Month: March 2015

Bees fly with bees

“You know what they say about a husband who keeps his knives sharp?”

“What?”

“He’s not afraid of his wife.”

I giggle at Pom’s joke, and she smiles, continuing to pound lemongrass and galangal together. She’s making green curry paste, a long, intensive process that fills the house with the sound of her mortar and pestle. She’s just explained how the Thai used to say that a man could judge a potential wife’s character by standing outside her kitchen and listening to the rhythm of the pestle. A slow “thump…thump” indicates laziness. An irregular “thumpthump…thump…thump…” indicates an unfocused woman. A solid “thump thump thump” indicates a good work ethic.

I ask her what else indicates a woman’s character. “They say that women who sing in the kitchen will marry old men.”

“What? Why?”

“Well, I don’t know… something about not being a good wife,” she grins. “Maybe it’s because the old men know what is important in life.”

I laugh again. These are the lessons that are rarely written down, the jokes passed back and forth while preparing the daily meals. And these are the lessons that I search out. It is here, in this kitchen, that I am learning about Thai culture, because some of the best bits of culture are stored in the universal, daily necessity of eating. And the Thai, more than almost any other people I’ve been around, not only joke about, but truly celebrate, the joy of eating.

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Pom pounds nam phrik, a chili based dipping sauce, in the mortar and pestle.

 

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My favorite of the three kittens sleeps in the kitchen as Pom and I prepare dinner

 

Some Thai say that they have “two appetites”, one for meals and one for snacks and desserts. This is one of my favorite parts of the food culture- no relegated three meals a day, but a sort of grazing. In a city, food is accessible everywhere; one can find small snacks or entire feasts on the same block. With Pom and U, we eat throughout the day, structuring it around our work that is concentrated in the early morning and early evening.

On Valentine’s Day, an imported holiday in Thailand, I ask Pom if she expects flowers. She informs me that instead, U treats her to Swensen’s ice cream. We go to a nearby mall, choosing all our different flavors and toppings (though I haven’t been to a Swensen’s in America, I’m guessing that they don’t carry sweet sticky rice. But it was by far my favorite topping). While sharing our bowl, we joke that there is another appetite, solely dedicated to ice cream. I share this appetite with Pom.

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One night, Pom, U, and I drive into town to eat dinner. Afterwards we watch a traveling Chinese opera show, sponsored by someone in the community to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

One day, while Pom and U are out making deliveries and I am home watering the vegetable garden, some of their friends come to visit. They enter the house bearing snacks from the long car ride from Bangkok, so we quickly become friends. When those snacks are finished, we decide to drive to the town market for more food.

I love shopping for food with people who love to eat as much as I do. As we walked through the market, my new friends chatted with every vendor, simultaneously collecting fresh ingredients for dinner and securing free samples from just about everyone. Someone buys grilled, marinated pork, someone else hands me a sticky rice dessert. I follow them around the market, eating and asking questions.

I can’t help but notice how friendly they are with all the vendors. They joke, they laugh, and I see that the vendors are sending them every which way. When I ask for some translation, they tell me that every vendor is asking what they will cook tonight, with these ingredients. Before I know it, seemingly half the market is yelling back and forth, telling them where to buy what for dinner- we can’t eat this fish without this vegetable, we really must buy some of that sauce for the chicken, and aren’t we interested in some coconut ice cream?

After we finish shopping, we kill time outside the local 7-Eleven for twenty minutes, waiting to buy beer at 5 pm (there is an odd ban on the sale of alcohol between 2 and 5pm in stores in Thailand). I ask what we will cook for dinner, and they assure me that if I make the rice, they will take care of the rest.

Dinner takes a few hours to make, and we are slowed by the mosquito hoard that descends at sunset. Swatting mosquitoes, I watch the visitors pound chilis and steam fish, fry chicken and scrub vegetables, chatting all the while. When dinner is finally ready, we gather around the table, and for an instant, everyone is quiet.

And then, the chorus of “aroy” (delicious) commences, and everyone’s hands grab from the bounty of bowls. We’ve been eating all day, and yet I cannot seem to stop.

At least I’m not the only one.

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My friend Gaga carefully considers the vegetables that we will buy for tonight’s dinner

 

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The kitchen is full of bowls and bags as we prepare dinner. They are preparing a spicy chicken dish, but they cook a separate plate for this white girl first, using only 6 or 7 chilis, and then cook their own, using an entire bag of chilis.

 

I’ve always found connections through food quite naturally, because it is usually the first thing on my mind. Many evenings, Pom and I would sit around after dinner, talking about our lives and cultures, and the conversation would turn to food. It was a lens through which we could talk about our backgrounds and our influences. After Pom pointed out the natural direction of our conversions, we couldn’t help but laugh, because it was irrefutable. Pom, as much as she may deny it, loves food as much as I do, and it led to an immediate bond.

Pom told me that there is a Thai saying about how flies stay with flies, and bees stay with bees. True to that statement, I prefer the kind of people that find joy in sharing food, because that is what brings me joy. The Thai people that I know bring their enthusiasm and humor that I love to their food culture. These are people with whom I would share a meal any day, and that is a gift- I’m staying with these bees.

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Pom and U, the best dinner company.

 

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Questions of Cuisine

I love the chaos of a meal with Thai people when everyone is hungry. Every person has their own bowl of rice, and the numerous main dishes are placed in the center of the group. There are no heaping portions piled on plates, like at an American table. Rather, everyone is helping themselves, choosing from a variety of small dishes. Spoonfuls of different foods are added to your bowl, bit by bit, creating perfect combinations of rice and fresh vegetables and sauces. When people are hungry, there are hands everywhere, grabbing spoons and dishes as talk flies back and forth.

According to Pom, a balanced Thai meal (on top of rice, of course) has three components- protein, nutrition, and flavor. For example, the perfect bite may be fried fish, some bitter but highly nutritious greens, and a spoonful of a sweet type of nam phrik (meaning a chili based sauce, pounded in mortar and pestle). These are three different dishes, and you need to arrange it all on top of the rice before taking a delicious, balanced bite. Some dishes have the protein and flavor together, like a chicken curry, and the nutrition will be raw vegetables like cucumber or eggplant (aubergine) eaten on the side.

In a way, Thai cuisine is very personalized. With a multitude of dishes and a serve-yourself mentality, each person is creating combinations on their plate that match their palate. You select what you eat and how much. As a newcomer to this dining system, I watch the others at the table, noting what dishes they pair together and trying my own favorites.

One evening, Pom, U, and I visit their nearby family’s house for a dinner party. Over a verifiable feast of curries, lettuce rolls, and different grilled fish, I chat with Pom’s aunt and uncle, who spent much of their lives in Britain and America. The aunt told me that one of the only things that continued to surprise her, when they lived in Florida, was how large the portion sizes were. Meals in American restaurants were one large dish, with perhaps one also large side dish, and it was impossible to finish.

I laughed as they explained it to the rest of the surprised family, because their impressions are accurate- American portions are large, and we make fewer different dishes for the average meal. Now that I’ve been introduced to the Thai style of eating, the idea of returning to a plate of diner meat and potatoes seems horribly boring, and unhealthy. I’ve found that I love these balanced Thai meals, and the diversity in their food.

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An example of a Thai meal, shared with a few friends. Notice the different curries in the large bowls, the protein dishes, the small bowls of dip for flavor, and the large bowls of raw green vegetables

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A jar full of green curry paste, a combination of pounded chili peppers, galangal, lemongrass, bergamot rind, shallots, garlic, and shrimp paste. This is what gives flavor to green curry, and though it is a long process, the product is incredible.

As I cooked with Pom, we continually returned to questions of “national cuisine” and everyday, complex realities. Pom was quick to question my questions about “Thai food”. What can be said about Thai food, when regional differences abound?

Questions of national cuisine are never clear cut, as tempting as it is to generalize. For every ingredient that Pom uses, she cites a difference in some other part of the country. She’s using oyster sauce in this recipe, but where her husband is from in the northeast, they use a fermented fish sauce. Her mother makes curry this way but her father’s side defines curry and nam phrik differently. And let’s not even get started on the diversity of rice, because that’s where the strongest opinions come out.

Some now-renowned “Thai” dishes trace their roots elsewhere- a popular bright yellow dessert made from egg yolks and sugar syrup was actually introduced by Portuguese traders in the 15th century. Those soups that require chopsticks instead of the usual Thai fork and spoon are actually influences from the large Chinese expat community. But who cares, when these eaten on the street in Bangkok every day?

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U and I shred coconut to make fresh coconut milk. I am sitting on a stool that has a sharp blade on the edge of it, you scrape the coconut on the edge and the shavings fall below. Nothing is more delicious than fresh coconut cream!

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Another picture of a meal- this one includes Thai fried chicken (marinade is fish sauce and honey) and mussels. Notice the many small dips and, again, the bowl of raw vegetables.

As often as I ask questions about Thai food, I field questions about American food. And while it is tempting to simplify foreign cuisine into bite size categories, when you try to represent your own county’s cuisine, you realize how complex the question can be for every country.

When asked about American cuisine, what do I say? Do I talk about how I eat, my attitudes, in my position in society? What about how a typical small town Midwesterner eats, versus an urban west coast citizen? How can I express the amazing diversity in my country? And how does the average American eat?

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Pom stuffs a local bitter gourd with a pork paste. We boil the pieces, then eat them over rice. The bitter gourd is balanced with a sweet sauce on the side.

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One of my favorite dishes that Pom made- it is a sweet pork, tofu, and duck egg soup (this picture before the hard-boiled duck eggs are added). The flavors include cinnamon, anise, coconut sugar, and garlic.

 

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All of these vegetables were grown in Pom and U’s vegetable garden. We eat them with every meal.

 

Questions that aim to define and categorize cuisine often miss that cuisine is a living part of culture. Food is always evolving. Cuisine may evolve even faster than many other parts of culture, like music or art, because it is a daily reality, a necessary act. When people need to eat every day to survive, innovations and adjustments in cuisine can spread quickly. There is no way to trace clear lines across cuisines when there is so much exchange.

So how to talk about a cuisine, if it is always changing? It is an interesting exercise, to learn about the subtleties and the distinctions that can lead to the broad generalizations. I obviously love learning and writing about food. Yet, the more I learn, the more I see how complex the questions are. At a certain point, the labels of authentic or traditional start to lose meaning in the idiosyncrasies, and the joy is taken out of the real reason that we love to share our food. While I will continue to explore different cuisines, I am careful not to take anything too seriously, and to enjoy the exploration instead.

So what is Thai cuisine? I’ll tell you after I finish eating.

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While U is peeling a pomelo, a fruit similar to a grapefruit, Pom cuts it and puts it on him like a hat. I’m happy to stay with people who don’t take food too seriously.

 

Rice is Life

In Thai, “gin kow” means “to eat”, but, literally, the phrase means “to consume rice”. The significance of rice in southeast Asia is embedded in the language, because if you want to eat like a southeast Asian, you will eat rice three times a day. If you are tired of rice, you can switch to noodles, which are made of rice. Afterwards, you can eat dessert, which is most likely made of rice.

Rice is the staple food for over half the world, and Thailand is the world’s biggest exporter (having recovered its title, after a disastrous government rice subsidy program). In Thailand’s countryside, the importance of rice is inescapable. Rice fields stretch out from the roads further than the eye can see, parceled into rectangles and connected for irrigation. Because different farmers plant at different times, if you are lucky, you can see the whole life cycle of the crop from one vantage point. Rice is everywhere, because as my Thai friend Pom puts it, “rice is life”.

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A panoramic view of the nearby rice fields- the left are Pom and U’s fields, and the right are the neighbor’s fields. I love the way the fields look in the early morning and late afternoon.

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A closeup photo of Pom and U’s black rice, a sweet, creamy, chewy version of a typical white rice

Pom and U own a rice farm about two hours north of Bangkok, in central Thailand. Both are former marketing and graphic design professionals who lived in Bangkok for much of their adult lives. However, after years spent in the fast-paced city, the couple decided to leave their careers and return to the countryside. They spent a season at an innovative hands-on farm school in eastern Thailand, studying different methods of organic farming, before moving back to Pom’s family home and starting their own rice farm.

Driving past highway-side rice fields, Pom and U explain to me how to “read” the rice fields. Patches of grass show that the farmer doesn’t use herbicides; the uniform rows of tall rice stalks indicate machinery and fertilizer. I watch U stare out the window as he drives, observing the rice fields. I know that he is calculating, analyzing the crops, but for me, the rice fields are simply hypnotizing.

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The view from the front of the house, which faces the canal. Pom and U’s house is in the flood zone of central Thailand, and for part of the year it is easier to travel by boat. Morning glory, an edible green grown in water, also lines the canal, waiting for harvest.

When we arrive home, I try to read U’s rice. The fields are beautifully parceled into different types: black rice, low sugar rice, and scented rice. U and Pom, after studying organic agriculture, are intentional in everything they do on their farm. U chooses to plant his rice using a mix of old methods. He plants small patches by hand, ensuring a high yield for saving seeds, and other fields he plants by a simple scattering method. The rice is high quality and high yield, but without large machinery, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizer, it takes a lot of time and work to maintain.

Pom focuses on the health of their soil, in the rice fields and in their vegetable garden. The couple literally brews fertilizers for their own soil. They ferment organic materials, like fish from their pond, and combine it with samples from their soil, multiplying the local microorganisms. The anaerobic bacteria in the compost, similar to the probiotics people add to their diet to aid digestion, help break up their compact soil and encourage biotic diversity. Combining the fermented liquid with different compostable materials, like rice husks, coconut waste, and rice bran, Pom and U add the concoction back into the rice fields and vegetable gardens.

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The rice fields in the early morning

All of their hard work leads to an incredible product: high-quality rice that is unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. Pom and U grow unusual varieties of rice that are not found in an average market. To sell their product, they ask their customers to make an investment in the farm. Customers pay for a year of rice in advance and receive their kilos in monthly deliveries. This model allows the farmers to secure funding for the season, before they plant, and the customers receive their investment back in rice. A similar business model known as a CSA (community supported agriculture) share has been successful for small farmers in the United States as well, allowing them to pay their upfront costs before their product is ready to sell.

Pom and U are not officially certified organic farmers, nor do they brand or beautify their packaging. Their business is based on selling a good product, and everything depends on personal relationships. To start their business, Pom and U gave away hundreds of kilos of their rice. Potential customers were able to try its taste, smell, and texture, and, like me, they were convinced that the rice was the best they had ever eaten. Their business has grown by word of mouth, and loyal personal relationships, ever since.

Pom and U believe in their product, and they believe in their work. From them, I learn about the expanding organic scene in Thailand, growing in response to many of the same large forces as in America. I am finding the same commitment to land stewardship in Thailand that I found in small towns in the American midwest. The Thai are increasingly concerned about their health and their environment, and in many of our conversations, I recognize parallel trends in both our countries.

Pom and U see their land as a resource for good food, and a good life. And, as we are learning in America and around the world, good food and a good life are not such separate ideas. After all, as Pom frequently reminded me, in southeast Asia, rice is life.

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The three kittens, taking shelter near our shoes at the house entrance one hot afternoon. collect all three different colors.