An Expat Cooking in Thailand
By Rhiannon Caldwell
My friend Joshie, the ultimate foodie and I were talking about cuisines from around the world. He was giving me the rundown for the who’s who for national cuisine. For royalty the cuisines of choice are Chinese, French, and Indian. I excel at exactly none of these styles of cuisine. Then he says to me, and the great PEASANT cuisines of the world are of course, Italian, Mexican and Thai! This resonates with me as I know how to cook all three of the great peasant cuisines of the world. I am anything but an aristocrat. No wonder I get along so well in Thailand. I recall when I first arrived here and went to the market to buy local Thai ingredients. I found it was quite easy to duplicate many Italian and Mexican dishes with Thai ingredients.
When I arrived here I knew absolutely nothing about Thai cuisine except that I had heard it was spicy. What I have since discovered is that I love it! The explosion of salt, bitter, sweet, sour, and spicy combined in so many dishes in different amounts is literally a party in my mouth. Food plays such a huge part in Thai culture. I learned how to say, “Have you eaten rice already?” (gin khao young?) before I learned the phrase “How are you?” (Sabai dee mai ka?). I lived in rural Thailand for two years in a small town called Suphan Buri. There were very few foreign nationals in Suphan and I learned Thai rather quickly, mostly inspired by my love of spicy food and my dislike of fried rice. When a Thai spots a farang and they can’t speak Thai you can almost guarantee they want to feed you kao paht mai pet (fried rice with no spice).
Learning the basics of Thai Cuisine
I took a TEFL in Koh Samui and at the end of the course we got to take a food class. We learned the difference between kao swoy and kao neaw (jasmine rice versus sticky rice). We also learned the words for egg (kai), chicken (gai), pork (moo), shrimp (kung) and beef (ngua) which I still to this day can not pronounce. We sampled Namtok Ngua (Waterfall Beef) and Panang Moo (Red Curry with Pork). We were also taught how to order spicy (pet), not spicy (mai pet), and very spicy (pet maak maak) and after learning that we learned the most important thing when ordering spicy food, how to order a bottle of water (nam pao) or beer (beir). Thank goodness beer and beir are so close you can order in English or Thai without issue.
The Induction Burner
Once I moved from Koh Samui to a condo in Suphan Buri the first purchase I made was an induction hot plate. I had never used induction heat before and let me tell you, if you have never used induction heat to cook you will burn something the first time or two. The heat goes from cold to nuclear in about 5 seconds. Once mastered there is no better way to cook, (except real fire) which is totally not allowed in a condo so induction is awesome.
So I had a makeshift kitchen with my burner and my pan and after about a month I was able to figure out the heating so as not to charr my bacon or eggs. Now I needed to figure out how to prepare this wonderful peasant cuisine. I had already eaten Namtok Ngua and Panang Moo. I loved both equally, however just by looking at them I felt the Namtok would be an easier undertaking to cook for the first time.
The first Thai Recipe I learned
I set about finding a recipe, I Googled both “Namtok Moo” and “Waterfall Pork”. Each yielded several results. I went through all the recipes posted and then figured out which ingredients were critical to the dish and the amounts I wanted for my spicy level. I have been known to cook Thai food so hot Thai people have a hard time consuming it. I can proudly say I can eat the spiciest of foods including Som Tam with 25 chiles so it is dripping bloody red, YES PLEASE!
I think in Namtok Moo and Larb Moo my all time favorite ingredient is the toasted rice. I had none of this magical ingredient, however luckily several of the recipes I looked up had instructions for making it from scratch. It is so easy, and such a great workout I will never ever buy it. All you have to do is put dry uncooked rice into a dry skillet on low heat and brown it to a toasty golden brown. Then transfer the rice to a mortar and pestle and grind it down to dust. I made my sister do this in the US and I had her squat down like a traditional Thai would do, and once her legs were screaming at her she stood up, asked to put it on the counter, I told her go ahead and first words out of her mouth were, “Whoa, I had more leverage on the ground!” and back down she went! It was the most fantastic thing I have ever seen in the kitchen. The final step is to sift the dust into a separate bowl and continue grinding until it is small enough to go through the sifter.
So the very first dish I mastered was Namtok Moo. I didn’t learn to make good curries until some months later when my Thai friends took me through it step by step. I learned how to make Green Curry with Chicken first or Gang Keow Wan Gai. “Gang” literally translates into a gang of ingredients, this dish is great because you can throw whatever you have in the fridge into it. Almost like a garbage can soup. It never turns out the same twice, but is always delicious. Be mindful when adding the curry paste, if you add too much this dish will be the hottest dish you will ever eat in Thailand.
Another staple dish I learned to make was Pahd Krapow Moo Kai Dow. Stir fried pork with holy basil and a fried egg over jasmine rice. This dish has absolutely become comfort food for me. There are certain dishes like spaghetti, and chicken burritos that are my staple comfort foods, and Pahd Krapow Moo has become my Thai staple comfort food. This dish is so simple and quick. I have learned to cook it as a single portion or in huge batches and my favorite part is using the holy basil that grows right in my yard. I love adding mushrooms to it, and I always make it very spicy.
Cooking with Kindergartners
Thai teachers taught me how to make fried rice that is worthy. We discovered that through fusing my American foods with Thai rice we could make Kao Paht Americana and it is delicious. The kids loved it. The key ingredient in my special fried rice. BACON! Cuz bacon makes everything better. This was an enormous hit. When you add mushrooms, baby corn, carrots, cabbage, paak boong (morning glory) krapow leaves, green onion, cilantro, tomato and limes and an egg or two you really have the best fried rice in the world. How can 100 kindergartners be wrong?
Peasant food or no I have become a food snob. After years of eating nothing but fresh food from Thai markets I can no longer eat anything that has ever been in a can as it now tastes to me like I am licking tin, and I will never be able to eat calrose rice again. Jasmine rice is the only way to go. The fragrance alone of the Jasmine rice cooking now smells like home to me. Thai food is wonderful, flavorful, and I can understand now why Thai people do not like many cuisines that are not there own. What I have discovered though is even the most rural Thais who will never leave the Kingdom can still enjoy a good Italian or Mexican dish if there is not too much cheese and when it is made a bit spicy.
Greatness knows greatness. Bon Appetite !