You know when you really want to do something but don’t have the balls to do it? And then you do it and it’s like, why didn’t I do that earlier??
Last night I went to one of my favorite street vendors in my neighborhood, Khun Yu, and ordered a new dish I hadn’t tasted before: gaeng hoy. The dish was murky green and full of apple eggplants and tiny snails; it had a good amount of heat to it. I slurped the shells of their tiny innards and contemplated life over this bowl of awesome soup, then ran back downstairs. I’ve been buying food from Khun Yu for years and I’ve never had the balls to ask her if I could cook with her.
I walked back to her cart and told her that I had just finished her soup and that it was “pet ta arroy!” (spicy but delicious). She laughed and asked if I could eat the snails. “Naanon!” Of course I can! I think she gets a kick out of the things I buy from her. I then proceeded, in very slow Thai, to ask if I could cook with her one day. She laughed some more and told me to meet her at 9 in the morning. I was so surprised it was that easy! She didn’t even flinch at the prospect of me being in her home. Why hadn’t I done this sooner?
So this morning I literally woke up with a smile on my face, before my eyes were even open. This is the first of I hope many cooking lessons with my local vendors. However, down at the market I was a bit confused on where she told me to meet her. After waiting 10 minutes in one spot, I asked another lady in the market if they knew where she lived. At first the older woman waved me away, assuming she couldn’t understand me, but I persisted and, once she realized she could kind of understand me, took me by the hand to Khun Yu’s house.
I walked up and she was already sitting on the floor prepping. She waved me in and welcomed me. I sat down, chit-chatted and began helping with all the vegetables that needed picking and trimming. I was surprised at how easily the conversation came. I always get so nervous before spending a day with Thais because I think, what if we run out of things to say? What if they don’t understand any of the words that come out of my mouth? But somehow, through my poor language skills and a lot of hand gestures and pictionary motions, along with a few dictionary peeks, we managed to spend the whole day together.
It turns out that her husband, Khun Leuay, is from Chiang Mai, and he’s the one that does all of the cooking. After finishing the prep by early afternoon, he took me into the kitchen and showed me how to make a few of the dishes he does every day. The one I was really after though is an eggplant dip that is out of this world. My sister Julia and I used to eat it every day when she visited last, and I pop around to buy it at least a few times a week. It’s creamy and rich, spicy and full of fresh herbs. It’s definitely a dish I want in my repetoir. Khun Leuay walked me through the steps, turning to me every so often to exclaim, “See! Easy!!”
I was having so much fun that I decided to play hookey from school. Don’t tell anyone! I was in the moment and preferred this home-style education to a formal classroom one, so I called in sick and proceeded to fill banana leaves with pig brain.
Around 1pm, we took a break and Khun Yu finally boasted her own cooking skills. She’s from Isaan, one of my favorite regions to eat from. It’s the land of a million som tams (green papaya salads). The food is spicy, like the kind of spicy that makes your lips look like you’ve just had injections. Your eyes will mostly likely tear up and you’ll probably have a moustachio of perspiration by the end of an Isaan meal. It’s really quite exhilarating! If you know me quite well, you know that I’m slightly obsessed with green papaya salads. I’ve been on a quest to discover as many as I can and have done a pretty decent job in these past few weeks. But her papaya salad was one of those that knocks your socks of it’s so good. She brought out the plaraa (fermented fish sauce) that to some smells stinky, and to others it smells like a dream. It’s kinda like durian–you either love it or you find it disgusting. Her plaraa came from her village up north and she held it to her chest with adoration. I knew this was going to be good.
She asked if I could eat spicy and I shook my head yes. She threw in a half handful of chilies, garlic and shredded papaya into the mortar and pounded lightly with her pestle. She ladled in 2 large spoonfuls of the plaraa and then proceeded to add 3 kind of eggplants, katin (a stinky bean), dried shrimp, and peanuts. It was definitely a north-eastern style som tam, yet it had the additions of dried shrimp and peanuts, which is more central Thai. No matter, the combination was extraordinary.
The som tam was fiery. She had me taste it and the bit of salad that hit my chin immediately turned my chin red and angry. It was delicious though and the plaraa was smooth and not too funky. She then made a second salad, stating that now she was going to make a spicy one…
Khun May, the Vietnamese woman helping with the prep, grilled up some pork and made laab. We added some rose-colored kanom-jeen (fermented rice noodles) to the som tam platter, paired it with some crunchy green veggies, and brought out some lemongrass steamed mussels with some seafood dipping sauce. We sat on the floor and got to work. It was an awesome spread that I felt so lucky to be a part of.
We finished up the prep after lunch and then I just hung out with their 9 year old daughter Flame and practiced some English with her. The cheow kuey guy came around and we ordered some sweet grass jelly over ice. It cooled our burning tongues and satisfied my sweet tooth.
It was one of those days when you just feel so thrilled to be part of someone else’s life…