February 20, 2010

Why I Cook

Inspired by a post and tweet by Michael Ruhlman, along with his compelling reason that 'writing it down forces you to know what you think' (which is true for any subject, not just cooking/food), below I list the reasons why I cook:

• I like to eat

• I like to eat good food

• I want and need to feed myself and my family tasty and (mostly) nutritious, healthy food in the most economical way possible (though we still enjoy eating out)

• I like variety in my food

• I like to recreate great dishes that I first tasted somewhere else (a restaurant, a friend's house, etc.) or the ones from my childhood (I teared up the first time I watched that scene from Ratatouille when Anton Ego's snobbish-food-critic demeanor melted away as his first bite of Remy's ratatouille instantly took him back to his childhood when his mother comforted him with her homemade one. What a brilliant scene! Comfort + Food + Childhood = One Emotional Wallop).

• Some of my favorite dishes/food aren't available in nearby restaurants/food vendors/stores. (That's why I learned to make mayonnaise and a Thai dish).

• It's relaxing

• I like the taste of accomplishment (ehm) after I cook a dish/meal: it's tangible and something I can truly savor (ehm), and it's quite immediate (less than 30 minutes for most dishes, a couple of hours for a few, but not weeks, months or years!), and other people can also enjoy it (which is another accomplishment in itself).

• It's one of my creative outlets. Yes, I read recipes, but I hardly ever follow it to the dot. I'd tweak things along the way. Once I know a basic recipe/technique, I'd experiment with it.

• In general, I like to know how things are made, what's the process of things becoming what they are — whether it's a dish, products, people, events, etc. Cooking explores that aspect of food. Cooking is the journey.

• I can learn about cultures and society, both my own and others. I like how Anthony Bourdain expresses a similar sentiment when an American-Egyptian chef pointed out food from his ethnic heritage and said "Look. The history of the world" — to which Bourdain remarks in his typical jaded (but accurate) way,
"He had just put in extraordinarily succinct terms what any well traveled eater, student of ethnic or national food ways – or serious food nerd has come to know: that what is on your plate, the choice or selection, or preferences – or ingredients – almost any place you are eating, are the end result of movements of people and resources, the punch line of a story usually involving (at some point in history), deprivation, starvation, colonialism, slavery, greed, and warfare. ... The end result of the above — at least (and only) as far as cuisine — is more often than not, good."

That's all I can think so far.

Well. Why do (or don't) you cook?

February 18, 2010

Craving for Thai food

I had my first taste of Thai food when I lived in southern California and promptly fell in love with it! Its 'flavor profile' is quite similar to the Manadonese cuisine that I grew up eating and loving (and still do) with its prodigious use of chilies and sour/citrus components such as limes, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves.

There are plenty of great Thai restaurants throughout Los Angeles, but my favorites were the ever-popular Sanam Luang in Pomona (there's another one in North Hollywood) and its competition just a hop-and-skip away on the same street: Mix Bowl.

Both restaurants served delicious, yet thankfully inexpensive, Thai food — I lost count how many times I dined there or ordered 'to go/take-away' meals over the years. Their proximity to my workplace and church also made them the 'default' go-to places after music rehearsals and other church events (their late hours helped, too!).

Pad Ka Pao (or Pad Kra Pao, there are different spellings) was a dish I frequently ordered. Its primary ingredients are green beans and Thai basil (similar to kemangi in Indonesian. It's not the same basil used in Italian food!), sauteed with your choice of ground meat (beef, pork or chicken) with lots of garlic and chilies. Fish sauce and lime juice give the dish its salty and sour kicks. In the restaurants it's available 'over rice' or sauteed along with flat rice noodles (kwetiau). You could also order it with its traditional 'crowning glory': a sunny-side-up egg, its yolk still rich and creamy.

I never cooked Pad Ka Pao when I lived in L.A., there was no need! Sanam Luang or Mix Bowl was just a short drive away. But when I returned to Jakarta, where Thai restaurants are quite scarce (and they're more of a 'dining' destination here, not your down-to-earth neighborhood hang-out place), I decided to satisfy my craving for one of my favorite Thai dishes by cooking it myself. Plus, all the ingredients are easily available here.

If you've been reading this blog, you know that I'm not big on writing out recipes here (because I hardly ever measure out ingredients when I'm cooking). But if you want a recipe, here's one for Pad Krapow over at Chez Pim's food blog (she's a food blog pioneer based in San Francisco, she has her own cookbook and she's Thai, so you can trust her :).