We would observe the ancient lady at work everyday.
She would be at the live counter of the kitchen, dressed in her immaculate starched apron, her name in Thai, embroidered in resplendent gold thread, observing every step of the still diffident interns, occasionally whispering advice into theirs ears, sometimes stirring the pot of curry as it stewed patiently on the furiously burning gas stove, checking if the consistency was right. Sometimes she would walk to the counter at the back of the show kitchen, where a motley crew of junior chefs would be frenetically busy with their mis en place – peeling, cutting, chopping or preparing the curry paste.
Nothing missed her eyes. Nothing at all.
Silence would descend, the giggles would cease, cellphones would mysteriously disappear the moment the young crew saw her approach.
But what my attention would be invariably drawn to, was this young lad, in his early twenties, his forearm adorned with a tattoo of an ominous tiger, tasked with preparing the curry paste, who would suddenly go on an overdrive and start pummeling the paste with renewed vigor. Only to look up to the matriarch, holding up the paste, nervous at what her reaction might be.
And I would be a silent spectator to these theatrics, day on day, the fragrance of the lemongrass-galangal-kaffir lime leaves perfumed curry wafting from the kitchen, the pot of curry simmering on the gas stove, the monotony of the pestle pounding the paste that lay in the caverns of the mortar.
One day, stoked enough by curiosity, I walked up to her asking why they never used an electric blender in the kitchen to blitz the curry paste. Surely that would save a lot of effort and time ?
An intern translated the question to her.
Radio silence for a moment.
Then a peal of child-like laughter.
Who ever uses curry paste that’s ground in an electric blender ? It doesn’t even taste like curry.
That broke the ice.
I would now greet her every morning, she would smile or wave back at me, recommend what we should be trying from the lavish buffet spread and on days, that weren’t too busy, even send specials, not included in the buffet, to the table for a taste.
One day, a fortnight or so later, I mustered courage to walk up and ask her if she could teach me how to make a Lamb Massaman curry.
The intern translated.
The master would only be too delighted to teach me how to make a Lamb Massaman curry from scratch.
I was elated.
And that’s the story of my Lamb Massaman curry.
Luscious lamb. Baby potatoes for company. The intoxicating perfume of that lemongrass – kafir lime leaves -galangal steeped curry paste. The numbing fire of chillies. The earthy sweetness of coconut cream. Stewed languorously over a mellow flame.
This is food at its decadent best.