Out of the Box

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Fresh squid salad in a som tum pla rah dressing

I think I’ve mentioned before that two of my favorite movies ever are “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II.” It’s a controversial opinion, I know. I watch it every year, and just finished my 2020 rewatch a couple of nights ago.

This time, I found it sadder than I’ve ever found it, especially at the very end, when all of the family (sans Godfather and Mrs. Godfather) are huddled together, preparing to wish the patriarch a happy birthday. After all, as I get older, I find it is very difficult to flee one’s fate. Guts and determination aren’t enough. Sometimes it is just not in the cards. So it’s a hit in the gut to see what Michael Corleone becomes at the end of the second movie, ordering hits on people that weren’t even necessary. Young Michael tried all he could to escape his family business. He went to a fancy Ivy League college! He dated Kay! He risked his life for strangers! But when push came to shoving his ailing dad’s hospital bed into a closet, the family business is what he ended up having to do. And by protecting his father, his fate was sealed.

(This kind of thinking, that you can’t flee your fate, seems to be the prevailing sentiment nowadays, anywhere. “Que sera sera,” the people in charge say. “We are warriors.” But warriors for what? And for whom? But I what do I know? Stick to food.)

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(via GIPHY)

Asian food appears to have been wrangled into a similar box. Conventional wisdom has long told us that no one will pay for Asian food beyond a certain threshold. There were various reasons for this: Asian cooking didn’t require as much skill as Western food, they’d say; the surroundings it was served in were chintzy or dingy; and because it was cooked by Asian people, who famously eat any manner of things, the hygiene was questionable. Of course, Asian cuisines like Japanese have escaped this mode of thinking, thanks to high-end offerings like sushi (originally a street food).  But for Thais, for Vietnamese, and obviously for Chinese, this is something that is so deeply ingrained into our brains that when Bo.lan first opened, more than a decade ago, even my mother complained about the prices, asking “Who would pay this much for Thai food?” No wonder, then, that foodies would flock to non-threatening fellow Westerners who offer a shiny gloss to ethnic cuisine, as the gourmet versions of Pat Boone to the more polarizing Little Richard.

No one in Bangkok asks why anyone would pay Michelin-starred prices for Thai food anymore, but in the West, it’s a different proposition. And now with the specter of Covid-19 hanging over every corner of the globe, any culinary inroads made by Asians abroad risk backsliding; the hygiene worries return, and the old ouroboros of low prices leading to cheap ingredients leading to bad food rears its head again (as much as it can, because it is an ouroboros). I watched the CNN Town Hall on Covid-19 today, and one of the questions appearing on the screen actually was, “Can I get coronavirus from a Japanese chef breathing on my raw fish sushi?” (I can answer this: sushi dude will be wearing a mask and gloves, bro. You should be worried about the people sitting next to you.)

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People react differently to uncertainty, as with anything else. For example, some people discover that they perform brilliantly under pressure. I am not one of those people. Uncertainty is probably another test that I will not score well in. But, as my friend Galen said to me just a couple of hours ago, Thais are hardy people. I myself would say Asians are hardy people. That’s because they have to be.

I remember being in New Zealand with my daughter during her last months of high school, away from all of my friends and the rest of my family, wishing I was back home. I now miss those days. Recently I returned home from Phuket, where I sometimes felt unbearably suffocated and occasionally lonely. I realize now that I will think fondly of those moments too, and wish I could go back. Maybe, far into the future, some of us — the lucky ones — will look back on this time in our lives the same way.

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Stir-fried Thai morning glory, with thinner stems and bigger leaves than the Chinese kind

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Tiny local sardines, wholly edible, scales and all

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Another lockdown post

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Just hanging out

I started cooking when I was 8 or 9. My parents had a copy of the “Good Housekeeping” cookbook, a fascinating tome that I would rifle through in my free time (I didn’t have many friends) featuring photos of dishes like “salmon in aspic”, “turkey tetrazzini”, and “perfection salad”. I would fantasize about the time when I would be old enough to have a house of my own and a kitchen in which I could whip up these exotic dishes.  When that time came, I would have Listerine in my bathroom, but in a fancy crystal decanter, a short kimono robe I could lounge around in like Chrissie in “Three’s Company”, and Hamburger Helper in my pantry.

I started out cooking spaghetti marinara from the book, and gradually moved on to things like pound cake (a disaster), pesto (horribly salty), guacamole (ditto), and chicken fricassee (OK). If they were successes, I would eat them myself. If they were not, I would leave them on the stove for when a hungry Thai student from nearby Youngstown would inevitably pass by and dispatch of it. My parents were famously accommodating of the local Thai community and our house had a lot of Thai parties where my dad would bust out his version of som tum with grated carrots and grilled chicken marinated in beer. To my dismay, there was never any turkey tetrazzini or Hamburger Helper.

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A som tum vendor at Ampawa

This might be a reason why I almost never cook Thai food, and when I do, it usually comes out pretty bad or at best mediocre. My tastebuds are just not right for it, and I lived in a place where I had easy access to great Thai food cooked to order. I have that “Good Housekeeping” cookbook to this day, even though it is now missing some pages in the soup section. I still cook from it. The last recipe I made were the brownies. But that was maybe a year ago. I don’t burn to cook anymore, not even now, when that is what you are supposed to be doing. I don’t feel like reading anymore either, even though that was something I could not stop doing before. I do a lot of yoga, and I watch a lot of TV.

I am realizing that, for me, the magic of the day lay in its unpredictability, and most of that unpredictability had to do with food. I miss going out of my house and chancing on things that I would mentally bookmark for a future meal with friends, or going in and trying immediately myself. Sometimes they were terrible experiences where a waiter charges you for an extra halo halo that you never ordered, but sometimes they were great.  I miss learning about my town in that way. I miss eating places, and the bond that some of these experiences would create between people, even the bad ones. This was the role that dining out played for me, and I know I’m not the only one.

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Posole in Queens with a nice bottle of Corona, which has stopped brewing temporarily

But don’t worry, I am still stuffing my face like Asian Jabba the Hutt. Don’t labor under the impression that I’m losing weight and not eating. I am, and eating well (too well). I even sometimes inflict my meager stabs at cooking on other people. Yesterday I made chili con carne (another dish in the “Good Housekeeping” cookbook. However, I base mine off of the recipe in the “Silver Palate” cookbook — the book I read during my free time in college, this time to the amusement of my roommate, who said I should be able to “think of these recipes on my own.” She never washed the dishes.)

All the same, there are some things that you can can’t properly make at home. For example, grilled river prawns. Now, you can source these babies on your own, probably (I haven’t tried), but they won’t be as delicious as when they are fresh from the river in a town like Ayutthaya and you are sitting on the water in a rickety shack staring at a plate like this:

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There’s also sushi, of course, which I would never in a million years attempt myself. I don’t even order it home delivered, because I truly believe that, like som tum, one is supposed to eat that shit the second it passes out of the chef’s hands.

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Gizzard shad with yuzu peel

These are the things that keep me looking forward here, as I watch “Friends” for what may possibly be the 30th time. They may not serve Hamburger Helper beef stroganoff or salad suspended in jello, but here’s to eateries, the people who keep them going, and rebuilding bonds in them when we get back.

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Self-quarantine, day 112048

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A bunch of fresh-picked dok kae pa, or jungle vegetable hummingbird

I have not used the time while in self-imposed isolation to do anything of any use or benefit to anybody. I have not read anything big or smart, written anything big or smart, or learned anything big or smart. I have been busy imagining how it would be to escape my little prison, and when I say “prison”, I don’t mean like Ellen Degeneres in her big airy living room like the lobby of an Aman resort while her producer is lurking in the plants outside. I mean prison like my actual body. I sometimes want to literally jump out of my skin. To forget that feeling, I have been playing countless hours of Candy Crush or watching “Breaking Bad” for the first time, despite really, really disliking Walter White — even more than I disliked Don Draper, which I thought was not possible. Proved me wrong!

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I have been on the occasional walk, and on one of these walks came across what I thought were called “dok gang” (curry flower) but are actually called “dok kae pa”. I do not believe they have anything in common with the vegetable hummingbird (or sesbania grandiflora) but when the blossoms are blanched, the flavor is similar: bittersweet, with a pleasant crunch. It’s great with a nice spicy chili shrimp paste dip.

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And that has been my check-in from the other side. For more mentally balanced content during lockdown, maybe check out my friends Chris and Eddie at https://planestrainsandanchovies.com.

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