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Thursday, June 23, 2005

Tagged, The Cook Next Door

My girl Louisa in Paris tagged me for this new meme that's been making a round in the food blogosphere. I've tagged her on enough things, so I had no choice but comply. Here we go.

What is your first memory of baking/cooking on your own?

When I was little we spent every summer in a small beach town of Hua Hin, about a few hours south of Bangkok. I have many great memories from that place, from eating nothing but boiled crabs and shrimps for weeks on end, to going out into the moon-lit beach to catch tiny crabs called Pu Lom, or wind crab. These crabs were barely an inch long, a shade of drab gray, and ran as fast as the wind, hence the name.

We had a ritual every night in Hua Hin. After a long day spent in the sun and the sea and a satisfying dinner mainly based on local seafood, a pack of us kids, some were cousins and other friends, some even both, would venture out into the night, with buckets and flashlights, to catch wind crabs. Back then, there were legions on these crabs on the beach, running as though flying, leaving the lightest footprints on the soft white sand. The crabs were attracted to the flashlight, and we would have a contest to see who would be the fastest that night, and could catch the most crabs. I won all the time, not that I am bragging or anything. ha ha.

Most nights we would simply let them free after we were done with the contest, but one night -I was about ten and evidently feeling particularly mean- I decided to see if we could eat them. We took the buckets home, full of crabs scrambling madly to get out, and into the kitchen. Someone went to wake Pah Biab the old cook and asked her to help us cook the unlucky crabs. She tried to dissuade us, oh no they wouldn't taste much like anything Miss and, if we were really hungry, wouldn't we prefer something else she could cook up, something more delicious perhaps, she pleaded. But, no, I would not have it any other way. I explained to her precisely what I wanted done with the crabs.

So up she went, started the fire to heat the pan, added plenty of oil, per my instructions, and we handed her the buckets. We watched her fry the crabs, one small batch at a time until she filled up a huge bowl, lined with newspaper to catch the excess oil, with tiny, crispy crabs, contorted into the same position they held at the time they were thrown into the hot pan.

It was rather macabre, yes, but that didn't stop us. I took a bite, it was crunchy, a little oily, even with a slight saltiness to it. Not that bad really. We each tried a few, and promptly got bored with the simple taste. I set out into the cupboard to see how I could spice these babies up a little, found some ketshup, fish sauce and a jar of chilli paste or Nam-prik Pao, homemade, of course, from a recipe by khun yai, my late grandmother. We tried the crabs with each sauce, and found them quite amusing, if not delicious.

We did this a couple more nights, and got brave enough to even fried a few handful ourselves, until we got bored, and went back to letting the crabs go again, to the relief of Pah Biab, who reportedly had to make many visits to the temple to appease her bad karma for killing so many lives!!

Who had the most influence on your cooking?

My mother doesn't know how to boil water, really, so unlike the romantic story of learning how to cook at my mother's knees, I'd have to settle on figuring it out on my own.

My grandfather and my aunt Chawiwan are two of the most important influences on my culinary life. My grandfather, for his love of food, and for having imparted that love to me. My aunt Chawiwan, for spoiling me with many meals at home that were far better than at any restaurants -to this day I could not bare to eat store-bought Mee Krob or Nam-prik Pao- and also for passing on to me many of my grandmother's recipes.

Do you have an old photo as “evidence” of an early exposure to the culinary world and would you like to share it?
I wish I had a photo of that macabre plate of petrified, deep fried wind crabs.

Mageiricophobia - do you suffer from any cooking phobia, a dish that makes your palms sweat?
I don't know how to cook bacon. I am very picky about how I like my bacon cooked. Very simple really, I want my bacon thoroughly crispy, just this side of burnt. I've never been able to do it myself though. My bacons turn out either flabby and oily or really burnt. I guess I have to be bad at something, huh? ;-)

What would be your most valued or used kitchen gadgets and/or what was the biggest letdown?
My most valued gadget?
My copper cannelés molds. I bought them at Dehillerin in Paris, and carried them back to San Francisco myself. I had all twelve of those mini copper molds stacked up one inside another in my carry-on bag. Imagine what that looked like on an x-ray machine!

Not that I've done anything with them yet, but I like the idea of having authentic copper molds made just for cannelés. I might need them any day now.

The biggest letdown?
I guess them cannelés molds would qualify, but only for a short while longer. I'll make my own cannelés bordelais any day now. Any day.

Name some funny or weird food combinations/dishes you really like - and probably no one else!

This is going to get embarrasing. When I was growing up I loved white sandwich bread with condense milk, but only with the crusts trimmed, and the sandwich cut into dainly litlle triangles. That's how I ate them when I was a little girl. I still crave them once in a long while, and yes, the crusts are still trimmed and the entire thing cut into dainly little triangles. There is simply no other way.

What are the three eatables or dishes you simply don’t want to live without?
Jamon Iberico
my nam-prik pao

Three quickies:
Your favorite ice-cream…

Caramel, at the original Berthillon shop on the cute rue Saint-Louis en l'Ile in Paris

You will probably never eat…

Beetroots, never again, that is.

Your own signature dish…
Not a signature dish really, but I am quite proud of my nam-prik pao, Thai Chilli Paste. My aunt Chawiwan taught me how to make it, from my grandmother's recipe. No more smuggling them back from Thailand. Yippee.


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