The road to making Thai curry — my one true culinary love — in Japan has been long and arduous.
It took me weeks to collect all the spices, the coconut milk from various import stores. The tamarind paste I bought at the Asian market in California and brought back with me (yes, it’s easier to buy Thai ingredients 8,000 miles away from Thailand than 2,800). I found the limes — mysteriously not available in Japanese supermarkets — at the little Brazilian market near the train station. I have to open the coconut milk in this star pattern (I should submit it to a museum as modern art) because Japanese can openers simply don’t work. Some things, like fresh lemongrass, are simply not available and I have to improvise.
I guess I love that it’s been a project that has crossed national and cultural borders and required not a small amount of creativity and patience. That’s the beautiful thing about cooking, right? — like literature, it takes you to far-away places, challenges you, teaches you.
The way I make Thai curry is messy and haphazard. It was always this way (past roommates will remember the war zone that was our kitchen on curry nights), but in my little apartment here I really have no other option anyway. With one burner and a counter space about the size of my small cutting board, there’s just not room to assemble all the ingredients beforehand.
As garlic and ginger — the first step — sizzle on the stove, time is of the essence: I reach for whichever spices I feel like that night, shake them into the oil until things look and smell right. Later, when it’s time for ingredients like lime juice, fish sauce and tamarind paste, I once again go by instinct, barely thinking as I reach for this bottle or that one. It’s the same with the vegetables and the meat, tofu or fish, of which curry seems to accommodate an infinite number of combinations. There’s no logic to my choice of fresh ingredients for each curry besides “whatever sounds good and is on sale.”
I may be doing something right with this slapdash style: The writers at Thai Table describe how Thai culinary philosophy eschews measuring cups and places a premium on personal taste, freeing you from following recipes to the letter.
I think of each curry as organic, living, in a constant state of change from when I first turn on the stove to when I spoon the steaming meal into a bowl and take that first bite. It’s the whole process and experience of cooking, not just the taste, that makes curry worth every bit of frustration with my tiny kitchen; worth the nuclear fallout of ingredients everywhere; worth the time and effort and cost of obtaining all those ingredients in a country that frankly can’t handle the spice and strong flavors of Thai food.
And that’s why, this Valentine’s Day, I’ll most likely be alone in my apartment making Thai curry. I wouldn’t have it any other way.