Food, art, politics, and culture come together in the garden
Madam Mam's West Gate
4514 West Gate Blvd., 899-8525
When we finished the landscaping at Madam Mam's West Gate soon after they opened that location, there was a large triangular open area left between the north side and the 8-foot privacy fence that borders the gas station. It was in a bad state, needing a serious cleanup, solarization of some pesky Bermuda grass, and repeated fluffing-up at the hands of a churning tiller. Long-range plans were launched for a vegetable and herb garden to provide those hard-to-find items that every authentic Thai chef's pantry demands. The target date was set for the following spring.
Before that could happen, I knew that I needed to enlist the help of longtime pal and Hollywood whiz-bang production designer Michael Corenblith. The vertical north wall presented problems: A big chunk of the garden would be shaded during the cooler growing season, but I didn't know to what extent.
Corenblith had developed a method of using Google's SketchUp software (sketchup.google.com) for set design, enabling him to do rotatable elevations of any building from any angle. Once he had the address and some basic measurements of the 20-foot-tall north wall of the restaurant, he was able to send me some shadow data. We selected April, July, October, and December, with shadow details for 8am, noon, 2pm, and 4pm. The same day, he e-mailed a full set of architectural drawings showing the exact path of the shadows for each date and time, including a QuickTime animation. Amazing what a little high tech can accomplish.
Once that was in hand, a garden design was quickly drawn, and there was plenty of room for intensive organic vegetable and herb production. Concrete blocks were brought in to provide a curbed border to contain the imported 18 yards of organic compost garden soil. A drip-irrigation system was installed, and Chris and Diane Winslow of It's About Thyme Nursery were alerted to start the seedlings of Thai treats. They'd gotten certified seeds in a wide array of flavors from Thailand, and by mid-May 2008, the garden was under way.
One problem with cooking authentic Thai in the United States is that you just can't get the same vegetables here that you can get there. Take eggplants, for example: Pretty much any fresh market you visit will have a dozen types of all sizes, tastes, and colors. The market here has one kind of Thai chile, but over there expect a dozen different types, all with different flavors and heat levels. Have you ever tasted fresh galangal and compared it to frozen or eaten lemongrass when it's freshly plucked from the ground instead of sitting in some cooler for several weeks? It is pointless.
One ingredient that's indispensable for making Thai spice pastes is cilantro root. The roots are chopped off of all the cilantro you buy here, and cilantro stems are a weak, pitiful substitute. Not to mention that Thai cilantro is bred for heat and humidity and doesn't even think about bolting in our summer. Buy it over there, and at the bottom of each plant is this wonderful white miniparsnip of a tuberous root, just waiting to be pounded for spice pastes in the mortar and pestle.
Within six weeks or so, the harvest at Madam Mam's had begun. Thai peppermint, chaplu leaf (a distant relative of betel leaf, used for salads and wrapping things), and big healthy clumps of galangal (a peppery, earthy relative of ginger that brings the kha to tom kha) were all thriving happily in the shaded areas, along with some of the peppers and a basil or two. Over on the sunny side, the plants were going absolutely nuts.
Giant fountains of lemongrass shimmering with the wind sit next to huge mounds of green "apple" eggplants (makheua phraw), sweet and slightly bitter Ping-Pong-ball-sized globes of textural goodness just waiting to sacrifice themselves in one of Mam's amazing curries. There were all of the Thai basils, looking like a sea of green and slightly purple-tinged velvet: holy basil, Thai sweet basil, Thai lemon basil, and the alchemic yee raa, a wild basil that intensifies the heat of a dish.
Chiles never looked so good. "Sky pointing" chiles burst up from the green foliage, glistening scarlet when ripe. Banana-stalk chiles glowed chartreuse, ready to add medium heat but huge flavor. Yellow Thai chile plants are covered with Technicolor gold, just waiting for Sap to create some of his tasty yellow-chile sriracha sauce. In back are the massive pots holding the makroot trees from which the Thai lime leaves are plucked.
The first year was a complete success but just a tease of what will grow this spring. That 8-foot fence will be lined with long beans. The tiny grape-sized green eggplants will flourish, waiting to swim in bowls of green curry. More chile varieties are planned, including the diminutive and incendiary prik kee nuu. Just outside the kitchen door will be a veritable Thai fresh market, just waiting to be harvested and turned into culinary magic.