For my 13th-birthday dinner, my parents and I drove from our home in Falmouth, Massachusetts, to Boston to eat at a popular Thai restaurant called the King and I. This was a big deal. We didn’t go to Boston often and we’d never eaten Thai food. In small-town Massachusetts at that time, the brick oven pizzeria was as urbane as it got.
The place was bright and loud and packed. The waiter came over and we each ordered pad Thai—enough like pasta to assuage my father, who would rather have been at a red-sauce joint—plus a bowl of tom yum soup for me, which I chose because it included shrimp. The soup arrived first, a brown crock of cloudy broth with a few mushrooms, a sprig of cilantro, flecks of chopped something (lemongrass and Kaffir lime leaf, I would later learn), and exactly one pink shrimp. No matter; it was the broth that floored me. It had an unfamiliar sourness that was round and sweet, but it had an intriguing fishy flavor, too, and a beautiful citrusy fragrance. The pad Thai arrived, a teetering heap, tangled with stir-fried egg and scallion, sprinkled with peanuts, all of it strange to me and addictive. I remember looking around to see how the other diners used chopsticks, and then back at my quiet family who twirled our noodles around forks.
After that meal, I’d sit in algebra class and dream of tom yum, the memory of its tartness making my mouth water. I’d spend weekends making pad Thai for my friends, once I realized that the “international foods” section of the Stop & Shop carried fish sauce. Our meal made me lust for places like New York City, where surely everyone ate things like Thai food every night. And when I finally moved there—and realized that they didn’t—I felt at home anyway. —Sarah DiGregorio, staff writer at the Village Voice