Making Cobb Salad In The Jungle
“Whatever you do, don’t turn around.”
In between stays in Hong Kong, I’m spending a little time in Chiang Mai with one of my oldest friends in the world. She lives with her mother, brother and four dogs in a Thai hacienda down a long and leafy cul-de-sac lined with mango trees, spirit houses and languid cows. It’s perfectly picturesque, and would be tranquil and calming to boot, if I wasn’t constantly in some state of invertebrate-induced hysteria.
I don’t like bugs, ok? I don’t like reptiles, either. And there are a lot of them here–bigger and bolder than you’ve ever seen, and in more flamboyant colors. I saw a grey velvet spider the size of a doughnut, and it made me sick to my stomach.
So, I don’t know what came over me last night, but I decided to cook. Really, when you’re staying in a city where you can eat a bowl of excellent noodle soup for 35 baht (about US$1), you should abandon all thoughts of cooking and just do so. But I’d devised a new and disturbing snack that afternoon that I call “jungle nigiri”: molded oblongs of glutinous rice with hunks of pork scratchings in place of fish; after doing away with eight of them, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to eat a little lighter that evening, and resolved to make a salad in Marisa’s glorious open kitchen. It was not, as it turns out, one of my better ideas. You see, the thing about glorious open kitchens is that they’re open, and bugs love openings. They also love sunsets, and rain–all of which I learned when I cooked in an open kitchen at sunset, while it rained.
Look, I can deal with a few ants on the chopping board. And I can cook in semi-darkness to avoid attracting too many creepy-crawlies. But when 60 or 80 winged termites, fresh from their subterranean hiding holes, start hurling themselves kamikaze-style at my stove and drowning in the butter I am melting for my croutons, I begin to feel uneasy. When I run to the fridge to shield my mise-en-place from those same termites, and a yo-yoing spider is there to greet me, my language takes a turn for the indelicate. And when a 14-inch, unearthly-hued Tokay gecko–known for biting and then continuing to bite, sometimes for hours at a time–appears on the wall behind me, I start, despite Marisa’s best efforts to keep me looking straight ahead, to drink vodka.
Naturally, of all the salads we could have made last night, I chose the prep-heaviest there is: the Cobb. So I crumbled cheese, hulled tomatoes, diced avocado, and crisped bacon, all the while swatting termites, picking their little cadavers out of the frying pan, and ruing my decision to complicate a perfectly good formula with the extra step of brown-butter croutons. Meanwhile, Marisa was busy inventing a new kind of crouton, made of chicken, which involves forgetting that you have chicken on the grill as you break up a fight between a golden retriever and a Tokay gecko, and only remembering the chicken once it’s attained the texture of biltong. Through it all, I clawed maniacally at a mosquito bite on the one area of exposed skin I had neglected to absolutely slather in DEET: the tip of my nose.
The salad didn’t turn out so bad, considering. I know for a fact that there were lard-fried termite wings mixed in with the bacon and the croutons, but then there does seem to be a Thai tradition of that sort of thing. In any case, the hydroponically grown lettuces were sweet and crisp, the imported avocadoes perfectly buttery, and the garlic-mustard vinaigrette, enriched with an egg yolk and briefly infused with termite thoraxes, just right.
All the same, I think I’ll stick to my food courts and street hawker stalls, thank you very much.