Elements Of Life: Important Information Update!

My newest book,The Elements of Life comes with a wheel that helps you determine your home element(s). Unfortunately, there are mistakes printed on the back of the wheel. Until the publisher can correct them, these are the right dates:
March 8, 1998
March 17, 2003
March 6, 2004

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wild Greens, Blooms and Grubs

Lak is my friend Khun Mom (Sir) Tri’s gardener. He is a man of few words who lives with his equally shy wife Fon on my friend’s property where they manage the organic farm. He knew me as the cook who started a cooking school on the campus of Prem Center for International Education. This is a school my friend founded in Mae Rim, a small town in Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand. Lak was respectable and polite whenever we met to discuss how to better connect the use of the farm with the cooking school. After my four consecutive visits during the past two years, the ever present but unspoken class barrier between us was finally broken. We have become friends because of our shared passion for cooking.
One of the specialties from northern Thailand that I love is a spicy chili jam-like paste called nam prik ta daeng. Because of its intense flavor, vendors in traditional markets usually sell tiny wraps of an ounce or two of this spicy paste, just enough for one person to eat with sticky rice, steamed greens and grilled meat. During my visit to the school last year, my numerous conversations with Lak ended as usual: we talked about food. I lamented to him how I had to stock up frequently with at least a dozen or so of these one-ounce packages. I wondered if it was difficult to make. Lak mentioned casually that he knew how to make it.
Last month, I returned to Thailand to work at the cooking school. I asked Lak if he would teach me how to make nam prik ta daeng. He quietly agreed. What I thought was to be a day of simple cooking lesson turned out instead to be a wondrous cooking and eating adventure.
Lak and Chad, who is Lak’s friend and supervisor, picked me up at nine o’clock sharp one morning. We drove in Chad’s pick-up truck to talad mae malai, a local market near the school. Chad deliberately drove along the back roads so I could enjoy the countryside. We drove past villages and Buddhist temples nestled among rice fields, vegetable gardens and forests. I had brought along a bag of blooms I bought earlier that morning at the Mae Rim market. I was fascinated by a white trumpet shaped bloom tinged with shades of yellow and delicate pink. Chad pointed out some tall trees with tiny newly formed leaves lining the road. Scattered underneath them were the same blooms as in my plastic bag. He called the flowers “mali mai.”
Apparently, both the men and other gardeners and workmen who would join us for dinner that evening had already pegged me as someone who is game to eat anything they would eat, even though they don’t consider me to be a real Thai like themselves. Lak and Chad in particular, were not surprised to see me with my little bag of blooms. During our marketing, we bought up strange looking wild herbs, greens and shoots as well as a banana pouch filled with fat, juicy and oily looking white ant eggs crawling with red ants.
On the way back, we stopped at Lak’s house, an imposing modern pink two-story brick structure, to pick along his and the neighbor’s fences more wild vines, leaves, shoots and a couple of hefty looking immature jack fruit.
When I showed up at the kitchen after a quick lunch break, they had divided everything we bought and picked into piles on fresh banana leaves. Each leaf contained ingredients to be made into the various dishes we would be cooking.
Northern Thai cooking, in general, is simple and healthy. It relies on a basic chili paste for seasoning. Fat and meat are used very sparingly. Instead, river fish, fermented fish and shrimp paste, wild and cultivated seasonal greens, shoots, roots and blooms are used abundantly in soups, salads and stir-fries.
I tried to record the Thai names of these wild and unfamiliar shoots, leaves and blooms as Chad and Lak called them out during our cooking session. After returning back to my home in America, I searched through my collections of books for their English and scientific names. I was partially successful in my effort. The following are the dishes, each with a list of main ingredients used in their making. I hope the accompanying pictures will help you see what some of these exotic ingredients look like. Toward the end, there is a video of Lak explaining in Thai what each of the finished dishes was before we sat down to dinner, followed by my English translation.
1. Soup with immature jack fruit, pork, chili paste made from salt, garlic, shallots, dried chilies, fermented shrimp paste, and fermented fish; betel leaves, paak cha kang: small ovate leaves with bland taste we picked along the fences of Lak’s neighbor, kratin (leucaena leucocephala de wit): young shoots and feathery leaves that look like dill and smell like fresh cut grass, and cherry tomatoes.
2. Soup with three layer pork with saleay (broussonetia kurzii coner): delicate sprigs, each holding a cluster of 3 to 4 tiny pea-size buds that taste slightly bitter, same chili paste used for immature jackfruit soup, fermented shrimp paste, fish sauce, tamarind puree, and cherry tomatoes.
3. Soup with chicken, green gourd from our farm, same chili paste used for immature jackfruit soup plus fresh turmeric added, pulverized Sichuan peppercorns, kaffir lime leaves and chopped cilantro and green onion as garnishes.
4. Haw neoung gai – steamed savory chicken in banana leaf pouches – same chili paste used for immature jackfruit soup plus kaffir lime rind, galangal and Chinese keys added, pulverized Sichuan peppercorns, cloves of crushed garlic, leb krug fuy (polyscias feuticosa harms): small leaves with frilly edges from a bush grown on the lawn of Lak’s house that tastes slightly bitter with musty smell, tum leoung: young vines from scarlet fruited gourd plant with bland taste; bai ta seur (morinda citrifolia linn.): large deep green leaves that look like avocado leaves we picked along the fence of Lak’s neighbor that taste bitter with slightly peppery aftertaste, fish sauce, ground rice powder, kaffir lime leaves, cilantro, and green onion.
5. Ant eggs soup with same chili paste used for immature jackfruit soup, paak waan (melientha suavis pierre): delicate small ovate leaves attached to thin stem about 9 inches long that were foraged from bushes in the forest with green grassy smell and bland taste, fish sauce, cherry tomatoes, and mung bean noodles.
6. Soup with paak paang (basella rubra linn.): light green and delicate leaves with sticky and slimy texture and with tiny white blossoms, cooked with sour raw pork sausages, same chili paste used for immature jack fruit soup, fermented shrimp paste, fish sauce, fresh chilies, cherry tomatoes, kaffir lime juice and lime juice.
7. Nam prik ta daeng made with roasted dried red chilies, roasted garlic, roasted shallots, salt, dried river fish, thin wafers of dried soy bean paste, and fermented fish. This is eaten with an array of fresh and steamed vegetables including cabbage from our farm, immature blossoms of tang luang (trevesia palmate vis.): clusters of tiny brown peppercorn-size buds with a slightly bitter taste, mali mai, thua paep (hyacinth dolichos): flat white-light green pod the size of lima bean pod with slightly astringent and bland taste, dok khae (sesbania grandiflora desv.): white flowers of vegetable humming bird tree with bland taste and cooked bamboo shoots.
8. Thinly sliced pork strips marinated with a paste made with salt, garlic, lemongrass, and turmeric, flattened between two pieces of thin bamboo and grilled.
9. Stir-fried fiddle-head ferns (paak good) with nam prik ta daeng and oyster sauce.

I asked Lak to tell me what we cooked. He named the dishes one by one starting with sliced grilled pork strips, haw neong gai, steamed vegetables with nam prik ta daeng, soup with three-layer pork and saleay, soup with chicken and green gourd, soup with immature jack fruit, ant eggs soup, soup with paak paang, and my favorite drink - a bottle of local moonshine. Lak is holding a plate of fiddle-head ferns ready to be stir-fried.

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