Shoe, Prime Minister, and Brandied Green Curry

A novel rendition of beef green curry came into existence in a time when most people could only look at it

In the past year, I’ve noticed that my conversations with family and friends in Bangkok have been reminiscences more than anything else. They’re pretty random and unrelated, too. Is this what naturally happens when you get older, when you feel your time is dwindling—blurting out whatever you remember from the past? Or is this a result of a nearly year-long pandemic?

A phone conversation with one of my aunts a couple of nights ago was exactly like that—a random focus on the past. I told her how sick and tired I was of Zoom calls and how the people delivering groceries had become some of my heroes these days. I asked her if she remembered what Grandma put in the smoky fish soup she made for us one time—just one time—when I was in grade school because I’d been unsuccessful in re-creating it from taste memory. My aunt told me about how things had been going in Thailand and how the economic climate was making her anxious on occasion because it vaguely reminded her of the time leading up to the tom yam kung crisis and that she didn’t know what fish soup I was talking about. I said I remembered how bad the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis was and told her that it was the fish soup that I specifically remembered her helping Grandma make. My aunt sighed and told me not to bother. She said the soup tasted the way it did because Grandma made it with the fish she accidentally burnt while trying to smoke them with coconut husk, and to replicate the soup, I’d have to both replicate the accident that got the fish skin burnt to the exact same degree and repeat the tedious scraping of the scorched bits.

As my mind wandered off to all the fish I’d burnt before, my aunt started telling me stories about the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and the 1973 and 1979 oil crises which created great political and economic instability in Thailand.

“Well, OPEC was, you know,” she said. “Oh my god, I remember this—he threw a shoe at the prime minister!”

OPEC threw a shoe at the prime minister?”

“No, the driver!”

That didn’t clear things up, but fortunately she provided more context.

One of my aunt’s acquaintances had a brother who lost his job during the 1970s oil crises and, despite having a college degree, spent nearly a year searching in vain for employment. The only thing he could do—decades before Uber became a thing—was offering paid rides to family and friends. And if you know Bangkok and its notoriously awful traffic, you know the hardship he endured wasn’t just financial but also physical and emotional. Like many others in the country outside the elite class, he tried his darndest to stay afloat. The bitterness. The resentment. The indignity. So much was simmering beneath the surface of everyday routines.

One afternoon, my aunt had to take several boxes of documents to an office near Lak Si and asked him to give her a ride.

“He took a shortcut through Soi KLM,” my aunt recalled, referring to a side street named for its proximity to the old location of the Dutch airlines’ warehouse in Bang Khen District, north of Bangkok. The quiet, tree-lined street winded through a residential area where a few upper-middle-class homes were found in the midst of a large cluster of middle-class ones. Neither my aunt nor the driver realized that one of the upper-middle-class houses in that area was the family home of Kriangsak Chamanan, the prime minister at the time, until they approached a beautiful house with a huge, manicured lawn and a large group of photographers standing inside and outside the wrought-iron gate.

The driver slowed down to see what the fuss was about. And that was when he saw the prime minister, a pipe between his lips, smiling and pushing a lawnmower as the reporters were cheering him on and the photographers clicking away.

According to my aunt, the driver paused and stared for almost a minute, his face growing red. “I saw the look in his eyes, and I thought, oh crap, he’s gonna do something.”

The driver moved the car closer to the gate, rolled down the window, and yelled at the top of his lungs, “I HAVEN’T HAD A F***ING JOB FOR A WHOLE F***ING YEAR WHILE YOU’RE OUT HERE POSING WITH A F***ING LAWNMOWER LIKE YOU F***ING KNOW HOW TO MOW THE F***ING LAWN!” He then concluded his speech. “AND THE BRANDY! WELL, F*** YOUR BRANDY AND F*** YOUR BEEF CURRY IN THE A**. GET US JOBS YOU MOTHERF***ERRRRRRRRRRR.”

He then opened the car door, took off one of his shoes, and threw it in the direction of the house. But because he was still sitting in the car, the shoe didn’t get very far. A few people outside the gate saw and heard the whole thing, though. Some giggled; some gave him a thumbs-up. The soldiers guarding the entrance didn’t seem to realize what had happened, and the prime minister himself was too close to the roaring lawnmower and surrounded by too many people to hear or see anything. Even so, my aunt found herself shaking and rummaging through her purse for a Vicks inhaler as the guy drove away.

It was the kind of culinary theatrics that drew a demarcation line between a whole class of Thai people, who could play around with expensive imported goods amidst a drawn-out financial crisis, and the have-nots, who could barely afford a bag of plain old green curry off a street stall.

General Kriangsak Chamanan became Thailand’s 15th prime minister in the late 1970s following years of turmoil. The country’s economy had already been bad years before he came to power through a military coup, and his administration went through some of the toughest times in Thailand’s modern history up to the day he finally resigned. The resignation was praised as an honorable move.

Of all the things he did or didn’t do, of all the things he did well or poorly, and of all the things he did too little or too much of, one thing about General Chamanan will never be forgotten: his signature dish, beef green curry with brandy. Even those born long after his era think about it when his name is mentioned.

According to several accounts, Chamanan loved to cook, and the dish that he made most often when visiting the people in different cities was kaeng khiao wan nuea, beef green curry. Photographs show that his famous green curry looked like any other traditional rendition of the dish. What made his different, however, was a splash of cognac or brandy that he added to the curry before taking it off the heat.1

Is brandied beef green curry good? My short answer is this: if the green curry is bad2, the most expensive cognac/brandy wouldn’t save it; if it’s good, the booze is superfluous.

After all, General Chamanan’s version of green curry became the talk of the town not because it was a marked improvement on a well-loved classic but because it was novel. It was the kind of culinary theatrics that drew a demarcation line between a whole class of Thai people, who could play around with expensive imported goods amidst a drawn-out financial crisis, and the have-nots, who could barely afford a bag of plain old green curry off a street stall.

“What happened after that?” I asked my aunt.

“I tipped him with all the cash I had in the purse,” she said. “I didn’t have a lot of money—nobody did—but I knew he’d need a new pair of shoes.”

1

Some accounts say he marinated the beef with the brandy in addition to, or instead of, adding the brandy at the end.

2

If it’s made from one of the many recipes from the Internet, especially ones by famous chefs (often European), and if the photos show it served with chopped peanuts, lime wedges, and a crap-ton of cilantro leaves piled on top, it probably is.