I love this everyday stir-fry, with its Thai take on cauliflower and cucumbers, and the airy approach to the world-wide favorite flavor combination, sweet-and-sour. Cauliflower is a relatively new arrival on the Thai vegetable stage, new meaning fewer than two centuries. Like broccoli and carrots, which are widely available and grown in the Northern region, cauliflower came in with expanded European contact and found a home at once, appreciated for its crunch, great beauty, and willingness to assume and deliver intense flavors. No need for cheese sauce here, because Thai cooks would never boil it off to mushy exhaustion. Thai cooks see flowers, and treasure crunch, so they cut it up into ‘blossoms’ for quick cooking.
Cucumbers cooked? That startled me the first time I encountered it on my plate, or maybe in my bowl; my soup bowl, as another marvelous dish I remember is a clear soup starring cucumbers stuffed with minced seasoned pork, served right alongside rice and other dishes, not as a course or a meal.
Shocked I was, shocked I tell you! Cucumbers cannot be cooked! They are for salad, they are for crudites, people! Okay, they can be cooked but only briefly, in a brine, as part of transforming them into pickles which, though cooked and transformed from their raw state, end up still being salad, albeit a more sturdy, durable salad.
But there they were, breaking my Cucumbers/Salad rule, and they were fantastic. And I thought later of their Thai name, taeng kwa, identifying them properly as members of the melon family, which includes winter melon, a big white-fleshed sturdy vegetable which stars in elegant soups. This was the beginning of the end of my devotion to The Culinary Rules, at least as one immutable authoritative set. But I digress.
The sweet-and-sour here is really sweet-and-salty. (Briow is sour, wahn is sweet, and moo refers to pork, neau moo meaning meat of the pig.) The effect is delicate, bright, pleasing and subtle, nothing like the super sweet red pineapple-y sauce that can in the right time and place be fantastic, but is a restaurant-style Other Thing.
Like most homestyle Thai stir-fried dishes, this involves high but not uber-hot super-wok flames-shoot-up restaurant-style heat. Just a saute, a hot-enough-to-do-the-job, but reasonable for a home stove and home cook to do. No thickening, no cornstarch or arrowroot or anything else to create a glaze or a gravy. Traditionally, stir-fry in Thai cuisine creates a thin, flavorful pan sauce along the lines of pot-likker in Southern cooking here in the USA; mind you, in a very small amount, compared to the potful of vitamin-rich salt-kissed goodness that would be potlikker with greens. Again, I digress.
This dish makes for a fine one-dish meal with rice, or couscous, or quinoa, or rice noodles or egg noodles quick-sauteed with oil, garlic, and green onions. Or all by itself. Protein and vegetables, ready to go. For Thai cooks, this would be one of several central dishes for a rice-centered supper, along with a clear soup, a simple omelet, a nahm prik (super-flavorful salty-spicy-hot ‘dipping sauce’ with crudites) and Something Else, steamed fish with ginger? The meal being “A little of a lot of dishes to go with lots of rice”. Try this with chunks of chicken thighs, or thinly sliced chicken breast, or with strips of ham, or shirmp, or with beautiful shiitake mushrooms, whole caps or sliced, or pressed tofu. Too many wonderful ways to go to name them all.