Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My Taste of Thai

            It was around May or June in 2002 when I met Paul and Jutima Dallaghan in Mysore - they are yoga teachers who certify other yoga students as teachers and have studied under Pattabhi Jois, THE Ashtanga yoga guru based in Mysore who just passed away a few days ago. 

     They were conducting a month long program in Nov of that year and invited me to join as Manager / Liaison person / Nutritionist / Chef [Indian food]. That meant one month and a few days on Koh Samui, an exotic island off the eastern coast of Thailand. Well of course I jumped at the opportunity - looking back, it was a huge leap of faith at the time, but I trusted them and knew I could handle whatever the job required.

     So in October my mom and I took off for Bangkok where we spent 3 memorable days shopping and sight seeing and then flew to Koh Samui. She had a day's taste of the exotic island and then flew back home. The program was hosted by a medium scale beach front resort on the island.

     Handling my many responsibilities was a huge  challenge for me and I wouldn't say I was perfect in discharging my duties - but it was a huge learning experience for me - I did a variety of 
things : 

     I was a practice student for the teacher trainees and as a result, learnt the basics of Ashtanga yoga. I don't practice today - but I put on weight and developed muscles I never knew I had[my mom had given up hope as I looked to be scrawny for the rest of my life]. The yoga just left me with so much energy and feeling cleansed.

     I taught the kitchen staff how to make rasam and sambar [South Indian lentil soups]. Jutima was very specific about wanting these dishes made regularly as they are Saatvic [food that balances all the systems in the body according to Ayurveda].  So I spent time every day in the kitchen overseeing the whole process and adding the curry powders [which I carried with me from India]. I messed up so many times  but finally got the hang of it. I learnt a lot about quantity cooking from this experience. 

     Jutima asked me if we could serve chapatis for lunch one day and I remember hunting around the island for whole wheat flour. I finally found it at this bakery owned by a lovely lady named 'Oh' - I still have a picture of her - quite an entrepreneur. So, I made chapatis for everyone and considering there were 18 students plus us,  for the final week of the program, I spent 2 hours in the kitchen just making chapatis.  Training the staff [who didn't know more than 10 words of English] how to make them was so much fun with so many mistakes made and a lot of 'world maps' coming out of it, ultimately they learnt and were able to support me. 

     Towards the end of my stay there - I held a chapati making class for all the women in the group - well you know what happens when a bunch of women cook together - we have a lot of fun and we bond. I stayed in touch with them for a few years after we parted ways and even met several of them again when they visited India but we've lost touch now. I wonder how they all are. 

      I became friends with the entire cooking staff and learnt A LOT about Thai cooking and it's from this point I became a huge fan of Thai food. I love making red, green and yellow curry at home. My big regret is I don't get the original Thai ingredients like galangal, Thai basil, lemon grass, etc where I live. Tofu is available though and I use it as often as possible.

     I learnt the Thai names of many of the common ingredients there. I forgot to mention earlier that since it was a yoga camp - it needed to be completely saatvik vegetarian - impossible? No - all that it needed was to work constantly with the chefs and make sure they didn't even use seafood, egg and fish/oyster sauce [for some reason, they thought these were vegetarian]. So  "MAI NAAM PLAH" [no fish sauce]  is a big part of my Thai vocabulary.

     OK OK - I could go on and on about my experiences in Thailand [I promise to write more in subsequent posts] but for now - I'll leave you with my recipe for Massaman Curry.

Massaman Curry [a spicy Thai dish]

Well first of all, since I’m a vegetarian, there’s no meat in this recipe. So here goes,

For the curry paste:

10 dried red chillies
Rind of 1 lemon [grated, used as a substitute for lemon grass] or 1 stalk of lemon grass [edible portion]
2 medium sized onions – chopped
6 flakes of garlic                                            
4 tsp chopped ginger                                      
2 tbsp cumin seeds [jeera]                              
2 tsp saunf                                                     
2” stick cinnamon [dalchini]                            
seeds of 4 cardamoms                                    
4 cloves
8 peppercorns
4 tsp coriander seeds
¼ tsp grated nutmeg [jaiphal]

Method: Roast all the ingredients in a wok for 5 mins or till aromatic.Grind all the roasted ingredients together with 4 tbsp water. Can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for upto a week.

Ingredients for the curry:

200 g Tofu [soybean curd]- cubed
6 – 7 tbsp Masaman curry paste.                             
100 g babycorn                                                       
200 g broccoli florets                                              
100 g capsicum                                                       
100 g zucchini                                                        
3 tsp oil [preferably groundnut]                                
2 cup thick coconut milk                                        
1 tbsp chopped lemon grass or rind of 1 lemon                                    
2 tbsp Tamarind juice / lemon juice                       
1” cinnamon stick                                                    
1 medium sized onion – chopped                             
½ tsp turmeric [haldi] powder                                
50 g roasted peanuts – crushed                               
2 tbsp coriander leaves     
     Steam the vegetables for 8 mins. Heat the oil in a wok, add onions and the cinnamon. After 2 minutes, add masaman curry paste and turmeric powder. Cook for 2 mins then add the steamed veggies and cubed tofu and mix. Add coconut milk, chopped lemon grass [or lemon rind] and tamarind juice. Mix well, cover and cook for 10 mins. Switch off the flame and sprinkle the peanut powder on top. Garnish with coriander leaves.

     You can prepare this as a side dish along with plain steamed rice noodles or even serve with chapatis [fabulous]. Its goes well with rice too. The preparation takes an hour and cooking - 25 mins. I thought I wouldn’t be able to replicate the authentic Thai flavour until I found Nita Mehta’s vegetarian Thai cook book which has kind of become my bible for Thai cooking. My taste buds are singing nowadays.