Fumbling In the Kitchen with a Thai Home Cook

Thai food is easy to love: My flavor-phobic, meat and potato obsessed father is smitten with Pad See Ew, my kid inhales papaya salad and local Thai joints are only rivaled in popularity by teriyaki shops. The ingredients that go into most Thai dishes are familiar and easy to source, so like a lot of novice home cooks I’ve gotten used to spooning curry into a pot, adding coconut milk and meat, pouring it all over rice and calling it a day. But while curries and stir frys are quick, my results tend to be underwhelming concoctions that taste ok but do little more than expand in the stomach.

This year’s Sterling-Rice Group food trend list included the prediction that Thai, Vietnamese and Korean flavors will start popping up on more comfort food menus. You could argue that’s already been happening for awhile in Seattle: The fried tofu and house made peanut sauce at Black Bottle and Asian eggplant in spicy coconut sauce at Monsoon are a couple of good examples. Bringing those flavors to the kitchen should be simple--and maybe for some home cooks it is. Truth be told, I’m never sure where to begin.

My husband’s uncle married a Thai woman named Summa during the Vietnam War and proceeded to live the rest of his life hopping between Bangkok and Philadelphia. After he passed away we lost frequent contact with Summa, who learned to cook as a teenager while living upcountry, until last week when we had the pleasure of hosting her and her daughter. After taking her to eat at some of the places serving fare that’s harder to come by in Thailand, including Kickin’ Boot Whiskey Kitchen and Pecado Bueno, she mentioned in passing, “I could cook for you if you’d like.” Yes, please.

We made a beeline for HT Oaktree Market to buy various veggies, including green peppers and Thai eggplant, then set up in the kitchen. Summa decided to make the same kind of dishes she prepares at home in Bangkok every week. She showed me how to slice chicken--thinly, in diagonal lines so it can more evenly soak up the curry. She blanched snap peas and carrots before joining them with beef, pepper and garlic for a quick stir fry, keeping the colors bright and textures consistent. And she debunked the common conception Thai food is eaten with chopsticks. “We use a fork and spoon, but never chopsticks,” she explained.

My only contribution to the dinner? A bowl of mixed white and brown rice, which looked like an oversized ball of dried glue. “Add less water next time,” Summa shrugged, graciously adding, “I like my rice a little overdone.”

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