On this rainy Melbourne day, I sit in my green pod on Level 5 of Publishing House X, deathly silent but for the sound of the rain, which smacks against the window haphazardly. The high partitions separate me from the other bodies I cannot see, also silent in their pods. I look out to the bleak skies obstructed by bleaker concrete high rises, and after a heavy sigh, remind myself that in less than four weeks I will be thrust into a much-awaited adventure on the Mekong, far away from offices and trams and reality TV. The green pod partitions will be replaced by lush, green jungle, and vivid new sights and smells and sounds will wake me from my corporate slumber.
As I sit here comforted by this knowledge, I begin to imagine what my adventure might look like. It generally revolves around food – ten months of obsessively consuming chilli, coriander and lime-laden foods makes this an almost spiritual journey for me. I have subconsciously been preparing my palette for an onslaught of chilli and beer, and although the training has been rigorous, I am ready.
I imagine that in my spiritual food adventure, I am somewhere off the banks of the Mekong, walking – no, hacking – my way through its dense, lush jungle with my machete. The jungle is teeming with creatures, and an eerie mist is quickly settling over the treetops. It’s just me and my backpack. And I’m chewing on some chilli, ‘cause I can now. A rebel twig is my path, and because of the eerie mist and my general propensity to trip over, the twig and I meet in an unfortunate way. I fall forward, the chilli unleashed from my hand and flying through the mist, and I am propelled into a shrub. After a very quick and graceful recovery, I hear the rhythmic beating of drums and quite transfixed, begin to take steps towards the source of this reverberation. It leads me to a decaying, centuries-old palace; the overgrown foliage covering its façade but for a few gargoyles that peer at me through the vines. As I tentatively walk towards the foot of the palace, I am greeted by the palace master (or whatever the dude in charge of the palace is called), who tells me I am welcome to stay and meet the prince (one who has not appeared on any series of The Bachelor, but quite easily could, I imagine) over a royal banquet dinner. I am taken to a luxurious room, mine for the evening, and wash in a bath of coconut milk and lotus flowers. After a head massage (I just love those), palace attendant ladies braid my hair and dress me in beautiful silk garments of jade green (they sensed this was my favourite colour long before I arrived).
Refreshed and feeling quite certain that I have found my place in the world, I am escorted to the grand dining room and to my seat among dignitaries, and other important folk. I channel my inner yoga-lady and abandon ‘desk-sloucher’, as I force myself to sit up straight and give an air of … something. I don’t tell the Importants that I am an editor of educational products at Publishing House X. I am a historian and part-time adventurer, who writes literary fiction in her spare time and has a penchant for randomly singing blues numbers in moody bars. Oh, and I have a foodstore specialising in French duck products and cheese. They are most impressed (as am I!) and only cease to show their interest when an announcement is made that the prince will now be joining us.
Hushed whispers follow, and I nervously straighten my silk dress and smooth down the flyaways from my braid. Will he be handsome? Will he be wearing purple and ask that he shall henceforth be known as ‘the prince formerly known as prince’? Will he be morbidly obese and gorilla-hairy? So many questions. And in an instant the prince appears … and he is just a child of no more than 14. He sits at the head of the table, propped up on several cushions and firmly grasping his iPhone. After taking a few moments to finish a level of Candy Crush, he orders that the dinner begin.
Servants quickly appear, perfectly synchronised, and present each of us with our first dish. Cloches are removed, and there before me lies an enormous, deep-fried tarantula … with a chilli, lime and coriander dipping sauce. Initially squeamish at the creature before me, which has been fried to kingdom come, I remember that I am a tough adventurer. I have eaten sheep brains and tripe … I’ve even braved my grandmother’s 5-year-old biscuits meant for visitors, who never showed up. I remember my trusty guidebook, which said to eat these as you would crabs. But before I even attempt to eat my spider sensation, platters of monkey brain green curry, snake pad Thai, crispy leech cakes, BBQ entrails and peppered cricket kebabs materialise before me. Suddenly I feel very woozy. And then I begin to feel hot, stabbing pains throughout my body. I look to the others for help, but find I am now sitting among a table of evil gargoyles with vines spewing from their skulls. I look to the prince, and in my haze see that he is aiming his phone straight at me, furiously pressing down on his Voodoo Doll App and cackling a fiendish cackle. As I reach out and try to stop him, I feel my silk robe tightening around me. Jade-green silk clouds my vision as I struggle to breathe.
With a firm knock on a partition, it is over. The air is cool and stale. My dried fruit and nut combo sits by my computer, and I am rudely snapped back into the bleakness. I am told I need to do something to the something in the bit of the manuscript where something has been changed. Three and a half weeks, I tell myself.
Before I set off for my Indiana D. adventure on the Mekong, which I am quite sure will be far from these imaginings, I leave you with this – rather tame, by comparison – green curry recipe. I have cheated in using a paste, but this particular brand is the best of the lot if you want yum curry fast. And if you’re generous with the fish sauce, brown sugar and of course, lime juice, coriander and chilli, you’ll be surprised at how good this will taste.
200 g firm tofu
250 g prawns
1 cup basmati rice
2–3 tablespoons green curry paste (I use the Valcom brand)
3–4 spring onions
2–3 tablespoons fish sauce
400 g coconut cream
2 tablespoons brown sugar
small bunch kale
good handful bean shoots
fresh or dried chilli, to taste
Prepare all of the curry ingredients first. Cut the tofu into inch by inch squares, or rectangles if you like nice, chunky pieces. Rinse the prawns and pat dry. I like to buy raw prawns with the tails still on, for a bit of extra flavour. Plus, I eat the tails, which is a little weird I know. Wash and slice the spring onions on the diagonal. As for the kale, which I’m mad about at the moment, give it a good wash and then thoroughly dry. Depending on the type of kale, you can slice it into 1 cm wide strips, or cut pieces lengthways so you have decent chunks. I chose the latter for my version. Ensure the bean shoots are also washed – they can be a bit stinky otherwise.
Steam the rice as desired. I add a teaspoon of veggie stock powder to mine and cook it well, for about 20 minutes, to ensure the rice is nice and fluffy. If there is a little water left in the pot and the rice is cooked, I turn the heat off and leave the lid on, giving the water time to evaporate.
While the rice is cooking, prepare the curry. I like to use a wok or large pan, and start it off on a high heat. When the wok is nice and hot, add about a tablespoon of veggie oil, and then the tofu. Add a splash of fish sauce to the tofu and toss it until golden and crispy, for about five minutes. Remove from the wok. Turn the heat down a touch and add a little extra oil to the wok, followed by the paste. Stir for about 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add the prawns and the whites of the spring onions, and toss for about a minute. I like the prawns to be just pink, but not cooked, otherwise the flavour of the curry doesn’t seem to absorb quite as well.
Stir in the coconut cream until combined, adding a tablespoon each of fish sauce and brown sugar, the juice of half a lime (and a kafir lime leaf or two if you have any on hand), and a sprinkling of dried chilli or half a fresh chilli, finely sliced. Bring to the boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Add the kale and allow the curry to cook away for about five minutes, or until the kale is soft and the sauce is deliciously sweet, spicy and sour. Return the tofu to the wok and stir through. At this point, you should also add any extra sugar, lime juice or fish sauce to balance the flavours, and allow the curry to bubble away for another couple of minutes. If the sauce is too spicy for your palette, pour in a bit of hot water and allow it to reduce for a minute or two. Once done, turn the heat off and add most of the bean shoots, half of the remaining spring onions, and half of the coriander.
Serve the curry-topped rice in two or three bowls, then add leftover bean shoots, spring onions and coriander to garnish. And maybe a wedge of lime. Enjoy!