There are few things that make me feel more at home than chaos in the kitchen. Having grown up in a large, boisterous family and hosted countless pot-luck dinners, I love the hubbub, companionship, and delicious meals that somehow miraculously result from the combined efforts of an excessive number of cooks working feverishly in a confined space. It’s one of the things I’ve missed most during the pandemic and was overjoyed to experience again on Friday.
My friend Kathryn organized the whole thing, and emails flew back and forth for weeks. My last to her said, “Rich is sharpening the knives!” It was only after hitting “send” that it struck me as sounding a bit ominous — the sort of sentence traditionally followed by, “We’re going to the mattresses!”
Luckily we were prepping for a very different kind of occasion: a Zoom course in making Pad Thai, the stir-fry noodle dish that’s a beloved staple of Thai cuisine. Kathryn, her husband Pete, Rich, and I were cooking at our house, while six other friends plus a handful of strangers around the country were joining in via Zoom, letting us all chat with each other as well as the chef.
Although there were only four of us physically present in my kitchen, we managed to make as much fuss and noise as a small army. I kept glancing down, vaguely surprised no dogs or small children had materialized underfoot. The chatter from our online classmates created a nice background buzz as we chopped and stirred and called out, “Where’s the fish sauce?” and “Who has my pandan leaves?”
The truly brilliant part of the Cuiline cooking courses is that they mail you all the hard-to find components, such as proper rice noodles, dried shrimp, and palm sugar, which are all pre-measured and shipped from a supplier here in the US. You then go to your local market for the ordinary ingredients, like fresh shrimp and bananas, and follow detailed written instructions with onscreen guidance from a professional chef in whatever country the dish hails from. (See link to Chef Rachel's recipes below.)
As I decanted the fish sauce into a mixing bowl, I wrinkled my nose at the fermented anchovy smell (the subject of many revolting comparisons such as wet dog, stinky feet, and zombies). Yes, truly a smell only its mother could love, but a dash does add a piquant depth to the dish, as do the crunchy, salty dried shrimp. I carefully refrained from describing to Kathryn and Pete how I’d once seen villagers drying that kind of shrimp in Vietnam. It was shortly after the rainy season, and dry land was in short supply, so each family threw down a tarp on the main street and spread out the catch of the day. You could just about maneuver a small car down the middle, but if you met an oncoming vehicle, somebody would have to swerve over and drive on the shrimp; I watched it happen, with something akin to horror. To this day, I can’t help feeling the crunchy chewiness of dried shrimp owes something to road grit and rubber tires.
This was not, I felt, a memory to share with Kathryn and Pete just before we all sat down to a dish laced with dried shrimp. Nor was it the moment for Rich’s “that time I ate bad shrimp in rural Mexico” story, which I felt sure he was working up to as Pete trimmed the tails off a pile of glistening raw crustaceans. I shot Rich that “don’t you dare” look all married couples perfect over the years.
Actually the story does have a happy ending. I’ll pass over the four days of active torment in the tiny rural hotel, during which Rich subsisted on Coca-Cola and crackers, and I reread the same paperback three times. Finally a concerned neighbor gave me the name of the doctor serving this remote, rural district and suggested it was time for Rich to get professional help. When I broached the subject, Rich sat bolt upright in bed, saying, with more animation than he’d shown in days, “NO! Absolutely not. I’m feeling lots better.” In minutes he was dressed, within hours he was walking around, and the next day we resumed our journey. Sometimes, a good scare is the best miracle cure.
Even without the bad-shrimp story, we had plenty to talk about. Rich and I had visited Thailand several times, most notably in 1992 when we took a long trek into the hinterlands. We began the trip at a modest Bangkok hotel full of cheap wood paneling and scruffy backpackers sprawled on sofas, then headed north. There we hiked through hill tribe villages, sleeping rough, if at all. One memorable night we laid out our sleeping bags on a bamboo porch, unaware that the village pigs and dogs would spend the next five hours waging an epic battle just underneath, vying for the privilege of bedding down a few inches below our bodies in what was apparently a particularly choice patch of dust.
Pretty soon our state of scruffiness made the hotel backpackers look as if they were spiffed up for the Ascot opening race. We spent long, hot, days hiking and only marginally cooler evenings in villages where, this being the dry season, water was scarce and little of it could be wasted on washing.
Eventually we wound up on a river in a rice barge, where we were invited to make use of the onboard shower.
When the propeller fell off our boat, we limped into a tiny, riverside village. As repairs proceeded at a leisurely pace, I treated myself to the luxury of having my hair washed and combed dry at the local salon.
Eventually we returned to Bangkok, entering our lodgings by a back door. “Wow, will you look at how fancy this place is?” I said to Rich, admiring the glossy paneling and roomy sofas. Then my perspective shifted, and I realized with a shock that it was the same downscale hotel we’d stayed in a week earlier. Only now it no longer seemed frumpy but luxurious, with clean sheets, hot showers, and no squabbling livestock within earshot.
It’s been some years since I traveled that rough, and I certainly don't miss the discomfort. But I do look forward, one day, to getting back on the road and discovering more of the world. Last Friday was a wonderful reminder that even if I can’t journey far and wide right now, I can join convivial companions in smaller, more domestic adventures. One of my favorite sayings is that life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful. Or, as the Thai people put it, อย่ายึดวันเพียงแค่จี้ท้อง meaning “Don’t seize the day, just tickle its belly.” I’m still pondering the profound significance of that saying, which is no doubt wise advice, especially when dealing with village dogs and pigs.
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