I was once on holiday in Goa, India and went to a cashew nut factory. We toured through the factory and had each process explained to us. We heard how the nuts are first removed from the shell by smashing each one manually, and that the oil around the nut is so toxic that it burns the hands of the workers, so they rub coconut oil/grease on their hands as a barrier. The whole nuts that emerge from the shell are sorted away from the broken ones; whole ones are more valuable, so each smash of the anvil makes a difference to the pay. All day long the women and workers squat on their haunches breaking and peeling and sorting the nuts in a dark and hot, and dusty building. Mountains of cashew nuts are piled in heaps, beautiful in colour and texture, the smell of roasting nuts filled the air, and I am mesmerised. I am jolted from my blissful trance when I focus on the workers, I feel their suffering, their poor aching limbs, and the desperation of their lives hits me. They smile with black or toothless grins as we stop to watch them, they are covered in dirt and wear ragged cloth on their bony limbs, but they do not stop working, clamping each nut, peeling and shelling, then discovering its worth. Their hands are black and greasy from the coconut oil; blisters show where the barrier didn’t cover the skin but each one I am told is grateful and happy to have such a good job. I wonder to myself if this can be true.
Since that experience I have never once eaten cashew nuts, especially whole ones, without thinking of those workers and that factory in Goa. Knowing where ingredients come from and how it got to be here in a bag in a supermarket near me, fascinates me and gives me a fuller understanding of how the world goes round and how the people in the world live and work.
That’s what gives meaning to the food I prepare.
At Sticky Rice Cooking School we have a Jag Kitchen and state of the art equipment, but reading Nancie McDermott’s account of the kitchen she used during her teaching years in Thatoom, Surin, reminds me of my own journeys to Thailand and the most wonderful food that the families create in their simple but fully functioning kitchens.
Our kitchen was typical of those in the Thai countryside. It was located beneath the house, which was elevated on posts with the living area upstairs. We had two small charcoal stoves, a few side tables, and two immense ohng jars made of glazed earthenware, one filled with drinking water and one filled with rice. There was also a thoo, a big freestanding cupboard with small, oddly shaped ceramic cups encircling its legs. These were tiny moats, a simple but effective means of barring tenacious ants from tiptoeing up to raid the prepared foods and condiments stored in the thoo. The tables held our batterie de cuisine– the cutting board, a hefty circle of tamarind wood a foot wide; several mighty cleavers and an array of paring knives; two large mortars with pestles, one Lao style, deep enough for pounding green papaya salad and the other Thai style, squat and heavy for grinding and pounding curry pastes; maw gaeng, soup and curry pots of assorted sizes; a wok; and an array of long handles spoons, sieves, and scrapers for stir frying and deep-frying.
We didn’t have a special steamer- my students simply crossed two chopsticks in the wok and placed plates and bowls on top of them when we wanted kai toon (savory egg custard) or haw moke (fish in banana leaf packets). We also managed without a refrigerator, since I loved the Thai habit of daily trips to the fresh market and enjoyed this chore almost every morning. It’s a habit I fell into of necessity and have continued in the years since for the pleasure it brings me.
..extract from Nancie McDermott Real Thai- The Best of Regional Cooking.
To see a picture of the Lao style mortar and pestle called a khok, scroll down to our Global Pantry article which shows a good example from our cooking school.
Handmade in Thailand of long-lasting clay, this is a traditional mortar & pestle used to make a wide range of Thai and Laotian dishes. This mortar is a crude, simple fired clay, very “rustic” in appearance and definitely not a work of art; however, it’s highly functional.
The pestle is made of beechwood as any other material would break the mortar.