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Owners of Randolph’s Saap Restaurant Travel for Provisions

  • Steve Morgan, left, looks at food picked out by Nisachon “Rung” Morgan during a shopping trip for their Thai restaurant at Bayon Market in Lowell, Mass., on Jan. 28, 2018. The two own Saap Restaurant in Randolph, Vt., and frequently go to the Boston metropolitan area to hand pick the ingredients used in their dishes. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Steve Morgan, co-owner of Saap Restaurant in Randolph, Vt., unpacks a box of groceries while shopping at Food-Pak Express in Roxbury, Mass., on Jan. 28, 2018. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Nisachon “Rung” Morgan watches the cashier sort through the groceries while checking out at Bayon Market in Lowell, Mass., on Jan. 28, 2018. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Nisachon “Rung” Morgan walks out of the freezer section at Restaurant Depot in Everett, Mass., on Jan. 28, 2018. Morgan was born and raised in the Isan region of Thailand and applies her knowledge of her native cuisine to dishes at Saap Restaurant in Randolph, Vt. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Steve Morgan, left, carries a box full of groceries towards the car as Nisachon “Rung” Morgan works to make more room after shopping for their restaurant at Restaurant Depot in Everett, Mass., on Jan. 28, 2018. During the routine shopping trip the two made three stops to restaurants in the Boston metropolitan area, filling the SUV to the roof with groceries. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Anthony Ahrens, left, looks at a customer while selling crabs out of the back of a truck as Nisachon “Rung” Morgan, of Randolph, Vt., leaves with a bag of live crabs outside of Bayon Market in Lowell, Mass., on Jan. 28, 2018. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Upon entering Food-Pak Express, a sprawling wholesale food supplier in Roxbury, Mass., that specializes in East and Southeast Asian ingredients, the husband-and-wife team of Steve and Nisachon “Rung” Morgan divided and conquered.

The owners of the Thai restaurant Saap had come all the way down from Randolph for this shopping trip, and Food-Pak was the first of three major hauls they’d make that day.

Time, in other words, was of the essence.

He went off to gather napkins and other basics for the restaurant, while she hunted for vegetables, herbs and sauces. Commanding an industrial yellow “U-Boat” — a six-wheeled, two-level steel cart measuring around five feet both in height and length — Rung made a beeline for the refrigerated vegetable section, passing through an aromatic cloud of lemongrass and basil, where she would hand-select ingredients that are virtually impossible to find in the Upper Valley, let alone on most Thai menus in the United States.

In Food-Pak’s refrigerated section, the air was cold enough to make breath visible, and Rung worked fast. She rummaged through boxes of Chinese cabbage, bean sprouts, Thai celery, cilantro, mint, green papaya and Thai eggplant — which is smaller and rounder than the kinds typically grown in American soil, and is named for its resemblance to real eggs — and scallops, periodically stopping to scoop out ice in the boxes that had been frozen, to minimize leakage on the ride back home to Randolph.

Poking through a crate of cucumbers, she wrinkled her nose.

“Looks old,” she said, holding one up to show its soft spots. “Feels old.” Later on at their second stop, Restaurant Depot, in Everett, she’d find a more satisfactory selection. She heaved the U-boat out of the cold, her small body maneuvering the cart around tight corners with well-practiced precision, and loaded it further with daikon, lotus root, galangal and chilies before meeting back up with Steve.

While Saap, which the couple opened in 2015, does offer some familiar dishes — fried egg rolls and pad Thai, for example, though the latter comes wrapped inside an omelet — much of its menu reflects the cuisine of Rung Morgan’s native Isan, the vast northeastern region of Thailand that shares many of its flavors with those of neighboring Laos and Cambodia.

“We risk scaring people away,” Steve Morgan said in a phone call earlier this winter. It’s a risk that’s paid off, though: Yankee Magazine recognized Saap as the best Thai restaurant in Vermont last spring, praising the food as “intense, flavor-forward, and often spiced with enough chilies to set most American palates aflame.”

But to offer these unfamiliar dishes, the Morgans must cast a wide net to gather their ingredients. Rather than ordering them for delivery, or purchasing them from nearby farms or markets, they regularly make what Steve Morgan described as “pilgrimages” down to the Boston metropolitan area, where strong immigrant communities have given rise to specialty markets at which the Morgans can hand-select items you never knew you didn’t know.

It’s fairly new to Steve, too. The seeds of Saap first sprouted in 2009, when he and his son, Connor Morgan, visited Rung in Thailand. She and Steve had come to know each other through the dating website Match.com, even though Rung never had an international profile — Steve had initially connected with a friend Rung was living with at the time.

Her friend thought that Rung, who worked for years in a successful Bangkok restaurant, would be a better match for the accomplished French-trained chef. As for Steve, he was fascinated with Eastern philosophy and, after getting to know Rung, with Thai food culture. It was a match.

Steve has made a point of learning as much as possible about Isan food and by now, the Morgans have their shopping routine down to a science. But that doesn’t mean they can’t have fun with it.

“Want to see something that’ll blow your hair back?” Steve asked, grinning mischievously. He pointed toward an aisle that had several shelves dedicated to 100-pound cans of MSG, or monosodium glutamate, a type of sodium that some restaurants use to enhance the flavor of savory foods (Saap does not).

“A little can be OK,” said Rung. “Too much makes me feel like this.” She mussed her hair and vigorously patted herself up and down, simulating the discomfort that’s widely associated with MSG over-consumption.

Together, Steve and Rung Morgan selected a few more items — tamarind, soft wet palm sugar, a type of spicy dipping sauce that Rung’s 14-year-old daughter loves — and brainstormed if there was anything else they needed. As they talked, Steve crossed off items on the multi-page spreadsheet that served as his shopping list.

“(Rung) doesn’t write things down,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “She has it all in her head.” Minutes earlier, he briefly thought he’d lost his list before finding it on the top shelf of his U-boat. Once, he left his glasses at one of the markets, and had to drive all the way home without them.

Part of the reason Rung doesn’t need to bother with lists is because many of Saap’s dishes are based on recipes that have been passed down in her family for generations; they’re in her head, and also in her blood. And so Rung’s conception of “authentic” Thai food differs from that of many American diners, who may mistakenly think of Thai cuisine — and by extension, Thai culture — as monolithic.

“And I get that,” said Steve in a phone call earlier this winter. “When people come to this country and open a restaurant, it’s to make a living,” and making a living means catering to American diners who tend to avoid anything too spicy, anything too “weird.”

Liver, for example, is common in Isan dishes. It’s also one of the ingredients Americans tend to shy away from, at least when it appears on Asian menus. Steve noted that, considering how many people claim to believe in using the whole animal, there’s some “cognitive dissonance” at play in this wariness.

During the phone call earlier this winter, he’d said, “I don’t want to say the word ‘racist.’ ” But he pointed out that often, people’s cultural biases can play an inordinate role in determining their attitudes toward a particular dish or ingredient. Those who covet foie gras as a posh and Instagrammable delicacy might also turn up their noses at “someone’s grandma making some broth with liver in the kitchen,” he said. “But (East Asian people) have been cooking with livers thousands of years before France,” he said.

Just because it comes on a crisp white tablecloth, he said, “doesn’t mean it’s greater culinarily.”

He named some of the hardest-to-find items that the Morgans picked up that day: blue-legged freshwater prawns, wild pepper leaf, chicken feet, whole fish, Thai eggplant, fresh kaffir lime leaf, long beans (like green beans but, as the name suggests, longer) and pomelo, a large, thick-skinned citrus fruit that goes well in a salad with peanuts, onion, palm sugar, chili, ground pork and fish sauce.

They purchased most of these more “eclectic” items at Bayon Market, an Asian grocery store in Lowell, Mass., just down the street from the Laotian restaurant, Zabb Elee — and also from Red Rose, the Cambodian restaurant where the Morgans typically go for breakfast on their market days.

Like Isan, Lowell bears a strong Cambodian influence, though the reasons for this cultural enclave are tragic. After the Cambodian genocide, carried out in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge — which resulted in the deaths of roughly one-quarter of the country’s population, either by murder, starvation or disease — a handful of survivors found refuge in the city.

Lowell now has one of the largest Cambodian-American populations in the country, which has given rise to the markets from which Saap now sources its flavors.

The Morgans hope that offering these flavors not only exposes Western diners to new experiences, but also undoes stereotypes about Thai cuisine, which tend to focus on central Thai food. These dishes have been influenced by the influx of Chinese laborers who helped build Bangkok, several generations ago, and has come to rely heavily on jasmine rice.

But like anywhere else, “ ‘authentic’ Thai … changes from town to town, and from family to family,” Steve Morgan said.

For example, though Rung’s family grew jasmine rice for export, she herself didn’t try the grain until she was 14 years old. Instead, she was raised on sticky rice — a staple in Laotian cuisine that’s traditionally steamed in a special woven basket. At dinner at the end of the day, at an Isan and Laotian restaurant in Lowell owned by a friend of theirs, Rung demonstrated how she grew up eating the glutinous rice.

“You go like this,” she said. She picked up a chunk of sticky rice with her fingers, flattened it a little, and used it to scoop up a bite of her main dish.

“It fills you up,” she explained, far more than jasmine rice does, and it’s more nutritionally dense.

All in all, the Morgans bought three carts’ and nearly $1,400 worth of items at Food-Pak, only a fraction of which seemed like it would fit in their car. They managed to pack it all in — eventually.

“It’s like Tetris,” Steve Morgan joked, as he and Rung loaded the car. The first few trips they made together, “there was a lot of back and forth” about what to fit where. Over time, they learned how to maximize every last inch of space.

“You got some room up there?” Steve called to Rung. She nodded, and he tossed her a bag of Thai eggplants, which she caught one-handed.

“Want to know the real nightmare?” he said. “We’ve still got more places to go.”

Pla dook foo

Steve Morgan writes: “A recipe for a green mango salad, originally made with catfish. We do the same, but add poached shrimp instead of the catfish.”

Ingredients

1 mango, unripened

12 medium shrimp, cleaned and deveined

3 tablespoon red shallots, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon coriander/cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon green onion, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons peanuts, toasted and finely chopped

4 Thai hot chilies

1 sprig spearmint

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons fish sauce

2 tablespoons sugar

Steps

Toast the nuts in a frying pan. Allow them to cool, then chop them.

Boil the cleaned shrimp for one minute, then cool them in cold water.

Prepare the dressing by whisking the sugar, lime juice and fish sauce together. Let stand for 15 minutes.

Peel and shred the green mango. Chop and slice the shallots, cilantro and green onion.

Add hot chili to the dressing, as desired.

Toss everything together, then add the dressing and toss up well. Serve with steamed rice, other foods or alone as a simple meal.

Recipe from Steve and Rung Morgan.

To learn more about Saap, visit saaprestaurant.com.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.