Thursday, January 20, 2011

43 Thailand #4: First Cooking Lesson

On our first morning in Chiang Mai, my friend A. and I made fried rice and tom yum goong (sour lemongrass soup with shrimp). In her sunny kitchen we fried the aromatics for the soup and chopped ingredients for the fried rice. A. cooks like me, by feel, so it was a lot of fun to cook with her. She had lots of tips to offer. For one, she showed me how to cut a lime so that each piece is easily squeezable. Basically, you cut around the center so that all of the hard pith gets extracted. Dad used to cut his limes the same way and I never understood why, because they weren't in perfect wedges, but now I finally get it.

The fried rice was a bit mushy but very flavorful. My favorite part was the slices of naem, garlicky pink sausages that are cured somehow so that they're safe to eat "raw" but I feel better cooking them. Growing up I used to see Dad eating them like string cheese out of their plastic wrappers.

Back in a week...

...I'm going WWOOFing.

43 Thailand #3: Chili heat

Dishes on display
Hardly anyone in my family is a lightweight when it comes to spicy food. Even my grandma, since living with my parents, has developed a higher tolerance for heat. My mom told me that once she lost her hearing for a full minute because of eating a hot chili (it might have been a habanero).

Popping raw chiles has become kind of an addiction for me; the resultant endorphin rush is worth any temporary discomfort. My mom's experience has become my litmus test for whether something is too spicy for me: if I lose my hearing, I've gone too far (Fingers crossed it hasn't happened yet, not that I haven't pushed it a few times...).

On our first full day in Bangkok, we were at lunch with my Thai brother and his friend, and I saw the little red chilies innocently hanging out on the edge of the plate, thought "Why not?" and popped one into my mouth, to the mild horror and amusement of my dining companions.

At first I was thinking "This isn't so bad." But then, inevitably, the heat started building, the insides of my ears started to hurt, and my eyes began to water. To get through it I just kept eating rice (no water; that's the worst) and slowly, slowly, the fire abated. Totally worth it (I personally believe that subjecting myself to this trial set me up for the intensely spicy somptam that we had in Chiang Mai a few days later).

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Cool Thai Food Links

Thought I'd share a few links that were useful in preparing for one of the most important parts of our Thailand (and Malaysia) trip: Eating.

1.  This list was indispensible in planning what we wanted to prioritize putting in our gullets (and when you're in Thailand, some prioritizing is needed, believe me). If you're a street food enthusiast like me and planning a trip to Thailand, you should definitely check it out. And, even if you're not planning a trip - enjoy the photos!

2. One man, the author of this blog, spent 30 days eating exclusively street food around his home in Thailand. 100 meals in total, and he never repeated a dish, plus he reports saving money and losing weight. If I attempted that in my neighborhood, I'd probably be stuck on a rotation of twigim 튀김, ddeokbokki 떡볶기, hotteok 호떡, toast 토스트, and sundae 순대; there's no way I could even approach 100 (and as for losing weight...).

3. Featured on the same site as #2 is this series of quizzes and menu decoders, which you can use to practice reading Thai (if you already know the alphabet. If you don't already but are interested in learning, this is the site that I used to brush up on the alphabet and continue learning before we went; Dad has used it, too, to keep up his Thai).

Friday, January 14, 2011

43 Thailand #2: Thai Condiments

Growing up, I could always tell when Dad had a cold because there he'd be, huddled at the kitchen table over a steaming bowl of soup noodles (guay teow rhua) with a box of tissues at the ready, and his jars of sliced peppers in vinegar, sugar, and pepper flakes. It's a cold remedy that I have used over the years since I started living on my own (and of course is delicious even when I'm not sick).

The three additions of sugar, vinegar peppers and red chili flakes were an indispensable part of this ritual. For years, and to this day, the peppers in particular were a reliable sight on the second shelf of our fridge, typically stored in an old marinated artichokes jar. Besides soup noodles, we also added them to rad na (click here for a description: it's closest to #95 on the list).

In Thailand, those condiments are a ubiquitous presence on the tables of restaurants and street stalls everywhere. Our first morning in Bangkok, I proudly ordered two bowls in my rudimentary Thai, and felt completely at home slurping happily away and sweating in the heat. Our order quickly arrived, each bowl containing thin rice noodles (sen lek) plus fish balls, sliced of roast pork, beansprouts, and something I hadn't encountered before: pieces of deep-fried wonton skin, which soaked up the broth and added interesting textures to the bowl. It cost 50 baht for two bowls (about $1.60 USD).
It was after this picture was taken and we finished our meal that we ran into my Thai brother on the street, coming to find us at our guesthouse! We had our reunion (it had been 8 years since I'd seen him last) there on the street north of Khao San road. If we hadn't decided to stop for noodles at that particular time, we would have missed him.

43 Thailand #1: Mataba

 My knowledge and experience of Thai food is centered around Isan, the northeastern region. It's where my dad lived while he was serving in the army, and also where my Thai family lives (basically my host family in Thailand; their son, my Thai brother, lived with my family for a time as an exchange student when he was in high school and we've been visiting back and forth ever since). Isan food is also popular in other parts of Thailand, and since I'm familiar with it, I tend to order it. Therefore, my knowledge of Thai food from other regions is lacking in comparison.

Our first night in Bangkok, our friend J., who has lived in Thailand for several years now, took us to a southern Thai restaurant around Khao San Road (an experience for another post...) and we ordered something called mataba that turned out to be a kind of stuffed roti served with a bit of pickled cucumber relish on the side:

Isn't it pretty on its blue plate? The egg and meat layered with pastry inside created a nice texture. Unfortunately, this particular mataba didn't really strike me. It could have been the time: We were eating fairly late (around 10pm) and it wasn't warmed completely through. Also, there wasn't anything particularly distinctive about the spicing. However, after reading this description of the dish on Kasma Lola-unchit's site, I'm willing to give it another try when I have the chance.

Note: Also from Kasma Lola-unchit: Apparently "mataba" is the Thai word for what is referred to as "murtabak" in Malaysia and Singapore.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

43 Travel Stories

As a way of sharing my experiences in Thailand and Malaysia, I thought I'd do something a little different.

Last year I started a page on the goal-setting website 43Things. In a nod to that site, and an effort to get into more regular blogging this year, I will be posting 43 photos with accompanying anecdotes from my travels.

Happy 2011!

Happy New Year!

It was back to wintry Seoul this past Sunday morning after a red eye flight from Kuala Lumpur. We hurried, me shivering in my thin Thai pants (one size fits all, super comfortable, we bought 4 pairs...) the block from the subway station to our house, where we immediately turned on the ondol, got under the covers, and slept. I felt fortunate to live so close to a subway station! The new airport express just opened up a stop at Digital Media City on our line, which made the journey a little easier.

It's taken some adjustment to be back in weather that's nearly 50 degrees (F) colder (I was sweating in my newly shorn pixie haircut in KL and now find myself bundling up my bare head in my huge winter hat). At the same time, I appreciate snow and cold when it's winter; after two weeks, M and I could see how the lack of differentiation between seasons in a tropical climate might get to us after a while.

For my first post of 2011, thought I'd share a photo of some of my favorite souvenirs from our trip:

The green curry paste was purchased in Chiang Mai; the rest, at a grocery store in Brickfields, the Little India neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur.

Looking forward to experimenting with them soon! Will have to make a coconut milk run to Itaewon in the near future...


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