By Lindsay Sterling
I assumed only the uber-wealthy, the ones with oceanfront mansions, three brand new luxury cars, and live-in housekeepers, were the people to donate entire libraries to towns. That was until Panee Muncharoen, a single mom living in a modest inland home, taught me how to make pad Thai and incidentally, that real wealth doesn’t have anything to do with having granite countertops.
I arrived at her house, surprised to find that she had turned our one-on-one cooking lesson into a post workout feast for her cardio-tennis team, as well as a birthday party for their instructor. She already had the team packed shoulder to shoulder in her tiny kitchen assembling spring rolls. “You don’t use a cutting board?” I asked. She was chopping garlic with a cleaver right on the Formica. She explained she’d given the cutting boards to the spring roll team, and then joked, “Anyway, an excuse for new kitchen.” After we’d finished making the Pad Thai (recipe below), as we were finding our places at the table, she brought out chicken curry, rice, and shrimp stir fry, which she’d somehow cooked in the three minutes it took me to find my seat. “I never do one thing,” she said.
At the end of our meal, after proudly reading a passage out of her son’s memoir, A Chant to Sooth Wild Elephants (about discovering his identity in the Thai village where she is from), she showed me a picture of the new library she donated to the village three years ago. Astonished, I humbly asked her how she managed to do that. She said she had worked for twenty years here as a nurse. Then she pointed toward her heart, “It is what I wanted to do.” And with the American dollar going farther in Thailand than most of us can imagine, she could. Before we parted, she spelled her name for me, followed casually with, “In Thai, it means wealthy in heart.”