Steph went off with Kang, a hoe, and some secateurs to find galangal root and kaffir lime leaves in the jungle. Star and I were wearing sandals unsuitable for scavenging in the rainforest, so we watched butterflies fluttering above the canopy, and listened to the birds around the banana trees.
Lemongrass, chilies and garlic came from the garden where Durian trees also grow. We were making green papaya salad.
We began by taking a meat cleaver to papayas, inflicting a thousand cuts and then scraping off the shards into a bowl. We found it hard work, but our Thai hosts did it in seconds. The carrot was grated in a more ordinary way.
We made the dressing by first by adding dry peppercorns and cilantro seeds to the mortar and pounding them.Kang had suggested we peel about 15 cloves of garlic to do all three portions. The girls misunderstood and added 17 cloves to the mix for just one bowl. Oh well. Then fresh chili, plus coconut sugar, lime juice and fish sauce. Papaya, carrot, snapped green beans and some tomato quarters—all the salad ingredients were mixed in the mortar. On the plate we added some roasted peanuts and tiny dried shrimp and fish for crunch.
The salad– my favorite– was zingy and spicy and refreshing but had been surprisingly labor intensive to make.
“But they must make great bowls of this in restaurants and just dole it out?” I said when Kang said the salad should always we eaten moments after it is made.
“Most Thai cooks can do it in 30 seconds” she laughed “they make each order fresh. You’ll be quicker the next time you do it”.
Then we made Prawn Penang. Into the mortar went pepper and cilantro seed, then cilantro root and lemongrass, followed by garlic and dried chilies. They took a lot of pestle pounding. A few shallots,some cumin, shrimp paste and a few dried shrimp mixed with the hard-to-gather fruit of the kaffir lime tree.
A kilo of shredded coconut meat was mixed with about a liter of warm water. We mixed and squeezed the cottony mess, and then strained the milk into a pan. Our own fresh-made coconut milk. We pounded some already roasted peanuts to a gritty powder in a separate mortar.
The curry paste was added to hot pans and mixed with a little of the coconut milk to make a terra-cotta colored goo. Then the shrimp and more coconut milk and some stirring. Then fish sauce and a little raw sugar. The peanuts. More boiling and stirring until the sauce thickened. Thin shards of lime leaf and whole cilantro leaves to garnish. We ate it with sticky rice steamed in a double boiler that involved a palm leaf basket set into the lip of a boiling pan. The lid of the pot went on top of the rice in the basket.
Time to make Tom Yam Gai. More chopping– chicken, galangal, lemongrass tomatoes. Lime leaves to tear. Cilantro too.
Into the pot went the galangal, lemongrass and lime leaves, and lots of coconut milk. Add the chicken to poach, and stir the mix a few times. Kang then put the soup in bowls and invited us to add our own fresh chilies, smashed with the side of a knife blade. The squeeze of two or three halves of lime. A tablespoon or two of fish sauce. A handful of chopped cilantro. The result was aromatic and comforting– the food of a healing God.
Steph and Star and I have different ideas on what makes a good holiday, but we all love Thai food. Today was a great day for all of us. We came home and slept. Kang’s Homebar Jungle Cooking experience costs 1500 baht per person. You will make and eat four dishes. Kang will pick you up from your hotel on Koh Chang. She is a former restaurant chef who now prefers jungle life with her two dogs Princess and Olive.