Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thai "Penicillin"


Yaksha demon protector, guarding a gold leaf-covered stupa from bad spirits at Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok (Temple of the Emerald Buddha)

Over the weekend I was attacked by the crud, and had mucus flowing from my body by the gallon, during almost non-stop sneezing spells, with slight chills, scratchy throat, and an annoyingly persistent cough. I work at the University, so I’m constantly surrounded by 49,000 students, who are well-known vectors for infectious diseases. I’m convinced that one of their sickly ilk touched a doorknob I later touched, or coughed upwind of me at some point. At any rate, I felt none-too-swift and spent too much of my precious weekend time under the covers. The whole time I was in my snotty cocoon, all I could think about was an aromatic, steaming bowl of tom yum gai from Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine. S-P10 on the menu is hot and sour (and spicy) chicken soup; it’s the Thai culinary equivalent to Jewish penicillin.

Tom yum gai, with brown jasmine rice, at Sap's (and sensibly served!)

How to NOT serve Tom Yum - Thais don't typically eat scalding-hot food, the heat overcooks the ingredients, and I don't want to smell Sterno with my food

Tom yum (or it can also be said tom yam) is a clear, spicy, and sour soup that is served in Thailand and Laos (and Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore, as well). We used to cook huge batches of it at the Café, and sold out every time we made it. The name of the soup comes from an amalgam of two Tai words, tom, which refers to boiling a liquid, and yum or yam, which refers to a Lao and Isaan spicy, sour salad. Assemble the two words and you get a hot and sour soup, aromatic from the addition of fragrant herbs, which include cilantro, Thai or holy basil, Thai lime leaf, lemongrass, and galangal. The citrusy sour comes from lime juice, the salty umami bomb is delivered with the Thai fish sauce, and the heat comes from dried Thai red chiles. Shallot adds that sweet oniony flavor, and the mushroom slices are a soft, chewy texture to balance the denser chicken meat. It all swims in a broth of rich chicken stock; a perfect foil for the common cold and guaranteed to open up blocked sinuses and soothe a sore throat. You can get it with shrimp, or mixed seafood, or even with tofu, but I was jonesing for the chicken version. It comes with rice, and lately I’ve been hooked on Sap’s brown jasmine rice. It has a nutty aromatic flavor that is far superior to the white, polished version (and it's much healthier).

Fried tofu

I started the meal with an order of fried tofu (S-A11), which comes with a honey-sweetened and chile-laced sauce that’s balanced with some lime. It’s sweet and sour, spicy, herb-infused, and texturized with minced roasted peanut. The sauce is a perfect match with the golden brown, fried pillows of bean curd. Tofu was invented in China around 164 BC, supposedly by Lord Liu An (179–122 BC), although culinary historians are starting to believe it was developed much earlier. It first spread into Korea and then into Japan in the 8th Century, and then into Southeast Asia in the 10th Century, after being introduced by fishermen and boat traders from Fujian province. The accepted theory is that the popularity of tofu migrated along with the spread of vegetarian Buddhism, since the two go so well together.

Whoever took it to Thailand deserves a gold star, because the Thais really know how to make that oppressively bland (but healthy) ingredient delicious. I’ve been hooked on this dish since the 70s when I used to order it at a second story Thai restaurant called Chopsticks, which used to be on Airport Boulevard at Pampa Drive, just east of Guadalupe. It was owned by a retired Air Force guy and his Thai wife, and although they were forced to also have Chinese dishes on the menu, it was all about the Thai food. Unless I’m mistaken, it was Austin’s first Thai restaurant.

Satay vendor, Dutch Indies, back in the day (from Google Images)

Satay gai vendor's daughter, seafood noodle restaurant, Ban Phe, SE Thailand

Satay so good we ordered another round.....

Also joining my meal was an order of satay moo (S-A7), an especially fantastic version of the Malay-influenced Southern Thai dish of spice and coconut milk-marinated pork skewers served with a curried peanut sauce, ajat (pickled cucumber and shallot), and toast points. Moo in Thai indicates pork, but you can get it made with tofu, beef, chicken, or shrimp. In Thailand, satay vendors are found on the street or in food courts, but they are also situated next to many open air restaurants. The satay vendor works in collusion with a restaurant, while operating next to the outdoor seating area, using their own grill. The waiter handles the transaction seamlessly, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think the satay came from the restaurant’s own kitchen. My guess is that the vendor pays the restaurant a generous tax to operate there, since it effectively reduces the food that the restaurant could potentially sell.

Satay at Yaeng Diew (Single Rubber Tree Restaurant), on the Pasak River, near Bang Pa-In, Central Thailand

Grilled fresh water prawns at Yaeng Diew, the dish they made them famous all over Thailand....note limpid pools of molten head fat

Satay is a dish of confusing origin, with some experts claiming it originated in Java and Indonesia, as an adaptation of the Indian kebab brought to Indonesia by the seafaring Muslim traders (the kebab having come to India from the Spice Route trade with Muslim traders from Southwest Asia and the Middle East). The name satay is said to have come from Indonesian sate and the Malaysian saté or satai. Others think the name had Tamil origins, since the dish didn’t really become popular in the Dutch East Indies until after the arrival of Muslim Tamil Indian and Arab immigrants in the early 1800s. The meats preferred by Indonesians and Malaysians are the same mutton and beef which the Arabs prefer. Another, less-popular theory has the dish being introduced by Chinese traders, who preferred the use of pork and chicken.

Pork satay at Sap's....excellent

As the theory goes, the dish migrated through the Malay Archipelago, and by the mid-1800s had crossed the Strait of Malacca into Malaysia, Singapore, and Southern Thailand. As it entered each new culinary region, the spices used in the marinade and the sauce morphed slightly, while the meats used were based on availability and religious preference. Eventually it ended up in Bangkok, with Sap learning how to cook it, which eventually led me to order it and savor every tiny morsel.

A proper set of tableware, at Sap's

Allow me a rant on the side about something that’s really starting to piss me off. As I sipped my water and unrolled my tableware, it occurred to me how practical the Thais are when they dine, preferring that superior universal eating tool, the spoon. Oddly, they like to use one of the most inefficient tools for eating noodles, but the Chinese introduced both pasta and chopsticks to Thailand, so I forgive the Thais this minor error.  An alarming restaurant trend over the last few years has been the elimination of the spoon from the restaurant set-up, providing instead, the fork and the knife. Now, every time I eat at a restaurant that is not a Thai restaurant, I have to ask for a spoon. This trend makes no sense whatsoever. I cannot eat gravy with a fork or a knife. I can eat peas or beans or mashed potatoes with a fork, but it’s so much more efficient and tidy  to eat them with a spoon. I can’t remember the last time I used a knife to eat anything. I’ll go out on a limb and say that if I NEED a knife to eat my meal, unless it is a steak or a sausage, the restaurant probably cooked it wrong, or they purchased tough, low quality product.

It’s not that I recommend a big influx of sick people to all of a sudden rush to Sap’s for a bowl of spicy soup, but I can tell you that when I pushed away from that table, I felt 100% better. And although I was probably already on the mend by then anyway, after that bowl of wonderful, delicious tom yum gai, my cold was gone in a day. Thai penicillin indeed.

Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine
4514 Westgate Blvd, 512/899-8525
5800 Burnet Rd, 512/419-7244

Mick Vann ©


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