25 April 2009

First class theatre

On Saturday, the air was warm and humid with overcast skies. That is, until precisely 20 minutes prior to my husband and my planned departure time. The sky opened up for the third day in a row and dropped sheets of rain. Thunder cracked overhead and the winds whipped. Our street flooded. As I stepped a toe out into our river, formerly referred to as a street, our security guard wrinkled his nose and quickly showed excitement as a taxi appeared within hailing distance.

Moments later we were in the car and off to Bangkok's CentralWorld for the rare treat of a movie.

After paying for our tickets, and wondering why they cost more than the last time we were at the theatres, we were greeted at the base of a red carpet and directed down a hallway that I had not noticed on previous trips. Little did we know that we were embarking upon one of Bangkok's truly amazing finds- The First Class Movie Theatre. Similar in concept to first class on an airplane, although executed with even higher levels of service, the theatre allows movie goers private, exclusive priveledges. 

At the end of the hallway was a modern glitzy lounge, serving drinks and a small buffet of bite-sized Thai treats. Perhaps you'd like a beer or a cappacino served to you during the start of the movie? Or, maybe you'd like to have an elegant taste of Thai caramel custard or chicken satay before entering the theatre. All options are provided with the compliments of your ticket price or for a small additional fee (depending on your beverage selection). 

We were again greeted and escorted to our seats. WOW: Two side by side giant plush velvet covered easy chairs awaited us. Our order was taken for a choice of curry or herb salted popcorn and choice of beverage (both included with the ticket price). Blankets were brought and, after standing for the national anthem and accompanying montage footage of the King, we reclined to tuck in for the movie ahead. My future movie going experiences will be forever spoiled by Thailand's "first class movie theatres."

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 45:
Thai pizza
I never thought I'd move to Thailand and end up getting really good at making pizza! However, when the nearest grocery store isn't right around the corner and the frozen pizza sold there looks extremely unappealing, one quickly figures out how to make a healthy, delicious pizza for the pizza lovers in their life! This recipe involves quite a few steps, but if you have kids, they'll love to help you (my two year old dons his apron and loves to help knead the dough). And, the dough freezes beautifully so make a double batch- freeze the dough in the round. When you want to cook a pizza again, just remove the pizza round from the freezer and set aside to thaw before topping and cooking.

3/4 cup warm water
1 teaspoon yeast
1 teaspoon honey
1 1/4 cups bread flour
1/4 cup cornmeal, plus a bit extra for rolling
1/2 teaspoon salt

4 Tablespoons nut butter (use peanut for an authentic Thai flavor, but my family prefers cashews)
3 Tablespoons of brewed tea
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 Tablespoons lime juice
pinch of dried red chilies
pinch of dried ginger
2 Tablespoons honey
3 green onions, chopped
1 large boneless chicken breast, chopped into fine strips about 1/2 inch long
1/2 cup mozzarella cheese
1 carrot, shredded
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
extra dried red chilies for optional garnish

For the dough- Place the warm water, yeast and honey into a large mixing bowl and set aside for 10 minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients, remove from bowl and knead for 10 minutes. Place in a clean, well oiled bowl, cover and let rise for 1 hour. Return to the risen dough and on a floured surface, create the pizza round. Then sprinkle a pizza stone or pizza pan with cornmeal and move dough to the stone/pan. Set aside and let rise for at least 1/2 hour.

To prepare the toppings- Combine the nut butter, tea, soy sauce, lime juice, chilies, ginger and honey. Stir thoroughly. Remove 2 tablespoons and place over raw chicken. Cover remaining sauce and refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour. Cover raw chicken and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 1/2 hour. Remove chicken after marinating and cook in a hot skillet, about 3 minutes, then set aside. 

To make the pizza- Place the pizza round into a 250 C/425 F preheated oven and cook for 10 minutes. Remove and quickly top with the nut butter sauce, spreading a thin layer. Add the chicken, the green onions and sprinkle with cheese. Place back into the oven until the cheese is bubbly. Remove, top with the carrots and cilantro. Serve immediately with a side of dried red chili peppers for topping at the table.

16 April 2009

Happy 2552!

Happy New Year 2552! That's right, it is the year 2552 in Thailand and we've been celebrating all week long. 

With the end of the latest round of riots, the Songkran festival is in full swing and everyone is relaxing as we celebrate the start of a new year. Traditionally, Thai families spend the week prior to Songkran (which officially runs from Monday to Wednesday of this week) preparing for the New Year by cleaning their homes extensively. Then, during Songkran week, people return to their homes for huge family gatherings and celebrations with those nearest and dearest to them. 

Tradition calls for the sprinkling of water on elders as a cleansing sign of good fortune for the year ahead. However, in modern Thailand, Songkran has morphed into a massive splash party. People line the streets with giant super soaker water squirters, water bottles and buckets in order to splash anything that moves. Colored powders are then applied to the soaked faces. All of this is done in gentle good fun and depending on where you go to celebrate, you'll receive a dousing of more or less water. 

With Bangkok in a state of emergency, the festivities were slightly dampened. But, friends who ventured to Khao San Road (the epicenter of Bangkok's water festivities) said it was a wet world. And, my husband and visiting father journeyed outside of Bangkok for a day of trekking and ended up practically drowning in water as pick-up trucks full of locals doused them with buckets. The kids, my mom and I celebrated in our own way by racing through our yard with squirters. Happy New Year everyone! May it be a wonderful 2552 for you and yours....

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 44:
Banana Fritters
A fun dessert for celebrating any occasion. 

4 bananas, sliced into thick rounds
1 1/2 cup of rice flour
pinch of salt
pinch of cinnamon
1/2 cup ice cold water
vegetable oil
Ice cream, vanilla or coconut
Optional: 1/8 cup rum, 1/8 cup orange juice, 1 Tablespoon sugar (mixed together)

Combine 1 cup of flour, salt, cinnamon and water in a shallow pan. Stir to create a paste. Roll the bananas in the remaining 1/2 cup of flour and then add to the paste mixture. In a deep saute pan, heat a shallow layer of oil and add the bananas (cooking in batches). Cook until golden, flipping once to ensure even coloring on both sides. Drain on towels and serve immediately on top of ice cream. Drizzle a tiny bit of the rum, orange juice mixture over the top if desired.

14 April 2009

Easter in a Buddhist country

Celebrating Easter in a Buddhist country made for a quiet day. Unlike the Christmas season, when Bangkok decked the halls and embraced the commercial aspects of the holiday, Easter came and went without a single note of public fanfare. While leaving our home, my son's "Happy Easter" exchange with our guard was rather one-sided. Looking confused our guard met the greeting with a cheerful "sah wah dee-kob" (hello). None the less, we enjoyed our own personal celebrations and had a great day spending time close to home. 

Meanwhile, the latest round of protests were heating up throughout the city. People dressed in red shirts took to the streets, closing down major intersections in order to make themselves noticed. The protests continue on and we continue to stay close to home, working on using up all of those Easter eggs my kids decorated a few days ago! 

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 43:
Fresh Egg Salad Sandwiches
A spin on the traditional recipe, this egg salad utilizes fresh ingredients to provide a crunchier texture. A perfect way to use up all of those Easter Eggs!

5 eggs, hard boiled, peeled and chopped
1 cucumber, peeled, finely diced
5 shallots, peeled, finely diced
celery greens (just the leafy top of the stalks), roughly chopped
juice of one lime
Mayonnaise, 1-2 tablespoons depending on taste
Pepper, to taste
White bread, lightly toasted

Combine the eggs, shallots and 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise in a bowl. Mash and stir until well mixed into a chunky texture. Add cucumber, celery greens, a dash of pepper, lime juice and more mayonnaise as necessary (texture should be able to hold together, but not saturated with mayo). Place a generous amount on to a slice of toasted bread, cut in fours and enjoy!

Yield: makes approximately 4 generous sandwiches

06 April 2009

Stormy skies equal curry buns

Supposedly, we are in the hottest and driest season of the year in Bangkok. However, the weekend started with a massive storm in the very early morning hours and has continued to gust for the better part of our holiday weekend.* The wind continues to slam the house, thunder cracks overhead and the rain comes down so steadily that it is hard to see any space at all between the giant pelts of water falling from the sky. 

A storm now and then can be quite enjoyable, but after several days of our street turning to a river, I finally looked at the mud-colored water streaming by and gave in to one of the basic pleasures of childhood. After a wonderful morning of homemade play dough and painting butterfly pictures, I took the kids puddle jumping (and yes, Bangkok's rain water is just as disgusting as any guide book will lead you to believe). We returned home to hot showers and then sought some quiet in a newly discovered Australian children's television program. As I sat within ear shot of the well loved program, sipping my french pressed black coffee, I heard my kids sweetly sing along with the actors: "Five curry buns in a bakery shop, round and fat with sugar on the top." Well, that sounded delicious and just like the sweet bun I tried last week from a vendor at the Skytrain station. And, so the remainder of the day's activities were immediately born. After another 15 minutes of sing-a-long, the kids jumped at the opportunity to help me create a Thai Curry Bun recipe. And, as the rain pelted the house, we put some music on, measured yeast and watched it rise, had flour flying and kneaded until our wrists hurt.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 42:
Thai Curry Buns (with sugar on the top!)
This recipe looks complex, but it's actually fairly easy. You will need a few special supplies to make them turn out correctly: a wok with a perforated metal steaming plate that sits above the water and a cover that fits the wok.** You'll also want to have small (2 inch by 2 inch) pre-cut waxed paper squares at the ready. If you have a stormy afternoon to spend, make a big batch of buns and freeze the extras. You can defrost, heat and have an instant lunch or snack that will transport you to the street vendors of Thailand!

Dough, step one-
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup warm water

Dough, step two-
1/2 cup warm water
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon veggie oil
1/2 teaspoon baking powder (set aside, you will need this much later in the recipe)
extra sugar

1 teaspoon veggie oil
1/4 onion, finely diced
1 boneless chicken breast, raw, diced
1/4 cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons curry powder
1/4 cup water
pepper, to taste

Begin with the dough, step one. In a large mixing bowl, combine all of the ingredients and allow to stand for fifteen minutes. In the meantime, in a large saute pan, add the oil and onion. Cook until wilted and translucent, adding water as necessary to keep from burning. Add the chicken, raisins, curry and water. Cook over high heat until the chicken is opaque. Add a dash of pepper and remove from heat. Allow to cool and then chop finely.

Next, add all (except the baking powder) of the "dough, step 2" ingredients to your already started dough mixture. Remove from bowl and knead until combined. You may need to add a little bit more flour as you knead to keep the dough from sticking to the counter. However, take caution, you want the dough to be slightly sticky (it shouldn't be a dry dough). Place in a bowl, uncovered, and allow to sit for at least one hour. When you return to the dough, use the reserved baking powder to lightly dust your work surface and form the dough into individual golf ball size rounds. Working on one at a time, flatten the ball, spoon a tiny amount of filling into the middle and gather the edges around the filling, returning it to a ball-like shape. Place seam side down on a small square of waxed paper. Repeat until all the dough is gone. Sprinkle a pinch of sugar on top of each stuffed bun. Allow filled balls to sit for at least 30 minutes. 

In a wok holding boiling water, with a metal steaming plate sitting above the water, place the buns about two inches apart (still on the waxed paper squares) onto the steaming plate. Cook, in batches, for 15 to 20 minutes. Wipe the lid dry between batches (otherwise, the dripping water will discolor the buns). Eat warm and enjoy!

* Celebrated annually on April 6, Chakri day is the founding day of the royal Chakri Dynasty. The present monarch is the ninth king of the dynasty.

** Truth be told, I don't currently have the ideal wok and steaming plate (but it's on my wish list for the near future!). Cooking these buns is a bit tricky without the right gear, but I can attest to the fact that it can be done. I use a tall slender pasta pot to hold the boiling water, place a perforated pizza pan on top of that and then cover it with an inverted pot the same size as the pasta pot. The whole thing gets entirely too hot and is a bit clunky to work with, but... it works!

03 April 2009

Jumping fish and a five year old dish

Having just finished a big birthday extravaganza, we now have a five year old in the house. And, I have spent the last couple days hearing about why former favorite foods are now "baby foods that a five year old wouldn't dare touch!" Consequently, my dinner recipes need a bit of invigoration. So, I happily joined in the exploration of a couple green markets with a savvy exotic produce buying friend.

First up: a very local market. Even if you've never found this particular market, you know what I'm talking about. Here's how the directions go: get off at the Skytrain station, walk several blocks, turn down the little covered alleyway, turn left at the next alleyway and to your right you'll see a dark covered building. Step over the stream of water being used to wash the fish and voila! Rows of tables laden with gorgeous vegetables, hand-made noodles and won ton wrappers, vats of curry paste and flaming colored fruits sprawl out before you. My friend, a long-time transplant to Thailand, wound through the market interacting with vendors in perfect Thai. And, the vendors were thrilled to explain their goods to us. We learned about pounded, toasted white rice that is added as a flavorful thickening agent to many dishes here. I bought wing beans and banana flowers and bitter greens, local to southeast Asia, for just a small handful of change. And, just as my mind began to spin at the culinary possibilities mounting in my market sack, a fish jumped off the table and landed at my feet. Time for another market...

The second market of the day is one widely known to Bangkok's chefs and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that your next fine dining experience in the city originated at this market. Billed as an all-organic market, this permanent structure is bright and clean and open daily. Rows and rows and rows of vendors stock this covered, open walled, white tiled building selling everything from truly stunning seafood (giant prawns, crabs of all sizes, snails, fish of every color) to Thailand's famous fruits (durien, jack fruit, dragon fruit, papaya, mango....) to noodles and vegetables and fresh meats. We stopped to sample a juicy fruit that I still can't find an appropriate name for and paused to watch 7-inch long prawns being loaded by the bucket full onto a hand cart destined, I'm sure, for tonight's prix fixe menu downtown.

Fast forward a few days: My daughter is sitting at our dinner table, slurping up banana flower soup with fresh crab (all ingredients sourced from the markets I visited) and proclaiming it her new favorite food. Apparently, I have successfully broken the code on appropriate five-year-old foods.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no 41:
Banana Flower Soup with Fresh Crab
When a regular reader of Loving Rice wrote and mentioned she was interested in a recipe using crab, I immediately thought of a dish that I ate recently. Prepared by a friend who considers banana flowers her childhood "comfort" food, this recipe is a beautiful mix of all things I love about Thai food. It's creamy and decadent while still being very simple and fresh. If you have access to a banana flower, use it! But, if not, you could substitute purple cabbage (prepared in the same way as the banana flower). The taste will definitely be different, but the texture will be similar and it should still be deliciously satisfying.

1 Banana Flower, approximately 5 exterior leaves removed (or 1/4 head purple cabbage)
4 tablespoons salt
1/8 cup water
3 cups of coconut milk
3-4 teaspoons of yellow curry paste*
1 1/2-inch piece of fresh ginger, skin removed and grated
1/2 onion, sliced 
1 cup shredded bamboo
1 large crab, cleaned and cracked

Slice the banana flower (or cabbage) into very thin slices. Place in a large bowl with the salt and water. Squeeze the mixture repeatedly, for approximately 5 minutes.** Rinse with fresh water, drain and set aside. In a large pot, add a splash of the coconut milk and the onion. Over high heat, saute until the onion becomes caramelized. Add the remaining coconut milk, the curry paste and the ginger. Cook for 3 minutes over high heat. Add the banana flower (or cabbage) and boil until the vegetable is tender. Turn the heat off, add the bamboo and the crab. Cover and allow to steam until the crab turns bright red (approximately four minutes depending on the size of crab selected). Serve with rice.

*The amount of curry needed depends on what type you'll be using. Start with less and you can add more as you go along. You want this meal to be lightly scented with curry, a subtle background flavor (it is not intended to be a spicy dish).
**Don't worry about crushing the vegetable. This process tenderizes the flower (or cabbage) and removes the bitterness as well.