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Home comforts

If you do your own cooking, you will save money and waste while avoiding the dangers from some street food

HEALTHY OPTION: If you wash it yourself, phak boong can be clean and safe.

When you see a country housewife picking krathin shoots along the fence bordering her property and gathering pea-sized eggplants called makhuea phuang, she'll probably tell you that she is going to pound up some nam phrik (chilli dip sauce).

If you see her buying sadao (neem tree shoots) and catfish, you'll hear that she is going to make grilled catfish to be eaten with the sadao and nam plaa waan (a sweet-salty-spicy sauce).

Should she be picking green taling pling and tender tamarind shoots from trees near the house, she may tell you she planning to make kaeng kathi sai plaa kluea (a coconut cream curry with semi-dried fish) with the two freshly picked ingredients added.

GET COOKING: deep-fried fresh shitake mushrooms and banana flower thawt man are not hard to make if you set your mind to it.

In all three cases, you would have good reason to be jealous of her cooking plans because she is able to choose and gather the fresh ingredients for dishes that will be delicious, economical, high in quality and, especially important, safe.

But if the housewife lives in Bangkok or another big city, she probably won't be able to do her cooking this way. Even though stores in the capital offer a wide choice, almost none of the options will be safe, especially those sold beside the road or prepared for buyers in food shops whose clientele belong to the middle class.

You may have heard stories of a person who was eating noodles and found a cockroach in the bowl, or someone who came upon a worm in her stewed pork leg or a rubber band in a sweet snack. Anecdotes like these are hearsay, but you have probably seen other unappetising things with your own eyes -- shops that wash dishes on the floor out in the open, with plates, glasses, chopsticks and everything else going together into same basin to spend minimal time in a small amount of water.

The best way to avoid such things is to prepare your own food at home. Many people will say that this would be too much trouble, explaining that they don't have time to cook, there isn't enough space, they lack the proper equipment or the smell would disturb others. Some might also fear that food they made themselves wouldn't be too tasty, so buying it is easier and cheaper.

But if you do manage to prepare some of your meals, you will reduce some of the risk of encountering unhealthy food and profit from many benefits.

First, cooking equipment and utensils come in all price ranges, from the ordinary and everyday to fancy modern innovations. But no matter what you choose, it should last you for a long time. For example, a stone mortar will still be in good condition after a century of daily use, and you will be able to use your pots, woks, bowls for washing vegetables, colanders, spatulas, spoons, and forks until you are tired of looking at them. A good apron will still be OK after 20 years, while plates, cups, and glasses will survive except for those lost to breakage.

Second, you will be making trips to the supermarket or fresh market yourself to buy fresh ingredients, seasonings and other necessities. The more you walk around the market and survey the options, the better informed you will become about products and their price differences. You will also become acquainted with a huge selection of ready-to-use products that can greatly reduce preparation time. Seasoning paste for curry that used to take an hour and a half to mix and pound can now be ready to use in a minute after you have opened the envelope or jar. Because of such conveniences, lack of time is not really a valid reason for avoiding doing your own cooking.

Be aware of the pitfalls of buying certain foods at the market. For example, many people like sea fish, and there are plenty of all shapes and sizes. They come from the sea, not from fish farms, and they can be tasty, but these days they are not safe to eat. They travel long distances from the place where they are caught, and the trip takes many hours, sometimes longer than a day. The fish soak in formalin the whole time because if they were not preserved in this way, they would spoil. The quality of the fish meat disappears, as does the money you spend thinking that you will be getting a good, fresh product.

One way to avoid this is to switch to freshwater fish raised on farms. Even if the flavour is not what you had in mind, the fish will be fresh, sometimes even still alive at the market stall. When you buy one, the vendor will strike its head to kill it.

Eating these fish is better for you than eating other kinds of animal meat, and when you buy them you will need to learn certain things about them and to acquire experience. What technique should you use to clean them to get rid of the slimy covering on their skin? When should you put them into the pot or wok to keep them from giving off a fishy odour?

Buying vegetables also requires the acquisition of special knowledge. What method of washing them should be used to ensure that they are 100% safe. Compare eating properly cleaned vegetables at home with those you are given at many food shops and stalls. At somtam stands the vegetables are bought from the market, sliced and sold. The phak boong (a morning glory-like vine) sold at cooked-to-order food shops probably hasn't been washed, nor have the same vegetables served by yen ta fo vendors.

One more reason to make your own food at home is that it is economical. For many dishes, if you prepare more than can be eaten at a single meal, there is no need to throw it away. Leftover nam phrik plaa thuu, for example, can be fried with rice the following day. Sprinkle some muu yong (shredded dried pork) over it, or slices of the Chinese sweet sausage called kunchieng, or put a fried egg on top and it will make another tasty meal.

Second-day pork leg can be stir-fried with basil and chillies and given delicious new life, so nothing is wasted. Many dishes such as grilled chicken, soup-like kaeng jued or pork leg can be stored in the freezer for a later day, or they can be stir-fried together with clear vermicelli noodles, pickled bamboo shoots and chillies to make the dry curry called kaeng ho sold in restaurants in the North.

When you've made the decision to start doing your own cooking, you only need to invest in equipment once. They you can be fastidious in choosing and cleaning the ingredients you will be using, and, since nothing will be thrown away, your meals with be economical, waste-free and safe from the dangers that can await in much of the food sold outside. n

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