Nutritious Snacks

With the beginning of the rain season I am now fully aware of the nutritious variety of insects available to my staff as snacks. I usually ignore this reality. This morning however, I found two large dung beetles in the fryer-basket  and after a little inquiry found out that some of my staff is regularly preparing bugs they catch for their own consumption in the main kitchen. When bewildered I asked how many times insects had been deep-fried in “my” fry-oil bin, they shrugged their shoulders and seemed strangely amused about my disgust. Side note:
No worries, I changed the oil and the rules of cooking in the same liquid as I bake desserts and French fries…
My culinary curiosity finaly helped overcome the fear of crawling insects and I ate a cricket. Let me explain:
In the South here I’m offered everyday snacks from my staff and feel really bad when rejecting the generously offered Grasshoppers, Crickets’ and Locusts. As much as I would be insulted if anyone in America brings me a Water-beetle to show appreciation, here it is a sign of their respect for me. After I requested myThai chef to prepare for me his favorite dish, I received fried silk worm pupae with red ant eggs. Tom Yam style. (Green papaya, roasted peanuts, chili, spring-onion and the larva of butterflies – I guess wishfully… which they collected for me around the pawn behind the kitchen, mixed with large ants living in bamboo…)
When with Goosebumps and wide open eyes I carry the plate away from the stove, afraid the smashed and roasted insects could still crawl from the hot plate over my hand and up my sleeves, my staff looked after me concerned, realizing I forgot to ‘kon kun krab’ (say ‘thank you’) and it dawned on some of them that I probably couldn’t eat it. “Arroy, arroy” they encouraged me, but it looked not edible to me. The idea of biting through a whole body and the innerts would burst onto my tongue while the crunching sounds of chitin echoed through my skull gags me. I’d rather lick the bottom of my shoes before scooping a spoon of roasted meaty maggots in my mouth. Down at the “local beach restaurant” one can order ‘tod malaeng da na’ (water bugs roasted with chili and straw mushroom) a delicacy for most Thai’s. I can’t even sit on the same table when anyone eats their ‘delicacy’. Disturbed I’m thinking about awkward things, like; are they kissing anyone tonight or “am I not drinking from the same cup in the kitchen…”?
I actually know that the protein contend of bugs and larva is double that of any good meat. Even the vitamin and nutrition value is unmatchable compared to eating cattle. For instance, 110 gram of dried insects contains 40g to 80g of protein, and 10g to 40g of fat. This is exactly the same amount of protein and fat found in 220g (about ½ lbs of beef). Besides, insects contain high amounts of calcium and phosphorus. You can produce more insects with the same energy  and money invested on a fraction of land needed to raise cows (and help the inviroment about global warming). Thai people eat insects everywhere. Even in Bangkok on the streets you find vendors praising these snacks in little paper bags while explaining that the locusts and walnut sized maggots had been grown in jars filled with honey and hence taste very sweet. Yuk! Two nights ago a little girl sitting on the beach front  “snacked” away on mang kudgi (wait for the explonation of this one). Happyly distructed by her crunchy lunch of the day – when I ask; Arroy? She responded: arroy mak mak! (very, very delicious) sliding a huge noth with wings and all in her little mouth…
Today I helped collecting malaeng grachon (mole crickets). We deep-fried them quickly -(before I change the oil). Yes, I ate a few… They were crispy and had a nice “earthy” taste. I expected it to be sweeter and hoped they’d be ‘Chocolate’ flavored, since I once heard that description; but no – it was like eating unwashed potato skin. Nothing gross or awful. I now know I could survive eating hoppers… They hide in damp soil.  To catch them we made a hole in the ground and by pouring water in it chased the snack onto the surface. When the crickets come to the above ground to avoid drowning, we caught them.
Which brings us back to the little girl eating dung-beetles, locally known as mang kudgi. Before you think about who she kisses; keep in mind these beetles feed on cattle waste as well as other wild animal excrement such as elephants and chicken shit, and wild monkey poop… Not sure that is the right ‘treat’ for little girls… but heck, I ain’t gonna try it! ‘Man pen rai’ – (all is okay) they say here in Thailand.

Stinky Feet

What would a good blog be without a villain? HR is bugging me all week, I try being professional about it and be of help to all departments involved for the busy preparations for the upcoming opening party on May 19. Considering this is an event for about 70, the debate and amok planning (or the lack thereof) is mind bugging. Everyone acts as if this is the Hollywood Oscars but only a few seem to be able to comprehensively write a structured plan that makes sense to all. The event-planer nightmare and the comical spoof of every wedding movie made; is that character micro-planning details without having an overall concept in hand. At first I tried helping and designed a pretty solid action plan (it still is my guideline) but by now I have learned to simply let the chaos develop around me and concentrate on adjusting to the ever-changing ideas and impossible to control actions. When I walked into the HR office yesterday, the “thorn in my eye” pulled another stunt on me and requested her HR buddy to get me out of there with any excuse (in Thai, thinking I would not understand) – because I had stinky feet. Well, I had smelly feet. After more than ten hours in a kitchen in clogs… The fact that she enticed her office staff to laugh about it shows her childishness and her overall lack of respect for me. I actually walked in there to help here with the event planning, which got lost in her diversion. But in the end knowledge is power and will prevail. For now I enjoy her little games. She is a funny character; I will get us a picture soon!

For the arrangements of the Grand Opening of ZEAVOLA I have to learn a lot these days about Thai food. Especially the sweeter side of Asian cultural cuisine: Yes, its tuff! Ha ha ha. Most of the delicious items to the locals are lesser impressive to my palate and what I consider stunning desserts provoke much less joy on the local tongue. In a way traditional Thai dessert is much better a choice, considering there is less sugar components added and rarely food colorations or aroma enhancements. When I was served Durian with sticky rice I revolted at first. I kindly accepted the present from my chef K Rach who gave it to me with a joyful grin on his face and put it in my little refrigerator back at my Cabin. Yesterday evening I thought it to be a perfect time to venture into the “stinky fruit” dessert. Right when I opened the ice box I thought I would faint! The rank of Durian was unbearably strong. Brave as I am; curiosity kills what?… I opened the package and took a bite from the fruit. The texture was okay, and once I ignored the ’stinky feet smell’ it actually tasted okay. Hey! Now, I wonder? Why is it so concerning to HR that my feet stink when this is her favorite dessert?  I received my costume for the event; Yellow! I will be dressed in Yellow from head to toe. Call me sunshine! It is indeed my prefered color, not sure I want to “stick out” like this during the opening event, but maybe the color of Durian is just fitting! ( You think HR had anything to do with this?)

Today is a holiday: Visakha Puja, held on a full moon. It is celebrated on a grand scale this year in Thailand in conjunction with the Sixtieth Anniversary Celebrations of His Majesty’s Accession to the Throne. His Majesty requested Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya (yes one word…) a Buddhist university to arrange the celebration. It is the “birth, the enlightenment and the day of Buddha’s passing” – all on the same day but in different years. I will go and light a bundle of temple incense at his little shrine and make sure it’s of strong and pleasing essence… and include everyone in my prayers.

Malaria

Malaria and Dengue fever are similar. Both are a symptom of early tropical rain and the bothersome mosquitoes biting by the dozens whenever one steps from under protection. I sleep under the mosquito net in my dandy chamber and preferably with my window open, but these days I hide in the air-conditioned safety of locked shades, bothered by the fact I live at the beachfront and cannot dream under the skies. Turns out that my prediction about the illness of my staff was head on when I treated the pastry chef with Malarone on his first day of symptomatic Dengue fever. Although HR finally dragged him to the nearby hospital (where they had no equipment to take a blood sample) I had had requested a transport to the better Phuket hospital. Tomsai beach hospital still under construction send two of my staff back to the Island with Aspirin and codein but unclear about a diagnosis. To  circumvented HR’s  uncompassionate care for my staff I arranged for little Steward to go home to the Phuket where the local hospital confirmed Malaria. The doctor prescribed him the same medicine I gave the pastry chef the first night. Not a big mystery, it’s explained in every Thai travel journal and awkwardly I’m wondering why we don’t have this prescription drug in our nursing department… To explain a little bit further, Malaria is basically dangerous, if caught multiple times you will experience terrible muscle pain, headaches and high fever, diarrhea, loss of appetite and here in Thai they call it “bone shattering sickness”. Keep in mind there is no need to suffer through this for three days before HR finally sends you to an inactive hospital, where they received something equivalent to Tylenol.
These last days we were busy, especially around lunch time. I designed an easy to prepare menu for a Spanish travel group visiting Thailand for a promo tour, and served exquisite Gazpacho Andalusia and prepared Paella with sea food. After they enjoyed their “home-cuisine” I invited the ladies to view the kitchen. They all walked barefoot from the beach into my squeaky clean workplace (which is quite normal here…) and one of the Agents, while flicking her cigarette ashes on the floor said:” Very clean kitchen! I can tell you are Swiss”… I’m American. Another travel group of eleven arrived two hours after they announced their lunch visit (luckily) and within the first fifteen minutes complained that the food took way too long to arrive on the table. That after-noon, around 3:30 I schlepped myself to bed and took a nap. It was one of those naps you wake up one hour later feeling even worse.

The days are starting earlier, having an underwater dive team shooting with the big boss and requesting staff presents at 6:30AM. We are still five people short. Somehow we manage, but everyone is showing signs of tiredness.
Dinner preparations are getting faster and the consistency is improving; it is of great advantage for the cook helpers that I am working next to them and physically can show techniques. (Although sign language becomes a dangerous attempt when talking with knife and fry pan) it helped that the skies regularly close at sunset and it rained a few evenings, chasing the guests for early dinners inside. Room service orders drizzle in and in general we have a fun time, even though we stay busy for the entire days. The other evening I requested Pastry kitchen to write the names of my cold kitchen lady; Yok (sweet lady-boy) and the GM’s secretary on a birthday cake. There is this little whole in the wall bar on the very end of the beach. A scary walk through living quarters of fisher villagers and back there is a karaoke dungeon. I have no better words for that dark smelly room I once briefly visited in daytime; it was scary even then. One can imagine what awful quality schnapps they drink back there. A busy snooker table (how did they get this one on the island) and an open kitchen right next to each other and if one has to pee you simply “release” into the corner; seriously! Maybe tomorrow I can blame my hangover or any other illness on the Dengue fever.

Tropical Rains and Sunsets

The rain pouring out of the purple skies in tropical fat drops this morning, woke me up. Lightning and thunder at the same time shaking the cabin, a fantastic spectacle. I hurried into the shower, the outside facility and stood in the warm water under the open sky. My days are long in the kitchen, yesterday again over fourteen hours and no ease in sight. We are in preparation for opening ceremony, invited the monks to bless the our hotel and arranging a themed three day event in two weeks. I am very excited to have this chance having never prepared food for Thai monks before.

All employees will dress as rural villagers and the food will be traditional Thai food. I am planning a lunch on little Bamboo Island, fifteen minutes across the Tang Leam beach where we are located. I wonder how this all will work out, considering we are still understaffed and it seems difficult to receive requested info from prior events. As much as I like a good challenge, I don’t like preparing proposals that later are deferred to already existing menus and well documented events. Our new F&B manager is making a great effort to adapt to his position. A difficult task indeed and I shall assist him with all his questions and needs. He seems to be a very nice and friendly fellow.

My friend Larry is visiting from California and having a great time. Its fun cooking for someone I know and I enjoy the “normality” of being able to speak and be as I am. Here, in this isolated little world of Phi Phi I have little privacy and so far I had no chance or time to escape a little. Yesterday I prepared to have a day off (today), organized myself a trip to Phuket for one day but had to cancel in the last minute; after a busy dinner event last night, I figured it would be a disaster to leave the current staff on their own. They are simply not ready yet. I had asked one of the Pastry chefs, currently in Phuket on her scheduled vacation to join me in a personal invitation to a Chocolate Exhibition at the Amari Hotel in Plantong Beach. When HR heard about it, she demanded I request her permission before planning my private time in Phuket. I’m still amused about it. Next time I will write down a provisory schedule of my intended activities from the morning shower to the last thing I do before I fall asleep, to make sure I have her full approval when enjoying my time away from work…

My cold kitchen staff is making leaps forward with carving technique. They have discovered how happy I am seeing them snip and chop away on fruit and vegetable instead of simply hanging around aimlessly. Guests love to see their talent displayed. We are finally receiving regular delivery of fresh lobster and they are a hit with the guests. I prefer to do very little to them, liking the simplest of preparation since the best way of eating crustaceans is poached or baked with butter. I split them in half. Then I sauté in butter: chopped garlic and parsley, finely diced shallots and tomato concasée (peeled and diced) and layer the lobster meat with this sauce before baking them in a hot oven for twelve minutes. I nap the meat with the same sauce again (yes prepare it again fresh), this time add salt and a dash of ginger and chili and white pepper (after baking). This prevents the meat from loosing all the liquid in the oven. I accompany the dish with potato gratin and stuffed tomatoes.

The first order of the “Sunset Menu” I created last week arrived this morning. A romantic tete-a-tete dinner for two. First, cocktails on the boat cruising through the many islands while sunset watching and Bamboo BBQ dinner at the beach. I will explain this complicated preparation in a next blog.  There are choices between romantic dinner prepared in your villa or a private chef preparing your main course at the beach front and even the fire pit at the beach while launching in Thai style watching the moon rise. Oh, it’s so good to be in love!

Snap – back to work!