Category Archives: Thai

For Simona

Dear Simona,

I remember the day I stopped believing in best friends. It was winter of seventh grade, the time of tipping from one age to the next, those years of middle school, which felt very much transitional, and very much awful.

I had had the same best friend since first grade. We were like sisters. Her family was mine, her little sisters my little sisters. We regularly slept at one another’s houses, hers a beautiful two-story house in the neighborhood just across Carpenter Road from my subdivision. Her father was a businessman. He wore suits and went on business trips. My father worked at Cape Canaveral on the solid rocket boosters of the Delta IV rocket. Her side of the neighborhood was where the chiropractors and dentists lived. Mine was where the hourly workers lived, the union members.

Anchovies for the curry paste. 
Anchovies for the curry paste. 

By the time we were in middle school, my friend had outgrown our friendship, had outgrown me, but it took me probably a solid year to figure it out. The day I realized what was happening, I had caught her in a lie. A blatant lie she didn’t even need to tell. It doesn’t matter what about now. What matters is, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t call her out on it. I hung up the phone and sat alone in my room.

I remember the windows were open that day. Mom was cleaning, and the house smelled of bleach and dryer sheets. The wind brought the smell of orange blossoms inside, the line of citrus trees blooming in our backyard, the tangy green leaves brushing each other in the wind. I remember this as clearly as anything: the coolness of the air, the lovely sunshine, the smell of a clean house, and the sick feeling in my stomach, the heavy knowledge of being very alone.

My all-time favorite cookbook and cookbook author ever. 
My all-time favorite cookbook and cookbook author ever. 

After that, I made two attempts at having a best friend. Both those attempts ended much the same way. And I knew then that I would never have a best friend. I didn’t believe in best friends. I would not allow myself to be hurt like that again.

It was ten years after that day that I met you, Simona. But it would be years still before I realized that I had found my best friend. That I could even have a best friend. Years before I even realized what a best friend really was.

You were patient with me. You waited, as I very slowly opened myself up, as I very slowly began to trust. You told me your secrets and asked me to share mine. I kept you at arm’s length for a long time, but you were persistent with me. It took me probably five years to realize we could be best friends, that you weren’t going anywhere.

Homemade curry paste. 
Homemade curry paste. 

I remember one weekend last year that you and Darren came to visit us. It was early May, and we went to Oak Island, and the boys played bocce ball while you and I walked the beach, telling each other our secrets, letting the waves wash over our toes. We lay on beach towels until the sun had nearly set.

I remember the salt air, our hair blowing in the wind—yours light, mine dark—you, the poet, me, the prose writer, the sun soaking into our skin, the clear beautiful beach air filling our lungs. Everything about that weekend was perfect: the Mexican food we ate the first night, while talking about art and God. The beach. The dinner we cooked that evening together, hours in the kitchen.

Coconut cream for the curry.
Coconut cream for the curry.

It was that weekend that we cooked up the idea for this blog.

Once the sun had gotten low enough to let a chill in the air, we left the beach and went home to cook from Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible. We drank red wine, our messy hair pulled back from our faces, aprons tied around our waists.

The day was perfect, as was our food.

This past weekend was cold and gray and rainy and cold, so far from that day at the beach, the sun’s glow the color of butter. You are in Atlanta, and I in Wilmington, a six-hour drive away. We are both nearly buried under our work this semester. We have been busy, too busy, and I miss you desperately. So I made a yellow curry from the cookbook we cooked from together, and I thought of you. I thought of your sweet soul, how you were willing to chip away at my defenses, how you were willing to love me as I stayed distant and self-protective.

You know things about me no one else does. I take a long time to open up, and you are one of the few who have been willing to learn. You know what my tone of voice means, you know the punctuation I use when I’m happy and when I’m sad or distracted.

What a beautiful surprise this friendship has been, what a beautiful surprise you are. I admire you so. You are pure brilliance, a loving teacher, a passionate artist. A poet who always knows the perfect words. A soul that loves justice and mercy and goodness. You inspire people to be better, to notice what’s lovely about life. You are complex. You’re fashionable, with an eye for design. And you give. You give of yourself and your talents, to your students and to your friends. And we are all the better for your presence. 

You are the best friend I always wanted but never had. Never—not even when I thought I had a best friend all those years ago. It was always meant to be you, Simona, you my sweet Romanian friend, dear soul, my best friend.

Thank you.

Love always,
Erin

 

Chicken in a Yellow Curry Sauce (Gaeng Kari Gai) – Thailand
Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible

Ingredients:
14 oz. can of coconut milk, left undisturbed for 3 hours or more [I used a non-canned version of coconut milk, so I substituted coconut cream later on]
4 Tbsp. peanut oil
2.5 oz. shallots, peeled and very thinly sliced into slivers
5 Tbsp. Yellow Curry Paste [see below]
1 tsp. hot curry powder
1 lb. boned and skinned chicken thighs, cut into small pieces
1.5 Tbsp. fish sauce, or to taste
1 tsp. thick tamarind paste or lemon juice [I used lemon juice]
1 tsp. palm sugar or brown sugar

Directions:

If you’re using the canned coconut milk, carefully open the can and skim off thick cream at the top (4 Tbsp). Stir remaining contents and set aside.

Pour oil into large lidded pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add shallots and stir. When the edges start to brown, reduce heat to medium-low. Stir as they fry, reducing heat if needed, until they are golden brown and crisp. Remove and place on a plate lined with paper towels.

Add coconut cream and curry paste to the pan with remaining oil from the fried shallots. Stir until oil separates and paste is slightly browned. Add curry powder and stir a few times. Add chicken and stir for a minute. Reduce heat to low and add fish sauce, tamarind, sugar, and 6 oz. water. Bring to a simmer, then cover and cook on low heat for about 15 minutes. Check to make sure chicken is cooked through. Stir in coconut milk and adjust seasoning to taste. Cover and simmer gently for another few minutes.

Serve topped with fried shallots.

 

Yellow Curry Paste
By Madhur Jaffrey

Ingredients:

7 dried hot red chillies (cayenne)
5 oz. shallots, chopped
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon grass, thinly sliced
10 small or 5 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1/2 tsp. white pepper powder
1 tsp. curry powder
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. shrimp paste or 3 anchovies from a can, chopped
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric

Directions:

Soak the red chillies in 5 Tbsp. hot water for 1-2 hours, or microwave them for 2-3 minutes and let sit 20-30 minutes.

Blend or process chillies, with their soaking liquid, with all remaining ingredients. Push mixture down with a rubber spatula as many times as necessary, until you have a smooth paste. 

Learn the Limp

We’ve now spent two Christmases without Tom. The first, 2012, was of course brutal. He had been gone less than a month then, so we were functioning but just barely. This year was better, but holidays are still painful. There are too many memories, too many reminders that he is missing. There is Christmas breakfast, which Tom always made, French toast and bacon; we eat the same thing, but it won’t ever taste the same. There is Christmas morning around the tree, opening presents, Vicki sitting where Tom used to be. It doesn’t feel like Christmas anymore, not yet anyway. They say it gets better, they say it will get better.

A day or two after this Christmas, Becki and Jesse and I went out for dinner, just the three of us. Vicki wasn’t hungry and stayed home. We ate at a little Thai place; we were all tired, and the food was hot and good. It made me think of an evening the year before.

Jesse and I were in Florida then for Thanksgiving, 2012, and we were all becoming aware that this was our last Thanksgiving with Tom. We had lived with the cancer diagnosis for one year then, and whatever hope we had held onto that year was quickly slipping away from us. Tom was gaunt, his energy gone, his eyes often vacant.

The night before we left Merritt Island, I remember following Tom into the house. His back was hunched, his legs extremely thin, and he shuffled like an old man. The cancer had wasted him, had turned him into someone else, some elderly man I couldn’t recognize. This was Jesse’s father, his best friend, this was the person my husband loved more than anyone else, and he was a hundred years older, he was a hundred years older, that fast. There in the yellow light of the porch lamp, I knew we wouldn’t have him much longer.

Christmas, I hoped, stay until Christmas. Please.

That night, Becki and Jesse and I went for dinner at a burger joint near the mall. We talked about how long we might have. A month? A couple months? No more. There was no denying it now: We were close. We were closer than we had ever been.

He died two days later.

So this year, when the three of us ate Thai food, I thought of that evening the year before. How we had no idea just how close we were. How we couldn’t anticipate how much pain we were about to be in.

This past year has been hard. And we’ve still got a long way to go, but there is a settling this year. The pain, still there, has dulled with time. Enough. Enough for us to smile and laugh again, to eat a big bowl of chicken khao soi and love it.

We drank tall glasses of Thai tea, and I thought of the first time I had tried it, the summer of 2011, just a couple months before the diagnosis.

That summer, I was coming off a brutal spring semester teaching, and the stress had put a strain on everything: my physical health, my emotional and spiritual well-being, my marriage, my sanity. I was starting a new novel, and I decided—almost on a whim—to pack myself up and leave North Carolina for a month in San Francisco, to research the setting of the book and to heal. I rented a bright little studio with a backyard garden and fishpond, a couple blocks from Golden Gate Park, and exactly three miles from the Pacific Ocean.

I spent the month mostly alone. Writing. Cooking. Soaking up San Francisco. That month was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Becki came to visit me the week after her marriage ended in divorce. I suppose she and I were both looking for some rest, some space to recover ourselves. We packed her visit with sightseeing—walking through the Japanese tea garden in the fog, eating sea salt caramel tarts from an Inner Sunset bakery, dressing up to see Billy Elliot  at the Orpheum Theatre. But what I remember most about her visit was the Thai iced tea we had at a little place near my apartment.

It was the first time I’d tried the drink. I had just collected Becki from the airport, and we ate an early dinner (or late lunch, whichever). Silky Pad Thai noodles, subtle sauce. Becki suggested I try the tea, which she liked, and I did. It was the prettiest shade of orange and had the loveliest taste. There was something about that tea, something pure, something unexpected. I immediately loved it.  

Later that visit, we talked about her dad. We knew there was something wrong, but he’d not been diagnosed then, and I was still hopeful for something minor. Something that could be easily fixed. Set right. We didn’t yet have words like cancer. Or advanced stage. We had an ambiguous set of troubling symptoms that could have been anything, then, that could still be something entirely harmless. Becki mentioned the possibility of her mother coming to live with her should something happen to Tom, and I brushed off the comment, saying we’re a long way from that, downplaying the little knot of worry in my stomach. Eventually, sure, twenty years from now maybe.

We didn’t know how close we were. We didn’t know what kind of memories we were making. We didn’t yet know our pain tolerance, didn’t know our limits, didn’t know our capacity for suffering, how much we could bear. Perhaps we still don’t. That moment, though, that month in July—it will always be perfect, that afternoon when we drank Thai iced tea in the most beautiful city in the world. That moment when we were very happy.

That summer, that moment, drinking that drink—it was the last time I felt truly happy. I don’t know when I will feel that way again, when something will be as pure and as lovely as it was before cancer. But we move forward. They say it gets better. And for the first time, I think I believe them.

Bon Appetit has an amazing chicken khao soi recipe here. Jesse and I love to top our soup with limes, cilantro, red onions, bean sprouts, and fried shallots.

After trying half a dozen Thai tea recipes, I’ve found the one I like the best at White on Rice Couple.

 

“You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” – Anne Lamott