Come winter, I can’t help but think that whatever cosmic force brought Chicago’s Southeast Asians to this hemisphere had a dark sense of humor. In the summer, they’re the ones laughing: on the hottest day of August, a balmy 105, I staggered down the street, breathless, rounding the corner at Pho Lily to find them lounging on the patio in full sun, sipping their 10 oz Heinekens on ice, glancing at me with a smirk. But nothing could have prepared them for these inscrutable winters: a temperate January followed by a century’s blizzard in February, and a false spring in March, punishment and relief arriving in rhythmless waves. The staff at Tank Noodle can’t take it, closing each year for over a month to pursue warmer climates. Most, however, survive the winter simply by pretending it’s summer, immersing themselves in a seasonless indoor paradise of bamboo, palm trees, and tropical fruit. On the tables are the same plates of barbecued pork, papaya salad, cold noodles, and pickled cucumbers we devoured all summer. Seasonal cooking is great, but there’s something equally charming about cooking against the season. In the depths of January, I embrace the charade.
Ordering from the so-called secret menu at Spoon Thai, I stumbled upon kung chae nam pla, a refreshing preparation of uncooked shrimp dressed with garlic, chilis, lime juice, and fish sauce, the constant condiment known as nuoc mam in Vietnamese or nam pla in Thai, used instead of salt to season. In an instant, I was back on the lake, sweating, with the taste of summer on my tongue. Outside, there may be snow on the ground, but in the made-up world of the kitchen, even the farthest corners of the globe are within reach.
Kung chae nam pla
12 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
5 limes, juiced
2 tsps fish sauce*
4 cloves garlic
Crushed red chilis, to taste
Peel and devein the shrimp, rinsing them as you do and patting them dry with paper towels. With a mortar and pestle, prepare a paste of the garlic, chilis, and fish sauce, and then add the lime juice, whisking it all together into a smooth sauce. Place the shrimp into a bowl, pour the dressing over them, and leave to marinate for at least 10 minutes, until the shrimp have turned an opaque, pale orange. Serve immediately.
*I prefer the Thai brand Golden Boy, for its haunting label and all-natural ingredients.