Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Travelling Medicine: Thailand
There is so so SO much food in Thailand, and not just any old food, I mean stunning food, that it's been nearly impossible to narrow it down for this post. I'm trying to stick to the purely medicinal aspect, which helps a little, but because the food in general is incredibly fresh and has a rich medicinal tradition of it's own it doesn't really help in the narrowing it down game. In fact, it didn't really help in the battle of the waistline either, since every time I go home I literally want to have all my favorites at least twice, then try something new and well...there isn't a lifetime of enough time to do that even when you live there. I could write an entire blog just on the medicine (and the pleasure) of Thai food. In fact, I found two lovely books just on that while I was home for the holidays in Bangkok. I was visiting the Yaowarat district in Bangkok and came across a strip of one store after another of traditional Thai medicine shops (traditional Thai medicine is referred to as Yaa Pan Boo-raan), where I came upon the two editions of books on food as medicine. Folks, there is nothing that really excites me more than this wherever I may be!
One of my favorite dishes and a must have every time I go back, is noodle soup (kuay teaw). There are many variations of noodle soup, perhaps so many that I'll never try them all as there are regional ones and then there is each noodle experts little nuance on a type of soup. The one directly below is from DuDee noodle shop on Chaengwattana Road, owned by Du and Dee (though Dee has since passed away sadly) and it has a few locations throughout Bangkok. I got it to go and assembled it at home, as many people do.
They do an excellent Tom Yum flavored pork noodle soup with bean sprouts, Thai white morning glory (pak boon thai si kao), crispy fish skins, ground pork (moo sap), barbeque pork (moo daeng), crushed peanuts, and there is of course more in these soups but you get the jist. Below this is a plain pork noodle kuay teaw with pork meat balls, with a dash of dried chile flakes on top.
Some people wonder why you would want to eat a spicy and hot soup when you're in a hot humid country. Well, chiles by inducing you to sweat ever so slightly (or for some profusely) are actually cooling your body down. Noodles soups can have many different qualities besides the spice factor, I wrote about beef boat noodle soup many months ago (kuay teaw rua) and it's medicinal properties (being more of a blood builder).
These soups can also be had plain, no spice, and are in general a wonderful way to build yourself up if you're feeling fragile or weak. Anything cooked low and slow (as the broth base is always prepared) is an excellent overall tonic. Then there are the condiments, the chile (cooling and warming, moving, anti-bacterial), the garlic (immune system enhancing), scallions (fights colds), ginger (digestive), and so on. As I said earlier, it's difficult to narrow things down when everything has such an essential role, but I'd like to focus a bit more on one of the ingredients which is commonly thread throughout Thai cuisine: the chile. There are many different types, large, small, dried, fresh, ground, whole, hot, mild, green, red, yellow, or orange.
The chile/aka. prik in Thai (or Capsicum frutescens) in Chinese Medicine treats the stomach, spleen, and heart and has a fire nature (the other 4 of the 5 elements being: wind, earth, water, and wood). It works on dissipating cold, warming your digestive system, dissolving food stagnation, producing sweat (and therefore cooling you as well!), and drying "dampness" (dampness meaning conditions such as : being overweight, an excess of phlegm, cloudy mind, sluggishness, fatigue). All chiles are rich in capsaicin, vitamin C, A, and E, phosphorous, and calcium, some are higher in each than the others. Chiles (also legitimately spelled chilies, or chillies FYI) have been studied extensively in the last 20-30 years as to their medicinal values by both the modern and traditional medicine contingents. It has been found that they're in fact good for all the things they were said to be good for in TCM, but are being used for even more purposes such as drug addiction and arthritis treatment. AlgoRx Pharmaceuticals Inc., a start up pharma company, was even in the market for creating a drug based on capsaicin for pain prevention.
Chiles can stimulate the neural pathways that release endorphins, and thus are pain-reducing. In TCM pharmacies you can find chile patches (which work very well I can say from first hand experience and from patient feedback) on lower back pain and arthritic pains in particular. So, if you are ever in Thailand and suffering from any of the above symptoms, have some noodle soup, add some chile, and sit back and let it seep in and heal you! Conditions in which you should use restraint on the chile front: active bleeding hemmorhoids, ulcers, or a "hot burning" diarrhea.
Beyond chiles, another of the wonderful medicinal food groups (though I will make a side note here; almost all fresh, local, & seasonal foods have some aspect of medicinal value to them) is the fruit world in Thailand. Oh the fruit!!!! There are so many which I miss when I am away and all I can get is imported cardboard cut out versions which I tend to avoid anyway. There are two which I happen to love and will therefore dabble on a bit here: mangosteens and tamarinds.
Mangosteens (aka. mung-kut) have finally made their way over to the U.S. in the form of semi fresh real fruit and in products galore due to their suddenly popular "medicinal and health" benefits in the Western hemisphere. I can't comment too much on the creams and dreams made of mangosteens but I can on the actual fruit. Well, mangosteens (also know as the "The Queen of Fruits") have been found to be high in xanthones. The rind in parcticular is rich in this compound and has therefore been used traditionally to treat conditions such as gonorrhea (though please go get some antibiotics for this if you have it!!!), diarrhea, ezcema, and bladder infections. The actual fruit inside the thick rind has antibacterial and microbial effects. Mangosteens are also simply just delicious, end of story. The white succulent flesh that is sweet and slightly tart is found when you slice it open and reveal the beautiful orange-like wedges inside. I have only ever eaten mangosteens fresh, and to my knowledge they aren't used in any Thai dishes, but if you know of any please let me know.
Tamarind (aka. ma-kam) is another favorite whilst in Thailand, fresh or otherwise. When I was a kid I would always eat these little powdery tamarind flavored candies which are hard to find nowadays, but I have kept the tins out of nostalgia and will post a picture on here sometime so that if you want to attempt to hunt them out you can while you visit (I did not find any on this trip). Tamarind is used as a mild laxative, blood purifier, for lowering cholesterol, as a fever reducer (applied as a poultice), as an antibacterial/microbial/viral, for skin infections, and the leaves are used to treat rheumatism and malaria (to be honest tamarind is used for countless other maladies so it seems to be one of those miracle fruits, go tamarind!). Another little surprise use of tamarind is in worcestershire sauce! Yep. It's everywhere.
One of my favorite uses for tamarind (besides as a cooling juice) is in the Thai street dish, kai look kuey featured below. It is a very simple dish to make.
Ingredients: eggs, fresh or pulp tamarind, sugar (cane or palm), fish sauce, shallots, cilantro, dry red chiles, oil.
Instructions: Hard boil eggs first, then lightly fry until golden on the outside, set to side. Take tamarind pulp and place in water, squeeze out juice until water is a nice brown color. Place water into pan and put on a slow boil, add sugar and fish sauce to taste and cook slowly until it thickens (the sauce should taste sweet & sour & slightly salty). Fry half moon shallots until crispy and add to sauce. Fry dry red chiles and add to sauce as well. Pour over crispy eggs and serve with minced cilantro if you so wish. (Below I used duck eggs to be extra decadent, but you can use either duck or chicken eggs)
Another very popular ingredient in Thai cuisine is kaffir lime leaves, aka. bai ma krood (below you can see the leaves pictures with some miniature eggplants & chiles, and the kaffir lime leaves). The juice of the actual limes is used for stimulating the scalp and promoting gum health.
Kaffir is also said to be a blood purifier. The leaves are used fresh in salads or dry (as well as fresh) in many curries and soups. Some of my favorites are Tom Yum (Hot & Sour Soup) and Gaeng Kiew Wan (Green Curry).
(Tom Yum Goong)
(Gaeng Kiew Wan Gai)
Last but not least, for the time being at least (because there will always be more trips to Thailand), coconuts and their milk and oil which are used in curries, desserts (see kanom crok, a Thai coconut dessert below), for health, and for cooking. Coconuts have also received a warm and excited welcome in the Western hemisphere as of late, their medicinal properties being touted left and right. And with good reason.
Coconut oil and milk is good for the inside and the outside, for the stomach and the skin. Coconuts are warming and sweet, strengthening and tonic. They are an excellent source of saturated fat for vegetarians, but should be used moderately if you are consuming large quantities of other forms of cholesterol. I often prescribe the oil as an excellent ointment for dry or irritated skin conditions. I also prescribe it for digestive weakness in adults and children (even toddlers). If a toddler you can gently rub a little coconut oil in a clockwise motion around the abdomen. Likewise for adults, but it doesn't necessarily have to be quite as gentle.
And with that, I'll leave you, but I want to add some more food pictures from my trip to Thailand, medicinal or otherwise! Enjoy!
Small mackerel (pla tu), for more on the medicinal value of the "little fish" go to my previous post here.
For more on the medicinal value of pumpkins (fuk tong) and gourds go here.
Garlic (kratiem) in all it's variations, for more on this wonderful spice, go here.
Market scene in the Yaowarat district.
Food stall in the market.
Morning glory (pak boong).
Satoh (don't know the English version for this Southern Thai herb/plant). You can look it up on this Thai vegetable guide site.
More chiles being picked through.
Pork balls (sai oua) mixed with herbs and spices and grilled on a stick.
Fresh fruit stall.
Homemade green mango salad (yum mamuang).
Wing bean salad (yum tua poo), a MUST try, one of my all time favorites as well.
Small green Thai eggplants used in curries and for other dishes (ma keua), for more on eggplants medicinal uses go here to a previous posting of mine.
Turtle eggs (kai tao).
Grilled sweet bananas (kluay ping).
Papaya tree with little tiny papaya flowers that will soon bloom into the fruit itself. For more on papaya see my Travelling Medicine: Colombia post.
Green papaya salad (som tam). Made with small blue crabs on the left (som tam bu) and plain on the right.
A little concoction of my own, singha beer with fresh chiles, lime, and a dash of sea salt at the beach.
And last (but not least!), a little kiss to a little crispy garlic fried river fish!
For more pictures on the Thai delights (there are too many to post here), go to the Spice Doc fan page or to my new Flickr page.