Because I am a die-hard horror fan who watches everything on Netflix under the “Horror” genre, I watched a Thai movie the other night called “The Maid” (top trending in Thailand, yo) that actually got me thinking. No, not about the “scares” (it’s scary if you think The Sixth Sense was scary. Actually, not even then.) It’s because the movie is basically a revolutionary manifesto calling for the taking of the country back from upper-class Thais who style themselves like foreigners, as well as farang and their Thai enablers. I would, clearly, be doomed in this scenario to (SPOILER ALERT) getting stabbed through the temple or injected with bleach by the homicidal namesake maid who is seeking revenge for her murdered sister. But all the same I feel like it’s unfair. Is it my fault I’m a colonized person?
My mother tongue is not really mine; I speak a foreign language more fluently. When my family meet up in a restaurant, we speak in a language from abroad even though our faces are local, sparking strange looks from surrounding tables. The songs I love are not mine; many of the movies I love — other than horror — are the same. Not even my comfort foods are not my own. When I think, I think in English. I am Thai, but I am American: through my mind, through my heart, through my stomach. Neither side claims me as their own. I have been colonized.
Thailand, famously, has never been colonized. But people rarely focus on the efforts Thailand made to keep itself from doing so, instead focusing on the wiliness of its officials or the luck of its location. In order to keep from being colonized, Thailand had to sort of do it to itself. Thais began incorporating Western, Victorian-style blouses into their outfits. Later the sabai, a one-shouldered shawl covering the torso, was actually banned in the mid-1900s in a bid to make national dress more modest.
Thai food changed, too. Grand households in the Rattanakosin era imported cooks from the Hokkien region, considered the best in the world for food. Those cooks created their own cuisine, influenced by both their native Chinese roots and Western aspirations. The grand houses and embassies entertained foreign dignitaries who could take heart in the comfortable surroundings and familiar-ish dishes — all requiring knowledge in how to use a knife and fork, of course. The descendants of these cooks set up restaurants of their own: Silom Pattakan, Agave, Meng Lee, and Florida Hotel Restaurant among them.
No one knows why mee krob (fried rice noodles in a sweet-sour sauce) always features prominently on those menus, but here we are. You can’t go to one of these old-school fusion-y places without encountering it on the menu. The dish itself has changed with the times — from a plateful of loose, dry noodles to something far more sculptured and sticky — but I prefer the old-fashioned version, as seen above at the old Silom Pattakan. The Florida Hotel one is pretty tasty though.
The recipe I’ve found, which I’ve inserted into my book proposal, comes from the funeral cookbook of my husband’s family: specifically, the funeral book of Longlaliew Bunnag, who used to be the F&B Manager at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club. Strangely, it doesn’t call for tamarind sauce, relying on plain old white vinegar for the tartness.
I sent the recipe to my friend Lauren Taylor in New Zealand, who is an accomplished cookin her own right. She made her own valuable alterations to a dish that really is far more difficult to make than it seems. This version is pasted below.
Now, before I send off my book proposal, I was wondering if anyone else has the time to try out this recipe and see how it works. Consider it the first in a series of test runs for a book that I am optimistically pitching as a Thai cookbook, made up mostly from funeral cookbook recipes from my attic. Any help is greatly appreciated!
Mee Krob for a dinner party where you are trying to avoid being colonized
- 2 cups rice vermicelli, pre-soaked in warm water until soft. Make sure the noodles are dry by draining them in a sieve or strainer.
- 4 eggs
- 1/2 cup pork loin, diced into small pieces
- 1/2 cup fresh shrimp, diced into small pieces
- 1/2 cup chicken breast, diced into small pieces
- 1/2 cup crabmeat, boiled, shell picked out
- 4 Tbsps red shallots, thinly diced
- 2 Tbsp garlic, minced (6-8 cloves)
- 1/2 cup hard tofu, patted dry with paper towel and diced into small cubes
- 3 Tbsps white vinegar or to taste
- 2 Tbsps fish sauce or to taste
- 2-3 Tbsps palm sugar or to taste
- 1 Tbsp tamarind paste
- 2 Tbsps fermented brown bean sauce (tao jiew)
- 7 Tbsps vegetable oil
- 3 cups oil for frying noodles
- Pickled garlic (for garnish)
- Thai long chilies (prik chi faa, for garnish)
- Bitter orange peel (som saa), or regular orange peel if not available
- Fresh cilantro leaves
- Raw bean sprouts
- Fresh limes
- Garlic chives
Make sure to prepare all ingredients before commencing frying.
Gently pull apart noodles and rinse quickly in warm water. Make sure the noodles are dry by draining them in a sieve or strainer and pat dry. You want semi-flexible, but not fully rehydrated, noodles. Should yield approx 2 cups of rehydrated noodles.
In a large pot or wok, heat 3 cups of oil until hot, (between 375 F and 400 F). Test the temperature by placing a noodle in the oil. The noodle should puff up right away. Make sure noodles are completely dry or else the oil will splatter. Place the vermicelli in small batches into the hot oil. Do not stir the noodles while they are cooking. As soon as oil stops sizzling, take out noodles. Remove from oil and drain in a colander or on paper towels and set aside.
Next, remove all the oil except 2 Tablespoons. If you do not wish to handle hot oil, 2 tablespoons of the leftover oil from the pot may be placed in a separate large pan or pot.
Cook eggs in oil. Make sure the egg yolks are broken and scrambled. Once cooked, remove eggs and set aside.
Add 4 Tbsps of oil (this can be taken from the leftover frying oil) to the egg pan. Add shallots and garlic and cook until aromatic. Add brown bean sauce and pork and chicken and cook for 5 minutes, then add shrimp. Saute until cooked and then add fish sauce, vinegar, sugar and tamarind. Add crab and tofu and cook for a few more minutes.
Taste for seasoning. Make sure it’s not too salty! The sweet and sour tastes should come first.
Keep cooking until liquid evaporates, less moisture will result in a crunchier noodle. The consistency should be dry and a little sticky, almost like a thick molasses. Add cooked eggs. Gently toss the noodles into the pan making sure not to overmix as to retain crispiness.
Serve on a plate immediately, garnishing with pickled garlic, julienned chi fa chilies, coriander leaves and julienned bitter orange peel (som saa). If available add as well: raw bean sprouts, slivered fresh limes and garlic chives. The bean sprout and lime add a nice freshness to the dish.