“My sister was such a baby.” My mom describes her childhood as she plucks the eye from a baked catfish at our kitchen table. “She cried when my mother told her to kill the frogs for dinner.” She pops the small, shiny disk into her mouth like a piece of candy. “So I did it.”
“You didn’t mind that?” I stare down into my chili.
“I didn’t like it. But someone had to do it.”
“How did you do it?”
“You just hit them.” She lifts a pan, then lowers it quickly, stopping just before actually smashing the dead fish.
“And then what?”
“You make soup!”
I scoop up a bite of seasoned chicken and beans.
She dips a crispy piece of skin into chili oil.
When I tell people my mom is from Thailand, they often say, “She must make great Thai food at home.” I never know how to respond. I suppose she does, but I never eat it. She makes it for herself, and sometimes Dad.
“I used to make donuts too,” she reminisces with a grin.
“Yeah, yeah, but then you realized eating donuts every day would make Dad fat.” We laugh about this fun fact no matter how many times she tells it. “I guess it is weird that our society chose an obvious dessert as a classic breakfast food.”
“Well, that’s why. When I married Dad, I learned all the American recipes. For my family.”
Her chili is the best. So are her burgers. So is her beef jerky. And of course, her spaghetti Bolognese. (Okay, that one is technically Italian, but same difference.)
Friends blessed with the opportunity to try her dishes always gush, “You could open a restaurant. Or a food truck. Anything.” They’ve even offered to pay for take-home portions.
“She must make great Thai food at home.” The assumption rings in my ears.
She gets up and walks to the stove. I don’t even know what she’s making over there. Maybe soup? Rice, obviously. There’s always rice. But what does she pair with it? Why don’t I know?
I let my utensil sink into the bowl of red and ask, “Mom, why do you always make separate meals for the kids?” She’s quiet for a moment.
She picks up her wooden spoon and dips it into the chunky marigold liquid.
She gives the pot a few good stirs before answering.
“Because you don’t appreciate Thai food.”
We stand still in the steam rising from the soup. I inhale deeply, and my senses are overwhelmed by spice and savor.
“Mama… would you please teach me this recipe?”
Juliet Fessel is an actress and artist in Los Angeles, California. She can be found at @julietfessel or julietfessel.com.
Mama Fessel’s Panang Beef Curry
1 T. olive oil
2 T. chili paste (preferably Maseri brand Panang Curry Paste)
1 c. unsweetened thick coconut cream (preferably Mae Ploy brand)
2 c. hanger steak, sliced thinly along the grain
fish sauce, to taste
brown sugar, to taste
optional: peas, sweet Thai basil, lime leaves
Heat olive oil in wok or large pan.
Sir in chili paste.
Add 1/2 c. of coconut cream and stir.
When the sauce begins to bubble, add beef and stir-fry until cooked through.
Add remaining 1/2 c. of coconut milk and continue to cook, stirring occasionally.
Add fish sauce to taste.
Add brown sugar to taste.
Add any optional ingredients
Serve over rice.