Monday, November 21, 2011

Cultural confusion and Tom Kha Gai

When I was in NYC a strange thing kept happening - I would be at the Met or Moma  and people would mistake me for being Italian or Dutch, etc - anything other than American.

I don't quite get this because I am mostly of Irish heritage and I doubt I dress very European.

At the Met a women from Naples mistook me for being an Italian. In fact after much talking (talking on her end and gesturing on mine) she was distressed that I was not Italian.

In fact she said, "Americano? No, No, No!"

I didn't quite know how to react to that one...

But that leads into me trying to duplicate the Tom Kha Gai from my neighborhood restaurant.

This is a dish made up of coconut milk and savory chicken and just a wonderful melange of flavors.

After hitting 3 different Asian grocery stores and still not finding kafir lime leaves or galangal I gave up and went to the Thai restaurant and ordered Tom Kha Gai.

I was lingering around staring at the menu and wondering how I could find galangal when the restaurant owner swung by and asked me if I had a question.

I told her I couldn't find galangal anywhere and she said, "You can find it at any Asian grocery store."

After a couple of questions it became clear I had been looking in the wrong department. Apparently it is kept in the freezer aisle. 

Sigh, another trip to the grocery store tomorrow. 

And to get back to the original theme - In every Asian store I went to today everyone spoke to me in their native language and only after I looked utterly confused did they switch to English. 

My favorite moment of the day? An elderly grandfather hobbled over to help me pick out fish sauce. He was speaking in a language I don't understand - I am gesturing to say, "this is the one I usually get - is it bad??" He picks one off the shelf and puts it in my cart. 

I smile (in thanks) and he pats me on the shoulder. 

And yes, it is the most wonderful fish sauce - salty but not too salty. 

And I did get a cooking challenge from the owner of my neighborhood Thai place - she said to try and replicate her Tom Kha Gai and come back and let her know how it works out because her's has a secret ingredient.

A very fun challenge indeed!


  1. What a fun challenge! How funny that people assume you much be from somewhere else. When I lived in Germany I hated the thought of being recognized as "American" (even though I'm 1/2 English and born in Africa!) but that was never the case, because everyone thought I was French! Still can't understand that one...

  2. Hankook! I remember going there :) Love that market. And galangal is a tricky ingredient; I've seen it both fresh and frozen. It really depends on what market you go to. If you haven't already, try hitting an Asian market that caters more to Southeast Asian clientele. Lion Market may be a better option if you can get to it. Also, stores in Milpitas, San Jose (especially those in the Tully region, which is heavily Vietnamese) may have a higher probability of carrying galangal.

  3. @Michelle

    Michelle - thank you so much for the tips - I will expand my region of searching next week.

    My sister did tease me with some dried galangal she had in her spice cabinet but I refuse to end my search for fresh or frozen!