The Art of Sharing Rice
Thai Tradition & A Local Eatery
The significance of rice is embedded in the Thai language,” says Andy Rickers in his Thai cookbook Pok Pok. A common Thai greeting, “Kin khao reu yang?” translates to “Have you eaten rice yet?”, serving as an invitation to eat a meal together or, as many of us consider it, spend time with one another. This Thai tradition is similar to a practice in America I wrote about last November: the breaking of bread. These two actions, oceans and continents apart, share in a common understanding of the companionship that revolves around our meals, which in turn revolve around, well, grain.
For Rickers, eating Thai food for the first time was “like seeing an entirely new color.” Rooted in ingredients that just don’t exist in the United States (like tamarind leaves and banana blossoms) pulverized or lightly bruised with a mortar and pestle, Thai cooking is as distinct as the flavors and techniques it requires. In Littleton, Emshika Alberini is using her own roots to bring Thai tradition to our New Hampshire neighborhood.
Growing up in Bangkok, Alberini learned about cooking from her mother and grandmother. After moving to Littleton to be with her husband, the burgeoning chef applied a compilation of her Bangkok roots and her own personal touch to open Chang Thai Café in 2008. The Thai restaurant honors her sister, Ann-Sriwipha Phathan, who passed away that same year.
Alberini wanted to create a business for both regulars and curious new diners alike, introducing the small seaboard town to the palatable tastes and culture of Thai food. Undoubtedly, the entrepreneur’s goals prove a success.
Local and regional media deemed Chang Thai one of New Hampshire’s best restaurants, and Alberini’s Bangkok-inspired dishes sit well on frequent diners’ palates. She explains that nothing is too sweet, spicy, salty, oily or heavy. Her dishes are light and balanced, providing flavors fit for American preference.
As Rickers explains in his cookbook, the dining experience in Thailand is different from our experience in the U.S., a novelty of the cuisine that doesn’t always translate when it’s brought here from its homeland. According to Rickers, it’s rare that diners use anything other than a spoon when eating in Thailand. This is due to the saucy nature of most Thai dishes, leaving little need for a fork or knife.
Street food vendors in Thailand are also different. Rickers describes a scene outside of a som tam (Thai for papaya salad) vendor where customers tell the chef how strongly they want their food flavored, similar to the American particularities that accompany ordering a coffee. Some vendors even offer the customer a taste mid-preparation, adhering to requests for more chiles or extra carrots and tomatoes.
Chang Thai Café has heard a similar request from New Hampshire customers: Fresh and local. Alberini sources local ingredients as often as possible, adding new elements to her menu as the harvest dictates. She incorporates baby kale, radishes, wild cherry tomatoes and watermelon in the summer, and sources ingredients like Hamachi yellowtail, lobster and seafood from Maine and the New England coast for her sushi menu. Recently, Chang Thai introduced a kale fried rice for a lighter version of the signature dish.
Alberini never hesitates to have her hands in multiple pots, whether it be making her Thai curry sauces by hand, mothering two children, hosting her own cooking show “Emshika’s Kitchen” (which airs Saturday afternoons on WBIN-TV Boston), or opening a boutique tea and coffee shop located next to Chang Thai. Her many pursuits seem to symbolize all of the different ingredients in a Thai dish, bringing color, flavor and life to the main item that holds everything together. For Alberini, it is family that continually finds itself at the center of her success.