In a bright, airy room, with windows overlooking the garden, the family gathers for lunch. Normally, everyone eats separately, but today is special; it's Sansanee's father's birthday. While her Dad, the The Four Star General, is busy celebrating by singing karaoke with his military buddies, we're having a casual meal in a quiet family room.
Though the star of the day is carousing elsewhere, he is watching over us from a large, gilded frame on the wall. He and his associate, the President of Thailand, eye us from above as we enjoy our feast of delicious foods including satay, pad thai, tom yam, and, new for today, fried fish in a spicy three-flavored sauce called Bla Sam Rot.
We've been begging Sansanee to show us around the kitchen, and this afternoon, she is happy to oblige. This is, literally, a dream come true for me. Before we head to the kitchen, though, we wrap up our meal by sneaking over to the army party's dessert table. There, Sansanee shows us the array of Thai sweets that the restaurant is famous for. First off, there are mung bean dumplings:
The chef ladles out a spoonful of pastel crepe batter onto a little skillet where it cooks/steams under a conical metal beanie.
The wrappers are then filled with mung bean paste, and rolled in coconut. The end results are very tiny, very delicate, barely sweet dumplings.
Next come the gelatinous desserts. They look so pretty and fake and magical, but Sansanee tells us they were colored with natural dyes made from plants right here on the property!
Like the mung bean dumplings, these jewel-like treats are hardly sweet at all and fairly tasteless in spite of their vibrant exterior. They look like they'd be the consistency of jello, but instead, they are oddly firm. Sort of like cartilage. It is a strange sensation when I slide a spoon through the bluebird's many layers. It takes a lot of force to break the surface, and then there is a wet, slurpy chunkchunkchunk as the spoon glides through.
After sampling the bluebird, we move on to the coconut milk desserts. The little custardy disks are barely sweet and sort of salty, with a topping of green onions. They're not as satisfying as say, brownies or pie, but they're not bad, I suppose. If you like omelettes. For dessert.
It's a bit of a relief when we visit the next dessert station where a woman is frying bananas. There are no beans or onions in these guys, just sweet, tangy bananas, and a batter that becomes crunchy and delicious in hot oil. Arroy!
Though it's fun trying new things, my favorite dessert is scooped directly out of Bualuang's freezer: homemade ice cream. We try little bites of durian and taro root flavors, and ogle the rest of the exotic choices like sweet corn, kiwi, lychee, Asian Pear, tamarind, rambutan, and 'Thai Iced Tea', but we opt for two bowls of more familiar flavors like chocolate, coffee, and vanilla.
Once dessert is over, into the kitchen we go! Here it is, the inner sanctum where delicious things are created, where all is a blur of cooking and food prep, steely woks, savory smoke, and gas flames. We begin the tour with a quick lesson in making my favorite Thai dish, pad kee mao.
Rice noodles are sliced on the well-worn cutting board, and the grease-encrusted stove is lit with a match. A dollop of homemade chili paste sizzles in hot oil, sending forth searing fumes that burn my nasal passages.
With an arsenal of fish sauce, soy sauce, Maggi seasoning sauce, and oyster sauce at her disposal, the seasoned cook drizzles a mixture into the hot wok with as the rice noodles are added. A spoonful of sugar, some garlic, a pinch of MSG, and a handful of basil complete the dish. Moments later, I am presented a plate of steaming pad kee mao. It looks so easy!
Next comes the sweet gai pad met mamoung, or cashew chicken, that was served in a taro basket for us on our first night at Bualuang. The chicken is chopped on a wooden chopping block, then fried in a wok of hot oil. There are tiny little eggs in the dish as well, along with water chestnuts, dark, dried chili pieces, and of course, cashews. All of the fried ingredients get swirled in another un-measured mixture of basic sauces, and voilà!
After we learn some of our favorite dishes, one of the cooks takes me aside to show me how to make som tam. Tam means crushed or pounded, so it's no surprise when the mortar and pestle come out. Into it go shredded green papaya and carrot, lime juice, fish sauce, caramelized sugar syrup, chilies, garlic, small tomatoes, and a loose handful of tiny dried shrimps. The cook then shows me the right amount of pressure to apply when pounding.
Though Tyler is snapping a million pictures, and I'm paying close attention, relishing every moment of our behind-the-scenes Thai kitchen experience, there is so much going on that there's no time to take notes. Nevertheless, I feel empowered by the hand's-on tutorial, confident that I've seen enough to start making real attempts at my favorite Thai dishes when we get home.
What freedom it is to realize what was once a mysterious cuisine of delicious, indescribably exotic and complex flavors, is actually very accessible. There are no magical techniques or strict recipes involved, just an eye-opening lesson, some basic guidelines, and a few simple tools.
And so, as the cooks proceed to show us everything from Tyler's favorite salted chicken (fried chicken with a fish sauce coating – that's it) to a spicy snail soup, from a stir-fried pork dish to some fish patties, I don't fret that I'm not grasping everything. This isn't rocket science.
Sansanee wraps up our tour by taking us behind the kitchen to the food prep and dishwashing area. There, several people are cleaning every bowl and plate by hand, while a woman sits nearby and fries little appetizer cups. She dips the mold into a thin batter, then hangs it on a hook over the hot oil.
The cooks on break in the back are all laughing and talking, eating their lunches and relaxing. Through Sansanee, they tell me how nice it was to see my grandparents all those years ago, and how they still talk about the two times the pair came to visit. As if on cue, Sansanee's grandmother shows up to say hello.
Tyler and I are so floored about this afternoon's tour – hearing stories of the women who have been living and cooking here for over twenty years, we decide that some day, we'll have to come back to document it much more thoroughly. Perhaps in five years or so, we'll return and write a hefty memoir and cookbook about Bualuang, capturing stories and photos of the people, the families, the food, and the history of this unique and inspiring place.
To Sansanee, and the chefs of Bualuang, thank you!