The problem is my mom is an amazing cook so I have fond and savory memories of her cooking. I can think of many comforting Thai dishes she made that taste like home: Stuffed Bitter Melon Soup, Pork Knuckles in Sweet Dark Soy Sauce and a very simple Chicken Rice Soup that she made whenever we were sick.
She’s also very proficient on the grill and with her marinades. Her BBQ chicken and short beef ribs makes me shiver with lip-smacking delight. When I asked her how she learned to cook, she told me she learned by watching, as if this was the most obvious answer in the world.
For her farang (white) boyfriend and us Americanized kids, she’d make blueberry pancakes and bacon for special breakfasts. Steak, spaghetti and fast foods were also part of our diets. I remember the first time we tried Taco Bell. I might have been in the 3rd or 5th grade, but since Mexican food was as unfamiliar to my mom as was the country Mexico, I did the ordering.
Looking up at the menu, I didn’t know what all the foods were, but quesadilla looked like an intriguing word, so I ordered that. When we got our tray back to our table with its mysterious wrapping, I eagerly opened it. The cheese filled tortilla looked pitiful and plain. We laughed though. My mom said she was ashamed because people might think we were too poor to order more.
As an expat in her native land, I maneuver my nose around familiar dishes with the calmness that everyday outsiders would find bold or bland. And this is not because I’m an adventurous eater or a seasoned traveler, it’s just because I recognize the food, the smells and sights of Northern Thai dishes.
But my comfort food, my go-to dish, when I miss my mom or home is a very simple dish – a Thai-style omelet with rice. For a hungry hippo like me, it’s fast to whip up, tasty and filling. For many foreigners/Westerns, the idea of eating an omelet deep fried in oil with rice for breakfast, lunch or dinner fills them with distrust, if not disgust.
I remember when I had my own long term farang boyfriend, and I told him what I was making for dinner, he protested when I cooked the eggs in oil instead of butter. He thought I was weird, but now he lives in Thailand too and probably doesn’t even remember butter anymore. (Slight exaggeration, I’m sure he remembers butter.)
The ease in which kai jeow can be made is something that greatly appeals to me. It’s Thai street food, student food, easy-to-take-away food. When my mom was tired or didn’t feel like cooking, she’d ask if I wanted it and I’d say, sure. Then she’d end up taking longer making it because she would mince the pork with her cleaver. But normally, it’s a fast food.
And I find comfort in that.