(from the ue photo archive)
The mother is showing her daughter the art of popping garlic cloves and fresh pepper with a pestle. The stone mortar is her gift to the child, it is the original one she hand carried on the airplane when she first arrived in the United States.
She is also sharing a secret, her recipe for som tam which cannot be transcribed into a recipe:
“Add two or three peppers, and four pieces of garlic,” she says as she tosses the ingredients into the mortar and adds another pepper for good will.
The night before the mother deseeded and sliced the green papaya to save time. As a result, the daughter is awkward when she is given the task of preparing the papaya. Her slices are never thin and transparent; instead, they are thick and too bulky for the small stone mortar.
Cherry tomatoes are added when the pepper and garlic become a paste-like texture.
There is an art to using the mortar and pestle, a certain touch that is required when popping the tomatoes. The mother tells the daughter: “The way a woman handles the pestle is the way her lover touches her at night.”
If her movements are quick and aggressive, her lover is a selfish brute.
If she is slow, careless and messy, she is an apprentice.
If her pestal makes a melodic song, a soft pounding of harmony against the mortar, she is calling for him to return to her.
Her mother adds a handful of the sliced papaya, a few squirts of fish sauce and sugar.
“Now taste. Is it too sweet?”
She quarters a lime and gives it to her daughter. “You must balance the sweetness with something sour.”
The woman sits on the woven straw mat with her mortar and pestle/she is a temptress/Her lover works the fields of rice patties/Her music is the pounding of stone/The white rice cooks/she adds the dried shrimp into her mortar.
If she does not have a lover the music of her mortar and pestle will call for him like the beckoning of a mermaid enchanting a sailor.
“Sometimes we use crab instead of fish sauce or shrimp. It is more Laos,” she tells her daughter, but her eyes suggest this version is not for the novice som tam maker.
After the lime wedges are squeezed, the mother samples the dish.
It is plain.
“Now you try, what do you think it needs?”
And so the the daughter begins balancing the sweet, the sour and the salty. A few more dashes of fish sauce, another squeeze of lime, and it is complete.
The mother tries her daughters som tam.
“Not bad,” she says as she opens the bag of dried shrimp and sprinkles a few on top of the dish.
“Yes, now it is perfect.”
While I can’t fully convince myself to embrace the Thai pop songs my mother used to sing and play repeatedly while we were growing up, I can reach a nice compromise. Have a listen to this.
It’s called Cambodian psychedelia. Oddly enough it channels that time in the early 1970s, when my father and other American soldiers were stationed in areas of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Or at least is very reminiscent of the reel to reels my dad made for my mom (with a little Gary Puckett thrown in the mix).
Have a listen: dengue fever, monsoon of perfume