21 August, 2015

From Market to Mat


Michelle McNamara is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She graduated from Villanova University in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication. After graduating, Michelle taught 4th and 5th grade through Teach For America in New Orleans, Louisiana. Outside of the classroom, Michelle plays beach volleyball, enjoys running, and cooks all possible Thai dishes imaginable. She is currently teaching at Choom Chon Ban Fon Wittaya outside of Lampang.

“Yenee tam arrai?” My favorite vegetable saleswoman said, asking me what I planned to cook that evening. I arrived at the market around my usual time at 5:30 PM. Sometimes, this is too late as popular food items, such as cilantro and mint are already sold out. But I view this as a creative challenge and end up making substitutions like ginger for chilies, cucumber for papaya, or pork for chicken.

My favorite market stand and vendor.

The Ban Fon market is large. One corner is dedicated to live fish swimming in buckets and another corner looks like a free pig-anatomy class. In the outdoor section there appears to be an elaborate game of “Can you tell the differences between eight types of rice?” I cannot.

 Various types of rice at the market. 

Each section is manned, or I should say wo-maned because women make up the majority of shopkeepers, by vendors who without fail, ask me what I’m making each night. Usually my response earns a “Gaeng mak!” or “Very good!” as I hope I’ve been correctly translating in my head for the past ten months…

But today, when I stood in front of my veggie lady, I was a little hesitant to announce my intended dish. I received some raised eyebrows from fellow teachers at my school when I mentioned my culinary quest to make Khao Soi, a curry noodle dish local to Northern Thailand that involves many ingredients, a roasted curry paste, and deep fried noodles. It was also a Tuesday, meaning my weekly “Eat Food and Speak English” dinner club members would be sampling this dish. That was intimidating.

My two neighbors, Riam and Dee, at our weekly Tuesday night English Language dinner.

“Tam Khao Soi?” I said uncertainly. I watched the whispers pass down the row. News, any news, seems to spread very quickly in small communities and it was interesting to watch the whispers pass from mouth to ear. As it turned out, this instantaneous spreading of knowledge made my market trip much easier than usual. My vegetable salesfriend quickly gathered the Khao Soi ingredients, seven vegetables and spices whose names I hadn’t yet committed to memory in Thai, that she could provide and pointed me to my next stop, egg noodles. I bounced from egg noodles (And my discovery that the market had a refrigeration section!) to the woman who specialized in pickled Chinese cabbage (she received the most points in her direction meaning her cabbage was probably the most delicious) to the chicken stand. A couple weeks before this trip, the saleswoman at this stand breached our language barrier by grabbing her chest to teach me the word for “chicken breast.” The market is a classroom unlike any other. 

I traveled home with my ingredients, my grocery sack full of turmeric, garlic, cilantro, dried chilies, ginger, chicken, egg noodles, pickled Chinese cabbage, limes, shallots, and coconut milk.

Me with my motor and pestle, a necessary tool for making curry paste!

I smashed the garlic with a wedge knife and peeled the turmeric with a tiny knife. I grabbed the chilies between my index finger and thumb to prepare them for chopping. I itched somewhere near my eyes. 

Regret. My face burns like the heat of 1,000 suns. 

I roasted all the curry paste ingredients in aluminum foil while preparing the deep fry noodles. My face also roasted. I temporarily hate chilies. 

In another pan, I battled against the heat sensor of my induction cooker. 

The oil got hot, yay! Noodles fried, oil splashed. The induction cooker overheated and switched itself off. I turned the cooker back on. The oil got hot, yay! The induction cooker overheated and switched off again. I groaned.

Following a combination of the various online recipes, I added curry paste, coconut milk and chicken stock to the wok one by one. I boiled egg noodles al dente. I dried some of the oil from the crispy noodles, still hot from deep frying. I placed the plate of Chinese cabbage, lime quarters, and sliced shallots on my yoga mat, or on Tuesday nights, the makeshift dinner table.

The finished product!

When my diners arrived, I assembled the dish. “Hey, it looks good at least?” I thought to myself. I served them their bowls and then like a totally calm, relaxed, and collected chef…I stared at their faces without blinking and waited for a sign of disgust. It never came.

Arroi” my neighbor said, giving me her verdict. 
“Hey this is English language night!” I replied. 
“Delicious!” she uttered, taking another bite.

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