Lime: the classic flavor of Thai food that I miss the most. A fresh squeeze of lime is just the right touch to add a jolt of electricity to any bite of a Thai dish. I have memories of shopping in outdoor markets in Bangkok where aunties tending to the vegetable stalls would weigh all our produce on an analogue scale, needle quivering back and forth with every fruit added to our basket. At food stalls where we ate our noodles perched atop cheap plastic stools that blocked entire sidewalks, there were endless lime wedges that diners could sprinkle over their guay tiaow or nam ngiaow to their taste buds’ desire. Even my dad's refrigerator in rural Wisconsin is always fully stocked with limes, sometimes as many as a dozen little green citrus fruits stuffed into those bottom produce crisper drawers at a time.
It was no surprise that coming to college in the United States meant that my food was going to be extremely lacking in distinctly Thai flavors, especially lime. The saltiness of fish sauce, the sweetness of palm sugar, and the instant spiciness of Thai chilies—all of those familiar flavors of home were hard to come by. Even on days when I was lucky enough that an Asian-inspired dish (of sorts) was being served at the dining hall, rarely would it taste like anything more than grocery store Teriyaki sauce. I know that all students have their complaints about dining hall food at one point or another, but when you get to eat dishes that you ate at home, I don't feel very sympathetic.
I feel like Asian Americans were even more unlucky than me, having to grow up eating unfamiliar food at school throughout their entire education, not just in college. Even if they were able to bring home-cooked food to school, I can only imagine the looks or comments they may have gotten. We see it happen in an episode of the comedy series Fresh Off The Boat, where the main character, Eddie, gets teased at school over a meal his Taiwanese mother packed. Even when I am simply describing the food that I eat at home, I sometimes sense disgust in people's reactions as I list ingredients unheard of in Western cuisine. How can it not be hurtful when something so important, even intimate, as the food you eat at home with your family is seen as strange or even repulsive?
"But I love pad Thai!" you must be thinking. I would say during most of my first interactions with people I've just met, their love of pad Thai (specifically pad Thai) is brought up at some point after they find out that I am Thai. The fact that it is only pad Thai that is mentioned makes me realize that my entire country's cuisine—a cuisine full of curries, soups, stir fries, and salads—is being boiled down to this single dish. Needless to say, there is so much more to my cuisine, and thus, my culture and my own life, that can only be discovered if you dig deeper than just the first page of a Thai restaurant's menu.
Here in Boston, Thai food is not hard to come by. For such a small country, Thailand’s food is quite popular in metropolitan areas of the United States, so much that it can be found in practically every neighborhood of Boston. Honestly, I could eat Thai food every day without even coming close to a wok. So if it isn't the accessibility of Thai food that is the issue, why did it take me until I moved into my own apartment to finally start learning the basics of cooking it?
It's partly because I wanted to make tom yum soup the way my dad made it, which I had never learned because he was the dictator of his own kitchen, cooking every part of our meals as his way of unwinding after a full day of work. Some days he would even go as far as to try to replicate certain dishes that can only be acquired at street stalls: boiled chicken and ginger rice, som tum papaya salad and sticky rice, and even red barbecue pork, which takes all afternoon to broil in the oven. That’s another reason why I never learned how to make some of my favorite dishes—cheap street food was always easily accessible. So in order to make most of my favorite dishes, I found myself browsing the aisles of the Chinatown grocery stores, stocking up on imported jasmine rice, green and red curry pastes, and cans of bamboo shoots. Even just the thought of having a pantry fully stocked with Thai ingredients makes me excited to get home and make dinner.
It's only been a few months of living with access to a full kitchen and I can say with certainty that I love to cook. I love it because I feel like I can taste the ingredients better if I am the one putting it in my own dishes. I can understand what creates the perfect balance of the spiciness, sourness, sweetness, and saltiness myself. And although I am far from being a skilled chef, my confidence in cooking is growing and my pangs of homesickness are finally being quelled.
Recipe for Green Curry Fried Rice
2 cups of cooked rice
½ a cup of canned coconut milk
1 large chicken breast, chopped
1-2 tablespoons of green curry paste, depending on how well you can handle spiciness. Recommended brand: Maesri
1-2 tablespoons of fish sauce to taste
A handful of fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil or coconut oil
*Please note that these amounts are rough estimates. Thais rarely follow a recipe!
Simmer oil and green curry paste over medium high heat in a large wok. Add coconut milk and stir until mixed.
Allow mixture to simmer for a few minutes and then add chicken. Cook thoroughly until chicken is no longer pink. Stir in the fish sauce.
Add rice to the wok and stir until the rice is completely covered in the green curry mixture.
Turn off the heat and briefly stir in the handful of basil. Served topped with basil garnish.