While visiting Thailand, my desire to bring home the best shrimp paste led me to an elderly seller and to a young man who made the paste. Shrimp paste is a necessary binder used in innumerable seasoning pastes in Thai cooking, and these two people's connection to shrimp paste had, in fact, become a crucial binder in their own lives. For the elderly seller, shrimp paste kept her linked with her family after her marriage. It helped her earn an income independent of her abusive wealthy husband. The shrimp paste maker married and thereby found a profession that he loves. Eventually, he became the sole maker of this ancient paste in his wife's family, carrying on their 150-year-old tradition. Once made with care and pride only by families, today shrimp paste is mass-produced in factories. The change affects not only the quality and taste of Thai cooking, but also food-related tradition and culture. The elderly seller's livelihood is waning, and the young man who is the elderly seller's source, is now the last of a long line of makers of this ancient ingredient.
Khao chae--aromatic soaked rice--is served only during the hot summer months in Thailand. Its exquisite taste and laborious preparation beckoned the author, Su-Mei Yu, back to her birthplace. Skilled elderly cooks recruited by friends abruptly changed their minds about sharing their methods. These refusals led to an understanding of their superstitious beliefs. With those who believe otherwise, the author not only learned how to make several versions of khao chae, but their shared memories taught her the dish's history and its influence on the people who make and eat it. Its ancient tradition binds together the people of a displaced nation, the Mon, among whom khao chae originated. Their ancient New Year custom, adopted by the Thais, became a summer food tradition in the Royal court of King Chulalongkhorn (1868-1910), one of the most celebrated times for Thai culinary art. The court turned the cooking of khao chae into a competitive feat. Although more than a century has passed, and despite climatic change and westernization of Thai culture, the remembrances of magical feasts of khao chae floated back as the summer heat stirred the minds of elderly folks.