The ingredients for Khao Pad Goong (Fried Rice with Shrimp) are simple: day old Jasmine rice, Nam Pla, dried shrimp paste, garlic, Thai chili, onion, a dash of oyster sauce, a squeeze of lime, a sprinkling of white pepper and Thai basil, a handful of shrimp. I make a decent fried rice, but I have yet to master the taste I experienced in Thailand when I was young and silly and carefree so many years ago. The funny thing is I think I may know what is missing—or maybe not.
We caught the ferry from Surat Thani to Koh Samui. We chugged past a sunken ferry’s bow from two weeks before; the gossip from backpackers was the captain had not shown up for work and was replaced by a taxi driver. From the harbor, we caught a sŏrng·tăa-ou that bounced and groaned along unpaved roads, past the water buffalo and cane fields to Chaweng Beach, where a dozen or so bungalow operations were in business. We stayed at a low-cost operation, Paradise Bungalow—no hot water, basic toilet, mosquito netting, a rusty fan powered by a sometime working generator, a spotty sputter here and there of electric light, but there was plenty of Nescafe, Mekong, and Coca Cola. After the first night, we would eat and drink at other bungalow operations—Mr. Breezy, First, Joy, O.P., . . . keeping in mind backpackers’ rule of thumb—stay away from the local drinking water and peeled fruit. You do what you need to do to stay safe in paradise. Mai pen ri, yes?
On the last night, we ventured much further down the beach. Away from the sporadic lighting of the bungalows, the stars shone brighter like diamonds as big as fists, and the green luminescent glow from the plankton washing up to shore seemed to flicker for a few moments longer then disappear only to reappear with the next wave. A wooden arrow pointed to a clearing in the land, and then another sign: White House. I would learn a Swiss expatriate built the white stucco three-story lodge and seaside restaurant, replete with teak wood furniture, Thai silk, a single purple orchid in a small vase at each table, white linen napkins and candlelight. The owner nodded hello from his private patio on the third floor and the roly-poly chef smiled shyly from around the kitchen door and motioned for us to sit down and to wait for her to cook dinner, Khao Pad Goong, she announced in Thai. We were not sure what was being prepared, but we waited, and then the Shrimp Fried Rice was placed in front of us. How might I explain such savory exquisiteness? How do I, even now, aptly describe the aroma—the sweetness of the shrimp, the pungency of the fish sauce, the floral notes of the rice?
What magic had the old Thai cook possessed or was it the magic of many moments of that first Thailand venture? Might it have been the beauty of the green glow or the fistful of stars? The Swiss man looking out over the beach, standing guard over his land? The white linen and candles? The bungalow basics, the rickety fan, the camaraderie of travelers, the purple orchid, the water buffalo, the cane fields? Was it a recipe passed down through generations to meet up with a new world feel, melding with a touch of the familiar?
We would go back to Samui year after year, until we no longer recognized it. Shopping malls and an airport had replaced cane fields and pineapple plantations; now, condominiums and guest spas line the mountainsides. The Swiss gentleman sold the White House back to the original landowners, who renamed it Sans Souci, the cook disappeared, and Paradise Bungalow is long gone.
Maybe what is missing from my fried rice dish is not about having enough spring onion or having too much Thai basil. Maybe what is missing cannot be fixed by adding or subtracting a dollop of this or a pinch of that. As Koh Samui slowly lost its simplicity year after year, as it evolved from haven to a holiday driven destination package, so too that silly, giddy girl from long ago changed and all but disappeared—but not entirely. Every so often, as I cut and dice and mince the Khao Pad Goong ingredients, as I try my best to remember the essence of the dish: its heady perfume, its taste, and as I try to recall the uncomplicated glow of moment and place intrinsic to the island and to the White House/Sans Souci, without worries, the giddy girl returns. I smile, but she does not linger long. Perhaps that is what I miss the most.