CURRY AND FRIENDSHIP….Just Partake and Enjoy !

| July 6, 2012 | Comments (0)

The kitchen in my Theves house in Bangkok was a kitchen in name only. First, there was no fridge and what passed for a stove was a two-burner gas affair that functioned on a whim. Often in mid-preparation of a meal the supply of gas in the miniscule tank would run out and the tiny blue flame that was cooking a curry or frying a fish would sputter,  extinguishing itself leaving a half-cooked, inedible, lump in the pan. If the  shop on the klong (canal) that sold gas was closed, and the dinner hour near, my housekeeper would walk to the nearest take-out cookery on the edge of the market and return home with half-a-dozen little plastic bags, tied and suspended by rubber bands, bouncing up and down three to a hand like tiny, colorful pinatas, each containing a different  curry or stir-fry. This emergency dinner was acceptable to the palate – especially after the consumption of several taste-bud-deadening glasses of Mekong (whiskey) and soda -but it was not a home-cooked meal, to be sure.

Actually there WAS a refrigerator in the kitchen, but it was not used for cooling or even connected to the house’s faltering electric system. An ancient contraption, probably one of the first electrified models to succeed a real ice box, when plugged in it would produce hair-raising electric shocks if  touched. After experiencing the chastening  zap of  voltage, both my housekeeper and I decided not to use the thing. It was unplugged, cleaned out and thereafter served as an all-purpose storage cupboard, a place where green mangoes were placed in paper bags for ripening and coffee beans stored until they were roasted and ground. Things like that. The only other piece of furniture in the kitchen was a large cabinet with screen panels on all four sides, an item indispensible to all tropical kitchens. This was where perishable food was kept; where left-overs from dinner were shelved for another meal, kept from spoiling by breezes that cooled the house from the Chao Phraya River just feet away.

Ofcourse, in the tropics without refrigeration, it was problematic what you could save and eat later and what you should throw out. My housekeeper felt strongly about the redemptive power of boiling food back to freshness.  In her opinion, a two-day old, un-refrigerated  chicken curry prepared on Tuesday was good to consume if it were boiled again on Thursday and sprinkled with the hottest of chili peppers.  As the guinea pig for this experiment in frugality, I put my foot down after a month of  eating heated-up dishes that had been cooked the day before. Not only was this rather ripe fare less than totally tasty; I began rapidly losing weight due to stomach problems.

After consulting two doctors – one said I was a classic case of Caucasians wasting away in the Asian tropics and there was nothing to be done except pray or go back to where I came from while the other told me to stop drinking alcohol – I came to the conclusion that an old curry is not always a good curry. Thereafter, left-over food was given to the Buddhist temple next door or the gardener or the hang-abouts at the boat dock. It was always wise to be on good terms with the neighbors since I was the only white man living in Theves and I had heard more than one frightening story about uppity, distant foreigners who had gone native and come to regret living outside the protected perimeters of farang (foreign) compounds on Sukumvit Road.

The preparation of a meal in my house was  my favorite time of day. As dinner was created, a succession of aromas and sounds filled the air. First, the fresh smell of chopped, diced vegetables and spices.Then the rhythmic tap-tap of the  cook’s mortar and pestle counterpoised with the tinkle of evening temple bells from the nearby wat (Buddhist pagoda). My housekeeper prepared  our food sitting on the floor surrounded by a fan of banana leaves upon which were spread  vegetables, meat, fish, fowl and myriad spices which she purchased every day in the market just steps away.

So close was the Theves Market, in fact, that we were often awakened at the crack of dawn by  shouts and banter  between the merchants; later the hawkers’ cries would sing out, “Buy my fresh durians, ladies ! They’ll turn your husband into a tiger !  (It was well-known in Thailand that durians from Chantaburi had a even more miraculously up-lifting effect on the male organ than rhinoceros horn powder, causing the most worn-out appendages to rise to the occasion !) Between her sarong-wrapped legs was a massive stone mortar and pestle which she used for pounding chilis, tumeric, onions, garlic and other ingredients that now-a-days are more conveniently purchased in prepared, packaged pastes. But I insisted on no short-cuts in my kitchen.

I was proud to tell my friends that my housekeeper, Khun Ta, was the only cook I knew who did NOT use MSG (mono-sodium glutamate) in the preparation of her dishes. MSG had taken Thailand by storm in the 1970s and most cooks felt they could not make an acceptable meal without using this flavor-enhancing chemical. The result was delicious food, but also a weird assortment of complaints that were felt after a meal by diners, most common among which was a throbbing headache in the nape of the neck, a malady that came to acquire the seriously scientific-sounding name, Chinese Food Syndrome.

Ofcourse, I eventually found out that Khun Ta WAS using MSG. She kept little packets, in appearance not unlike the small parcels of heroin that were also widespread in Thailand at the time, secreted in her apron, surreptitiously sprinkled in the pot as her curries bubbled to completion. This deception went on for years with my being none the wiser and suffering none of the ill effects that were reputed to be caused by the evil powder. I only learned about Khun Ta’s duplicity when she had a falling out with the gardener who, in true Southeast Asian fashion, chose his route to revenge wisely, going through “Nai” (me, the boss) rather than attacking her directly. On Khun Ta’s day off, the gardener approached me, and with side-long glances  and exaggerated gestures  worthy of a silent screen star, acted out in slow motion how the cook would extract a packet of MSG from her apron, tear off the corner of the packet  with her teeth and dump its contents into almost every dish she prepared ! For this and many other reasons too complex to relate now, this was the beginning of the end of Khun Ta’s culinary reign over my kitchen.

Food was not the only thing that perished quickly in the tropics. A freshly laundered and ironed linen sheet or shirt,  left folded and un-used in a damp place for a week, would turn sour. After a few months delicate cloth would often succumb to the elements, rotting and ripping as the atmosphere penetrated its wholeness. Buildings constructed of wood might sag into charming attitudes of collapse after a couple of rainy seasons. Impermanence was in the air in tropical Southeast Asia. We were reminded by these signs of decay, more than anywhere else in the world, it seemed, that nothing stays  the same forever.  If a formalized code was needed to remind us of the transitory nature of our lives and  the objects that surrounded us, Buddhism was there to teach us not to worry and fret if  our faces got wrinkled or our lovers abandoned us or the house we lived in collapsed. It was all in the nature of things.

Last week a good friend, an Indonesian, left New York City for his native land after working in the US for fifteen years. My partner and I had become close friends of Anto and his family. We had been guests of honor at his wedding and the christening of his daughter, now six years old. When Anto informed us of his decision to return to Indonesia  we assumed we would see him before his departure.  But it was not to be. He explained in a phone call that with so many things to organize and take care of before leaving New York, he would just have to say good bye to us on the phone.

At first I was crushed by what I heard, thinking we had somehow offended our good friend and that he didn’t want to see us. But then my partner, also Southeast Asian, explained to me that there was no problem,  we were still Anto’s good friends. It was just that  a life change had occurred,  they were leaving New York  and it was time to move on. No offense, no problem, nothing to agonize about. They were leaving and we were saying goodbye – not at a party with lots of emotion and “until we meet again” promises; just a clean, simple farewell.

Somehow I thought of Khun Ta’s curry that was good for one day. You ate it and enjoyed it; then the experience was over. We had cherished our friendship with Anto and his family, but like the eating of the curry,  our “meal” with Anto, our friendship, was now over. There was nothing to prolong or regret or cling to. We needed to be resigned and happy with the change.

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