Heartland Cooking, With Fish Sauce

Cooking instructor Supatra Johnson connects the dots from southeast Asian farmers to you

Supatra Johnson

Golden Lion Supermarket
8620 Edinburgh Centre Drive
Brooklyn Park

Now, I know a fair amount about vegetables. I know my collards from my kale from my chard. Celery, celeriac, celery seed: I thumb my nose at their deceptive naming and remain secure in my knowledge of exactly which holds ants-on-a-log as destiny. In fact, I don't even consider it bragging when I tell you that I can, at 20 paces, tell a rutabaga from a crocodile valise.

Farm fresh: Supatra Johnson unlocks the mysteries of the farmers' market
Diana Watters
Farm fresh: Supatra Johnson unlocks the mysteries of the farmers' market

Yet, even with such vegetable skills, lately, at the Minneapolis Farmers' Market, I'm stunned speechless more than I care to admit. There I am trundling along, happy as a potato weevil in Coeur d'Alene, my arms weighed down with bags of corn and carrots, and then there they are, mocking me: two dozen types of greens, arranged in a green-on-green rainbow, comprising the lower tier of some Southeast Asian farmer's stand. Greens with tendrils. Greens with flowers. Greens with silky leaves, with stubby spines, with hollow stems. Greens of every possible description, even greens that are more purple than not.

Obviously, these things, these green things, are desirable: Other Southeast Asians come along, grab them excitedly, shake them, and set to bargaining. But, whenever I ask what they could be...nothing. I ask what this bundle was, or that, and come smack into a language barrier, a cultural barrier, or both. "What is it?" I ask. "It's Chinese." "It's called Thai herb." "It has no name." "It's very good." Or, worst of all, the vague shrug, followed by a slow drift away from the pesky girl who can't be helped.

After a while, I began to feel like I might as well have been asking what love is. Why, it's Chinese. It's very good...listen, kid, basically, if you have to ask, you'll never know.

Obviously, this could not stand. So I rang up Supatra Johnson, a local Thai cooking instructor and cookbook author, and got her to give me a personal tour of the Minneapolis Farmers' Market, with an eye toward equipping me to convey to you all what the heck those vegetables are. Thus began one of those journeys that doesn't go where you think it's gonna go, but goes somewhere good nonetheless.

Supatra Johnson is one of those tiny, forceful, endlessly hardworking women that Southeast Asia, and now Minnesota, is blessed with. She grew up in rural northeast Thailand, in that section of the country that's across the Mekong River from Laos. As a child she worked in her parents' grocery store, vegetable garden, and gas station, and then, as a teenager, moved to Bangkok to work in a restaurant that served the food of Isaan, which is what the food, people, and culture from that northeast section of Thailand are called.

Fifteen years ago she moved to Minnesota, with nary a recipe to connect her to her childhood. "I used to call my mom: 'Oh, I'm so hungry for your food!' So she would write down a recipe and send it to me," Supatra told me. "But when I moved here, it was very hard to find any ingredients! When I was growing up we would go the market three times a day; fresh vegetables are that important to Thai cooking. It was hard. Now, though, there are very good markets, all over Minnesota."

More on that in a minute. For now, please know that over the years, over the internet, through travel, experimentation, and other heroic efforts, Supatra learned English, learned to drive, got all of her favorite recipes written down, and became a popular Thai cooking instructor. She teaches classes in about a dozen locations around the Twin Cities now, in community ed, at fancy cooking schools, and at Whole Foods. This fall she's even going to be taking over the St. Paul Sawatdee for her friend, Sawatdee owner Su Penn Harrison, where she hopes to add more Thai Isaan dishes. Her website is fairly remarkable too: At www.supatra.com, you'll find recipes, a picture dictionary of Asian vegetables, advice on local markets, and information on her upcoming cooking classes.

Anyhoo, what brought Supatra to my attention was her notable self-published cookbook, Crying Tiger: Thai Recipes from the Heart ($14.95). I have seen a lot of Thai, Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian cookbooks in my day, but what's amazing about Crying Tiger is that it is made exactly, precisely, and specifically for Minnesotans. It knows what we don't know (like, say, the difference between black soy sauce, soy sauce, light soy sauce, and soyabean sauce); it tells us exactly where to get what we need (Golden Lion Supermarket in Brooklyn Park, where they also sell the book) and it distills the cuisine of the exact people who live here: refugees from the Southeast Asian diaspora and people who, in their cooking, prize thrift, fresh herbs and vegetables, and simplicity of preparation.

That morning, though, it quickly became clear that going through the farmers' market with Supatra was going to be like helping David Hockney paint the garage--things would be learned, yes, but it was at best an imperfect way of passing on a lifetime's knowledge.

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