A few weeks ago, I came into contact with a Thai gentleman by the name of ‘Kai'. And I think it's fair to say that the man has changed my life. I'm hoping that by reading this, he might just change yours too.
How can I describe him? Well, he's obviously a family man. He enjoys life to the full. But there's nothing he enjoys more than being in the kitchen. You see Kai has become something of a cooking sensation by posting over 200 of his recipes - each one accompanied by a five-minute demonstration - on the popular video website YouTube.
I discovered Kai when I was doing an internet search for ‘beef in oyster sauce'. Isn't it amazing how relationships sometimes begin?
Like many middle-aged man, I've developed a passion for food and cookery. I'm not even sure why this happens. Is it simply life slowing down a little and finding yourself with more time on your hands? I shudder when I think back to my teenage years and all through my twenties. The countless times I watched a ready meal go round in the microwave, willing the turntable to go faster because I had a hot date waiting for me in front of The Red Lion. Let's face it - at that age, food is nothing more than a quick refuel.
I come from a very working class culinary background. My mother never felt at home in the kitchen. You never saw her stockpiling jars of home-made marmalade in a kitchen cupboard the moment Seville oranges came into season. I never saw her bake a pie. I never saw her elbow-deep in self-raising flour. She cooked a fairly palatable Sunday roast but the rest of the week's menu was all about convenience. The low whirring sound of the microwave and frantic searches for the tin-opener were very much part and parcel of mealtimes in the Williams household.
Moving to Thailand should have brought about a huge change in my eating habits. Here I was in a country with fresh markets on every street corner and hardly a microwave meal in sight. But if anything, things only got worse.
When my wife and I moved into our new home five years ago, it was the first time I'd had something resembling a kitchen. I had an electric oven, a two-ring burner, a rice cooker, a blender, all the necessary utensils and yes, I also had a microwave. At last! - I could actually cook. Then it dawned on me that I hadn't done myself a decent meal for ten years. I'd lived in rented apartments and houses for over a decade. The apartments had no cooking facilities whatsoever and all I bought for the house - which I lived in for five years - was a refrigerator and one of those electric sandwich makers. I'd survived on ham and cheese toasties for ten bloody years. Little wonder that when I took my shirt off, there were at least six places you could hang a coat.
But you live in Thailand! It's the capital of the world for the most delicious street-food I can hear you all cry. Well, yes and no. I'm quite fond of eating on the streets Thai-style but at risk of stating the obvious - street-food should always be eaten on the street. Stewed pig's leg on rice (Kaw Kha Muu) always tastes so much better when you're choking on diesel fumes between mouthfuls and there are half a dozen stray dogs in attendance, all sitting patiently in a semi-circle waiting for tidbits. The alternative is to take your street-food home of course, but is there a more dispiriting experience than scurrying back to your digs with a plastic bag from the local street vendor, and then wrestling with the elastic band for half the evening and is there a more miserable sight than the contents of the bag spilling out onto your ‘best plate' before being given the desultory ninety seconds in the microwave?
Before becoming master of my own kitchen and being ‘born again', I had undoubtedly developed a real love-hate relationship with food. I hated, and still do in many ways, how mealtimes and the necessity of eating interfere with a busy daily schedule. Go for a business meeting in town and there's the dilemma of where to grab a quick sandwich. Get stuck into writing a blog on your computer and there's the realization that it's three in the afternoon and you haven't had lunch yet. And you also skipped breakfast. Is it any wonder that the headaches are starting? Willy Wonka definitely had the right idea - a chewing gum meal. A whole three course meal that you digest in the time it takes to chew on a piece of gum. I'm amazed the idea was never developed further because I know for a fact the customers are out there.
I even dabbled with recipe books at one stage. I got caught up in the whole TV chef phenomenon like so many others. I thought if Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay could do it, then so could I. The problem with recipe books however is the sheer volume of ingredients that you need to cook what seems to me, to be the most basic of dishes. We've all run our index fingers down a list of ingredients and said "yes, yes, yes I've got that, and I've got that. Oh Christ on a bike. Where the f*** am I going to get a fresh vanilla pod at this time of night?"
I needed recipes that were easy to follow and wouldn't require me walking up and down supermarket aisles in search of saffron or fresh thyme or Mediterranean sea salt?
So let me get back to Kai - my YouTube cookery mentor and the inspiration for this particular blog. I watched his introductory video and he urged me to go into my local supermarket and buy soy sauce, oyster sauce, rice wine, chicken stock and sesame oil. He assured me that once I had these five items in my store cupboard, everything was going to be OK. And he was right. I marinated some beef in oyster sauce for fifteen minutes and by adding some fresh spring onion and red capsicum to the sizzling wok, I whipped up a ‘nua nam man hoy' that my wife said was the best she'd ever tasted. So far I've tried about twenty of Kai's video recipes - chicken and cashews, lemon chicken, fried rice with crab - you name it. The results are living proof that even an idiot like me can perform miracles in the kitchen. And as my wife puts her feet up on the sofa and the Jamie Oliver cookbooks gather dust, you'll find me marinating, parboiling and splashing the soy sauce around with gay abandon. The kitchen has been filled with the most wonderful aromas. And it's all thanks to Kai. Check him out - and bid farewell to those ham and cheese toasties forever.
Go to YouTube and enter 'cooking with Kai' into the search engine.
If you're looking for a more tittilating cookery demo on YouTube then check out 'cooking with Tifa'. I haven't tried any of her recipes. The moment she says "take a firm grip of your pan-handle" I get too distracted.