While at home in Kansas, I had the chance to make Thai food for my family and put some of these recipes and techniques that I’ve so lovingly worked on over the past few months to test in a kitchen outside of Bangkok. And I have to tell you, largely as a result of ingredient weaknesses or altogether absence, there were some real disappointments.
Now, of course, my fabulous and supportive family oooed and awed over everything that came out of the kitchen. (Love you all for that!) But the truth is, I picked out my very best recipes to make for them while home. The best of the best. Before I arrived I was confident and excited to put my culinary efforts to good use and showcase the Thai dishes that I have fallen in love with since the move. I was astonished at how difficult it was to get even remotely close to the flavors that I am able to achieve in Thailand.
My primary mistake was to carry on with the dishes I had in mind, despite my inability to track down some key ingredients. One of my absolute favorites, Khao Soi Noodles, fell into this category. Although I could not find fresh turmeric anywhere (even at Whole Foods – how could that be?!) or noodles that even roughly approximated the noodles I use in Thailand, I pushed on, convinced that the substitutes would still allow me to create something close to the savory/sweet Khao Soi flavor. I was mistaken. First, my sister complained that the noodles tasted funny. (She was right.) Then, no matter how much dried, ground turmeric I added to the pot, it still tasted flat and not at all….like turmeric. Although I knew the Khao Soi was not at its best, it still received a warm welcome around the dinner table.
(As my husband rightly pointed out, the upside was that the absence of fresh turmeric saved my family’s kitchen from the yellow dye-job from which our Bangkok kitchen has never fully recovered.)
A similar occurrence happened with the Som Tum. Som Tum was never on my intended menu for making at home, but when I saw green papayas at the Asian market in Kansas, I was blinded to all other options. I had to have them. And, if I dare say it, it is difficult to make a bad Som Tum. Something about its crisp, slaw texture with the flavors of chili paste and crunch of roasted cashews and peanuts makes it good even when it’s a poor second cousin to the real thing found in Thailand. I my version made at home, the papayas were just lacking in zeal. Likely they were tired after their long voyage to the center of the US and couldn’t deliver the punch I had hoped for.
I also received a loud and clear lesson in the difficulty in finding some of the things that make the simplest Thai dishes possible. Nowhere could I find decent-looking fresh rice noodles, so Pad See Ew was tricky. (Fortunately, I had great success using the version I describe here for using dry rice stick noodles of the sort that are widely available and often labeled as “Pad Thai Noodles”.)
Likewise, I missed the flavor of Thai garlic in all the dishes I made. Its petite cloves and resulting sweetness is less bitter and much more rich in flavor than the large clove variety that I used in my cooking at home. Likewise, I missed the earthy sweetness and intense aroma of Thai basil which I use in large bunches in Thailand but could only find in puny tufts, sealed in plastic and lacking in scent in the herb section at the grocery store in Kansas.
This lesson in the reality of cooking regional foods in other parts the world only served to make me appreciate two things all the more. First – the incredible food that is abundantly available just outside of our door here in Bangkok. I have returned to Thai food in Thailand with renewed appreciation and interest. Second – all of you who are not in Thailand and are making these recipes and giving me feedback! I dearly appreciate your insights into what happens when you make some of these recipes at home, particularly those that are made with ingredients that are much more common here than in other parts of the world. Keep it coming!