I have eaten wonderful Southern food in Nakhon Si Thammerat before, at the home of an old friend. Once a year, her home fills with nine brothers and sisters and their many offspring, and together the huge family eats and eats—seemingly without pause—for nearly a week. I flew down to visit them during the Buddhist New Year and watched the family butcher a 200-pound pig and conjure its many parts into crispy bits, braises, curries, stir-fries, and soups. Then we ate. Afterwards, I headed off to a restaurant owned by my friend's extended family, 15 miles up the road in little town called Sichon.
I didn't know what was in store—the Southern Thai dialect is fleet and monotone, and my own Thai is rather like molasses—but the mission was clear. I wanted to demystify this food by working in a restaurant kitchen.
And that led me to a carrot. You see in Thailand, children carve fruit and vegetables in school like Americans play kickball. It's a national pastime. And for Thais, carving garnishes is probably a good place to start. This was my first task in the Koton Restaurant. The staff laughed as I fumbled with the carrot and a dull blade, peeling off wan strips. It was embarrassing.
But as the day progressed I started to run orders, to chop cucumbers and plate herbs, and to understand the flow of the kitchen. All the orders went through two cool-tempered cooks. One handled steaming and frying, the other soups, curries, and stir-fries. Two other women prepped everything that would go into the woks—crisp pork, kale, oyster sauce, herbs, whatever. As the restaurant filled for lunch, this un-air-conditioned kitchen kept its composure. There wasn't an ounce of the bravado and hostility that have come to define restaurant kitchens in our reality TV age. Women smiled and cooked swiftly, and child waiters nodded silently.
After work, I slept in at the owner's home in Sichon. Outside my bedroom, there was a shrine to Koton, the Chinese man who immigrated to Thailand and started the restaurant over 60 years ago (it's named after him). Koton came from the island of Hainan to Bangkok by boat, said his grandson Pong, "And after heading south, the little chicken and pork rice restaurant he opened grew into one of the bigger restaurants in Sichon. Of course, we had to cook Southern food too. Now we're known for both." Pong was being modest—it's the biggest and probably the best restaurant in town. And from nearly every room in the family's home, you can still see the floor of their first restaurant (they have two). So can the sepia gaze of their grandfather.
In the morning, we would wake and head to Sichon's morning market around 5:00 am. As the dawn broke over crooked coconut trees and concrete shophouses, the market was animated but quiet, as Thai markets are. Pong's mother and sister would stock up on the goods for the day—curry pastes, white snapper and sea bass, squid, prawns, pork, chickens, and greens. Pong and I would sit, drinking coffee and eating Chinese donuts. Then, the kitchen would spring to life at 7:00 am.