TAMARIND IN THE KITCHEN

Milan, 5 September 2016

So my wife and I have finally left Thailand, after having spent two years there – we lifted off one last time from Bangkok international airport six days ago.

What memories of things typically Thai do I take with me?

Well, there’s tamarind.

Readers may find that a little odd, but tamarind is actually a very common ingredient in Thai cuisine. In fact, it was animatedly discussed at the goodbye party my staff gave me. It’s a fruit I had never actually come across until I arrived in Thailand. I had heard of it, but it existed as an exotica on the far periphery of my knowledge, rather like those strange beings which Medieval Europeans imagined lived on the far edges of the world.
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I was introduced to tamarind by the kind lady who brought me my morning coffee in the office. She was in the habit of also bringing me any of the fruits which Thai colleagues had brought in for sharing. I was conversant with the other fruits she served with my coffee, but this large pod-like thing had me stumped.
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I had to go down the hall to ask colleagues explanations of what it was and how to eat it (split open the brittle shell, extract the pasty fruit from its stringy support and eat, making sure not to crack your teeth on the small, very hard seeds buried inside the sticky pulp).
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Thai cooks will extract the pasty fruit and use it as an ingredient in many of their dishes. I mention only two here, Pad Thai and Kaeng Som.

As probably every foreigner knows, since every foreigner coming to Thailand seems to eat it, Pad Thai is at base a dish of rice noodles, these having then been stir-fried with a whole bunch of things: shrimp, both fresh and dried (other meats are used but it’s not very Thai), shrimp paste in oil, soybean sprouts, firm tofu, chopped peanuts, scrambled egg, sliced shallots, sliced Chinese chives, sliced preserved radishes, minced garlic, sliced chilies, and I don’t know what else. What foreigners probably don’t know, because it’s not obvious in the final dish placed before them, is that a tamarind-based sauce has also been added to the mix during the stir-fry. This sauce is a blend of sour-sweet tamarind paste, salty fish sauce, spicy chili sauce, and sweet palm sugar; the particular balance to strike between these four tastes gives rise to much passionate debate in the Thai recipe world.

My wife was particularly fond of Pad Thai, but it is as popular with Thais as it is with foreigners. In our wanderings around Bangkok, we discovered a Pad Thai joint a little south of the Golden Mount, where the people patiently waiting in the long lines outside (which we quickly joined) were primarily Thai.

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Pad Thai may seem very typically Thai, but actually in its present form it is quite a recent dish, having been invented only in the 1930s as a move by the-then military dictator to promote Thai nationalism. I suspect that Kaeng Som has a much longer culinary pedigree, since it has speciated, with every region of Thailand having its own variant. The variant I describe here is from Central Thailand, this being dominant in Bangkok. It seems that every street food stall sells Kaeng Som, although cognoscenti mutter that this is rat’s piss (my words) compared to the Real Thing. I wouldn’t know; I avoided street food stalls like the plague, desirous of avoiding seriously upset stomachs and consequent absences from work.

Kaeng Som is really a curry base to which you then add other ingredients. You will first grind and pound together, preferably in a stone mortar, chilies, salt, shrimp paste, sliced shallots, and meat of a freshwater fish stripped off the bones, until you have a smooth paste. You will add this to a simmering fish stock (preferably made with the remains of the fish), followed by tamarind paste, fish sauce, and palm sugar. Once again, the sour-salt-spicy-sweet tastes have been brought together, and you will fuss around at this point trying to get the “right” balance.

Now you are ready to add the remaining ingredients. Vegetables dominate, and it seems that Kaeng Som will marry well with a large number of different vegetables. I report, in no particular order, the suggestions given in the blog of Thai cuisine SheSimmers: morning glory, water mimosa, summer squash, cauliflower, green beans, daikon, Napa cabbage, green papaya, chayote, and watermelon rinds. This last interests me greatly, since I have always wondered, as I have thrown away the rinds after a good watermelon binge, what if anything could be done with them in the kitchen. I now have an answer. The same blog warns against the use of certain other vegetables: eggplants, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, starchy root vegetables, and green leafy vegetables such as collard greens. Vegetables as an added ingredient seem quite enough, but if you want you can also add shrimps or pieces of fish.
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At this point, I have to confess to one major unpleasant memory I bring back from Thailand, and that is the (super-)abundant use of chilies in Thai cuisine. As I have reported elsewhere, I very much dislike chili and its ‘hot’ spicy cousins. This has been a major difficulty for me in eating – and enjoying – these or any other Thai dishes. I have also reported elsewhere how I made another popular Thai dish, Tom Yum soup, without chili and found that for me at least it worked perfectly well. If I can find a source of tamarind paste in Milan, I can try making Kaeng Som without the chilies and see what it’s like.

My dislike of hot spices also cuts me off from properly enjoying the use of tamarind in Indian cuisine. The use of tamarind is very popular in India, where the tree is widespread. Unfortunately, every Indian recipe using tamarind also seems to use chilies or something equally spicy. So I guess I will have to make do with Lea & Perrins’s Worcestershire sauce, a small bottle of which graces the condiments section in our kitchen in Milan; as every aficionado of L&P sauce knows, it contains tamarind extract.
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Legend also has it that this sauce has its roots in India. It is said that Messrs Lea and Perrins, pharmacists in Worcester, created their sauce back in the 1830s on the basis of a recipe brought back from Bengal by a certain Lord Sandys, a nobleman of the county. Although I suspect that this story is a bunch of bull, I’m quite happy to believe it, because it allows me to pretend that I am enjoying an Indian sauce, suitably adapted to English tastes, in particular with the use of chilies eliminated. This is yet more support for my argument that chilies are simply not necessary in cooking.

I think I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. I really should spearhead a movement to eliminate chili and its evil cousins from the kitchen. Now that I’m retired and have time on my hands, this is my chance to walk the talk. Chili growers beware!

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Monpods and others: https://sfcdt.wordpress.com/2010/08/page/2/
Unshelled tamarind: http://nutritiousfoods.blogspot.it/2014/10/why-dr-mantena-satyanarayana-raju-says.html
Shelled tamarind: http://lxia.dvrlists.com/tamarind/
Pad Thai: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pad_Thai
Pad Thai restaurant: https://ohmyfoodcoma.wordpress.com/2015/05/31/legendary-pad-thai-at-bangkoks-thip-samai/
Kaeng Som: http://shesimmers.com/2011/06/thai-sour-curry-kaeng-som-แกงส้ม.html
Lea & Perrins sauce: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lea_%26_Perrins

A BLAST OF MY TRUMPET AGAINST THE MONSTROUS REGIMENT OF HOT SPICES

Beijing, 3 November 2012

Dedicated to my dearest daughter who, like me, dislikes hot spices

In 1558, John Knox, one of the founders of the Protestant faith in Scotland, wrote The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, a diatribe against women rulers. He wrote choice rants such as these:

“Wonder it is, that amongst so many pregnant wits as the isle of Great Britain has produced, so many godly and zealous preachers as England did sometime nourish, and amongst so many learned, and men of grave judgment, as this day by Jezebel are exiled, none is found so stout of courage, so faithful to God, nor loving to their native country, that they dare admonish the inhabitants of that isle, how abominable before God is the empire or rule of a wicked woman (yea, of a traitress and bastard) … We see our country set forth for a prey to foreign nations; we hear of the blood of our brethren, the members of Christ Jesus, most cruelly to be shed; and the monstrous empire of a cruel woman (the secret counsel of God excepted) we know to be the only occasion of all those miseries … And therefore, I say, that of necessity it is that this monstiferous empire of women (which amongst all enormities that this day do abound upon the face of the whole earth, is most detestable and damnable) be openly revealed and plainly declared to the world, to the end that some may repent and be saved … we are debtors to more than princes: to wit, to the multitude of our brethren, of whom, no doubt, a great number have heretofore offended by error and ignorance, giving their suffrages, consent, and help to establish women in their kingdoms and empires, not understanding how abominable, odious, and detestable is all such usurped authority in the presence of God.”

The book goes on in this vein for many pages. Boiling it down to its essentials, his thesis was that women should be in the kitchen and not running countries.

Knox was fond of diatribes and had a nasty habit of whipping people up into a frenzy of destruction with them. The picture below captures nicely what he must have been like when he was in full spate, beady-eyed, beetled brow, and frothing at the mouth.

He reminds me of another tribe of hirsute religious leaders who are currently whipping people into frenzies. I’m sure he would have got on with them like a house on fire – and then promptly burned them at the stake for heresy.

I would have disliked him intensely. I have an aversion to people who shout and scream and hate. And yet … when it comes to the use of hot spices in food I feel my beard growing, my eyes beading, my brow beetling, and froth forming in the corners of my mouth.

By hot spices, I mean those spices that numb your mouth, that put your tongue, palate, inner cheeks and throat on fire and have you groping for water, that make you cry, that make you choke, and generally that kill all enjoyment of the food you are eating.

What in the name of God got into the human species to add this stinking scum to their food??!! What did we do that we now have to punish ourselves for eternity in this way??!! And no-one can tell me that they add taste, because they DO NOT!!!! As for people who actually enjoy hot spices, they are like drug addicts, their enjoyment of this filth is a deviancy; they need to be locked up until they have cold turkeyed!!

I NAME – and SHAME – the Piper genus: 1,000 species! The genus has spread its evil tentacles far and wide. Asia has given the world black pepper, P. nigrum; may a curse fall on those who spread it around the world! But in Asia, deluded, lost souls also eat the Indian long pepper, P. longum, Balinese long pepper, P. retrofractum, Cubeb, P. cubeba, and Prik Nok, P. caninum. In Latin America, poor fools eat Mecaxochitl, P. amalgo, and Matico, P. aduncum. As for Africa, miserable inhabitants of that miserable continent eat West African pepper, P. guineense, and Voatsiperifery pepper, P. borbonense. And who knows how many of the other 1,000 species are eaten only locally by poor, benighted villagers who know no better.

I NAME – and SHAME – the Zanthoxylum genus: only (thank God) 250 species! But at least two of these, Z. simulans and Z. bungeanum, I curse again and again for producing Sichuan pepper, which makes my life a misery at every banquet I go to in Sichuan and other western provinces of China! I emerge from these with numbed mouth and lips, having enjoyed not a whit of the food on offer. The Chinese use other species for the same foul purpose: xiang-jiao-zi (“aromatic peppercorn”), Z. schinifolium, chun ye hua jiao (“Ailanthus-leaved pepper”), Z. ailanthoides, while the Japanese use sanshō (the Japanese pricklyash), Z. piperitum. I am horrified to see that the genus is also present in the Americas and Africa, where no doubt there are wretches who eat the fruits.

But my heaviest, longest, most profound curses of all fall on the Capsicum genus, home of the dreaded chili pepper. There is C. annuum, whose varieties include banana pepper, cayenne pepper, jalapeño pepper, and the ferocious chiltepin; C. frutescens, which contains malagueta pepper, tabasco pepper, and the African piri piri; C. sinense, which incorporates hideously hot peppers like the naga, habanero, Datil, and Scotch bonnet peppers; C. pubescens, whose most notorious variety is the rocoto; and finally C. baccatum, which includes the deceptively named but nastily hot Lemon drop pepper and the Aji Amarillo as varieties. May Diego Álvarez Chanca, a physician on Christopher Columbus’s second voyage who first brought chili peppers to Spain, reside in the deepest circles of Hell for eternity!! And may the Portuguese forever beat their breast for spreading chili peppers to the rest of the world through their rapacious traders!!! And may the idiots who boast of being able to eat the hottest of hot chili peppers have their mouths (and the other end of their alimentary canals) on fire forever and ever!!!!

Amen.

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pix:
http://revhelio.blogspot.com/2011/02/john-knox-o-reformador-da-escocia.html

http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/hans-memling/the-last-judgment-triptych-right-wing-casting-the-damned-into-hell-1470