THE DELIGHTS OF THAI CUISINE

Thailand is internationally famous for memorable meals. Be they simple dishes in a fishing village. Or elaborate buffets served in tourist hotels.

Tom Yum Kuang spicy hot Thai prawn soup

One meal I remember in particular was on the terrace of the Oriental Hotel overlooking the Chao Phaya river winding through capital Bangkok.

The occasion was Loy Krathong, a Buddhist festival held on the full November moon and drifting downstream were thousands of tiny banana-leaf boats each containing a flower, a coin and a candle, a custom to appease the water spirits.

My companion and I had found it appropriate to start with tom yum kung, a sour and spicy prawn soup, but unfortunately Stefan — who’d just arrived from Frankfurt —caught one of the explosive chilies used in the recipe and coughing violently, was obliged to retire.

Thai duck curry with chunks pineapple, Bangkok

I continued eating alone, wading through crispy spring rolls, roast duck curry, stir-fried vegetables and baskets of rice. Once I went upstairs to check on Stefan whom I found asleep with several bottles of mineral water on his bedside table.

During the night I was disturbed by Stefan calling room service for a hamburger. The time change had been too much for him: slowly I reflected, is the best way to grow accustomed to Thai food.

The Kingdom of Siam was never conquered. Local cooking is an amalgam of different cuisines, a result of ancient trade links with China, India and Portugal until gradually these foreign influences became absorbed into what is a uniquely Thai repertoire.

Several ingredients give Thai food its special taste. Universal is nom pla a pungent sauce made from fermented fish of which one or two drops adds zest to any dish. Phak chi or coriander is another aromatic flavour.

More than a dozen different types of chilies are used in Thai recipes

The dynamic taste of many dishes comes from chillies of which more than a dozen types are used in cooking. The hottest phrik khi nu luang, is the tiny orange-yellow chilli Stefan encountered in his soup.

More subtle flavours come from lemon-grass and freshly grated coconut milk a popular ingredient in curries as well as desserts.

Thais are equally gifted at making food look attractive.

Soup arrives with a delicately carved slice of cucumber floating in the bowl, lotus-shaped carrot buds highlight a dish of rice while fruits such as melons and pineapples are transformed into works of art.

A typical meal includes a large bowl of rice with at least five side dishes —soup, curry and vegetables known as gap kow — meaning ‘with rice.’

Other gap-kow such as spring rolls and beef stir-fry have Chinese origins. There will also be a fish or meat dish, usually pork, plus steamed vegetables and salads.

There is no order to eating. One can eat soup first or last. Etiquette requires you take small portions and although they would not admit it, Thais find the Western custom of piling everything on a single plate distasteful.

Dessert is commonly fresh fruit or a sweet dish based on fruits such as durian or mango basking in creamy coconut sauce.

Thailand’s exotic fruits — spiky durians, hairy rambutans and gigantic jackfruit (some weigh as much as 20 kilos) are sold in Bangkok’s Central Market.

Floating market traders Thailand

Arriving early I was able to browse through the stalls before the shoppers.

I noticed a saffron-robed monk carefully inspecting packets of khanom phin — cookies made from beanflower and shredded coconut. From pyramids of pastel-coloured sweets he chose khanom pui fai or ‘cotton wool cakes’ — someone in the monastery obviously has a sweet tooth, I decided.

Following him into the fish market, I watched him buying a kilo of blue-green prawns from the Gulf of Siam. Moving onto vegetables, he bought coriander, lemon grass, mushrooms and kaffir lime leaves: tom yum kuang was on the luncheon menu!

Outside I decided to have breakfast at one of the busy street stalls catering to people on their way to work. Mussel omelette was my choice, tossed in a pan over a charcoal stove.

Without the disturbance of Stefan choking, I was eating slowly and savouring the scene when the cook banged a bottle on the table.

Passed to me, I found a few drops transformed my simple omelette into a dish of regal status.

I took nom pla when I left Thailand and have found it works miracles in a variety of dishes cooked at home.

 

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FEZ: jewel in the imperial crown of Morocco

To visit Morocco without seeing the historic capital of Fez is like eating a birthday cake without the icing. Fez is a gem. Some people might even say it is the jewel in the crown of the Kingdom of Morocco.

Tightly packed buildings in the old medina with the zaouia  or shrine of Idriss II or Moulay Idriss II who ruled Morocco from 807 to 828 CE

The city was founded in the ninth century, roughly at the time when Scherazade was spinning tales of the ‘thousand and one nights’ to the Caliph Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad. But it is Fez, not the Iraqi capital, which remains a colourful example of this exotic period in the development of civilisation.

Houses, some more than 400 years old, overlook narrow, meandering lanes in the old medina known as Fez el-Bali

Fez reached its apogee during Merinid rule in the 13th century when it was one of the most advanced centres of learning and urban infrastructure in the ancient world. Its university, incorporated within the Karaouine Mosque (founded in 859) was attended by Pope Sylvester II, a student of Arabic numerals.

The town had hospitals, schools, funduqs (hotels) for travellers and 93 hammams (bath-houses) while local trades and crafts were organised into 150 different unions. Each with its own patron saint.

Cutting leather for handsewn babouche, the classic soft leather slipper worn by both men and women in Morocco

Originally measured against the width of a loaded mule, the streets in its old medina known as Fez el-Bali, are too narrow for motorised traffic. Hence you can wander at will, in perfect safety, among its sprawling souqs or covered bazaars.

Each trade or product still occupies the same quarter allocated to it centuries ago by the mutasib, prefect of Fez.

A boy making chechias, the traditional hat or fez. Aged sixteen, he is already a master of this ancient trade.

There are wax chandlers, knife-grinders, scribes, cabinet-makers, embroiderers, coppersmiths, leather-makers and perfume blenders. Foods are also segregated: fruits here, vegetables there, spices in the attarine or spice market.

A perfume blender, or “nose” in his tiny shop in the depths of Fez el-Bali

Friendly traders invite you to try a bit of this, or a sniff of that. To dip your finger in a tub of honey, to taste a slice of cheese, to try a lump of nougat, to suck a tangerine. Or to sit on a tiny stool and enjoy a mint tea as you bargain the price of a hand-woven carpet.

Souq Sabbighin, the dyers market is little changed in a thousand years

In 1981 Fez el-Bali was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. not only for its splendid architectural heritage and urban planning, but because the entire medina remains a living, breathing museum.

The smell of the medieval tanneries in Fez el-Bali will never leave your nose…

 

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MUSCAT RAMBLE: a cat named Aziz

On a visit to Muscat, a tourist seeing the cat outside the incense shop, called him Frank. After frankincense. But the cat took no notice. Having sat on the steps of the shop for eleven years Aziz —for this was his real name —was indifferent.

Another joker —Aziz thought he might have been British — suggested a good name for him was ‘Muscat’. Mus-Cat. Geddit?

Aziz thought this a bit pathetic since Muscat, the capital of Oman, was located in the next bay around the coast. He lived in Muttrah the port area, fish market and bazaar. So the man had just made a fool of himself.

Aziz bin Sultan al-Hamra, to use his full name, was a part-tortoiseshell cat of origins obscure. His very pointed ears lent credence to a suggestion of royal descent. Had his ancestors pattered delicately around the Queen of Sheba’s palace?

The ‘bin’ means son of —Sultan — a right roue of a cat whose base was the fish market. Sultan had lived to a great age, fed each day on sardines from the Arabian Sea.

No one knew Aziz’s mother, a mystery cat who had birthed three kittens behind Muttrah mosque. There were very few cats in Oman. Perhaps she had been a feral cat whom Sultan had met on one of his nightly strolls.

A Danish embassy wife had seen the kittens and taken them home. But only Aziz had survived. And when the Danes were posted to Moscow, their driver took the kitten to his brother who owned the incense shop in the souq.

And there Aziz remained. From an early age he took to sitting on the step watching passers-by. He never did anything beyond watch. It wasn’t necessary as there was plenty to see. And as the only cat in the bazaar he was treated like royalty.

Old Mohammed who sold canes, ropes and other rustica brought him tidbits from the fishing boats. Fatima who lived in one of the tall, white waterfront houses put milk in a lid as she passed on her way to the shops.

The man who owned the incense shop did nothing, but Aziz felt this was fair since he allowed him to sit on the step. Rents were expensive in the souq: if he had to pay for a space on the step  — perish the idea, thought Aziz.

And why the incense shop? He could have sat outside the jewellers, the money-changers or the shops selling shimmering textiles and beads.

But no. He liked the fragrance of burning resin, sandalwood and aloe and especially the silvery beads of frankincense from trees in Dhofar, the southern province of Oman.

He liked to sit on the step and inhale, imaging himself in the Queen of Sheba’s household. With servants to brush his coat and trim his claws.

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