Season to Taste: Back to the Pushcart
It’s 10 a.m. in Chiang Mai, time for my second breakfast of the day. I’m 8,000 miles away from home and, gastronomically speaking, at least a hemisphere’s distance from anything approximating bagels, lox or whitefish salad. It’s only been an hour and half since my last snack; so how can I already be feeling the inclination to chow down? Welcome to Thailand. If you think Jews are a food-focused people, try visiting a country whose standard greeting, “Have you eaten yet?” is eerily akin to your Bubbe’s mantra.
But unlike us chosen ones, who never saw a dining room table we didn’t like, most of the best eating in Thailand happens on the street. Everywhere you look, at practically any hour, people are seated or standing on sidewalks, slurping soup with noodles, eating artfully carved tropical fruit or feasting on whole, crispy carp stuffed with herbs.
This morning i’ve taken my moped to the vast covered market where the wares speak for themselves. Subtlety works its hard sell, and I emerge loaded down with flowers, incense, cashews, smoked fish, speckled dragonfruit, gilt-edged paper lanterns.
Meanwhile, the city has come to life. As mopeds streak by in a game of bait-and-weave, I see it, next to a row of fabric stores: a street cart devoted to Tom Sam (green papaya salad).
The stunningly fresh-looking ingredients are lined up in the cart’s spotless glass window. Smooth, sun-ripened tomatoes, tiny green eggplants cross-hatched with arty white squiggles, oddly spherical limes, squeaky foot-long green beans, mounds of shredded young green papaya.
The maitre d’ of this four- by six-foot eating establishment also happens to be the owner, executive chef, manager, cook, busboy and janitor. With limited Thai language skills, I began the pantomime that has always served me well: point to food, flash thumbs-up signal, smile, rub tummy.
He holds up three fingers, raising the wordless communication ante by a notch. “Three minutes?” I ask. He laughs good-naturedly, points to a waiting line of people and replies in surprisingly good English: “Three salads before you.” He fills the orders, spooning the salads into little plastic bags secured with rubber bands.
“How many peppers?” he asks. We negotiate from seven down to five, which is already pushing my capsicum capacity. After rinsing the wooden bowl with water and wiping it clean, he mashes chilies and garlic with a mortar and pestle, wraparound sunglasses shielding his eyes from the potentially blinding juice. Green beans are snapped into thirds and added along with the crunchy papaya. In goes lime juice, palm sugar, a dash of salt and nam pla (fish sauce), the brew of fermented anchovies used in lieu of soy sauce. Dried shrimp are omitted with a wave of the hand.
Out of nowhere a plastic plate and fork are procured; from underneath the stand a tiny stool materializes. I’m being invited to stay for lunch. The peanut- and mint sprig-garnished dish is handed to me.
The flavors pop inside my mouth. Acidic lime and juicy tomatoes are framed by the steadily growing flood of chili heat, but crispy green beans distract my tongue from the fire. The garlic is a welcome tang of the familiar, and briny nam pla brings everything into sharp relief—hot and cool, crunchy and soft and mildly sweet.
Rising, I wipe my hands with a thoughtfully provided square of toilet paper and pay my 20 baht (about 50 cents). As I move on to search for my next source of sustenance, it occurs to me that Jews and Thais have quite a bit in common. The food has made me feel at home—no need to show me to the door.
Thai Grapefruit Salad
(Yam Sam-O) Serves 4
Young green papaya can be difficult to find in winter months. In northern Thailand, grapefruit or pomelo are often used in a similar salad. Make it any time you want to bring a little Thai sunshine into the kitchen.
1 pound (about 3 cups) string beans, trimmed
7 large cloves garlic, peeled
3 to 6 Thai or serrano chilies, halved and seeded*
3 TB fish sauce (nam pla), or to taste**
3 TB fresh lime juice
1 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp brown sugar or palm sugar
3 ruby red grapefruits or 2 pomelos, peeled, pith removed, segmented and strained (about 2-1/2 cups)
3 roma or 2 vine-ripened tomatoes, cored and cut into eighths (about 1 cup)
Chopped, toasted peanuts and julienned white cabbage leaves for garnish
1. Fill a 2-quart saucepan with water, salt well and bring to a boil. Blanch string beans 1 minute, strain and shock in ice water. Strain again.
2. Place garlic and chilies in a mortar and pound with a pestle, or mince in a food processor, until well blended, about 1-2 minutes. Add fish sauce, lime juice, salt and sugar and pound an additional 15 seconds. Remove to a wooden salad bowl. Add the grapefruit, tomatoes, and string beans and toss lightly. Garnish with peanuts and cabbage leaves.
*Make certain to avoid touching your eyes when handling chilies.
**Available at better supermarkets and Asian markets. Make sure to look for fish sauce made only with anchovies and salt.
Season to Taste by Adeena Sussman will appear every other month.