When Thai food is a taste of home

April 10, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

We were at Bethesda's Bangkok Garden, one of the best Thai restaurants in the area, and all eyes turned to me: What should we order?

I recommended my friends try the fried tofu and sweet sauce, whole fried rockfish drizzled with chili sauce, and a dish of fat noodles swimming in an oyster sauce gravy, Chinese broccoli and tofu.

That night, they learned what I have known my whole life: There's more to Thai food than pad Thai.

Thai food is trendy now. It's on the menu at upscale restaurants and at the corner carryout. A conservative estimate is that there are 1,500 Thai restaurants in the United States, and Thai-inspired dishes turn up regularly in the latest cookbooks.

But for those of us born into the culture, the reality is that there was never a time when Thai food wasn't in style. Even those of us who are second-generation, who may not always speak and understand the language, appreciate the food and the mouthwatering aromas that waft through a Thai kitchen -- smells of a faraway home.

Most of us grew up on a daily diet of grilled meat salads (lahbs), papaya salads, soft-shell crab immersed in chili sauce, prawn and tamarind soup, and lots of rice and noodles.

We are a hybridization of two homes -- America and Thailand -- and tend to like our foods that way. Pad macaroni (literally, stir-fried macaroni) is the ultimate combo of three cultures: Italian (pasta), Thai (preparation) and American (ketchup).

Improvisers like my grandmother even made Spam into something delectable, frying it with sugar and fish sauce until it became a crunchy side dish to eat with rice. At holiday times, there's not a one among us who hasn't had a Thanksgiving dinner where turkey and all its trimmings are served alongside Thai staples like noodles and curry sauce, rice and duck.

And in certain families there was no doubt: Thai food wasn't fashionable, it was mandatory. Take mine, for example.

Born in Thailand, I came here when I was 2. I grew up with a father who demanded Thai food at his table. We ate it nearly every night in an almost xenophobic reaction to the encroachment of competing cuisine. A rice cooker was a permanent fixture in our homes. The first time I saw rice being boiled in a pot was in grad school.

In our house, a live-in Thai housekeeper and grandmother cooked our meals. All our stove burners would be in use, frying a Thai-style omelet on one, stir-frying vegetables in oyster sauce on another, sauteing beef with basil on the third and deep-frying eggplant dipped in an egg batter in a wok on the last.

To my father, these meals were tangible evidence of a world he left behind and pined for daily. We even grew the ingredients for Thai dishes (sweet basil, morning glory, chili peppers) in a big back yard in tropical Florida.

Annual visits to Thailand offered an amplified version of the pampering received at home. In Thailand, life revolves around food; the main entries in hand-held organizers are food appointments.

Everywhere you turn, whether it's at a mall, supermarket, an open-air vendor, alley or parking lot, there's cheap food available. Floating markets offer fleets of single-rower boats loaded with cooked and fresh foods, a reverse drive-through concept where the meal comes to you.

At my maternal grandmother's home in Bangkok, breakfast at dawn was a meal to rival dinner, with at least 10 different items to choose from -- rice soup or congee topped with an assortment of pickled vegetables, crunchy dried fish and fried omelet-style eggs.

Food is treated with a reverence reflected in even the simplest combination, imbued as it is with the subtlest complexity. Truth be told, our parents are never happier than when they have the basics of a Thai meal: white jasmine rice, chili paste, a spicy curry dish, vegetables and fried eggs (or a plain omelet). Like most Thai meals, communal eating is the rule -- everyone takes what he wants on a foundation of rice.

On weekends, noodles rule -- hearty broths filled with rice noodles and your choice of meat and bean sprouts. This is the only time Thais break out chopsticks. A favorite in our family were ramen noodles served hot and steaming in a chicken broth with slices of roast pork marinated in a sweet sauce.

Now the rest of the country is catching on. Maybe it's the shift toward healthful Asian meals that's made it more popular, but perhaps it's just that people have learned that Thai food is delicious -- even if they don't venture far on the menu.

"I'm glad that more people are discovering Thai food and how good it is," says my friend Tom Pinit, 27, a second generation Thai American. "On the other hand, I wish more people eating out at Thai restaurants would try something off the menu other than pad Thai. I try to explain to people that it is more like hamburgers and hot dogs to Thai folk, rather than this `consummate Thai dish.' "

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