Mr. Singh came to Gat Luang's Namdhari Sikh gurdwara from Bangkok and, before that, Punjab. For six years he's been priest and cook at this eighty-year-old center of Namdhari worship in the Gat Luang neighborhood.
When we first visited the gurdwara's kitchen last February, as part of our project to document daily life in this historic neighborhood Mr. Singh was back home in India, and the institution's weekly Friday dinner was prepared instead by a trio of female members. It was good, but there was something about the way our host at the temple spoke of Mr. Singh that made us want to revisit and see him in action.
His kitchen is spotless. Walking into the gurdwara on a Friday afternoon, we're encloaked in an intense fugue of spices. I expect to encounter a corresponding tumult in the kitchen. Not so. Stainless steel gleams and light bounces off pristine white tiles. On the stove, big pots and a huge wok are arranged in a neat row, each perfectly centered on its burner. Prepared fresh ingredients sit in little bowls arranged tidily on a corner of the counter.
Mr. Singh works alone in the hot space preparing a five-dish meal for sixty, yet his kurta and pajami -- white, as Namdhari tradition dictates -- show no trace of perspiration, no splotches of stray curry.
He moves slowly, gracefully on bare feet, floating from burner to burner, between sink and refrigerator. He doesn't rush but everything gets done. When we arrive Mr. Singh is dicing his homemade paneer, holding a hunk of cheese in one hand and cutting it into cubes with a serious looking curved blade held in the other. The rest of the cheese sits on the counter, beautifully swaddled in a gauzy white scarf as if it had been styled for a photograph.
When he's finished dicing the paneer Mr. Singh deep-fries a few cubes, dusts them with garam masala, and offers us a taste. It's the best I've eaten. Made with milk taken that morning from cows at Chiang Mai University it's buttery and clean, without the rubbery texture that often plagues commercially made paneer. Then he offers hot samosa stuffed with curried potatoes, to dip into tangy tamarind sauce. And there is kheer, more of that creamy milk, lightly sweetened ("For us Indians it would be made sweeter," our host tells us.), laced with cardamom and floating vermicelli and a few tapioca pearls, served hot in metal bowls.
When we arrived Mr. Singh, with his heavy brows, full beard and lush moutache seemed remote and unapproachable, even a bit fierce. But as we praise his food his eyebrows shoot up and his face crinkles into a smile. He is proud of his skill in the kitchen. "You must return tonight for dinner," he says, and we will.
On the counter by the sink in the kitchen are a stainless steel pitcher of cool water and a bowl of amla -- Indian gooseberries -- a seasonal delicacy eaten with spicy dips by northern Thais. At first bite the hard, pitted fruit has no flavor, and then it's sour and bitter, with an astringent finish that sucks all moisture from the mouth.
When you eat this strange fruit water drunk afterwards tastes shockingly sweet. Mr. Singh likes to make amla into a chutney. "Next time you come," he smiles.
A Punjabi saying:
Amle Da Khada
Shyane Da Keha Bad
Vich Acha Lagdahaey
(Roughly translated for me, by our host at the gurdwara:
Just as the gooseberry has little flavor but makes water taste sweet afterwards, so you do not believe when an elder speaks to you, but learn later in life.)