'Pad kaprao' still on top

'Pad kaprao' still on top

This dish was first choice even for the hungry Wild Boar boys

'Pad kaprao' still on top
sunny side up: Pad Kaprao (stir-fried Holy Thai basil dish), served with a fried egg on top. PHOTO: POST TODAY ARCHIVE

At times, one cannot help but appreciate the most minute details of a huge news story, such as the boys from the Wild Boars football team saying after their cave ordeal that they just wanted to eat some pad kaprao.

While the nation rejoiced as the boys and their coach were finally freed from the clutches of the cave in Chiang Rai -- courtesy of one of the most remarkable transnational rescue efforts seen in recent memory -- one cannot help but notice how most onlookers seemed to understand their charming request for the go-to, holy Thai basil stir-fried dish.

It could have been due to how the last of them was trapped inside the cave for over two weeks, that they just wanted a taste of something familiar, to remind them of home.

To a hungry foodie -- let alone someone who had been without actual food for half a month -- pad kaprao would surely rank among the top dishes any local would opt to order.

Its everyman nature does not come with high expectations, as this affordable, filling staple dish is available at virtually any eatery, where most recreations taste similar to one another.

The fragrance of the basil leaves, stir-fried with the meat of your choice, such as chicken, pork, beef or seafood, is often complemented by a fried egg on top. Its versatility, combined with its unique blend of salt and spice, gives it an edge paralleled by no other local dish.

This is why several shops continue to make pad kaprao, even though the cook comes under danger each time he or she goes to work. Chilli and basil fumes emanating from their trusty woks flood their lungs on a regular basis, causing their eyes to water each time.

The tears are also usually accompanied by coughing and sneezing; a case of the "pad kaprao sniffles," if you will.

Consequently, shops tend to skimp on the basil leaves, precisely because they cause such temporary discomfort, despite the leaves being one of the cheapest culinary herbs one can locally source.

Let us take a moment to acquaint ourselves with the likely origins of this now globally-known dish. Popular belief says the first of the pad kaprao dishes stemmed from decades ago, when most people were in the agriculture industry.

Groups of farmers liked to have a drink or several to wind down after a hard day's work, and they simply needed something spicy to pair with their alcohol of choice.

They would take any meat they could find -- chicken, fish, bird and even snake meat -- and mince it up. The meat was then combined with a mixture of coarsely chopped garlic, galangal and an ungodly amount of bird's eye chilli, to mask the meats' pungent odour.

Large amounts of holy basil and turkey berries were thrown in with some fish sauce to taste, but the key element would always be heat.

The dish made its way into Thai homes soon after due to its simplicity in being paired with rice. During this stage, the go-to meat of choice became beef or buffalo, since the musky protein was, again, paired perfectly with chili. Caraway, also known as meridian fennel, was also often added to spice things up.

Once pad kaprao gained more popularity, it gradually started appearing in local restaurants, being served as a standalone dish, first without rice, so that it may be eaten with other dishes, centralised around the eater's full plate of white rice, such is Thai custom.

However, restaurants soon had to diversify, since there existed a large chunk of the Thai population who did not eat beef, either because of religious reasons or preference. This was most likely when pork, chicken and shrimp were added, and the option to add a fried egg on top was offered for variety.

The current, more popular and simplified recipe for pad kaprao starts with crushed bird's eye chili and garlic in an oiled pan or wok.

Meat is added soon after the garlic colourises, where dark soy sauce is often added for more colour and depth of flavour. Light soy sauce, fish sauce and sugar, sometimes accompanied by a dash of oyster sauce are then added.

Holy Thai basil leaves -- the ingredient no pad kaprao can do without -- are added last, to ensure they do not wilt.

Thai basil plants themselves naturally occur in these parts, as their pollination process is kick-started by wind and bees. When they are met with ample water, they grow into the familiar plants we know and love. This is why basil plants are most alluring during the rainy season, as their leaves grow plentiful and healthily, and their flowers bloom.

sunny side up: Pad kaprao (stir-fried Holy Thai basil dish), served with a fried egg on the side PHOTOS: 123RF

There are two main varieties of basil used in pad kaprao: white basil, and its more pungent cousin, red basil. It is no secret that Thais often opt for the latter variety, for a fuller, well-rounded flavour and aroma.

The icing on the cake, so to speak, would be the fried egg, which is up to the eater's choice, of course. Upon ordering a plate of pad kaprao, one is normally given a choice of no egg, sunny-side up egg, or a fully-cooked, crispy egg.

But the most popular egg-cooking method served with this dish by far is the decadent-yet-simple, runny yolk with crunchy egg-white fried egg.

This method certainly adds a bit of texture to the overall dish, and the satisfaction of breaking your very own oozing yolk, thus coating the fragrant, silky contents of your plate in it, is a rewarding experience like no other.

Thus, it is easy to understand why many of the 12 Wild Boar boys asked for a simple plate of pad kaprao upon being rescued from the cave.

To this day, the meal remains one of the first choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner for many Thais and visiting foreigners alike.

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