Wednesday, April 11, 2012

During Songkran Festival, an Appetite for Lucky Dishes



A recent morning in early April, sunny and wonderful, finds Yours Truly navigating the cobblestone-lined Crosby Street en route to the transportive Mondrian Soho for a media lunch hosted by officials from the New York office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

The occasion is a culinary celebration of the Thai New Year, which starts Friday (13 April) and officially goes through Sunday (15 April). In some parts of Thailand, however, the festivities last as long as a week. At the entrance to the dining room annex of Imperial No. Nine are young women wearing traditional Thai garments who offer greetings and an invitation to receive a blessing.

The blessing ritual involves rose-petal laced water gently poured over hands followed by the presentation of a boiled egg, “so that the blessing doesn’t escape," according to the kind lady who administered the blessing. In effect, the egg serves as a holding vessel. Next, a white string is tied around the wrist for good luck. Luck is the centerpiece of the Thai New Year rituals, as it is in many cultures. While a few days later the boiled egg completed a breakfast of scone and Chai tea, the string is still on my wrist. I am happy to report that I’ve had a string – to use a word – of good luck recently. Is it dumb luck – to use a word – or something else? … Hmm …

Not surprisingly, the good luck theme of the Thai New Year or the Songkran Festival extends to food, too. In the United States, Americans eat black-eyed peas in hopes of having prosperity; the sweet black bean, kuro-mame, is a Japanese staple. Cubans eat grapes. Not only do Thais have favorite dishes, some of them have lucky names.

Larb Gai, right, and Kaeng Kanun, bottom, are typical dishes eaten during the Songkran Festival or Thai New Year. The Larb Gai is served with sticky rice, cucumber, green beans and chicken wings. Photo courtesy of Tourism Authority of Thailand.

In its earliest days, the Songkran Festival was a time to visit loved ones. Another part of the tradition involved trips to the Buddhist monasteries to pray and give food to the monks. Yet another commemoration is the cleaning of the home and the Buddha(s) therein. Tradition has it that washing the Buddha with water and fragrance is believed to bring prosperity to the home. Before the Buddha era, the throwing of water was a spring festival practice symbolizing sufficient rain for the crops. From the washing of the Buddha came what is today known as the water wars.

Despite their name, the water wars are good, clean fun. Because the Songkran Festival falls during the hottest time of the year it is not merely hot, it is sweltering. One way to cool off is to take refuge in air conditioned structures, which don't exist on the same scale in Thailand as they do in the United States, for instance. A better, environmentally friendlier way to keep reasonably cool is to get doused with water. As a bonus, the water may be scented and powdered. Of course, one can work up an appetite with all of this dousing and spraying. So what to eat?

The first lunch course is one of the most popular New Year dishes. Minced Chicken Salad is also called Larb Gai. Larb (also laap, larp, laab) means fortune; gai means chicken. It is served with a garlic chili dressing on lettuce cups. (See video above of Larb Gai preparation).

Mango with Sticky Rice is a favorite Thai New Year dessert. File photo.

“Toong Tong” or Fried Chicken Dumplings (in a Sweet Peanut Dipping Sauce) is the second course. Toong Tong roughly translates golden basket. A favorite on the six-course menu is the Mango Salad with jalapeno, lime and cilantro. It embodies the main elements of Thai food: sweet, sour and spicy. The flavors balance nicely and are doing wonderful work on the palate. Mango is a big part of the New Year feast, particularly Mango with Sticky Rice – mangoes symbolizing prosperity and rice, fertile land. (Visit http://www.thaitable.com/thai/recipe/mango-on-sticky-rice to see a recipe from Thai Table).

Hungry yet for Thai food? One can journey to Thailand for a meal, and the tourism office officials would be eager to assist that effort. In Bangkok, two restaurants that have a reputation for good eats are Somboon Pochana http://www.somboonseafood.com/e-index.html and Secret Garden http://www.bit.ly/HBoZDc.

Closer to home in the United States, several authentic Thai restaurants are holding it down in New York and elsewhere, including
Arunee Thai http://www.bit.ly/I7kSM8
Ayada Thai http://www.bit.ly/IAHa86
Wondee Siam http://www.bit.ly/J1Xspb
Bang San Thai Halal Cuisine (San Francisco) http://www.bangsanthai.com/
Swing Thai (several locations in Denver) http://www.swingthai.com/
Sen Yai Sen Lek, (Minneapolis) http://www.senyai-senlek.com/index.htm

Photo courtesy of Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Though there is no special Songkran Festival drink a la Champagne, Thai Iced Tea is on the menu at Imperial No. Nine. Made wtih condensed evaporated milk, the tea looks remarkably like a beige Russian. Meanwhile, the Mango-Mint Lemonade with fresh basil looks, but does not taste like Tang. Rounding out the courses and served together family style are Kaeng Massaman Neur (Massaman Curry with Beef), Massaman Curry with Eggplant and Tofu, Shrimp Pad Thai, Steamed Jasmine Rice and Black Garlic Green Beans. Most are on the menu in one form or the other at the above restaurants.

Happy eating and Sawadee Pee Mai (Happy New Year)!

Visit http://www.tourismthailand.org/us and http://http://www.tourismthailand.org/ to learn more about the Songkran Festival and other things Thai.

When 'Hunger Hits Home' and Home Is Not a Faraway Land


THERE are hungry children in Africa and Asia. True.

There are also hungry children in the United States of America. Say what?!

Indeed, one in five U.S. children is food insecure, meaning that sometimes they have insufficient or no food to eat. The numbers in New York City, for instance, are one in four.

It’s the country’s dirty little secret that Food Network, partnering with Share Our Strength through the latter’s No Kid Hungry campaign, is exposing. On Saturday night (8 Eastern/7 Central), “Hunger Hits Home” (See trailer above) premieres on the Food Network. The documentary uses the stories of three families, advocates and others to shine a spotlight on childhood hunger in America. Not only is it a wakeup call, it's call to action.

Youth are recruited in the fight against childhood hunger through Save Our Strength's "No Kid Hungry 2" campaign. Photos courtesy of Save Our Strength.

Like many speaking in “Hunger Hits Home, Jim McGovern’s (D-Mass.) words resonate. “We are the richest country on the planet and not a single community is hunger free. We should be ashamed.”

We should also do what Americans always do when we really learn that there is a problem: we address it with an eye toward eradicating it. There is something to do for anyone who wants to get involved. An obvious option is to give money. As little as $1 to No Kid Hungry can help one child receive up to 10 healthy meals. (http://www.bit.ly/IWd0hw)

Visit the Share our Strength home page and not only does the donation pop-up button appear, so does a petition button. Sign it, click on “Add Your Name,” and the petition will be sent to Congress. It reads in part, “Please work to support existing nutrition safety nets and to increase access for eligible families." (http://www.strength.org/)

A chorus of voices in “Hunger Hit Home” stresses the fact that there is no shortage of healthy food in this country. Hunger is exasperated in our so-called capitalist system because food is perversely commoditized – priced out of the range of the many. In effect, only those with the means can access healthy, humanely raised food. Despite such obstacles it is still possible to get food in the bellies of children. The No Kid Hungry pledge considers such obstacles. (http://http://http//www.nokidhungry.org/learn-about-campaign) It reads:

Jeff Bridges has been working for years to end childhood hunger. He is the narrator of "Hunger Hits Home."

I believe that no child in America should go hungry. By pledging today, I add my voice to the national movement of people committed to ending childhood hunger in America.

I pledge to do more than I ever thought I could to help children gain access to the healthy food they need to grow and thrive.

I will help make the invisible hunger visible for my neighbors, my family, and our local, state, and national leaders.

By uniting my voice with thousands of others, I believe that we can make No Kid Hungry a reality.


Some recognizable names that have taken the pledge are Jeff Bridges, national spokesperson for the No Kid Hungry campaign and founder of the End Hunger Network (http://www.endhunger.com/index.html). JB also narrates “Hunger Hits Home.” Among the nearly 140,000 (at this writing) who have taken the pledge are JB’s “True Grit” costar Hailee Steinfeld, Food Network’s Guy Fieri and Kori Reed of ConAgra Foods Foundation.

"When I get hungry, it feels like I am about to pass out," says a little sad-eyed boy in "Hunger Hits Home." He live in the United States, not Africa or Asia.

Visit http://www.strength.org/ and http://www.foodnetwork.com/ to learn more about “Hunger Hits Home” and “No Kid Hungry.” Check local cable listings for Food Network channel.

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