On the Menu: Thai student shares passion for cooking

Phurit Saengthong-aram, who goes by the nickname "Si," stood confidently in front of the stove in an open, sunny kitchen in Swisshelm Park. The counter held a bowl of rice noodles, soaked in hot water; plates of neatly prepped aromatics and vegetables; and bottles of vegetable oil and fish sauce.

"I'm going to be making three dishes today: Tom Ka Gai, Chicken with Green Curry and Pad Thai," he said. In just over an hour he executed the dishes, explaining as he went, always stopping to taste for seasoning or checking the tenderness of a particular ingredient.

Occasionally, he paused to think of the right English word. He laughed nervously when he realized that he'd forgotten to prep the eggplant for a dish, but then he turned off the heat under a pot. He carefully washed and cut up the eggplant, and placed it in salted water to keep it from turning black, then turned back to the curry. He was clearly excited and a little nervous, but when he worked with food he moved with ease, narrating each step as if he'd been cooking in front of an audience for years.

What's even more remarkable is Si is just 16 years old. An exchange student from Mae Sot in Northern Thailand, he's spent the year living with PG columnist Tony Norman and his wife Ann while attending Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill. CIEE, a nonprofit, non-governmental organization that arranges international exchanges, organized Si's visit and matched him with his host family.

Shopping for Thai ingredients
  • Many Thai ingredients such as rice noodles, green curry paste, cilantro and even tamarind juice can now be found at well-stocked grocery stores such as Whole Foods Market or Giant Eagle Market District. For a better selection (and often cheaper prices) try an Asian grocery store such as Lotus Foods or WFH Oriental Food Marekt in the Strip District.

Si is the second Thai exchange student the Norman family has hosted, and they were surprised and somewhat bemused by his passionate interest in cooking.

"When he gets home every day," said Mr. Norman, "he does his homework, then he turns on the cooking channel." After a show or two, he goes to the kitchen to see what he can make for dinner. Mrs. Norman had lived in Thailand for two years and often cooked Thai dishes, so she knew where to go -- the Strip District -- for fish sauce, lime leaves and galangal root, and her kitchen tools included a well-seasoned wok.

For Si, a year at an American school has offered the opportunity to explore new interests. Thai schools don't consider American math and science courses sufficiently rigorous, so he will have to repeat 10th grade when he returns home. He discovered that he actually enjoyed playing the violin in a class at school, when back home he'd never wanted to practice and had asked to give it up.

But his time in Pittsburgh also gave him an unprecedented opportunity to immerse himself in the kitchen. At home, his parents employ a maid to cook, and his parents expect him to focus on his schoolwork. But he's learned a lot from watching her cook and from his mother's love of food. She grows about 20 kinds of herbs, he said, and while most Thai people buy their curry pastes from the fresh market, his mother makes her own.

Si spent many nights in the Normans' kitchen, cooking Western or Thai food. He baked his first cake this year, a strawberry shortcake. In Thailand, he explained, many houses don't have ovens, and people go to bakeries to buy cakes. He's also discovered a number of new cooking shows -- his favorites are the "Good Eats," where host Alton Brown explores the science behind cooking, as well as the history of particular foods, and the chef competition show, "Chopped."

As we ate the three dishes he had prepared, Si answered my questions about cooking and eating in Thailand, and he asked some of his own. At a Thai-style dinner, he said, each person gets his or her own bowl of rice, and then there would be about three to five dishes served family style, though the exact number depends on the relative wealth and social class. Pad Thai, on the other hand, is a street cart food, so Si served it on individual plates, each garnished with crushed peanuts, cilantro and a wedge of lime.

Thai people eat with a spoon and a fork, he said, though they will use chopsticks for dishes borrowed from other countries, like China.

There's no stigma surrounding boys cooking, but his parents see it as a hobby, not a potential career. If he wants to go to culinary school, they say he can, but only after he goes to college. He understands their point of view, but his passion for cooking isn't going anywhere.

When he flew home last Tuesday, a suitcase full of cookbooks went with him, including the 1,200-page textbook "The Professional Chef," the required textbook at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com. Follow her at http://twitter.com/chinamillman. First Published June 24, 2012 4:00 AM


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