A few years ago I had an unexpected, fairly random and completely wonderful culinary adventure literally drop on my doorstep with grocery bags in hand. Her name was Natiya, we met for the first time the day before, and exchanged a fun conversation about Thai food and how much I love it! Natiya being from Thailand, and excited about my interest in her country's cooking, said that she would have to come over and cook me a Thai meal. I nodded politely and murmured something affirmative...sounded good to me, but people say things like that all the time and I didn't really take it literally. I have to admit, I was pretty surprised when she showed up the next day at my house at lunchtime, groceries in hand, prepared to cook us lunch. So, after my initial surprise at seeing her there I became ecstatic! I mean honestly, how cool is that?!
After she was done cooking, what we ended up with was two delicious coconut milk curries. One was green and one was red, with chicken, eggplant and potatoes being the main ingredients. These were scented with fresh basil leaves added right before serving, and accompanied by steaming jasmine rice. To those of you who are unfamiliar with Thai curries, they are really very different from what you might be thinking, especially if what you might be thinking contains that ubiquitous, dry, yellow powder stuff or cooked golden raisins (don't get me started). Traditionally, Thai curries are a pounded blend of herbs like cilantro, and lemongrass, roots, rhizomes and alliums like coriander root, galangal, ginger, shallots, and garlic, chiles, either red or green, spices like cumin, turmeric and coriander, and ingredients such as ga pi (shrimp paste made of fermented shrimp and salt) or nam pla (fish sauce of fermented fish and salt). Purists say the ingredients should be pounded, not ground, in a mortar and pestle, and in a certain order to bring out maxim flavor, and the shrimp paste should be toasted before use. This is all good information, and makes for a curry par excellence. However, Natiya brought out two containers of Mae Ploy brand curry paste, one red and one green and proceeded from there. I'm not going to argue that fresh and homemade isn't best, or that homemade coconut milk doesn't taste better than the powdered or canned kind, but sometimes there are different factors to consider such as time, equipment, availability and quality of ingredients, and skill level. This curry paste did a nice job, and would be very easy for just about anyone to duplicate. Of course this hasn't stopped me from acquiring a slew of homemade Thai curry paste recipes or making my own coconut milk..wink wink.
But back to my tale of lunch. Natiya dished us up her masterpieces, and we proceeded to eat. It was wonderful, but I have to say, this was some hot stuff, and I consider myself a lover of hot food. I was thoroughly impressed as Natiya added dried red chile flakes to her own bowl. Then, amidst all this bliss, disaster struck. Somehow I managed to get the chile heat on the outside of my lips. It was horrible. I was certain they were going to catch fire any second. I shamefully admitted to Natiya that my mouth was burning, and she laughed and said simply, "That's because you're not eating any cucumber." I think I must have been staring at her rather blankly, because she pointed to the raw cucumber between us that she had been slicing and eating the whole time. She told me that the cucumber cut the heat. I had never heard of this before, but I was very much game for anything at that point and grabbed a slice. I was sold when I rather desperately rubbed the cucumber on the outside of my mouth and was amazed as my lips stopped burning. I took a bite, and behold! it worked inside too! Cucumber conclusion: Forget milk or bread, cucumber does the job right!
So this is the story of the Cucumber Trick - and one of my best lunchtime surprises. Natiya had another one for me a few weeks later involving Pho, but I'll save that for another time.