Eating for Two in Thailand
Sorry, Mom—this isn’t about me. It’s about Kyle Cornforth and her journey from Alice Waters’s Edible Schoolyard to an organic culinary school in northern Thailand. Part-way through Cornforth’s year at Three Generation Cooking and Farming Academy (formerly known as Prem), she got knocked up. In a good way—everyone’s happy about this. But it did shift plans for Cornforth and her family, as they all recently returned to Berkeley. Before that, however, there were many queasy days and feeble nights in the malodorous miasma of Thailand.
“One thing that I really appreciated during the first trimester is how people, even strangers, can cope much easier with someone throwing up in the streets,” Cornforth says. “I was losing my lunch in the gutter at Warorot Market one day and someone was rubbing my back, someone else brought me a glass of water, and someone else was thrusting a jar of Tiger Balm under my nose to calm the nausea. People just took care of me and weren’t at all disgusted …. That was actually a really beautiful experience.”
But beautiful is not generally the adjective of choice when speaking of the Thai air, rough on any nose, especially that of a mama-to-be. “There were many things that made my nausea worse—sewage smells, cooking smells, market smells. Everything is so vivid! I have a memory of going to the market and getting out of the car and being so overwhelmed by the smells that I got immediately in the car and went home. I just couldn’t deal.” The Thai diet, heavy on fish sauce and shrimp paste, did little to comfort Cornforth’s olfactory nerves. “I had really been enjoying the Thai food, particularly some of the more pungent and earthy northern Thai foods. And then I got pregnant!”
Rest assured, the women knew what to do. “We had a wonderful mae bon (house mother),” Cornforth says. “Once she realized why I had been sick in bed with ‘the flu’ for three days she began to bring me green mangoes dipped in salt, sugar and chile flakes. This really helped because it has electrolytes and also calms a nauseous stomach.” Her mae bon also made ginger tea. “She would brew it for a long time and then add lemon and lots of sugar. This soothed my stomach.”
The cooking academy operates on the traditional Thai notions that health hinges on diet; and that diet should correspond to weather, seasons, time of day and the four elements of earth, water, wind and fire. Thais believe the Earth element is dominant during pregnancy, Cornforth says, and anything that tastes “buttery, sweet, astringent and salty” is good for gestation. She recommends coconut, which is high in vitamin A, vitamin C and zinc. “I am eating this right now because I am having joint pain from water retention, and it helps with inflammation.” But there’s another reason, too: “Coconut milk, I have heard, eases birth.”
Really? Coconut gets mixed reviews around the world. It’s on the Ivory Tower bad list of saturated fats. Yet at least one nonprofit is dedicated to spreading the good news about this nut. Plus, traditional cultures spanning the tropics have long espoused the benefits of coconut during pregnancy.
I decided to consult my Thai friend Tanyalux “Ning” Hodson on the matter. She has has successfully birthed two beautiful children in Thailand.
“The popular pregnancy food is coconut juice!” she says. Thais believe it will clean the baby and ease its way through the birth canal. “Some pregnant women drink it every day,” she says. “The second dish that pregnant ladies should eat is banana flower soup, or any dish with banana flower,” which is believed to stimulate breast milk production. (It turns out banana flower is healthy in general—lots of magnesium, iron and copper, plus fiber and high-quality protein with essential amino acids.)
What pregnant women do not need or want: chiles. “People believe that spicy food is not good for the fetus at all,” Ning says. Expectant mothers normally avoid chiles, garlic, and other spices. “I ate som tam without chile, and no curry dishes at all,” she says. “I know, it’s hard.”
Maybe a little too hard—at least for those of us who have a burning hankering for spice.
And on that note, I shall leave readers with two delectable recipes: banana flower soup originating from the Thai website, kukwan.wordpress.com, with translations by Ning; and Fuk Tong Nam Katee, pumpkin in coconut cream, from the Three Generation Cooking and Farming Academy, via Cornforth.
Banana Flower Soup (Courtesy of the Thai-language kukwan.wordpress.com and Tanyalux Hodson)
3 small banana flowers (available at many Asian markets)
1 bunch cha-om leaves (available at many Asian markets)
1 bunch mang luck (lemon basil) leaves
2-3 red chiles*
3-4 Kaffir lime leaves
2 tablespoons chile paste*
500 ml (about 2 cups) coconut milk
250 ml (about 1 cup) water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Pinch of salt
*This is the recipe for non-pregnant people. But if you are expecting, Ning warns: use only a tiny bit of chile or none at all.
Prepare the veggies, slicing the banana flower and soaking it in lime water. Boil the coconut milk, then add the chile paste (if using). Add water and bring to a boil. Add sliced banana flower. Wait until the banana flower becomes tender, then add the cha om leaves. Boil again, add salt and soy sauce, turn off the heat, and add the remaining vegetables.
Fuk Tong Nam Katee
Pumpkin in Coconut Cream (Courtesy of Kyle Cornforth and the Three Generation Cooking and Farming Academy)
650 ml (2 ½ cups) coconut cream and milk combined*
Pinch of salt
85 ml (1/3 cup) sugar
1 pandanus leaf, twisted and tied into a bundle (available at some Asian markets)
375 ml (1 ½ cups) young pumpkin chunks (easier to process), sliced into long 1-inch pieces
Put coconut cream and milk into a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir to prevent from curdling. When steam rises, add salt, sugar and pandanus leaf. When the salt and sugar have melted, add pumpkin chunks. Lower the heat to medium low and let boil until pumpkin chunks are tender, about 15 minutes. Cover and keep warm.
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