Feeding My Thai Coworkers


(CN: Lots of food descriptions, and brief mockery of fad diets.)

I have taken three little trips in the past two months. The good news: writing this blog, and journaling in general, are habits * that have pushed me to take very good notes (even if my photography remains spotty). The bad news is that even with those good notes, trip write-ups take f o r e v e r.

So while those posts languish, half-written, let me tell you something about my daily routine. I did come to Thailand to shake that up, after all!

Last term at my school, I was paired with a Thai teachers homeroom, and did lots of chore and cooking routines with them. Next term, I will have my own classroom (!!). This term Im sort of in limbo, doing lots of planning and International Baccalaureate training with the international teaching team. This setup has its own joys and challenges, and one of the chiefest blessings is that I get to cook and eat with the administrative team. I love cooking, and I love middle-schoolers (really!), and I love cooking with middle-schoolers but goodness , the grownups can really cook! I have gotten to try all sorts of homestyle Thai food (like or gaeng som, a seafood curry with a huge hit of tamarind) that I might not have reached for in a restaurant. Each group (e.g. the front office team, the finance team) cooks and cleans up on a different day of the week.

Those of us international teachers who are not vegetarians cook on Wednesdays. Its a nice team-bonding experience.

My bosss assistant, Kay (who is AWESOME), has organized the menu for the past couple of weeks, and Ive been on chopping/stirring duty. This suited me; despite all the time I spent in college planning goofy, punny co-op menus, I felt insecure about planning a Thai menu for Thais to eat. Like I said, everyone else makes extremely good food! (What a nice problem for me to have, eh?) But last week, Kay declared it was time for someone else to step up, so I sighed and girded my loins. Who said I had to cook Thai food? No one!

I bought supplies at the schools organic market and at the grocery store yesterday, and five of us (Kay, a first-grade teacher, a social studies teacher, a math teacher, and I) worked for two hours and dished this up. Turns out Im still pretty bossy in the kitchen (oops) but I hope everyone else had as much fun as I did! Heres the quirky cosmopolitan menu we made, and some cooking stories.

  • Mexican Chili Soup
  • Garnishes: Garlic Chips and Chopped Green Onions
  • Thai Omelet and Nam Prik Pla
  • White Rice
  • Green Salad
  • Watermelon

Mexican Chili Soup

If youve visited Andrew and me in Chicago in the winter within the past two years, odds are youve tried a certain chili. We started making it during a round of Whole30, which is an elimination diet that I dont think has a ton of scientific support. But it introduced me to this chili, for which I am eternally grateful. Even after Whole30 was over, Andrew and I would make a pot of this a week and eat it for dinner almost every night in the winter. I never tired of it. Something about those little softened sweet potato chunks just gets me.

I was nervous about choosing my first menu, but I ended up going with chili because its easy to make a big batch, and its easy to put in lots of flavor. This will sound hideous, but now that Im mostly eating Thai food, a lot of Western food tastes pretty bland in comparison. (IM SORRY!) Also, I missed eating itwe just dont have the space in our apartment non-kitchen to do projects like this. So I made a big ole pot of chili, altering the recipe as follows:

  • I tripled it. The recipe in its original form will feed Andrew and me for five nights, so I calculated that a triple recipe would feed thirty people. Because we had side dishes, this turned out to be a little highbut leftover chili is not a tragedy.
  • I used chicken. The recipe specifies ground beef; I used to make it with ground turkey. Neither is affordable in central Thailand. (Beef is more common in southern Thailand, because more people there keep halal!) Chicken was fine, as long as I punched it up. Which brings us to how
  • I altered the seasoning. Based on what I had availableand keeping my coworkers palates in mindI replaced the chile powder with a mix of white pepper, dried red pepper, and chopped fresh birdseye chiles (sauteed with the chicken). I also threw in quite a bit of sugar, because I dont give a hoot about paleo, and lots of savory Thai dishes incorporate sugar anyway. It cut the acidity of the tomatoes nicely.
  • I used Asian purple sweet potatoes instead of American orange sweet potatoes. I dont think they tasted significantly different, but they were delicious and pretty!

A lot of my coworkers looked at the pot, once it was on the table, and asked spaghetti? even though there were no noodles in the pot. Anecdata suggests that Italian food is quite popular here, and since chili is tomato-based and full of ground meat, I understand the confusion. Unfortunately, this confusion meant I was faced with the task of explaining what chili is to Thai and international coworkers alike, and I am afraid I did a poor job. Chili is a thick meat soup? I said. Gross! To think I have dreamed of being a food writer! And what a strange instance of American chauvinism, to assume that everyone knows of chili! Kay quickly dubbed it Mexican chili soup, I think to differentiate between the homophones chile and chili, and everyone picked that up.

Thank God she did. I cant do my own PR. Thick meat soup. Thick meat soup.

(By the way, this recipe is easy to make vegan, if youre so inclined, since all you have to do is swap out the meat and broth. I didnt really measure, but I put scoops of tomatoes and sauce; vegetables; and a drained jar of kidney beans into another pot for my vegetarian co-worker and let her season it to taste!)

Garnishes: Garlic Chips and Chopped Green Onions

Im late to the party, but goodness, Salt Fat Acid Heat is indeed a life-changing book! The thesis is that all good cooked food balances the former three elements and is transformed by the latter. So, no matter what youre cooking, you can maximize its deliciousness by punching up the salt, or the acid, or the fat.

I made the chili plenty salty. It was naturally bright with tomato flavor. In a perfect world, I would have topped it with cheddar cheese, or sliced avocado, or (dare I say it?) both. But alas! I was already close to over-budget, so I improvised garlic chips as a rich topping. Cheese would have been better, but they were still nice!

Garlic Chips: Chop peeled cloves of garlic lengthwise into flat chip shapes. More, you coward! Heat a puddle of neutral oil in a skillet or wok until a drop of water dances in it. Drop in the garlic, stir it around, and do not walk away. Take it out when it starts to get golden, which should only take a minute or two. (I love burnt almost everything, but burnt garlic is an abomination.) Sprinkle with plenty of salt, and heap on top of your chili. If youre self-conscious about eating so much garlic, I guess you can brush your teeth after lunch, as many of my Thai coworkers do.

Chopped Green Onions: Get some green onions and chop them. Then sprinkle them on your chili. I do this mainly for a textural contrast (thats why crumbled corn chips are nice, too!) but the subtle allium flavor is pleasant, too. Guavalogue is a pro-allium space.

Thai Omelet and Nam Prik Pla

This morning, as I wrestled the numerous cans of tomatoes down to the kitchen, Kay asked me is there anything else you are making?

Hmm, I hadnt planned on it, I said. Im already close to budget as it is.

Maybe we should make something else just in case? she suggested. We could do sliced fried pork, or an omelet

I had to take a deep breath, because at first, I took this personally. I shouldnt have! But I was worried that my coworkers wouldnt like the chili. Making a more Thai accompaniment to the meal would set my mind at ease. Besides, even though Ive never had chili with an omelet before, it sounded like an intriguing combination. Instead of being smooth and evenly-cooked like French omelets, Thai omelets are more free-formbasically scrambled eggs cooked to a crisp. We made three, then cut them into triangle shapes, and served them alongside the chili. The omelet wedge added additional richness and savoriness to the meal, especially doused in prik naam pla. I will totally eat this combination again.

Thai Omelet, or : Sounds like kai jiaow and translates roughly to fried egg. Heat a BIG puddle of oil in your wokbig enough for your omelet to float in as it cooks. Scramble 2-4 eggs with the seasonings of your choice. I recommend chopped green onions, and fish sauce for saltiness, but you can do soy sauce if you cant take the funk. Pour the eggs into the hot oil puddle. As the bottom and sides set, the middle will stay liquidy. Use a spatula to jiggle or flip the raw parts around around until the omelet is fully cooked. Dont worry if the omelet gets crispy edges! Its supposed to.

Sauce, or : Sounds like prik naam pla, translates to pepper fish sauce (or literally, pepper fish water HAHA). Chop a few birdseye chiles (or whatever small hot chiles you have on hand) crosswise, into small thin circles. Dump some fish sauce in a bowl. Float the chiles on top. Now you have a classic Thai dipping sauce to sprinkle on your omelet! The ratio depends on your bravery tolerance for spiciness vs. funkiness, so feel free to experiment. This will probably keep in the refrigerator for a few days, and it goes nicely with almost all Thai food, so dont worry if you make too much.

White Rice

I am probably not alone in my belief that the best carb to pair with chili is a steaming hunk of cornbread, preferably buttered and honeyed. Alack! I was dancing on the edge of the budget, and I did not have access to an oven.

So, maybe I will make cornbread for my coworkers someday. White rice was an acceptable starchy stand-in. BesidesIm not sure if Ive ever had this combo in a restaurant, but my mom used to make a classic Tex-Mex chili with ground beef and kidney beans, and she served it on top of white rice. So, making rice and chili made me feel close to my mom. Funny how food can do that!

We just filled the rice cooker up and turned it on. If you have the space for a rice cooker, they are great! I didnt have one until I moved here, and now I dont know how I got along without one.

Green Salad and Dressing

Chili is heavy and meaty and whatnot, so we wanted greens to go with it. One of the vendors at the market had a gorgeous variety of lettuces, and kept heaving more types at me as I shopped. Butter lettuce! he kept saying. Red leaf! So we had many beautiful leaves and some chopped carrots. The most simple of salads, dressed with a:

I-dont-have-salad-dressing-salad-dressing ratio: Two tablespoons of sesame oil + the juice of one small lime + a big pinch of salt, whisked together. I juiced a makrut lime (commonly called Kaffir limes, but dont do that) because that was in the fridge, but a regular old lime would do fine.


We decided to serve fruit as dessert, which most other cooking teams do. Thai watermelon, sounds like tehngmois seedy but super-sweet, like the Red Line Tap in Chicago used to be (RIP). If you want to eat watermelon like a Thai, just crunch the seeds instead of spitting them out. Theyre nice, once you get used to them!

The Verdict

No one retched. Some people told me it was good! (I cant imagine how disgusting it would have to be for my coworkers to not give me props for trying.) What did I learn from this cooking experience?

  • Dont be scared to combine Thai and Western food. The omelet and chili combination was novel, yet comforting. Who knew?
  • People seem really excited about Italian food, so maybe Ill make that next time.
  • Food can make you feel closer to your loved ones, even across time and space. Okay, I already knew that. But it is nice to be reminded.

If you were going to cook a representative food of your culture, what would you choose and why? What surprising food combinations do you favor? When do you get bossy?

*I need to post more often, dont @ me

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