Good Food for Good People

My Thai: celebrate Tsunami style

By Ben Smith

[singlepic id=36 w=320 h=240 mode=web20 float=left]It’s the beginning of a new year again. That means that it’s time to start planning the Tsunami staff Christmas party…for 2009. Yep, in this business we don’t get around to celebrating the Christmas season until the Christmas season is all over. During the holidays, we are all so busy dealing with “normal” people who have “real” jobs that we seldom even get the Christmas spirit until early the next year. When all of my various cooks, servers, bartenders, and hostesses are scrambling around making sure all of our guests stay in the holiday spirit, it leaves precious little time for us to foster the spirit in ourselves. Sure, we get a few days off around Christmas, but most of that time is spent shopping for gifts, meeting all of our various family obligations, and trying to catch up on some much needed sleep. As if.

We always schedule the Christmas party on a Sunday in mid January. My wife, Colleen, decorates the house, and I am in charge of food and beverages, naturally. Over the years, we have seen the party evolve and change. For the first couple of years, it was just open to Tsunami staff and their dates. Then we decided to extend an invitation to a few select regular customers, as well. Then we decided to open the floodgates and told the staff to invite anyone and everyone to the party. It’s always nice to attend a party where you can meet new and interesting people. It’s another thing when you are the host of the party and you find yourself asking every third person, “Now, who are you?” Or when people look at you (as they are opening yet another bottle of wine from your personal collection) and say “Great party! Who’s house is this?”

That was the year that my son Brendan, who was around 8 years old at the time, decided to set up a zip line in the middle of the party. He secured a length of climbing rope to the second floor banister, ran it out the open front door, and tied it to the giant magnolia tree in the front yard. Then he proceeded to slide down the line, over people’s heads, and through the front door into the front yard much to the delight of the Tsunami staff. But not, however, to the delight of everyone. “Oh my God!” said a strange woman to Colleen. “Where are that boy’s parents?” To which my wife replied “Well, I’m his mother, and that guy holding the other end of the rope is his father.”

That was also the year that we decided to rethink the invitation policy. Colleen and I didn’t feel like we had to explain our parenting skills (or lack thereof) to complete strangers. Our staff already knows what twisted parents we are. And they accept us in spite of it. Or perhaps because of it.

While the beverage aspect of the party has remained the same over the years (copious amounts of whiskey, wine, and beer, plus several bottles of vodka frozen in blocks of ice and decked with boughs of holly just for good measure), the food has changed. A few years in a row, I made a big pot of seafood gumbo. One year, I convinced Marisa, my sushi chef, to roll sushi to order at the party. That was a tremendous hit, but Marisa had to work the whole time. Another year, I decided it would be great to serve oysters on the half shell. That was very well received as well. To me, there are few gustatory pleasures that can top a raw, briny oyster chased with a shot of ice cold vodka on a cold night in front of a roaring fire. On the complete and polar opposite of that joy is the stomach-turning experience of cleaning out a kitchen sink full of oyster shells surrounded by a plethora of glasses containing various levels of distilled beverages the morning after.

While my staff is not at all particular about what they drink (anything with alcohol in it is good) or eat (anything, period), there are two items that absolutely have to be at the Christmas party. The aforementioned vodka, frozen in a block of ice and bedecked with holly is a must. And no Christmas party would be complete without a big platter of Thai poppers. Last year, in a typical flash of brilliance, my wife suggested that we turn our party into a potluck affair. I was skeptical at first. After all, this party is a show of appreciation for our staff, an opportunity to raise a glass and thank them for all of their hard work and dedication over the past year. How crass would it be to ask the staff to bring their own food to the party? “Let’s just try it,” my wife said. “We spend all day cleaning and decorating and cooking for the party. Then everyone shows up and it’s all a blur and the party’s over. Why not slow down for a change and enjoy the party?” The staff rose to the occasion and brought the most amazing spread imaginable. My wife was right, of course (she always is), and that year we struck on a idea we may stay with for a while.

This recipe was plagiarized, er, adapted from a dish at one of my favorite Thai restaurants in San Francisco. The official name of the dish is in Thai and I don’t remember it, frankly. I have always called these Thai poppers because you pop them in your mouth whole. This is a great item for any gathering. It’s a great icebreaker for a party. It is very hands on and often gets everyone involved.

Thai poppers

1 package square wonton wrappers, cut in half from corner to corner

Jalapeno peppers, stemmed, seeded (optional), and diced into small squares

At least one medium sized root of ginger, peeled and diced into small cubes

1 bulb garlic, peeled and cut into small cubes

1 pound lap chong (Chinese sausage), cooked and diced into small cubes

1 jar roasted peanuts

1 jar Chinese plum sauce

Put the jalapenos, garlic, ginger, lap chong, peanuts, and plum sauce in individual bowls and place them on a large platter. Arrange the cut wonton wrappers on the platter, staggered, so that they are easy to pick up. Now here’s the fun part. Pick up one piece of wonton wrapper and form it into a cone. (This takes some practice, but stick with it.) Once you have your cone, add one piece each of the jalapeno, ginger, garlic, lap chong, and peanut. Top with a little dab of plum sauce, fold over the top of the wonton, and pop the whole thing in your mouth.

This dish is always met with a great deal of skepticism from people who have never experienced it before. You may have to demonstrate once or twice before it catches on. After all, it is raw garlic, and raw ginger. What happens on your palate is a wonderful thing, however. You experience each individual flavor in small waves, yet not one of the ingredients overwhelms the other. Eventually, curiosity will overcome even the most reluctant person. The sense of challenge will be too great to resist, and before you know it, everyone will be huddled around the platter giggling and popping these things like candy. Experimentation is encouraged, so each little package can be custom loaded to suit your own tastes. The rest of the party will begin to wonder why everyone is in the kitchen giggling like a bunch of schoolgirls. And you will wonder why you made all this other food when everybody is hitting the Thai poppers.

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