As most of my trainers when I lived in Chiang Mai were from northern Issan, Sum Tum is a must, and since Pad Ka Prow was one of my favorites of my Thai trainers in Sydney, Australia, I feel I’m sharing a little bit of lineage with them. Most of them have never had Thai food before, so it’s also special to share this with them - Whitney Tobin, Muay Thai Champion & Thai Food Obsessive
The trainers are preparing dinner and I hear my name called from downstairs in the kitchen. I run down to see one of the head trainers Manasak at the table, making his spicy Som Tum with extra chilis. The smell of hot vegetable oil is filling the air, and my friend Lomanne is at the table, already finished checking her phone and saying “Whitney Come”. We grab enough plates and cutlery for all the trainers and for the young Thai fighters, and start distributing on the table. We head back into the kitchen to get the main dishes which everyone will grab from tonight. We are having one of my favorites Pad Ka Prow (or sweet basil stir fry with pork).
I snap out of my daydream – it’s actually 8:30am in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s been a year since I’ve lived as a full-time sponsored fighter. Being a professional fighter and practicing Muay Thai has been part of my identity for the last decade.
Now I’m working a steady 9-5 job, and after last competing in April I have started to teach Muay Thai twice a week with my husband, so that we don’t have to pay tuition fees at the gym that we use for space.
Teaching has never been natural for me, it requires an obscene amount of patience with others, which I lack greatly. Thailand’s national sport of Muay Thai has little recognition or knowledge in the United States, especially in New Mexico. So often I get quite frustrated with my surroundings. It has been an uphill battle since taking on the classes to try and re-teach and correct Muay Thai techniques. For years this group has won with a style that has seen them succeed locally. So trying to convince them that this style will stunt their growth internationally has been difficult. I can’t blame them, as they have yet to compete in other states with a stronger Muay Thai community.
I sit and think about this while I’m skinning the green papaya for the main ingredient in the Sum Tum Salad. Today we are putting on a developmental hard sparring day for some of the fighters with upcoming fights. It’s been about 4 months since we started taking over training and trying to incorporate traditional Muay Thai styles. Today is like a mock fight which won’t go on their records, but everything will be at 80% power and with the same round times that they will have for the fights, 3x2 minute rounds with a 1 minute break, and a corner man for each fighter to give advice. Due to fights being so few and far between, we are doing these once a month to keep them sharp, and replicating how often they should be fighting if they were in countries like Australia or Thailand.
As I make quick hacking cuts into the papaya with the chef’s knife and peel off the slivers with a carrot peeler, I think about how it wasn’t so long ago when one of my best friends took me on and had to completely re-teach me how to look at fighting, then pushed me to go on my first trip to Thailand to train full time.
Adding the papaya to the pestle along with halved cherry tomatoes, sliced carrots, chopped green beans, quartered limes and the dried shrimp paste, I start mashing it all together. I drift back to these days training in the gym where everything I was doing in sparring was wrong. I had to re-wire my brain and how I moved to reflect something closer resembling the Thai stadium fights shared with me. I had to be more present in order to learn how to be effective in my scoring when landing shots on my training partners.
Thinking about those times gives me hope for this group that eventually we can produce a few that are willing to dedicate themselves to evolving into something that’s bigger than their current surroundings.
I have Andrew (my husband) cut up the watermelon that we’ll serve on the side, and I start packing up all the cooking supplies for Pad Ka Prow I’ll make at the gym. Thankfully the head trainer has a rice cooker, as everything will have to be cooked with appliances. We get to the gym and the rice cooker is all set to go I put in 4 cups as there is 11 of us to cook for and leave it to cook as we start the Sparring Day.
We make the boys step on the scale so that we can match them was closely as possible to the same weight categories. After we make the matches the boys get their shin guards and elbow pads on, as they are still amateurs and the rule sets in America require them for insurance purposes – we train just as they will be fighting in the ring on the day.
Already from the start we see the improvements from the previous hard sparring day, including the use of new and effective techniques we’ve been showing in class. As the last fight starts, I have someone take my place as referee, and I get to work in kitchen to start on the Pad Ka Prow.
Using a plug-in skillet I heat the vegetable oil and start by browning the minced chicken. I already prepped the shallots, small red chilies and garlic, and throw them in. The strong smells lift to my nose and it brings a smile. It’s lucky being in New Mexico – as we’re so close to Mexico, we get fresh fruits for a lot longer during the year than the rest of the United States. There is an international market we use in town where I have to buy the papaya, Thai basil, Sum Tum seasoning mix and small red chilis. Even though I’ve seen quite a few Thai restaurants use jalapeños here in their recipes, for me it just isn’t the same. I pour in a few tablespoons of oyster sauce and fish sauce, and to even out the salty tastes I add in a few tablespoons of brown sugar. I give it a quick stir letting it simmer, I can hear the round timer signaling the end of the last round, so I know I need to hurry. I quickly rip up the Thai basil leaves and add them in, and watch as they wilt under the heat.
I grab one of the spectators and we start an assembly line, starting with adding cups of rice, then the Pad Kaprow, and finishing by adding the cut up watermelon and a serving of the Sum tum. I have her take the plates out first to the participants and then to the spectators. After the last person is served I create my own plate, excited to see how everything turned out. We sit down and eat on the steps by the ring, and go over the day by discussing what each person did well and what they need to improve on. I give them a little overview of what they are eating and what parts of Thailand it originates from. As most of my trainers when I lived in Chiang Mai were from northern Issan, Sum Tum is a must, and since Pad Ka Prow was one of my favorites of my Thai trainers in Sydney, Australia, I feel I’m sharing a little bit of lineage with them. Most of them have never had Thai food before, so it’s also special to share this with them.
I explain how being a fighter is not just training, it’s getting up early in the morning, running, showering and eating together. Additionally, usually the younger Thai boys will have to go to school afterwards and then come back for afternoon training – jump rope for a half an hour, then train and clinch, take another shower, eat, clean up and do their homework. Everyday life is like this, and it’s everyone’s part to help with cleaning the gym, taking turns cleaning dishes. I explain that normally though, it’s the wife or girlfriends of the trainers (“gym moms”) that will do the cooking, so that the boys can eat quickly after their showers.
By sharing food with our fighters, I hope to open their eyes to another part of Muay Thai – that it’s not something that is one dimensional, and although seen as individual sport it is in fact created around a community. Muay Thai is not a 3 practice a week and have games on the weekend kind of recreational hobby, it’s a way of life. A way to escape drugs and poverty in some parts of Thailand. They are starting to see some of the highlights of the top Thai fighters, and I have to remind them that is only the top 5%, and that there are so many levels to the fighters in Thailand. From the accredited and legendary stadiums as Rajadamnerm, Lumpinee and Omnoi, to the faster-paced Channel 7 fights and the tourist shows such as Max Muay Thai (as a side note – Max Muay Thai profits by putting on daily shows that bus in Chinese tourists, and keep the rounds shorter to keep things faster and more action-packed for the foreigners who don’t understand classical Muay Thai).
We finish eating and start to clean up. I can only hope that all this new knowledge will start to resonate with them as they continue their training.
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