Since returning from a year in Thailand, I’ve dedicated myself to eating nothing but Thai food. But I don’t mean simply the curries with a fiery strike of Christmas-colored chilies, the fried noodles topped with sprinkles of salty peanuts or the steaming bowls of rice with pungent-yet-crucial splashes of fish sauce. I mean food that contains the most integral ingredient of Thai cuisine: jai, or heart.
I discovered the heart of Thai culture and the country’s cuisine when I moved there in 2010 to fulfill a Fulbright grant.
I knew I would be teaching, but I was unaware of the life lessons that would be spread, spooned and portioned out to me by the distinct way of life, most notably by Siriwan Surayot—better known by her nickname “Oil,” or to me just “Mae,” or Mom—a woman I met at the local swimming pool where we both swam daily.
At times, the cultural experiences left me flailing like a newborn infant—struggling against the harsh tropical light, bewildering sounds of a tonal language and unfamiliar tastes surging on my tongue. But Oil was the compassionate mother to guide me through the cultural birth. She answered my “whys,” fed my hunger and taught me ow jai sai, to put my heart into everything I do.
On my frequent sleepovers at Oil and her husband’s home, she would constantly ask, “Hiw mai?” (are you hungry?), but would never wait for an affirmative answer. The Thais never do; you are eternally hungry and they forever desire to “take care,” as she would say. Heading into the kitchen, she would feed me creamy slices of mango or jackfruit. As we watched American television, she’d point the whirring fan only at me. Most notably though, she would cook for me—serving meals that nourished with inexplicable solace.
Every evening, she’d wash a fresh bundle of long, leafy pak boong (water morning glory) and rinse off a knobby fuktong (kabocha squash)—items we purchased from the open-air market on our way home. There, Thai farmers, wizened by long hours bent in sun-drenched fields, nestled behind, or even on top of, the produce that covered every inch of the tables. Their goods were delicately placed with attention to aesthetics: bunches of chilies on small blue plates, rubber-banded clusters of bok choy, pyramids of rambutans and mangosteens, rows of stinking, spiky durians. Bags would be passed from vendor to buyer, while calls of haa baht! (five baht!) sip baht! (ten baht!) and sawadee! (hello!) filled the air amidst the cackles of roosters.
There were no lines and there was no order; people shuffled up to a table’s edge, pointed, nodded, grunted and exchanged money. There were hanging hunks of uncooked and undefined meat, faces of marred pigs on cutting boards, eels and fish swishing around in buckets. Symmetrical trays of spicy salads dripped with lime-garlic sauces while desserts were parceled out into banana-leaf bundles and sprinkled with coconut shreds. Women turned lok chin (sticks of assorted meatballs and small yellow squids) over charred grills and stirred cauldrons of soup rimmed with red spice as smoke drifted through the mirage of faces mixed with intense smells: hot oil, burning coals, uncooked meat, pungent curry, coconut milk, lemongrass.
Back at Oil’s home, I’d clumsily cut the squash into irregular chunks as Oil shook her head, giggled and said, “Mai dee!” (Not good!). Scurrying over, she’d nimbly slice the buttery interior into thin, equal slices. She’d fry the pak boong in a colossal sizzling wok with a handful of this and a dash of that—oyster and fish sauces, garlic and the secret ingredient from her mother’s recipe: brown sugar. Oil knew that fuktong was my favorite. She’d slowly simmer the squash in sweet soy sauce until tender, then flip it vigorously with cracked eggs and torn shreds of Thai basil until it was a chunky yet silken curry.
She’d flash-fry khai jiaw (a Thai-style omelet) in the still-scalding pan and slide it out onto a plate while her husband spooned heaping mounds of rice from the eternally full rice cooker. She’d urge me to begin without her while she unveiled a fried fish head and small dishes of nahm prik pao (roasted chili and dried shrimp paste) that hid underneath a plastic basket from last night’s meal. Finally, we’d dine together as a family, because I always waited.
Prior to my experience in Thailand, I thought quality food was found in the glossy pictures of Gourmet magazine or served on stark white tablecloths. It was something made from a recipe with 15 foreign and expensive ingredients, or that required intricate cooking techniques and skill. Needless to say, it was nothing that an amateur home cook could easily recreate in just a wok, or that used smashed seafood pulp as an ingredient. But the unassuming meals I ate in the Surayot household were what I came to crave and to savor most: handpicked greens in a thick sea of sweet gravy, bright yellow folds of fresh eggs, bountiful mounds of rice and Oil’s company throughout. The meals were nothing spectacular, nor extravagant, and they lacked finishing flourishes. But they were delectable and delightful always. And the simplicity, the natural and comfort-infused cuisine, the attention to heart are things I now covet in my own cooking. It’s a sense of being closely connected to a great ensemble of universal caring and compassion—from the ingredients selected at a local farmers market, to the preparation in a homey kitchen, to the appreciation for the ways in which food provides not only health, but heart. Everything Oil made me that year came from the heart, was enjoyed with heart and touched my heart profoundly.
PAD FUKTONG (pumpkin Stir-Fry)
Courtesy of Siriwan Surayot
2 T. vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped
4 Thai chilies, chopped (omit for mai pet [not spicy] dishes)
½ c. water
3–4 T. light soy sauce, divided
2 c. peeled and chopped fuktong*
1 t. brown sugar
1–2 eggs, beaten
1 c. fresh Thai basil, torn
Heat the oil in a large wok over high heat. When the wok is hot, add the garlic—sautéing until lightly brown and fragrant. Add the chilies and cook for 1 minute. Add the water, half the soy sauce and the squash and cover with a lid. Reduce the heat to medium and let the squash simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, until soft.
Remove the lid and allow the remaining liquid to evaporate. Once the water is gone and the pumpkin resembles a chunky curry, add the brown sugar and stir. Make a small well near the edge or in the center of the wok. Slowly pour in the beaten eggs and let them cook slightly. Flip and stir the eggs into the pumpkin to coat (there should be some scrambled pieces while the rest is absorbed into the curry). Add the remaining soy sauce and stir. Add half of the basil and stir until slightly wilted. Serve immediately with mounds of white rice and a fresh garnish of the remaining basil.
*Fuktong, or Thai pumpkin, is also known as kabocha squash. You can substitute butternut squash in this dish.
PAD PAK BOONG (Water Morning Glory Stir-fry)
Courtesy of Siriwan Surayot
3 lb. pak boong (water morning glory)*
1 T. fish sauce
1 T. fermented soybean paste (Healthy Boy brand is the easiest
to find in stores)
1 T. oyster sauce
1 t. brown sugar
2–3 T. vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 Thai chilies, smashed and left whole (these are not meant to be
eaten, and are only added for the spicy flavor)
Wash the morning glory and dry well. Cut about 2 inches off the stems and discard. Cut the remaining leaves and stems into 2-inch pieces. In a small bowl, mix the fish sauce, soybean paste, oyster sauce and brown sugar together. Set aside. Heat a large wok over high heat and when hot, add the vegetable oil. Once the oil is smoking, add the garlic and sauté until fragrant—about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the morning glory, chilies and sauce, and continue to rapidly sauté, turning the vegetables over in the sauce for about 1 minute. The vegetable will still be a vibrant green and a bit crunchy. Immediately transfer to a dish to avoid overcooking and serve hot with mounds of white rice.
*Pak boong, or water morning glory, sometimes called “water spinach,” is an aquatic vegetable and can be found in Asian markets. You may substitute hearty greens, broccoli rabe, green beans or even okra in this dish.