Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Secret's in the Sauce

The smell of apples and ruminating on ethnic food reminds me of a story. Could it have been 20 years ago? Ah, indeed it was. A new Thai restaurant opened in our neighborhood. The owner was a friend of a friend and the place quickly became a favorite. One dish we particularly liked was kai yang: a chicken breast on the bone, marinated and grilled, and served with sticky rice,  slices of carrots and cucumbers, and a spicy sauce.

I asked Jimmy, my Thai friend at work, how to make it, and he gave me a recipe for the marinade, but brought a bottle of mang-da sauce the next day. "This is what you serve with it," he said. "Even in Thailand, hardly anybody makes it at home; it's like ketchup." That summer, kai yang with mang-da sauce was a staple of our dinner parties. Our guests would rave about the combination, and many evenings found us lounging at our outdoor table in the moonlight speculating about what was in the secret sauce. The label was no help; written mostly in Thai, the ingredients list in English simply read mang-da, water, hot peppers, and salt. The sauce itself was brownish-red, a puree with flecks of peppers and something else. It was spicy but complex, and here is where we all had our pet theories. What was mang-da? Animal, mineral, or vegetable?  John insisted that it tasted of apples, but I found it a little briny, like dried shrimp.

On and on we debated, until finally it occurred to me to ask Jimmy. He laughed and uncharacteristically referred the question. The ladies who worked in the pantry, doing all the cold prep, were mostly Thai and Vietnamese, and their lead was a woman named Supatra. That is who he told me to ask. Jimmy watched curiously as I approached her and asked my question. She laughed, too, but a little nervously. "This flavor is very good, but very strong," she started. "In my village we like it very much."  Her hesitation was beginning to worry me a little.

"Go on, " I urged her. Finally she came out with it-- mang da was a gigantic, 2 1/2 inch water beetle that people in northern Thailand roasted and ground as a seasoning. I realized that I had seen them in the freezer section of the Asian market, an icy block of frozen cockroaches; in fact I was quite sure that I had pulled them out of there, grimacing in disgust and wondering who would ever eat them.

Turns out, it was me. Later, when I asked the guy who owned the restaurant about it, though, he was offended that we would think that he would serve such a peasant sauce in his establishment. He was from Bangkok, he informed me, where they had much higher standards.

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