My Thai Kitchen: Grilled Cheese

A simple American classic that I didn’t realize I could easily recreate in Thailand with a little forethought when in the bigger towns surrounding my little one.

Butter and bread I can get in my favorite little snack shop owned by another teacher from my school, both cost about a dollar. At site there isn’t much variety except for plain white bread from a brand called Farmhouse, but I’ll take what I can get. Cheese is obviously difficult to find at site, but luckily the two towns closest to me have slices of processed, shitty American cheese, but again, I’ve stopped being picky in Thailand. I try to buy a package or two every time we go into either of these towns so I have some backup and don’t feel bad about putting two slices in each sandwich.

Something note about the butter in Thailand (or at least the affordable for PCVs kind) is that it tastes a little, bizarre. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it is edible. It just changes the taste a bit, so there is an adjustment there when making something like grilled cheese when the butter is a big component. Another funny thing about Thai butter is there is a kind with sugar in it! And I don’t mean lightly dashed throughout, but large sugar granules and it has very different in taste to it, compared to the plain kind as well.

Pink means sweetened in this case.

Evidenced by the blackened teeth on many children, Thais love things to be extra sweetened (most people won’t drink unsweetened milk and Thais usually give me a look when I ask for plain) and will put huge, heaping spoonfuls of sugar in nearly everything (I do mean everything, especially those dishes you think are so healthy get maybe three or four scoops of sugar). It’s actually a pretty serious problem as diabetes levels are soaring as diets move more towards sugary snacks and processed food.

But back to grilled cheese goodness. I don’t remember where the inspiration came from, but once I had my wok, I was ready to get grilling. It takes a difficult balance to get a ‘low’ heat setting on my on-off cooking device. And unfortunately, there are quite a few burned sandwiches and fingers. Because of this, the sandwiches don’t get too hard or stiff like Mom always did so perfectly. I’ve also started adding tomatoes occasionally for an added dimension and they can be so easily acquired at my market.

Melty, cheesy goodness is so rare to find in Thailand.

One day I hope to get brave enough to start adding meat to my cooking repertoire (still not brave enough for that) and step up to a croque monsieur instead of grilled cheese. For Thailand though, this is an amazing, doable treat from home.

My Thai Kitchen: The Jeff Jackson Special

I’ve mentioned my friend Jeff’s philosophy of women in the kitchen (feet up, with a glass of wine), but since I don’t have him on a daily basis to cater to my every need, I had to imagine rolling up my sleeves to get to work. Because, you know, it’s too hot to actually wear sleeves once you’re at home.

After my second visit to Jeff’s house, I decided to take better charge of my cooking life and this is the main dish that got me there. It’s the most Thailand acceptable dish (everything is bought from my market or local shops) of the MTK series and I still haven’t mastered it quite like Jeff has. The JJ special is vegetable centric meal and has been the spearhead meal to lose that layer of non-intensive exercise fat that has stuck around for the better part of a year.

It is also the only MTK with an actual recipe, provided by the master himself, in case you want to try it out:

  • Start heating your wok with about a tablespoon of oil for about two minutes.
  • Then throw in some garlic (chopped up to your liking) until it browns

I’ve learned negotiating the amounts of these three liquids can completely change the outcome of your meal. 

  • Toss in a few peppers (ha!)(Jeff thinks it’s funny that I still can’t eat moderately spicy food.)
  • Put in your vegetables.  I use eggplant, onions, baby corns … whatever. (I don’t use baby corns, but usually use the same veggies from the omelet MTK, sans cheese obviously).

I was not a big eggplant fan before Thailand. These are the eggplants (not yet cleaned) I pick up in my local market, but I’ve seen them bigger and different colors. It all depends on your region in Thailand and how large the farm is.

  • Move them around so they soak up the oil and then pour some oyster sauce on them.
  • Then pour in about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of hot water.  It makes a fun sound.
  • Add some soy sauce and let it boil and cook.
  • When the water evaporates, add more until you’re satisfied with how well it’s cooked.
  • You can add more hot water right before you’re finished to season your rice or you can serve it more dry. (I don’t have a rice cooker, so I usually just eat the veggies alone. Sometimes I get a little lump of sticky rice from my neighbor, but when I make it, it tastes fine without it.)

Voila! This particular one was a little carrot heavy since I had to finish one off, but it feels so good to be full from a plate of veggies.

Jeff suggests turning on your favorite baseball game and sometimes I watch a queued up movie (I have a strict no working while eating rule), but I’m finding myself going out to my porch more and more to take in the view, thinking about Thailand, Peace Corps, or finishing up a podcast, savoring the food I just made completely by myself.

As much as I hate to admit it, I will miss this view very much.

Friday Five

Five Favorite Foods in Thailand– These are my favorite gap-cao, literally translated as ‘with rice.’ Usually a dish is ordered or made for the table, placed in the middle, and people take spoonful at a time put over your rice.

Mango Sticky Rice
I can not believe twenty-two years passed until I tasted the tangy deliciousness of a ripe mango. My host mom in Ayutthaya first had me try the pair together, the drumbeat of taste from the mango (picked from our tree in the yard) softened by the sweetness of coconut milk mixed into the sticky rice. This has quickly become one of my all time favorite desserts. I have one more cold season with ripe mangos, I plan to eat as much as possible.

Sautéed Vegetables
A Thai staple, especially for breakfast, pad-pak is probably what I eat the most when I stay with Thai people. There is a lot of sautéing in Thai cooking. It’s up to the cook, but any kinds of veggies can be used, but the ones I see most often are carrots, baby corns, broccoli, tomatoes, lettuce, mushrooms, and kale. Sometimes pork is added as well for some added weight to the dish. A nice, colorful meal.

Cashew Chicken
Cashews are expensive in Thailand, so it’s often hard to come by this delectable dish in the village. I have no idea how they make it, but I order it whenever possible in the city when I decide to eat ‘local’ instead of engorging myself with comfort (ie Western) food. I think pad-med-ma-muang might be my favorite meal in Thailand because I can so rarely get my hands on it.

Veggies, chicken, and cashews, oh my!
Photo (and they have a recipe, so I might be stealing that) From: http://www.aminglingoftastes.com/2007/07/thai-cashew-chicken.html

Sautéed Pumpkin
Another food transformed by my experience in Thailand is pumpkin/squash. Again, my host mother introduced me to pad-fuk-tong as I giggled and learned that ‘pumpkin’ sounds like an English curse word. All hilarity aside, I was a little dubious of squash-like vegetables, but was (obviously) pleasantly surprised with it. I like it most when pork and egg are made with it.

Photo From: http://www.kruaklaibaan.com/old_forum/forum/index.php?s=783c2d2a0bd3e8d1d6a64a24de08c448&showtopic=8575

Chicken Curry
The first time I saw this dish, I was not completely convinced that it wasn’t spicy/had any admirable taste qualities at all. I was wrong. In Thailand red dishes tend to be scary spicy, but this is actually a little sweet. This one dish turned me on to curries. Sometimes pumpkin is thrown in and adds to the fun.

Those leaves are not fun to chew on as I found out from eating one by mistake once
Photo from: http://graciocafe.blogspot.com/2006/07/thaikorean.html

My Thai Kitchen: Pasta

Although this is the easiest of the meals to actually make, getting my hands on the key ingredients is decidedly difficult. Though a beginner at the culinary arts, I did know how to boil pasta and pour sauce over it. When I became more interested in food preparation, my pasta started to step its game up.

Early on in the pasta days Jeff and I came back from Roi Et with pasta, wine, cheese and a baguette… pure paradise

I started adding a dash of salt to my boiling water. And then I read about adding garlic and then I heard about this thing called sautéed onions. It was kind of revolutionary to me. Even more advantageous was the discovery of a new kind of sauce in my own Tesco Lotus (Thailand’s Walmart) that made my pasta dinners taste even flavorful than before.

Newest discovery is this canned pasta, one normal red sauce and the goopy cheese counterpart, mixed together makes it… perfecto. I had to improvise in containers that would keep better than in open cans, so you’re seeing cleaned out peanut butter and icing tubs. Go, go recycling powers!

Thais know of some Italian foods and in most Thai cities you can find at least one independent/family owned place to find a small selection of farang foods. Given that most PCVs are not in areas with this kind of food available, we usually have to stock up when we are in our provincial cities at either Big C or Tesco Lotus for non-Thai ingredients. Naturally, the more foreigners in the city, the more selection there typically is for both farangs and Thais who are more aware of food other than Thai dishes. In Roi Et there is a Tesco Lotus that I buy my pasta (about 150 baht or fiveish US dollars) and this new kind of canned sauce (about 80 baht or a little over two dollars) making this a more expensive and inconvenient meal to buy (so after stocking up, I want to cry because of the cost), but so, so delicious and the best ‘comfort’ food I can make in my Thai kitchen.

Garlic and onions are obviously from my local market. For some reason I’m totally addicted to these twisty noodles.

This is also a good meal to make and share with Thai friends to explain how bread is not the substitute for rice like they think and it is possible to have a meal that does not include rice! Most of my lady friends that have tried it are not fans, but the students that have are, so I think an open mind helps. Sauce can be hard to find sometimes in Thailand, but I think a decent pasta dish is possible in any Thai kitchen with a homesick Volunteer at its helm.

I already dug in before I remembered to get a shot of the finished (delicious) final product! 

My Thai Kitchen: An Omelet of Hot Mess

A fairly simple and worldwide dish for our first MTK and one I knew before coming to Thailand, eggs. Prepared different ways, my favorite before I came to Thailand was scrambled with milk and cheese. Naturally I’ve had to adjust to the Thai way, an ordinary but nice addition to the palate called kai-jiao. I’ve tried my old standard once I had some freedom in the kitchen, but it didn’t work, so I needed to find some new things to add to what I started to call a ‘omelet of hot mess.’

All but one ingredient (cheese) I can find at my local market in the village, which makes this an often made meal, breakfast or not. Finding things in the market also means it’s quite cheap, especially by western standards. I can easily get a week’s worth of vegetables for under three U.S. dollars (definitely going to miss that) and all of the produce is local (whether that’s good thing or a bad thing I haven’t decided yet since pesticide usage is extremely high).

It was learning/practicing how to chop these different kinds of veggies that gave me a little trouble. I (and many others) don’t really trust myself with a knife in my hand, so things are taken pretty slowly. For that though, I allow myself a non-rushed morning (or any time of day really) and pop in a podcast or two to talk to me. It’s helped me to enjoy cooking more instead of finding it a waste of time.

Didn’t get the garlic, but seeing this plate of colorful goodies makes a newbie cook step back in pride. This particular cheese didn’t bode well for the omelet hot mess, but quite ‘Tasty’ on its own.

Given that I’m not exactly skilled in the sense of traditional omelet making (that’s just the English word Thais use to describe kai-jiao but I don’t think it’s actually very omelet-like at all), I tend to just throw it all together in my mini-work with a little oil and stirring often. My mornings tend to look like this.

A heaping mound of vegetables, egg, and milk in boxes. Yummy.

This can easily keep me full most of the day when I make it for brunch and only have a light dinner the following evening. What’s your favorite homemade brunch food?

Bird’s Eye.

My Thai Kitchen

Going through some of my older videos on youtube, I watched the house tour one to see how I changed things since the first few months I moved in. Some furniture rearrangements have occurred, but the main difference I wanted to point out is the change in my cooking habits/situation.

I was avoiding getting a huge gas tank/wok combination because I honestly didn’t think that I would use it that much given that I am, in every sense of the word, a beginner when it comes to cooking and more refined tastes. But then again I had no way to heat or cook anything and a girl can eat peanut butter sandwiches before craving some changes. Enter Jeff Jackson.

Now I’m not just talking about the creative dishes he’s provided for me when I go to visit (he has an actual gas tank), but he literally gave me the power to do them. In the form of this electronic, one heat setting (scalding), mini-wok, thing.

Nearly perfect for the SWF.

Sort of burned the bottom one time when I was trying to ‘toast’ bread… it didn’t work out.

I started with some very basics that I already knew, but a combination of taste bud boredom, general displeasure with some weight I’ve put on in Thailand (mostly due to lack of exercise and eating crappy foods so I wouldn’t have to cook) and seeing Jeff’s nightly special, I decided to get chopping, though that even started off a bit rocky as the first casualty in my right index finger happened the night out of the gate.

I am proud of my new dedication to cooking (well, no longer extreme aversion) and decided to do a little mini-series called ‘My Thai Kitchen’ sharing what I’ve tried and succeeded with, both ‘Thai’ and ‘American’ dishes. Those are in quotes because I do not cook like a Thai person (they have reminded me many times how I’m doing it ‘wrong’) and sometimes I have to be a little creative in the ingredients for foods from home. Anytime I want something remotely American, I usually have to go to the provincial city or wait for a trip to one of the bigger cities (Bangkok, Khon Kaen, Chiang Mai) for some harder to find things.

Any suggestions for me are very welcome as I am a novice at cooking. Stay tuned for the first part!