Many Fulbrighters had to return home early this year due to the COVID-19 crisis. In light of this, we’ve decided to start a “Returning Home” guest blog series, where Fulbrighters tell their stories about how they made the transition from Fulbright to coming home. Have a returning home story to share? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Back in March, like many others, my Fulbright tenure was cut short due to COVID. In 5 short days I was sent home.
I tried to prepare myself for what I expected to be a disorienting return to what was not quite home. I felt full speed ahead in Thailand, and was trying to maintain that mindset upon my return home by outlining various projects for myself that would allow me to continue my exploration of Thai language, culture, food, and relationship building remotely.
Or, rather, I see now that I was trying to hold onto the adventure that was unequivocally over; it was my attempt to bridge what felt like an insurmountable gap between what was and what was about to be.
Soon enough, I realized I needed to slow down so that I could have the space and time to reclaim my Fulbright experience by parsing through all the love that I felt from all corners of Thailand in the most beautiful 6 months. To my surprise, while I grieved and reclaimed my Thai adventures, I found empowerment, curiosity, and drive from a space I was always too intimidated in the past to explore: my Indian heritage.
Growing up, although my parents were Indian immigrants, I never felt “Indian enough,” as I could not speak Hindi, and felt like I did not know enough about the culture to claim my Indian identity. I never knew where to start when it came to trying to better understand my own culture. It was a goal of mine in Thailand to dive deeper into my Indian background by understanding India’s deep linguistic, religious, and cultural influences in Thailand. However, it was a goal that was never met. Quarantine afforded me uninterrupted processing time to think back on what I learned in Thailand from a bird’s-eye view, which gave me the footing I needed to launch myself deep into an exploration of India, and more importantly, where my family began.
I started off with cooking Indian food, and cooking soon became what felt like a full time job. I bothered my parents for many days to walk me through our giant pantry of spices, which in the past felt like terra incognita. I learned how closely related the underlying concepts behind making Thai food was to that of Indian food. The excitement of this discovery propelled me forward towards wanting to learn about the difference in food, and therefore culture, of different parts of India.
Over the past three months, I’ve transitioned back and forth between Thai and Indian food. At times, I feel like a mad scientist – when I feel creative, I get a strong urge to act on those ideas immediately, even if it means at 2 am!
In a time of great pain, it was India, of all things, that somehow seemed to help me make sense of the world and allowed me to begin to meld my two worlds together, my American upbringing and the life I led in Thailand. And like many of us in quarantine, I’m on the same journey of accessing a part of me that I never knew.
Anika’s Cooking Notes
Som Tam (also known as Papaya Salad)
This is a staple dish in northern Thailand. At first, I was intimidated by how much we would eat Som Tam each week, but now I’m addicted to it, and it was the first dish I learned when I returned home.
In America, we often put in our order of papaya salad in a Thai restaurant, but in Thailand, I learned quickly that it does not make sense to simply say “Som Tam” when you order. There are, what seems like, hundreds of variations! You can make Som Tam from papaya, green mango, or even bamboo, and there are so many different seasonings, fruit, meat, and vegetable combinations. The best and most necessary part of eating Som Tam is dipping sticky rice in the Som Tam juice.
A dish originating from Punjab, which is in Northern India. “Bhurji” means “scrambled,” so this dish is quite literally “scrambled paneer.” Paneer is a fresh soft cheese made by curdling milk. Fun fact: although this dish consists of a complex array of spices to create its characteristic tangy and savory flavor, Paneer Bhurji is actually a popular breakfast dish.
Kao Neow Mamuang
Mango sticky rice. This dish reminds me of late night street-food snacking in Thailand. Although my favorite dessert, I found this dish hard to replicate simply because the mangos we get here are not as sweet and juicy as those from Asia.
The direct translation is “pineapple stir,” because you have to constantly stir pineapple in a pan for over 1 hour. It’s quite the arm workout, but unbelievably worth it if done right. The end result tastes like a caramelized pineapple toffee. I would buy this at the night market every week in Lampang to have it in stock to satisfy my sweet tooth.
Tom Yum Goong
“Goong” means shrimp, and it is my favorite meat to have in Tom Yum soup. There are two main types of Tom Yum soup: (1) Tom Yum Goong Naam Sai (clear Tom Yum, without coconut milk) and (2) Tom Yum Goong Naam Khon (creamy and cloudy Tom Yum).
Prior to my arrival in Thailand, Tom Yum soup was my main comfort food of choice for the heart and soul. If I felt ill, it felt like Tom Yum soup somehow knew how to reset my body. If I finished a final, Tom Yum soup knew how to clear my mind. It was always a soup that somehow made me feel “at home,” even though I did not grow up eating this dish in my own home. It was like a warm hug in a bowl.
Fast forward to when I set out to live in Thailand this past year, to my surprise I found Tom Yum soup to be just as pervasive in the lives of Thai people, as it was in mine. The unmistakable flavor combination of galangal, kaffir lime, and lemongrass to create this addicting soup was integrated into all aspects of food life: there were Tom Yum flavored meats, drinks, cup-of-noodles, and even Lays chips! I knew early on that Thailand would easily become a second home to me.
This is a very quick and popular daily lunch dish in which the ground meat (most commonly pork) is stir-fried, and paired with a fried egg and rice. The feature presentation of this dish, in my opinion, is Thai basil, the more the merrier. At the school I worked at, the other teachers and I would always cook together for lunch, and Pad Krapao was often a featured dish (although, perhaps it was made more often than what is culturally accurate because the other teachers were happy to enable my unapologetic obsession with this simple dish.)
Pad Thai Goong
Shrimp Pad Thai. I would buy this tri-weekly; an elderly lady at the night market had three giant woks that she used simultaneously. She made cooking look like a dance. She poured her heart and big smile into every batch she made. Her elegance was replicated in the way her food tasted. All this warmth and happiness was served in a giant bowl that sold for elegant. I’d always buy a giant bowl of her Phad Thai, 75 cents.
This is a spicy chickpea curry served with a leavened bread. This guilty pleasure dish originated in Northern India, and is so irresistible that it became popular in Pakistan too. The chickpeas are mixed with a sauce consisting of a complex combination of spices that is slow cooked over many hours. The longer the better. I slow cooked my Chole for around 3 hours, but when I visit my Granny in India, she will slow cook her Chole for up to 12 hours! Like all grandparents’ food, my Granny’s Chole is insurmountably delicious. She will place the Chole in a metal container, in a glass box outside, exposed to India’s oppressive sun, and allow the spices to fully mingle with each other, and the chickpeas to become married to the resulting complex flavor combinations.
Keema with Parantha
Keema is Indian-ified minced meat; infused with chili, garam masala, turmeric, ginger, tomato, and onion. Since cows are sacred in India, it is usually made with lamb meat, but since I grew up very American we often just make it with beef at home. It is such an easy dish to make, and is one of my favorites. Eating Keema always resurrects happy childhood memories of coming home after playing outside to my dad making this for a quick lunch or dinner. It’s a dish that will always remind me of home.
Accompanying this dish is parantha. Its function is similar to naan, but its flavor differs in that it is very flaky due to its layers, and tends to be greasier than naan. In other words, it tends to be, yet another, guilty pleasure food that I love to eat all the time, but try to avoid because too much of a good thing always has to cause health problems. Disclaimer: I did not make the parantha. For now, I’m happy to continue deferring to Trader Joe’s.
Kashmiri Dhaba Aloo Bhindi Masala
“Dhaba” means that the food is street-food style, “Aloo” is “potato,” and “Bhindi” is “okra.” This dish originates from Kashmir, Northern India, and has been the most challenging dish I have made thus far because it is critical to adhere to the order of operations when building up the curry. The hints of coconut flakes, sesame, peanuts, and Kashmiri chili are what make it so mouth-watering.
Gujarati Toor Daal
My Granny’s recipe. My family is from Gujarat, which is northern India. “Daal” refers to “lentils,” and there are many different types of lentils used across India to make daal. Some lentils are more commonly used in certain parts of India, and Toor Daal is commonly cooked in Gujarat. Gujaratis are known for putting sugar in their food. Because of this, Gujarati food is often characterized as an “acquired taste” by many who are not accustomed to eating sweetened Indian food!
Anika Patel was a 2019-2020 Fulbright ETA grantee to Ban Fon, Thailand, a semi-rural community in the Lampang Province. There, she taught English and developed curriculum for 1st – 9th graders. Anika spent her last month in Thailand interning for the Ministry of Public Health’s International Cooperation Agency, working to relay COVID-19 information and regulation updates between the Ministry, the general public, and foreign embassies. Anika holds a B.S. in Biochemistry and Interdisciplinary Honors from the University of Washington. While her time in Thailand was cut short due to COVID, she has continued her work with the International Cooperation Agency, drafting updates on the current situation, both within Thailand and globally. She will start medical school at Creighton University this August, and is eager to use her newly enhanced cultural dialogue and ethnocultural empathy as instruments to better understand her patients’ experience. Anika is excited to serve Thailand again in the future, this time as a doctor.
Thanks for this post. Now I am hungry for some good Thai food!