At Thewet market, silvery fish are packed three or four to a bamboo steamer. On a slow morning, Blair and I trawled the stalls for ingredients to be used in a cooking class.
At 9:42 AM it’s unbearably hot and humid. Perspiration is trickling down my spine. A thin cotton blouse clings damply to my back.
Blair and I are in the back seat of a tuk-tuk. Up front, the genial driver casually rests one hand on the steering wheel of our motorized "rickshaw." Horns blare, exhaust fumes clog the air.
We lurch forward, but a taxi cuts in front of us. Engines rev on either side. A woman in an Army uniform and sturdy heels, riding sidesaddle behind her companion, straight skirt demurely pulled below her knees, blasts past us on a motor scooter.
Our driver smiles. This is Bangkok's world-famous traffic.
Our destination? Thewet produce market, a few minutes from The Siam Hotel, where Blair is executive chef. Our mission? Shopping, of course! We're buying some of the ingredients for a cooking class I’ll be taking later this morning.
At an intersection, the driver pulls over. We cross the street, navigating our way through the flow of cars, to the entrance of the covered market. Once inside, the pace slows….
We're shopping for ingredients for three dishes that I've asked to make: Som Tum, a popular Northern Thai green papaya salad; Gaeng Kiew Whan Goong, green curry with prawns, pea eggplant and coconut milk; and Kanom Gluay, a steamed banana and coconut pudding served in a banana leaf cup.
“This is where I get my herbs,” says Blair, as we stop at his favorite produce merchant's stall. “They’re really fresh and the flavor is great.” I’ve only been in Bangkok for 36 hours but I’m already discovering that real Thai cooking is distinguished by the delicate yet concentrated flavor of its ingredients.
The air around us is perfumed with gorgeous aromas of bright, peppery ka phrao, or Thai holy basil, and a softer, milder type of sweet basil. I also see bunches of mint, cilantro and tender lemon basil: Their mingled scents are intoxicating.
These Kaffir lime (or magrood) leaves (on the right) will infuse the green curry we're making with their intense, citrusy flavor. There's no substitute for their vibrant taste and aroma. The nubbly peel of the fruit brightens many a curry paste, though the juice is rarely used in cooking.
Galanga root, or kah, packs a powerful punch; often used in curry pastes, the thinly sliced rhizome also flavors seafood soups and salads. A ginger relative, it is hot and pungent, with a strong resinous aftertaste. (Gernot Katzer compares the flavor to fir or pine needles.)
Although I’ve often bought galanga at home, I’m surprised to discover that the tender root sold in Bangkok has a lighter, more playful flavor. No wonder Kasma Loha-Unchit, author of It Rains Fishes, describes it as a “magical ingredient,” one that “helps mask the fishiness of seafoods and the heaviness of red meats…making them taste cleaner, more delicate and more succulent.”
I never expected to find fresh green peppercorns at Thewet. This unripe fruit of the pepper vine is so perishable that it is usually sold freeze-dried or in brine, even in regions where it grows like a weed. (Riper fruit produces black or white peppercorns, depending on how the berries are dried and processed.) Green peppercorns have a fresh, hot, tongue-tingling taste.
Though we won’t be using them today, fresh peppercorns are sometimes used to season curries: In a recipe for Crispy Fried Catfish with Red Curry that appears in It Rains Fishes, half a cup of green peppercorns are stirred into the sauce, along with lime leaf and basil, when the cooking is nearly done. They're also used in pungent Jungle Curry.
The most widely used Thai chili is the incendiary prik kee noo, a tiny green or ripe red pepper sometimes known as the "mouse shit" chili. As Loha-Unchit explains: "Thai chillies are little guys much like mice, and they leave behind unseen evidence in the food they touch--but you definitely know they have been there!" (I think she's talking about their searing heat...)
Blair’s recipe for green curry paste calls for 20 of these green firebombs; they're a key seasoning in endless numbers of Thai dishes, including Som Tum, the shredded green papaya with dried shrimp, snake beans and roasted peanuts I'll be making later on. Three-flavor sauce, which can be eaten with almost anything, is made of chopped prik kee noo with lime juice and salty fish sauce.
Other Thai chilies include longer, fleshier green and red peppers with varying degrees of hotness...
...and large dried red chilies that give red curry its characteristic color.
These tiny pea eggplants, known as ma-keua puang, will go into our prawn and green curry dish. Like most eggplant, they are bitter to the taste, but when simmered in the curry, they become mellow, adding depth to the sauce. We’ll combine them with small round "apple" eggplants, pale green with white streaks, cut in halves or quarters.
I love these fan-shaped bunches of little bananas. They hold their shape even when cooked, so they’re perfect for frying or for sweet, syrupy desserts.
Oh, and here’s the dragon fruit I’ve been eating for breakfast. You’d never know that inside the tufted crimson peel, the flesh is white and speckled with tiny black seeds. It has a mild, refreshing taste.
Let’s not forget the grated coconut for Kanom Gluay, the steamed banana-coconut pudding.
But these gorgeous blue crabs will have to wait for another day...
Back to the tuk-tuk. It's time to cook!