Gin Khao is Bon Appétit in Thai, although Google says otherwise – it means “eat rice” or “eat food”. If it does mean the latter, pardon my ignorance. I’m starting off my themed posts with a taste of the orient.
I chose Thai food for two reasons: one of my most memorable holidays was spent in Thailand, and it’s one of my favourite cuisines, I love the combination of salty, spicy, sweet and sour flavours which is the hallmark of Thai cuisine.
Before rambling on about all things Thai, I must say a special thank you to La Petite Panière for nominating me for the Dragon’s Loyalty award. To start the New Year with an award for my 3 month old blog… I’m elated! Do visit her gorgeous blog where you will find authentic, mouthwatering Algerian recipes.
I won’t attempt to describe the geographical, historical and cultural data of Thailand because it is too vast a subject to squeeze into a (not so) tiny post but I will talk about the bits and bobs that made my holidays there truly special. I have vacationed in Bangkok and Phuket on two separate occasions. My stay in Bangkok was too brief to thoroughly enjoy what the city had to offer. Nothing special comes to my mind except the touristy floating market which was a lovely experience, I especially loved bargaining with the boat vendors and the palette knife paintings of the market which some of them sold.
Phuket on the other hand was a holiday of dreams – we (my husband and I) did not gorge on Thai food or get pampered at a spa but spent the entire five days exploring the natural wonders of the islands’ neighbouring Phang Nga bay (I’m afraid this is not going to be a post on culinary travel!).
Phang Nga bay is situated in the Strait of Malacca between the island of Phuket and the mainland of the Malay peninsula of southern Thailand. This shallow bay has around 42 islands and around 400 sq km of it belongs to the Ao Phang Nga National park, which is protected land. The bay is famous for its spectacular limestone cliffs which vertically jut out of the deep green waters creating a surreal landscape.
Inside some of these cliffs there are hidden caves known as Hongs, which are open to the sky and surrounded by towering limestone walls, some which can be accessed by canoe during low tide through narrow openings in the cliffs. There are many tour companies offering sea kayaking trips around the bay but I personally recommend John Gray’s Sea Canoe tours which we booked for two days.
The first tour took us around the bay on a ‘long-tailed’ boat with a few stops along the way. The first stop was at James Bond Island where, as the name suggests, the Bond movie ‘The Man with a Golden Gun’ was filmed in 1974. It was too touristy for my liking except the remarkable limestone cliff which was made world famous by the movie.
After a light lunch and some free time to do some exploring on our own (you get your own canoe to test your canoeing skills) we stopped at the little fishing village of Koh Panyee. Surrounded by limestone cliffs and built entirely on stilts over the shallow water of the bay, the village is comprised of a closely built network of wooden huts and shops, a mosque and a school and is home to just 315 families. It was fascinating to wander around the village and catch a glimpse of their life – a little old lady drying rice in front of her weathered hut, another selling fried chicken in a street corner, scruffy wooden shops perched dangerously on wobbly stilts selling seashell necklaces and pungent dried fish, school children zigzagging through the maze of rickety huts and shops. There were times I felt like an intruder, that I had no right to be there and some of the villagers did not hide their annoyance at having some goggle-eyed tourist invade their privacy (like that old lady who was drying rice. As we approached her hut, she quickly got inside and slammed the door shut).
We also had a chance to explore a Hong – but this was just a taste of what lay in store for us the following day…
The tour on day two was aptly named ‘Hong by starlight’- you explore one of these caves by day and then, the same cave by night. Our guide Khao was an absolute delight. He had elfin features which reminded me of a forest spirit and he knew so much about the caves and showed us some of his best kept secrets. The same long-tailed boat took us to the cliffs where we anchored and hopped into individual canoes. The canoes were then manoeuvred through a narrow opening in the cliff into a pitch-dark tunnel, its ceiling thick with bats (definitely not for the claustrophobic!). This was called the Diamond cave owing to the glittering stalactites and stalagmites hanging from its walls which sparkle when you hold a flash-light to them.
After gliding in the dark a few minutes, the tunnel opened out into what I can only describe as Paradise…
The previous day’s Hong seemed like a miniature in comparison to this mammoth of a cave, I wonder if you can even call it a cave as it is open to the sky. It felt like canoeing in a huge pond surrounded by soaring green walls – the limestone walls were covered by not just shrubs but by actual trees, like a vertical forest, complete with a group of chattering monkeys. It was hard to imagine we were actually in the middle of a lagoon…
Towards midafternoon the tied ebbed out of the cave leaving behind a muddy slush. That was when the mudskippers appeared. These are a type of amphibious fish which can walk on land using their pectoral fins – fascinating little creatures! There were hundreds of them sliding and slapping around in the mud and this was one of Khao’s secret surprises.
We canoed back to the boat and had one of the best Thai meals I’ve ever had, freshly prepared on the boat by Khao’s team. There was a fiery and fragrant Tom Yum Goong, whole steamed fish, fragrantly spiced with lemongrass and Thai herbs, a Pad Thai garnished with deep fried quail eggs and some delicious stir-fried squid. While waiting for the sun to set to begin our night expedition we made Krathongs to float inside the cave (Krathongs are little flowery floats which are set adrift on a river during the Loi Krathong festival in Thailand). These are of course collected back before leaving the cave – another reason I recommend John Gray’s as these guys have a great eco-friendly policy (as the caver’s motto goes “Take nothing but Pictures. Leave nothing but Footprints. Kill nothing but Time”.)
It wasn’t long before we were navigating around in our canoes, tracing the same path we took in the morning. The night was ink black, broken only by strange, shimmering, neon blue ripples in the water which trailed behind our canoes. It was the bioluminescent plankton in the water which glowed with a million luminescent lights when disturbed, it looked as if the sky had turned upside down. Khao mentioned that on certain days you also find thousands of fireflies lighting up the cave but we weren’t lucky enough to see even one.
The Hong was devoid of all sound except the chirping of the cicadas and we drifted in the darkness in complete silence. Undisturbed by the noises and lights of human civilisation, it felt like travelling through space – you are overwhelmed by the serenity of it all. The Krathongs were lit and released into the water and there was a collective sense of peace as we watched them float away into the night. Khao, who was on our canoe, took us further into the cave and we managed to get out just in time as the tide started rising fast – we had to lie flat on our backs to pass through the cave opening, talk about narrow shaves! It was the perfect ending to our amazing time in Phuket.
Having relived the wonderful experiences we had in Phuket while writing this post I decided to round it off with this beautiful Tom Yum Goong soup, made from scratch.
7-8 medium sized prawns, peeled with tails intact
5-6 fresh kaffir lime leaves, torn into pieces with centre vein removed
2 lemongrass stalks, cut into 1 inch pieces and bruised with the blunt end of a knife
4-5 very thin slices of fresh galangal
1 tbsp coriander roots, cleaned well
½ cup straw mushrooms (or fresh white mushrooms), halved
1 tbsp Nam Prik Pao – Thai chilli paste (recipe below)
2 tbsp fresh lime juice or to taste
2 tbsp fish sauce or to taste
4-5 small red chillies, sliced
¼ cup lightly-packed coriander leavesMake the prawn broth by adding the prawn heads and shells, a bay leaf, a few peppercorns, a dash of rice vinegar, half a sliced onion and a pinch of salt into 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil and simmer for about half an hour. Strain the broth through a sieve and leave aside.
In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a very gentle boil over medium heat. Monitor the temperature so that the liquid is not boiling but barely simmering (the broth needs to be infused with the fresh herbs, similar to making tea).
Add the lemongrass, galangal, coriander root and kaffir lime leaves to the broth and simmer for 4-5 minutes till the broth becomes fragrant. Add the mushrooms. Stir in Nam Prik Pao. Add the fish sauce, followed by the sliced red chillies. While the broth is gently simmering, lower the prawns into it while monitoring the temperature, the prawns should be poached so they remain nice and juicy and not rubbery (1 minute should be enough). Give the broth a few stirs.
Once the prawns have firmed up and turned opaque, remove the saucepan from heat. Season with lime juice, taste. Add more fish sauce or lime juice if necessary. Stir in the coriander leaves and serve the soup piping hot with steamed rice and a couple of lime wedges on the side. Gin Khao!
Nam Prik Pao (if you cannot find these ingredients, you could use ready-made Nam Prik Pao)
Makes 4 cups
34 g dried red chillies, de-seeded (Thai long peppers or arbol chillies) – make sure you weigh the chillies after they have been stemmed and de-seeded. The amount of seeds you add back into the paste when you grind it determines the level of heat. More seeds, more heat (50% of the seeds have been added to this paste).
64 g peeled garlic cloves
84 g peeled shallots
20 g Thai shrimp paste
190 g palm sugar, chopped into small pieces
24 g dried shrimp
4 tbsp tamarind paste
4 tbsp fish sauce
1 cup water
½ cup vegetable oil
Cut the garlic cloves and shallots lengthwise into uniformly thin slices. Separate the two. Spread them out on two cookie sheets to dry. Heat up about ½ to ¾ cup of vegetable oil (this amount of oil is in addition to the ½ cup of oil that will be used later to fry the chilli paste) in an 8- to 12-inch frying pan over medium heat. Fry the garlic and shallot slices, separately, until light brown and crisp; set aside. Do the same with the dried shrimp; set aside.
In a dry skillet over medium-low heat, toast the dried chillies until they turn brittle. Be careful not to burn them.
In a granite mortar or food processor, pound or grind the garlic, shallots, dried shrimp, and dried chillies into a fine paste; set aside.
Put the paste and the remaining ingredients, including the ½ cup vegetable oil, in a shallow and wide pan set over medium heat. Cook everything, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes until everything has dissolved and you get a fried paste that is somewhat runny.
Remove the pan from heat and let the mixture cool completely. Check for consistency. If the paste is still too thin, reduce it some more over medium heat. When you have achieved the desired consistency, store your Nam Prik Pao in a clean glass jar. No need to drain off the oil.
If you are planning to go sea kayaking in Phang Nga bay and see the magnificent Hongs, do give these guys a try:
John Gray started commercial sea kayaking tours in Hawaii in 1983, and moved to Phuket six years later, setting up the first sea kayaking operation, the multi-award-winning ‘SeaCanoe’, in Phang Nga Bay. Today he runs John Gray’s SeaCanoe, also based in Phuket. For more information call Tel: 076-254506. www.johngray-seacanoe.com