The following is a short story I wrote for Eat, Darling, Eat — an international publication which explores relationships between mothers and daughters regarding food. This piece is dedicated to my loving mother, Jutamas Fessel. Thank you for allowing me to publish your likeness — and your Panang Recipe!
“My sister was such a baby.” My mom describes her childhood as she plucks the eye from a baked catfish at our kitchen table. “She cried when my mom told her to kill the frogs for dinner.” She pops the small, shiny disk into her mouth like a piece of candy. “So I did it!”
“You didn’t mind that?” I stare down into my chili.
“I didn’t like it! But someone had to do it.”
“How did you do it?”
“You just hit them!” She lifted a pan, then lowered it quickly, stopping just before the actually smashing the dead fish.
“And then what?”
“You make soup!”
I scoop up a bite of seasoned chicken and beans.
She dips a crispy piece of skin into hot chili oil.
When I tell people my mom is from Thailand, they often respond with this: “She must make great Thai food at home!”
I never know how to respond. I suppose she does, but I never eat it. She makes it for herself, and sometimes dad.
“I used to make donuts too” she reminisces with a grin.
“Yeah, yeah, but then you realized eating donuts every day would make dad fat.” We laugh about this fact every time she tells it. “I guess it is weird that America chose an obvious dessert food as a classic breakfast food.”
“Well that’s why!” She concludes, “when I married dad, I learned all the American recipes. For my family.”
Her chili is the best. And so are her burgers. And so is her beef jerky. And of course, her spaghetti bolognese. (Okay, that one is technically Italian but same difference.)
“She must make great Thai food at home!” The assumption rings in my ears.
She gets up to walk over to the stove. I don’t even know what she’s making over there. Maybe soup? Rice, obviously. There’s always rice. But what does she pair with it? Why don’t I know?
I let my utensil sink into the bowl of burgundy and I follow her.
“Mom, why do you always make separate meals for the kids?”
She’s quiet for a moment.
She picks up her wooden spoon and dips it into the chunky merigold liquid.
”You’re American children.” She finally answers.
She gives the pot a few good stirs before finishing,
“You don’t appreciate Thai food.”
We stand still in the rising steam.
I inhale deeply and my senses are overwhelmed by spice and savor.
“Mama… would you please teach me this recipe?”
1 tablespoon — Olive oil
1 cup — Coconut milk/cream (Note: this is a thick, creamy, unsweetened substance; not the American milk substitute or the American cocktail ingredient. Mama Fessel uses Mae Ploy brand, which can be found in most Asian supermarkets.)
2 tablespoons — Chili paste (Note: this can be homemade but for the sake of simplicity we suggest Maseri brand “Panang Curry Paste”which can be found in most Asian supermarkets.)
2 cups — Beef (Note: we suggest hangar steak)
Fish Sauce (Note: this acts as a salt substitute for many Thai dishes.)
Optional — peas, sweet Thai basil, lime leaves, chopped red chilies
1.) Slice beef very thinly along the grain
2.) Heat olive oil in wok or large pan
3.) Melt chili paste about halfway in the oil
4.) Melt ½ cup of coconut cream into mixture and stir
5.) When the curry begins to bubble, add beef. You should be able to see that the beef is cooked when the color and texture changes.
6.) Add 2nd ½ cup of coconut milk. Continue stirring occasionally
7.) Add fish sauce to taste
8.) Add brown sugar to taste
9.) Add any optional ingredients
10.) Serve with rice