This is not to be confused with cutting the cheese — because of course I will cut the cheese. No, “cutting the mustard” is an old saying that implies something has passed muster, is deemed acceptable. The question here, as always on this blog, refers to food — the future children of my pots and pans.
I am going to be embarking on a cooking challenge, aided by inner voices supplied by Chef McDang and my aunt and Win’s grandmother and whomever else has written a Thai food recipe. I do this because, while I am a competent cook of English roasts and Italian pastas and French, uh, fries, frozen from the bag, I have never put my hand to a real Thai food recipe, not even once. And that bothers me.
That also places me in the realm of the “average-mediocre” in terms of cookery skill here; it won’t be as alienating as reading a cookbook by, say, Thomas Keller, but (hopefully) I won’t be a complete doodoohead either — I do know the difference between a beurre manie and a roux. Which won’t help me much in this case. Yet however.
There is also a post-Songkran bounty of recipes in my house, right at this moment. Win’s grandmother has two restaurant menus-full of them, laced with the Persian-Chinese-Thai influences that run though my husband’s family, who gather in Hua Hin every Thai new year to gorge on khao na gai (rice topped with chicken gravy) and khao buri, or “cigarette rice”, similar to the Thai-Muslim standard khao mok gai except more herbal.
I won’t start with that stuff though. That stuff is too hard.
So why not? It’s not like there is furious demand for my writing services. Somehow editors aren’t peeing themselves in ecstasy over my story ideas about exploring the little-known cuisine of the super-secret community of western Pennsylvanians in Bangkok (cheesy fries on cheese toast, with cheese) or an expose on noodle stalls helmed by cooks born to Cordon Bleu-trained pastry chefs moonlighting as doctors/lawyers/prime ministers on Thonglor. Somehow this gig isn’t working out for me right now. I have plenty of time.
But do I have the mustard? (For the record, I know I don’t need mustard to cook Thai food. At least I know that. I need ketchup).
Let me tell you a secret. Is it presumptuous of me to burden you with this so soon? It’s just that I feel such a bond, this far into our 30-second relationship — I feel like we’re two of a dust girdle kind, you and I.
It is a big surprise to all and sundry well-acquainted with my sunny personality, the privileged few who have been bombarded with my hemming and hawing, bitching and moaning, peanut butter and jelly-ing for the past 50-odd years, but: I am terrified of public speaking. Get me in front of a crowd of two or three and my knees start a-shakin’ and palms start a-sweatin’, the words in my mouth congealing into a mealy jumble that will make sense to no one, including myself.
Yet I continue to inflict myself upon unsuspecting bystanders because there is some sort of masochistic streak in me that says I MUST — somehow — persevere and someday — someway — emerge victorious. And I continue to fail, melting into a puddle of angst-ridden Robert Pattinson every time skeptical eyes lock onto me, daring me to say something of substance.
So it is with some trepidation that I said okay to the incredibly kind people at “Poh’s Kitchen”, a cooking show on ABC in Australia featuring Poh Ling Yeow, a chef/artist of Malaysian-Chinese heritage who got her start on “MasterChef Australia”. Aside from being beautiful and kind, Poh is a very knowledgeable cook, so it was a big surprise to get a call from her people suggesting that I might be able to show Poh around some of my favorite food spots and tell her something about Thai food.
I told myself I didn’t know anything about Thai food Poh didn’t already know herself. Envisioning a crowd of disappointed eyes compounded by the glare of the camera (and Lordy, am I familiar with that experience), I suggested a sheath of other names that they could use. I suggested I would be tied up with a possible trip abroad, a hair appointment, a heart attack. They were strangely insistent. I showed up, smudged from nausea and sleeplessness, having driven my husband crazy the night before with useless questions (“You’ll still be my friend, right?” was one of them).
For once, it wasn’t that bad. I did a lot of “uhs” and “absolutelys” (go ahead, down a shot every time I say one of those. I dare you.) I looked like Quasimodo next to Poh’s Esmerelda. But then I remembered that I would probably never, ever see this, and that realization was enormously freeing. As long as I could remain in my little bubble of denial, safe in the cocoon of the delusion that I was svelte and resembled the Asian Anouk Aimee, I would be OK.
Oh, are you still here? Did you think that I would be talking about food? Hahahahaha. Why would I do that, when I can blather endlessly about myself? But yes, it’s true: the day held yet another blessing. Hours spent roasting in a boat under the midday sun yielded — besides renewed exclamations of “Why are you so DARK?! You’re so DARK, isn’t she so DARK?!” — a sheltered Thai-Muslim community along Klong Saen Saep specializing in gorgeous fish-based nam prik, or so-called “chili paste”.
Readying ingredients for the camera
While the chili dips and nam prik gaeng that are used as the base for countless soups and curries form the bulk of what people think about when they think about nam prik, these are dried and used as a condiment, sprinkled over rice. Here, the most famous nam prik is the nam prik ruammit (mixed “nam prik”), incorporating little dried fish, dried shrimp, and grilled flaked fish with the requisite chilies (hand-roasted and pounded into a powder), palm sugar, tamarind paste, deep-fried shallots and garlic, fish sauce and lime juice.
Ingredients ready for a fresh nam prik
Not to get all earnest on you, but: it was eye-opening to see this beautiful community, self-sufficient (mosque, bank and houses are all canal-side and easily accessible via boat) and with an eye on sustainability (the waters are brimming with fish, and healthy gardens and pet cows are in abundance). Lunching on khao mok gai (Thai-Muslim chicken rice) and an especially fiery oxtail soup, I thought myself lucky, and my shriveled, withered old heart grew two sizes that day.
Glum Mae Baan Than Diew
Saen Saep, Minburi
02-919-4777, 081-905-6974, 085-974-6791
9:00: It’s taken us a full day, two kilos of oversalted shellfish, and a trough of caipirinhas, but we have finally recovered from the 36-hour trip from Stockholm to Rio (via Berlin, Zurich and Sao Paulo). We are in Rio de Janeiro (‘River of January’), a glittering city of around 6 million which funnily enough does not have a river but a gigantic bay and many beaches. At breakfast, we watch impossibly toned and tanned beautiful people do yoga and practice a form of soccer-volleyball, all apparently without any hint of irony whatsoever. Afterwards, we meet our guide, Leonardo, who promptly learns that we will go anywhere and do anything, as long as we are fed well for our trouble. He pledges to take us to Porcao, one of Rio’s best-known churrascaria rodizios (barbecue houses), as soon as he can.
13:00: Thanks to a crowd of especially exuberant Koreans and a traveling samba band (“Now is the time for the samba,” says Leonardo, who cannot stand the samba) the tram trip up to Christ was amusing, but we are now in a post-giggle funk after being confronted with a snarl of traffic that just might rival the best Bangkok has to offer. Although Leonardo claims it is a bit early to stuff our faces, we are famished, and head to the nearest Porcao (Av Infante Dom Henrique, (021) 3461-9020) we can find. At Porcao (which, as @SpecialKRB points out, is pronounced “poor cow”), we find cuts of every part of the animal awaiting us including the rubbery hump (called cupim), plus a generously-proportioned buffet of “sushi”, salads and hot stews that we ignore until we are almost full. Luckily, I am wearing a maternity dress chosen especially for the occasion.
(Photo by @SpecialKRB)
After stuffing ourselves to near-bursting, we promise to never, ever eat ever ever again.
The man of our dreams with @SpecialKRB
Wednesday, Day 2
9:00: We break our promise at breakfast the next day, when I once again inhale an entire plate of cold cuts and cheese with plenty of bread, as I am told is the breakfast of choice for true cariocas (natives of Rio, which loosely translated in the local language actually means “house of the foreigner” or “house of the white man”. Go figure). This is especially interesting since it is very hard to find starches like this for lunch or dinner unless you actively ask for it. Is this the “Rio diet”? Only enough carbs to keep you regular and then not touching them after noon? Eating manioc like a maniac at ridiculous times of the day, like 3pm and 11pm? Will I lose a bunch of weight and write a diet book and become a famous weight-loss guru like Rocco DiSpirito? Only time will tell.
13:01: After spending the morning buffing the floors at the Palacio Rio Negro in Petropolis, the Brazilian royal family’s summer residence, we are officially starving. (“Would you DIIIIEEE if we have lunch later?” asks Leonardo. Yes, Leonardo. Yes, I think we would die.)
Nevertheless, we manage to hold off until 3pm, when Leonardo takes us to Urca, a neighborhood known for being exclusive and inhabited by members of the military. Here, we get our first taste of some delicious Brazilian snacks: bolinhos, coated in crumbs and deep-fried; pastels, wrapped in pastry like pierogies; and empadas, fillings set atop pastry (“open”) or enclosed completely (“closed”). These are all washed down with a glass of light draft beer (chopp) and can be found at any boteca or botequim.
Another dream man, with a tray of empadas
18:00: After another long day, we finally make our way to Academia da Cachaca (26 Rua Conde de Bernadotte Leblon, (021) 2529-2680), where a treasure trove of cachacas (sugarcane liquor) sourced from all points of Brazil awaits. We select several “doses” of this liquor, the names of which will remain locked in an alcohol-induced haze forever, and they all taste of either cloves, allspice, cinnamon, or caramel. We also order acaraje — a sort of kibbee-like deep-fried “football” of beans, accompanied by a fish stew and a “relish” of coriander, spring onion and dried shrimp — and a sun-dried beef escondidinho, which @SpecialKRB describes as a “shepherd’s pie filled with corned beef hash”.
But our waiter draws the line when we try to get a feijoada completa (bean stew with all the fixings), simply refusing to let us order it. Leonardo agrees (“I am afraid you will DIIIIEEEE. You will simply drop dead”) and seems to think a waiter telling us we have ordered too much is an unusual occurrence. Everyone seems to think that, despite the late hour, we will eat dinner after this (“This is lunch,” says Leonardo with a straight face).
22:00: This is the thing. I love Rio in many ways: its laid-back, freewheeling optimism, its sunny weather, its easy-going and friendly people. But so much of it is the complete opposite of the doddering oldie I am today. Despite exhortations from every Brazilian we know to explore Rio’s vaunted nightlife — (“Don’t go there until 3am. You will find NOBODY,” Leonardo advises as we pass one famous nightspot. “This club is after-hours. You can go there at 6am.” He says later of another. “Come on,” he finally tells us when confronted with our ashamed, vaguely defiant faces. “Don’t be different”) — we cannot find the strength to stay awake. Leonardo is talking to the squarest, most boring people in the world.
Thursday, Day 3
13:00: Leonardo-less today, we finally make it to Casa da Feijoada (Rua Prudente de Moraes 10, (021) 2523-4994) where we get our black bean stew accompanied by braised pig tails, ears and trotters, rice, deep-fried pork rinds, fried collard greens, fried manioc, farofa (roasted cassava flour) and orange slices to cut the fattiness. We get both passionfruit and lime batidas (cachaca with fruit juice and ice) and a bottle of wine. This renders us comatose for the rest of the day. Finally sated, we stumble outside into the bright sunlight, spot vultures circling overhead and consider the beach for the rest of the day. I have not lost weight on this diet by any stretch of the imagination.