Culinary Keepsakes: The spice of life

World traveler brings faraway flavors to his Hilton Head kitchen

jpaprocki@islandpacket.comNovember 16, 2011 

  • Kaeng Phet Het (Red Curry of Mushrooms)

    Makes: 3-4 servings

    1/2 cup sweet basil leaves

    1/2 pound fresh mushrooms

    1 tablespoon red curry paste

    1/2 tablespoon sugar

    3 tablespoons fish sauce

    1 teaspoon chopped kaffir lime leaf

    1 sliced whole medium red or green chili

    1 1/2 cups coconut milk

    1/2 cup water (or chicken stock)

    Put half of the coconut milk in a wok over medium heat. Add the red curry paste and stir until thoroughly mixed.

    Add the remaining coconut milk, chicken stock, mushrooms, fish sauce, sugar, kaffir lime leaves, chili and basil. Do not overcook mushrooms.

    Source:

Rolf Zenker doesn't travel like he used to. He figures he's visited 40 countries, and he has the passports to prove it. His work as an engineer put him on the road or in the air almost constantly at some points in his life. He doesn't mind staying grounded in retirement. It's the food he misses.

You just can't find Kaeng Phet Het here like you do in Thailand.

It's been his goal to bring a little bit of southeast Asia to his kitchen. For Zenker, that means starting from scratch.

He came to Hilton Head Island with his wife about 17 years ago. He wasn't a golfer, but was enthralled with the wildlife. He could go fishing, oystering, shrimping and find the freshest ingredients for his seafood dishes.

He built his house in Hilton Head Plantation with a walled-in space specifically for a garden. There, he grows limes and oranges, rose bushes, peppers and loquats, a Japanese plum from which he makes a jam that tastes like a sweet, jellied apple sauce. Lemon grass is in the front yard; just crack a leaf for a bitter lemon aroma.

"If you grow your own ingredients, your meal is fresh, it's potent," he said.

Zenker grew up in a small German town of 2,800. He became an engineer, eventually working on diesel locomotives and aircraft engines. For a time, he was on the road more than 200 days a year. He went from the heat of Iraq to the cold of Norway. But he became attracted to the spicy sweetness of the best dishes in India, Bangladesh and Thailand.

He didn't hesitate to try the streetside vendors. Once, a friend told him about a good place to get barbecue. It was in a cart on the front of a vendor's bicycle. Zenker took a bite. It tasted funny. What was it? Goat testicles. He ate it anyway -- all part of the adventure.

Once he got time in retirement, he investigated Thai and Indian food more. He analyzed cookbooks for the right recipes. He'll spend hours making something like Indian Goan Beef Vindaloo.

"Everything good takes time," he said.

He has his specialties, recipes culled and tweaked from cookbooks. His wife, whose father ran a culinary school, specializes in Chinese dishes and everything else. (Funny enough, he doesn't cook German food. "Too heavy," he said.)

Zenker cooks frequently for guests. Longtime friend Al Stokes (also known as the manager of the Waddell Mariculture Center) has a taste for Thai and Indian food -- the real kind, not an Americanized version like found in most restaurants stateside. Dishes like Kaeng Phet Het, or Thai Red Curry, starts sweet then evolves into a spicy kick. The Indian-inspired vindaloo will sneak up on you, he warns, the chilies settling in for a burn. But don't shy away from the heat.

"It's not good unless you're crying," he said.

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