Friday, May 4, 2012
I did not grow up with spicy food. I say "spicy food" as a matter of course, now, as Americans do. But where I come from we'd say, "hot food". As in, FIRE!
And I was in my twenties before I ate my first piece of sushi. It was a blind date, in Adams Morgan. Didn't take but I got hooked on the sushi. Unrelated, I know. I'm just trying to trace the Asian thing.
The deepest we got into Asian food at home in Bloemfontein was a very good lamb curry my mom made, Indian in origin, via Charmaine Solomon, and then also a (completely horrible, to me) hardboiled egg curry. On those days I was excused from grown up food and allowed to eat...wait for it...canned sardines. In tomato sauce. I know. Weird. Just the thought of those eggs was enough to make me reel with nausea. I tucked into my nice sardines, instead: At the table at half past noon, with tablecloth and napkins ("serviettes", since we're talking about language, then and now, there and here), in silver napkin rings, a jug of milk of the table. Milk.
But. I am forgetting the Chinese dinners. Charmaine Solomon, again. Elaborate, Western-style Chinese dinners, with tender sweet and sour carrots and crispy pork and fried rice. And blue bowls and chopsticks. And those multicoloured puffed up chips.
But not chiles. Or Chillies.
There was a Thai restaurant in Gardens in Cape Town, later, where I learned about Tom Yum soup, and cooking with lime leaves. And the Taiwanese place on the Grand Parade, where Bevan taught us to order off-menu, and where, once, some off-menu white mussels (clams, here) arrived in a broth of soy and just about explosive with dried, deep red chiles.
Have I forgotten anything? If it's chiles, there was that Turkish sausage Mustafa fed me, with rings of raw chile on a piece of hot ekmek, eaten standing in the kitchen at Anatoli, that blew my head off and had me begging for more. But it was the last sausage.
My SE Asian attraction really began here, in New York. I think its origin may have been East 7th Street, just off 1st Avenue, in the East Village. Phat Pong, a Thai place, a sweet waitress, a lime-sour and fiery papaya salad, the green kind. She would ask how I wanted it. Mild, medium or hot. On my third visit I think I asked for hot. That was a mistake. But I was hooked. And then I met Mimi, the serene Vietnamese-born architect. And learned about eating with forests of cilantro and mint on the table. And bowls of fish sauce for dipping things. And I grew to love, and even need, the songs of salt and sour and sweet and salty. And hot. Several horsepowers of chile. And I bought that beautiful book, Hot Sour Salty Sweet. And David Thompson's pink silk-bound Thai tome...
Now, it's a regular craving. And when things seem to be teetering on a physical brink of fatigue, especially, this particular salad is brought out like a delicious medicine. I am religious only in the sense that I believe in what we eat: good and bad. Food can fix us. I whip up this salad, showering it with shreds of raw ginger and scallions and lots of lime juice, fish sauce and little sugar. Sometimes, but not always, garlic. And fresh or dried chiles. There are always carrots, which are necessary for hard crunch and which pick up the dressing and hold onto it, blanched green beans, stinging scallions and unripe-ish mango. Green papaya if I have made the Chinatown pilgrimage. They are hard as rocks when properly unripe. Cilantro, mint too, and in summer, Thai basil, in handfuls from the terrace. Peanuts, if I have them.
We ate this with blackened chicken wings roasted in chopped cilantro stems and lime, and got sticky and perhaps even slurped a little as we sucked our fingers. And to thank Mimi and her Eric-ean counterpart, I'll make it all again for them on Saturday. The chicken wings are a keeper and I need critical guinea pigs for feedback...