Two Thai

Two recent cooking explorations have been influenced by Thai cooking and encouraged by an inclusion in my sister’s spice send of a Thai spice rub. I don’t make any claim to authenticity here and there is no attempt to recreate any kind of dish I found on my recent travels there. Both dishes were concoctions I’d had a hankering for and so set out to make – from where that impulse comes I do not know and am less willing to analyse; that it exists is, I think, enough to make me want to follow.

I had a stick of lemongrass in the fridge I’d included in my luggage when I returned home here after the Christmas holidays. The best before date claimed a time around January but numbers can be deceptive and I’d rather judge things on how they look, smell and taste. Indeed, this particular aromatic showed no signs of having lost too much in the way of freshness. The rest of the staples were relatively easy to obtain: fresh herbs  – mint, basil, coriander – and coconut milk from Twin’s as well as red chillies (which, I have found, keep for ever if left in the freezer), ginger and garlic from the greengrocer’s next door. The owner of which greets me with a slightly sardonic ‘Halloooo!’ whenever I show up. It is the only word of English he knows I think.

Also compartmentalised in the frozen cabinet were salmon steaks and thin slabs of beef skirt, both of which I’d bought at some earlier time with no clear plan of how to use them. With the arrival of the Thai rub I had ideas.

I tackled the fish first. I smothered it in the spice mix, knowing that on previous occasions my lack of liberal generosity had resulted in dishes that were lacking in flavour and intensity. Then I fried it skin-side in a wok, gently, only to crisp up the skin. Removing the fish I tipped out most of the oil and wiped the wok down before pouring in the coconut milk – in the event only three-quarters of the tin – and adding the sliced and chopped aromatics. The idea was to poach the fish in this liquid until pink and falling apart, the flesh taking on the subtle but pungent flavours therein.

Meanwhile I had the rice on. A long time ago a Sri Lankan colleague in the bookshop where I worked taught me the perfect way to cook rice on the hob. A gas flame is essential as is a bold approach to a minuscule amount of it. How much water to rice? The eternal question. Soak the rice first, put it in the saucepan then add the water. The liquid level above the grains should be equivalent to the length of your thumb. Bring it to the boil, add a pinch of salt then after a quick stir turn the heat down to the lowest level possible and cover. Leave it for ten minutes then turn the heat off. Leave it a further ten minutes and then, finally, remove the lid. Result should be fluffy rice and all the water evaporated. Mine turned out more or less like that and I am grateful for that conversation I had next to the Mind, Body and Spirit book section some fourteen years ago.

The dish itself was a success although I think I could have been even more daring still with the spicing. The fish can stand it.

IMG_1534.jpg
Note artful attempt at posh presentation; I didn’t have one of those rice rings you see on cookery programmes. At one point I considered a coiled belt.

The second dish involved fewer processes and was essentially about jumbling together things that harmonise naturally. Beef, tomatoes, the usual Thai aromatics, fresh herbs, cucumber, peanuts, lime. The cooking method used to amalgamate all the flavour was stir-fry and before attempting the dish I watched a brief video featuring Ken Hom explaining the rudiments. If I’ve had a problem with this methodology in the past it’s because I’ve been sceptical about frying off the garlic and ginger first in the hot oil; in my experience they’ve just ended up burning really quickly, tainting the oil and therefore the entire dish. But when I watched Hom he didn’t seem to have that problem (dress sense apart, brown does not age well) and I realised that I’d missed a fundamental aspect of the method. The clue is in the name. Stir-fry.

Rather than moving the ingredients around the pan I had simply added them and watched them toast and blacken. So this time I stirred. Another essential is to have every ingredient chopped and ready so there is no danger of any burning. Bigger things get added first and I did not forget to keep things on the move: rotating the pan, thrusting with the spoon, generally getting shaky with it all. I’d marinated the beef with the spice rub and it cooked in no time at all. All the things added at the end gave the dish a zing my head needed.

 

 

Cheddar stands for comfort

Just got back from the Land of Smiles. I did a lot of that while I was there, and other people reciprocated. I also, unsurprisingly, ate a lot of food. Despite its proliferation, also depressingly at times paired with beer as a kind of backpacker ‘meal deal’, I only had Pad Thai twice. The first time on my first night in Bangkok’s Chinatown, at a streetside stall on plastic chairs with a large cold Chang beer. On this occasion they folded the noodle mixture up into a kind of omelette and served it so. The peanuts and accompanying sauces were on the side, to be added at one’s discretion. The second time was at Yam’s Kitchen on Koh Phangan, and this was a more sprawling, but perhaps more delicious, affair, with all the trimmings artfully arranged around the side of the plate. Contrasting atmospheres too: the first was a vibrant night scene, with vendors and pedestrians jostling alike for alley-space and the scent of fish sauce in the air; the second was a calmer affair, alone, with a glorious pink sunset and the dusky breeze hushing over the waves. Chang beer the only constant.

Other culinary highlights included the barbecued tilapia fish at Lert Ros in Chiang Mai – a literal step away from the front of my hotel – a Beef Pha Naeng at the same Yam’s which was all sweet and sour liquid deliciousness, the food made by ‘Mom’ at the resort where I stayed on the island and, my final meal enjoyed with the boon of unexpected companionship, Khao Soi, a northern curry topped with crisply-fried onions on Ram Buttri road in Bangkok.

All these flavours of red and green chilli, fish sauce, coconut, peanut and lime, could have influenced my palate to the extent I might have been craving more of the same on my return. And yet. I believe in more transitory experiences, as a certain piece of music heard at a particular time cannot have the same effect when re-listened to, so the my eating experience in Thailand shall, for now, stay there too, elbow to elbow on fold-up tables, before a collide-oscope of colour, under the sinking salmon sun.

When I arrived yesterday late morning I was weary, having managed only a restless pair of hours on a lightly padded set of chairs at Macau Airport while screaming children ran amok around the deserted departures lounge. In this instance I fall back on an old favourite, something that requires little thought or imagination, that can be prepared more or less eyes closed which was, more or less, how I was anyway. I have no desire to go into pointless discussions concerning how this simple dish can be served and, apparently, the best way to eat it, on what type of bread, grate the cheese or slice the cheese, what make of cheese, cha cha cha.

Suffice to say: some sort of cheese. I had some in my fridge, bearing a colour that should make a man such as myself, from the home of Cheddar, ashamed. I had bread too, cheap stuff that toasts poorly. And I had chutney, brought back from the Christmas holidays. An unpromising set of ingredients. And yet. The bread toasted the best it could, the cheese melted sloppily: I ate it in less time it’s taken me to write this paragraph.

I lay on my bed with the early afternoon sun slanting in over me and slept like the proverbial.