Last post I promised to devote my next chapter to the meal prepared in my home by Thai massage-yoga-guru Lawan and her cousin Supapan. I often think that cooking is the root of successful relationships. Jan and I are a summer Tanglewood romance that is still going strong and we love to cook together. The performing arts demand physical stamina so paying attention to your health is part of your job.
And how your body is functioning cannot be separated from how your mind is functioning. Separating the two is, for me, one of the big blind spots of Western culture. To change how you think, change how you eat.
Before I take you through our Thai meal in my Pasadena home (for my many international readers we live just a few miles from downtown Los Angeles), memorize these five words:
Sweet. Sour. Spicy. Salty. Bitter.
Balancing these five flavors is essential in Thai cooking (and in other Asian cuisines as well). One theme I’m developing in my blog is the contrast, the differences, between East and West. Before we find commonality we need to understand our cultures thoroughly. My mom always made me do my homework.
Apart from a cultural demand for flavor balance, I also have learned a lot about the attitudes coming from an Asian direction to our Western cuisine. I remember returning home from Thailand in 2011. I went back to Polly, my Thai barber, for a haircut. An idea had occurred to me on the flight home and I wanted to ask her as a friend for her reaction.
“Polly, does the idea of a half chicken on a plate for dinner surrounded by a few steamed vegetables strike you as strange coming from Thailand?,” I said.
She jumped out of her skin with excitement, but whispered prestissimo so as not to offend other customers. “Jeff, I have to tell you I think Western food is crazy. A big piece of meat with salt and pepper. Fish with only butter and maybe parsley, salt and pepper. Italian pasta is just one taste, no balance. Very little here is tasty or interesting to me.”
Have the five flavors memorized yet? Let me help with Thai equivalents. For sweet, palm sugar. For sour, lime juice. For spicy, chilis of various kinds. For salty go straight to fish sauce. And for bitter, think herbs and leaves like cilantro and even mint.
So let’s get cooking. Our menu that Lawan and Supapan prepared as a teaching vehicle for us Westerners included Phra Kung Shrimp, Glass Noodles with Eggs and Vegetables, and Green Beef Curry, rounded out with a simple coconut dessert from a Thai deli close to Wat Thai on Coldwater Canyon in North Hollywood (we have more meals planned, yum, yum, yum). We provided fresh lemongrass tea, made the jasmine rice, and contributed two Laotian jeows of tomato and eggplant with sticky rice and a good dragonfruit for dessert. And for good measure Supapan requested a wine, so we obliged with a California Gewürztraminer from Claiborne & Churchill.
Jan and I got a lot of cooking inspiration when we were in Luang Prabang this past October. Lao cuisine is not exported – yet. But I’ll make a prediction that the Lao cuisine begins to grow internationally. And if it does, it will be due to Joy of Tamarind Restaurant in Luang Prabang. Our cooking class with him was the inspiration for us to ask Lawan and Supapan to teach us their food in our home.
Lao cuisine is related, somewhat, to Thai Issan cooking. But Laotian food is characterized by an attractive bitterness that does not hide its flavor. My recommendation in the short-term is to plan someday to go to Luang Prabang with an open palate. Jet lag never tasted so good. And the French cooking there has Laotian twists so there are spots to die for with half the price of Paris. So we knew that contributing Lao jeows would be OK for our Thai meal because of the relationship to Thai Isaan cooking.
I hope my mom is reading my blog from heaven. For she would have been impressed beyond belief with how Lawan and Supapan held their knifes for slicing and dicing while brilliantly juggling the preparation of multiple dishes in a strange kitchen. Below is the perfect position to hold one’s knife. Notice the marriage of Lawan’s hand to the knife blade and her curled fingers, which makes it impossible to cut yourself. Fear of injury solved. Did I mention she wakes at 4 AM to meditate everyday for 2 hours? And for an added touch, the apron you see on Lawan throughout this post was sewn for me by mom.
Supapan took over two dishes: the Phra Kung Shrimp and Glass Noodles with Vegetables.
So here is an Old School way to learn how to cook. Buy shrimp to fill the surface of a wok. Chop lemongrass and shallots (sour) (see photos above to learn about the lemongrass slice). Locate Supapan’s chili paste in an Asian market, and ask if you need an alternative paste (sweet and spicy combined).
How much to use? See below.
Then mix with dry hot chili flakes (spicy) to taste and Thai basil and mint (bitter).
Line a plate for presentation with lettuce leaves and go to Thai Food Heaven!
While this was going on, there was some great kitchen counterpoint with Lawan and Jan. Green Beef Curry with creamy coconut milk. How much coconut milk? Eventually the whole can, but not all at once.
Lawan began by sauteing some green curry powder with a dash of oil.
Then she taught Jan just how much coconut milk to add at the beginning. And you should best throw your caution to the winds and use rich coconut milk or the taste will be different. I’ll talk about portion size a little later, and no, we didn’t gain any weight with this entire feast. Great news….
Here’s another Old School way to learn. You want to use this much curry barely covered by this much coconut milk to build the consistency of the dish.
And from here on it’s easy. Add beef (or it could be tofu or chicken or a thick fish) and then the second half of the coconut milk can. Fish sauce as well, and Lawan used much more than I imagined, I’d measure at least three tablespoons by eye. Sweetness? She brought Thai Palm Sugar and add just a little pinch. And she spoke in sign language about substitutes, wagging her index finger in a “no, no, no” fashion about substituting brown sugar. Try also to find some golf ball sized eggplant which the Thai adore. Then let it bubble and bubble and bubble, adding seasoning to your taste.
Jan was also steaming some Thai sticky rice for our Laotian jeows, one of eggplant and another of spicy tomato. Use a broiler to roast your ingredients of garlic, serrano chiles (thank God Mexico is our cuisine neighbor) or Thai bird chilies if you can find them, and eggplant and tomatoes. They should become very black. If you grill, even better. Pound in a Thai mortar and pestle of granite stone and add scallion leaves, lime juice and fish sauce. Little amounts so don’t worry about measurements and just taste your food as you go.
Once the Phra Kung Shrimp was prepared, Supapan went on to Glass Noodles and Vegetables. She used a copious amount of grape seed oil before adding eggs to scramble into the oil. I’d only experienced the Spanish doing this (and yes there were a lot of Portuguese traders in Bangkok once upon a time) but she taught us that by using the oil the egg will not stick to the noodles. Essential to a good glass noodle recipe.
Supapan had pre-cut her carrots, shallots, scallions and used small amounts of fish sauce and palm sugar for balance.
So we’re ready for dinner!
Let me take you around the table, starting in the lower right hand corner. The bowl with the spoon submerged in luscious curry sauce is the beef curry. Then comes a glass of lemongrass tea and a glass of wine. Next spot a triangular set of tomato Lao jeow, sticky rice at the top of the triangle, and eggplant Laotian jeow. In front of the sticky rice is a bowl of lettuce leaves, also for the jeow. then you can spot the Glass Noodles with Vegetables, the tea by Lawan, a bowl of jasmine rice for the curry and Phra King Shrimp is across from the rice bowl.
So, you ask, you didn’t gain weight with all the sodium, sugar, rich coconut milk, and wine? Plus an off camera coconut dessert.
As I was taking all the pictures and asking my own questions to Lawan and Supapan as they cooked, I had a cultural response that was baffling me. Which was the entrée, appetizer, first course, second course? And they weren’t at all concerned with keeping things piping hot. I was trying to determine a progression to the meal.
When we sat down to the table and I asked my question, I was busted pretty fast by Lawan. She banished the idea of any progression whatsoever. There was not a structural pattern of jeows followed by glass noodles, then Phra Kung Shrimp topped off by rice and beef and green curry. Not on your life.
For her the meal was a continuous stream of flavor. The five flavors of sweet, sour, spicy, salty and bitter need to be present, not toned down for Western tastes. That balance creates harmony throughout the meal.
But there is one bigger catch.
You only eat one dish at a time. You do not mix the shrimp with the beef with glass noodles with the jeow. Woe be tide to you if you do. And therein is the culprit of weight gain. Small portions from one taste to the next to the next, to a return to a taste and then another. But each individually. Always. So no beef curry to shrimp to noodles in three successive spoonfuls. Nope, no way. One after the other. A cycle of life at the dinner table.
Which brings me back to Thailand.
After all, we met Lawan through her calling as a Thai masage-yoga-meditation guru after we returned from narrowly missing the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Her sessions are a minimum of two hours. We joke a lot about her providing us with “sweet pain” because she does not hold back. She learned Thai massage to help her father recover from a serious stroke. Talk about the love and devotion of a daughter to her father. Dad did recover with her constant day to day reinforcement balancing and shifting the bloodstream by working on the joints determined by advanced yoga techniques.
Thai massage was developed at Wat Po in Bangkok, on the banks of the Chao Praya River. It’s origins, like most everything in all Asia, come from India. You can have an introductory massage at this hallowed temple by young Thai learning their craft. It’s right behind the building in the picture below. Put this on your Bucket List when next in Bangkok.
It is funny how things eventually connect. When I was studying with Roland Berger of the Vienna Philharmonic in 1977-78, I asked him what was the most beautiful place he’d ever seen in all of his tours with the orchestra. His answer?
“Without question The Grand Palace of Bangkok.” I filed that away until the 21st century got me to Thailand. He was pitch perfect, as with everything from his musically hallowed city of Vienna.
So what did we learn today? That the traditions of Thailand, its cuisine, its culture, its religion, are as rich and rewarding as the old hobby horses of Europe. There is culture without Bach and Mozart.
I like to use humor to make a point. The idea of Asia is a European invention. Here in Pasadena we have a manifestation of that thinking with a small interesting museum called the Pacific Asia Museum. That’s right, a modest institution is meant to represent Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Most people here in the West tacitly accept this thinking.
My joke? Let’s have an Atlantic European Museum represent the visual art of Italy, France, England, Spain, Greece, Russia, Germany, the Benelux Nations, Portugal, Scandinavia. You get the picture, and every time I invoke this analogy, I get a good laugh.
Jan and I aren’t indifferent to other traditions. We work to translate what we learned from our teachers in music to other unrelated cultures. And from cuisine to massage to culture and religion, Thailand is a place close to my heart, both there and here at home in Los Angeles. Its traditions are as formidable as a Bach fugue or a late Beethoven string quartet. Their traditions require maybe more discipline than ours. At least I don’t get up at 4 AM to practice daily. Lawan has helped us both get deep inside the mind of Asia. In our hearts. And in our bodies. It’s all connected, and food is part of the journey.
And probably waking up at 4 AM to meditate….
Best, best, best,