A vegan TV show about Travel and Food
We used to describe the concept of this series as more of a cooking/travel show. It’s evolved a little bit and the focus has landed more on the eating aspect, but the acquisition of knowledge that can be taken home and applied to kitchens anywhere is still a driving idea.
Cooking schools are a really popular tourist activity in Thailand. We found two schools that were focused on vegan and vegetarian food (May Kaidee’s in Bangkok, and Taste from Heaven in Chiang Mai), and we attended another that was not vegetarian but advertised compatibility to vegan visitors (Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School). Taking these classes really gave us a lot of good context in which to appreciate Thai food, and especially so since we were interested in versions of food that were often slightly modified from their traditional recipes–ie, no fish sauce! We learned that basically the reason fish sauce (and oyster sauce, and shrimp paste) is so ubiquitous is simply that it provides one of the cornerstone flavors of any Thai dish: salt. Well, certainly you don’t have to go around squeezing sea creatures to get that salty goodness that everybody loves. Soy sauce gives that grounding, full salty flavor, as does miso. There are a variety of fermented mushroom sauces on the market as well that provide similar effects. Here in the US we also have a wonderful product called Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, which is also soy-based, but unlike many soy sauces it does not contain any wheat, making it safe and healthy for our gluten-intolerant friends.
Here at home we’ve been parlaying our new skills into dinner parties where we raise funds for post-production. We’ve hosted over a dozen of these gatherings and it has given me lots of opportunity to work on my Thai cooking techniques. There are some dishes that I feel like I’ve got down, but others that I still find challenging to get just right. Most noodle dishes, for whatever reason, fall into the latter category. I find it difficult to cook them to the appropriate consistency and since I don’t like to douse my food in excessive oil, it’s hard to get that satisfying, filling texture without being willing to drown the whole dish, as well as my conscience, in grease. That’s why I was really excited by what I considered to be a personal success at our last dinner party: my version of Pad Kee Mao (aka “DRUNKEN NOODLES”).
I understand the literal Thai translation of the name is rather rude (look it up if you want), but one theory behind the nomenclature of “drunken noodles” is that they are so spicy they will cure your hangover. Since I wouldn’t know ANYTHING about that (really), and since I’m a benevolent and merciful host (REALLY!), I scaled the spiciness back considerably and just focused on that sweet salty goodness we talked about earlier. I modified a recipe from the internet, and came up with this (quantities scaled down to serve 4 rather than 12, which is how many I usually cook for):
Boil a big pot of water.
Prepare and set aside about 1 cup (1 can, if you’re into cans) of baby corn (or as I like to call them, babycorns), coarsely chop 1 red bell pepper, de-stem 1 small bundle of holy basil. Cut 1/2 brick of firm (or extra firm) tofu into cubes. If you wanted to, you could go back in time and pre-fry said tofu cubes, or just keep them as they are.
Your water should be boiling by now. Drop in about 1/2 a package of dry rice noodles, the widest grade you can find.
Crush 3-4 garlic cloves and 2 Thai chilies with the flat side of your knife (this releases their inner essential juices…mmm…essential juices), then chop them up small. Heat about 2 tablespoons of sunflower or some other innocuously-flavored oil in a big wok. Drop the garlic and chilies in and saute them just til they start to brown.
Don’t forget to keep an eye on your noodles–give them a stir.
Drop the babycorns, bell pepper and tofu into the hot garlicky oil. Saute.
Add anywhere from 1 tablespoon to 1/4 cup soy sauce or Bragg’s, 1 tablespoon sugar, and a good dash (maybe 1 tablespoon) of white vinegar. Stir well. You may want to reduce the heat at this point.
If your noodles are soft enough to your liking by now, drain them and add to the by-now-extremely fragrant wok. Add the basil as well.
Stir well and let the noodles get lightly pan fried. You may wish to add more soy sauce and/or vinegar depending on your liking. Let the basil wilt and you are done.
If you are into it and can find them, add fresh peppercorns (not dry–fresh) along with the garlic and chilies at the beginning. This is traditional but was lacking from my version because a) as I said, I am benevolent and full of kindness and didn’t want to make my guests uncomfortable with something so spicy, and b) I was totally going to anyway but they didn’t have them at my Asian market on the day I went, so kindness won out this time.
I had attempted this dish at least once previously and hadn’t been happy with it, but this time it came out just right. I told our guests that I almost didn’t bring it out because I wanted to just sit alone in the kitchen and eat it all. I’m not sure what I did differently that made it work this time–I think I was able to catch the noodles at just the right point where they were cooked but not quite overcooked, and they still had some space to soften up in the wok as they were frying. Also I wasn’t afraid to keep adding Bragg’s. If it gets too salty remember that you can balance it by adding a little more vinegar, a little more sugar, or a little more chili to keep it in check.