January brings its reckonings, of course, not least the disheartening news from Ann Coulter that Kwanzaa really began as a sinister, 1960s-era FBI plot to discredit the political left. Nobody, her theory goes, could possibly take seriously a group of people who wanted to celebrate their ancient heritage and culture by cooking special foods, singing old songs, decorating their houses, and exchanging gifts. That's why I'm sitting in front of a beautiful green papaya salad at the moment. I too have my days of reckoning, and I want them at least to taste good. Coulter may have debunked Kwanzaa, but she can't suck the sweetness out of my Tamarind.
Tamarind Asian Grill and Sushi Bar is a Thai/Japanese restaurant in Deerfield Beach. It's named for an African tree that, after years of lively trade, gave the world the ugly, sausage-shaped pod that forever changed the cuisines of Asia and South America. We also have the tamarind tree to thank for the Worcestershire sauce in our bloody marys. Tamarind the restaurant sometimes serves the fresh pods for dessert when they're in season. Tamarind is a strange fruit: To get at the good stuff, you break open the pod and scrape out the sweetish sour pulp, which you then either suck between your teeth, mush around to make tamarind water, or boil into a dark-brown syrup. It's one of the principal ingredients that makes Thai food taste like Thai food, although the folks at Tamarind Asian Grill, as I soon learn, won't tell you exactly what ingredients go into any dish even if you beg. It's always "a secret."
Anyway, there are 12 reasons I've come to Tamarind, and none of them has anything to do with Ann Coulter. They all have a lot to do with the scary, looming vision of radical surgery if I don't get my act together, remove the last of the Christmas cookies from my immediate vicinity, and start eating some vegetables. Here are the reasons, in no particular order:
(1) The papaya salad ($6.95). A salad to make you forget your gruesome obsession with a chocolate Venus. It's made with shredded green papaya, a fruit textured halfway between al dente pasta and zucchini, with a greeny, vegetal flavor all its own (nothing remotely like the sweeter ripe papaya.) The fruit is thoroughly coated with a dressing made of garlic, fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, cherry tomatoes, and very hot chilies, all mashed together with some chopped peanuts and tossed with a couple of cooked shrimp (Thais generally use dried shrimp, but in a concession to American tastes, the ones at Tamarind are fresh). A few halved cherry tomatoes, some green peas, and shreds of carrot and you've got a salad that is simultaneously cold, sour, sweet, crunchy, and delicate in ideal proportions. It's also hot enough, from all those chilies, to work as a kind of scourge. You are a hideous glutton. This is your punishment.
(2) The shape of our waitress. Like many Thai women, she is petite, deft, charming, polite, solicitous. She looks ridiculously trim and pulled together in her tailored black pants and red shirt, hair gracefully knotted. You know just by looking at her that it would never occur to her to sit down and devour a chocolate Venus of Willendorf all by herself.
(3) Thai hot and sour soup ($4.95, made from a "secret family recipe"). Who knows what the hell's in it? But as a detox and diuretic, I promise you, it's unsurpassed. I could detect the following ingredients: sliced boniato (sort of like a watery sweet potato, flavored vaguely like celery), cabbage, shrimp, tomato, bean sprouts of some sort, lemongrass, and hot green chilies in a broth so slurpable that you'll never miss the calories. Drink a bowl of this stuff daily and say lah gòrn ("so long!") to your plastic surgeon.
(4) Thai dumplings ($6.25). Another secret recipe from "ma-ma." Painstaking surgery reveals them to be filled with ground chicken breast mixed with minced shrimp, bound together with, I'm guessing, garlic and lime juice, and this stuffed into a paper-thin rice wrapper. Then the whole thing is steamed. They come with an enigmatic brown dipping sauce that may or may not contain tamarind. It tastes like it does, though.
(5) Thai fries ($6.50). A steaming mountain of sweet, starchy boniato strips dipped in coconut pulp, then deep-fried to a mouth-watering crunch. Divine when swiped through the candy-sweet peanut sauce that comes with them. Just kidding. You're totally not allowed to have these.
(6) Sea scallops "scampi" ($20.95). Very big, very fresh sea scallops swimming in a briny pool of piquant garlic sauce, amid a colorful school of fiber-rich vegetables: carrots, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, and snow peas. You can also have this dish with shrimp, if you prefer.
(7) "Atkin roll" ($10.95). Atkins, of course, is terribly passé among serial dieters. But the rolls at Tamarind named in his honor are a testament to the finer instincts of his famous regimen: You get to eat more raw fish than a killer whale, even while shedding tons of blubber. Consume without guilt the silky, fresh morsels of salmon, tuna, and hamachi, rolled up with some diced cucumber and masago in a lovely, sheer, rice-paper wrapper, dipped in the "special secret sauce" that your thin waitress brings you.
(8) Grilled quail eggs yakitori ($1.95 per skewer). Another dish old Atkins would have approved. The pretty little peeled quail eggs are threaded, interspersed with scallions, onto a wooden skewer and then grilled over an open flame. They come to the table tasting deliciously of smoke and a light brushing of soy sauce, and the grilled green onions are a delightful counterpoint to the tender eggs. Fish balls, grilled the same way, have the consistency of super balls just one serves as an excellent appetite suppressant. Astonishingly, when I went back a couple of days later for a second fix of the quail eggs, my thin waitress told me they no longer offer them. I have a feeling, though, that if you insisted, they'd figure out how to get you some.
(9) Kissing roll ($7.95). Made with brown rice. A "low on the glycemic scale" experiment that I'm sorry to report wasn't a great favorite at our table. It's a California roll with cream cheese, salmon, and cucumber on top a healthy idea, but the brown rice isn't vinegared, and its nutty flavor and coarse texture competes with the delicate fish. You can ask for any roll from the sushi bar with brown rice, but my guess is they get about two such orders a year. Better off going with fish wrapped in rice paper or cucumber. Live and learn.
(10) Almost anything from the grill. Choose chicken breast, fish, prawns, filet mignon, a whole snapper, or vegetables, priced from $10.95 for the veg to $22.95 for the snapper. The menu says it's all soaked overnight in a well-seasoned marinade and then grilled, but my vegetables betrayed no hint of marinade. The grilled eggplant, red pepper, whole onion, and mushrooms were improved by their fortunate association with a trio of salty, hot, and fatty sauces: Teriyaki, wasabi cream, and peanut. Most of the veggies were fine. But you only have to take a huge bite of uncooked onion once to learn the answer to this vexing question of etiquette: In a public place, when is it acceptable to spit a gooey wad of half-chewed raw onion back onto your plate? Answer: Every damned time.
Presumably, the grilled filet mignon or tilapia would have been a better choice.
(11) Sticky rice with coconut milk and black beans ($4.50). At last, your reward for all those healthy and slimming entrées! Figure you're running a caloric deficit at this point, so this gargantuan bowl of sweet white rice wetted down with coconut cream and studded with salty black beans better than the best nursery pudding ever invented will leave you still in the red, right?
(12) $66.44. That's the total on your bill, and it's 96 times less than the average price of liposuction.