When you see thinking as thinking, then that’s wisdom. Don’t believe any of it! Recognize that all of it is just something that has arisen and will cease. Simply see everything just as it is – it is what it is – the mind is the mind – it’s not anything or anybody in itself. Happiness is just happiness, suffering is just suffering – it is just what it is.
– Ajahn Chah, in Food for the Heart, p. 274.
From: Food for the Heart: The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Chah. Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA, 2002.
Whole Fish Dishes Usher in Abundance in the New Year
Most cultures in the Orient believe food to provide much more than physical sustenance. It also nourishes the soul and spirit and gives meaning to people’s lives.
One highly regarded food is fish, a major source of protein and nutrition affordable by people in all stations of life. Because they are plentiful in the surrounding seas and in inland lakes, rivers, ponds and canals, fish are auspicious symbols of abundance, wealth and prosperity Because they reproduce freely, swim about gracefully without apparent boundaries and seem content with their environments, they are basic symbols of regeneration, freedom, pleasure and harmony.
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In many Asian countries, fish is served at almost every meal, but although it is eaten so frequently, people are never tired of it. This is because there are so many different varieties, each with its unique qualities and tastes, and countless ways to prepare them, employing a wide range of herbs, condiments and flavor ingredients. Fish is also light, delicate in taste and easy to digest, seldom leaving one feeling heavy and uncomfortable as when too much animal meat is consumed.
Asians prefer serving fish whole for a number of reasons. Not only does buying a fish whole allow us the best means of judging its freshness, cooking a fish on the bone and with skin still attached yields a more moist and much sweeter and tastier result. The smaller, younger fish we prefer means the flesh is tender and succulent and has less of a tendency of drying out it cooking. A whole fish also gives us delicious tidbits around the head, tail and fins.
Just as important is the meaning that a whole fish conveys – wholeness, unity and prosperity. For this reason and other symbolic meaning mentioned above, whole fish are customarily served on special occasions, such as birthdays, weddings and on the New Year. In my family, a whole fish is served on New Year’s eve – only part of it is eaten with the rest saved for the following day, thereby carrying prosperity from one year to the next.
If you’d like to try your hand at a whole fish recipe, check out my recipe for:
Although the recipe suggests some kinds of fish, they can be substituted with other kinds of fish that are fresh and in season. If you have trouble looking a fish in the eye, try the recipe with fish steaks, but of course they will be lacking in the abundance of flavors and meanings, especially for the new year.
Here is a photo of some very fresh Thai Chillies, called prik kee noo in Thai. These. chillies are, indeed, fiery hot. Unlike some other hot peppers, the heat seems to build up and accumulate as you continue eating so that a dish, that at first bite did not seem that hot, can turn out to be very hot indeed!
Fragrant Beef Noodle Soup Warms the Tummy and Home on Cold Days
Now that cold weather has descended upon us, devouring a steaming bowl of fragrant, stewed beef noodle soup is especially satisfying. Not that I stay away from such delicious comfort food other times of year, it is a favorite one-dish meal and snack even in the tropical heat of Asia.
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Each Southeast Asian culture has its favorite noodle dishes. The Vietnamese are fond of their pho, the Thai of their gkuay dtiow reua (“boat noodles”), and the Malaysians their laksa. These noodle dishes share similar roots – they are Chinese in origin, introduced by immigrants from different parts of China who settled in the region several generations ago. Their descendants continue to run the noodle shops that abound in many Southeast Asian cities, or hawk countless bowls from push-cart stalls and paddle boats, adding color and aroma to the sidewalks and canals of the Orient.
The common origin explains why many noodle dishes of different Southeast Asian cultures are suspiciously similar in look and taste. This certainly is true of beef noodle soup. The Vietnamese pho is not much different from the Thai gkuay dtiow reua, or the Cantonese beef noodles you get in Chinatown noodle shops.
There are essentially two kinds of beef noodle soup – one with clearer broth and a cleaner taste and the other with a darker, richer and heartier broth. The latter is what I prefer for the colder seasons of the year because of its warming qualities.
I like to stew the beef for my noodle soup with a multitude of herbs and spices, adding a fragrant aroma that is not only inviting to the appetite but turns the concoction into something of a preventative medicinal broth. And because a good, hearty broth is produced by simmering the beef over very low heat for a number of hours, the making of it warms and perfumes the home just as much as the finished soup is warming to the tummy and the soul.
Asians like a variety of textures in their food and prefer to stew beef that is laced with tendons. Well-tenderized tendons give a contrasting gelatinous texture to the chewier meat. Many westerners are leery about eating tendon; they often mistake it for fat and think it is bad for their health. Yet, they do not realize that this same tendon is the basic stuff that jello is made out of, and it certainly is not fatty.
For my stewed beef soup, I like to use a whole shank because it is attached by large tendons to the muscles and bone. It is readily available from Asian markets with a meat counter. I simmer it whole until the entire shank is tender. This takes about three to four hours. The slower the cooking, the sweeter and more flavorful the broth.
For further contrast of texture and flavor, tripe may be added to the stewing pot. Fresh steak slices, lightly cooked to medium rare, and beef meat balls also frequently accompany the stewed beef on the noodles. The latter is available in the refrigerated compartments of Asian markets. They have a similar elastic texture to fish balls, but are a darker grayish color.
The favorite noodles served in beef soup is fresh rice noodles – the same kind used for Chinese “chow fun”. Available in most Asian markets, they come in dense two-pound packages. Be sure to separate the noodles into individual strands before using, or else you will have one big lump in your soup.
The soup is served with bean sprouts and lettuce either already wilted in the broth, or separately on a side dish for dunking into the soup as each person wishes. The Vietnamese like to add sprigs of mint and basil to the side dish for bites of refreshing herbal flavors.
Finally, each partaker at a noodle meal can spice the soup any way he or she wishes with chile sauces, fish sauce and other condiments laid out on the table. Bottled sauces, such as Chinese chile sauce with garlic or Sriracha hot sauce, are available from most Asian stores. I prefer to make my own with fresh chiles as in the recipe that follows.
Many temples in Thailand have a statue or mural similar to this statue from Ubon Ratchathani in Northeastern Thailand (Isahn). It depicts the Earth Mother Goddess ringing out her hair at the time of the Buddha’s enlightenment. The story goes thus:
After many years of searching and wandering, the Buddha sat down determined not to rise from his seat until he had attained enlightenment. As he sat, all the temptations of the world came to attempt to distract him; these distractions are called Mara. As he sat and contemplated, Mara mocked him, saying “You claim you are enlightened! Well who, then, will witness and testify to your enlightenment?” At this, the Buddha pointed a hand down to the earth, indicating that the Earth Mother Goddess would witness. The Earth Mother Goddess was washing her hair and as she wrung out her hair, the water from it overcame and swept Mara, with all his distractions, away, leaving behind the newly enlightened Buddha.
There is, thus, a strong feminine component to Thai Buddhism and, if you look, you’ll notice her image in most Thai temples.
The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.
Perhaps our favorite restaurant in Bangkok is My Choice on Sukhumvit Soi 36 in Bangkok. The menu is loaded with delicious dishes brilliantly prepared with ultra-fresh ingredients. There are so many great dishes that usually when we go we order several to be eaten with rice. See Michael’s Blog on My Choice for pictures of many of our other favorite dishes.
This picture shows a “one-dish meal” rice dish at My Choice, Salted Black Olive Fried Rice; on their menu it is called Kao Ohb Nahm Liap. The main ingredient is a Chinese salted black olive, which is mixed with shrimp, dried shrimp, green mango, Thai chillies and ground pork. It’s a marvelous dish, full of several different types of flavors and anchored by the black olive.
It’s a marvelous dish and I usually order it when I eat at My Choice by myself. They serve it already mixed, as in the picture. Kasma used to teach as a composed salad that is mixed by each person prior to eating.
Here’s my attempt at rendering the name of the dish Thai script.