Maybe I can’t rightly say that I used to take for granted the ability to gather with friends or family for a meal. But right now I better appreciate its value… the gift of it. I expect you do too. If you’re getting together with anyone outside your household for food and fellowship, I imagine you’re doing it carefully, intentionally, and maybe none too often. For a while we’ve felt more emptiness, more lack than we’re used to. But this time will pass. And even now, we might find little corners of companionship and feasting… maybe even with a friend we hadn’t been expecting. In confidence of times of fullness to come – fullness of heart and fullness of the plate – I present you with the story of a friendship and the meal that fed it.
I ended up getting to know Dan because he was the one to let me know I had an urgent phone call. He came and pulled me out of some training or another, led me to his cubicle where the line was on hold, and left again before my wife gently told me that my sister was no longer suffering with cancer and had gone to be with Jesus. When Dan came back he found me still crying at his desk.
I’m not sure what I’d have done in his place. But I know what he did. Dan dropped whatever he had going on that afternoon and tried to be whatever I needed just then. My wife had already booked my flight up to Michigan for the funeral, and was packing my bags – don’t rush home, she said, just come when you’re ready. Suddenly I had nothing to do but grieve and try to reorient to a different universe than the one I’d been living in when I went in to the office that morning.
Dan sat and talked, sat and listened to me talk, sometimes just sat quietly with me. When he sensed I needed something to focus my mind on, he told stories from his army days. Special Forces, ten years in Southeast Asia. Over five hundred parachute drops. Training alongside Malaysian soldiers. A survival exercise alone in the jungle, eating just the few lizards he could catch, and what bugs didn’t look poisonous. I don’t remember him saying much that day about his combat medic experience, the lives he saved and those he couldn’t. A little too close to home, just then.
Before that day I had just known Dan’s name and face because he was the training coordinator for our office. But afterward, he was a friend. For the next twelve years, the two of us ate lunch together most days. We never talked again about that afternoon my sister died, but we talked about most everything else. Sometimes about parenting; despite the twenty-five year age gap between us, he’d married late and his girls weren’t much older than my own. Occasionally we jawed about his military life. More often about farming, one of his unfailing passions. Or about food, which was the other. The Army had led him – an East Tennessee country boy – to Southeast Asia, and a decade later he brought two things back home with him: vivid memories of exotic dishes, and a Filipino wife to share some with.
Dan taught me about nilaga, longanisa, and adobo. He brought in kaldereta, sinigang, and “Bicol Express.” But above all, Dan taught me to appreciate Thai curry. He’d picked up the taste in Thailand and decades later hadn’t managed to shake it. We arranged a curry lunch at least once a month if we could, and more often when necessary. He always brought the majority of the components, since he loved including vegetables from his extensive garden. But I always brought a couple things to throw in, and the dish was just a little different every time. The taste revived his memories, and Dan used to rhapsodize about eating from the push-carts of street vendors, using gestures and sound effects to convey the sizzle of ingredients thrown into a searing hot pan on a charcoal fire. As the spiciness brought out sweat on our scalps and opened my sinuses, we slowed down a little, but heightened our praises.
When people talked to him, Dan would often cock his good ear toward them, the other eardrum having been blown out in his special-ops days when he was put in a hyperbaric chamber, for reasons I’m still unclear on. I, of course, was happy to characterize this as a failed military experiment to transform him into a super-soldier. Grey-haired and with a roundish build by the time I knew him, and with his shoot-fire farm boy speech, he seemed an unlikely candidate for Captain America. But stick around and pay attention, and you saw that he was a tireless worker who seemed to think of everyone else before himself.
Not everybody just naturally treats every person they see like a person. This didn’t occur to me until I watched Dan do it. He was always the first person to talk to a new face, always interested in how everyone around him was doing, always the first one to volunteer for an otherwise-unwanted task. He always did more around the workplace than anyone realized, much of it unasked. I wasn’t the only one who felt the place seemed half empty when, twelve years and one month after that afternoon in his cubicle, Dan was transferred to another office on short notice. In the last few days before he moved on, we put together one final curry lunch, which Dan referred to as our “Last Supper.” Thai green curry with chicken, the favorite we always came back to.
In memory of a couple thousand companionable lunches, I offer you our crock-pot office curry recipe. Eat it with an old friend, or make a new one to share it with.
Curry is very flexible and you can put just about anything you want in it, but it always has 4 basic components:
The sauce has just two ingredients, curry paste and coconut milk. Dan and I always used Maesri brand curry paste, so that’s the one I know and trust, but I’m sure there are other great ones. Just make sure it’s a Product of Thailand so you know you’re getting something real. The stuff from Maesri comes in 4oz cans and many varieties – green, red, and yellow but also some with exotic names like Masaman or Prik Khing. Try them all, they’re all good. Some are distinctly more spicy than others; the green curry seems to be one of the spiciest while yellow is usually on the milder side. The directions sometimes say to heat or “fry” the paste a little in a wok before adding it to the coconut milk, and Dan was a rule-follower so he did it, but I never noticed any difference in flavor so I skip it. Just proceed however the Spirit moves you.
And I never noticed any difference in what brand coconut milk was used – often we’d both bring cans and have two or even three different brands in the mix. Apparently coconut milk is coconut milk. It’s sweet and creamy and offsets the spicy strong curry paste perfectly.
If you have a shellfish allergies, check the fine print of the curry paste cans before buying – some have shrimp paste in them. Then again it may be that the amount is too small to matter.
I was going to just say “meat”, but you vegetarians out there can still get in on the action with tofu or something. No doubt you could even get away with no protein at all, but I don’t know why you’d want to. Our recipe was adapted to be thrown in a crock pot upon arrival at your workplace in the morning and be ready to eat by lunchtime; if you’re doing likewise, it’s probably best to have any meat already cooked. We often used the shortcut of buying a grocery store rotisserie chicken the day before (the new ones aren’t done early enough in the day to buy the day of) and stripped all the meat into the pot in the morning. Then since it was already cooked, a 3- to 4-hour slow-cooking time wasn’t a problem. Whatever you use, it’s going to take on a lot of the flavor of the curry sauce, so the biggest difference between meats and vegan proteins is going to be texture. Sometimes we did strips of beef or pork, and shrimp is good too. Experiment.
You can pretty much go wild here. Dan grew exotic things in his garden which often found their way into our curries, like Japanese eggplant (longer and skinnier, less seeds) and things with names like upo (it was big and green and soft). One that was a big hit with me was his Asian long beans, which are like skinny, slightly crunchy green beans but two or three feet long. Cut into manageable segments, they’re nice in curries and stir-fries, and I’ve found them at my local Asian market so I can still enjoy them. But don’t worry if you don’t have access to things like that, you’ll find all you need close to home. Onion, bell pepper, carrot, snow pea pod, bok choi… if it’s good in stir-fry, it’ll work here. Once Dan even brought in some pickled okra to throw in, and I was highly skeptical. But danged if it didn’t turn out just fine. Potatoes and carrots are sort of traditional for yellow curry in particular, I think. At least they were for us. Don’t feel like you need nine different veggies every time – a simple curry with a protein and one or two vegetables is still delightful.
Dan and I often liked to put in water chestnuts for a little crunch. Or bamboo shoots, for a more subtle texture. Most grocery stores should have little cans of them. I’ve come to like peanuts or cashews in my curry.
Every curry needs a cozy bed of white rice to nestle into. The rice soaks up the excess sauce and takes on its flavor. If your mix came out a little too spicy for you, you can ease back on the sauce and put more rice in your bowl to calm things down. Jasmine rice is easy to find and authentic for Thai food. It comes out of the rice cooker a little sticky, that’s normal. Which reminds me, Dan always used a rice cooker for his rice, and after knowing him a few years I invested in one too. They can be had cheaply and are well worth it if you make Eastern dishes with rice at all regularly. Not only do they cook it right, but they’ll keep it warm for you till you’re ready to eat it.
If you’re at home, you likely have any utensils you need. But for those trying to curry-on-the-job, if you don’t have a resident crock pot in your workplace like we did, you’ll have to bring one. Rice cooker is recommended too, but you could always bring pre-cooked rice in and warm it up just before you eat. Other things to pre-cook at home are 1) meat, since this isn’t slow-cooking all day and you don’t want to take a chance on safety, and 2) any vegetables you’re worried might not get tender enough for you, like chunks of carrot or potato. You can always deal with this by cutting them smaller so they cook faster, though.
Shake the coconut milk while it’s in the can, because it tends to separate into watery stuff and gooey white stuff, and you want it all integrated and silky smooth. Open the cans and dump it into the crock pot.
Open the curry paste and add it – you’ll probably have to spoon it out of the can. The ratio of curry paste to coconut milk makes a big difference; we found we found that one 4oz can of paste to two 13.5 oz cans of coconut milk made a good mix. A one-to-one ratio got…exciting, especially with the spicier curry pastes. You may be tempted to err on the side of more milk if you’re more heat-sensitive and you’re not familiar with the paste you’re using, but that’s part of what your rice is for. Two non-petite fellows with bit appetites can and did make a single meal of one can of paste and two of milk, with several cups of veggies and meat plus accompanying rice. If you’re looking to make a big batch, at least double the above .
Once you’ve got the curry paste stirred into the coconut milk and have a lovely sauce going, just dump all your ingredients in. Again, if at work you want to have already cut things up at home, since you can’t do a lot of prep work here. You have to get this going and get to work before your boss comes after you. Stir it all in, set your crock pot to high, drop the lid on.
If you have a rice cooker, you can get your rice warm and just let it stay warmed till lunch break. Otherwise, heat up your rice – I’m assuming your break room has a microwave – and spoon a good bit into your bowl. Ladle curry sauce and goodies over it and tuck in with your buddy.
Return praise to your Maker, but praise the food liberally too as you eat. Talk parenting and hobbies, share hopes and fears. Wipe sweat off your scalp as necessary. If it’s clearing out your sinuses, you know it’s good.
P.S. Dan insisted that the dose of spicy heat was essential in the jungles of Northern Thailand, where clouds of mosquitoes converged on any unprotected flesh and carried diseases. Whole families, he told me, from toddlers up, were always munching incendiary dishes loaded with garlic and spices without batting an eye. And the mosquitoes didn’t bite them. All those high-octane ingredients came out of their pores and created a protective haze around them. It’s too good not to be true, and besides, Dan told me so.
Matthew is fascinated by the use of story to create experiences that awaken us to powerful, redemptive Truth. Several years ago he took up a quest to own and read every book ever published by C.S. Lewis. He shares his home with his wife and daughter, four cats, and a smallish serpent who has thus far never endorsed the consumption of prohibited produce.