Celebrating Lao New Year with Green Papaya Salad

We all know about Lunar New Year, celebrated most notably by Chinese and Vietnamese in January or February every year. However, under-the-radar new year festivities take place at the start of spring.

A banner welcoming everyone to celebrate Lao New Year at Lao Wat Buddhist temple of North Philadelphia.

Lao New Year is celebrated as a three-day-long festival from April 13-15 (it can vary and may occur April 14-16 according to some calendars). The 13th is the last day of the old year, the 14th is the “day of no day”, and the 15th marks the start of the new year. Catzie Vilayphonh, creative director of LaosintheHouse.com (a collaborative arts project that brings together the collective stories of Lao-Americans) puts it simply, “On the first day, we clean everything, on the second we don’t do anything and on the third, we celebrate!”

I asked Catzie to give me some insight into her new year experience, especially the foods eaten.

Unlike the Chinese, Laotians don’t celebrate with a lavish reunion dinner at home. Instead, families head to the closest Lao Buddhist temple (called a wat) to pray and seek blessings, to take part in cultural activities, and of course, to eat lots of good food. Here, they also follow an important tradition: splashing water on each other. “It’s a cleansing ritual signifying starting anew,” explains Catzie.

Catzie points out that because of schedules, and perhaps competing wats, Lao New Year is celebrated almost every weekend in April.

Girls dressed in traditional Laotian costumes line the parade during new year festivities

There aren’t any symbolic foods or traditions that usher in wealth and good luck, nor are there sound-alike ingredients for gold and long life. A practical people, Laotians eat everyday foods to ring in the new year. “There’s no one thing that we must eat,” says Catzie. “We’ll just eat everything that we like.”

As a teenager, Catzie, who was born in a Thai refugee camp and raised in Philadelphia, went along to the temple for one reason—the street food vendors who thronged the temple grounds.

Street vendors busy shredding papaya to make salad for the masses who visit the temple during Lao New Year

She describes some of her favorites:

  • Mieng kaham is an aromatic street snack. Sticky rice is dried, fried and smashed in a mortar with a pestle and pork broth is added to it until it becomes a sticky mush. You put the mush in lettuce and wrap it with lemongrass, toasted coconut, peanuts, dry roasted pepper and tomatoes.”
  • “There’s always barbecued meat on sticks—beef chunks on skewers, chicken wings, and lemongrass sausage (som sai gok) made with ground pork that’s allowed to sit for a day to ferment.”
Lemongrass sausage being boiled in a huge pot before being skewered and grilled
  • And probably the most well known Lao/Thai dish:“Lao papaya salad is made with just papaya (Thai papaya salad, som tam, has plenty of extras) and garnished with pork rind for extra flavor and texture. It’s served with cabbage which is used like a spoon to pick up the salad. It’s extra sour and extra spicy, not like Thai papaya salad!”
A special tool makes easy work of shredding green papaya

For those of us who are accustomed to gathering at mom and dad’s for Thanksgiving or Lunar New Year dinner, it might seem odd not to celebrate this important cultural celebration with a large family meal.

But eating together as a family is just as special any time of the year, not just during the holidays.

Catzie recalls annual visits to a cattle ranch as a little girl with her extended family—uncles, aunts and cousin–to pick a cow. The cow was slaughtered and butchered onsite and everyone brought home a share of the animal.

“That first meal was the best part. We had to eat certain parts (of the cow) right away and we had a big family meal (usually raw laab),” she reminisces. “Everyone took turns working and we all had a part to play.”

“Sitting down with the family all together and sharing the meal. That’s truly, authentically Lao.”

Photo credits: Fawn Grant
Pictures taken at Lao Wat Buddhist temple of North Philadelphia, 2012

~~~

Sheng’s Papaya Salad

Recipe excerpted from Cooking from the Heart–The Hmong Kitchen in America (University of Minnesota Press, 2009)

Photo credit: Robin Lietz.
Photo credit: Robin Lietz

The country of Laos comprises three main ethnic groups—Lao (60 percent), Khmou (11 percent) and Hmong (6 percent). Papaya salad is a dish that’s prepared by all but this particular version comes from Sheng Yang who is Hmong. In Lao, it’s called thum bak hoong, and in Hmong, see taub ntoos qaub. This papaya salad is probably rather different from what you’ve had at a Thai restaurant—it’s earthier and more complex than its Thai counterpart thanks to fermented shrimp and crab pastes; it also lacks the usual accoutrements like crushed peanuts, garlic, snake beans, etc. Leave out the funky pastes if you prefer, and by all means add peanuts if you’d like.

Makes: 6 servings

4 cups shredded green papaya or 4 medium sized carrots
2 to 4 garlic cloves (depending on your taste)
1 to 3 Thai chili peppers (depending on desired heat)
1 to 2 tablespoons fish sauce
½ tablespoon shrimp paste (optional)
½ tablespoon crab paste (optional)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon MSG (optional)
Juice and some pulp of 1 lime
6 cherry tomatoes
3 cups shredded cabbage (optional)

Some Asian markets sell shredded green papaya or you can shred it yourself using a special shredding tool available at Asian markets. If preparing this dish with carrots, scrub them well and cut off top ends. Peel into long, thin strips with a vegetable peeler and set them aside.

Remove the papery skin from the garlic cloves and put into a large mortar. Remove the stem ends of the chilies and add the chilies to the garlic. With a pestle, pound the garlic and chilies until they are mushy. Next, add the green papaya or carrot strips, fish sauce, shrimp and crab pastes (if desired), sugar, and MSG (if desired). Squeeze the lime juice into the mixture, discarding the seeds. Use a spoon to scrape some of the lime pulp into the salad. Pound together a minute or two, turning the mixture over with a spoon. Continue until the flavors are extracted and mixed but the papaya strips still retain their shape.

Cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters and mix them into the salad. Put ½ cup of the cabbage on 6 individual plates and top with the salad mixture.

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Thai Red Curry Noodles (Khao Soi)–A Dish to Feed a Crowd

khao soi_two

My mum loved to throw parties—big ones, small ones, medium ones–and there was always one constant: good food, and lots of it.

Cooking for company often meant days of prep and a kitchen bustling with activity morning till evening. Ma would grind spice pastes for dishes like beef rendang or pork satay. She’d braise turmeric-spiced chicken for hours on the stovetop ahead of the next step–deep-frying them the day of the party (yes, the chicken was cooked twice!). And I, as soon as I could fold neat corners, was roped in to roll lumpia (fried spring rolls) by the dozens. Ma never skimped when it came to entertaining family and friends.

We also had friends over on an ad-hoc basis; neighbors, schoolmates, church friends, etc. came by our house weekly. On these occasions, Ma would make an all-in-one noodle meal. Prep was quick and easy and everyone could serve themselves. Her noodle repertoire ran along these lines: bakmi (egg noodles topped with pork and mushrooms), soto daging (noodles with beef and lemongrass soup), and Indonesian laksa (rice vermicelli noodles doused in a coconut-chicken-turmeric soup).

I recently discovered a Thai noodle dish similar to Ma’s laksa and immediately fell in love with it. With the help of store-bought red curry paste, khao soi is fairly easy to make for dinner guests and tongue-tingly delicious! Because each noodle bowl is customizable, even kids can enjoy it (just start with a mild curry paste). And no one would guess it only takes 30 minutes to prepare.

This is my kind of entertaining.

~~~

Thai Red Curry Noodles (Khao Soi)

khao soi_solo

Khao soi is a popular Northern Thai dish with cousins in Burma (ohn-no-kauk-swe) and Singapore (laksa). A tangle of fried noodles and a squeeze of lime liven up the party, creating a tasty mélange of sweet, sour, salty flavors and lovely contrasting textures. If you’re serving a larger crowd, this recipe is easily doubled or tripled. You can also choose to lay out all the ingredients on the table and let your guests serve themselves.

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings, depending on appetites

Red Curry Gravy
2 tablespoons canola oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots or 1/2 small red onion, chopped
4 tablespoons red curry paste (I recommend Mae Ploy or Thai Kitchen brands)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 cups coconut milk, divided
2 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar

To serve
12 ounces dried or 2 pounds fresh egg noodles (Chinese or Italian are fine)
1 cup shredded cooked chicken
2 cups store-bought fried noodles (like La Choy brand)
1/2 small red or white onion, sliced thinly
Chopped cilantro
Chopped green onions
2 limes, cut into wedges
Soy sauce
Crushed chili flakes

Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a heavy bottomed pot until it shimmers. Add the garlic and shallots and stir and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the red curry paste and turmeric and stir and cook until the paste turns a few shades darker and fills your kitchen with a pungent aroma, 2 to 3 minutes. Watch it carefully so it doesn’t burn.

Slowly pour in 1 cup coconut milk, stirring to blend, and cook until the sauce bubbles. Let it bubble gently over medium-high heat, stirring often, until a layer of red oil separates from the sauce and rises to the surface, about 3 minutes. Stir in the second cup of coconut milk and repeat the process of waiting for the oil to separate.

Pour in the stock and bring the sauce to a gentle boil over medium-high heat before reducing the heat to a simmer. Add the soy sauce and sugar and taste. The curry should taste a bit too salty (it will balance out when ladled over the noodles) and a tad sweet, with some heat to it. Add more soy sauce if necessary (this will depend on how salty your stock is). Keep the curry warm over low heat.

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Cook the noodles according to package directions. Stir the noodles as they cook to loosen them and prevent sticking. Drain in a colander and rinse with cold water.

To serve, divide the noodles and chicken into 4 to 6 individual bowls. Ladle about 3/4 cup of curry over each bowl. Garnish with fried noodles, onions, cilantro, and green onions as desired. Serve with the lime wedges, and extra soy sauce and chili flakes in little dishes.

~~~

Today’s post is part of the monthly Let’s Lunch Twitter blogger potluck and we’re featuring food that’s shared with family and friends in honor of fellow Let’s Luncher Lisa Goldberg’s book Monday Morning Cooking Club (HarperCollins; Reprint edition, September 17, 2013) which just launched its U.S. edition.

MMCC

For more Let’s Lunch posts, follow #LetsLunch on Twitter or visit my fellow bloggers below: 

Lisa’s No Ordinary Meatloaf at Monday Morning Cooking Club

Anne Marie’s Almond Cheesecake Sammy Bites at Sandwich Surprise

Betty Anne’s Sisig Rice, Spicy Pork Belly and Garlic Rice at Asian in America Mag

Eleanor’s Surf and Turf at Wokstar

Grace’s Zha Jiang Mien at HapaMama

Jill’s Homemade Corned Beef at Eating My Words

Linda’s Vegan Pumpkin Pie at Spicebox Travels

Lucy’s Sweet Potatoes with Cane Syrup at A Cook and Her Books

Ingredient Spotlight: Lemongrass

chopped lemongrass
After lopping the tops and bottoms off the lemongrass stalks, I cut the remaining bulbs into rings

One of my favorite Asian herbs, lemongrass, and its long, slender form is fast becoming a common sight here in the Northwest. You can often find the stalk with its variegated colors–from white to yellow to pale green–three to a bundle at Asian markets, and solo or even in a tube at your neighborhood Safeway.

Lemongrass imbues an array of Southeast Asian dishes with a delicate citrusy flavor that’s part Meyer lemon, part mint and part rose petals. And if you find its scent vaguely familiar, it’s because the plant oils are used in citronella candles, famous for warding off pesky mosquitoes.

While many know it as an herb used extensively in Thai and Vietnamese cooking for dishes such as tom yum soup and caramel chicken with lemongrass and chilies, lemongrass is indispensible in Indonesian cooking too. It’s part of an essential bouquet garni of herbs I call the Holy Trinity–galangal (lengkuas), salam leaves (daun salam) also known as Indian bay leaves, and lemongrass (serai). This trio of herbs make their appearance in many traditional Indonesian dishes.

I throw lemongrass into coconut rice and always always save the discarded bits (see preparation below) to brew with green or jasmine tea.

smoke
My latest lemongrass discovery–lemongrass-infused vinegar

In fact, I love lemongrass so much I even tried to grow it when I lived in California. Unfortunately my not-so-green thumb failed me but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a try.

It’s so easy really. Head to the store and buy stalks that are firm and green, a sure sign that they will root. Then simply snip off an inch or so from the leaves and stick the root end into a glass of water. Leave them on a sunny windowsill and roots will start sprouting from the bottom of the stalk in about a week or two.

Once small roots have grown at least an inch long, transplant them into a container or right into rich, garden soil. Just be sure to keep them “damp like a moist sponge.” Lemongrass loves being outdoors in the summer sun—they are tropical after all—but when the temperature drops in the fall, you’ll have to take them inside.

Lemongrass is such a versatile herb and can be used in myriad ways. (Here’s a recipe for Caramelized Chicken with Lemongrass and Chilies.) I opted for something simple on this occasion. After infusing vinegar with chopped lemongrass, I whisked some of the flavored vinegar into a vinaigrette and tossed it with an edible flower salad with white nectarines. It was such a lovely side for a mid-summer evening’s dinner, I couldn’t resist putting the photos into a slideshow for you. Enjoy!


Here are some lemongrass tips:

Buying:

Look for plump, bright green stalks minus any dried brown bits. Lemon grass is available dried and frozen at Asian stores, but fresh provides the best flavor. I’ve seen lemongrass in a tube at supermarkets and that’s okay too in a pinch.

Storing:

Store them in the refrigerator for up to a week but for any longer, freeze them as is. Or you could prep them and cut them into rings (see below) before freezing them in a freezer-safe container. They’ll last almost indefinitely and there’s no need to thaw them before use.

Preparation:

Peel the tough, fibrous outer layers of the lemongrass. Cut an inch off the root end and about 6 inches off the top leafy end where the green meets the white, leaving about 3 to 4 inches of the white middle. Smash the white bulb with the butt of your knife or a heavy mug to release the essential oils and cut into rings and mince as required.

~~~

Zesty Lemongrass-Infused Vinegar

lemongrass in vinegar

I was inspired to make this simple lemongrass vinegar by my friend Pranee who blogged about it on I Love Thai Cooking. Next time I’m going to try adding coriander seeds and/or dried chilies to the mix. This vinegar also makes a wonderful hostess gift. Strain the vinegar and pour into a pretty bottle. Save the lemongrass tops to insert inside the bottle for interest.  (Please visit this Web site for safety tips)

Time: 10 minutes
Makes: 2 cups vinegar

3 fresh lemongrass stalks with no brown spots or blemishes
2 cups rice or distilled white vinegar

Peel the outer layers of the lemongrass. Cut an inch off the root end and about 6 inches off the top leafy end where the green meets the white, leaving about 3 to 4 inches of the white middle. Smash the lemongrass with the butt of your knife or a heavy mug to release the essential oils. Cut the lemongrass into rings and place in a glass container with a tight-fitting lid.

Heat the rice vinegar in the microwave for 2 to 3 minutes on high until it just starts to bubble, or heat on the stove.

Pour the vinegar over the lemongrass, cover tightly and steep at least overnight, two to three weeks for maximum potency in a cool, dark place. Strain through a colander and pour into a clean jar or bottle and store in the refrigerator.

Use in your favorite vinaigrette recipe and toss with salad or drizzle over roast vegetables like asparagus or zucchini.

~~~

Happily Sprouted: What a difference a tail, or rather no tail, makes

When I was a little girl, I hated mung bean sprouts, which we call “tauge” in Indonesian or “dou ya” (literally “bean sprout”) in Mandarin. At the market, they’re often labeled simply bean sprouts.

It had nothing to do with their bland flavor or the weird crunchy yet porous texture of their skinny white bodies (mung bean sprouts have a high water content), but everything to do with the fact that I was always roped in to snap the tails off these little buggers.

Yes, with their tails off, mung bean sprouts look neat and tidy and taste a whole lot better (if you’ve ever had any straggly, stringy and musky-tasting bits in your mouth, you’ll know what I mean) but it was a childhood chore that I didn’t quite enjoy when I could’ve been outside riding my bike or catching spiders in the drain.

Before

After

Now that I’m an adult, I do appreciate the aesthetics and the texture of a tail-less sprout, especially since I can buy them already washed and tail-free. In fact, I am offended every time a restaurant serves me sprouts with their tails still intact (which happens quite often at the Vietnamese hole-in-the-walls I tend to frequent).

Just as the name implies, mung bean sprouts come from–wait for it–mung beans, also known as mung, moong, mash bean, green gram, etc. Remember those science experiments in elementary school? Boy, do I remember them! I remember cushioning a handful of green mung beans on a bed of cotton wool soaked with water and sticking them on a warm window sill to germinate. Within days, the beans’ hard shells would split and tiny sprouts would start poking out. What a thrill! I never tried eating them though (I learned earlier on in life that science experiments are not meant to be eaten).

There are no lack of culinary uses for mung bean sprouts. They’re often stir fried with garlic and ginger, or the way I like it, with pieces of salted dried fish. Fresh bean sprouts are rolled into Vietnamese spring rolls and are used as a garnish for phở and numerous soup or dry noodle dishes in many Asian cultures. They’re tossed into fried noodles (think Singapore char kway teow and Hokkien mee) and in Korean cuisine, they’re blanched and seasoned with sesame oil, garlic and salt and served as banchan.

Don’t confuse mung beans sprouts with soybean sprouts—they have bigger, droopier heads–which are popular in Korea.

Because of their high water content, mung bean sprouts get slimy, and inedible, quickly. Store them in the crisper for no more than 2 days after purchasing.

Stir-Fried Mung Bean Sprouts with Tofu and Chives (Pad Tao Kua Tao Ngae)

stir fried mung bean sprouts with tofu and chives by you.

This is another dish that Pranee kindly showed me how to make. Together with pork and chives, the combination of soft and fried tofu plays a fun game of textures in the mouth. Don’t worry about cutting the tofu to the exact measurements, they are only a guide. Just as long as the pieces are bite-sized and manageable in the wok, you’re good to go! Vegetarians can omit the pork for a tasty and nutritious protein-rich dish.

Time: 15 minutes

Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse family-style meal

4 ounces pork loin
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)
6 ounces (about 1/2 package) soft tofu (not silken), cut into 1- by 1 1/2-inch pieces
6 ounces (about ½ package) 1- by 1 1/2-inch fried tofu pieces
4 cups fresh mung bean sprouts, tails snapped off
3 tablespoons soy sauce or fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1/4 cup Chinese chives cut into 2-inch lengths
Ground white pepper

Chinese chives are a little fatter than regular chives and skinnier than green onions

Handle the pork partially frozen so that it is easier to cut (if it’s fresh, place in the freezer for about 30 minutes). Cut the pork along the grain into 1 1/2-inch-thick strips. Then, with your knife at an angle almost parallel to the cutting surface, slice the meat diagonally across the grain into 1/4-inch thick slices.

Preheat a large wok or skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute. Swirl in the oil and heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer. Add the garlic and cook until golden and fragrant, 15 to 30 seconds. Throw in the pork and stir and cook until the meat just loses its blush, about 2 minutes. Add both types of tofu, followed by the bean sprouts. Sprinkle with the soy sauce and sugar and toss gently for 1 minute, being careful not to break up the soft tofu. Add the chives and white pepper and stir everything swiftly, but gently, around the wok.

Chinese chives are thrown into the mix

Once the ingredients are heated through, about 1 minute, remove from the heat. Serve with freshly steamed rice.

As grandma always says, please share!

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Tom Kha Goong Made with Sustainable Shrimp

Penaeus line drawing.jpg

Image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Researching and writing The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook has given me an appreciation for traditional and authentic recipes and eating the way our grandparents’ generation ate. It’s been a perfect complement to my other passion–sustainable foods.

Many of us shop at the neighborhood farmers market (or even work at one; I just got a job as a manager at the Pacific Grove Certified Farmers’ Market but more on that later) for fresh, seasonal produce and to support sustainable agriculture and small family farmers. But have you ever given sustainable seafood a thought?

I have to admit that I’ve only become more in tune with this important issue in the last two or three years. But since moving to the Monterey Peninsula and living so close to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the nation’s leaders in ocean conservation, it has risen to top of mind. Their Seafood Watch Program encourages us as consumers to play a role in protecting the health of the oceans to:

  • Ensure a bounty of seafood for this and future generations.
  • Support environmentally responsible fishing and fish farming.
  • Increase the demand for ocean friendly seafood.
  • Give species that are in peril a break so that they may recover

So what is sustainable seafood? According to the Aquarium, “Sustainable seafood is from sources, either fished or farmed, that can maintain or increase production into the long-term without jeopardizing the affected ecosystems.”

To help you guide you in your sustainable seafood decisions, you can download a regional pocket seafood guide here. Both Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute have also produced sustainable sushi lists. Yes, that sake, toro and–woe is me–unagi served at American sushi restaurants aren’t sustainable. (Read more about this issue in a post I wrote for National Geographic Traveler’s Intelligent Travel .) Another tool is the Green Guide’s nifty fish finder. Just plug in the name of a fish and learn how ocean-friendly it actually is.

To celebrate National Seafood Month, fellow food-blogger Jacqueline over at the Leather District Gourmet launched Teach a Man to Fish 2008, a blog event to create awareness about sustainable seafood.

I’ve chosen to focus on shrimp. Over the last decade, shrimp has become American’s favorite seafood but with a high cost to the environment. According to this article in the San Francisco Chronicle , “some 85 percent of shrimp eaten in the United States comes from China, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Taiwan, Ecuador, Mexico and other Asian and Latin American countries, as well as Australia… Yet most guides to sustainable seafood consumption advise against buying imported shrimp because the way these are farmed or caught is generally destructive to the environment.”

As cheap as they are, I’ve had to slap my hands many times to stop them from picking up that pack of tiger shrimp from Thailand at the market. Along the coast of Thailand, as well as numerous other tropical nations, mangrove forests once sheltered wild fish and shrimp which the locals caught to feed their families. Mangroves also filter water and protect the coast against storm waves. However, with increasing demand from Europe, Japan and America, many mangrove forests have been cut down and replaced with shrimp farms. After a few years, waste products build up in the farm ponds and the farmers have to move on. The end result: no shrimp farms and no mangrove forest.

So, farmed shrimp from Thailand is a big no-no. According to the Seafood Watch guide, pink shrimp from Oregon (the tiny shrimp used for shrimp cocktail or salads) is a best choice (green), U.S. and Canadian farmed/wild shrimp and U.S. and British Columbia spot prawns are good alternatives (gold), but imported farmed or wild shrimp should be avoided (red!!). Click here for the details.

I have to tell ya, shopping for sustainable shrimp isn’t an easy task. I made a trip to Trader Joe’s the other day and found that their frozen farm-raised shrimp is imported from various sources: Bangladesh, India, Mexico, Thailand, and Vietnam. At Safeway, the frozen shrimp hailed from China and Thailand. The shrimp in the refrigerated section wasn’t even labeled!

Ack! Where was I to find shrimp that I could buy without treading on my conscience? At Nob Hill Foods it turned out. Here, I found wild white shrimp from the U.S. at $12.99/pound–ouch!–as well as Canadian farmed shrimp ($8.99/pound) and Thai tiger shrimp ($4.99/pound). I bought a pound of Canadian shrimp. I made a mental note to explore local fishmongers next time. I live right next to Monterey Bay for goodness sake!

At home, I transformed my shrimp into tom kha goong, using a recipe from Nicky and Jill Sriprayul who own Thai Bistro II in Pacific Grove, CA (if you visit the Monterey Peninsula, dine here for some yummy Thai food!). As I sipped the fragrant soup, I relaxed knowing I was doing good by my taste buds, my conscience and the environment. 

I’m a practical person. I realize that not everyone is fortunate enough to live in a locale where sustainable shrimp (or sustainable edible anything for that matter) is readily available or affordable. It’s easy to follow this mantra if we don’t have to go too much out of our way. But if it’s beyond our means or pocketbooks, we can do one of two things–abstain or go easy. Abstaining is a little drastic. If you’re not prepared to go full-throttle then I believe that everything in moderation is a good thing (yes, that means no more all-you-can-eat shrimp buffets!). You’ll still be making a difference, albeit with baby steps.

Thai Hot and Sour Soup with Shrimp and Coconut Milk (Tom Kha Goong)

tom_kha_goong by you.

Like all home-cooked dishes, tom kha comes in many guises. Remember tom ka kai? The Sriprayuls’ version is spicier and has a little more kick. Substitute the shrimp with chicken (perhaps chopped-up chicken wings as Nicky likes) or a mixed seafood medley. For tom yum, omit the coconut milk entirely.

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 4 servings

3 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 1/2 tablespoons sweet chili paste
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2 cups shrimp, chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
5 thin slices fresh galangal
2 stalks fresh lemongrass, using white parts only, chopped into 2-inch pieces
2 fresh kaffir lime leaves, crumpled
8 mint leaves, hand torn
1/2 cup grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup sliced button mushrooms
1/2 cup straw mushrooms
1/3 cup red onions cut into thin slices
12 medium shrimp, peeled, deveined with tails intact
2 tablespoons chopped green onions
1/4 cup loosely-packed cilantro sprigs
1 teaspoon finely chopped Thai red chilies (optional)

Mix the first 4 ingredients in a small bowl to form a chili sauce.

In a large pot, bring stock and coconut milk to boil over medium heat. Add galangal, lemongrass, and lime leaves. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 4 to 5 minutes for spices to infuse broth.

Stir in chili sauce, mint leaves tomatoes, mushrooms, and red onions. Bring to boil and cook for 2 minutes.

Stir in shrimp and cook until pink, about 1 minute. Do not overcook!

Fish out herbs and ladle soup into a serving bowl. Garnish with green onions, cilantro, and chilies, if desired.

Noodling Around the Kitchen

Auntie Rairat works in the kitchen at my family’s restaurant Julia’s Indonesian Kitchen. During meal breaks, she whips up some simple Thai dishes for the staff like this, pad see ew, a standard at Thai restaurants in North America. Auntie Rairat was kind enough to show me how to make it one day. So here it is!

 

Sweet and Savory Wide Rice Noodles (Pad See Ew)

 

 

Churairat Huyakorn used to own a Thai restaurant in Bremerton, WA, and this was one of her most popular dishes. She developed a system for standardizing every order: Per order, she would add 2 dashes fish sauce, 2 drops vinegar, etc. It was a fun task interpreting these amounts, and once that was done I realized this dish is easy to make and tastes fabulous–anyone can give it a whirl. Ideally, purchase fresh rice sheets available at Asian markets so you can cut them to the desired width. If not, the precut ones will do (they tend to be about 1/2-inch wide), and as a last resort, dried rice sticks work as well. Have all the sauces ready before you start cooking as things move very quickly once you get going.

 

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 2 servings

 

1 pound fresh rice sheets, or 7 ounces dried wide rice noodles (it will say XL on the package)

8 ounces meat (chicken, beef, pork, or shrimp) cut into very thin 2- by 1-inch slices (1/2 cup)

1/2 pound Chinese broccoli             

1/4 cup canola or other neutral oil

2 teaspoons minced garlic (2 large cloves)

2 eggs

1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce

2 tablespoons sweet soy sauce 

1 tablespoon oyster sauce                   

1 tablespoon sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons white distilled or rice vinegar          

White pepper to taste

 

IMG_0910

Auntie Rairat separating rice noodles in the kitchen of Julia’s Indonesian Kitchen.

 

Cut rice sheets into 2-inch wide strands and separate them. If using dried noodles, soak them in boiling water for 6 to 8 minutes. You want them soft and pliable but not falling apart. Rinse in cold running water, drain and set aside.

 

Separate Chinese broccoli into leaf and stem pieces. Cut stems into 2-inch pieces and halve the thicker stems lengthwise as they take longer to cook. In a heatproof bowl, soak vegetables in boiling water for 30 seconds until wilted but not fully cooked. Rinse under cold running water and drain.

 

Preheat a 14-inch wok or 12-inch skillet over very high heat for about 30 seconds. Swirl in oil to coat the bottom of the wok and heat until smoking. Add the meat followed by garlic. Add 1/2 tablespoon fish sauce to flavor the meat. Stir and cook until meat is no longer pink, about 1 minute. Push meat to one side and crack the eggs in. Let eggs cook undisturbed for about 15 seconds until the whites start to turn opaque then stir to mix with the meat.

 

IMG_0913

Here, the eggs went in after the meat. But if the wok is searing hot, Auntie Rairat prefers to throw in the eggs first. Somehow that day she couldn’t get the wok to heat up to her satisfaction.

 

Throw in noodles and stir to break them up. Toss to mix noodles with the meat and eggs. Try to spread the noodles around the bottom of the wok to make as much contact with the hot surface as possible. That’s how you get the nice charred noodle bits and the unmistakable “burnt flavor” peculiar to frying in a searing hot wok. Add more oil if noodles start to stick to the wok.

 

Add remaining fish sauce, sweet soy sauce, oyster sauce, and sugar and use your spatula to spread seasonings over the noodles. Toss quickly to distribute evenly. 

 

Add Chinese broccoli and vinegar, and toss with a couple more flourishes until well mixed and vegetables are cooked through but the stems are still crunchy, about 1 to 2 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Turn off the heat.

 

Divide noodles between 2 dinner plates and sprinkle with white pepper. Serve with fish sauce, vinegar, and crushed dried chilies.

To make more servings, rinse wok with hot water (no detergent required) and give it a quick scrub just to remove all the brown bits stuck at the bottom. Give it a quick wipe and set the wok back on the heat to dry completely before carrying on.

Pat’s notes:
For a vegetarian version, skip the meat and add firm tofu, or just have it with egg. One difference: Add the eggs first, then the garlic to prevent it from getting burnt in the ultra-hot wok.

 

Dark sweet soy sauce gives the noodles color while fish sauce and oyster sauce season the dish. If you can’t find sweet soy sauce, substitute with a mixture of 3 parts soy sauce plus one part brown sugar.

 

Grandma says:

Noodles will get broken if they’re not big enough and if you have a strong fire, the noodles don’t break.

In search of perfect Thai basil pork

Several years ago, when I was a grad student studying in Boston, a Thai friend took several of us to her favorite Thai restaurant. She ordered in a flurry of Thai without so much as a glance at the menu and out came a succession of delicious dishes to our table that evening. And pad gkaprow mu or Thai basil pork was one of them. It had never tasted so good–the heady fragrance of basil and the earthy flavor of pork, rounded up togther with sweet, salty and spicy notes–and it hasn’t since.  This recipe comes pretty close although I’m sure even taste buds can lose their memory.

If you know of the perfect recipe, do drop me a comment! 

Thai Basil Pork (Pad gkaprow mu) 

 

This versatile recipe is a Thai favorite. Ground pork is usually paired with holy basil (bai gkaprow). However, Thai sweet basil (bai horapa) is much easier to find in Asian markets in America and makes a worthy stand-in. If all else fails, substitute with any basil or a mixture of basil and mint for a bright, refreshing flavor. Ground chicken or turkey also work well in this dish, as well as fresh seafood: Shrimp, scallops, mussels and firm-flesh fish like salmon or halibut.

Time: 25 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a family-style meal

2 tablespoons canola oil
1 1/2 pounds ground pork
1 1/2 cups packed fresh holy basil or Thai basil leaves
6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 small shallots (or 1/2 small onion), cut into thin slices (1/2 cup)
6 red Thai chilies, cut into rounds (or to taste)
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons brown sugar
Dash white pepper or freshly ground black pepper (optional)

Preheat a 14-inch wok or 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl in oil to coat the bottom of the wok and heat for 10 to 15 seconds until oil thins out and starts to shimmer. Stir in garlic and shallots. Stir 15 to 20 seconds, until garlic is light golden and fragrant.

Add pork, breaking it up with the edge of your spatula. Stir-fry until meat has just lost its blush, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Reduce heat to medium. Throw in chilies. Sprinkle oyster, fish and soy sauces and sugar, and toss to mix well. Add basil and stir until leaves are wilted and pork is cooked through, about half to 1 minute. Don’t overcook the pork.

Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with pepper. Serve hot with steamed rice.

Note:
If you can’t find Thai chilies, substitute with 4 to 6 serranos or jalapeños, cut into large slivers.

Marie Tran tested this recipe for me, check out her blog for her results. Thanks, Marie!