I rarely talk music with other people. This is because most other people have terrible taste in music. I realize this is because people my age don’t have any time to trawl through iTunes looking for something they will really love, so content themselves with whatever it is that is playing on the radio right now. Usually, that is Taylor Swift, some teenager, or Taylor Swift.
When did it become a thing for middle-aged people to listen to One Direction? Or 5 Seconds of Summer? I’m talking grown-ass women and men. What happened? I mean, as long as U2 are still making albums, “old people music” will still exist. Arcade Fire, Black Keys: old people are still being marketed to! We have wallets too. It’s not a draconian world of Either/Or, where either you listen to Justin Bieber or you end up consigned to a dustbin of Air Supply and Kajagoogoo.
I’m sorry to say this, yet again, but this kind of stuff didn’t happen in my day. My dad wasn’t getting all up in my Duran Duran while I was growing up. My mom wasn’t drooling over Robert Smith and singing along to “Head on the Door” while doing the dishes. Come on now. Let’s resist shedding our old-fart identities, disintegrating into some mass-marketed stew of wannabe youth-dom, doomed to an ever-expanding wardrobe of Hot Topic, a cultural diet of Teen Wolf reruns and a never-ending trudge towards What Kids Are Doing Today. This, from the lady with the dyed mallrat hair.
My favorite Thai dishes are the ones in which each ingredient is free to sing clearly on its own merits. You can still identify each and every taste. This is why I love every type of yum, those spicy-tart salads that play with flavor and texture, and retro DIY snacks like mieng kum, which usually involves betel leaves and pairs them with an assortment of dried shrimp, flaked coconut, slivered peel-on lime, cubed ginger, sliced chilies, roasted peanuts and a gloppy sweet dipping sauce that manages to enhance rather than mask all the goodness underneath.
Another great dish that leaves the integrity of each ingredient intact? Khao yum, a Southern Thai mishmash of rice and painstakingly julienned herbs, fruits and vegetables, held together with generous lashings of nam budu, a Southern Thai fermented fish sauce used like a punctuation mark in many regional dishes. When Khun Nuraya, a Pattani-based artist, offered to show me how to make the only dish she ever bothers to cook, I naturally jumped at the chance.
First off, khao yum requires a LOT of preparation. The prep work will dwarf the actual cooking of this dish, which only requires a little bit of mixing in a bowl. If you don’t live in Thailand, a few of these ingredients will be hard to come by. That’s when your imagination comes into play: as long as it’s tart and/or crunchy and relatively dry (we don’t want soggy rice), it should work. That means things like julienned green apple, asparagus, roasted peanut dust … the sky is the limit.
Ingredients (everything is to taste, so measurements are not set in stone. Also, you want to keep reserves of each ingredient on the side so that diners can add to their own taste. This should make about 4 portions):
— Nam bu du (a southern Thai fish sauce that Nuraya doctors by boiling it with lemongrass, palm sugar, lime leaves, galangal and onion. This can possibly be bought at a large Southeast Asian grocery store. If you are really in a jam, use regular fish sauce or nam pla rah)
— Fresh shrimp, about a handful, cleaned and deveined, then grilled and cut into bite-sized pieces
— Dried shrimp, about 1/4 cup, powdered (can substitute with powdered dried fish, or even peanuts if in a pinch)
— Coconut, about 1/3 cup, desiccated
— Lime, roughly one per person, either cubed with peel on or squeezed into the salad before eating
— Chilies, about a Tablespoonful, sliced
— Cucumber, 2 large, peeled and cut into inch-long shards
— Long beans, about a handful, cleaned and sliced
— Pai leaves (an aromatic herb that accompanies many Northern and Isaan larbs, maybe use shiso in a pinch)
— Yeera blossoms (also referred to as dara. They look like this)
— Winged beans, about a handful, sliced
— Lemongrass, sliced, bulb part only
— Lime leaves, chiffonaded
— Butterfly pea blossoms (optional)
— Pomelo, shredded (optional)
— Rice, mixed with pulverized bai yaw (also referred to as noni leaves, which are boiled, whizzed in a food processor, and then added to the rice cooking water)
Nuraya also adds small Thai mackerel that are pan-fried with lemongrass to rid it of its fishy scent, but a good substitute are dried small fish, which give the added bonus of adding a little texture.
Eventually, all of this is mixed together, but be prudent with the nam bu du if you don’t want a gigantic salad — you don’t want to tip the balance of flavors over in any way. The final product: a fresh, bright, light melange of ingredients that, instead of competing, manage to coexist peacefully without overshadowing anything else. In that way, one can say this dish is everything Thailand says it is.