A new book, Instagram (with a long digress on language learning), and lots of grilling recipes
(The food photos you see here, except the one showing some green peppers on the grill, show the Isan grilled chicken, the green curry grilled beef, the herb-filled grilled fish, grilled pork with citrus glaze, and the smoked shrimp from Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill as well as the grilled sticky rice in banana-leaf packets from Bangkok.)
Happy July 4th to those who celebrate. I hope you’re enjoying a lovely long weekend with your loved ones.
Here’s what has been happening in my world since Update #1.
I’M WRITING A NEW BOOK.
Man, writing that sentence never gets old.
The book will be released in early 2024, and along the way, I’ll tell you more about it. For now, can I say how excited I am about the fourth book?
This one will be different from the first three, and yet it will have:
The I-didn’t-know-it’s-this-easy and hey-I-can-make-this-on-weeknights! approachability of Simple Thai Food
The unwavering commitment to research and tradition of Bangkok
The nerdy, almost obsessive exploration of Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill
I’ll be in Thailand for a while to do additional research and get some photos for the book as well as to explore the current food scene of the city I have not visited in three years (I know—I’m shocked too). I’ll take you along to some of the shops and restaurants I love through the paid version of The Epestle, so if you’re not a premium subscriber, please consider becoming one. By subscribing, you literally make it possible for me to continue writing.
Before anything else, here’s my new Instagram account: @leela.punya. Please feel free to give me a follow if you’d like. I don’t create TikTok-style Reels—at least not currently. However, I post photos of the food I cook and eat, my travels, places I visit, and occasionally my dog whom I adore. You can follow me on Twitter for random thoughts, cooking and grocery-shopping tips, and occasional subtweets when necessary. Everything else will be on The Epestle, the newsletter you’re reading right now.
If you’ve been following my old Instagram account, you may or may not have noticed I suddenly went absent in December. I don’t know what happened. I logged into my account on a new phone around the holidays, then my account became disabled. Facebook—or Meta or whatever they’ve become—has never responded to the multiple help requests I’ve sent.
Interestingly, all of a sudden I found my Instagramless self with more free time.
What did I do? I started learning new languages on Duolingo. It really bothered me the last time I was in Austria a few years ago that I couldn’t communicate in German beyond hallo, danke, and tschüss even though I passed the German reading exam in graduate school.1 That was pathetic. I thought it was about darn time I rectified the situation.
You’d be surprised how much you could learn in 15 to 20 minutes a day in just a few weeks. I can now engage in simple conversations in German with relative ease. My French, which was on a plateau for years, has also been experiencing a significant growth spurt just from me reviewing what I already know on Duolingo and watching and rewatching French series on Netflix, like L’Agence (“The Parisian Agency” in English), Dix Pour Cent (“Call My Agent” in English), and Lupin. I’m also brushing up on my Latin and learning Italian and Japanese on Duolingo.
Duolingo is everything you want in a language software if you’re a visual learner like me.2 However, what you want and what you need are often different things, and you should have both.
I’m used to learning dead languages by reading grammar textbooks by 19th-century philologists. And Duolingo sort of follows that same philosophy, putting the emphasis on reading and translating. The only difference is that the app is modern, fun, and interactive and tries very hard not to overwhelm you with grammar, leaving terms like Reflexivpronomen or Plus-que-parfait du subjonctif out of the conversations. It, therefore, appeals to people like me. What I need, though, is to be moved, kicking and screaming, to the deep end of the pool. And that is to learn to actually speak. My mind perceives the act of speaking as a live, impromptu “performance,” which is something I absolutely dread.
This is where Pimsleur comes in.3
While Duolingo is fun to me, Pimsleur feels like 50% work, 25% torture, and 25% punishment because it makes me do things I naturally resist.
Pimsleur is great for training your ear to listen well, forming sentences in your head the way native speakers do in theirs, and fine-tuning your pronunciation. It’s hard not to be fluent when you have a voice in your earbuds constantly telling you to “say this,” “now say that—again,” “OK, this person asks you this, what do you say?,” and “say it again.” While Duolingo requires that you stare at your phone or desktop screen while being stationary, you can put Pimsleur on while you cook, water the plants, grill outside, drive, or walk your dog.
Both Duolingo and Pimsleur emphasize repetition, which will sometimes annoy the heck out of you, but it helps tremendously with retention.
Shoot, I digressed. Where was I? Right, Instagram…
So, anyway, as much as I’ve learned to detach from social media (Instagram, especially, as I don’t find Twitter to be much of a time suck), I still need to be present on these platforms to connect with my readers and to keep in touch with people with whom I’ve developed friendship online for over a decade—and a few other very practical things. So, here’s my new Instagram account again, in case you’re interested in my food and travel stories.
Remember my late-summer feature in last year’s August issue of Bon Appétit magazine? The recipes have since been published online, so I can now link to them.
Grilled Pork Shoulder Steaks with Green Pepper Relish: You can’t go wrong with grilled pork shoulder steaks; you just can’t. They’re so marbled that even if you overcook them, they won’t go dry on you like, say, a center-cut pork chop or a chicken breast. And the pepper relish? So delicious. You can play around with different green hot peppers, pairing hot ones with not-so-hot ones and even ones that aren’t hot at all, like banana peppers.
This is not a grilling recipe but I absolutely love Lime-Lemongrass Slushies, inspired by the beverage I always order every time I eat at one of my favorite restaurants in Bangkok, Taling Pling.
Khao Niao, a primer on Thai steamed sticky rice: Many people think they know what it is and how to cook it when they don’t. Trust me. I’ve been answering readers’ questions since 2008. Sticky rice-related questions are among the most frequently asked.
Cucumber-Tomato-Green Bean Salad: This dish is inspired by tam taeng, a member of the som tam family (green papaya isn’t the only thing used to make som tam!). It’s so easy to make. You don’t even need a mortar—or even a hand grater.
Cantaloupe with Spicy Bacon-Cashew Crumble: Sweet, juicy, salty, savory, and hot, this refreshing dish has it all. Cantaloupes work well; so do honeydew melons. But try Crenshaw melons and see if you like them as much as I do.
Grilled Scallops with Peach Sweet Chili Sauce: Nothing complicated. Just the best, freshest, most voluptuous scallops you can find, grilled until bouncy and smoky, then topped with the peach version of the well-loved Thai sweet chili sauce. Make the sauce in advance. Then when you’re ready to eat, grill the scallops. It takes just a few minutes.
And if you don’t feel like cooking the whole dinner spread, how about the grilled sticky rice with bananas from my Bangkok book? Matthew Zuras wrote about it for Epicurious here.
That’s all for now. I hope you’re enjoying your weekend. As always, thank you for subscribing!
Reading, recognizing, and translating research journal articles, mostly from the 19th century, in your head aren’t the same as listening and speaking to people in the flesh.
Duolingo has some listening and speaking exercises as well, so it teaches you more than how to read, but the emphasis is still on reading, translating, and writing. That said, I hate their aggressive gamification, though. You can easily become hyper-focused on getting and maintaining the #1 spot on the Leader Board that you go through the lessons more quickly just to get more XPs fast and then, as a result, retain less. I fell for that and learned from it.
In case you’re wondering, I don’t like Rosetta Stone, another prominent language-learning software. I don’t get it at all.