Collaborating on Thai green curry
At the point in my life when this story begins, “cooking” was a grandiose term to describe such endeavours. If reading instructions on a pack of Mama noodles and adding sautéed mushrooms and chicken was the height of my talents then it is easy to envisage why my jaw dropped when walking into a Sainsbury’s after eleven years away from the UK. The sheer number of ingredients was staggering to the untrained, unrefined eye and brimming with opportunity - I had not yet developed my disdain for a shop not stocking a particular type of soy sauce - and thus did I hurtle down a specific Trouser Leg of Time, and reality. Had I not done so, I would have embraced student cooking wholeheartedly, and we would be having a conversation about hard-boiled eggs. Incidentally, this was also the period in which I was introduced to Terry Pratchett. Had I not done so, we would be having a sincere conversation about hard-boiled eggs. Fortunately, there is truth and justice in this world.
Blame lies solely with one of my course-mates from University to whom (and another) I pledged to feed Thai green curry. Why I committed myself to a fairly complex dish as an inaugural attempt at cooking for others - outside of family, who are more inclined to freeze their smiles and continue eating even if, hypothetically, I had forgotten the salt (hypothetical apologies to my cousin’s husband for hypothetically embarrassing noodles) - is a bit of a fugue.
Why yes, I do indeed identify as a coconut
Recipe and ingredients scribbled on paper torn from my notebook (otherwise unused because I had started off studying Computer Science), the first stage of this culinary path began. Normally, visits to the supermarket were a cadence of weekly essentials, and fending off other starving students to grasp at reduced-price items around 3AM: either boring, or unplanned. This time, it was a journey of purposeful discovery. Is that what lemongrass looked like, before being boiled to death in a suspect “Thai” soup at a restaurant which also inexplicably served Indian food? Is that what palm sugar looked like, because I had never seen palm sugar before? And then, of course, an ultimate show of luxury: coconut milk easily sourced from a tin, rather than hacked out of a shell. I would say that was utterly bougie, but this was the mid-2000s. Now of course, coconut pulp in its artisanally hirsute shell is the height of privilege. The sole missing item was coriander root, which remains a challenge to this very day. Just a few hours ago saw me gesticulating wildly to my family about how we should grow our own coriander: my mum could use the leaves for South-East Asian cooking, and I would lay my claim to the roots. Eyes were rolled, friendly ribbing was administered.
Back to Sainsbury’s (and the past), having collected at least a dozen additional ingredients, including some last-minute changes, the mindful return to my halls of residence started. This was time to ponder about ministrations that lead to delicious creations, a contemplation of how seemingly disparate ingredients can form such a beautiful mélange: a mental mise-en-place, if you will. In reality, it was an ignoble and sweaty trek back, with several stops along the way to give my woefully spindly arms a chance to rest, an opportunity to massage out the red furrows cut into my palms from clutching heavy shopping bags.
As I trudged through the corridors to our generously-proportioned kitchen, clearly emboldened by progress, I met two school friends of the other friend and blurted out at them to join us for dinner. Now I had three Singaporean hall mates as guests; Singaporeans being noted for their exacting food preferences and standards. The only solace I have now is that I made Thai friends the year after, and not then. Such fear was utterly unfounded though. Instead of four mouths to feed (this was dawaat thinking), I had four reliable, good-natured allies in our conquest to ease the rumbling of bellies.
Nailed it, literally: a masterclass in self-deprecation
Channelling our best Adam Smiths, we promptly divided labour and started to tackle the various aspects of green curry. Lacking a mortar, or even its stalwart ally pestle, our green curry paste was formed the faux-fashioned way. Armed with a chopping board apiece, each began the painstaking process of slicing and chopping through the aromatics with abysmally student-grade knives, followed by very haphazard mincing. Lemongrass, it turned out, is a viciously tough bastard and requires a good deal of elbow grease (not one of the ingredients I assure you). So much so that one of the girls (Cheryl) slipped her knife in frustration, ending up with a sound that wasn’t quite chopped-lemongrass, depositing something in the growing collection of inexpertly-but-earnestly diced paste components, something small and seemingly nondescript. “That was my nail”, she described. “Looks like someone is going to find that in their curry!”
Before the words could be formed in my mouth, my friend Samir uttered them, his now-familiar self-deprecation in full force: “It’s going to be me.” And that’s when I had personal confirmation of the truth that University is the place where you find your lifelong friends. (It was also he who is to blame for introducing me to Pratchett). With the preparation stage winding down, and a mixture that could arguably be considered a paste once glasses were taken off (my index is around minus-five), it was time to start cooking.
You’re just jealous of my hue
Green curry is a beautifully versatile dish, working just as well with vegetables as with proteins. We were going for a classic variant, with handfuls of bite-sized chicken breast marinated in soy, sugar, and cornflour (my current self tuts at this), initially stir-fried in a smoking wok. Set aside and left to cool, the bougie coconut milk was brought to boil in the poultry-infused oil. Once bubbling, the spice concoction was added, steeping the creamy curry in sharp, citrusy, and bright flavours. (Future refinements would involve frying the paste until oils and aroma are released, before slowly incorporating coconut milk). It was a shame that the colour verged on grey, but the smell was gorgeous. Patting ourselves on our collective backs, we sat down with spoonfuls of rice (alas, not Jasmine), and collectively shrieked: our generosity with piquant bird’s eye chillies wreaked retribution. This was followed by laughter, volume raised higher when Cheryl asked if someone had found her nail yet. Sparkling company notwithstanding, I also discovered one of the most unfettered joys of cooking with others: everyone eagerly participated in the washing up afterwards with little prompting (thanks, folks).
As I write this, messages fly back and forth with Samir, trying to bottom out some obscure details of an event that took place nearly 14 years ago. He wonders how I remember all this, to which I simply reply, “Food was involved”. To that day I was challenged to make food outside of my comfort zone by one of my closest friends: it inspired me to keep pushing my culinary boundaries, and to seek that inimitable feeling of quiet camaraderie and good humour only possible when cooking together.