On our last night in Thailand, we had dinner aboard Love Song with friends we first met five years ago in Mexico. A boat coming into the anchorage earlier had caught a couple of tuna, and shared the bounty. Kathy made a delicious poisson cru, a dish with popular variations all over the South Pacific which evoked rich memories from our days cruising in French Polynesia. The combination of raw fish, lime juice, coconut cream and vegetables will probably always send my thoughts back to the Marquesas! Cruising gives us the chance to accumulate a treasure trove of memories and a handful of souvenirs, but I’m realizing that it’s also the recipes we recreate that help us keep links to some of the rich experiences of the cruising life.
After three months in Thailand, it’s the incredible food that will be among our favorite memories. It just feels intimidating to try and replicate the unusual combination of flavors on board. Sweet, salty, spicy and sour are not tastes that we are used to rationalizing together. It’s that combination which makes Thai food so delicious that is exactly what makes it so difficult to reproduce!
I was treated to a Thai cooking class with my brother while Taylor and his family were visiting for the holidays. This class didn’t just crack the door to the possibilities, but threw it open. With help from the Thai/American chef- a terrific teacher who was bilingual, bicultural, and cordon bleu trained- the fundamentals were demystified. Two words: fish sauce! Every dish included making a paste of spices and aromatics with mortar and pestle, and I know now that mine is totally inadequate, but I’m making do. In Thailand, a delicious meal prepared by an expert is only a couple of dollar, so there’s not much of an incentive to learn. With the end of our time in Thailand, these Thai dishes are slowly making their way onto our table.
Jamie’s favorite is Laab (also spelled Larb, Laap, etc.- Thai transliteration is famously inconsistent). This became a staple favorite, and it’s easy to make on the boat. No impossible-to-find ingredients, and I promise, no mortar required! It’s usually on the ‘salad’ portion of Thai menus and served at room temp to slightly chilled.
1 lb pork
Bunch of cilantro
Bunch of mint
3-4 chopped green onions
6 Tbsp fish sauce
Dried chili powder (½ – 1½ tsp)
Juice from 2-4 limes
Cover pork with about half of the lime juice and set it aside to marinate briefly while the rest is prepped.
In a bowl, combine all remaining ingredients. You can adapt the quantities of cilantro and mint to taste: I use about 1 c total between the two, skewed toward mint, but less is fine too. If you’re wary of heat, start with less of the chile powder.
Get a frying pan really hot- our cast iron skillet is perfect. Add a couple of tablespoons of water, then immediately add in the pork and stir. Keep stirring and breaking it up until it’s cooked through.
Let pork cool down a bit, then add it to the bowl. You don’t want it to wilt the greens.
Now it’s time to channel your inner Thai! Taste and adjust the flavors: it should be a little spicy, from the chile powder. It should be a little sour, from the lime juice. It should be sufficiently salty, from the fish sauce. Getting the flavors right is a trial and error process.
We serve this with rice and lettuce. If you’re feeling fancy, this would be a gorgeous appetizer served in little lettuce cups. If you’re a Thai food purist, the traditional topping on this dish would be toasted rice. Dry-cook sweet rice in a hot pan until golden, then pulverize it in a mortar and pestle (whoops, I lied).
We’ll keep a bit of Thailand on board in another way, too. On the table of every self-respecting Thai noodle shop are four condiments: chili powder, sugar, and two firey looking sauces: nam pla prik, a firey sauce of chiles, fish sauce, and lime, and prik dong, a simpler combination of chiles and rice vinegar. These bring out the tension between those essential flavors of Thai cooking which each diner customizes to their own taste.
After some unforgettable meals ashore, we’ve made up our own versions of these condiments.This is going to be another piece of Thailand we carry. Simple fried rice is a frequent lunch on Totem, and customized with these Thai style flavors gives it a whole new interest from the crew.
NAM PLA PRIK
1 small shallot (about the size of an olive: these are everywhere, far more common than our yellow onions)
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
13 fresh chilies, sliced (the skinny chilies that get about as long as your pinkie finger)
7 tablespoons fish sauce
4 tablespoons lime juice (fresh!)
You can either slice up the shallot and mince the garlic, or if you’d really want to go local style, put them both into a mortar and pound to break them down. Add remaining ingredients and stir. Done! Don’t store in metal, because it will impart an unpleasant taste. We use a repurposed jam jar. It’s good for weeks in the refrigerator.
This uses the larger hot chiles. Rough cut them crosswise, and fill a small jar about halfway. Cover by 50% with rice vinegar. Prik dong, like Nam Pla Prik, will be better after it’s been able to set a while to let the flavors amalgamate.
It’s a memorable part of the Thai experience that we’ll bring along with us as we continue.
Foodie readers add spice to Totem’s life by reading this on the Sailfeed website.