Unfortunately, it seems like the restaurants I’ve frequented lately has served a pale facsmile to authentic Thai food.
When I was growing up, my dad once explained to me that Thai food is the pursuit of a harmonious blend of the four “S’s.” The four S’s comprise of Salty, Sour, Spicy and Sweet. If you can combine these four things seamlessly, then you have the perfect Thai dish.
Of course, it’s subject to interpretation, as all food is. So, my perfect blend would be different then say…Terry’s perfect blend.
In fact, we’ve often joked that I may be half-Thai, but he has the Thai tongue. That’s because I don’t like super spicy food and Thais are notorious for their ability to spice any dish up.
I remember the first time Terry and I went out to eat with my grandparents, Dad, and his girlfriend, Nuch. All night long, Terry would be reaching for the spicy condiments. Every time he’d get it near to hand, my grandma would calmly take it and move it to the other end of the table.
I don’t think she even realized she was doing it! I suspect it was an unconscious gesture to save his poor, wimpy, white tongue from the cruel ramifications of the common Thai chili called, prik kee noo. (Which, little factoid, literally means “mouse-shit chilies.”)
Little did she know that Terry LOVES spicy things. So, every time he’d watch her move the condiment away from him, he would enlist the aid of Nuch to retrieve it and pass it back.
I think this must have happened a dozen times throughout the course of dinner. It became a game of sorts to see how long it would take for my grandma to notice the forboding condiment putting my husband in harm’s way.
While Terry likes the peppers, his absolute favorite Thai condiment is called nam-pla prik. Nam-pla is fish sauce (Nam = “water” Pla = “fish”.) Prik means chili. So, basically nam-pla prik is spicy fish sauce.
Nam-pla prik is one of those sauces that’s ubiquitous in Thai dining. It’s on par with how many western cultures apply salt and pepper, and can be used in just about any rice dish. Terry adores it and any time we go to a Thai restaurant he never fails to request some.
Most Thai restaurants will often supply some free of charge if you request it. I think it’s seen as a sign that you know how to eat Thai food properly, as we always get knowing looks once they realize we like it.
One time, when we were visiting Thailand, my grandma and I took Terry to meet grandma’s older sister, Grandma Glang. Although Grandma Glang was barely mobile, and largely stayed in her house, she was one of the most vivacious and warm-hearted women I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.
Grandma Glang had a smile that welcomed anybody who saw it and a hearty laugh that came straight from her soul and out through her belly. Her health had been failing for quite a long time, and it was important to me that Terry get a chance to meet her, because I wasn’t sure how long it would be before we’d be back to visit.
So, there we were, sitting in her living room, and the two grandmas are talking up a storm- with only one problem, it was all in Thai. I know a smattering of Thai (what I like to call “Taxi Thai”) but neither one of us were following the conversation. We were basically just sitting there politely and maintaining slightly vacant smiles on our faces.
After awhile, my grandma stops and turns to Terry and teasingly says, “HaHa! You don’t know what we’re saying!”
At which point, in an effort to engage us, Grandma Glang turns to Terry and says, “Have you learned any Thai words since you’ve been here?”
Now, there are a few basic vocabulary words that most travelers will learn when they head to Thailand. Since Thai is gender based, females will end their words and sentences with the suffix, “ka.” Men, end theirs with the suffix, “krup.”
For example, a greeting in Thai for women is “Sawa-dee, ka” and for men it is, “Sawa-dee, krup.” This universal acknowledgement serves the purpose for both hello and good-bye, which makes it a pretty useful first phrase for most people.
Another common phrase is how to say, “Thank you.” “Kup-koon, ka” or “Kup-koon, krup” is another one of those handy words that people learn right away.
However, instead of either one of these expected phrases, Terry turned to Grandma Glang and said, “Nam-pla prik.”
Grandma Glang threw her head back and bellowed out a roar of laughter! My own grandma’s eyes got huge and twinkly. She broke out into a giant grin and said, “What did you say?! Nam-pla prik?!”
As this revelation was confirmed, Grandma Glang’s eyes were streaming with tears and she was just laughing and laughing. Her cheeks were damp with humor. She just couldn’t get over the fact that out of ALL the words Terry could have chosen to learn, he chose his favorite condiment first.
Unfortunately, Grandma Glang has since passed away, but every time I see nam-pla prik, I remember her joy in that moment. I love that my last memory is of her laughing about Terry and his nam-pla prik.