The entire view is white, with hazy outlines of neighboring houses and tiny little dots of green that are only visible because your mind knows that the color green should exist from this vantage point.

Rain and wind, both unlike any I have seen before, have cast a gauze-like shadow over our Bangkok neighborhood. The drops are plump, continuous water balls being blown in every which direction. The noise is thunderous (and at this point the sure to follow thunder and lightning extravaganza have yet to begin). 

The storm is pelting our roof, shaking the windows and causing every living thing to scatter for cover. The birds retreated long ago. In fact, over the last month and a half, I have learned that when the ever present bird calls begin to fade, it's time to retreat. A storm is brewing. And, the neighborhood's fruit vendor strolled his umbrella covered trolley through the street on his usual path home. Today, though, he was ushered, a bit early, by dark clouds that literally nipped at his heels.

And, here we are. T is, I presume, under cover at work. Later today some of the major streets near his office will definitely be flooded. F has thrown the screen door open wide, pulled up his child-sized easy chair and flopped down into it for a long leisurely front row view. C and I are standing a few steps back. She has her ears covered, to silence the beautiful, but deafening, noise. And, I, well as you can probably tell from this post, have found my mouth hanging open in awe.

About 10 minutes have now passed and the sub soi leading to our home is completely covered in water. No cars or people are passing.

About 20 minutes have now passed and the thunder and lightening have begun. Intense cracks send the kids racing for my lap (and I'm thinking where am I going to race to!). The lightening flashes look like paparazzi bulbs hitting a major celebrity... intensely bright and long, compared to other storms I've witnessed. 

43 minutes have elapsed since I started this documentation. The rain has cleared, the clouds have rolled back to reveal a bright blue sky. The air is intensely humid with a strong smell of fresh, hot earth lingering. The waters that temporarily covered our sub soi are starting to retreat. Thunder still rumbles, but so far away that it will soon be a distant memory.

According to a conversation I had over the weekend, this is just the beginning of the season. We have arrived at the wettest time of the year in the land of smiles, but if there is more to come of what we just experienced, then I throw my arms open wide, drop my mouth in awe and heartily exclaim "welcome monsoon season!"

Cooking in Thailand: entry no. 11
Green Papaya Salad
This salad is a staple on the Thai menu. It's bright flavors and fresh crunch provide a nice juxtaposition to spicy, creamy curries. And, this particular recipe will forever be special to me because it was inspired by a book featuring Southeast Asian flavors that my friend Valerie gave to me. The following recipe takes everything that is great from the traditional Green Papaya Salad, but I have altered it slightly to better meet the tastes and needs of our family.

2 Cups green papaya, shredded (Should be available in U.S. stores that carry a wide selection of produce. It's completely different from the golden papayas you may be used to eating, so if you can't find it, ask for help.)
1 red bird's eye chili
1 small clove garlic
1/4 cup salted, smoked almonds*
1 tablespoon Thai palm sugar (or use light brown sugar)
3 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon fish sauce
Cilantro, for garnish

Using either a mortar and pestle or a food processor, crush the chili with the garlic and the almonds into a paste. Add the sugar, lime juice and fish sauce. Place papaya in serving bowl and pour dressing over top. Stir until well combined. Allow to sit at room temperature for at least one hour or place overnight in the refrigerator. Serve, garnished with roughly chopped cilantro.

* The traditional recipe calls for peanuts, but due to our daughter's allergy I've substituted smoked almonds. Surprisingly, the almonds provide a nice salty, smoky, nutty flavor. Even the most die-hard Thai food traditionalist among us didn't miss the peanuts! If peanut allergies aren't a problem in your house, just swap the almonds for the same amount of peanuts.

08 September 2008

Sorry Starbucks! Wow Wawee!

We found a new neighborhood hot spot (no pun intended!). Wawee Coffee (pronounced wah-wee) is such a welcoming oasis in the middle of busy Bangkok that we might very well have to say good-bye to our frequent Starbucks' stops. With a fairly large garden tucked behind the busy streets, Wawee has created a series of decks and bridges that seemingly float over Koi ponds and weave through lush tropical foliage. The ever-present incense floats through the air and hidden benches, a gazebo and market umbrellas are tucked throughout the setting to provide respite from the heat. Inside, chandeliers hang in cozy elegant rooms where patrons enjoy creamy, whipped cream topped creations and one of Bangkok's many ever present dessert cases continues to be refilled regularly.

T and I enjoyed a morning out on Saturday and discovered the joy of Wawee's relaxed atmosphere. Today, I shared it with the kids.

On our walk to the shop, we wove our way through a series of sky bridges (used to access the Skytrain or to cross major streets that you wouldn't dare cross at ground level) and side streets and alleys. In Bangkok, you do anything you can to avoid the traffic! And, during our walk we enjoyed the sites that have become 'normal'... the crazy motorcycle taxis where women sit side saddle, while wearing high heels!, the lines of food carts selling everything from BBQ meats to steaming bowls of ramen to beautifully sliced fresh fruit, and the golden wats perched in corners and adorned with incense, flowers and assorted tiny offerings

I snapped the picture at the left as we walked to Wawee Coffee this morning. The image provides a glimpse of a well established neighborhood walkway. This is a rare alleyway in which traffic is blocked from entering allowing the perfect location for a few stores, a fresh market on some days and a collection of spontaneously created restaurants every day starting at lunch time (created from the tables leaning against the wall). There is a wat in the background and, just through the gate, you can see a motorcycle taxi.

Upon arrival at our destination, F ordered what has become his regular drink here (100 per cent kiwi juice, with ice, thank you very much!). C didn't let the morning's climbing Celsius slow her down and ordered a steaming cocoa. She was thrilled with Wawee's buffet of sugar straws that accompanied her creamy concoction, no doubt. And, I ordered an iced tea with milk (known simply as 'Thai Iced Tea' in the States) and it was yummy. I asked how they made their version because it was markedly less sweet and less thick than the ones I've had before. When eating at Thai restaurants prior to arriving in Thailand, I had occasionally ordered a Thai Iced Tea and had always, no matter where I was, considered it a delicious treat. Funny how something authentic provides you with a new level of deliciousness! Wawee's authentic version consists of a simple ratio consisting of less sweetened condensed milk than other recipes that I've previously followed.

We left Wawee Coffee with a relaxed vibe that carried us throughout the rest of our morning's outings. And, we're already looking forward to our next visit.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 10:
Iced Tea with Milk
Burn a little incense, crank the heat up high, kick your feet up, throw in some noisy engine sounds masked by water features, don't move too quickly and you'll (almost) feel like you're in Bangkok with us.

2 tea bags of Thai tea*
1 cup of boiling water
3 Tablespoons sweetened condensed milk, plus extra if desired
about 1/4 cup milk**
crushed ice

Pour boiling water over the tea bags and allow to steep for five minutes. Remove tea bags and place in refrigerator until cool (or use three tea bags and add a bit of ice to cool more rapidly). Once cool, fill a tall glass with crushed ice, pour tea to 3/4 of the glass and add the sweetened condensed milk (a little extra if you like it sweeter) and regular milk. You want to achieve about 1/4 of your cup full of the milk combination. It should be sweet, but just slightly, and the tea should provide a nice nutty, fragrant background to the sweetened milk. Stir well and serve with a straw. Sip slowly and enjoy.

*Can be found in the Asian foods section of most gourmet grocery stores or import stores. If you are unable to find Thai tea, look for an unflavored black tea instead.

**Use your choice of milk. Whole will create a creamier drink than non-fat, but both will create an enjoyable iced drink.