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Friday, March 17, 2006

Take it slow, baby

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No, I'm not poking fun of my own recent tardiness on this blog. I am speaking of my evening cooking for and speaking about Thai food to the Aqua Terra Slow Food Covivium in Oakland.

We made two savory dishes and one dessert: Panang Neua, beef in Panang curry served on toasted bread, Kanom Jeen Nam-prik, rice noodle with shrimp and coconut sauce, and a cold dessert 'soup' with lychees and oranges. The Panang recipe is already on the blog, but for the other two dishes you would have to wait until May, when they will be published on a certain newspaper. You can wait, can't you? It will be worth it, I promise.

Preparing for that evening really got me thinking about the social history of Thai food. For Thai people, the love of food is not only ingrained in the culture, it is in our bones.

Let me just give you an example. In the 1890's, the then Crown Prince Issarasundorn, who would later become King Rama II, composed 45 quatrains of Gabhya Hae Shom Krueng Khao Wan, poems in praise of savory and sweet dishes. He referred to more than 60 unique dishes, each with precise details of the key ingredients and –at times- their origin, all lavished with vivid images of flavors and aromas. And, just as in any other respectable epic poem, these 45 quatrains -ostensibly about food and hedonism- also contain subtexts about forbidden love and longing.

Massaman gang gaew ta
Hom yee-ra rod ron raeng
Shai dye dai klin kang
Raeng yak hai fai fun ha

Massaman curry from my beloved,
Redolent of cumin and other spices.
Any man who happens upon its heady aroma
Is powerless to resist (it, and her.)

See? This gave waxing lyrical quite an indubitable meaning, did it not? This Gabhya might even be the longest epic poem in praise of food –I certainly don't know of anything longer. If the prince lived now I'm sure he would make a good food blogger.

Slowthaifoodpounding That the food we eat defines us is heard in our day-to-day conversations. In Thai, we call some people Kon khao niaw, or sticky rice eaters, a not-so-kind moniker for folks from the Northeast or Isan region of Thailand, near Laos, where sticky rice is a staple. Kin khao kon batr, scraping from the bottom of an alm bowl, is used to describe orphans or children from poor families who are entrusted to the care of the temples. Kin khao rue yang (have you eaten yet?) is still a common greeting between friends.

Polmaichuem_2 A close look at Thai food reveals a compendium of history crystallized into edible forms. The bird eye chillies, commonly referred to now as 'Thai' chillies -that litter so many plates and have made you cried at least once at your local Thai joint- were in fact only introduced to the country in the early 1500's, with the arrival of the Portuguese. Prior to that Thai cuisine only used white pepper, which is still called Pirk-Thai, Thai Pepper, in the Thai language today. Frying as a cooking technique was also taught to the Thai –and Japanese, even- by the Portuguese. We also learned how to confit fruits, bake in a primitive form of oven, and many other cooking techniques, not only from the Portuguese but other European cultures that arrived later.

All these foods tell us an interesting story, of how the European arrival to the court of Siam must have caused quite a stir socially. In the early 16th century, the Thai were nearly 200 years into the golden age of Ayudhya, flushed with success in empire building –having just pushed the Khmer out of Angkor deeper into the territory of present day Cambodia, and subjugated the independent Kingdom of Chiang Mai and kicked the Laotians out of there for good. Ayudhaya was a prosperous, confident, and forward looking culture, exchanging diplomatic relations with many European powers including Portugal, Spain, France, and even England. Diplomats, soldiers, merchants, and priests alike were given freedom to practice their trade and faith. They were all invited so the Thais could trade with and learn from the more developed cultures of the age, and also to keep the balance of power from tipping too dangerously toward only one superpower.

The curious Thais must have been endlessly fascinated by all things foreign, and did their best to learn and emulate what they could. The court was the center of gravity in old Siam –not only representing the White House, the Pentagon, but also Wall Street, and Bergdorf, all rolled into one. What became fashionable in the royal court then trickled down to the upper class households, and eventually made its way out to the culture at large.

So much of what we learned back then are still around in Thai food today, like Foy Tong, a dessert made with egg yolk cooked in syrup, or Look Shoop, a marzipan-like sweets made with mung beans, an ingredient far more available in Thailand than the original almond paste. When I see these, I can almost hear the rustle of the silk fabric worn by the ladies of the old court of Siam as they fluttered about in their kitchen trying to master these pesky new cooking techniques. It must have been quite a flustering enterprise.

(to be continued)

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