Advancements in travel and communications have made our world far more accessible, and culinary experimentation has become easier as a consequence. Even so, it’s amazing how many flavorful foods have yet to be included in the conventions of American cooking. This mini series is meant to catalog the travels of my boyfriend Tom, and his unique understanding of Asian cuisine – one thing that certainly holds true to this style of cooking is the use of colorful ingredients. While it may seem laborious to prepare and process so many ingredients, the food is always packed with flavor – this Gaeng Panang Gai was a fantastic example of just that.
This dish is native to Thailand, where Tom lived for almost a year (the below photo is from his travels). Similar as with India (which you can read about in my last post from this series), he was captivated by Thailand’s wealth of resources:
“…the ingredients come from what is readily available, and the south of Thailand is blessed with year round access to unique, evocative plants, roots and vegetables that they pound together in a pestle and mortar, a process that takes hours, not to mention iron wrists, until it forms a smooth, blisteringly strong paste, which is mellowed out in the wok with the addition of coconut milk.”
An interesting fact about Thailand, there are only three seasons: hot, cool, and rainy. Local Buddhist monks measure their regional tenure by rainy seasons as opposed to years spent in said area. On the other hand, there are FIVE basic attributes to Thai cuisine: sweet, spicy, sour, bitter and salty. A pretty remarkable shift from Western traditions. And did I mention how much they love rice? Thailand currently stands as the world’s largest exporter – no wonder they make so many curries!
The one thing I love about Asian cuisine is the color – bright reds, rich golds, luscious greens – when plated on white dish, the contrast is stunning. Watching Tom prepare this, I learned that it’s worth taking your time to get everything in place before running with it – that way you can act quickly once the “heat is on”. The paste is quite simple, and is the central element of this recipe. A food processor or blender is necessary, but you can mash it to a paste with a pestle and mortar if all else fails (and it would be an excellent forearm workout!) You can serve with or without rice, but you’ll definitely want something to sop up all of that delicious sauce – click HERE to see the recipe.
The amount of flavor you experience in a single bite sets this dish apart – it’s practically a “treatise” on the qualities of Thai cuisine. You have your fundamental ingredients, to which a variety of components are added in support. This led me to consider Samuel Barber’s First Essay for Orchestra, Op. 12. The work is built upon a musical “thesis”, where the proceeding ideas and harmonies are all played out accordingly – similar to the structure of a written essay. The work was composed in 1938 for conductor Arturo Toscanini. Barber met the renowned Toscanini in the late 1930’s, who was quite taken with the composer’s music. The work was commissioned and premiered by Toscanini with the NBC Symphony Orchestra – Barber’s Adagio for Strings (arguably his most well-known composition) was performed for the first time on this very concert. The other thing that led me to consider this work was the chef himself – Tom is a very strong writer, and takes a good deal of pride on an “essay” well done (okay, so this connection may be a little kooky, but I’m fully aware of my writing eccentricities!) Anyways, this pairing both compliments and supports this delicious meal, and is a beautiful work – it may be only 8 minutes in length, but it is filled with musical color and passion. Enjoy!