Raising a stink with sator

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It was 2005, and I was assisting a bunch of geography professors to study the impacts wrecked by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami on the Andaman coast of Thailand, some six months after the disaster. For two weeks, we moved around Khao Lak and Koh Lanta in a rented van, visiting sleepy coastal villages to interview inhabitants of their experience when the big wave came—accounts range from harrowing to sad, with occasional funny anecdotes weaved in.

During one of these trips, while driving along rural roads flanked by rows of rubber trees that typically characterise the landscapes of southern Thailand, we pulled up by the roadside for some reason I can’t quite remember now. Perhaps someone wanted to take a leak, maybe the smokers wanted a puff, or maybe the driver wanted to check on his vehicle. But when the van stopped, a few of us tumbled out of the vehicle.

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And that was when Ajarn May spotted wild sator (สะตอ) pods hanging from a tree. Her eyes lit up and her fingers reached out to pluck a pod from a cluster of slightly twisted ribbons. “It’s my favourite food in Indonesia when I was doing fieldwork there,” I recall her saying. “It’s stinky but I love it,” she went on, trying to explain her fondness for the stink bean to a horde of farang academics.

When everyone was ready to roll, the sator pod followed us into the van. By then Ajarn May had begun to peel off the almond-shaped beans from the pod, popping them raw into her mouth. She proceeded to ask if anyone would like to try the beans, but her invitation was met with polite declines. Although my Thai was already at an intermediate level then, my understanding of Thai culinary culture was still in its infancy and I hadn’t mastered the act of imbibing vegetables in their raw forms yet. But I did remember a peculiar smell that followed us throughout the journey.

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Sator isn’t unique to Thailand though; it’s also a common culinary ingredient in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. In fact, petai—as what sator is called in Malay—is often found stir-fried with sambal at Malay food stalls in Singapore too but my interest in these stinky beans was only roused following Ajarn May’s induction. Till today, I can’t look at fresh sator pods or eat these beans without reminiscing that particular roadside stop or that one great inspiring figure during my undergraduate days. And I’m also quite pleased to declare that a decade later, my appetite for Thai food and culture has grown to a voracious level and sator also makes a regular appearance in my kitchen.

A note of caution: sator highly lives up to its namesake and will make its mark as it passes through a human body—the beans leave a lingering smell in the mouth and expect weird-smelling urine for a couple of days. It’s no wonder why flatulence jokes often abound between Mr.P and I following a sator meal…

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สะตอผัดกุ้ง | sator phat kung | stir-fried stink beans with shrimps

Ingredients:
2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil
3-4 garlic cloves, sliced
3-4 shallots, sliced thinly
3-4 bird’s eye chillies, sliced
1/2 cup sator, sliced into half
300g shrimps, deveined and cleaned
A dash of kapi (or belacan)
Fish sauce to taste

Method:
1. To a wok of vegetable oil on high heat, add garlic and shallots, frying them until fragrant.
2. Stir in kapi and chillies, followed by a bit of water to ensure the mixture is well-mixed.
3. Add shrimps and when they start to turn pink, toss in sator. Continue frying the mixture for a few minutes. Add fish sauce to taste.

สะตอผัดกุ้ง, stir-fried stink beans with shrimps

The bitter truth about ageing

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As a kid, bitter gourd was one of my least favourite vegetables. Conversely, eggs were top on my list. So whenever my mum cooked stir-fried bitter gourd with eggs, it became a bittersweet dilemma for me. Should I eat or not eat? My young taste buds abhorred the taste that the astringent vegetable left in my mouth, yet on the other hand I craved for the egg bits.

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“Eat! Bitter gourd is a cooling food,” my mum would command. “We’ve been eating too much heaty food lately, bitter gourd will help to balance our system.”

In the end I would muster up the courage and pick out the smallest possible pieces of bitter gourd, quickly popping them into my mouth followed by a big spoonful of rice to lessen the bitter taste.

Some years later, I would read that women’s ability to taste bitterness diminishes with age—aha! So that’s why Mummy could take bitter food much better than I do, I thought.

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And interestingly, nowadays seeing the pale-green melons stewed with pork ribs at Teochew khaaotom (porridge) stores in my neighbourhood always make me crave for them. Thankfully, like the rest of Asia, bitter gourd is commonly found in fresh markets in Thailand, giving me the chance to bag one of these oblong beauties home for dinners. And hence I conclude that I’m indeed starting to go over the hill and down the slope to less sensitivity to bitterness.

After learning that dabbling salt on bitter gourd will reduce its bitterness, it has been a technique I will deploy each time I cook with this vegetable. If it’s bitter gourd stuffed with minced pork, I’ll rub salt on the exposed flesh for some 30 minutes; if it’s stir-fry eggs thar I’m cooking, I’ll soak the sliced bitter gourd pieces in a salty solution.

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One day, I told myself, I shall eat bitter gourd in its pure bitterness and be on my way to ‘吃得苦中苦方为人上人’ (chi de ku zhong gu, fang wei ren shang ren), a Chinese adage which means that one has to ‘eat bitterness’, i.e. endure adversities, to become a better person.

The ability to imbibe bitterness must be a prized trait, for Thai culture also has a proverb, หวานเป็นลม ขมเป็นยา (khwaan pen lom waan pen yaa), which literally translates as ‘sweetness leads to faintness and bitterness is a medicine’, but actually means praises make one happy but frank advice serves as a good reminder.

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[Recipe] Stuffed bitter gourd in clear soup | แกงจืดมะระยัดไส้

1. After cutting both ends of the bitter gourd, slice it into pieces of about 1.5 inches thick each. Scoop out the seeds in the middle. If you wish to reduce the bitterness, rub salt on the rinds and keep aside for 30 minutes before rinsing off the salt.

2. In a bowl of minced pork, add optional ingredients of diced carrots, mushrooms and vermicelli to season the meat. Usually I will also add some corn flour and soy sauce, plus a dash of sesame oil, Shaoxing wine and pepper to enhance the flavours. Mix well. Stuff the seasoned minced pork into the cavities of the sliced bitter gourds, ensure the meat fit the hollowness snugly.

3. Bring a pot of water/chicken stock to boil. Add the bitter gourd, sliced shiitake mushrooms and carrots into the water, turn down the fire and keep the pot simmering for at least 20 minutes until the melon turns yellowish-green and soft. Garnish with spring onions and cilantro. Serve with rice.

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Noodling around khanom jiin

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Making khanom jiin used to be a norm during festive periods in Mr. P’s home village when he was young. The process of making these thin, capellini-like strands was rather labourious (as illustrated by this post and the other), hence it was not an activity that the villagers engaged in on a regular basis but reserved for bigger occasions.

Like any other kid, the khanom jiin preparations would thrill Mr. P to no end; he liked to tag along female relatives who would join other ladies to make the noodles. Uncooked rice is first soaked in water to ferment for over three days, and the soggy batter that results will be vigorously pounded in big wooden krok (mortar). The dough is then pushed through a tin can with holes, which will be moved in a circular motion to collect the strands in a pot of simmering water; once the strands float to the water surface, they will be scooped up and shocked in cold baths. Sometimes, during the process, the adults would pinch a bit of the dough and grill it for kids to savour as a slightly sourish snack first, Mr. P recalls.

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Not every household possessed a huge wooden krok though, and any family with one would be guaranteed reservations from neighbours prior to the festivals. Several families would often come together to pool resources to make khanom jiin, awaiting their turns to use the rice flour pounder. Owners who rented out their krok would get a batch of fresh noodles in return.

But alas, as “modernisation” marches across Thailand—and any other village on earth—such food-making practices are increasingly rarer as machines and vehicles make inroads into villages and younger folks head to urban areas for work, according to Mr. P. Along the way, the art of making khanom jiin also fell into disfavour as mass-produced or commercially made versions become readily available.

A staple in many Thai dishes—from being a carb alternative to sticky rice to tam sua (rice noodle papaya salad)—these fermented rice noodles shine brightest in khanom jiin naam ya, which pairs these soft strands with various Thai curries. At such stalls, vendors will place the accompaniments—typically hard-boiled eggs, shredded cabbage, raw beansprouts, pickled mustard, lemon basil and long beans—on a communal table. Once your order arrives, add the desired sides (tongs are usually provided) on top of your bed of noodles, mix them up and tuck into the noodles. (Note: the greens are usually free, but eggs will be charged separately.)

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Whenever we head to the fresh market at Ramkhamhaeng 2, a suburban neighbourhood Mr. P used to stay in when he first moved to Bangkok, we will hit the khanom jiin store at the adjacent open-air food market too. This stall serves various naamyaa, from kati (coconut milk) and kaeng khiaow waan (green curry)—popular versions in central Thailand—to naam ngiaow—favoured among the northerners. Of late, I’m starting to develop a fondness for khanom jiin kaeng tai plaa, the southern version (below) served in a pungent and robust curry made from fermented fish entails.

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But when it comes to home cooking, I would opt for green curry to pair with khanom jiin since the former can be easily whipped up with ready-made paste. (After trying a few brands, my favorite is Roi Thai.) Prepare the green curry as per package instructions, but make sure to have vital vegetables such as galangal, lemongrass, eggplant, pea aubergines, kaffir lime leaves and bird’s eye chillies to yield a more authentic taste.

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However, the dish name khanom jiin is kind of a misnomer in Thai. Khanom usually means snack or dessert and jiin means Chinese, but khanom jiin is neither a dessert nor Chinese in origin. In fact, khanom jiin is believed to originate from the Mon people—an ethnic group from Myanmar—with its name meaning twice-boiled in the Mon language.

Egging on for weekend breakfasts

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Tomorrow morning I’ll have khai krata for breakfast, right?’ will inevitably pop up on Friday nights, more like a directive disguised as a question by Mr. P. I’ll always feign indignation, arguing why I should be tasked to cook on weekends when both of us are equally adept in the kitchen, but Mr. P knows he has hit a soft spot. The feeling of being able to cook up a simple breakfast of eggs and coffee for a loved one is especially gratifying, bringing a cheery start to weekend mornings.

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Khai krata (ไข่กระทะ) refers to pan-fried eggs served in mini aluminum pans. Available throughout the country, these sunny side up eggs are topped with the ingredients of Chinese sausages, muu yor (หมูยอ; Vietnamese-style boiled pork sausage), minced pork, scallions and fried onions. Unlike higher-end hotels that typically have egg stations in their all-day dining areas, it’s not uncommon for egg services—if they exist—to take the form of khai krata for guesthouses or local hotels in upcountry Thailand.

The khai krata obsession has gripped us both since we came back from our Isaan road trip in September. We had a delightful breakfast of khai krata at a local boutique hotel, Pen Ta Hug, in Ubon Ratchathani, sparking off the desire to get our own mini krata sets. Our chance came when we visited the Indochine Market at Mukdahan, a border trading town along the Mekong River with Laos’ Pakse on the opposite bank. At this riverside market stocked with cheap household items, toys and packaged snacks imported from China (which border market in Southeast Asia isn’t flooded with Chinese goods?), we browsed the stalls and found the aluminum pans that we were looking for. These pans were cheap—somewhere between 25 baht and 35 baht each—and now I regretted getting only a pair.

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The kratas are such a darling to work with. Light and thermally responsive, the aluminum pans heat up fast and any knob of butter spooned onto it will start sizzling in no time. Crack an egg into the pan, followed by generous sprinklings of diced muu yor and Chinese sausages, before adding chopped scallions and fried onions as garnishes.

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Of course there’s no fast and fixed rule that only these sausage duo can go into the pan with the egg. I ran out of muu yor one weekend and used ham to substitute the pork sausage, but it just tasted different. Ham is more suited with cheese just as muu yor is more suited with Chinese sausage. But it’s entirely up to one’s preferences.

The next step? Make yourself a nice, warm cup of thick coffee and you’re on your way to a great weekend.

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Finding comfort in Mae’s bamboo shoot salad

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Isaan, or northeastern Thailand, is full of dishes that are very strong and fiery in flavours. Most new inductees to Thai food may not take to this regional cuisine that well, as plaa raa—the Isaan equivalent of naam plaa (Thai fish sauce) but more overpowering and pungent—is a staple for many of its iconic dishes. But once the plaa raa “barrier” is surmounted, discerning palates will be rewarded with a smorgasbord of flavours. Seriously.

Having went down the path of pungent Thai sauces, I now see beauty in food like sup nor mai, or Isaan bamboo shoot salad. While it’s quite common to find this dish at mixed food stores in Bangkok, the versions served at these roadside or makeshift stalls often resemble strips of used rags soaked in dirty mop water, which tend to reduce the dish’s visual appeal by several notches.

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But put a dish in the right hands and it will shine. During a recent visit to Udon Thani, my mother-in-law (whom I simply call Mae) welcomed our arrival with sup nor mai. After the first few morsels Mr. P and I were hooked, and by the end of the meal we were craving for more bamboo shoots. Before returning to Bangkok, we requested for sup nor mai again, which Mae happily obliged.

But to make the best and freshest possible version, we have to drive five kilometres to the next village nestling at the foothills of Phu Foilom. Why? According to Mae, the villagers there gather wild bamboo shoots from the mountains and grill them before selling, which will enable us to save a step in the preparation process.

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After coming home, Mae starts the process. With deft movements, she peels off the grilled outer leaves from the bamboo shoots, then slices off the base while keeping the more tender parts. The shoots are then dunked in a bowl of water to remove any dirt.

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Now, don’t these “naked” bamboo shoots look like wax crayons?

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Mae then uses a bamboo stick to shred the tender bamboo shoots into strips. I pick up a stick and start to mimic her actions, which draws chuckles from her as she keeps her shredding momentum. But she takes a quick look at my progress and gives me the thumbs-up for creating passable-looking strips.

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The bamboo strands are then sliced and caught in a bowl. Mae’s actions are so swift that several times I have to request for her to pause in her actions in order for me to photograph the process.

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At this point, a spotted, tri-coloured dog trots over to the bamboo hut where we are seated, curious to see what the fuss is all about. Our eyes meet for several seconds, but I think to myself, sorry dude, sup nor mai’s not for you.

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Mae then beckons me to follow her to the side of the house to pick bai yanang (ใบย่านาง). These leaves help to tat khom—which literally means ‘cut the bitterness’—as fresh bamboo shoots have a bitter, acrid taste.

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After collecting and washing the yanang leaves, Mae gives them a vigorous rub to release their juices, a process which Mr. P likens to washing clothes. Very soon, the bowl is filled with dark green extracts – naam yanang.

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The julienned bamboo shoots are boiled together with the yanang water in a pot to reduce the liquid. Fish sauce and lime juice are added, followed by shredded ginger leaves, chopped scallions and crushed peanuts.

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The final dish is so yummmmmmy. I admit that it’s not a dish for everyone, but it’s so satisfying to dip balls of sticky rice into the thick sauce and bite into the bamboo shoots at the same time. Till now, more than a month since our Udon Thani trip, Mr. P and I are both still gushing over Mae’s sup nor mai. Well, we need to pencil in another trip back home soon!

Pulp fiction: when mango meets sticky rice

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Parents are always willing to shower more love than what their children can reciprocate, and giving khaao niaow (sticky rice) is one of the myriad ways Mr. P’s parents show their concern. Before our recent trip back to Mr. P’s hometown in Udon Thani, we asked the parents to source some sticky rice grains for us, suggesting that about one kilogram would do, but instead they prepared a 10-kilogram sack for us. We had to insist on leaving half the grains with them because 10 kilograms would probably take us more than a year to finish since we don’t eat sticky rice for every meal.

We brought home the five-kilogram sack, and I’ve since been looking for ways to polish off the sticky rice grains. Enter mangoes, the perfect nuea khuu, or soulmate, for sticky rice when it comes to the dessert department. But not just any mangoes will do for khaao niao mamaung (ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง), or mango sticky rice; ideally it has to be mamuang naam dorkmai (มะม่วงน้ำดอกไม้), a cultivar with a slender, creamy-yellow body whose flesh yields a sweet, fragrant taste. (Here’s a good overview of mango cultivars in Thailand.)

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But if mangoes are like wives to sticky rice for desserts, then durians must be the mistresses. As it all boils down to preferences, some would say mistresses are better than wives durians complement sticky rice better. I like both versions, but sticky rice, coconut milk and durian make quite a ‘heaty’ and calorie-laden combination, so it’s best not to indulge in this trio together too often.

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And here I’d like to share an anecdote in which yours truly showed her silliness. One day, just hours before I was supposed to board my flight to Singapore, I traipsed to my neighbhourhood fruit stall with the intention to buy some mangoes. I reached the store and saw a batch of mangoes wrapped in foam netting neatly placed together. Holding up one yellow fruit, I pulled away its wrapping slightly.

“These mangoes look a bit different, without the usual pointy end,” I thought to myself. “Hmm, maybe they aren’t the naam dorkmai varieties. But beggars can’t be choosers. I don’t have time to hunt for mangoes to bring with me to Singapore to make khaao niao mamuang for the folks.” And so I bought two mangoes.

As I walked home, I started pondering about these fruits again. Something didn’t feel quite right, but I couldn’t put a finger to it. Once I reached home, I snapped a quick shot of the fruits and sent it to Mr. P. He replied, “Thais don’t eat such mangoes with sticky rice.”

“So that’s why!” I thought to myself, abandoning all thoughts of taking the 1.5-kilogramme load with me to Singapore. After all, YC told me that Taiwanese mangoes were available in supermarkets in Singapore, so I could also use other cultivars to make the dessert for my folks. Hence, I left the mangoes at home for Mr. P to eat while I was away.

Later that evening when Mr. P got home and I was already at the airport to catch my flight, he sent me a photo of the sliced mangoes. The flesh was a deep orange and a core filled with round black seeds covered with a jelly-like coating, so my mangoes were actually papayas. Doh!

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On a less silly note, the recent interest in mangoes has added to my experience in the kitchen too. Mr. P showed me the proper way to de-skin and slice a mango. “Use common sense and experience to guide yourself. Don’t believe the instructions others dispense on their blogs!” he remarked. So there you go, read everything (including this blog) with a pinch of salt and endeavour to try everything on your own.

[Brief instructions on how to slice a mango] 1. With the mango firmly in your hand, peel the skin off the top cheek. 2. Make lengthwise (or criss-cross) cuts of about one inch thick, then insert the knife from the side and slice around the stone in the middle. 3. Flip the remaining mango around; repeat steps 1 and 2.

For the best effect, chill mangoes after cutting, only taking them out of the fridge when you’re ready to serve with sticky rice. Heavenly!

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Just as happy as a clam on a bed of spaghetti

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Hoi laai phat naam phrik phao (หอยลายผัดน้ำพริกเผา), or stir-fried clams with Thai roasted chilli paste, is a very common dish at khaao kaeng (mixed dishes) stalls in Thailand, but the serving size is typically quite small for my liking. When a seller scoops up a serving of the stir-fried clams onto a plate of rice, more often than not there will be at least one empty shell lurking among them, so actually you’re just getting more shell than meat. But of course, the essence of this dish also lies in its flavourful sauce; some people like to spoon steamed rice mixed with the briny juices.

Mr. P and I think that eating this dish particular outside home offers less value for money as compared with other dishes, but things are very different if you buy fresh baby clams and cook them on your own though. One kilogram of baby clams—it cost us about 70 baht from the fresh market—is more than enough to satiate two gluttons like us.

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I love looking at these lovely clams. It looks like Mother Nature has taken the time to paint criss-crossing lines on each single shell, so much so that in Thai they are known as hoi laai, or patterned shells. While cooking this dish requires very simple steps, preparation needs to start a bit earlier. Being the seabed-dwelling creatures they once were, these clams carry with them more than just a whiff of the ocean, so I usually soak the mollusc in water for at least an hour before cooking to ‘force’ them to spit out sand and gritty bits.

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Besides baby clams, to cook this Thai dish, other must-haves are roasted chilli paste (naam phrik phao) and sweet basil leaves (bai horapa). Together, these holy trio makes the most alluring combination—now who says three’s a company?—that my favourite naam phrik phao brand, Aroi-D, features the dish on its packaging (see above).

Once the stove is heated up, I look forward to stirring the clams in the skillet. As they bump into one another in the pan, they give out ‘kraek kraek’ sounds, and that’s when I’d conjure up images of a future pet dog at my feet, equally stirred by the smells and sounds from the wok. After a few minutes, the heat would have left its mark on the ingredients: not only would the basil leaves have released their fragrance, the clams would have opened up to reveal their inner goodness while their previously grey colouration with tinges of blue and greens would have given way to an irresistible shade of orange.

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Interestingly, this Thai dish also makes good company with spaghetti, giving me one more way to cook pasta. I got the inspiration when I visited a local Italian-Thai restaurant serving fusion food, with spaghetti stir-fried with clams as one of its signature dishes. Simply prepare spaghetti as per your usual method before topping the plate with the stir-fried shells. To me, the sauces seeping through the spaghetti strands, juices sitting on the opened shells, garlic bits and stir-fried basil leaves all come together to make a very pleasing and appetising sight.

Many empty shells later, we were as happy as a clam. Burp. 😉

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~~~

Hoi laai phat naam phrik phao | หอยลายผัดน้ำพริกเผา

Ingredients (serves 2)

500g baby clams (Manila clams work fine too)
1 cup horapa basil leaves, plucked
2-3 tbsp Thai roasted chilli paste
3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2-3 chillies, sliced
2 tbsp oil
1 tbsp fish sauce (optional)

Method
1. Soak the clams in water for at least 30 minutes, then wash the shells under running water, giving them a quick rub at the same time and discarding any with mud inside. Pluck the basil leaves off the stems, rinse them and set aside.
2. Pour oil onto a heated wok or skillet before adding the garlic. Fry the garlic until it turns a light golden. Add in the clams and stir-fry them for a few minutes. Once the clams start to open up, add Thai chilli paste and chillies, making sure the paste is evenly coated throughout the mixture. Give the sauce a quick taste, adding fish sauce if needed.
3. Finally, add in the basil leaves and stir-fry the mixture for about a minute of so. Turn off the heat.
4. Discard any unopened shell. Spoon the mixture onto steamed rice or cooked spaghetti. Serve.

Cha-om: leaves with an offending smell, but the power to please

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THAI cooking has no lack of pungent (note: this is subjective) but yummy food items. I don’t even classify durians—and especially Thai durians—within this category yet. Sator is one classic example, although the culinary use of these stinky beans is not restricted to Thais only as the Malays and Peranakans are also known to whip up superb stink-bean dishes (think prawn and petai sambal).

Another strong-smelling favourite of mine is cha-om (ชะอม) or acacia leaf. The tropical variant (Acacia pennata) of the acacia family, the leaves are commonly used in Thai, Lao and Burmese cooking. And these leaves can be quite a stink bomb indeed. When I brought them home from the market, the leaves stank up my kitchen and fridge, as though someone let off a vicious, lingering fart.

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But offensive smells aside, the fresh acacia stalks mesmerised me to bits. The way Thai vendors handle their greens are often a showcase of ingenuity. For this cha-om bundle, a banana leaf was folded and wrapped around the stalk ends as a base, with a thin bamboo strip securely tied around as a clip.

However, closer inspection of these feathery bundles would reveal tiny thorns on the cha-om stems, so do exercise caution when plucking the fronds off the stems.

One of the best ways to taste the inherent goodness of this vegetable is through khai jiao cha-om (ไข่เจียวชะอม) or acacia omelette, which is very easy to make; the steps are similar to how one would cook minced pork omelette, for example.

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[Recipe] Break the eggs into a bowl, add the plucked cha-om leaves and whisk the mixture. Add a pinch of salt and few drops of soya/fish sauce. Heat up some oil on the skillet on high heat, then pour in the egg mixture. Unlike typical omelettes which require a rather thin film to cook well, cha-om omelette should be rather thick and the mixture should come to a height of, say, 1/2 inch from the base. When one side of the the omelette is golden-brown, flip it over. When both sides are evenly cooked, remove the omelette from the skillet and place them on a piece of kitchen towel to absorb the excess oil. When the omelette is sufficiently cool enough, use a knife to cut them into square chunks or slices, depending on preference.

The offending smell would have disappeared by now, leaving a fragrant omelette of yellows, greens and browns. Serve the omelette on top of steamed rice, dunked into kaeng som (Thai sour curry) or dip them into naam phrik kapi (chilli dip). Whichever way it is, the omelette is guaranteed to be potent yet pleasing.

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Jaew bong: a mother’s burning love for her sons

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JAEW bong (แจ่วบอง), the spicy chilli dip of Northeastern Thailand, is the best culinary representation of Mr. P’s mum’s love for her sons. A type of chilli relish in Thailand, jaew bong is what naam phrik num is to the northerners and naam phrik kapi is to the central Thais, and somewhat like what sambal is to the Malaysians, Singaporeans and Indonesians.

Whenever Mr. P is back home, his mum never tires in whipping up her son’s favourite dishes. Like maeng kork—it isn’t Mr. P’s favourite though but he had a sudden craving and the parents obliged—MIL whipped up her version of jaew bong during our recent visit back to Mr. P’s hometown in Udon Thani. When Mr P’s brother lived apart from the parents, he also requested for their mum’s jaew bong whenever he was home.

Plaa raa, the fermented fish—fragrant to some, pungent to others, but definitely intense—is a vital component. Chopped shallots, lemongrass, kaffir leaves and bird’s eye chillies were first roasted over a slow fire to release the fragrance and increase their brittleness before combining the mixture with minced plaa raa to be pounded in a mortar to create the paste, according to MIL’s recipe. Just as how naam phrik differs from region to region, the ingredients and steps of making jaew bong also vary from mother to mother.

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On the morning we departed from Udon, MIL handed over her special concoction, reminding me at the same time to store the paste in the fridge. “It can last for several months,” she said.

Back in Bangkok, we assembled a raw vegetable set of cabbage, winged beans, string beans and cucumber, blanched bai tamlueng (ivy gourd leaves), together with sticky rice, to eat with jaew bong. The ideal way is to dip the greens into jaew bong, while interspersing the fiery flavours with knobs of sticky rice kneaded up from the woven bamboo basket. I especially liked the slight smoky flavour of the jaew bong, the result of grilling the ingredients over a slow fire.

And now whenever hunger pangs strike, Mr. P just have to reach into the fridge for doses of his mum’s love, all across the 500km of physical distance.

In Isaan, a bug hunting season begins

a plate of deep-fried beetles

THE night was sweltering, the air exceptionally still and humid. Nary a thing moved, and neither the leaves nor wind. Sprawled on the bamboo swings outside the house, Mr. P and I each nursed a can of chilled beer, hoping the coolness would banish the hot spell. The heat was unbearable; I tore the cover from a magazine and started fanning myself with that piece of paper.

A couple of steps away, Yai Canton (or Grandma Canton, nicknamed by me because her father came from Guangdong province eons ago) had perched herself on a foldable chair under the lamppost. On the ground, she had placed a rice-cooker pot half filled with water. Palmy, her three-year-old granddaughter, and my eight-year-old niece, Pin, were busy trailing the maeng ii-nuun (แมงอีนูน; chokchafer beetle) that fluttered awkwardly around the fluorescent light beaming from the lamppost. Each time any of the girls caught a bug, they would squeal in delight and proceeded to place it in the pot.

I was curious as to why the pot was filled with water, but Pin, ever the inquisitive one, beat me to it. “Yai, why did you fill the pot with water?” she enquired.

“If I don’t put water inside, the beetles will escape and fly off after you put them into the pot.” Why didn’t yours truly think of that before, I thought to myself, the silly urban dweller that I am.

Yai Canton was catching these bugs to eat them. Insects are commonly eaten throughout Thailand, but it is a culinary preference most symbolic among the Isaan people. Insects might once be an additional source of protein, but it’s now more commonly eaten as a snack among the Isaan natives, according to Mr. P. When his mum asked if he missed any food, he replied maeng kork (แมงกอก; I haven’t found the English name and would appreciate any information on this) and a big plate of these deep-fried beetles (pictured above) surfaced the following day.

maeng kok

Sweat trickling down our backs, we continued to sit on the bamboo swings. A motorbike with two riders zipped past us. One of the them donned a head torchlight while the other was clutching an empty bottle. They sped into the darkness, where the sugar cane fields lie.

Then an engine hummed and a pick-up turned into the lane. It was Det, Mr. P’s brother. After parking the vehicle, he joined us at the little bamboo hut outside the house. He exclaimed, “I saw so many lights among the field as I drove in. It’s like a festival out there.”

Moments later, Tom, a childhood friend and neighbour of of Mr. P, rode past us on his motorbike. Mr. P shouted after him in the Isaan dialect, “Where are you going, Tom?” “To catch maeng kork!” he replied, with a bottle clutched in one hand and the other controlling the motorbike handlebar.

Then another motorbike crossed the road. And another. All of them rumbled down the lane leading into the fields, away from the houses in the village.

Yet another motorbike sounded, but this time toward us. It was Apple (pronounced Ap-pern), another of Mr. P’s childhood friends. After a day of work manning his mini mart, he dropped by to chat with Mr. P. He swung himself off the motorbike and seated himself beneath the bamboo hut.

Observing the continual string of motorcycles advancing into the darkness, Apple remarked, “Maeng kork can only be caught during these few days only, just before the rainy season begins. This is the time when the maeng kork go in search of spots to lay their eggs.”

Like Yai Canton, these villagers had caught the insect-hunting bug (no pun intended) that particular night, and everyone was using their own means and ways to ensure a meal of beetles.

Soon after, Tom was back.

“How was your catch?” Mr. P asked.

“Just a few only. There were as many humans as there were bugs in the field!”

Everyone laughed. And the sultry night wore on.

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