Thai Sidewalk, My Father and Me

Text by Silvan Sooksatan
Photos by Dale Kaplan

The spice and heat of thai red chili peppers can penetrate through any wall or crevice, especially my third story room in the attic. Whenever my eyes start to water and my coughs become full of an uncomfortable amount of spice, so much so that I will sometimes leave the house in order to avoid gagging, I know that my dad is frying thai chili peppers. Yet the pain and suffering of my poor throat is only a temporary inconvenience. Just like Thai buddhist teachings, life is suffering, but still beauty and love emerges through the pain. Similarly, the beauty and delight of my dad’s cooking emerges from the pain of peppery smoke flowing through my nasal passages.

The fundamentals of Thai cooking are simple: Sweet, Sour, and Spice. A powerful trifecta that is the basis for all Thai dishes. When I ask my father where he learned how to cook he doesn’t cite the traditional sources such as his parents. Instead his rich palette comes from a different place, the street vendors. As a child growing up in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city, food was all over the streets. Tiny carts filled with of a variety of delights from all over the country were cooked right in front of you in a cheap and efficient fashion, mesmerizing my father from a young age. He took these inspirations to America when he immigrated here and applied it to our kitchen with a little help from the internet to jog his memory. These carts are the source of my suffering and delight in my kitchen.

The fundamentals of Thai cooking are simple: Sweet, Sour, and Spice. A powerful trifecta that is the basis for all Thai dishes

It was a welcome surprise then, while walking on front street, I spotted a small cart crammed with two employees, May and Nar, one working the register and the other furiously working their small kitchen.While tiny, the aluminum cart plastered with pictures of thai women and children in traditional garb and a small map outlining the different regions of Thailand, felt proud and welcoming. On top of the cart, a yellow sign with simple bold black lettering spelled out “Thai sidewalk.” Remembering the inspiration my dad drew from joints like this, I was instantly excited. Clearly so were many other people as a small line patiently waited for their food to be prepared right in front of them. On the menu was an assortment of food I mostly recognized such as Pad Thai and Pad See Eew, the latter being my favorite dish. Other food I had less familiarity with such as Massaman Curry and Kua Gal. The prices which straddled around 8-10 dollars for a main dish, although probably not as cheap as the vendors in Bangkok, were reasonably priced for Brooklyn. In the end I opted for two staples in the thai cooking world: Pad Thai and Green Curry over rice.

Thai sidewalk is simple, prideful, authentic, and most importantly delicious.

Pad Thai is a familiar dish in my home. This ideal summer lunch is truly representative of the Thai cuisine as its many ingredients including tamarind, rice noodles, peanuts, fish sauce, sugar, shrimp, and paprika take your tastebuds to flavortown. Put simply I was very happy with my meal. Admittedly my dad felt the dish was a little sweet, but said “that’s how westerners like it so it makes sense.” My next dish, the Green curry, was a treat for me since my Dad rarely cooks it at home. If I were to describe the dish in one word it would be “fresh.” Each bite left an enduring kick of spice that festered in my mouth like the cool of mint gum. The lasting and invigorating is was enhanced by a sip of Thai ice tea which provided a brief rush of ease from the spice, but eventually supplants this signature flavor. As I enthusiastically ate the curry I could hear my Dad yelling at me from New Jersey to stop slurping.

 

Thai sidewalk is simple, prideful, authentic, and most importantly delicious. The vendors, who come from all over Thailand, work hard to deliver to their customers. When I told them I was half thai their faces lit up and asked if i could speak the language. Although I could not, the experience inspired me to connect more with my own roots. Thus I decided to learn how to cook Pad Thai with my Dad. The undertaking, although rewarding and insightful left me in tears once again. But not because I was overcome with pride and joy but because while I was cooking I accidentally rubbed my face with a hand full of ground up thai red chili peppers. In the end I was left with a conclusion that i’ve known from the beginning. Life is suffering and I cannot make anything beautiful without a little suffering.

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