Before taking my Thai cooking class three weeks ago, I convinced myself that this time I would actually use the knowledge I learned in class unlike the other times I’ve taken cooking classes (and, you know, all those times I’ve taken language classes… and those viola lessons I took in high school… and that one time I took that workshop on how to make macrame pot-holders; yep, that was a bunch of knowledge never used!).
Last year when I took a cooking class in Bali, I pounded chilies with a pestle and wrapped ground pork on to bamboo skewers, all the while thinking, “Yeah right, when am I ever going to do this at home? Like I have a mortar and pestle just sitting around in my kitchen! And I’m pretty sure these bamboo skewers won’t fit into my microwave.” I went home, and discovered I did, in fact, have a mortar and pestle sitting in my kitchen (still not sure about the bamboo skewers in the microwave, though). But I never pounded another chili or attempted to make sate lili bali again.
It’s been three weeks since my cooking class, and the only recipe I have used from the class was the one for pad pak ruam, stir-fried vegetables with tofu. And, honestly, this hasn’t been a huge stretch for me… after all, I can’t say I’ve never stir-fried a vegetable before. Besides, my entire cooking philosophy has always been: “Turn on stove, put pan on stove, heat oil, add stuff, cook stuff, turn off stove, put stuff on plate, eat stuff.” (If I can avoid the “put stuff on plate” step and just eat directly from the pan, therefore avoiding any extra dishwashing, even better!). I’ve been meaning to try the other recipes that I picked up while in class, especially kaeng khiaw waan kai (green chicken curry), but it seemed to require a lot more work (and a lot more dishwashing!), then I was up for.
Frankly, in the past week or so, a lot of things have started to feel like a lot more work than I am up for; including, any form of grocery shopping, the hour long bike/bus commute into town, the endless killing of ants and man-sized spiders, the watering of plants, my daily negotiation with the well that keeps going dry, and cooking of any kind. Call it culture-shock or country-living-shock, but the rosy glow of my brand new Thai jungle adventure has been replaced by the rose-colored welts of insect bites (not to mention the glow of my skin which is slowly becoming radioactive due to my over-application of DEET). One evening last week, I couldn’t be bothered with the work involved in shopping or cooking, so I ended up eating a dinner of cold tofu and cookies. Yep, you know your sense of adventure has died when the bulk of your dinner’s nutritional content is coming from a package of Oreos.
The reason why everything has started to feel like a lot more work than adventure is the heat. In the past week, the temperature has been holding steady at one hundred degrees Fahrenheit (about thirty-eight degrees Celsius) every single day. In case you’re wondering, this just happens to be the boiling point of brain… specifically, my brain. While the early mornings have been breezy and balmy and the evenings cool and comfortable, pretty much any time between 10 AM and 7 PM has been torture… torture accompanied by the sound of my grey matter slowly sizzling in my skull.
Sure, I’ve lived through hot before: tropical Brazil and sticky summers in Japan (not to mention more than a few swampy Augusts in Washington, D.C… uggh!). But this time it’s different, and by “different” I mean “devoid of air conditioning.” I don’t even like air conditioning! I’m one of those weirdos that prefers fresh air to canned and cool air, even if the fresh air is about a hundred degrees. In Brazil, I never had an air conditioner. In Japan, I would only use my apartment air conditioner if I had guests; instead, I preferred to use a complicated system of electrical fans all pointed at my head combined with a wardrobe of tube tops.
When I lived in these countries, I usually spent the majority of my day in an air conditioned office and had the opportunity to escape to air conditioned shopping malls or movie cinemas or convenient stores should the system of fans and tube tops just not cut it. These days there is no air conditioned office or shopping mall or movie cinema, and the closest air conditioned convenient store is a very inconvenient hour-long bike and bus ride away. All I have are a couple fans pointed at my head (sadly, the tube tops did not make my packing list) and something called “Balancing Cool” body soap (which I do have to say is pretty awesome; it’s a mentholated soap that makes it feel kind of like air-conditioning in your shower!).
Given the extreme heat, I haven’t exactly felt like positioning myself above a sizzling wok and cooking up any new Thai culinary creations. I also haven’t exactly felt like buying any of the ingredients needed for these creations. After deciding that I really should try to cook green chicken curry, it took me a week to assemble the green curry paste, a carton of coconut milk and some round, Thai eggplants… but I still had to go to the local country market to buy the chicken… oh, the chicken (said with a liberal shaking of my fist at the sky).
The first and last time I attempted to buy chicken at the local market, I ended up spending twenty minutes sawing off the head and feet (accompanied by twenty minutes of screaming) and then another twenty minutes hacking the meat from the bone (accompanied by twenty minutes of whining). During the market tour of my cooking class, the teacher had asked the butcher at the city market for only the chicken breasts, and the butcher had gamely hacked off the head, feet and bony carcass (with no accompanied screaming and whining). I was pretty sure, with the right amount of miming and gesturing, I could get the chicken guy at my local country market to hack off the bird’s head and feet for me. But I was doubtful I could mime my way into getting him to cut off all the difficult, unrecognizable bits and just hand me the pink, easy bits.
Plus, I worried that asking for only the chicken breasts was a “city” thing to do. I’m sure if I sauntered up to the booth at my local country market and asked for only the easy bird parts, they’d laugh at me. After all, didn’t I know that the head and feet were the best parts?! The head is where all the flavor is! And who doesn’t want a nice chicken foot to chew on as an after-dinner treat?!
I kept on putting off the chicken purchase until the eggplants were on the brink of expiration. And, then I saw it, the answer to my prayers: pre-cut chicken fillets, all pink and easy and wrapped in plastic and styrofoam. So bad for the environment, but so good for my mental health!
I was at the Western-style grocery store in town when I spotted them in the refrigerated meat section. “Buy us,” they said, “We’ll make your life so much easier! No miming, hacking, screaming or whining required!” (Okay, so that could have been my stir-fried brain talking… but, still, I was definitely hearing voices). I contemplated the pros and cons of the purchase. First of all, it would take a walk through town to the bus station, then a very hot and crowded fifteen-minute bus ride, plus a bike ride in the scorching sun to get these chicken breasts from their refrigerated case at the grocery store to the refrigerator at the house. This didn’t seem very hygienic. Meanwhile, the country market only required about a ten-minute bike ride to my refrigerator. But there isn’t any kind of refrigeration at the country market; plus there isn’t any of that fancy plastic wrap on the chicken keeping all the flies off. This also seemed less than hygienic.
I stared at that pack of plastic-wrapped, pink chicken bits for ten minutes wondering what to do. And, then I felt it: my sense of adventure came back! After a week of being deadened by the heat, it was revived by the cool air coming off the refrigerated meat case. It whispered, “Do it, Sally. Buy that chicken! What’s the worst that could happen?! Salmonella? You spit on salmonella! So what if your green chicken curry turns you green?! This is an adventure!” (Okay, again, it’s totally likely that it was my broiled brain talking, but, there were voices and those voices were rooting for the pre-cut chicken). I popped the styrofoam container into my basket and headed to the check-out counter, hoping both the container of chicken and my sense of adventure would stay intact during the hour it would take me to get home.
Upon arriving home, I assembled the ingredients I would need to make the curry according to the instructions on the back of the curry packet; including the chicken, coconut milk, water and the eggplants. The recipe also called for kaffir lime leaves, sweet basil and chili to “season as needed.” I grabbed plenty of kaffir lime leaves and basil, but only two small fresh chilies as my palate has yet to acclimate itself to the spiciness of Thai cuisine (and, frankly, last week’s diet of cold tofu and Oreos hasn’t done much to remedy that).
After slicing up the chicken breast and quartering the eggplants, I started in on the chilies. As I don’t eat fresh chilies much and have never actually cooked with them, I wasn’t quite sure how to go about getting them ready for the curry. I remembered having read somewhere that it’s the seeds in the peppers that hold the spiciness, so I made sure to take most of them out. I also remembered having read somewhere that you should wear gloves while chopping chilies but I didn’t have any gloves and, besides, wearing gloves to chop up a few measly chilies seemed like a very safe “city” thing to do. I was on a Thai jungle adventure! This adventure girl didn’t need any gloves to make a little curry! Heck no!
After cooking everything up and preparing the rice, my green chicken curry came out looking a bit less appetizing than the one I made in class but smelled delicious. After serving it up (yes, I decided not to eat it directly from the wok, despite my dread of extra dishes to wash), I tasted my new Thai culinary creation… and that’s when I knew that my brain wasn’t the only major body organ that was going to be cooked. Turns out two measly little chilies can go a long way in a big huge wok full of green chicken curry. After one mouthful, my face had broken out in a sweat and I started to wonder what the boiling point of, say, small intestine might be…
But my internal organs weren’t the only ones feeling the burn. In minutes, my hands started feeling like I’d been playing catch with hot coals. My face and neck, which I had touched after chopping the chilies, also started to burn and broke out in a rash. I tried to gulp down the rest of my bowl of curry before my finger’s lost their function and all my organs gave way. After a cup of milk, my stomach and intestinal track were settled but my hands were still burning… and getting worse… much worse. In fact, I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised if my fingers had suddenly burst into flames. I tried washing my hands with soap and slathering them with lotion, but nothing seemed to help.
I ran to my computer where I gingerly typed “HELP!!! FINGERS BURNING!!! CHILI PEPPER?!?” into Google. Results included everything from rubbing your hands with onions to running your hands through your hair to soaking them in dishwashing liquid. I tried the hair thing and the dishwashing liquid thing and a number of other remedies including toothpaste, hand sanitizing gel and running around the room while waving my hands above my head and screaming, “It burns! It burns!”
After half an hour, an entire tube of hand sanitizing gel, half a tub of dishwashing liquid, my last bit of toothpaste (not to mention freaking out the cat with my run-around-the-room-shaking-and-screaming-routine), my hands finally stopped their burning. They were still red and tender and had curled up into angry little claws… claws I would have liberally shaken at the sky and at my sense of adventure for getting me into such a mess if only I had had the energy to do so…