In the last post, I shared a recipe for stirfried Thai spinach. Here is an exerpt from the Thai travel and food book I wrote about learning to catch the airborne version of Thai spinach. Even with the correct gear, it is harder than it looks.
Incoming! – Flying Vegetables Fly By My Head In Phitsanulok
The phak bung stirfried vegetable winged past my ear and was expertly caught by the adept waiter to my rear. Perhaps I should tell you why vegetables were being hurled at me. But first, let’s discuss why vegetables can fly.
Phak bung is a hardy green hollow-stemmed vegetable with slender and tender leaves that grows widely inThailand, especially by bodies of still water. It is gathered for cooking as a quick vegetable stirfry, stays crisp after cooking and is packed with vitamin A, calcium, and iron (but not so much iron compared to spinach that you feel like you have chewed on aluminum foil when it is eaten). Names for this common vegetable include the more glamorous and attractive name of morning glory (in the way a Hollywood starlet might change her name to something more alluring), but it is also called water convolvulus or swamp cabbage.
The green is combined in a wok with hot cooking oil, mashed garlic, crushed chillies, and black bean sauce or yellow bean sauce and is quickly stirfried. As cooking oil drips over the edge of the wok, spectacular flames can erupt, giving the dish a smoky flavor. Some chefs tilt the edge of the wok to induce the conflagration, adding to the taste and spectacle of the dish. This flaming version is called phak bung fai daeng or literally “red fire flaming water spinach.”
To further make the stirfry an exciting eating experience, some Thai chefs have invented a new variation―phak bung lawy faa or “sky floating water spinach” where the chef flings the cooked greens through the air in a practiced arc and an agile waiter catches them on a plate. The aeration is thought to give the stirfry an added flavor.
We had heard that tryouts for the flying vegetable caching team were held every night in Phitsanulok, so we motored to the night market and parked by a riverside restaurant. At the side of the restaurant near the open-air cooking station was an aged, rusted, brick red delivery van with a set of steps leading to a platform on top.
I figured having vegetables flung at me was a logical continuation of the ‘Fun with Food” theme of the trip which had already included dodging durians, wrestling with dancing shrimp in Chiang Mai, and later chasing chickens in Isaan.
I resolutely stepped up to the chef and asked to participate in the sport. To get in the swing of things, those trying out for the phak bung catching team could don a Nutty Tourist ensemble of a red rubber apron, which I accessorized with a red hula skirt and a headband into which a waiter stuck two long eggplants as Viking horns. I declined the rubber flesh-colored fake breasts, feeling this added bit of equipment might constrict my catching arm. I climbed the steps to the top of the van and did a few light stretching exercises.
The chef set a large blackened wok over a high gas flame and added vegetable oil. After the oil had begun to smoke slightly in the pan, handfuls of the green vegetable were tossed into the wok with sliced chillies, mashed garlic cloves and black bean sauce and quickly stirfried. The chef tilted the edge of the wok so some of the oil caught fire in a spectacular supernova flare-up, like dragon’s breath. The chef drained off most of the liquid from the wok so just the greens nestled with the garlic and chillies remained. This made a cleaner missile to hurl towards me.
Four motorcycle taxi men thumped on bongos and chanted a song about phak bung to encourage my successful catch. One of them even showed his commitment to the theme music by putting down his bottle of Chang beer. Of course, it was empty.
The chef gave me a rookie oversized vegetable catching platter the size of a truck hubcap, while an encouraging waiter stood by with a plate the size of a teacup saucer. The chef stood fifteen feet away on the ground beneath the van. As I preened for Kitty’s camera, the flying vegetable hurtled past my head and the waiter leapt up to catch it like a major leaguer leaping up to snatch a line drive in the World Series.
How I managed to miss catching the hurled vegetables three times is a matter of debate. I blamed the light from the restaurant in my eyes and the flashbulbs from Kitty’s camera (One of her many nicknames earned during the trip was “Snaps” due her diligence in documenting our trek with hundreds of photos.)
My sports failure echoed my brief and unremarkable career in Pee Wee baseball where I managed to have the ball land anywhere but in my glove. Then I got eyeglasses and the world changed from Impressionist to Realist so I could see beyond my nose, but I had already become interested in cooking and never returned to sports unless compelled by the school.
But I looked great in my phak bung catching gear and have been shopping for my own red hula skirt, size XXXXL.
Here is what the dish looks like.
I’ve since tried my hand at slinging phak bung in the yard in front of my bungalow. I can’t tell if the aeration process substantially adds to the flavor or not, but the neighborhood kids like trying to catch the sky-floating vegetable and the local birds are well fed.
If you are in Phitsanulok, you can practice your phak bung catching skills at the Savik restaurant near the night market on the banks of the River Nan.