I like food, in case anyone hadn’t figured that out yet. I like the names of foods; there’s something almost magical about them. Don’t ask me to explain it, because I’m not sure I could. I don’t know what I’d call something new that I made up, but it would have to be a good name. Fantastic food needs a fantastic title. Maybe I like food names so much because I don’t actually know what goes into a lot of the food I eat here in the caf, so I don’t know what to call it. Sometimes after I finish eating in the caf, I sit and I think about how I-had I the money and the time-would have made the same food they served us and what I would have called it. Pizza turns into a mantra of flour, yeast, salt, milk, cornstarch, baking soda, garlic tomato paste, Mama’s fresh-made mozzarella, shiitakes, olives onion. Noodles with fake parmesan sprinkles turn into a list of everything that goes into one of my younger brother’s spaghetti dinners (those are his specialty: he puts just a bit of red wine in the sauce and he makes the best garlic bread ever). Their names have meaning—noodles mean oh-crap-there’s-a-football-game-tonight-and-we-need-to-feed-my-brother-something-fast-before-he-has-to-go-get-ready-to-carry-45-pounds-of-tennor-drum-on-his-shoulders-for-four-hours. Spaghetti means: IT’S FRIDAY!!! And this summer, my sister brought home stories of drunken noodles until my mother got curious and decided to make them, thus, drunken noodles for dinner means that my sister has come to visit.
Since I keep talking about the importance of the names of foods, before I get into the specifics of this fabulous dish I feel should probably explain just where it gets its name. “Drunken noodles” is a literal translation of the Thai name for this dish: Pad Kee Mao, named thus due to the fact that usually those who ate it were either very, very drunk at the time or were a good portion of the way to being very, very drunk. This makes it a very odd dish to be having at my house, as my dad is the only one who ever drinks any kind of alcohol ever and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him have more than three beers in any given week. (This makes sense, given that his dad was a cop, so my dad probably learned from a very early age about words like drunk and belligerent and DUI.) Pad Kee Mao is a stir-fried dish, made in a wok. You can put in as many or as little vegetables as you like, plus meat and/or a vegetarian option (e.g. my mom uses tofu). Add in various amounts of garlic, onion, ginger (LOTS of ginger), Thai dragon peppers (which have a lovely warm flavor that is spicy, not burning hot, and stays in your mouth without burning the back of your throat and making your eyes water), green onion, and fish sauce to the cooked meat and veggies, but what makes drunken noodles into drunken noodles is unmistakably the Thai basil. Thai basil is different from regular basil in that not only do the leaves of the plant look different, but it also has a different flavor. Thai basil is a deeper, spicier flavor than its more widely-known cousin. The first time my mom made drunken noodles she used regular basil, and let me tell you, it was not even close to the same as the batch she made with Thai basil. The last ingredient in drunken noodles is the noodles themselves: wide, flat rice noodles. These are not the crap you get in take-out Chinese. These are noodles about half an inch wide and as long as my palm, made from rice flour and consumed all over Asia, the genuine article. (My mom had to find an oriental market in Grand Rapids to get some of the ingredients for drunken noodles, since regular grocery stores didn't have them.)
Drunken noodles is not only an amazing dish with an equally amazing name, but it also represents the expansion of my own culinary horizons. Given I had the right ingredients and the time, I could make this dish. And it would be delicious. But before my sister brought the idea home, I would never have even considered eating Thai food. I was fine with the familiar American food I knew and loved. Not so anymore. There are more interesting, amazing foods out there like Pad Kee Mao, so I am going to find them. And eat them. And learn their interesting names. Maybe not on the scale of Tony Bourdain, but there will be more adventuring. I’ve always liked adventures.