It’s 90 degrees in the blazing Thai sun at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday in Phuket as Elle and her son Alex weave their way through the dense traffic, dodging speeding motorbikes and cars to get across the streets to the unnamed “fresh market." A cacophony of sounds and color assault the senses as they reach the sea of green umbrellas shading the piled high stacks of red dragon fruit, yellow jackfruit, orange papayas and green mangos. As they move down the aisles, past the soymilk seller, the squid griller and the Muslim chicken barbecue, on past the Portuguese sweets, the crispy little marshmallow crepes, deep-fried pastries filled with hot dogs and a myriad of other vendors selling exotic vegetables, a hundred different kinds of fish and seafood from the Andaman Sea and every conceivable part of a pig.
They are on a mission to find a “homegrown" chicken, the freshest and tastiest for making a curative but still delicious Thai chicken vegetable soup as a palliative to soothe Elle’s unquiet stomach. Alex, who grew up in Laguna, has been living in Thailand for 13 years and inspects factories for health and human rights violation all over Asia. Elle is a frequent visitor, especially now that he is married and the proud father of Austin, an adorable 4-month-old. Unaccustomed to a steady diet of spicy Thai food and unfamiliar water, her delicate stomach rebelled. Fortunately, Alex’s wife, Narm, an excellent cook, has a family recipe that should fix the problem and taste good going down.
Unless you grew up on a chicken farm, it is highly unlikely that you will have tasted a chicken this fresh. There is a difference. So Elle and Alex have gone to the open market to seek out the Muslim chicken man. Alex and Narm like to shop with this vendor because he is sweet and friendly. He offers two kinds of home-grown chickens: the cheaper one, called gai ngiaw (chewy chicken) has eggs inside its belly that have not yet formed a shell. These eggs have a strong flavor that is an acquired taste. However, these chickens are much tougher and need to be cooked for about four to five hours. The other is a more tender young chicken, requiring a mere two and a half hours of simmering. These are both free-range birds, so they are naturally tougher because they can run around and build muscle.
Being that the vendor is Muslim, these chickens are Halal, which means they are slaughtered using a sharp blade to cut the major neck arteries but not the spine and then drained of blood. There is also a religious ritual involved. Alex asked him to cut up the chicken, which he did. He put it in a plastic bag, which Elle put in her straw basket, and off they went in search of organic vegetables.
The vegetable vendors are mostly migrants from Issan, the northeastern part of Thailand. This is the poorest, most undeveloped part of the country, with an economy based on agriculture. Alex says you can tell the difference between organic and non-organic greens by looking for the produce that still has its roots. These are organic. Selecting from Thai rocket, Thai spinach, Thai kale, morning glory and a host of others that have no English names, they chose one of the latter, a dark green, flat-leafed variety as well as some exotic mushrooms. Then they picked out a large squash that resembled a light green butternut squash but tasted more like chayote, with a very mild flavor. The last two ingredients were stalks of lemongrass and turmeric root. We are more familiar with this spice in powdered form but you can find it in Asian markets here. It looks like a small ginger root on the outside but is that bright orange color inside.
Before leaving the market Alex required a stop at the sweet vendors stall as he and Narm enjoy the myriad of sweet treats available in Thailand. They particularly like the Portuguese-influenced goodies sold at one of the stands. The Portuguese came to Phuket about 1600 and these are part of their legacy, adapted of course with local ingredients. These unfamiliar and odd-looking delicacies did not appeal to Elle who is not too big on sweets to begin with. Elle thought the brown rubbery pizza-sized slice of jelly tasted odd because it was flavored with onion but the taro cake with coconut cream topping was quite good. Also pretty good was the light green sticky rice tinted and flavored with pandana leaf, eggs and sugar. Desserts are perhaps the most culturally determined of pleasures.
Arriving at Alex’s modern Thai-style high-peaked-roofed house designed to catch the cooling breezes, Elle began the prep work while Alex went into his garden to pick chilies, then returned to prepare the soup. It did the trick as chicken soup always seems to, but this was a particularly pleasurable remedy.
Narm’s Thai Chicken Soup
(adapted for Laguna cooks) Serves four to six
3½ pounds chicken cut into eight pieces
3 quarts of water
2 lemongrass stalks, pounded
2 Thai or serrano chilies lightly smashed
1 teaspoon turmeric or a small peeled root, smashed
1 box of brown or white mushrooms cut in half
2 to 3 chayotes or 1 butternut squash cut into 1 1/2 -inch pieces 1 teaspoon sugar 2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 5-ounce package spinach
2 green onions, chopped
salt and fresh basil to taste
1. Heat water until hot but not boiling. Add chicken, lemongrass, chilies and turmeric. Simmer on low for two hours.
2. Add mushrooms, squash, fish sauce and sugar continue cooking for half an hour.
3. Turn off heat. Add spinach, onions, basil and salt. Serve immediately.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet foods and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com