My first day back in Thailand (overview post HERE), my friends Ellie and Paul and I took a short walk out the door of the Royal River Hotel and down the lane to a small cafe recommended by Friends of Thailand leader and dear pal Carolyn Nickels-Cox. It’s an open-air place with six or eight tables, turquoise-blue walls, and a beverage-making set-up with the fixings for fruit smoothies, sodas, lemonade, and an espresso machine. We ordered three dishes with rice, and each of them was fantastic. Except for the espresso machine and a few electronic devices, we could have been Peace Corps volunteers taking a lunch break back in 1977. Recipes will follow down the road, but for today, just feast your eyes.
I love tom yum, one of Thailand’s simple, brilliant soups. I must have enjoyed it a dozen times during my short journey, and I could never get tired of it. Lemongrass and galanga, wild lime leaves, fresh chilies, roasted chili paste (nahm prik pao), fish sauce, and a squeeze of lime juice — a line up of sharp, bright flavors, essentially Thai. This tom yum featured shrimp, fresh straw mushrooms, green onions and cilantro leaves. Here it’s often served as a Western-style first course, sans rice, but in Thailand it comes to the table as one of the ‘with-rice’ dishes: Perfection.
I had been longing for this dish, moo paht bai graprao, pork stir-fried with holy basil. In the West it’s very seldom made with ‘bai graprao’, or holy basil, as that herb is delicate and not widely available. Asian basil (bai horapah) is usually substituted and while it’s delicious, nothing tastes as marvelous as holy basil. Upcountry it’s usually made with hand-chopped meat, but even with sliced pork, it was so very good.
Nobody has to be persuaded to “Eat Your Vegetables!” when the vegetables come to the table from a Thai kitchen. This is pahk boong fai daeng, water spinach stir-fried with garlic. This hollow-stemmed vegetable is beloved throughout Asia. The Taiwanese name is kong shing tsai, which can be translated as ’empty heart’, referring to the hollow stems of each delicate stalk.
These three dishes with lots of rice made us all so happy and satisfied. Some things in Thailand have changed, and many have remained the same. I took this photo of my personal serving of tom yum in order to show you the fresh straw mushrooms, cut in half and imbued with the tart fiery deliciousness of this soup. Just an ordinary little lunch, with good friends, at the local joint around the corner, back in Thailand. So delicious.