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Interview with Kasma Loha-unchit by Bangkok Post

by Kasma Loha-unchit

Kasma was interviewed by the Bangkok Post in 1996, soon after her first book, It Rains Fishes: Legends, Traditions, and the Joys of Thai Cooking won the 1996 Julia Child (International Association of Culinary Professionals, IACP) award as Best International Cookbook for 1995.

Bangkok Post: How did getting this award make you feel?

Kasma: When the announcement was made, I could hardly believe my ears. I hadn't expected my book to win because it's a far cry from the format of the majority of cookbooks, and because I'm an "unknown" in culinary circles compared to other nominated books authored by established culinary authorities.

Of course, I was thrilled and was almost at a loss for words to give the acceptance speech. But I managed to find words to thank my mother, who took me into the kitchen since the time I knew how to walk and instilled in me the love of cooking; my students, who persuaded me to write down, all that I taught in my classes; and my husband, Michael, who encouraged me to continue despite the periods of difficulties and doubts.

Bangkok Post: What does the award itself look like?

Kasma: It comes as a I crystal sculpture in the shape of a wire whisk, attached to a wooden base with a plaque naming the award, then the title of the book and my name. There is no money involved, but lots of prestige and recognition among culinary professionals and the public. Since the nominees were announced, I have been approached by the news media and various culinary organisations to comment on various food issues and make personal appearances.

Bangkok Post: What does this award mean to you?

Kasma: The award has greater meaning to me than for most professionals who identify themselves as food writers. I hadn't written it for fortune or fame. Rather, it's a labour of love for people who are dear to me, and this includes not only my mother, immediate family, and the wonderful people who have come through my classes in the past 11 years, but also the warm and heartful people of my country, particularly in the countryside.

The award gives me faith that there are culinary professionals out there who believe in what I believe in: that food is inseparable from culture and from the people who inspired it.

Bangkok Post: Are you the first Thai ever to win this award, or any major US cookbook award?

Kasma: I don't know whether I'm the first Thai to be nominated for the IACP's award, but I do believe I'm the first to win this particular award. Another Thai cookbook was nominated for the James Beard Cookbook Award – the other prestigious cookbook contest – but it didn't win. Titled True Thai, it's co-written by Victor Sodsuk, owner of Siam Princess Restaurant in LA, with an American food writer.

Bangkok Post: : Most cookbooks run lots of mouthwatering photographs of dishes made with their recipes. Yours skips photos altogether, instead using watercolour illustrations, mainly of people. Why?

Kasma: Food and cooking are about people. Just as there is an artist behind every piece of artwork, so it is with each finished dish. There are so many cookbooks out there, but most of them lack human spirit. The photographs tempt people to want to make the dishes, but how many people who've tried the recipes actually have been able to come up with finished products that look like the pictures in the book?

Bangkok Post: You received an MBA from UC Berkeley and worked in marketing for seven years in the US, then switched to a career in cooking. Why?

Kasma: I left the corporate world because I saw so much suffering there, so much greed and disregard for other people for the sake of personal gain. Though I made a good salary and was promoted a few times, I was very disillusioned and did not want to be part of that world.

Around the same time, my husband died. I was suffering deeply and thrown into a cycle of confusion. All of my family were still in Thailand and I wasn't sure where I belonged.

Should I return to my homeland or should I try to rebuild my life here in my adopted country? I decided to stay and turned to religion and spirituality for healing. I studied teachings of various spiritual traditions, including that of Native American teachers. I returned to the teachings of the Buddha. I was determined to find a "right livelihood" that would bring joy rather than suffering to those around me.

I quit my job and returned to school to study psychology so that I could become a therapist. But the western therapeutic model didn't settle well with me, and I turned to Oriental medicine.

In the spring of 1985, I was still confused and wasn't sure about my direction. It was about the time of the Thai New Year. I decided to put aside my worries and go into the kitchen and cook a big feast for all my friends. It was a very nurturing experience; everything came so naturally and I never felt more like myself. Friends who helped out also had great fun.

The food turned out fabulous, so much so that most of my friends urged me to consider doing something with my gift of working with food and people. This gave me the idea to teach cooking classes, approaching cooking as a therapeutic activity and a source of enjoyment and nourishment for mind, body, and spirit.

After years of teaching, I learned where my American students had hang-ups in the cooking of Asian cuisines. So many things are taken for granted by cookbook authors and by Asian cooks that do not come naturally to Westerners, who learn to cook through books rather than direct experience. So when I wrote my book, I wanted it to give more than just recipes, to teach people to develop a good sense of working with foreign ingredients and techniques and to develop a good food sense.

Bangkok Post: Tell us about your family background.

Kasma: I was born and raised in Bangkok and did not leave the country till I was 18 to attend college in America.

My father came from China and settled down in Thailand following the war and China's revolution. He met my mother while hiding from the Japanese in the jungles beyond Thon Buri during World War II.

Mother came from a relatively poor family she used to tell me stories about her childhood helping out in the noodle shop Grandma operated out of their home. My father came to Thailand empty-handed and worked hard to help start the Thai Wah Company and made it into a successful import-export company.

I wouldn't say that we were well-to-do during my childhood. We might have had more than others but we still had to be very frugal. I was Mother's helper not only in the kitchen – I also helped with the wash. It wasn't until my adolescence that I felt that my family was relatively well-off. Even so, if I had not gotten a scholarship to study abroad, I probably wouldn't have attended college at all.

My father is now in his 80s and long retired. Mother has always been a housewife and a busy mother to five children. I'm number four, with three older brothers and it younger sister.

Bangkok Post: Do you have children?

Kasma: Unfortunately, no. My first husband passed away before we had any children and I did not re-marry until just two years ago. I'm now 46, a, little too old to be starting a family.

I'm very close to my third brother, and his two children – they are like my own. My husband's name is Michael Babcock and together we feel like we have children with the two very affectionate white doves we raise. In addition, I feel like a mother to all my students and those who join my tours. In fact, some of them refer to me as "Mom".

Bangkok Post: In your book, you call the process of cooking a sensual delight, a seeing, smelling, hearing, and feeling sort of thing. Is it, then, impossible or difficult for someone who is sense-impaired say blind or deaf to cook well?

Kasma: I think people who are "sense-impaired" in some ways can find cooking even more of a sensual delight. The impairment of a sense usually leads to the development of the other senses to even greater acuteness than in normal people. Blind people can "see" in many other ways than with their eyes, deaf people can "hear" in many other ways than with their ears, and so on. I find these "handicapped" people to be more attuned with their bodies and senses than normal people who are caught up with linear thought and are far removed from the wellspring of creativity.

Bangkok Post: : What do you usually eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

Kasma: My husband and I dine on Thai food most of the time. In fact, Michael can cook Thai food better than some of the Thai restaurants near where we live. He prefers it to western cuisine because it's lighter, healthier, and tastier. On days when I am busy, he makes dinner. My husband loves to bake, so our breakfasts consist mainly of baked goods he has made. For lunch, we either cook something simple, such as noodles or fried rice, or have leftovers from the previous day or from my classes. Occasionally we lunch at noodle shops in Chinatown or grab gourmet sandwiches from our favourite Italian deli.

Bangkok Post: : What are your favourite Thai dishes?

Kasma: Some of our favourite Thai dishes are: spicy basil chicken (phad gkaprow), which we like to make even more with scallops and salmon; roasted eggplant salad yam makhuea yao phao); winged bean salad (yam thua phlu); chu chi curry with seafood; crisp-fried turmeric catfish (pla duk thod khamin), lahb pla, pla rad phrik, and khanom khrok.

We also enjoy some of the dishes we have created ourselves out of Asian ingredients. For instance, I make a tofu dish I call "dried fried tofu with chillies and Thai basil", which we love and which so delighted my mother and my third I brother and his family when they came to visit that they asked me for the recipe. And for my mother to ask me to show her how to cook is a big compliment!

Bangkok Post: Are you a US citizen?

Kasma: No, just a permanent resident. I'm holding on to my Thai passport so that I can return to Thailand any time to visit for as long as I wish without having to fill out any paperwork. My parents are elderly and I want to be able to fly back anytime when necessary without delay. I live for eight months of the year in Oakland, teaching cooking classes three nights each week. I spend the other four months in Thailand, showing people around, visiting family and friends, exploring new territory, and researching new recipes and food ideas.

Bangkok Post: When you come back to Thailand, do you get to cook for your parents and relatives?

Kasma: I only cook for my mother when she comes to visit, which is not very often. She's been here about three or four times over the past 20 years. When I am in Thailand, I let her do the cooking. She's proud of her cooking and I wouldn't take that pride and joy of feeding and nurturing her children away from her. I help her wash, clean, and cut the vegetables but she's the chef and I'm only her sous-chef.

Bangkok Post: Have you ever considered setting up a cooking school in Thailand?

Kasma: Cooking and being a chef have very different connotations here than in Thailand. A good chef can earn a very good living, some making a salary in the six figures (in US dollars). Being a chef is a respectable occupation and no longer a lowly job. Prestigious cooking schools charge tens of thousands of dollars for their certificate programmes.

There is a trend of the general population wanting gourmet food and wanting to learn how to cook it. You can see it in the proliferation of cooking shows on cable TV. Many chefs have turned into stars on their shows.

Cooking schools are opening up all over the place as more and more people want to take cooking classes, not only to learn how to cook but as a form of entertainment. Cookbooks and food and wine magazines, too, are selling well.

The food business is booming in every sense of the word. It's an exciting period for people involved in the food business.

I don't see this trend taking place among the middle and upper classes of Thai society, who still view being a chef as a subservient occupation unless one is trained in the western style of cooking and heads the kitchen at some first-class hotel. That's why I am teaching here rather than in Thailand. Here I have students from all walks of life – doctors, lawyers, professors, college students, waitresses, and truck drivers. Here, cooking is not for housewives as it is in Thailand, but for busy professionals who enjoy good food. And believe it or not, I have just as many men students as women!

Bangkok Post: Bangkok's hectic traffic and lifestyle make it nearly impossible for working couples to enjoy cooking in the leisurely way you describe. Any suggestions?

Kasma: The situation of people having hectic schedules and not having time to cook isn't much different here than in Bangkok. But because eating out is much more expensive here than in Bangkok, most people can't afford to be eating all their meals out. Even if they are well off, they still can't afford to have live-in servants to cook for them. So most of them have to do some cooking during the week. They depend on cookbooks and cooking shows on television. They also take cooking classes.

People who enjoy cooking will often spend an afternoon during the weekend to prepare the meals for the week, freezing them until they are ready to be served. Or they may cook very simple fare during the week and spend more time on the weekends to prepare elaborate meals.

Bangkok Post: You're working on your second cookbook?"

Kasma: Yes, my second book will be about seafood cookery. Perhaps this book will contain mouthwatering pictures of finished dishes, though I still lean toward using artwork to illustrate. [Dancing Shrimp was published in 2000.]

Bangkok Post: Any parting thoughts?

Kasma: Every year I take people travelling all over Thailand, and each year I return to the States with a heavier and heavier heart, because I see more and more of the people dear to me in the countryside suffering. The poor are getting poorer.

How can we rightfully say that this represents progress? I personally feel that we should measure progress not by the standard of living among the privileged, but among the poorest.

Taken from the Bangkok Post – Saturday, May 18, 1996, Vol. LI, No. 139, page 1 of Section Three, "Outlook". This was soon after Kasma's book It Rains Fishes: Legends, Traditions and the Joys of Thai Cooking won a Julia Child Cookbook Award as Best International Cookbook of 1995. The interviewer is Wipawee Otaganonta.

Copyright © 1996 Kasma Loha-unchit & Bangkok Post. All rights reserved.

See Also: Allison Wilson's off-site article: Thai Food and Travel: An Authentic Cultural and Culinary Experience (opens in new window).

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