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Our maid had only a few tools in her back patio kitchen: a machete, a stout clay charcoal stove, a coconut grater, a mortar and pestle, and a large red and white platter. Perhaps you’d also find a blackened wok, a couple of cheap aluminum pots, and a cone-shaped straw basket (with lid) for steaming sticky rice. But when she got to work with her basic complement of cooking equipment, our mouths watered.
My siblings and I had decided long ago, even back in the village before our move to a town near the Mekong, that we didn’t like American food. Oh, the occasional hamburger and hand-cut french fries would do for birthdays. But Thai food–not limp, stringy stir-fried bean sprouts–but real Northeastern Thai food that you could crunch and savor, like green papaya salad, won our full approval.
We were spoiled, I admit it. While we did devote some hours in the morning to our education, we were not without time to just play in the backyard. And on lucky days, I’d look over from the arduous effort of pumping myself higher on my swing to see the maid seated on a bench. She’d be bent over the red and white enamel platter, machete whacking at a long, light green unripe papaya she had peeled minutes before. That was a sign of a good day, an excellent lunch coming up. Next, I knew, she’d turn the dark metal blade of the knife sideways, shaving off the dozens of little divots she’d created to make long, thin shreds that fell softly to join the mound on the big oval platter.
Finally, lunch was served to us children on the concrete picnic table out back. It was a feast. The maid, beginning her whacking and shredding process at ten in the morning, prepared two kinds of green papaya salad–one with lots of lime and hot peppers that we called the “Lao” one, and a citified “Thai” version that was sweeter, dotted with tiny dried shrimps and stray crunchy green beans. These had been made in the giant mortar and pestle, in a noisy, aromatic mashup of fresh garlic cloves, hot red peppers, and deftly sliced tomatoes followed by lime juice, fish sauce, and a sprinkle of white sugar. Then handfuls of the neutral papaya shreds were tossed into the mix, the pounding pestle aided by a large spoon that scraped the sides of the mortar.
Us kids always dove into the Lao option, sucking in our breath between our teeth to cool the flavorful spice on our tongues, just like our Thai friends did. Hot sticky rice, cooked in a straw steamer over a flimsy aluminum pot of boiling water, conveyed the spicy salad to our mouths. We dipped our hands into the straw serving baskets of fresh sticky rice, made balls of the glutinous grain, and pushed the juicy papaya shreds against the balls with our thumbs for every delicious, tart bite.
But there was grilled chicken, too. Ping gai, possibly the most delectable phrase in human language, also requires lots of garlic and fish sauce, and probably other herbs if you like, ground up in the mortar and pestle. The chicken marinates, then it grills, skin and all, sending out its rich scents as it browns. Then it’s snatched up and flipped over, served warm, and paired with the somthum, the aforementioned green papaya salad.
As if all that weren’t enough, there was more. Our house was surrounded by exotic snacks growing on trees, tasty and memorable, if you knew how to get to them. And our maid did. But I’ll save that for next time.Published in