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Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Bangkok Report VI: Cooking with Aunt Chawiwan

I had such a wonderfully delicious day. I have a plan to learn how to make more Thai dishes on this trip. I especially wanted to learn more complicated Thai dishes that I couldn't get in America.

Today is the first day of my lesson. I spent the entire day in the kitchen with my eldest aunt, Chawiwan. It was the best day I've had in a long time.

I arrived early in the morning, in time for a market trip, where we bought the ingredients needed for the dish we planned to make today. I hadn't been to a wet market for a long time. The sights and sounds were amazing. There were live chicken, live fish, frogs, birds, etc. You name it. There were also isles and isles of fresh vegetables and herbs, some that I'd completely forgotten about until then.

The trip to the market with Aunt Chawiwan was so much fun. Everything I pointed at came with a story. She would never just tell you the name of something, but also what it was good for, not good for, and perhaps even a story of why it came to have the name.

She was quite pleasantly bemused by my desire to learn how to make everything. No one else in my family, despite living in Thailand and having access to all these wonderful things, had shown any interest in learning how to make these complicated, obscure and old fashioned Thai dishes. To them, they were simply old fashioned, they are far more interested in Japanese food, Western food, or, gasp, Thai fusion cuisine. I have long since learned that I could never trust my sisters or brother's recommendation on Thai restaurants. Places they like tend to cook “creative” Thai food, which to me simply means predominantly sweet dishes or things that only borrowed the names of classic dishes while resembling as little of them as they possibly could get away with.

Don't get me wrong, I am not completely against the idea of evolution or experimentation in any cuisine. But the impression I get from these “fusion” cuisine places in Bangkok is that they do it just for the sake of being different and fashionable, rather than for the taste or for serious experimentation with techniques or ingredients. I mean, anyone can simply throw foie gras into some spicy Thai sauce and call it innovation. I call it crap.

I really do think that living far away from my home and culture has given me a new appreciation of many things Thai. I relish spending time with old relatives, learning more about my culture and my heritage. I may not have chosen to live here, but there are wonderful things from here that I would like to keep with me wherever I may go.

It would really be sad to loose the legacy of my grandmother and the ancestors before her. My aunt Chawiwan and other old relatives and cooks are walking encyclopedia of Thai cooking. They work much more efficiently than a 64 bit computer, trust me. Name a dish, any dish, and they most likely would be able to tell you exactly how to make it. They keep no written recipes, only in the little grey cells in their heads. When they are gone, this heritage will be gone as well. My younger sister would fly to San Francisco or London to take cooking classes, and in fact had done so more than once, but she never drove across town to my Aunt's house to learn how to cook Thai food. What a shame!

Today we made three kinds of curry. Nam-ya, Nam-prik, and Gang Kiew-wan. The first two are curries specifically to be eaten with a type of noodle made of fermented dough, Kanom Jeen.

The Nam-prik for Kanom Jeen noodles shares the same name as Nam-prik relishes, but they cannot be more different. The Nam-prik relish is a type of dip, or relish, made primarily of shrimp paste, garlic, and shallots, seasoned with lime juice, chillies, and fish sauce.

Nam-prik for Kanom Jeen is a type of curry, made of yellow beans, peanuts, coconuts, coconut milk, minced shrimps, and seasoned with tamarind, chillies, fish sauce. The taste is wonderfully complex, sour, sweet, spicy, nutty, and creamy. The Nam-prik curry is served with Kanom Jeen, accompanied by batter-fried leaves and herbs, boiled vegetables, steamed eggs, and fried chillies.

Kanom Jeen Nam-prik is a very old-fashioned upper class Thai dish that is so difficult to find these days, even in Thailand. I'd been craving it for years in America, and was delighted to finally learn how to make it. The making of the Nam-prik involved five pots and countless bowls and plates for the various ingredients required. I'd never been so thankful for servants!

Nam-ya is another type of curry that is traditionally served with Kanom Jeen. It is a curry of minced fish and wild ginger. It is wonderfully complex, aromatic, and sinus-clearing spicy. It is served with Kanom Jeen instead of rice, accompanied by pickled lettuce, bean sprouts, blanched bitter lemon, blanched long beans, and steamed eggs,

The last dish we made was green curry with chicken and apple aubergine “Gang Kiew-wan Gai”. I actually already knew how to make this one, but my mother had requested that we make a pot for her, so we did. Aunt Chawiwan pretty much let me make it, to see if I'd really mastered the dish. I am more than happy to report that she was quite impressed with my curry. It made me so happy I still haven't stopped smiling yet, and it's been hours since.

On the way back home, I saw a road side stall making Kanom-Jaak. An old Thai dessert made of the fruit of a type of water palm, Jaak, mixed into some flour, coconut milk and stuffed into Jaak leaves and grilled on charcoal. The resulting product is a texture of a sticky cake, sweet, and smells of the palm tree (a good thing, for this type of palm, really) and the charcoal. I stopped the car and ran out to get a armload, munching on them all the way home.

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