A woman soaks shark fins to place between bamboo mats. She can sell them to restaurants at $25 a pop. A coconut shredder works continuously. The first press offers cream, the second press milk. No green curry worth its “milk” would be made with anything less. The next stand is full of…unidentifiable greens. Heaps of them. Many are from the basil family—holy and hairy. They are bunched up near their root companions; ginger, galangal, lemongrass and shallot. Flat baskets of chilis add spice to the view, kafir limes and leaves give you a clue. Where am I? An outdoor market in Thailand.
A culinary adventure in Thailand had proved timely. Out of Colorado’s snow and into sudden summer, we flew right over the International Date Line—skipping over spring entirely. Upon landing in Bangkok, we discovered a refreshing, medicinal, spicy sour soup, Tom Yam Goong—shrimp, lemongrass, ginger and kafir lime. I love exploring cuisine from the base ingredients first, not from the familiar dishes themselves. The key players quickly made themselves known.
Lemongrass is king. It grows tall in thick, layered stalks. Just the word conjures up a soft breeze from the Orient. They say you can just stick it in the ground, and it grows. It marinates fish, flavors broths and serves as the backbone of green curry. Its long, grassy leaves are a stomach tonic and make a pleasurable tea, cold or hot. Dress it up with honey or a little sugar syrup and it becomes a sophisticated beverage to sip during the day. Come night, add vodka and lime juice and enjoy a “Thai Noon.” Lemongrass, together with ginger or galangal, shallot and chili is the mirepoix of Thai cuisine, forming the body of a dish (like the French holy trinity of carrot, onion and celery).
Fish sauce—a sun-baked elixir that drips from dried anchovies—is used for salt (make sure it’s at least 60 percent) and balances lime juice, with the chicken or fish stock giving it all a home. A touch of palm sugar balances certain dishes with a deep note that doesn’t say “sweet,” rather, “let’s get together and create harmony.” It can also mellow over-the-top spiciness, so that chili delights instead of dominates. Coriander root, seeds and leaves, scallions, garlic, mint and tamarind take the dishes in various directions…it’ll all make sense once you start cooking. Kind of like life.
Noodle pots are common on the street, the cheapest and healthiest daily dish. Generally, the Thai eat glutinous “sticky” rice in the north; black, red, white, and mostly steamed white in the south. Older rice is preferable over new—Thais feel it has more flavor and depth. The tiny pea eggplant—cute, crunchy and bitter—is used in a green curry with chicken. Ping pong eggplant, quick to cook, is sliced and added to various dishes and soups. Thai basil, hot basil and sweet basil are hardly anything like our basil. Pea vines and morning glory vines, sautéed with garlic and oyster sauce, are considered a delicacy (in my hometown farmers’ market a Hmong woman offers them along with her homemade chili paste, zucchini flowers and other exotic greens such as amaranth).
These exotic flavors reflect an exotic land. Thailand has never been colonized and has the longest serving monarch—the well-loved King Bhumibol Adulyadej has ruled for 68 years! Symbol of Thailand, the elephant is a sign of strength and, with trunk turned up, of good luck and welcome. When I sat down for a three dollar foot massage one evening on the streets of Chang Mai, I didn’t expect to see an elephant snout sniffing around. A mahout (elephant trainer) who had been quietly walking behind me (is there an elephant in the room?) shoved sugar cane into my hand. “Feed my elephant, feed my elephant, she’s hungry!” One by one, I fed an agile, nibbling snout a midnight snack—after which she promptly pooed and peed right in front of the “Heaven Hut.” For a mere 50 cents I had a special moment, eye to eye, right there on the street—a good omen for the Tibetan New Year.
A longboat trip up the Mekong the next day took us to Chang Rai, a jungle retreat where we were able to spend time with elephants and their babies, feeding the mothers green bananas. It’s there that I learned that the previous evening’s encounter was actually a symptom of a problem. Now that the use of elephants in the logging industry has been banned, mahouts have hit the streets. The camp was developing a program where mahouts can come and be with their old elephants instead of selling them to buy younger elephants—keeping both off the streets. I had no idea that I’d been supporting abuse. Appreciative of the lesson, I donated in honor of this magazine.
I first visited Thailand 20 years ago, when my children were four and eight. Now, Old Bangkok is hidden amongst the lower level high rises and the night bazaars are full of cheap nothings. I no longer see street carts of deep fried beetles and tarantula. A tuk tuk, (three wheeled motorcycle taxi) is pricey and a night’s stay in a good hotel would dip seriously into a college fund. Bangkok’s famous floating market is now more like a floating 7-Eleven. People in the outlying areas are more interested in goods than fresh food—a development that parallels the addition of unsightly satellite dishes.
One tradition remains firm: giving alms. Up at dawn one morning in Luang Probang, in the neighboring country of Laos, a group of us gathered sticky rice baskets and waited for the monks. The longest-practicing monk, not the oldest, is first in line, down to the newest novice. Silently they approach in single file, alms buckets slung across shoulders. There are no words, only the sound of the lid at it slides off the bucket, making room for a pinch of rice. The long road is lined with devoted alms givers. The act of kindness and the opportunity to offer a gesture of generosity fills our own soul bowl as the saffron procession fades into the distance.
In an ever-changing world, finding fundamental truths is getting harder. Going straight to market is the place to start.
PEGGY MARKEL’S Culinary Adventures in Tuscany, Sicily and Morocco bring friends to the table in pursuit of pleasure, culture and community, and an authentic experience of the materia prima that make for a truly good life: peggymarkel.com.