Editor’s note: Hi Emmagem readers! Welcome to our new column, My Culinary Journey, where food lover Phantiwa Kongsiri shares her journey of life, discovery and more through the magic of food. Enjoy and be inspired!
I was seven when I started to help my grandmother cook, in a small jungle village in Isan, located in the north-eastern part of Thailand, far away from town.
The first recipe I learned was Nam Prik fish with chili and salt made into a hot paste in a mortar. I also learned to fry vegetables with eggs. In the beginning I made many mistakes, always adding too much water, making everything into a soup. However, my grandmother never scolded me for my mistakes.
Later, when I cooked better, my teachers invited me to cook in a restaurant on Technology Day in Surin. My food was very successful. Everything was sold between 9 and 2 o’ clock, which was a great success. I made grilled herb chicken, grilled herb fish, steamed sticky rice and papaya salad.
After graduation from high school I went to Europe, where three years later I got married. I lived in Hungary for six years where I met my husband. After we got married we traveled all over Europe and I had the opportunity to taste the food of different nations.
In Italy I tasted many pasta dishes, spaghetti and others, and also tasted their pork ham and pizza. Italians drink a lot of wine, and eat a lot of cheese too. In Croatia I learned the simple but healthy food of Croatians. The make hearty soups of beans and vegetables, with beef of chicken and they bake lamb or pigs in the oven. They like to grill fish and serve it with fresh salad.
Hungary is a different matter. Hungarians are much richer, and thus have many more dishes than Italians or Croatians. They have steamed, braised, boiled, simmered, stir fried, deep fried, marinated, salted, and smoked food dishes by the hundreds. In addition, Hungarians have established a cafe house culture with special drinks and bite-sized food centered around coffee and tea.
This is where I learned pörkölt, a kind of thick spicy stew made of chicken, pork, beef or fish and brimming with sautéed onion and paprika. I learned how to cook the original Gulyas, which is a soup made with beef, caraway seeds, bay leaf, carrot, parsley and fresh noodles. I learned the Hungarian hot fish soup, the famous Halaszlé made with spicy hot paprika onion and fish. The fish can be carp, catfish, sturgeon, pike or a mix of all these. There are even restaurants which specialize in Halaszlé! Then I learned the famous pariks csirka or Chicken Paprika, a dish which appeals to everyone. Hungary is also famous for stuffed Cabbage, töltött Káposzta which are cabbage leaves stuffed with ground pork, goose wing and leg, smoked pork rib, rice and spices, mostly black pepper, bay leaf and then cooked in a an earthenware pot on a very low flame for 24 hours. This is best original version and there are tens of others. My travels to other countries like Germany, Austria and Slovakia have also resulted in interesting food-related discoveries.
I traveled with my husband to India several times where we stayed not only in hotels but in friends’ houses too where I could learn their culinary secrets, which were passed down from the previous generations. Indian vegetarian food is very sophisticated and the version prepared in the home is usually much more refined than the one served in restaurants.
We have a house in Istanbul and I had the opportunity to shop at the Istanbul food markets. They are incredible. I learned Turkish dishes from friends who own boutique hotels and restaurants and really know the best of Turkish food.
In my following articles I will take you on a culinary journey through the markets and foods of Hungary, Italy, Croatia, Transylvania, Turkey and India. But first and foremost I am especially a fan of Isan cuisine. Isan food is robust, healthy and very refined at the same time. Isan people do not eat sugar, they eat simple but very healthy food. I believe this is what is most needed when restaurants offer tasty but often unhealthy food and when housewives often resort to precooked food and the microwave, which is the unhealthiest thing ever.
We will go and see places all over Asia and Europe, the places, the people the food and we will explore the unique treasures of Isan food. I hope this will be an exciting and inspiring experience for you, and, at the end, you will step into the kitchen and try something great on your own.
(Slider photo: nkzs (Zsuzsanna Kilian) @Stock Exchange. Photos: blaseur@flickr, wine90.blogspot.com, bcliving.ca)
About Phantiwa Kongsiri
Phantiwa was born in 1987 in a small village called Bhavarat, in Isan, Thailand. She grew up and finished her high school there, and after that, graduated from Wendy Cooking School in Bangkok. She spent six years in Europe and Hungary, and a year and a half in Turkey and India. Now she lives in Thailand and devotes her time to cooking and researching the recipes of Thai regions. She is particularly interested in the health effects of food.