In college I had a pretty rough sophomore year. So I responded to the onslaught of emotional, climactic, academic, and existential crises it presented in what was obviously the only logical manner: I took a leave of absence, flew to Chile, and spent three months camping out (literally) in Patagonia.
Despite the many ironies in this series of events, I learned several important things over the course of a NOLS semester from a group of talented instructors, the greatest of which was an array of cooking and baking and eating skills: I learned to improvise dishes out of nothing, bake bread on a campstove, and strategically use chocolate and cheese to stay warm at night.
One of the staples of NOLS cuisine is a pasta dish called Gado Gado. This was actually a dish I knew pre-NOLS (I think it’s a staple of the American backpacking community in general), and for as long as I could remember, it was vaguely described as Thai.
This is where a clarification is in order, because as I craved this backcountry staple and began to Google around for the recipe the other day, I realized that – at least according to Wikipedia and the first page of results from a Google Scholar search – Gado Gado is a) Indonesian and b) not served with noodles of any kind, but with blanched vegetables and crackers or rice.
I didn’t know what to do with this information, except to make the dish as I knew it and ponder, as I salted my pasta water and sliced my onions, what sort of journey this beleaguered sauce must have made from vegetables in Java to noodles somewhere in the American Rockies via an imaginary stop in Thailand. While the NOLS cookbook never says Thai anywhere, plenty of websites that list the recipe as a NOLS classic (including several blog entries on NOLS websites) do label it as a Thai dish.
This little curiosity is hardly the stuff of legend, and I suppose the simple answer to the riddle is that most Americans’ exposure to Southeast Asian food is via Thai restaurants, and so a “Southeast Asian” sauce became conflated with Thai at some point, and the community of practice that is the group of mostly-very-privileged Americans tromping around the woods Leaving No Trace simply willed the New Gado Gado into being (and as a sometime leader of backpackers I played my own role in that story, too). Someday I will eat Gado Gado in Indonesia, but until that day comes, I’ll just have to be satisfied with this, and so, dear reader, will you.
Gado Gado Nouveau
This is significantly altered from the original NOLS cookery version, because that one is designed to be cooked in the wilderness from a few sparse dry ingredients and this one is designed with ingredients from my local Stop N Shop which (as you may remember) happens to include an entire aisle of delicious Thai things. But the basis, the deep soul of the sauce, which makes the whole thing worth making and eating even if it is a disgrace to Authenticity – equal parts vinegar, soy sauce, and peanut butter – is unchanged.
You will need:
1/2 pound of pasta (I like rigatoni for this particular one)
1 onion, sliced thinly
4 cloves garlic, sliced even thin-lier
1 inch ginger, peeled and grated
Teaspoon minced lemongrass
Teaspoon spicy Thai curry paste (or any hot sauce – North African harissa, Tabasco, whatever you’ve got)
3 tablespoons of soy sauce
3 tablespoons of vinegar (I used red wine vinegar or as it is called here red grape vinegar but most any kind will do)
1/2 cup of chopped or blanched almonds
A few leaves of fresh basil and/or a dash of dried basil
A small handful of chopped cilantro
1/2 teaspoon each of powdered ginger, salt, pepper, and cumin
1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons of brown sugar
And I added a dash of pomegranate molasses because why not? but this is not absolutely essential to the recipe.
3 tablespoons of peanut butter (of course) and
Water to taste, to dilute the sauce a bit
Cook the pasta according to instructions.
Saute the onions in butter and olive oil for a few minutes, then add the garlic, ginger, lemongrass, and curry paste and cook on medium low till the onions are soft and translucent.
Add the soy sauce, vinegar, almonds, basil, cilantro, ginger, salt, pepper, cumin, pomegranate molasses if you’re into that, cayenne pepper and brown sugar and stir well. Finally, add in the peanut butter (in small dollops) and mix everything together so that it’s evenly blended. You may want to add a little extra oil at this point, and perhaps some water, depending on how thin you prefer your sauce.
Stir until everything is melted together and well-heated; don’t let it burn because that would be sadder than a wet sleeping bag!
Toss with the pasta till it’s well-coated, sprinkle some fresh cilantro and basil on top, and enjoy. It’s even better the next day.