This is not a place name, but a food.
Michael and I sit on wicker below a shady awning, watching little green geckos resting or skittering along the pillars. There is a comfortable sound of the last adults and children enjoying the swimming pool nearby. It is evening and their voices murmur back and forth to each other contentedly. We are surrounded by dappled light, bright blossoms, waxy green leaves, and even music, as our outdoor dining room has a raised dias at one end where a man is softly playing a ranat eck, a traditional Thai instrument much like a xylophone. Like the swimmers’ playful voices, the music is pleasant in the background, not requiring too much of our attention.
Thai people are known for being calm and gracious, and our hostess approaching us epitomized those qualities. An older woman wearing a long silk dress, with gray in her black hair worn up on her head; she glided over to our table with a warm smile. Comfortable with foreigners, obviously proud of sharing her food tradition with them, she welcomed us in both languages and answered all our menu questions.
And shortly she returned, but not with our order. Not yet. First, we were to have an appetizer on the house, a traditional appetizer that contained all the Thai tastes. A large round tray almost filled our table, and on it was a basket of fresh green leaves which I recognized from bushes lining our walk from our resort room to the beach. I later learned they were bai cha plu, or wild pepper leaves. Ringing the leaves were small wooden bowls, each with a different food, each of which was presented in small pieces.
We had to have our lesson, both to identify all the elements and then to learn how to fold, fill, and eat our leaves.
The bowls contained;
small thin triangles of lime, including thin peel
tiny pink dried shrimps, comma shaped
diced roasted peanuts
shallots cut in rings, white insides rimmed with red
Dark green Thai chili peppers cut in slender slivers
grated and roasted coconut
fresh sliced ginger root in cubes,
and a rich brown sauce of tangy tamarind, with a tiny spoon.
Altogether making nine bowls, as nine is an auspicious number in Thailand. Ingredients to cover the requisite Thai flavors; sweet, salty, sour, bitter and hot.
I tried not to look askance at this array, I couldn’t imagine enjoying every one, especially those peppers and the dried shrimps, and I really wasn’t sure about those tough glossy green leaves. But I obligingly tried my hand at it, following instructions. I took a palm-sized, round heart shaped leaf and folded from center to edge over one episode, to form it into a bowl, then another tuck to make a cone shape. With their small spoons I took a tiny amount of each wooden bowl’s ingredient to put into my leaf funnel, finished with a bit of sauce, then folded over into a small packet.
It is the kind of appetizer you have to put all in your mouth at once. So I did, putting the leaf packet into my mouth and …
What a blast of flavor. What a complicated taste, yet each flavor clear and un-muddled in its own right. Everything so fresh, so strong, so unique. Yet all together. The bitter leaf was the perfect frame and foil for the sweet, salt, sour and hot I had tucked inside it.
I ate leaf after leaf, spoiling my appetite for my actual ordered entrée. I believe it was a lovely fish with ginger, which normally would rank as a very special meal but was totally eclipsed in my memory by this traditional appetizer, this feast of flavor.
Our hostess seemed to be almost laughing as she cleared the large tray with its wooden bowls away, listening, smiling, to my exclamations. She already knew she had something special to share. She had always known.