26 May 2009

Bottoms up

Always with the best intentions to enjoy the quirks and charms of Bangkok, my husband and I share an enthusiasm for exploring side streets and checking out new restaurants when we have an evening to ourselves. So, armed with an appropriate sense of humor, a recent evening led us to a stroll down Bangkok's infamous Soi Cowboy. Our chosen restaurant was just a few blocks away from the soi and we were a bit early. With time to kill, this was a perfect opportunity to observe the supposedly crazy wilds of Bangkok's Red Light district before it would turn to nightfall and become "not our scene." 

With the exception of a giant neon cowboy riding high over the alley-like road and the city's ever present motorbike taxi drivers careening around pedestrians, Bangkok's red light district looked pretty tame compared to other cities similar neighborhoods. After an uneventful stroll past bars with the names playing on various versions of The Dollhouse, we were still a bit too early for our preferred dinner hour. So, we ducked inside a bar proud to be one of the few places in Bangkok to serve Guinness on tap (sort of). 

Within no more than a minute, the "draft" Guinness was set on coasters before us. Now, let it be known that I am not an expert on beer. My consumption habits are pretty much limited to Irish Pubs, tropical beaches or, in this case, a Dutch bar on Soi Cowboy in Bangkok. However, thanks to the help of my husband, I know that a good Guinness takes more than a minute to pour. So, uncertain of what was actually in my pint of espresso-colored, no foam, lukewarm cup labeled Guinness, I proceeded cautiously. Thankfully, it wasn't long before it was time to head to our real destination of the evening, just a few blocks away.

It has been quite awhile since I've enjoyed delicious Vietnamese cooking and I had hoped that the darling greenery covered restaurant in front of me would provide relief from my draught. Dressed in white linens and traditional blue enameled plates, with gorgeous artwork and a continuation of the outdoor's beautiful greenery, my heart started to palpitate at the overall experience that might await us. As quickly as the palpitations occurred, I flat lined when our chosen beverages approached the table. Two completely naked women, breasts bubbling over with the drink's foam, were placed on the table. From a tame Soi Cowboy to an elegant Vietnamese restaurant serving in vessels disguised as naked women! Unable to control the humor that the night presented, my husband and I attempted to hold in belly laughs, clinked the breasts together and winked, "bottoms up!"

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 51:
Candied Coconut Cashews
Take a break from Bangkok bar hopping, stay in, cook up a pizza and whip up this version of a bar snack. Just be forewarned that Candied Coconut Cashews are addictive. I take no responsibility if  you find yourself tiptoeing to the kitchen at midnight to make a new batch.

1 cup fresh raw cashews
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons unsweetened finely grated dried coconut

In a saute pan, add the sugar, salt and cayenne pepper. Turn the heat to high and stir the ingredients until they just begin to melt. Add the cashews, mix to coat and continue to stir until the sugar is well caramelized (about 2 minutes). Allow the nuts to stand for a moment to "roast", but don't allow them to burn. Remove from heat and add the coconut. Stir to coat well. Transfer to a serving bowl and enjoy while warm.

Yield: 2 snack sized servings

21 May 2009

Not a good idea

Going for a gentle stroll in the middle of Bangkok's monsoon season. Trying an exotic local delicacy from the stand next to the bug vendor's cart. Running on a treadmill in 100 degree humid heat. Some things start out seeming like a good idea.

Which is why I never thought twice about swimming in our pool during betel nut season until one hit me squarely on the head. In the middle of a little sans-children relaxation, I swung my feet up and brought myself into a back float. Closing my eyes, I inhaled the sweet smell of jasmine and listened to the dull bubbling sounds brought on by having your ears under water. The sun warmed my face and my mind drifted until..... THUMP. Right where my hair meets my forehead an insanely hard object ricocheted off my head. Startled and swallowing a bit of water, I steadied myself to see the golf ball-sized, persimmon-colored fruit floating next to me. With a lump forming on my head, I held a perfect betel nut in my hand.

Freeze frame for an instant: I mention that it was a perfect specimen because I had secretly been after one for a good couple of weeks. A friend was surprised to hear I'd never tried one before. "You cut into it and find the seed. This is what you chew on and it releases a mild tobacco-like calming sensation, similar to a cigarette." Honestly, not one with a taste for tobacco products, I surprised myself when I thought, "Well, that's a local experience I may never get the opportunity to try again." 

Our property has trees of different tropical fruits lining the sides and for the past week the morning ground had been covered by the betel nuts. But, add to this knowledge when you're envisioning our fruit covered tropical oasis: Our beloved house dog could be spotted with a betel nut in his mouth at nearly every hour of the day and all of the fallen fruit seemed to have been partially chewed on overnight by various animals and/or insects. Perhaps you now see why even the whack in the head could be overlooked when I now held an unscathed betel nut, fresh from the tree, in my hand.

Ummm... mild tobacco-like calming sensation? I never got to the sensation since the taste was exactly like what I'd imagine taking a cigarette, wadding it up like a piece of gum and giving it a good long chewing would be like. One bite into the seed and my betel nut hunting came to a screeching halt. Even after merely one bite, I continued to taste the foul thing for a solid 24 hours. So, needless to say, when I went back to the pool a week later and was once again pelted by a falling betel nut, I threw it towards our happily panting house dog.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 50:
Rum Coconut (not a Betel Nut!) Shrimp
While some things just aren't a good idea (see the above narrative), here's one that is. The combination of rum, coconut and shrimp, with a little acidic lime juice thrown on top, is a perfect ending to a tropical day. 

4 of the largest shrimp you can find (2 per serving), peeled, deveined, tails intact
2 eggs, well beaten
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black finely ground pepper
2 tablespoons dark rum
4 heaping tablespoons of flour
1/2 cup panko crumbs
1/2 cup shredded coconut, unsweetened
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup of veggie oil
lime wedges

Combine the eggs, salt, pepper, rum and flour in a shallow pan. Place the panko, sugar and coconut into a different shallow pan and mix. In a large deep skillet, heat the oil. Place the end of a wooden spoon into the oil, when bubbles form gently around the wood the oil is ready. Working with one shrimp at a time, roll them in the egg mixture, followed by a thorough coating in the panko crumbs. Place gently into the oil and cook until golden brown. The time will vary depending on what size shrimp you selected. Plan for 1-3 minutes, flipping once. Drain on a rack and serve immediately with lime wedges.

Yield: 2 servings

18 May 2009

Foodie Fights: Battle Cauliflower Raspberry

After being selected as one of six competitors in this week's Foodie Fights,* I had a mild panic attack upon finding out the selected ingredients. Battle Cauliflower and Raspberry would not be easy while standing on Thai ground. For starters, the word for raspberry doesn't even exist in the Thai language! And, although cauliflower can be grown here, it isn't a local vegetable but rather a farang vegetable (specifically farmed for foreigners).

So, I dreamt up a recipe, loaded my wallet full of Thai baht and began the trek to the closest foreign market in search of two non-local ingredients. Arriving at the market, drenched from the morning's tropical rainstorm, I was surprised to locate the raspberries in the produce section. Shipped from California, they were a bit weathered looking. But, I scooped up the container which boasted 12 berries for a mere $14.76 USD (sarcasm and eye roll intended). While the raspberries pinched the wallet, the cauliflower took on the role of the illusive ingredient. After searching the produce section extensively, I approached the store's manager and in broken Thai language I attempted to ask if there was any of the produce perhaps located elsewhere. At the time, I didn't know the word for cauliflower and had to resort to charades. Somehow I made an impression and I was asked to return in 30 minutes. After a bit of a wait, I was presented with a head of cauliflower about the size of a baseball ($10 USD), which had been put on the back of a motorbike and delivered from another market. I placed the snowy white vegetable next to the berries in my reusable bag and skipped home ready for a morning of cooking.

*Update: the votes are in and counted. And, disappointingly, this recipe didn't take the win for battle cauliflower raspberry. However, it is a delicious example of fresh Thai cooking and I highly recommend you give it a try in your kitchen. Cheers to my competitors for a great foodie fight!

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 49:
Fresh Rolls Dok Kha Lam,* with raspberry ginger dipping sauce
A satisfying alternative to a salad, these rolls feature fresh zappy ingredients that wake up the mouth. Enjoy as an appetizer or as a light lunch, served with some fresh fruit and a cool beverage.

For the rolls:
1/2 head of cauliflower, cut into separate stalks
1/2 carrot, cut into matchsticks
salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup of bean sprouts
1 hand full of mint leaves
1 hand full of cilantro
6 green onions, trimmed into 4-inch pieces
10 Spring Roll Wrappers

For the dipping sauce:
1 pint fresh raspberries
1-inch piece of ginger, cut into three pieces
1/4 cup of water
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon lime juice

For the dipping sauce-- Place the raspberries, ginger and 1/4 cup of water in a saucepan. Mash the fruit slightly and simmer for three minutes. Remove from the heat and push the liquid through a mesh sieve to remove the seeds and the ginger. Return the liquid to the saucepan and add the honey and lime juice. Over low heat, stir well until the sauce begins to bubble. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely while you assemble the rolls. Serve cool.

For the rolls-- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Place the cauliflower florets and the carrot slices into the water and cook for 2 minutes. Remove and immediately place into a bowl of ice water. Strain and move vegetables to a plate. Add salt and pepper to taste. Take the cauliflower and cut carefully into strips, discarding any small pieces that crumble. Working with one wrapper at a time, submerge into hot water until pliable, approximately 30 seconds. Place wrapper onto a flat surface and add a pinch of cilantro leaves, bean sprouts, mint leaves, 2 pieces of green onion, 2 pieces of carrot and 3 pieces of cauliflower. Wrap sides in and then wrap tightly to form a tube around the vegetables. To serve immediately, cut in half and place on platter. To save for up to three days, line a covered storage container with a damp cloth. Layer the rolls with a damp cloth between them, cover and place in the refrigerator. 

Yield: 10 rolls

*Dok Kha Lam is the Thai word for Cauliflower

16 May 2009

Damn the thermal scanner

Swine flu jokes made for good reading on facebook and twitter feeds until I returned from Singapore last night with a feverish five year old in tow. After a fantastic holiday in the island nation of Singapore, we headed to the airport to catch our plane bound for Bangkok. With two days of lacking naps, the kids were tired and a bit worn looking. And, it was apparent that as the two hour flight progressed my daughter was catching a cold. The same daughter who was content to run around the Changi airport happily looking at their many art installations registered a full 103 degree temperature by Bangkok's airport thermal scanners. 

As a swat team of masked medical professionals pounced on my sleep deprived, ill child the nightmare began. Since she had been riding on her papa's back as we originally passed through the scanners, we were told that she'd have to walk the path again but on her own this time. After racing away, choking, screaming and throwing herself on the floor, I struck a deal with her. Whether the medical team liked it or not, the only way they would have a chance to put their thermal scanners to action on her would be for her to come into my arms and bury her face into my neck. Together, we walked the scanners path again. Beep, and again we were snagged.

Then a complete recording of our travels and a collection of our contact information, followed by an in-airport trip to the doctor and the dangling promised nightmare of taking an ambulance ride for an overnight stay at a local hospital. Needless to say, our nerves were fried when we piled into a taxi and finally sped to our home through a late night thunder storm. 

Today, my daughter is sniffling from a cold and promising to "never, ever, ever, NEVER" return to an airport. Looks like our next holiday will be extremely enjoyable. 

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 48:
Singapore Chicken Rice
A favorite southeast Asian chicken soup that always comforts the soul, stuffy noses and exhausted parents.

Step one:
1 chicken placed in a large pot and covered 3/4 with water
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
a large piece of ginger (about 3 inches)
1 vanilla bean
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
soy sauce
black pepper

Step two:
1 clove of garlic, chopped
1 piece of ginger, about 1-inch, peeled and chopped
1 vanilla bean
2 tablespoons of oil
2 cups of long grain rice
4 cups of chicken stock
salt and pepper to taste

For condiments:
hand full of chopped cilantro
hand full of bean sprouts
hot peppers, chopped
bottle of sesame oil
bottle of soy sauce

For step one: Add all of the ingredients listed under step one and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for two hours. Strain, reserving chicken and stock. Allow stock to cool slightly and skim off any fat. Return to pot and season with soy sauce and freshly ground pepper. Strip chicken off of bones and set aside on a serving platter.

For step two: Heat oil in a pan and saute the garlic, ginger and vanilla bean until fragrant and slightly caramelized. Add the rice and stir. Cook until slightly golden. Add one cup of stock at a time, stirring regularly, until absorbed by the rice before adding another. After the last cup is added, bring to a higher heat to burn off any extra liquid. Remove vanilla bean and place rice in a serving bowl. 

To your serving platter, add chopped cilantro, bean sprouts, chopped peppers and bottles of sesame oil and soy sauce. Heat the reserved stock and serve in large soup bowls. Allow guests to add a portion of chicken and rice to their bowls, adding desired condiments on top.

11 May 2009

A flute playing cabbie in the garden of good and evil

Bangkok is sometimes referred to as "the city of candy cars" because if you take a moment to rise above the traffic and look down on it, you'll notice that the city's taxi cabs come in a rainbow of brightly colored hues. Hot pink, lime green, lacquered purple, fiery orange, brilliant turquoise and nail polish red line up with the occasional traditional yellow and green combo sprinkled into the mix. But, if you've heard of our famous candy colored cars, I'm fairly certain you've not yet heard the story of one cab among many that I will forever affectionately refer to as "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil on wheels." 

On a hot and humid day, my visiting mother and I strolled along our sub soi until we met a cab ready to pick up passengers. Relieved to escape the heat, I opened the door and caught my breath in surprise. Expecting the usual Buddha image affixed to the dash, a friendly cabbie's face and a blast of frigid air conditioning to greet me, I couldn't hide my fascination when I poked my head in and saw the interior. The friendly cabbie and the a/c were present and accounted for. But, instead of the typical religious images, the entire cab was covered in little tchotchkes unlike any I have seen before. 

In awe and slightly questioning what I had just gotten my mother and I into, I told the cabbie where we were headed, he nodded and revved the engine. Zooming away, rows upon rows of little ceramic ladybugs fluttered their wings, hula dancers wagged their hips, little bells tinkled and confetti colored fantasy animals swayed to the rush of a/c. The cab was part voodoo-esque in design, reminding me of several alter images referred to in John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and part modern art museum on wheels. Sensing his passengers wonderment and acceptance, the cabbie took down his sun flap above his head and pointed to a tiny glued on statue. "Buddha here," he said before quickly closing the flap. 

I so wish someone driving by could have captured our picture. With a normal looking taxi from the outside, I'm sure our faces were hysterical as we stared and pointed and expressed our love for all the little wobbly bobbley shiny things. And, if that wasn't fantastic enough, at the first major stoplight our driver said, "Music" and promptly removed a hand made reed flute from his overhead sun flap. We continued to smile, with a musical treat at every stoplight, all the way to our destination.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 47:
Evil Jungle Prince
Evil Jungle Prince is one of my favorite Thai dishes because it satisfies a curry craving without the richness of too much coconut milk. But, be forewarned, this is called "evil" for a reason! For a less spicy version, add less chili peppers or serve with freshly cut mango to cool the heat. 

1 tablespoon veggie oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 3-inch piece of galangal, cut into thin slices*
1/2 cup of coconut milk
2 heaping tablespoons of red curry paste
10 chili peppers, sliced in half, stem's removed
2 kaffir lime leaves, shredded**
1 cup of shredded green cabbage
about 10 pieces of baby corn, cut in half lengthwise
1 cup of prawns, peeled and deveined
1/2 cup of pineapple chunks (fresh is best, but use canned if necessary)
1 cup of Bamboo, thinly sliced
2 cups of Basil leaves

In a large saute pan, heat the oil and add the onions, garlic and galangal. Saute until caramelized (add water as necessary to avoid burning). Once caramelized, add the coconut milk and stir. Add the curry paste and cook for three minutes, stirring. Add the chili peppers and cook for one more minute. Add the lime leaves, cabbage, corn and cook just until the cabbage begins to wilt. Add the prawns and pineapple. Cook until the prawns are opaque. Then, add the bamboo and basil. Cook until the bamboo is hot and the basil is wilted. Serve immediately on a large platter, with plenty of jasmine rice on the side.

* If you can't find fresh galangal, use a one inch piece of fresh ginger instead. The flavor will be stronger in the dish, but still similar enough.
** If you can't find fresh kaffir lime leaves, substitute 1 tablespoon of lime juice.

05 May 2009

A pack of rabid dogs

I had a pretty normal day. I took my almost three-year-old shopping for a few new movies at MBK, met up with my husband and five-year-old for lunch at Siam Paragon and then came home to relax a bit before heading to the store and being instructed to take the waiting tuk tuk through the rabid pack of wild dogs milling on our side street. Oh, screeching halt. Rabid dogs in a pack... not so normal.

After stocking up on just a couple necessary items for tonight's teriyaki dinner, I started the walk home with a highly iced beverage in hand. I was humming along to my kids favorite theme song (stuck in my head) and enjoying the satay stand operators friendly smiles. Until half-way home, I saw a small crowd gathered in the middle of the street and looking further down the road a group of about sixteen dogs milling about the street. A tuk tuk and two motorbike taxis were taking members of the crowd slowly through the dogs and depositing their passengers on the other side.

Waiting for just a couple of minutes, I climbed on my designated motorbike and the driver shrugged his shoulders and said, "Rabies. Free." I was dropped just beyond the dogs and the motorbike ventured through the pack again to pick up another passenger. The walk home ranks up there with one of my oddest moments in Thailand to date. And, I must admit, riding with your ankles dangling at mouth level near a pack of rabid dogs does get the adrenaline pumping. I had desperately been hoping for the tuk tuk instead of the motorbike.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 46:
Lemon Grass Martinis
A perfect drink to calm the nerves and refresh the palette. Great thanks to my mother who, while visiting, was my guinea pig for this recipe. Here's the improved version, Mom! *wink*

6 stalks of lemon grass (1 stalk set aside, 5 stalks cut into 1/2 inch pieces)*
1 cup of water*
juice of 1 lemon*
1 teaspoon honey
2 shots of vodka
1 small wedge of lemon
Ice for shaking

In a small saucepan, add water, 5 stalks of sliced lemon grass and the lemon juice. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat for five minutes. Set aside and allow to cool completely. Strain and add juice of one lemon. Place 1 teaspoon of honey into a martini glass and place glass into freezer (can be done far in advance). Take reserved lemon grass and cut into a two inch spear. Pound one end slightly and thread a lemon wedge onto the stalk. In a shaker, add 1 shot of the lemongrass mixture, 2 shots of vodka and a handful of ice. Shake. Strain into frozen glass and garnish with prepared lemon grass spear.

*The combination of these ingredients will create more than necessary for one drink. Save any leftovers in the fridge for up to one month.