Puu doesn't seem to understand why I want to take pictures of her cooking pad thai.
This is the Thai go-to dish, one of the simplest things a Thai can prepare and one of the cheapest a budget traveler can buy.
But I remember a few months ago a US-based friend of mine had bemoaned her current pad thai recipe and although I've eaten plenty of the stuff, I never really paid attention to how it was different from Chinese-style fried noodles.
So I follow good-natured Puu over to the alley-side mini-kitchen she opened as a business a few weeks ago and watch her whip up a batch of succulent chicken pad thai as matter-of-factly as if I'd asked one of my US friends to butter a piece of toast.
She does all of the cooking for her food stall, "Food Corner" in a big wok resting on a single propane burner.
First in the wok for pad thai goes a dollop of peanut oil to grease the bottom of the pan. Then, she sprinkles in some thin slices of chicken and agitates it in the heating oil until the meat is white on both sides. Then she breaks an egg into it and using a spatula whisks it around with the chicken.
Next, she adds some water--it looks like about a cup and a half--and throws in a handful of dried rice noodles. She uses the thin, flat ones, but explains that I can use thicker ones or round ones.
The water sizzles in the oil and the white strands of noodle go limp in the middle and change color through the steam.
Now it's time for the flavoring.
Puu keeps all of her condiments lined up on the counter. First, a second-long dollop of oyster sauce. Then, I'm surprised to see, some ketchup. Next, sweet chilli sauce and a sprinkling of dried chilli. The next label I can't figure out but I recognize the smell from our eating adventures in Vietnam--fish sauce. She sprinkles in a little salt, a little sugar, a spoonful of chicken bullion.
The noodles have all succumbed to the heat and moisture, but still seem springy in the pan.
She turns off the heat and folds in a handful each of bean sprouts and grated carrot.
While the flavors merge, she cuts a slice of lime and a few pieces of cucumber. You can add more vegetables if you want, she says, shrugging.
"That's pad thai," she tells me, holding up my plate full of steaming noodles and flavor. "Eat."
[Editor's Note: Due to illness, our usual writer, Beth, is taking some time off. We welcome guest blogger Dan as he fills us in on the latest Alaskan Kangaroo wanderings.]
The airport bus snakes through the traffic. The city is a balmy 33 C – 91 F and it is humid, but after Kolkata, this is a nice break.
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, a bustling metropolis of made of Lego concrete. Its roads are full of scooters and mopeds. Honda is the big winner here in the transformation from bicycle to motorcycle. The mind-boggling, eye-crossing thousands of scooters are zoom-zooming and the only road rule is to not hit what is in front of you. Flashing past, zig-zagging through the traffic, most bikes end up driving on the sidewalk. Chaos as order only works when everyone is as skillful as these riders.
Pham Ngu Lao is the centre for backpackers. At night, bright neon signs beacon the US dollars from the the leather wallets. A grandma walks by carrying twenty pirated best-seller books which have been cleverly tied together. She would be happy to sell to have one less to carry. Beer at two for one. Happy hour is every hour! Most are here to relax and have a good time. Most are succeeding.
“You want a cyclo?” ask the man in the beige baseball cap. One chap hands us a flyer for the Taj Mahal Restaurant. No way, but thanks any way! We were just there there, at the real Taj Mahal!
Pizzas, hamburgers and steak are the popular dishes. But I just wanted some fresh spring rolls and some pho. Local food is easy to find with local restaurants and street food almost everywhere. It's cheap and tasty and healthy and a Saigon beer straight from the Alaska (brand) refrigerator to help the food down. Ice cold beer full of flavor washing away the heat! Awesome!
* * *
One day we wandered through the town to the War Remnants Museum for a peek at not-so-distant history.
Near the museum we saw a T-shirt with the slogan, “Vietnam is a country not a war.”
At the War Remnants Museum (formerly the Museum of American War Crimes) in downtown Saigon, it's easy to forget that.
It was a humbling place full of war pictures, statistics and weaponry. A memorial, I believe, is to act as a warning beacon to any and all who shall pass it by. The message should always be simple and clear-- “War is bad. Everyone suffers and many people die.” There is good and bad, but mostly it is just stories of pain from those who are touched by war.
Unfortunately, this got a little lost at this museum. A war memorial should not have for sale pirated copies of Dan Brown books and Lonely Planet:Thai Beaches guides, glossy picture postcards of the war, and placards of the cartoon character Tin Tin next to fake fallen soldier GI dog tags. Ironically, all the prices at the gift shop were listed not in the local currency, the dong, but in U.S Dollars.
We decided to skip the city's other war remnants, even the famous Chi Chi tunnels. We'd rather look at Vietnam today, and with that in mind we headed south, to the Mekong Delta's Can Tho.
Taxi Dweller: This Calcutta cabbie sleeps on his car at night. Many families live on the sidewalks here, one of India's largest cities.
[Editor's Note: Due to illness, our usual writer, Beth, is taking some time off. We welcome guest blogger Dan as he fills us in on the latest Alaskan Kangaroo wanderings.]
In our travels through India, I have come to understand understand some of the etymology of some of the sayings in our language. For instance “ Only, mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”
This is true.
When we arrived in Calcutta (Kolkata nowadays) the midday temperature was 45C or 113 F with 85-plus percent humidity. Most of the locals stayed indoors.
In India, animals are sacred. Most people are vegetarian and in many cities cows and dogs roam free.
So “Let sleeping dogs lie.” was some really sound advice. At night if you roused them, they would bark and bark. If you perchance happened to step on one no doubt a nasty bite would come your way. Best to let them lie undisturbed.
So when I found out that we were going to Calcutta, I was excited. “It's like the black hole of Calcutta!” Great, I would understand another saying. Unfortunately we never made it to the Black Hole on account of the heat. We substituted it for the Central Markets, which was more or less a hole full of unpleasantness.
The rest of Kolkata was very pleasant. We went to a Bengali restaurant and tried hands down the best fish in India (although it was the only fish we had had in India.)
** Please be patient, our photos from Calcutta are coming soon!**
Like a tin wind-up toy, the food server danced toward us in near frantic rhythm.
Sweating a little, and worried that my scarf has slipped too far off my hairline for propriety, I watched him from my seat on the floor.
Left foot sideways. Ladle in the bucket. Right foot sideways and back. Ladle out. Left foot forward, and, plop!, a deposit of green pea curry in the metal tray of the Sikh woman in front of him.
She sat cross-legged with her family on the long woven mat with her dishes in front of her, like me and Dan, just one of the thousands of hungry who come to the Amritsar Golden Temple's langar, or community kitchen.
I can't watch the pea curry guy for long though, because someone is coming with water to pour in the metal bowl in front of me, and another man is coming with the chapati basket. All of the scurrying servers, cleaners and cooks are volunteers.
They have to rush--hordes of people wait for every twenty-minute seating. After our quickly eaten meal of curry, dal, rice pudding and chapati, the diners carried their trays, bowls and spoons out to the communal dish washing area. I have never seen dishes washed so religiously.
Leaving the area to the hand washing station, groups of men and women clustered on the floor peeling onions and garlic for a future meal.
We visited the Golden Temple to try to get a picture of Sikhism, a religion from Northwest India. Sikh men are easily recognizable by the large, tightly wrapped turbans they wear.
From what we gathered from the museum and other reading, in general Sikhs believe in community service and standing up for the poor. They are fierce soldiers and have no caste system. The founder of the religion mixed some Hindu and some Muslim beliefs with his own workaday spiritualism.
As nice as it was at the Golden (as in real gold!) Temple with it's huge pond for ritual purification and laid-back shady colonnades, we weren't in love with Amritsar city itself and decided to press on to the Himalayan foothills after only a few days there.
Since our cooking class in Cambodia last December, we've been excited about taking another—it's a fun way to spend the afternoon, and best of all, we get to eat the result. And, unlike my high school cooking class fiasco, nobody's going to grade me on how thinly I slice anything or make me wash the dishes.
One of the draws for us to stay at Vino's Guesthouse in Bikaner was that the family that runs it offers free cooking demonstrations. They have a short menu of items you can order , and then a window built into the kitchen where you can watch the owner's sister-in-law cook up your dinner or lunch and explain what she's doing. You just pay for what you eat.
We decided to get a demo of dal fry, since it's one of our favorites and ubiquitous on restaurant menus throughout India; alu gobi, curried potato and cabbage ; a local Rajasthani dish we'd never heard of before called dana methi, principally fenugreek; and as a snack, vegetable pakora.
Click on "Read More" to see what we observed. (Forgive me for my lack of technical cooking language!):
Our waiter carefully plopped a big spoonful of spicy chickpeas near the rice on my round banana-leaf-lined plate and watched Dan and I eat with our fingers:Mush it up, hold it up, poke it in with the thumb.Were we doing it wrong?
It's more difficult than I thought it would be, eating with our hands. No chopsticks here, or even the strange double-handed fork-and-spoon combination of Malaysia. Most of the restaurants we've been patronizing (cheap and busy) are all-local establishments, and while the waiters sometimes bring us a teaspoon or two, having read or seen somewhere that foreigners need tools to getfood in their mouths, we are trying to go native.
Rule number one of eating with our hands seems to be that there's no 'hands' about it. In India and other places in South East Asia and the Middle East, theleft hand is used for dirty things like the bathroom and your shoes.That means your right hand has to do all the 'clean' things which so far seems to be eating and shaking hands. It's harder than I thought to repress the urge to just pickup some food with both hands. Try eating a chicken wing one-handed, for example. Pretty tough.
After rule number one, I'm shaky as to what the other rules are, or if there are any.I carefully watch other diners, trying to see how they maneuver their food to their mouths, but it's hard to do that and eat at the same time.Some foods are easier. The breads aren't too bad—chapatti or naan breads are a little absorbent and they soak up the curry gravies.
Rice is another story.
Like in our favorite restaurant here in Thanjavur (Tanjore), the Srii Devhar's Cafe, which we discovered by accident while walking to and from the ever-closed tourism office.This all-vegetarian, all-you-can-eat place serves useach nine small, refillable pots of vegetable curryon a banana-leaf-lined platter, a second plate each brimming with tender short-grain rice, and as many poppadoms (chickpea flour crackers) as we ask for.
What we then do with all this food seems to be a source of good-natured amusement to the waitstaff.
First, we go wash our hands. Every restaurant has a hand-washing station. Quite a few have soap, though this one doesn't.Next, we use a chemical sanitizer to sanitize our hands.This always gets the other diners' necks craning.
Then, we take all the little pots of curry off of the metal eating platter. Most restaurants use only metal dishes and cups.Usually, the pots have left rings of water on the banana leaf, so we take tissues or napkins and wipe this off.The waiters usually stop what they're doing to watch us clean the, in their mind already clean, plate. Remember, for local people who are used to the water, they probably don't even notice it, let alone get sick from it.
Next, using the left hand to lift the dish but the right hand to touch the food, we shovel some rice onto the banana leaf.Then, we chose one or more of the curries to dump on the rice. Kneading the gravy into the rice sticks the grains together, and then we can lift small portions to our mouths, using primarily the tops of the fingers. We use four fingers to hold, and the thumb to push up from underneath.
A lot of rice escapes, but we're getting better. At least we think so.Judging from their facial expressions, the waiters aren't in agreement.
* * *
Thanjavur hasn't been all eating though.
We came here on the advice of a guy we met in the airport coming to India; he gave us his phone number in case we made it here but we were unable to reach him. It has been a good stop though.The town has two main tourist draws, the Royal Palace of the local aristocracy and the Brihadishwara Temple.The first day we explored, the second day we checked out the palace, the third we went to the temple and the last day we just relaxed, took vitamins and tried to shake off the cold Imust have caught on the airplane.
The Royal Palace is in a walled part of the city that, from reading the guidebook, was once the nexus of an empire that reached all the way to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bali in Indonesia.The present palace, though, is now famous for King Serfoji II, a scholar in the 19th century who collected a lot of local artwork and local and foreign literature. We walked through the gallery of thousand-year-old statues and the library of palm-leaf books and English engravings for a glimpse of the path.
We also climbed the bell tower and met a group of hyperactive boys who wanted to talk to us all at the same time and practically pushed themselves off the walls to get us to take photos of them.We had a good time talking to them, but it was soured a little bit at the end when we figured out that they'd opened our backpacks (in mischief, rather than thievery, I think) without us knowing. Time to buy some padlocks, I guess.
It was a weekend to meet schoolkids, because the next afternoon while we were waiting for the sunset light to hit the golden sandstone of the 11th century Brahadishwara Temple, we were surrounded by kids on a field trip. Most of them just wanted to know our names or shake our hands, but some asked us to take their portraits, and none of them got into our bags.
Next stop: A town near Thanjavur, called Kumbakonam. Also recommended by our airport friend, it's described as a city of temples.
Our cooking teacher rubbed a slice of turmeric on Dan's thumbnail, leaving a yellow smear.
“That's how you know it's not carrot,” he corrected me with a smile.
We were at the Smoking Pot, a cleverly-named restaurant and cooking school run out of our teacher's home by him and his various nieces and nephews. We were taking their $8 cooking class to learn how to make three Cambodian dishes— coconutty amok, fiery beef curry and a hot-and-sour soup. The turmeric is important in the first two dishes—we took it, dried red pepper, garlic, thinly sliced lemongrass and some salt, and mashed them together with a heavy stone mortar and pestle. The result was a beautiful, orange curry paste that adds flavor and color.
Now, before I go on, I know what my family and friends who have ever suffered through a Beth-cooked meal are chortling as they read this—something along the lines of, “about time she had a cooking class!.” And, it was a little scary for me, remembering all of the spaghettis burned because I got involved reading the newspaper and forgot about it and all of the “oh I don't want to go shopping so let's see what we can do with soy sauce, cous cous, canned tuna and various alcohols” meals.
But it wasn't like a graded thing, this class, and the only punishment would have to eat my own cooking at the end of the morning. So, we tried it. And it was fun!
First off we went to the wet market, which wasn't that big of a deal for us since it was basically like the ones in China we had been shopping at for the last three years. But one thing there that we never saw in China was how to make coconut milk—a woman hacks open a green nut with two deft swipes of a cleaver, drains the juice into a plastic tub and then shaves off the jelly-like meat of the green coco with a huge machine. We got a plastic bag of the shavings, put them in a cheesecloth back at the restaurant, and kneaded them into water until we had our own, hand-squeezed coconut milk.
Next, we pounded up our curry paste and then prepared the amok—fish for me, chicken for Dan. A few vegetables, meat and the curry along with the fatty coconut milk all boiled down in a wok until the teacher gave us the OK to eat it. Delicious!
The second dish, lok lak, was to be spicy. The teacher and assistants handed out some chili peppers and I took a (I thought) cautious amount—three green ones. Then we remembered that the green ones are hotter than the red ones and I made Dan switch with me. We had to slice the beef for this as thin as paper, and then fry it together with more paste and some other ingredients. Fantastic.
Third, we made a hot and sour soup, using lime juice for the sour and one pepper (really cautious now!) for the hot. We boiled some chicken bones and vegetables together for the stock.
And so, amazingly, the best meal we had in Cambodia was the one we cooked ourselves.
Then, full from our cooked meal, we hired an enthusiastic man and his friend to take us on the backs of their motorcycles on a trip to Phnom Sampeau, the site of limestone caves used as execution zones by the Khmer Rouge.
While I didn't expect the site of a mass grave to be a good time, it was fun to go there on the motorcycle (“Slow! Slow!” we told them, and they did). Walking on the street in Battambang it seems that everyone has a motorcycle—nine-year-old kids and all. We drove out through the rice fields and small villages and my driver gave a non-stop tour on the way:
“These kids, they are finding fish. The rice comes three times every year. When no water, the fish stay there. The kids can find the fish. These men they are waiting for the rice. Everyone has the rice. No rice, no happy!” And so on. Dan's driver, meanwhile, used up his English vocabulary pointing out interesting things too--one word: “Cow.”
The caves, also known as the 'killing caves' are half-way up a limestone hill about a half-hour from Battambang city center. The rest of the countryside is completely pancake-like, so the hill was impressive as we drove up to it.
People who fell afoul of the local Khmer Rouge bigwigs were taken to the top of the caves and dropped a hundred feet or more down to the dark, bat-infested caverns. I read later on the internet that perhaps as many as 10,000 people had died this way--they're still not sure. Now, there are wire cages full of old bones near the new Buddhist statues and a general, creepy feeling that things aren't right in an otherwise pretty spot.
The next day we would head out for Bangkok and then the diving paradise of Koh Tao, thinking to ourselves that Cambodia might be worth a second look in 2010.