More than halfway through my “around the world” trip, I figured out I was seriously homesick for Thai food after caving in and ordering a “Thai red curry” from the ship’s main dining room for lunch and … genuinely enjoying it. What was happening to me? With this curry that lived somewhere in limbo between a gang phet and a gang kua? When I discovered that we were due to visit a Thai restaurant owned by an actual Thai person in Maputo, Mozambique, I was not only jazzed, but relieved — at least I would stop fixating on Thai food.
Now, I am embarrassed to say this, but I knew nothing about Mozambique, not even that it was a Portuguese colony, not even that it is famous for its fresh seafood. Both were welcome discoveries: everything sounds so much friendlier in Portuguese, even haggling over woven baskets in the market, even international labor day “celebrations” that looked at first like protests as people walked the streets downtown, waving flags.
Unfortunately for the workers at Spicy Thai in downtown Maputo, they, unlike their celebrating compatriots, did not have the day off. However, it was lucky for us. Khun Ton, our new best friend, had planned a seafood-heavy lunch procession that would quickly turn into a composite breakfast-lunch-dinner for us, so enormous were the portions and generous was the kitchen. Starving and assuming I was set for a typical Thai meal abroad, I was ready for the plates of gratong tong (deep-fried “golden bags” stuffed with shrimp and served with a sweet chili sauce), as well as the fried egg rolls (of course) and grilled chicken wrapped in banana leaves. I assumed that next we would get some pork larb, a green curry, a stir-fried noodle dish or two, and some greens and call it a day.
But K. Ton, alarmed at our eating style (which I’ve heard described as “peak-era-shark-feeding-frenzy”), asked us to at least hold up for the next dish, goong cha nam pla (raw shrimp marinated in fish sauce), a personal favorite of mine and something you almost never found outside of Thailand. It arrived arranged as a giant rosette, crowned with a bowl of nam jim seafood (Thai seafood sauce ) and peppered with slivered red chilies and sliced fresh garlic.
The raw shrimp — rosy and glistening on the plate — was improbably sweet, and K. Ton told us that even the Japanese imported tons of the stuff from Mozambique, supplementing their stores of amaebi (sweet shrimp). I believed it, because the shrimp were as delicious and fresh as anything I’d had in Japan, but better because it had Thai flavors.
Everything else then started arriving at a brisk clip, expected stuff interspersed with dishes that were less so: stir-fried Chinese kale with large slabs of pork belly; individual bowls of tom yum each sporting their own “baby lobsters” like a sunburned man in a jacuzzi; a gang kua of well-stewed beef shank; enormous platters of crabmeat doused in a yellow curry sauce.
Another large bowl, enough to feed a family of 6 in Thailand, brought us a lobster “khao soi” crowned with an improbably big lobster head, its meat shredded in a khao soi broth and accompanied by pickled mustard greens and fresh lime wedges in a nod to the dish’s origins.
And just when everyone was ready to stick a fork in themselves (because they were done), a laughably enormous steamed grouper was ushered to the table, cooked in a soy sauce dressing and nestled in a bed of melt-in-the-mouth steamed cabbage, ludicrously delicious.
So, of course, everyone found a little more space in their bellies.
For dessert (yes, there was room for dessert), I was surprised to discover that dishes I assumed would be universally loved, like mango sticky rice, were unpopular in Mozambique, where the idea of fruit with rice was thought of as ridiculous. Same with gluay buat chee (bananas stewed in coconut milk), even though the ingredients were all readily available. Instead, they served a “guava” steamed pudding, English-style, with a side of coconut ice cream, the photo of which I will spare you, because it was a grisly scene.
You would think we would be all “Thai’d” out by then, but sadly, you would be wrong. On our one evening out in Cape Town, we still managed to find ourselves in one of those Nobu wannabe restaurants that spout up in somewhat fashionable dining areas — you know, with the club music and the dry ice. There, we ended up with the usual suspects: oysters drowned in ikura and yuzu, sushi rolls with names like “rainbow reloaded”, crispy rock shrimp coated in chili mayonnaise, Korean fried chicken, Peking duck.
Later tonight, we will have the Thai seafood dipping sauce that we smuggled onto the boat from Maputo as crew members were engrossed in examining another passenger’s wooden artifacts (which must be sprayed in case bugs get on board). We will ask the ship’s kitchen to grill some lobster tails, shrimp and scallops, and steam the freshest seabass they can find. Our new friend Jean-Claude will bring along a Riesling that he brought in his suitcase from his hometown of Strasbourg. And we will attack everything we see on the table with our beautiful nam jim, a perishable reminder of the flavors we are missing.
And then we will be back on the lookout for more of those flavors.