Wednesday, January 8, 2020 – Day 5
This morning we learned how to make some traditional Thai dishes at the Mahidol University Thai House. We would be cooking lunch for ourselves.
We learned the basics of traditional Thai cooking from the staff of the MU Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia. Our main instructor was a big guy in a flowery shirt and black apron who communicated with us via someone else on the staff who spoke English. She referred to him as “the chef”.
It seems that in cooking, Thai people don’t use measuring cups, relying instead on approximations and frequent tasting (although I think most people in the world do this when cooking at home). Preparing Thai dishes also usually involves a lot of hand use instead of tools like spoons. Thai foods are also usually a combination of sweet, salty, and savory.
The class was held outdoors, in the space beneath the building. We paired up at each of three stations, which had all the ingredients and equipment we would need, including a portable gas-burning stove. It felt like a reality TV cooking competition. In addition to the designated photographer, a lot of the staff took photos with their phones. They probably wanted to use them in promotional material.
The first dish we learned how to make was a dessert, bua loy, which is glutinous rice balls in sweet coconut milk (we started with the dessert to avoid contaminating it with herbs and spices used for the other dishes). Carrots (orange), pandan leaf extract (green), and pumpkin (yellow) were used to dye the little balls different colors and were kneaded into the sticky dough by hand. They were later boiled in sweetened coconut milk to be eaten as a soup.
Next, we learned how to make pow pia tord, deep-fried spring rolls. The filling (pre-made for us to save time) consisted of glass noodles, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms, and minced pork. The chef showed us a few different methods of rolling the spring rolls in square sheets of rice paper. They were sealed with gooey raw egg.
The third dish was panaeng moo, panaeng curry pork, a relatively dry curry more similar to stir-fry. To make the curry paste, we smashed up a variety of ingredients (peanuts, chili peppers, garlic, shallots, and shrimp paste, to name a few) in a large wooden Thai mortar and pestle. Crushing herbs is preferable over chopping or shredding in a blender since it is more likely to rupture the plant cells and release more flavor. The curry paste was heated in a pan with coconut milk. The pork was cooked directly in the sauce. Once the meat was done, sliced red chili peppers and green Thai basil leaves were stirred in. Very aesthetic.
The last dish was tom yum goong, hot and sour prawn soup. Kaffir lime leaves, galangal, and Thai basil were boiled in water, with mushrooms and prawns tossed in later. Milk (I think evaporated milk? It was in a can) and cilantro were also generously added (because my cooking partner loved cilantro and wanted to throw in all of it).
The can of gas powering our stove ran out at some unknown point in time, so we were foolishly standing there for a little while wondering why the pot wasn’t boiling yet until someone came over and told us we had no fire (I also added too much water, so we assumed it was just because of that).
Following replacement of the gas can, the boiled soup was poured into a bowl, and a mixture of lime juice, chopped Thai peppers, and fish sauce was stirred in. Fun fact – the lime was added separately because cooked lime juice will become bitter.
As we were cooking, the completed dishes were placed under handy nets to keep the flies away.
We ate our creations on Thai khantoke tables, commonly used in northern Thailand. Thanks to the guidance of the Mahidol University staff, the food was very much acceptable. Somehow, even though we used less than the chef’s recommended amount of peppers, the curry was still beyond my preference for spiciness (I’m just a weak). When we get back to the US, I think I’ll try making some of these again, perhaps minus the chili peppers.
Thursday, January 9, 2020 – Day 6
This morning we said our temporary goodbye to Salaya and traveled two hours west to Kanchanaburi. We were greeted by the Mahidol University Kanchanaburi (MUKA) staff at the “welcome luncheon” prepared for us at a local restaurant. Like in Salaya, they were all very welcoming and friendly. The food was extremely mild, probably out of consideration for us Americans. They also prepared a cashew-free version of one of the dishes for me in advance. I was touched.
We stopped by our new accommodations to drop off our luggage. The wooden furniture is very classy and matched the vibe of the Kanchanaburi jungle. The bathroom is very clean (this is important to me). I think there is a real English term for this, but there is a nice little multi-layered space that eventually brings you outdoors, facing behind the building. As Dr. Matthews would say, it is “very deluxe”.
At the university, no one was surprised by the modern conference room with microphones at each seat, as it was similar to the room we used at the Salaya campus. The shocking part was all the formally-dressed, important faculty and staff members presenting us with certificates and little gift packages. We literally just arrived on campus and clearly did not do anything to deserve certificates. At each of our seats was a name plate with a design of the university flower. Needless to say, they treated us excessively well and with much hospitality.
We were given a tour of the MUKA Geological Park in a solar-powered vehicle resembling a long golf cart, with four rows of passenger seats. Rock samples were stationed throughout the park based on their age and the geological period in which they were formed. The seismology professor accompanying us pointed out the coral fossils. They plan to add VR and educational games featuring “geomons” to the park experience.
Next, we looked around the Geoscience Museum. Rocks of all kinds were on display, as well as fossilized animals like fish, crabs, and trilobites. Apparently, members of the MUKA geosciences department were sent to help rescue the Thai soccer team trapped in the flooded cave back in 2018.
The last stop of the campus tour was the Herbarium, where the university is working on collecting and cataloguing all the local plant species. Samples were kept dried in large metal cabinets. Others were preserved in jars on shelves.
During our “day’s reflection”, as it is called on the itinerary, Dr. Matthews noted that the quite environmentally sustainable lotus farm would likely not be permitted in the US due to our tight food safety regulations. The water came from the canal and was probably full of human viruses, pathogens, and who knows what else. The workers harvesting the lotus were also sloshing through the water without special protective gear. Unless we can find a solution, there goes my dream of becoming a lotus farmer in the US.
Finally, we took a trip to the nearby wooden railway bridge over the Khwae Yai River. The bridge was built during WWII by the Japanese, using the forced labor of civilians and POWs, to create a transport route into Burma. The railway is infamously known as the Death Railway due to the thousands of people who died in its construction.
Tourists are allowed to walk on the railway, but it is still in use. The train moves very slowly, probably to allow people time to get out of the way.
Walking along the railway, you can access Krasae Cave. Inside is a large golden Buddha statue and a space for people to pray and leave offerings. Walking past the Buddha into a fairly narrow tunnel, you will eventually lead to a dark hole emitting the odor of what is probably guano. We saw some bats flying around.
Friday 1/10/20 – Day 7
It’s always interesting to see how other cultures view Americans. This morning, we had breakfast with MUKA staff at the same restaurant we went to for lunch yesterday (I suspect it’s because we have a Muslim student and they offer halal meat, and the owner speaks good English). It was apparently an American style breakfast, so the typical fried eggs, bacon, toast, and sausages. But also salad and some pieces of chicken. And french fries.
After the extremely hearty breakfast, we visited the MUKA food processing facility. The facility head and her TAs taught us how to make rice noodles. We were able to do a fun activity while getting a sense of their equipment and learning a little more about traditional Thai cooking, although it was a laboratory setting (we were weighing out rice flour and water on the type of electronic balances you would find in a lab).
They also showed us how to make chicken broth (by boiling a chicken breast in water) with garlic and fish balls for the noodles. I talked to one of the TAs a bit. Her English, like most Thai of this generation, was quite good. We should make it mandatory for all our students in the US to become fluent or at least decent in another language. I can already hear all the parental backlash, but it is incredibly useful to speak more than just English.
The noodles were steamed in big metal tower steamers with multiple layers for steaming different things. Very interesting. The soup was boiled in a big pot over an open flame. Back at Rutgers, we use hotplates for everything, probably to avoid burning down the building. I understand the safety aspect, but using a real stove connects the laboratory experiment with the feeling of cooking. We’re food scientists, but we have to remember that we are working to create safe, healthy food for people, not just doing cool science things.
After making the first batch of regular rice noodles, we boiled some butterfly pea flowers to make a blue dye and used the water to make a batch of blue noodles. Although the flowers are purple, they make the water a very nice shade of blue (cerulean? It gets darker as you keep boiling, though).
We had to taste the noodles in a “sensory test” after we made them. Mine had a sort of gritty texture and fell apart easily (I think I boiled the noodles in water too long).
In the afternoon, we traveled to Mallika City for a cultural activity. Some of us (including the professor) dressed up in traditional Thai clothing and walked around the “retro city”, which was built to show daily life in Siam in 1905 AD.
Saturday 1/11/20 – Day 8
It’s hard to believe we’ve already passed the halfway point on this program. At the same time, it feels like we’ve been here forever.
After an “American breakfast” similar to yesterday’s, we headed to the Hellfire Pass Interactive Center.
This museum exhibited information about the construction of the Thailand-Burma Railway, infamously known today as the Death Railway. During WWII, with the cooperation of the government, the Japanese brought 60,000 POWs into Thailand (Siam) and hired hundreds of thousands of “Romusha”, Southeast Asian laborers, to build a railway between Thailand and Burma. European surveyors previously decided that it was not worth attempting to construct a railway through that area of the jungle, but the Japanese went ahead with it, at the cost of around 13,000 POW and 90,000 Romusha lives. Laborers died of starvation, disease, and military brutality. Medical care was improvisation by POW doctors.
Our next stop was the Sai Yok National Park, which had a small waterfall. Some of group planned to go swimming, but the pool at the base of the waterfall was not very wide and rather shallow. It was also occupied by children and tourists. This was also the last stop of the train running along the Death Railway. We climbed up to the top of the waterfall, and it seemed that the water flow was controlled by some sort of dam. As someone remarked (I forget who), Thailand has become too much of a tourist attraction.
In the afternoon, we visited Melon Valley, which, as you may have guessed, is a melon farm. The farmer there grows organic Japanese melons, which sort of resemble cantaloupes but are green inside. He claimed they had more flavor than European melons. I couldn’t really tell.
I thought he might be a traditional Thai farmer and wasn’t expecting much from the farm until he showed us around. The melons were fertilized with goat manure, molasses (or a byproduct of molasses production? His English wasn’t perfect), and a byproduct from refining sea salt. Sugarcane was also grown on the farm to attract insects away from the melons, which were grown in greenhouses. He had layered plastic sheets in the soil beneath the melons to maximize the amount of water and fertilizer available to the melons. Whether or not it was intended, this also prevents the excess nutrients from running into the groundwater.
The farmer was also growing microorganisms in old plastic water bottles to supplement the soil. Not sure what exactly the benefit was, but it was cool to see the colorful red and green microbes in their liquid broth.
Apparently he’s following USDA guidelines for growing his melons. I thought the microbes might be of questionable acceptability by US standards, though.
Next, we visited River Kwai, a corn and vegetable processing facility. They weren’t processing any corn today, but we did get to see workers packing baby corn (which is a variety of corn that doesn’t grow bigger. I identified strongly with this baby corn.). As with Thai Union, workers were on their feet for long hours packing and preparing the product. Their processing methods were also very sanitary. Purportedly, the shelf life of their vacuum-sealed baby corn was 6 months. Crazy. The company representative with us said that most of the canned vegetables they produced were exported rather than sold domestically, since Thai people prefer fresh vegetables. I was also surprised to hear that they pack corn for Dole.
We each got a sample can of sweet corn in brine. They also gave as a big cardboard box full of canned corn. Not sure if we can bring that on the plane.
The day kept on going. We moved on to the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, where the remains of thousands of POWs were kept. Many were Australian. The plaques in front of each grave contained messages from family and friends.
Our final stop following today’s Death Railway theme was the Bridge Over the River Kwai. This railway bridge is part of the Death Railway and a major tourist attraction. We saw the train running along it again today, from the top of an oddly-situated Chinese-style temple on the shore below the bridge.
On the opposite side of the bridge was the local Children’s Day Festival. We agreed that it was a little strange to hold the festival next to the Death Railway.
In the evening, we walked around a night market. We were given time to roam around freely. Although the professor advised against consuming food left sitting out for a while, especially raw cut fruits, I do wonder how much of that food really contains pathogens. One of our group members bravely bought a bag of what appeared to be crickets. We passed the bag around. Crispy on the outside, mushy on the inside. It wouldn’t be my first choice of snack, unfortunately, even if we’re trying to be sustainable. Earlier in the day, the professor mentioned trying fried insects at the market. When we ran into him again later, he gave us some that he bought. These were a little bigger and didn’t have mushy innards. They were thus better.
Insect exoskeletons really don’t have much taste or flavor without seasoning. It’s all about whether or not you can see bugs as food. If you can, we’ll be a step closer to a cleaner and greener society. And maybe becoming reptiles.