Thailand Travel Tales: This story about learning to cook in Thailand was published in an anthology book entitled THE WORLD IS A KITCHEN. I survived a six month cooking hazing ritual at the hands of my (now) friend and mentor nicknamed “Auntie Dam”. It was one of most satisfying and exciting things I had ever done and it lead me to Thailand travel all over the Kingdom.
When I showed the unflappable Auntie Dan the published story and told her she was famous, she just gave me her customary goodhearted but withering gaze and said “Child, I was always famous.” When you are that good, it isn’t bragging.
Everybody needs a home base. A place of respite from the cares of the world. A place to leave all the crap you have accumulated when you go off to travel. I chose a small family owned hotel on a quiet bay on a little island in Thailand called Koh Phangan. Fortunately the family who owned the hotel chose me too.
Koh Phangan is an island in the Gulf of Thailand some 380 miles south of Bangkok. About fifteen miles by ten miles in size, it is home to 18,000 or so Thais, about 300 farangs (Thai slang for Western visitors) who live there year round, and a varying temporary troupe of 1,000 to 40,000 Western tourists, depending on the season.
During a past visit in December 2004 I washed up on a quiet beach in the northwest section of the island where I found sanctuary. Down a steep hill, Haad Salad (Pirate’s Beach in the local dialect) had a gentle sandy smile of a beach facing the sunset with a live coral reef an easy swim away. On the beach I found a likely seaside hotel – my home was a painted red concrete bungalow, about ten feet square, basic but clean with a cold water shower and a toilet you poured water in to get rid of your waste. For U.S. $10 a day I was well pleased with my modest bungalow at the Haadlad Resort.
I was attracted to the slow pace of the island and the bounty of fresh fish and squid from the local fishermen. The main entertainment at night was watching the twinkle of the squid boats offshore, with their light bulb draped wings hovering above the wave tops to attract the squid. No cinema, no TV’s in the rooms and no distractions except the ones you wished to create or bring. There was nothing to do and plenty of time to do it in.
The owner was an affable and irrepressibly cheerful man introduced to me as “Mister Aow” (his nickname means “Blackie” in the Chinese dialect spoken by his mother). He informed me he grew up on the island as a boy, was schooled in Bangkok, and had returned to the island after a successful business career to build his hotel. He had grown up in a Chinese ancestry Thai restaurant family and so knew and loved food, both traditional Thai and Chinese.
As I got to know him, I observed the easy charm combined with shrewd people skills seen in skilled ambassadors. Everyone on the island seemed to know him and like him. He was often consulted by folks interested in setting up businesses on the island. Mister Aow welcomed my interest in learning to cook the regional dishes from Southern Thailand. He was so welcoming I ended up studying cooking with him and his resident chef.
Just before I arrive at Haadlad Resort I had attended a two-week Thai cooking course on the neighboring island of Ko Samui. The highly skilled cooking school chef/owner Roongfa Sringam drilled and grilled me and my fellow student (another enthusiastic amateur who wanted to leave a corporate job and do something new) in the basics of Thai cooking. I learned a lot and I learned I wanted to learn more. And in coming to Haadlad Resort, I got the chance because Mister Aow later gave me carte blanche in the kitchen. But I had to prove myself first.
My Thai Cooking Audition
As I got settled in at the hotel, Mister Aow and I talked a lot about Thai food. I knew he was a passionate chef and the food at the hotel reflected his high standards.
There was something going on the kitchen at the little bungalow hotel. The smell of frying fish and simmering chile curry drifted like a tantalizing fog though the open door to the kitchen. I could hear the sizzling sound of food hitting hot oil in a wok. But I couldn’t see what they were doing in there. The sign above the entry door to the kitchen clearly said “Hotel Staff Only” in English.
The Thai hotel waiters took food orders from the often culinarily cautious farang guests: toast with butter, hamburgers and fries, an imitation of spaghetti Bolognese, bottles of Coca-Cola and Gatorade were brought to the picnic tables in the open air dining area outside the kitchen.
But in the afternoons when the guests were at the beach, the Thai hotel kitchen staff came out of the hot kitchen to eat their lunch in the cooler dining area. They ate their own style of food. No Western style hamburgers and fries for them. I saw fresh whole steamed fish with a quick stir fried relish of purple shallots, garlic and bright red chiles; duck with bamboo shoots in red chile curry; minced pork stir fried with holy basil and green pepper corns; multi colored fruit shakes.
I lounged casually on the periphery of the Thai staff table, sniffing quietly. Mum, the hotel’s day manager, saw me looking expectantly at the food, like a dog waiting for a juicy scrap to fall on the floor. “Do you like Thai food, Tummy?” she asked with a smile. Since the Thais often introduce themselves by their nicknames, I used mine too.
I shuffled over, trying to look cool and non-committal. Mum gave me a spoonful of the minced pork. Ambrosia. The green pepper corns had never seen the inside of pickling jar like the type we get in the States. The basil had just come out of the garden behind the kitchen, Mum informed me. Feeling like a kid at a high school dance imitating cool courage before asking one of the popular girls to dance, I tried not to blow it by showing too much enthusiasm. I casually mentioned I had made something similar when I attended a two week Thai cooking course on the neighboring island of Samui. “I might have some photos of the food we made if you would be interested,” I mentioned quietly.
The Thai’s were incredulous. “You really like Thai food?” Mum asked. They asked to see the photos. They crowded around the two-inch screen of my digital camera. We paged through pictures of omelets stuffed with a savory pork and vegetable medley; curried chicken with raisins, pineapple and rice stuffed in a pineapple shell; a pumpkin filled with a steamed egg and coconut cream custard; southern Thai style Massaman chicken curry with cumin and coriander seed were met with cries of “rawy jang huu” – Southern Thai dialect for delicious. The hotel chef was summoned from the kitchen. Chef Dam was a petite and shy, dark skinned woman in her late forties who had worked in hotel kitchens for 20 years. She asked to see the photos.
Chef Dam Throws Down the Gauntlet
I paged through the photos again. Chef Dam corrected my recently learned Thai as I tried to describe each dish by its Thai name. One of the staff collected the other helpers at the hotel so they could also see the pictures.
Chef Dam was not yet convinced that I could cook these Thai specialties. With Mum translating, Chef Dam teasingly challenged me to cook for the staff. Chef Dam declared with a smile that since I was a farang, I could not have made these dishes. No man can shirk from a challenge, especially when given by a 4’8” Thai woman. I don’t mind being kidded about my rotund appearance, but when it comes to food, them’s fighting words. I volunteered to cook haw mok plaa, a steamed fish, coconut cream and red chili paste soufflé. Chef Dam smiled and made a remark over her shoulder in Thai as she returned to the kitchen. The ever polite Mum translated the parting shot as “Chef Dam will look forward to your cooking and will watch carefully to see if she can learn from you.” Based on the laughs I heard as Chef Dam departed, I think what she said amounted to “I’ll believe it when I see it.” The gauntlet had been thrown.
The Salt and Pepper Swedes
At dinner, I mentioned the cooking challenge to the other guests at the hotel. While some of the adventurous German tourists wanted to sample my version of Thai food, a group of young travelers I’ll call the “Salt and Pepper Swedes” were gravely concerned that I might get sick from eating fish. I called the group of five traveling teenagers the “Salt and Pepper Swedes” because of their aversion to eating Thai food. They were traveling in Asia for six months prior to entering university at home. They wanted to broaden their minds through world travel, as long as it did not involve trying any local food. Each day they stuck to their perceived safe regimen of hamburgers and fries, spaghetti Bolognese, Coca-Cola and eggs & toast. The Salt and Pepper Swedes gently moved away the tabletop tray of condiments that contained ground chile powder, and bird’s eye chile in fish sauce, in case a gust of wind should blow these toxic flavorings into their food. The most adventurous one did use salt and pepper on a dish, hence my nickname for the group. The others were not as bold. I assured the cautious eaters that I would be careful and urged them to try my creation, arguing if it was safe enough for me to eat, it would be safe enough for them.
Doing My Homework
The next morning, I sat in my beach side brick bungalow preparing for the Main Event. I took out my Thai food dictionary. On the right side of a notebook, I carefully copied down in English the ingredients I would need for the dish. The list included fresh fish filets, eggs, red curry paste, coconut cream, kaffir lime leaves, and fish sauce. Next to the English words I copied the Thai name in Thai script from the food dictionary. I never got a gold star in penmanship back in grammar school so I transcribed extra slowly. Trying to copy the Thai alphabet of loops and lines and tone marks was very difficult. Knowing how a slight change in the written tone mark in a Thai word could radically alter the meaning, I was hoping I wouldn’t carelessly mark a word’s tone incorrectly or transpose the some letters and accidentally spell out “poison” or “dog hair” or something insulting or bizarre. Satisfied that I had accurately copied the words in Thai, I walked across the sand to the kitchen to begin my test. Mum looked at my list of ingredients with surprise. She complimented me on my attempt at writing, as if I were a precocious kindergartner bringing home my first scrawling on construction paper. So far, so good.
My recipe list detailed the name of the proposed dish prominently in large letters in English and Thai. Haw mok plaa literally translates to “fish wrapped and hidden” as the traditional recipe places a mixture of minced fish, eggs, coconut cream and red chili curry paste inside a banana leaf folded and secured with a tooth pick to make a container. Mum suggested we fold banana leaves into open cups and staple the sides of the leaves together to simplify the process. I deferred to her sound judgment. No reason to be a purist.
Since I had been able to say a few words in Thai such as “thank you” and “please” Chef Dam assumed that I was being modest about my Thai language skills when I stared at her blankly when she delivered a rapid fire question in Thai at me. If she only knew that I had a lot to be modest about when it came to her language. She spoke to me only in Thai for the remainder of my stay at the hotel. Her assistant spoke some English but liked to taunt me by making me ask for Thai ingredients by their Thai names. For more complicated communications I called in Mum to translate. I paid Mum in discrete gifts of tamarind candy from the market in town. Fair deal.
Can You Cook?
I was given a tail of fresh barracuda. No problem. It turned out to be my first test. The 18 inch tail had the skin and scales on and was filled with sinews stretching from the tail through the body of the fish. Careful not to sever my fingers, I shaved off the fish skin and scales with a cleaver. Chef Dam had honed the cleaver by scraping the blade against the rough surface on the bottom of her ever present granite mortar. (The use of a heavy granite mortar and pestle for pounding spices, making chile pastes or making aromatic vegetable relishes is emblematic of true Thai chefs. Some cooks use electric blenders to finely chop ingredients and make chile pastes, but the tearing action of the machine blades results in an inferior product compared with the traditional mortar and pestle pounding method. If I am in a home or restaurant where the rhythmic sound of the mortar and pestle is heard, I relax with an assurance that the flavors will be authentic because of the time consuming but superior traditional method).
As I shredded the fish flesh, I found I was getting too many of the inedible tail fibers in the fish. Chef Dam observed me with a bemused smile. When she and her assistant had finished laughing, she gave me a spoon with a sharp edge and showed me how to scrap the fish from the sinews. The job was completed in two minutes. They never taught me that trick in weekend cooking school. I later learned the Thais didn’t know if I was serious about making the dish, so they had given me a cast off piece of fish that was too sinewy for grilling on the barbecue for the guests.
I combined the fish with the coconut cream and other ingredients in a stainless steel bowl, carefully measuring in two tablespoons of red chile curry paste as I had learned in Thai cooking school. Chef Dam stuck her finger in the raw fish and curry paste mixture to gauge the seasoning. She added more curry paste. I stirred the ingredients to combine the curry paste evenly with the shredded fish and coconut cream. She tasted again. She added more curry paste. I stirred again. She tasted. She grabbed her mortar and pestle and quickly added the ingredients to make more curry paste: bright dried red long chilies, purple and white shallots, galangal root, lemongrass stalks, garlic, dried coriander seed, coriander root, and pungent shrimp paste that smelled like a seaweed covered beach at low tide. Another two tablespoons of curry paste were added to the fish mixture. It had turned a husky pumpkin color. Once Chef Dam was satisfied the seasonings were balanced, we carefully poured the mixture in the four-inch banana leaf cups. We placed these in a steamer on the gas stove and covered the pot.
A half an hour later we took the banana leaf cups from the steamer. Mum helped me arrange the 16 soufflés on a two foot wide round metal platter. We carefully topped the haw mok plaa in each banana leaf cup with a tablespoon of fresh coconut milk, some red chile strips and finely julienned kaffir lime leaves for garnish. Chef Dam gave me a Thai kitchen knife with a waved blade for cutting decorative cucumber and carrot slices. We evenly placed a ring of carrot and cucumber slices, coriander sprigs, and red chiles on the platter to surround the banana leaf cups. The final tray looked beautiful. I was proud of the creation. And then nervous as Chef Dam prepared to taste. She nodded in appreciation and one tentative spoonful became several.
Now for the Tasting
I tasted one of the fish soufflés. It was stop-my-heart spicy but luxurious. The sweet coconut milk and sharpness of the fish sauce were balanced with the soft and smooth fish. I tasted another. As I mopped the chili pepper-induced fever sweat from my face, I declared Chef Dam’s supervised creation the best I ever had, thanks to her.
Several of the Thai hotel staff took tastes. They were impressed with the effort but suggested the addition of some more red curry paste would have been appropriate to make the haw mok plaa the way their Grandmothers did.
I realized I couldn’t serve these incendiary delicacies to the Salt and Pepper Swedes. It could set back international relations between America and Sweden for decades. But Chef Dam invited me to watch her cook dinner that night. I smiled and thanked her, glad I passed the audition.