My School Lunch Experience from Thailand to Berkeley, California

When I attended elementary school in Thailand, I had some of the best meals of my life. I especially remember delicious roasted pork shoulder— I ate plate after plate! One of the schools I attended in Thailand is in Nonthaburi Province. The school had a kitchen as big as a gym. Everytime I walked by, I saw chefs sweating as they cooked. They always seemed excited to show off the specials of the day to the children. Every day, my class sent six representatives down to the kitchen to get our lunches. Four students would carry two pots back to the classroom: one pot with some sort of a savory dish and another with the main staple, white rice or rice noodle. The last two kids would carry enough plates for everyone in our class. Every day, every class in the school would do the same. The students would set up a buffet line in the front of the classroom and then serve food to their classmates and friends. Once we ate, we all walked to the kitchen to wash our plates and utensils. First we’d scrape off the leftovers, then we’d dip our plate in soapy water and use soap to scrub it down, and then do a first rinse and a second rinse. Then maybe we’d have 30 minutes of playtime before afternoon classes.

When the students carried pots from the kitchen, served food to their classmates,and washed their own plates, they learned important social etiquette. When young students eat wholesome (and delicious!) food at a young age, they are more likely to continue the practice into adulthood. There is a saying in Thailand that the teachers and schools are second parents. If kids aren’t learning something at home, the school is the place. Things seem to be a little different with my experience in the United States.

In my college days, I started to read about school lunch in the U.S. Who would believe there are webs of politics, power, race, socio-economics, class, and culture behind the food that the children (and all of us) are eating. At Berkeley High School in California, where I attended high school, there were never more than a few hundred of over two thousand students waiting in line for lunch or breakfast. The food there actually wasn’t bad compared to other public school lunches I’ve tasted. But it still wasn’t good enough for the teenagers’ taste buds. Apparently it also wasn’t  “cool” to wait in line in the cafeteria so students often didn’t eat or left campus to find something else to eat. Local businesses in downtown Berkeley are packed during lunch hour with young folks trying to get burgers, cappuccinos, bagels, burritos, sandwiches, and chinese fried rice. Soda and chips were some of the most popular snacks.  

When I came to the United States, I started eighth grade at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, California. Not surprisingly, I didn’t like the school lunches there; I didn’t like cheese, tomato, or bread— the pizza! The only time I really enjoyed my lunch was when my English and Math teachers took our class to the school garden, the famous Edible Schoolyard. I didn’t realize the significance of that school garden until years later when I was researching about school lunch in college.

The Edible Schoolyard is known as a prototype garden that aims to bring wholesome food back to children in schools. They want a real kitchen in every school and they want to bring produce from local farmers and not rely solely on the “market leftovers” from the USDA. They work to get their community involved with their children’s diet. They also integrate school gardens into classroom curriculums. That  was why my classes stopped by the garden a few times a year. That garden has a very nice homely kitchen. The times in the Edible Schoolyard were great because it reminded me a lot of Thailand: I got to cook fresh vegetables with soy sauce the way that I like. I felt comfortable in that environment. I learned later quite quickly that children around the country are not as fortunate as I am.

Even though I grew up surrounded by rich cultures of food, I used to love junk food like no other. I loved Twinkies, or the “Undead Snack” as Mark Bittman calls them.  I bought one almost every day for breakfast and savored eating it with a glass of milk. The white cream in the middle was so delightful. I had Twinkies for breakfast for years. Then I learned that Twinkies never go bad. They have no nutrients, only fat. Even worse, the cream in the middle isn’t made of dairy products. I freaked out; what could Twinkies possibly made of!? Why were Twinkies even allowed on the market?! And why were such products doing so well? When I was a kid, those questions obviously didn’t occur to me.

After reading what Bittman had to say and doing a little research of my own, it was clear that millions of people loved Twinkies as much as I did too. Children grow to be adults. The majority of adults today still don’t know exactly what they are eating. When I tell my so-called “adult” friends facts like, Your food is radiated! Your apples and tomatoes have been waxed! The water you’re drinking from that bottle is pipeline-quality, not fresh spring water like they advertised! They say no way! They freak out. They don’t believe it. They get mad at me. I get tired and just tell them to google it!

Now I think I will just invest in a few informative books and share them with my friends (I will include a list of books and links below). A lot of vegetables went through radiation to kill the basic bacteria so they would store longer and look pretty longer in the supermarkets. Did you learn the fact that bacteria breaks down organic substance (think poop)? I hope so! If you get your produce fresh from the farm, most of it will go bad in about a week. If you get your vegetables from California farms when you live in NYC, there isn’t much freshness in there from the harvest time to your table so they had to do something about it, i.e., kill the germs (and more). Apples just look so much more attractive when they’re shiny and reflecting the market lights, don’t they?

Now, how many of you have seen passion fruit in a supermarket? Rare, very rare. We don’t see it because passion fruit gets really ugly a few days after picking. When it comes down to it, supermarkets will have a hard time selling ugly-looking vegetables despite health benefits. Consumers simply won’t pick out something with a bruise, yellowish-coloring, or welted with some exceptions (like plantains). So many of us love passion fruit drinks (which are almost always loaded with sugar!) but would never know what real passion fruit looks or tastes like. I’ll tell you, it is beyond your imagination. The  beauty of the flowers nearly kills the eyes. The fruit is round, an oval shape, in a soft yellow or purple color. You break the semi-hard shell, and then start sipping the seeds. The texture of the seeds is similar to chia seeds, if you know what those are. The tartness of the fruit will make you shiver in a very satisfying way. (By the way, there isn’t even passion fruit in your “passion fruit” drinks; they are engineered flavors!)

(A passion fruit flower. )

(A giant unripe passion fruit, almost as big as my head!)

The school gardens and healthy lunches, to me, keep things simple in children’s mind. They were learning when they thought they had been playing outside and they want more delicious food. Another school I attended before I moved to Berkeley was in Chiangmai, Thailand. It was a local school of about 800 students. They had an agriculture program for fourth to seventh grades. Almost weekly, the whole class would go to the school garden. There was an old man who looked after the garden living in a hut there. He would show us how to do things around the garden. Our class weeded the garden, grafted fruit trees, planted seeds in the earth, and fed the fish in the pond. We were being kids, humbly following adult’s instructions and having fun. My favorite part was when we shook the coconut trees so hard so the fruit would drop. A couple of my classmates climbed the trees and got us more. We used a machete to chop off the hard coconut shell so we could savor the juice on a humid afternoon. Like the Edible Schoolyard, we got to be active, build teamwork, and create friendships. I miss those days.

Read more on…

Edible Schoolyard Project Berkeley, California (http://edibleschoolyard.org/)

Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, Louisiana (http://esynola.org/)

Food Politics by Marrion Nestle (http://www.foodpolitics.com/)

Food Radiation (http://whyfiles.org/054irradfood/2.html)

Fruit and Vegetable Wax (http://whfoods.org/genpage.php?tname=george&dbid=175)

“Michelle Obama Reveals Her White House Garden Grows” by Marian Burros (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/29/us/politics/michelle-obama-writes-american-grown.html)

Passion Fruit (http://www.crfg.org/pubs/ff/passionfruit.html)

School Lunch Politics by Susan Levine (http://www.amazon.com/School-Lunch-Politics-Surprising-Twentieth-Century/dp/0691146195/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1343978438&sr=1-1&keywords=National+school+lunch+program)

“Twinkies, the Undead Snack” by Mark Bittman (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/twinkies-the-undead-snack/)

Making spring rolls for dinner with my roommates! 
Look at those cute leopard print plates!

Making spring rolls for dinner with my roommates! 

Look at those cute leopard print plates!

Homemade Brown Rice Chicken Paella
I’m sorry I haven’t been posting any recipe. I hope this picture of delicious brown rice paella make up for it! I hope it also inspires you to cook something delicious using tomatoes before the end of the season. I used Creole tomatoes to make the sofrito. It was unbelievably tasty :)

Homemade Brown Rice Chicken Paella

I’m sorry I haven’t been posting any recipe. I hope this picture of delicious brown rice paella make up for it! I hope it also inspires you to cook something delicious using tomatoes before the end of the season. I used Creole tomatoes to make the sofrito. It was unbelievably tasty :)

For cooks out there, I promise you will love this basil chicken recipe!

    ”You don’t have to know the taste of your ingredients. You must listen to your              ingredients” ~Francis Trocellier from “Seven Fires” by Francis Mallmann

                               My Favorite (Thai) Basil Chicken Dish

Basil, garlic, and shallots are some of my favorite herbs. Lucky for me, they are the key ingredients to this Basil Chicken dish.

This famous Thai dish certainly became a new American favorite, so much that Cook’s magazine spent time experimenting with it in their kitchen. I cannot recall any details of the article since I read it in a library months ago. However, I would like to suggest one tip that Cook’s magazine didn’t offer for stir-fry lovers out there: invest on a non-stick flat bottom wok.

I purchased my first decent wok from a college grocery store for $18 and it was worth every penny. The bottom fits well on my cheap electric stove, the heat travels evenly, and it is so easy to clean!

Also get a couple of wooden spatulas along with the wok. Plastic will eventually melt (unless you spend a ridiculous amount of money on a good brand)! Metal ones will scratch the bottom of the wok and there would be no point in having a non-stick pan after all.

To begin prepping ingredients, I minced the chicken thighs with a cleaver but you will get an even better texture if you grind it with a food processor. Ground turkey, pork, and beef or fresh (peeled and deveined) shrimps are other great options.

I’m not picky with basil; I use whatever is available in the market. They all taste pretty darn good to me! If desired, you can add extra vegetables such as string beans, bell peppers, and broccoli. Make sure to not put too many extra vegetables because they can easily overcrowd the wok and overpower the taste of basil leaves. Don’t forget to adjust the spice according to your tolerance!

Get these ingredients:

1 lb minced chicken thigh
1/2 tablespoon olive oil or vegetable oil
1 head minced shallot (can be substituted with red onions but it won’t be as delish)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1-2 tablespoons chopped bird eyes chili or jalapeño  
1 cup loosely packed basil leaves
1/3 cup thinly sliced bell peppers, I recommend using yellow, red, or orange bell peppers
1/3 cup thinly sliced chopped white onions
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1/2 tablespoon fish sauce
1/2 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons of water

Ready?

Combine fish sauce, dark soy sauce, and sugar in a small bowl. Set up the wok on a medium-high heat and add oil. Once the oil is hot, (please no fuming hot oil, we don’t want the herbs to burn) add garlic, shallots, and chili.Stir the herbs continuously for about 15 seconds then add the chicken. Allow the chicken to cook for a minute or two then add the sauce that was mixed earlier. Keep your eyes on the wok and keep stirring. When chicken thigh looks cooked ( it turns into a white-ish color), add the vegetables and cook for about one more minute. The yellow bell peppers and onions do not take more than a minute to cook so make sure you time it right so they won’t be overcooked. I personally enjoy my vegetables a little crunchy so sometimes I even cook it for about 30 seconds.  Add some water to increase the sauce’s volume. Once the meat and the vegetables are well done, turn off your stove, then lightly tossed in the basil leaves.
I’m in favor of eating this dish with a nice warm jasmine rice!
Content:
All literary works and photos are my original works otherwise stated. They cannot be reproduce in part or in whole unless prior consent from me, or appropriately mention of the source
"You have to love either what you are going to eat, or the person you are cooking for. Then you have to give yourself up to cooking. Cuisine is an act of love."

— Alain Chapel, Chef (1937-1990) copied from The Flavor Bible

Miso Soup with Udon Noodle and Tofu

Miso Soup with Udon Noodle and Tofu

I made this soup yesterday for breakfast. I just arrived home in Berkeley, CA to visit friends and family, and there are two vegetarians in the house right now, so the fridge is full of vegetables and “vegetarian ingredients.” This miso soup is simpler than I thought it would be - that is, once I had the right kind of miso paste in hand. I used Cold Mountain red miso paste, which has the right kind of strong, savory and salty flavors I needed for this soup. I don’t know what makes this miso paste “red” or what the differences are between red and the other “colors.” To me, it seems like how some Thai curries are named by their colors, but Thai red and green curry taste very similar, while the Thai yellow curry is just something else.

This soup was quick and easy to make, and was a great light breakfast. It would also make a great appetizer or snack. I used one cup of water for each tablespoon of miso paste. I also added about half a tablespoon of dark soy sauce to each cup of water. I added some celery, scallions, and baby carrots based on what I found in the fridge. You can also add baby corns, spinach, peas, bok choy, mushrooms, or sprouts for a more balanced meal.  Poached eggs or thin slices of ham would be a great substitute for tofu or red meat.

Makes 1 Serving

Takes 10 Minutes


Ingredients:

1 (3.5oz) package pre-made Udon noodles

2 cups water

2 tablespoons red miso paste

1/3 cup tofu, diced

1 stalk scallions, finely chopped

1 stalk celery, diced

4 baby carrots, diced

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

a small pinch of (coarse sea) salt, if needed

a pinch of pepper flakes

Instructions:

In a small pot, combine water, celery, baby carrot, and a very small pinch of salt and bring the water to a boil. Lower the heat and let it simmer; then dissolve the miso paste for about 1 minute. Add the Udon noodle and tofu. Bring them to boil one more time; the Udon noodle should be softened and the tofu should be fully cooked by this time — take an extra minute if you need to. Turn off the heat immediately after it boils. Pour the soup into a bowl. Add the remaining seasonings including scallions, soy sauce, and pepper flakes. Taste and fix the flavor to your liking.  

Cooking for Fun: Walk on Your Dinner: Homemade Udon Noodle

Salmon Bath in Peanut-y Red Curry Sauce and Bell Peppers

Hello! As promised, I’m back with a recipe for the salmon dish that I made about three weeks ago. Because salmon tastes good by itself, I was worried that adding too much flavor to it would ruin the experience of eating it. It turned out that the flavor of the red curry paste and the peanut butter did not overwhelmed the flavor of the salmon. In fact, you will taste all of the three flavors as they melted away in your mount. 

Ingredients:

-1 piece salmon fillet

-1/2 tablespoon canola, vegetable, olive oil

-1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk, shake the can before use

-1/2 cup bell peppers, thinly sliced

-1 tablespoon red curry paste

-1 tablespoon peanut butter

-1/3 tablespoon fish sauce

-1 tablespoon minced cilantro

- a wedge of lime

Cooking Instruction:

1) In a pan, warm canola or vegetable oil over medium heat, then add the curry paste. Stir until it fragrants. 

2) Once they are fragrant, add the coconut milk and peanut butter. Stir until they mix well and wait until the fat (which looks like oil from peanut butter, coconut milk, and canola oil) to settles on the surface. The fat should look like orange oily dots on the surface.

3) Add all the flavors and the salmon! Simmer the salmon in the sauce until cooked. 

"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." -John Keats

"A smiling face is half the meal."-Latvian Proverb

"Kissing don’t last: cookery do."-George Meredith

"I feel a recipe is only a theme, which an intelligent cook can play each time with a variation." -Madam Benoit

"A good cook is the peculiar gift of the gods. He must be a perfect creature from the brain to the palate, from the palate to the finger’s end."-Walter Savage Landor

"My soul is dark with stormy riot, Directly traceable to diet."-Samuel Hoffenstein


(Source: inspirational-quotes.info)

Zucchini and Tofu with a sprinkle of Curry Powder

I have so much zucchini from the fruit and veg co-op at Wes. Usually, I like to put zucchini in green curry or to fry them with eggs. Today, I tried to add a new flavor to zucchini. Looking at my spice racks, I noticed a curry powder that I probably have used only twice in a year, so I thought why not try it on zucchini since it takes new flavors well.

Serving: 1

Time: 10-15 minutes

Ingredients

- 1 medium zucchini, cut into thin slices

-1/2 cup tofu, cut into about 2 square centimeters pieces

-1 scallion, cut into 1inch pieces

-1/2 tbs vegetable oil

-1/2 tbs garlic

-1/2 tbs soy sauce

-1/4 tsp curry power

-salt and pepper, to taste

Making it:

In a non-stick pan, heat oil over medium high heat. Brown your garlic, then add in the tofu. Once the tofu is slightly browned, added zucchini and the remaining ingredients. Stir until the zucchini is cooked, when it becomes soft and wilts. Serve on top of warm rice.

Rad Nar Noodle

Last week, a Thai student group on campus, Pad Thai, had its first meeting of the school year. I made vegetarian Rad Nar, a fried rice noodle topped with Chinese broccoli in gravy sauce for everyone to try. Typically Rad Nar uses flat rice noodles, the same ones that are used in Chowfun. I didn’t have it on hand, so I substituted thin rice noodles (use in Pad Thai). However, you can find them in most Asian Grocery stores in the produce section. Rad Nar  served in Thailand or in Thai restaurants in the United States, often has a variety of noodles to choose from. In addition to thin and flat rice noodles, they may also offer egg noodles or rice vermicelli. The dish is served with condiments such as sugar, pickled chili in vinegar, ground dry chili pepper, white pepper, and fish sauce. You can play around with the flavors (to suit your taste).

Ingredients:

Servings: 5

Time: 50 minutes

Ingredients for noodle:

-5oz package of noodles, soaked in water for at least 20 minutes and rinsed. Cut into small approximately 6 inches  pieces before cooking.

- 1 ½ tablespoon sweet soy sauce

- 1 tablespoon canola oil

Ingredients for topping sauce:

-1 ½ cups of Chinese broccoli ( Thai Pak Kha Na)

- 1 cup tofu, cut into 2 cm square pieces

- 1 cup of shitake mushrooms, depending on size cut into halves or smaller

-1 tablespoon vegetable oil

- ½ tablespoon garlic, finely chopped

- 1 cube bullion

- ½ teaspoon fermented soybeans

- 2 tablespoon soy sauce

- 1 tablespoon fish sauce

- ½ tablespoon sugar

- 1/8 teaspoon white pepper

- 1 tablespoon tapioca powder, mixed in a small bowl with 1/3 cup of cold water and set aside

Making noodle:

In a nonstick pan or wok, heat the oil over medium heat. Fry the noodles in the pan, adding sweet soy sauce. Mix evenly. If noodles form into a large chuck, use two wooden spatulas to pull them apart so they cook evenly. The noodles are ready when softened; they will turn brown or maybe slightly burnt. Set the noodles aside in a deep plate.

Making topping:

In a wok or a saucepan, brown garlic over medium heat. Add about two cups of water and bullion (adjust the proportion of water according to the bullion you use but ensure that there is enough water to cover the noodles). Bring the broth to boil then lower the heat. Add all flavorings EXCEPT for the tapioca mix. Add the tofu and shiitake mushrooms. Cook over medium heat.

Stir tapioca mix* you set aside earlier, then add it into the broth. Tapioca helps to thicken the broth. Stir constantly so they don’t form jelly-like chunks. After it’s cooked, serve the sauce on top of the noodles!

Tips:

*Don’t forget this step because the tapioca powder will sink to the bottom of the bowl in cold water. To make a gravy texture, NEVER add tapioca powder directly into hot water without mixing first in cold water. If put the powder goes directly into hot water, it will immediately form chunks of jelly that are impossible to break and you will have to start over!

Tofu and mushrooms can be substituted with your favorite meat or seafood. Chinese broccoli can be substitute with regular broccoli, carrots, spinach, and cauliflowers.

I find this ehow.com recipe to be accurate. I also love this video from an imported ingredients online store, they went to Thailand and captured some common dishes. I hope the video will encourage you to make it!


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