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Every time I travel somewhere, I make a promise to myself that I nearly always break: that I am going to attempt and prepare the delicious cuisine from the country I traveled to for my friends and family so that they, too, can share in all the delicious tastes of our world. After all, I’ve always believed that there is nothing more intimate and touching than having the chance to feel the smells, tastes, textures, and delights of a place than through its cooking. When I returned home from Colombia, for instance, I brought maracuya juice concentrate in a plastic bag (hidden between my underwear and socks in my suitcase, of course), all the ingredients I’d need for coconut rice, recipes for patacones (fried green plantains), and a whole lot of chewy, sugary candies I’d bought at a market. Other than the candies–which were always prepared and already edible–I confess that I never made the time to try and recreate the sweet, decadent flavors of the Caribbean for my family. Instead, I took my fiancee to a Caribbean restaurant and we ate a fried fish with its head still on and felt adventurous.
This is almost always the routine.
But when I came home from Thailand recently, my tastebuds already yearning for papaya salad and Thai chilis from the moment I had my last bite, I declared that this time would be different. With an Asian supermarket just steps away from my home, I would continue the journey I had started that week at the Sampran Riverside Resort, a gorgeous eco-cultural resort just a day’s drive from Bangkok. I would make everything out of the little paperback cookbook we were given that day, the day our small press group took a cooking class under a veranda in the pouring rain during a Thai monsoon. The smells–tangy lemongrass and kaffir lime, sweet palm sugar, spicy Thai chili, the I-can’t-quite-place-it (sort of like ginger?) galanga root–all part of the same week I spent falling in love with fruit. Like most places, neither words nor photography can fully capture the smell of a boiling soup or a sour fruit, and nothing can truly take you back to a place like the taste and texture of a food that defines a place. And because I haven’t been able to take my fiancee on my travels to Asia with me, this time, I swore I’d bring it to him.
I decided to start with the items we made during our cooking class: the infamous papaya salad and the spicy and sweet lemongrass soup with shrimp. I fished out the paperback cookbook from Sampran and we drove down the street to the Asian market near our house. Now, this shopping experience was a little more difficult than I’d anticipated, particularly because we were trying to buy products I’ve only ever seen once (and in a completely different cultural setting), and we couldn’t read the majority of the labels (because, of course, everything was in Vietnamese, Korean, Mandarin, or Thai….). But, with a little shameless asking and a lot of gracious smiling, we were able to locate such items as the green papaya, dried shrimp, black chili paste, kaffir lime leaves, chunk of palm sugar, and straw mushrooms. I was also giddy to find rambutan, longon, and mangosteen, and I made Ryan listen to a brief history and explanation of every one of them. I am sure he has heard more than his fair share of information about fruit.
At home, I laid out everything on the counter. This is what we bought:
Payaya salad, our first project, is a spicy salad prepared cold and made with unripe green papaya, garlic, chili peppers, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, long beans, small tomatoes, and crushed peanuts. It’s taste comes from a combination of sour, spicy, salty, and fishy–four staple flavors of Thai cuisine. Papaya salad–or som tam in Thailand–is served everywhere, as an appetizer, a side to soup, or just as a snack. Similarly, the shrimp and lemongrass soup (which is called tom yum goong in Thailand), is also something you’ll see almost everywhere. How hard could these two ubiquitous dishes be?
First, as we went through the recipe and realized that after mixing the chili peppers and garlic we had absolutely no idea how to chop up that enormous green papaya teetering on its edge behind the peeled garlic cloves, we realized this wasn’t going to be as easy without a chef behind us. After some Google searching, it was clear to me that I did not have the equipment needed to peel the thing into strips, so we improvised: we used a potato peeler. This was the messiest, sloppiest, most inefficient way I’ve ever seen anybody try to peel a vegetable, but, well, hunger prevailed over waiting until we could buy the proper peeler (apparently a kiwi peeler is the way to go?), so we went ahead with it. We didn’t have a mortar and pestle either, so we used a bowl and a rock from outside. Our cat, who is obsessed with food, actually ate the shavings that fell on the floor. (Embarrassingly, you can see him lapping up something in the bottom right-hand corner of this picture, which I didn’t notice until I downloaded it!).
After peeling and stripping the papaya as best we could, I next realized that I had literally no idea whatsoever what to do with the palm sugar. I’d remembered that our chef told us that we must, must, must have palm sugar or papaya salad wouldn’t be payaya salad, so I made sure to get a lump of it. After peeling it out of the packaging, though, I stared back at this hard, solid lump and didn’t remember exactly how to make it into a paste (I think our chef gave it to us already in paste form…?), so we chopped it into littler pieces and crushed it with wax paper and the sideways blade of a knife. It was, like the activity above, sloppy, messy, and kind of inefficient. I wished, desperately, that our chef from Sampran was with us–she was extraordinary with her mixing and so efficient with the swirls she made with the pestle. Why wasn’t there some sort of hotline for first-timers?
At this point, with all the unpredictably difficult parts out of the way, we added a mix of palm sugar paste, lime juice, fish sauce, dried shrimp, long beans, and tomatoes to the bowl of papaya shavings, garlic, and chili pepper. We rolled everything around until it looked just about right, sprinkled in some chopped-up peanuts, and let it sit so that the flavors could mingle and get soaked up by the moist papapa shavings.
The soup, I admit, was a bit easier. To make tom yum goong, all you need to do is dump some chicken stock, peeled shrimp, lemongrass, kaffir lime, and galanga strips into a big pot. We let it boil and then threw in the shrimp and straw mushrooms. At the very end, after the shrimp are pink, we mixed up a small bowl of black chili paste, fish sauce, soy sauce, and lime juice and added it to the soup. The soup became cloudy (which I remembered is a good thing!) and brown (also a good thing), so we let it cook for a few minutes and then scooped the soup into our bowls.
The end result?
Well…let’s put it this way. We loved the soup. It was, as it should be, a potent mixture of both fishy and lemony. The broth was cloudy and clear, and the black chili paste flavored the chicken stock beautifully. The shrimp were plump, pink, and chewy and had the faintest aftertaste of ginger (which I assume is due to the addition of the galanga root). And the level of spice was just right. Watching Ryan scoop up the soup spoonful after spoonful, I think our chef at the Sampran Riverside would have been proud of me.
Now, the papaya salad?
In a word? Disgusting. (Trust me–looks can be deceiving here).
Frankly, it was completely inedible. Totally gross. For one, it smelled like rotting fish. The papaya was soggy from sitting too long and the whole bottom of the bowl in which the salad sat was watery. The fish sauce and dried shrimp (which are more potent than I realized) completely overpowered the spice and the saltiness, and the peanuts did absolutely nothing to cut the fishiness. I tried adding some extra lime juice in last ditch effort, but, alas, my efforts were futile. Our papaya salad was a mushy pile of fish. Together, Ryan and I looked at each other, said a tiny goodbye, opened the lid to the trashcan, and dumped everything into it.
Lesson learned? Well, since I’ve got half a green papaya still sitting in the refrigerator and leftovers of all the other ingredients all over my kitchen, I might muster up the courage to try again, but for now, my palette for papaya salad needs a bit of a breather. My lesson learned, then, comes from the famous Van Gogh about a painting of his that turned out looking like a big blob on the canvas: “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?”
At least, for the time being, I’ve got an amazing new soup recipe!
If you’re interested in either of these recipes from the Sampran Riverside cooking class, send me an email and I’ll be happy to send them over to you.
A special thanks to Thai Airways and the Tourism Authority of Thailand for graciously sponsoring my trip to the Sampran Riverside.