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.