Although I’m not a vegetarian, I seem to have acquired over the years a number of vegetarian cookbooks. It seems to me that vegetarian cooking has gone mainstream—if you check the new vegetarian cookbooks offered by your bookstores and libraries, you will happily discover new and exciting recipes, such to tempt any palate (carnivore or otherwise).
And, since most of us in the health-conscious new millennia are concerned about calories, cholesterol and fat grams, it’s well worth our time to take a second look at vegetarian cookery.
Such a discovery is THE VEGETARIAN TABLE: THAILAND by Jacki Passmore, published by Chronicle Books in 1997.
Jacki Passmore has written more than 25 internationally-renowned Asian cookbooks, including the award-winning ASIA: THE BEAUTIFUL COOKBOOK. She is also the author of FIRE AND SPICE. Passmore lived and worked in Asia for more than 12 years as a food writer, teacher, and researcher, and is a frequent speaker on Asian and New World food in history and the new direction of Asian foods.
In Thailand,” explain the publishers, “the preparation of food is considered a true form of art, resulting in dishes with unforgettable taste and stunning visual appeal. Gleaming white mountains of rice or glasslike noodles are presented in exquisite bowls: they are strewn with fresh vegetables. Cooked to the perfect degree of tenderness, and never more–and the whole is graced with just the complement of herbs or spices. The tantalizing fragrances of a Thai meal can bring diners to a state of near gastronomic nirvana before they even taste the feast laid before them….”
However, we learn, the people of Thailand bring a philosophical sense to the kitchen as well. Thailand has a long-standing vegetarian tradition, influenced by the Buddhist beliefs that have held sway there for centuries.
In the introduction, Ms. Passmore continues with the explanation that vegetarianism is an ancient tradition in Thailand. “Where saffron robes and Buddhist temples color the landscape and the people enjoy a varied diet of delicious dishes based on legumes and soybean products, and native and introduced vegetables. They gather spinach-like water vegetables from the banks of their klongs (waterways) and paddies (flooded rice fields), and edible leaves like the betel (bai champluu). They grow the unique, frilly, ribbed winged bean and yard-long green beans. They cultivate a plethora of eggplants, some as tiny as peas, and the Chinese cabbages of many varieties. They plant corn and potatoes, pumpkins and melons, and have a native supply of edible fungus, bamboo, lotus and water chestnuts from their mountains and wetlands…”
The author tells us that she relishes the pungent, herbaceous flavors that are unique to Thai cooking and in presenting this cookbook to us she tried to achieve a compromise between Thai tradition and lifestyles beyond their borders. She asserts that Thai cooking is easy and you don’t need to go out and buy any special equipment although she does praise the practicality of the Chinese Wok and the perfect pan for deep frying (personally, I’d be lost without my two woks – one electric and the other top-of-the-stove).
Ms. Passmoe also says that approaching a new cuisine is always easier if you have an understanding of the cooking procedures and the basic principles of seasoning. She says that equally important is a knowledge of how the food is served, and that “Thai food, even the most humble meal, can be a flamboyant display of artistry, color, and flavor. The first impression is of the table. In restaurants and homes, food is served with ornately worked silver spoons from gleaming silver tureens onto decorative blue-and-white porcelain. Even if the silver is merely aluminum, it is highly polished, rendering it as impressive as the real thing. Serving dishes are raised on pedestals, so they grace the table with distinction.
As for the food, in Thailand, writes the author, every dish is presented for maximum visual appeal. Rice and noodles are mounded high in a bowl, and dishes are lavish with fresh herbs, draped with delicate shreds of golden egg crepe, or crowned with a tangle of finely shredded red chili or scallion greens. Vegetables and fruit are never just sliced, but carved elaborately to decorate platters to serve with dips or to finish the meal. Desserts and sweet snacks are brightly colored with edible food dyes.
Ms. Passmore leads us gently into Thai cuisine, providing a list of “essentials”, vegetarian alternatives, notes on preparation and cooking methods, recipes for making the special sauces and relishes which are so much a part of Thai cookery, a comprehensive glossary and—oh yes, –recipes with mouth-watering photographs. I wish you could all just see the photograph that accompanies pumpkin and coconut cream soup, or that of salad rolls in rice paper. Mushrooms in coconut soup with crisp noodle croutons is gorgeously captured in a silver tureen while asparagus and bean sprout salad is enough to make a salad eater out of the most finicky eater.
I don’t know if you’ve ever enjoyed Thai food before. Here in southern California, there are restaurants for every cuisine the world has to offer, so that over the years we have been exposed to, and developed a taste for, Thai, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Filipino, Mediterranean and Indian food. Often, I have been reluctant to try my hand at making some of these foods at home. However, a book like THE VEGETARIAN TABLE: THAILAND takes the worry and guesswork out of the cooking. There are so many wonderful and exciting new recipes to try – I rather suspect that my next dinner party with have a Thai flavor. THE VEGETARIAN TABLE: THAILAND can be found in bookstores such as Amazon and Alibris.com
Both Amazon.com and Alibris.com have pre-owned copies of THE VEGETARIAN TABLE: THAILAND; the copy from Amazon.com is $3.75 and the one being offered by Alibris.com is $3.72.
Other cookbooks in the series from Chronicle books include THE VEGETARIAN TABLE: AMERICA, THE VEGETARIAN TABLE: FRANCE, THE VEGETARIAN TABLE: MEXICO and THE VEGETARIAN TABLE: NORTH AFRICA.