We gathered around the table covered by a cloth imprinted with cappuccino cups and fluffy croissants. I would have imagined that we were somewhere in Italy, yet the dishes in the center of the table were all of Thai origin, cooked with basil, ginger, galanga, chili paste, lemongrass, and plenty of fish sauce. I had survived my introductory course in Thai home cooking under the watchful and experienced eyes of Karn’s mother, Nid.
Had I pulled all of the legs off the prawns? Did I rip the kaffir lime leaves correctly? Did I crush the chilies well enough with the pestle? These questions nagged at me as we prepped together in her kitchen.
We had met Karn just a few days prior, another member of the Volkswagen community in Asia. He was now the fourth degree of separation between TengTsen—also known as “Ten Cents “—our first VW contact in Asia. We had been instructed by Karn to wait alongside the moat that wrapped around the old city; from there we’d follow him back to his house and park Nacho for the next few days.
The moat, supported by a massive brick wall, was just a version of its prior self. Over the centuries the ground had let go underneath it and its once clean lines of stacked brick had morphed into a spine of drooping and wavelike rows. While it was no longer used as a defense line it still served a purpose, albeit less grandiose, adding a unique beauty to the city and providing meeting points for travelers and locals alike.
That evening we made our way to the neighborhood market to pick up items for an impromptu picnic. We followed Karn’s blue and white VW kombi as it bounced down a dirt road ahead of us, eventually pulling off and parking on the banks of a quaint pond within the University’s vast acreage. We lined up a bamboo mat and a faux grass mat between our two vans—the perfect spot for an evening of food discovery: homemade sausage and sticky rice, fish coconut soufflé in banana leaf bowls, roe filled crab heads, fried pork skin, eggplant curry, purple mangosteen and red rambutans.
“I’m always watching television,” Karn said between bites of curry. As it turns out, Karn is a television show translator, bringing American TV to the Thai audience. “Not too long ago I finished translating The Bachelor but now I’m doing the Martha Stewart Show.” Despite being the man behind the curtain of some of the top American TV shows in Thailand, he spoke with nonchalance. “I know everything about Martha. Did you know that every dish on her show is her favorite?” In a Martha voice he cried out “Oh my! This apple pie is just my faaavorite! This blueberry tart is just my faaavorite! This chocolate chip recipe is my all time faaavorite!”
One evening we found ourselves at a bar in Chiang Mai’s hip downtown district. Inside, the bartender concocted our drinks inside of a rusty blue and white Volkswagen bus that had been converted into a bar. Besides the bar’s special blue cocktail, we snacked on standard Thai bar food. You know, the usual sampling of raw peanuts, kebabs, fried crickets, and bamboo worms.
These bugs seemed tame compared to my last encounter. As we waited at a roadside restaurant for our lunch of lahp koo-a just a week prior, we were served a very special “appetizer ” by a very excited local. It was a bowl of hideously huge insects accompanied by a bowl of red dipping sauce. They reminded me of some mutated version of a roach and cicada, having eyes the size of beads, legs like strands of thick wire, and their lower bodies hollow and crisp. The locals encouraged us to try. We must try! Try! Try!
For some unknown reason, on this day I was feeling more adventurous than I had in months. And truth be told, I just didn’t know how to refuse this man’s kind offerings. He would be so disappointed, so sad, so confused. The locals popped them in their mouths like Skittles, shrugging their shoulders, asking us, why don’t you try? Try! Try! So I picked one up and held it at eye level. I examined its shiny back and glazed eyes, its tentacles, its mandible and I wondered where it was found. Was it scurrying about in the grass? Was it found under an upturned log? Was it local or was it in the midst of a seasonal migration to another land? It was all so bizarre. As I closed my eyes, I envisioned Kit Kat bars and peanut brittle and then I ate it. Brad told me he’d never kiss me again.
So back at the Volkswagen bar, locals chomped bugs like Skittles, shrugging their shoulders and asking us why don’t you try? Try! Try! And so it went, I held the bugs up at eye level and questioned how they came to be nestled atop this fine layer of faux grass on my foam tray. I thought of more candy and then ate them too. I did it this time, though, for the sheer comedy in knowing that Brad would be forced to do the deed as well. The crickets were palatable, like little citrus infused burnt bits left in the bottom of a pan. The worms however, they were gag inducing: like collapsing sponges that leaked their foul juices with each chew. Was it worth it just to watch Brad’s face? Yes, yes it was.
Besides the bugs, we also tried some other local dishes in Chiang Mai such as Kow Soy; a dish made of egg noodles in a spicy coconut broth, topped with crispy noodles, and served with a dish of lime, pickled cabbage, and red onion. I’m not like Martha Stewart and I don’t claim to love every dish, but this was simply out of this world amazing. In all of Asia so far, it was truly one of my favorites.
When I think back on Chiang Mai, my most memorable experience will be cooking with Karn’s Mom, Nid. I had mentioned to Karn that I had wanted to take a cooking class and he had responded in saying “It is no problem. My Mom will show you how to make Thai food .”
We followed Yui, Karn’s wife as she scoured through the neighborhood market, grabbing bags of minced pork, basil, lemongrass, and chilies. She picked out the prettiest blue prawns in the seafood section while the rest of us stood around watching the dozens of homemade propeller devices swing in the air like fans; a fancy trick for keeping the bugs away from the food.
Back at the house we started to set up. Karn stood by as we began to cook. Being the translator for Martha Stewart had prepared him well for this occasion as translator for our very own cross-cultural cooking experience.
“Today we’re making three things: steamed eggs, tom yam soup, and a basil stir fry. These are all quick and easy dishes, but the first thing we do is make rice. It’s the base for every meal, every day. After that, we will make my Mom’s steamed eggs. This is a very popular recipe but every household has their own version.”
After we loaded the massive rice cooker and hit go, we began on the eggs. Nid walked me through the steps as we mixed egg and water, rehydrated dried shrimp and mushrooms, added pork, onions, shallots and seasonings, and then gave it all a good beating. We placed the mixture in a bowl on the steaming rack above a covered pot of boiling water.
It was quick and easy to move around the kitchen, reminding me of our dollhouse back in Flagstaff. One wall comprised a long countertop and the other was set up with a tabletop stove shielded on three sides by aluminum. Underneath the stove sat an exposed propane tank, and back on the other counter a bin of cooking ingredients, a sink, and the rice cooker sat in the corner.
As the eggs steamed, Nid wandered outside and came back with a dozen or so freshly picked kaffir lime leaves for the tom yam soup. We made a broth of lemongrass, kaffir leaves, chilies, galanga and lime juice and let it simmer as we prepared our prawns, pulling off their crustacean layers, snapping their heads, breaking their legs, and slicing their backs to devein. We added the prawns and a few handfuls of strangely shaped straw mushrooms for just a few minutes before turning off the heat.
Our last dish of the evening was a pork basil leaf stir fry. It was simple: a quick stir fry of onion, garlic, pork, and a heaping mound of basil. The flavor was delightful—the meat provided a rich depth of flavor while the holy basil added a sharp, mentholated aroma and taste.
So here we were, gathered around the round table covered by a vinyl cloth imprinted with cappuccino cups and fluffy croissants. Grandma was holding baby Phuphing while the family’s French bulldog spread its body against the cool tiled floor.
While scooping rice onto each of our plates, Karn said “In a Thai home, all dishes are communal. This is what we do.” Demonstrating the Thai way of eating, he held his fork with his left hand and his big spoon in his right. “You just push a little rice onto your spoon with your fork. The fork is only a tool for moving food. We don’t eat with it. Get some rice on your spoon, and then, from the dishes in the center, just scoop a little soup or curry onto your spoon. One scoop at a time.”
One scoop at a time?! One scoop at a time?! Now I understood how Thai people stay so thin!
With my fork, I nuzzled a little rice onto my spoon and then lowered it down into the communal bowl of tom yam soup. The food was just wonderful, and especially those eggs! Dare I say that recipe is one of my favorites?
2 TBSP of dried shrimp (soaked in hot water until rehydrated)
1 dried shitake mushroom (soaked in cold water for 3 hours, then cut in slices)
4 shallots (minced)
2 green onions (green part only, minced)
¼ cup of pork (minced)
2 cups of water
4 TBSP soybean sauce
½ TBSP soy sauce
Pinch of pepper
3-4 cloves (sliced)
In a serving bowl add egg, shrimp, shallots, mushroom, green onions, and pork. Whisk vigorously for 3 -5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and whisk.
In a large pot with a steaming tray, add a few inches of water and bring to a boil. Place the bowl on the steaming tray, reduce the heat to medium and cover. Steam the mixture for 15 minutes or until the eggs are cooked through. Note that water will remain visible in the bowl even after the eggs have finished cooking.
In a sauce pan fry the cloves.
Garnish with cloves before serving.
Tom Yam Soup
6 kaffir lime leaves (ripped down the center)
2 stalks of lemongrass (chopped into 1 ” pieces)
2 1” slabs of galanga root (julienned)
Tom yam paste (optional)
2 limes (cut into ¼ pieces)
5 small green bird chilies (pounded in a bag)
1 cup of straw mushrooms (broken into pieces)
1 dozen large prawn (peeled and deveined)
½ tsp of fish sauce
Chili paste (optional)
1 TBSP of cilantro
10 strands of green onion (cut in 1” pieces)
Package of tom yam paste (optional)
Bring 3 cups of water to a boil and add lemongrass, galangal root, and kaffir leaves. Add tom yam paste and cook for 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium. Add shrimp, mushrooms, and 3-5 chilies and cook until the shrimp is done (just a few minutes). Add the lime juice, fish sauce, and chili paste (to preference).Garnish with cilantro and green onion before serving.
Stir Fry Basil Leaf
3 garlic cloves (minced)
2 small white onions (sliced)
¾ cup of minced pork
3 cups of packed holy basil leaves (this is not the same as Thai basil)
3 TBSP oyster sauce
1 tsp of sweet soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
3 TBSP of water
In a large sauce pan add a dash of vegetable oil, onions, and garlic and cook for 3 – 5 minutes on medium heat. Add the pork and cook for another 3 – 4 minutes or until the meat is cooked through. While stirring constantly, add the basil leaves and chilies, cooking until the basil leaves have wilted. Add the oyster sauce, sweet soy sauce, sugar and water and cook for another minute.