That Little Known Thing Called Vegetable

I’m terrible with names, especially names of vegetables. It doesn’t help that I usually deal with at least two languages and culinary cultures when it comes to food. Coriander, parsley, and cilantro (phak chi, phak chi farang, and phak chi in Thai respectively) always force me to consult the dictionary or Google. The allium family gives me a hard time, too, in both Thai and English. Whenever I blank on dill (phak chi Lao), one of my favorite herbs, my brain automatically goes to the French word, aneth, which has somehow managed to super-glued itself to my brain.

But that’s not my worst shortcomings when it comes to vegetables. When I was WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in Brittany, France, in 2011 at an organic vegetable farm run by the immensely capable and versatile Annie Bertin, part of the job was to help sell the vegetables from her farm at Marché de Lices, the largest market in the nearby city Rennes, and at a small organic market in a town whose name I cannot remember (see?). I didn’t have that difficult of a time memorizing the French names of the vegetables. I was diligent about it. It was the least I could do given the fact that I was so slow with numbers that some customers got quite impatient with me, and we had to be fast when it got busy. Annie did everything in her head at an impressive pace, rarely consulting the calculator. I wasn’t about to give her customers another reason to be irritated.

With vegetables, looks can also be deceiving and one of the major causes of confusion. So many of them look similar. As I do more research into vegetable-related confusions, I realize my confusions are common ones. Now I know that parsley is pointy and coriander (or cilantro) is curvy. But we all know it doesn’t stop there because there’s the curly parsley that’s used in tabbouleh (yummy), but certain types of flat-leaf parsleys also look very similar to the Thai celery (keun chai). Now I also know that green onions, spring onions, and scallions are the same thing and what Australians called shallots. But some in these species also resemble leeks, in the supermarket if not in the soil.

Then there are the leafy vegetables I often eat in restaurants and street stalls, like Chinese kale/ Chinese broccoli (kana in Thai) or bok choi/pak choi (pak kwang toong). I’m so used to seeing them already stir-fried that when I see them at the supermarket, which at least have labels, or in a food cart on my street, which doesn’t label anything, I get confused. I once got corrected by a woman operating one of these vegetable carts. She was quite amused at my ignorance, but I felt too embarrassed to ask any further and just bought whatever vegetables I was certain I knew.

I have to say my worst shortcomings with vegetables are how little I know about them and how few of them I know and cook with. Whenever I don’t have time or am too lazy to plan out my meals for the week, which is often, I go straight for carrots, okras, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, eggplants, bell peppers, broccolis, morning glory, sunflower sprouts, pumpkin Sure, since I’ve been cooking more seriously, the list of vegetables I’m comfortable cooking has grown a bit, but I know I’m still missing out on a lot.

I say I’m missing out because when I read the first collection of writings on food by award-winning Thai poet Naowarat Pongpaiboon, Krua Tongprasri (Tongprasri Kitchen), I was flummoxed by sheer number of Thai vegetables I had never heard of or seen in supermarkets, which is where I usually shop, or even in vegetable carts and stalls near my place. Naowarat grew up in rural Kanchanaburi. He eats and cooks the way he writes about food—simply and straightforwardly like a casual conversation. You’d expect a poet to wax lyrical about his rural upbringing and the bountifulness of the countryside, but Naowarat treats cooking like something you just do when you want to eat.

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The cover of Naowarat Pongpaiboon’s book. Cover image by his wife Prakongkul Pongpaiboon.

When you read Naowarat’s writing, especially when he tells you how to cook or eat something, you feel that vegetables and fruits are something you simply pluck from the branches and eat raw, dip into a chili sauce, stuff into a fish and steam, or boil into a soup. You feel that Thai food is fast, easy, and doesn’t require any specials that need hours or years of practice. The book was eye-opening for me because it gives an image of Thai food that is a complete opposite to the more pervasive one that both Thais and foreigners have—that of a highly complex and time-consuming cuisine.

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A spread from Naowarat’s book, with illustration by his wife Prakongkul Pongpaiboon

I think everything feels easy and casual through Naowarat’s eyes because he’s known how to forage in the countryside since his youth. It’s his terrain, his supermarket. For city people like me, cooking and grocery shopping are activities you try to fit into your day. Given the number of cookbooks we have, cooking is approached as a skill to be studied and mastered rather than something you do to fill your stomach and get through the day.

Bangkok is interesting that way. There’s a huge presence of the rural culture and people, some existing in their own separate spaces, and some existing right in kitchens of Bangkok natives. The construction site near my apartment right now is the perfect example of those separate spaces. A lot of construction workers come to Bangkok during the months they don’t work in the fields. I’ve seen them with their hard hats carrying bags of food they’ve bought off the streets, but I’ve also seen them cooking from a small portable coal stove in the construction site where they’ve set up their temporary homes of corrugated iron sheets.

But in the home kitchens in Bangkok that are the work and dining space of cooks and maids, at least two eating and culinary cultures reside. Growing up, I heard about and saw a few vegetables and dishes in the kitchen that never made it to our family’s dining table. Kratin, or river tamarind, is a vegetable whose name I heard a lot as a child, but I have never eaten it to this day, not knowingly anyway. I’ve always liked watermelon, but I still remember how puzzled and somewhat repulsed I was when I saw for the first time the maids eating watermelon with rice. I later found the combination of watermelon, rice, and ground dried fish to be delicious. I haven’t eaten it in a very long time, though, and never as an adult.

I’m not trying to romanticize the rural culture nor am I saying there is one single Thai rural culture. A lot of housemaids and construction workers in Bangkok come from the Northeast, a region better known for poverty, heat, and dry climate than fertility, and even that is an overly simplistic portrait. But my family has also hired maids, gardeners, and drivers who were fisherfolk. Kanchanaburi, where the writer Naowarat comes from, is in the west of Thailand and best known for its River Kwai and waterfalls.

When it comes to eating and food, poverty is still very much a reality in some rural areas of Thailand. And the rural poor continue to suffer and die from bad diet and cooking methods.

I can never imagine myself living in the Thai countryside. Because I’m in the city and the way I grew up, I don’t think I’ll ever forage, cook, and eat the way Naowarat does when he’s in the countryside. But I think there’s a lot to learn from his easy-going attitude and approach to cooking and his incredible knowledge of local edible plants.

A couple of months ago, I went to my mother’s place. Her maid, Phi Cheun (Phi means older brother or sister in Thai and is used in front of names of people who are older than you, but not so old that they can be your parents or grandparents), happened to be in the garden. Phi Cheun and her husband Phi Li grow all the vegetables, herbs, and fruits in the garden. They also cook from them. I was amazed at the variety of edible plants they have cultivated in that small garden. Phi Cheun told me the Northeastern and the Central names of each one and how she likes to cook and eat them.

I want to bring some of that garden into my kitchen and maybe even onto my 12th floor balcony. I didn’t grow up cooking, but I grew up in kitchens that were shared by people of different classes and cultures. Now that I cook and live alone, I want to bring other kitchens into my kitchen. And that garden across the city that my mother and Phi Cheun’s family eat from can be the starting point.

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In the featured image is a vegetable in my mother’s garden called elephant ear. Next to the plant is our sweet little Kaidao. My sister gave her the name, which means fried egg in Thai. 

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