Spicy, Fishy, Sour: Cooking in Southern Thailand
To view a slide show of images from Southern Thailand, click here.
I want to serve a mix of regional Thai dishes in the bar and restaurant that I'll open this year in Bangkok, and that requires some very enjoyable research—in the form of eating, traveling, and cooking. Recently I headed to the south of Thailand to do just that, which led me to a province called Nakhon Si Thammerat.
I should start by saying that the Southern Thai palate is tuned to a different scale than my own. The notes that Southern Thai cooks hit can seem shrill and discordant, sort of like a drunk on a saxophone. This food is gasp-for-air spicy, it's fishy-funky, and the foil to that spicy-fishy funk is usually a bitter punch in the kisser. A slap of sour might follow. There's nothing subtle about this noise.
While authentic Southern cooking is fierce, it can also be measured and delicious. It's a resourceful and varied cuisine that makes use of herbs; young and sour fruits; the astringent leaves of cashew, tamarind, and citrus trees; flowers; lots of fresh turmeric; and other foraged and farmed products from a ribbon of land where fruit falls to the ground and fish regularly appear in pools of standing water. The local markets are fascinating, the countryside flush with food.
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.
And that's where things got interesting. We de-stemmed six kilograms of bird's eye chilies—roughly 14 pounds—for a single day of service. We would assemble the various chili dips and curries using ladlefuls of powerful curry pastes and shrimp where the primary ingredients are several measures of hot (from peppercorns and chilies dried and fresh). Great big grilled water bugs were smashed for nam prik, and leaves I'd never seen were washed and chopped, and things were tasted and stirred and seasoned and tasted again. Then we'd eat a meal. Two hours later we'd eat again. By the time lunch service rolled around, I'd already eaten more times in the kitchen than I might have done all day elsewhere.
As the day wears on in an outdoor kitchen in 100-degree heat, it gets gradually hotter, like oil over flame. The smells of cooked food intensify in the heat, they hang longer in the air, and when chilies hit a hot dry wok they choke you with their excited, airborne fury. This makes someone like me feel faint. But it seemed to make my company hungry. So they ate the plump local cashews with spicy salads made from coconut, tamarind, and curls of fiddlehead fern. I sweated gracelessly, and waited for the sun to go away.
And after nearly a week of eating Southern food at every meal—cooking it, breathing it, and living it—I really did start to love it. Arriving back in Bangkok, I missed the calm of the countryside, and the easy kindness that speaks of Southern Thailand's abundance. But that night I ate a pizza—gloriously bland, deeply satisfying—and quickly fell asleep.
The very next afternoon I was in the kitchen, with bags of curries unwrapped, purplish piles of shrimp paste arranged, piecing together a mash-up of my favorite Southern dishes. As a spoonful of chilies hit the pan, followed by green peppercorns and then ground pork, the kitchen filled with stinging smoke.
I sneezed. Soon after, my stomach began to rumble.