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One half million baht cooking contest

Recently a TV Reality show, “Soodyord Poh Krua Huagtai (Northern)” by Gati Chao Koh, was filmed at the Rimping Supermarket Ruamchoke branch. From the briefly worded invitation, I could not imagine what I’d see at this cooking competition. I did expect a contest between fathers, and husbands in the household because of the words in Thai “Paw Krua”. The large production is sponsored by the Gati Chao Koh Ampol Food Processing celebrating its 20 year anniversary this year.

Once I got to the Rimping Ruamchoke, the scene was set up with at least five cameras and many staff of the TV production crew. There was me, the only expat in the audience of 30 people. But I was not daunted when I entered and more people looked at me than those on the stage. The focus on me did not last long. The two young emcees on stage were attractive both in appearance and in their monologues. Of course, Chiang Mai being a place that bring lots of surprises did its thing such as electricity black out that occurred 2 times during the filming of the program.

I learned that 12 contestants had been chosen from all over the north. Though most of the contestants were from Chiang Mai. One “auntie” hailed from Chiang Rai and one young man was from Lampang while one young Thai woman contestant lived in Greece whose name is appropriately Helen. There were six men and six women competing. Though they may have come together in pairs they were divided up into three teams by selecting “ma grood” kaffir, “ma nao” lime and “ma kham” tamarind from a clay pot. As all who know about Thai food will know all three are important ingredients in Thai cooking.

Three judges of the event are very well versed in the intricacies and culture of Thai food and the jolly happy smiles on their faces showed how much they enjoyed their work. Each team assembled at one of the three mobile kitchens. The ingredients were brought in large trays for the preparation of three detailed recipes: Lotus stem with “pla tu” (mackerel), a white curry; Panaeng neua (beef curry) and Steamed banana coconut dessert. The rules of the competition were made clear. The competition lasted for 30 minutes. After 25 minutes, a warning of 5 minutes remaining would be sounded then one minute warning. At that sound each contestant must stop any action. All the dishes should be completed with decoration and be presented to the judges.

The three recipes are all central Thai food. Mostly northern housewives do not prepare central Thai food. The emcees raised some question as to how the northerners would prepare the food. For many generations, northern people did not eat curry with coconut because coconut trees are not commonly growing in northern Thailand. However this generation does accept coconut most likely due to the influence of TV cooking programs and, of course, because of the convenience of coconut products in UHT packing from the Gati Chao Koh Ampol Food Processing producer that celebrates its 20 year anniversary in 2008.

As I looked over the ingredients on the tray that are all conveniently and beautifully packaged, I thought back to the 1970’s when my husband, Khun Goson, wanted to cook Thai food while we lived in Akron, Ohio. To get the necessary supplies such as “naam pla” fish sauce, “Si-U-khao” sauce, wonton wrappers, “naam prik pao”, and cans of rambuttan and lynchee fruit, we took a monthly roundtrip drive of 70 miles to China town in Cleveland. Each visit to China town was a time of great discovery for Midwestern me.

Back to the present, the three teams had a few minutes to divide up the preparation duties. The clock started and the chopping and frying commenced. I was impressed with the patience of each team member working together in the small area. The appetizing fragrances of the cooking perfumed the air. A few mishaps occurred such as a cloud of smoke rising when the coconut milk was cooking on too high heat, or, one of the cooks did not sample the kapi shrimp paste before placing into the hot wok. All in all the teams at each cooking station looked to be moving smoothly through all the steps required to prepare the three dishes involving many steps in preparation.

The final gong sounded and one representative of each team went up on stage with the tray of prepared food. Each representative was expected to speak about their team’s presentation with much enthusiasm. One team was spoken about in high terms because of the members’ combined total age was over 200 years. That was indeed a lot of time spent in the kitchen. The judges tasted the presentations over and over gain.

Back stage, the judges deliberated for a long time. It was a tough decision to make. One of the judges had some very incisive comments about the food. Not only is the taste a factor but preparation and presentation play an important part in the decision. Some comments were about the importance of cutting the proper length of the lotus stem. The “pla tu” should not be diced up in the curry but the “pla tu” should be placed on top in large pieces. Coconut oil should be floated on top of the pork curry for beauty. And steaming the “kha nom gluay” wrapped in cone shape banana leaf requires a specific technic when placed in the steamer to assure the content in the cone is cooked though the entire length.

The team on which Helen from Greece was a member was praised for sticking to the authentic preparation, look and taste. But, unfortunately, the “kha nom gluay” banana dessert had not been completely cooked through.

The winning team was announced. Ironically that the team’s leader was of the smallest body structure of all the contestants. This winning team is one step closer to competing nationally for the top prize of Baht 500,000 from Gati Chao Koh. The teams from all regions of Thailand will meet in Bangkok in December 2008 for the final cook off.

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