by Abellio

Milan, 5 September 2016

So my wife and I have finally left Thailand, after having spent two years there – we lifted off one last time from Bangkok international airport six days ago.

What memories of things typically Thai do I take with me?

Well, there’s tamarind.

Readers may find that a little odd, but tamarind is actually a very common ingredient in Thai cuisine. In fact, it was animatedly discussed at the goodbye party my staff gave me. It’s a fruit I had never actually come across until I arrived in Thailand. I had heard of it, but it existed as an exotica on the far periphery of my knowledge, rather like those strange beings which Medieval Europeans imagined lived on the far edges of the world.
I was introduced to tamarind by the kind lady who brought me my morning coffee in the office. She was in the habit of also bringing me any of the fruits which Thai colleagues had brought in for sharing. I was conversant with the other fruits she served with my coffee, but this large pod-like thing had me stumped.
I had to go down the hall to ask colleagues explanations of what it was and how to eat it (split open the brittle shell, extract the pasty fruit from its stringy support and eat, making sure not to crack your teeth on the small, very hard seeds buried inside the sticky pulp).
Thai cooks will extract the pasty fruit and use it as an ingredient in many of their dishes. I mention only two here, Pad Thai and Kaeng Som.

As probably every foreigner knows, since every foreigner coming to Thailand seems to eat it, Pad Thai is at base a dish of rice noodles, these having then been stir-fried with a whole bunch of things: shrimp, both fresh and dried (other meats are used but it’s not very Thai), shrimp paste in oil, soybean sprouts, firm tofu, chopped peanuts, scrambled egg, sliced shallots, sliced Chinese chives, sliced preserved radishes, minced garlic, sliced chilies, and I don’t know what else. What foreigners probably don’t know, because it’s not obvious in the final dish placed before them, is that a tamarind-based sauce has also been added to the mix during the stir-fry. This sauce is a blend of sour-sweet tamarind paste, salty fish sauce, spicy chili sauce, and sweet palm sugar; the particular balance to strike between these four tastes gives rise to much passionate debate in the Thai recipe world.

My wife was particularly fond of Pad Thai, but it is as popular with Thais as it is with foreigners. In our wanderings around Bangkok, we discovered a Pad Thai joint a little south of the Golden Mount, where the people patiently waiting in the long lines outside (which we quickly joined) were primarily Thai.

Pad Thai may seem very typically Thai, but actually in its present form it is quite a recent dish, having been invented only in the 1930s as a move by the-then military dictator to promote Thai nationalism. I suspect that Kaeng Som has a much longer culinary pedigree, since it has speciated, with every region of Thailand having its own variant. The variant I describe here is from Central Thailand, this being dominant in Bangkok. It seems that every street food stall sells Kaeng Som, although cognoscenti mutter that this is rat’s piss (my words) compared to the Real Thing. I wouldn’t know; I avoided street food stalls like the plague, desirous of avoiding seriously upset stomachs and consequent absences from work.

Kaeng Som is really a curry base to which you then add other ingredients. You will first grind and pound together, preferably in a stone mortar, chilies, salt, shrimp paste, sliced shallots, and meat of a freshwater fish stripped off the bones, until you have a smooth paste. You will add this to a simmering fish stock (preferably made with the remains of the fish), followed by tamarind paste, fish sauce, and palm sugar. Once again, the sour-salt-spicy-sweet tastes have been brought together, and you will fuss around at this point trying to get the “right” balance.

Now you are ready to add the remaining ingredients. Vegetables dominate, and it seems that Kaeng Som will marry well with a large number of different vegetables. I report, in no particular order, the suggestions given in the blog of Thai cuisine SheSimmers: morning glory, water mimosa, summer squash, cauliflower, green beans, daikon, Napa cabbage, green papaya, chayote, and watermelon rinds. This last interests me greatly, since I have always wondered, as I have thrown away the rinds after a good watermelon binge, what if anything could be done with them in the kitchen. I now have an answer. The same blog warns against the use of certain other vegetables: eggplants, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, starchy root vegetables, and green leafy vegetables such as collard greens. Vegetables as an added ingredient seem quite enough, but if you want you can also add shrimps or pieces of fish.
At this point, I have to confess to one major unpleasant memory I bring back from Thailand, and that is the (super-)abundant use of chilies in Thai cuisine. As I have reported elsewhere, I very much dislike chili and its ‘hot’ spicy cousins. This has been a major difficulty for me in eating – and enjoying – these or any other Thai dishes. I have also reported elsewhere how I made another popular Thai dish, Tom Yum soup, without chili and found that for me at least it worked perfectly well. If I can find a source of tamarind paste in Milan, I can try making Kaeng Som without the chilies and see what it’s like.

My dislike of hot spices also cuts me off from properly enjoying the use of tamarind in Indian cuisine. The use of tamarind is very popular in India, where the tree is widespread. Unfortunately, every Indian recipe using tamarind also seems to use chilies or something equally spicy. So I guess I will have to make do with Lea & Perrins’s Worcestershire sauce, a small bottle of which graces the condiments section in our kitchen in Milan; as every aficionado of L&P sauce knows, it contains tamarind extract.
Legend also has it that this sauce has its roots in India. It is said that Messrs Lea and Perrins, pharmacists in Worcester, created their sauce back in the 1830s on the basis of a recipe brought back from Bengal by a certain Lord Sandys, a nobleman of the county. Although I suspect that this story is a bunch of bull, I’m quite happy to believe it, because it allows me to pretend that I am enjoying an Indian sauce, suitably adapted to English tastes, in particular with the use of chilies eliminated. This is yet more support for my argument that chilies are simply not necessary in cooking.

I think I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. I really should spearhead a movement to eliminate chili and its evil cousins from the kitchen. Now that I’m retired and have time on my hands, this is my chance to walk the talk. Chili growers beware!

Monpods and others: https://sfcdt.wordpress.com/2010/08/page/2/
Unshelled tamarind: http://nutritiousfoods.blogspot.it/2014/10/why-dr-mantena-satyanarayana-raju-says.html
Shelled tamarind: http://lxia.dvrlists.com/tamarind/
Pad Thai: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pad_Thai
Pad Thai restaurant: https://ohmyfoodcoma.wordpress.com/2015/05/31/legendary-pad-thai-at-bangkoks-thip-samai/
Kaeng Som: http://shesimmers.com/2011/06/thai-sour-curry-kaeng-som-แกงส้ม.html
Lea & Perrins sauce: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lea_%26_Perrins