Monday, March 7, 2011

43 Thailand #6: Lad Na

On our second night in Chiang Mai, after visiting A's aunt, we went to a brightly lit cafe for dinner. M. ordered Penang curry, A. got something called Sukiyaki, and, for nostalgia's sake, I got Lad Na Moo.

My dad has been cooking Thai food since before I was born, and his dishes were a regular part of meals at home while I was growing up. For what it's worth, his Thai food remains the standard by which I judge other Thai food, and some of his versions are still my favorites. Even today when I go home for a visit I always request at least one Thai dish from Dad.

There were several dishes that were part of the regular rotation at our house: Pad thai, Larb (my favorite, especially with fresh green beans from the garden), various kinds of Tom Yum soups, Kao Pad (Thai fried rice), and a noodle dish called Guay Teow Lad Na, which I didn't really care for all that much as a kid. It was made with wider rice noodles than pad thai, in a sticky brown sauce with sliced pork and gai lan (Chinese broccoli). At the table he'd serve the finished dish with a jar of his vinegar peppers. The resulting combination of textures and flavors didn't really appeal to me. The vinegar was too pungent, the sticky sweetness not to my liking at all (I was the weird kid who would forgo dessert in favor of a second helping of peas).

However, as I got older and my palate expanded, I started to appreciate Lad Na more: the deep flavor and sticky texture of dark soy sauce, the contrast of crunchy vinegar peppers and chewy noodles, and the savory bits of slightly charred gai lan. Though I like it more now, I don't eat it very often, as it is not as common as other Thai dishes on menus outside of Thailand.

The Lad Na that I ordered in Chiang Mai was not dark brown like Dad's but in a much lighter gravy, with more of it (in Dad's version the sauce is much thicker and clings to the noodles more) and made with sen yai (thick rice noodles). It could be that this was a regional variant. However, with its contrast of chewy noodles, vinegar and crunch from the added peppers, gai lan and garlicky sauce, it evoked meals long past, and I might as well have been sitting at our kitchen table in Minnesota with the sun slanting through the atrium, eating dinner with my family. When you're living abroad and family times are few and far between, those moments count for a lot.

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