Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Favorite

So, you think I'm some kind of pork crazed maniac? I come home and unlock my door with a key that's on a little pig key chain and come upstairs, take off my shoes and put on my fuzzy pig slippers, open a shrink-wrapped pepperoni and plod down on my couch and turn on the Food Network?

Well, you're wrong! Mostly wrong, anyway.

Nay, completely wrong!

I often hear the assumption that I love pork, and rightfully so. After all, I have dedicated a blog to it. But remember, as I told Sapna Magazine some months ago, I eat pork to provoke a reaction that inspires me to write. I, like most, have comfort food that I come back to time and time again. Ask my friends and they'll tell you flat out, it's pho. But what they don't realize is that pho substitutes for something even more special to me, a food that I grew up with in Thailand and could never satisfactorily find here in America. Only my mom can make this dish just right, just the way I like it. I learned the recipe from her and try my best to do it justice on occasions like tonight. It's been a long day of study and school (which I recently returned to) and all I want is a bowl of kwaey teow.

What I'm talking about is the Thai version of beef noodle soup. Back home, the finest example of this dish is found at street level, from kwaey teow ladies standing over giant bubbling vats of soup. You select the type of noodle you want (sen mee, sen lek, or sen yai from thinnest to thickest), perhaps some meatballs, and vegetable (phak kanaa, which you might know as Chinese broccoli) and the lady puts it all in a little wire mesh ladle and dunks it into the water to cook. Once they're done, she throws them into a bowl, pours in the soup and the meat, and you condiment-ify it with an array of items; chili in vinegar, chili in fish sauce, sugar, pepper, hots, crushed peanuts, cilantro leaves. You then proceed to eat two or three bowls and even finish off your brother's, prompting delight from the lady at how such a skinny little bitch can put away so many noodles. That's how I did it last time I was in Thailand, anyway.

Now the big vat of soup is the thing that I am missing. Churning and boiling day in and day out, this thin stew is packed with flavor. Its dark color is attributed to beef blood, something you can't exactly buy bottles of in the US. I have to make do with a stew pot brought to a boil with beef bones, raw garlic, cilantro root (the essence lies in the root, you fools!), salt, white pepper, and cubed beef. I remember well that Thais prefer textured beef in noodles, cuts that we often consider too sinewy. I use eye round, a cheap cut with a similar mouth feel to what I remember.

I always go with sen mee, the thinnest noodle. For the vegetable component, I use Chinese broccoli tips ('gai lan' tips). I am blessed to have multiple Asian groceries in my vicinity that carry these things. The condiment that takes the most preparation is fried garlic. For the first few months that I was making kwaey teow myself, I couldn't figure out what I was missing. Finally, my mom discovered that I hadn't been frying up sliced garlic in vegetable oil to top my noodles. She didn't say much, but I saw the disappointment in her eyes.

So, the noodles and greens go on the bowl, and in goes the soup and beef. This is followed by the fried garlic, some chili powder and cilantro leaves (merely a garnish). If there are surviving beansprouts in the fridge, they go on too.

Finally, I add amounts of fish sauce and vinegar, not so much with the chilies, to taste. This, pork fans, is my favorite food. There isn't a hint of pork in it, and it makes me so so happy. I am not exaggerating. There was a period of time when I would come home drunk and hungry and three in the morning and venture to go through this entire cooking process just so I could put on an episode of Futurama and chow down on the best thing I have ever eaten. It reminds me of Thailand, it reminds me of my mama, and it's something I make from scratch with my own hands. There are few eating experiences I find more pleasure in.