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In Northeast Thailand, a small clay stove was the answer to all your cooking needs, the back porch kitchen appliance everyone had to have. About the size of a large stock pot, it offered everything in one–an upper stove section to nurse a blaze in cheap charcoal until it was red hot, and a lower oven deck where embers dropping from the inferno above could roast such gastronomic delights as sweet potatoes or edible seeds. A trivet molded into the top and an opening for the oven came standard with all models.
A gas stove and electric fridge staffed our indoor kitchen, while the clay stove hunkered alone on the back patio unless it was cranking its heat for the daytime tasks assigned to it. Our house helper would squat next to it, applying flaming, shriveling wispy sticks to the mound of charcoal and blowing until the fire caught and held.
Not every item cooked on the back patio was good to eat. I was uninterested, at best, in the steaming contents of the dented aluminum pot I’d find perched on the trivet at times. When I peered in, I saw a bubbling mass of rice and–who knows what else. There was often a frothy, brown-tinged skin over the top. The stove had been pressed into service to process whatever the concoction was that we fed our dogs.
The vegetables and meat stir-fried in a hot wok with oil and garlic frankly flattened whatever appetite I had for lunch. I would save room for something else, like thin-sliced sour mango in fish sauce, if I could wrangle it from somewhere. Stir fry with green beans and bits of pork sound tasty now, but in those days, my aversion to vegetables strengthened when they were tepid and served with a pile of pale rice. Sometimes I nibbled at this meal and then dumped the remainder into the field behind our back fence. We kids were left to ourselves outside at the picnic table, with no adults to witness the waste. Then I wandered inside with my clean plate, and, with easy conscience, stood at the kitchen table inquiring whether I might have a piece of that sticky rice that our language assistant had brought from his house.
Speaking of sticky rice, I remember visiting a tiny back-room kitchen when we lived in the village. The woman of the house was just retrieving the cooked rice from the cone-shaped basket where it had steamed over a pot on the clay stove. A copious pile of the glutinous, off-white staple slid out of upturned basket onto a board, where the lady spread it out with a wooden paddle to let the trapped steam escape and dissipate under the thatched roof before she distributed it into straw baskets for later eating.
The freshness of the batch appealed to me. Older, cold, and stiff sticky rice was still good–good for dipping into soups and cooking on a stick over an open flame (rubbed with egg first) as a crunchy snack. But this new mound of piping hot nourishment promised a comforting accompaniment to a spicy meal. I smelled its doughy scent and imagined its warm, malleable heaviness in my hand. Although enticed by the steam and aroma, I was likely not comfortable enough to ask the lady for sample, however brazen I could be in other circumstances.
Our own straw steamer in town purred and hissed under its load of opaque sticky rice that had been first soaked in water for hours. It, too, would yield a delicious complement to a spicy salad. But one day, our house helper showed us something else she could coax from that little outdoor appliance. For some reason, there was a load of bananas on the patio–I think they were still slightly green. Pii Liam peeled these and sliced them. She had the charcoal glowing, and a wok full of hot oil. Oh, good. Banana fritters. As I squatted across from her watching her work, I imagined a treat of sweet fried bananas, like those you could buy wrapped in grease-spotted newspaper from a market vendor.
Our oblong banana slices dotted with black seeds were fried, sure enough–vibrating and bobbing in the seething oil. But ours weren’t quite the same as the market ones. Today, I don’t remember exactly what the end product was like, just a disappointment at the absence of sweetness, then a discovery of a taste and texture that I liked. Perhaps they were a little like cooked plantains, with a savory flavor and pleasing density. Whatever it was, I approved. Pii Liam’s efforts, once again, had not been in vain.Published in