I was only 19 when I first travelled through Northern Thailand. The place blew my mind. Especially the people and the temples. One day I left Chiang Rai on a public bus and headed off to find a serene guest house. It was supposed to be tucked away in a rice paddy on the outskirts of the town. When the bus finally stopped and dumped me off, I was somewhere closer - but definitely not there.
Aside from a bit of jungle and savage heat, I was confronted with a woman cooking at a small lean-to, tin shed. Her makeshift restaurant was basic. It had a dirt floor, plastic chairs, a gas burner, various condiments and noodles.
In the baking heat I sat down and ordered a Singha. To order, I pointed to the old bloke next to me who was eating noodle soup. There was only soup. It was a meaty and murky broth full of chopped coriander, liver, skud chilli, other mystery meats and God knows what else. I was hungry and I ate it. This dish must have come down from Vietnam, because to this day, I have never quite seen it again.
It was a real first for me. I didn’t even like coriander at the time, nor liver for that matter. But I ate it all up. I drank the broth down, spat out a couple of grisley bits I couldn’t swallow with my beer and left nothing lingering in the bottom.
I had left Sydney and had been in Bangkok for three days. There on Kao San Road I was eating chicken curries, pad thai and fish cakes, playing pool in dive bars and getting sharked and hustled on the tables. I thought I had Thai food licked. But this was another kettle of fish. This was real Thai cooking. To me then, coriander was just a bitter and overpowering garnish. After that bowl of soup my perception of it changed forever. Now I love it. And I always think, that if it wasn’t for that tiny roadside soup shack, I may never have busted through my fear of this green plant. Hunger will do that to you.
With no cars insight I ended up accepting a lift from a local on the back of his motorbike. Just me and my back pack got to the guest house just before dusk. Coriander is always in my fridge now. I juice it. I eat it raw. I throw it into salads and love it on a curry. It adds a freshness and crunch that I think Asian food needs. I’ve learned so much about this plant in the intervening years and I’m grateful to Soup Shack mama for that first painful initiation. You never know where inspiration strikes. But for me it is often on the road.