CLASSIC THAI CUISINE by David Thompson, with luscious-looking illustrations provided by Helene Semmler, is a 1993 offering from TEN SPEED PRESS and if you are at all familiar with Thai food, I think this is a book you will want to add to your collection.
From Google, I learned that renowned chef David Thompson first went to Thailand by mistake: a holiday plan had to be changed at the last minute, and he ended up in Bangkok, where he was seduced by the people, culture, and cuisine. Since that fateful trip some 20 years ago, Thailand has become David’s second home. Working alongside cooks who perfected their craft in the Thai royal palaces, he began to document the traditional recipes and culinary techniques that have been handed down from generation to generation.
CLASSIC THAI CUISINE must have been one of his very first compilations.
This remarkable collection, we learn in the Introduction, is a paradox: “chilies, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, palm sugar, lime and lemongrass, the staples of
Thai cooking are robustly flavored ingredients. Yet they are melded and tempered by one another into an elegant refined finish, in which no one flavor is either overpowered or dominant”.
Isn’t that true of all gourmet cooking? When a gourmet chef uses various spices, the trick is to know how much of each one so that the finished product is tantalizing, but subtle. You should come away wondering what was that slightly familiar yet tasty ingredient, rather than saying, ‘Oh, yes, that had cloves in it”.
Continues the Introduction, “At the same time, their flavors are further intensified by the use of seasonings that sweet, sour, salt, and hot are contrasted. The res8ulting depth of flavor and balance of seasoning produces a clarity, a vitality of taste that in Thai is called ROT CHART, proper harmony of flavor. It is the epitome of Thai cuisine”.
You need also to understand that rice is the core of Thai cuisine; the Thais are an agriculture people; their lives bound inextricably to the rice-growing cycle. Therefore, a proper meal is inconceivable without it. All other dishes, we learn, such as curries, salads, and whatever else is on the table, are called GAP KAO, with rice. All of the wet dishes serve to dress and moisten the rice, making it more palatable.
Thai meals are not served in progression, like American meals (i.e., salad, entrée, dessert). All main course dishes should be served at once. Also, when Thais eat, they usually allow one savory dish per person, plus rice, so that the more people are at table, the more dishes will be served. And Thais, being social creatures, love to eat with a crowd.
Thais also like to snack and you will usually find, near schools and office buildings, food vendors. Thais usually have one meal a day and everything else consists of snacks or noodles. Noodles are traditionally eaten at lunchtime—you may wish to experiment with the recipe for CHIANG MAI NOODLES (KAO SOI) which is an interesting combination of chicken (meat from drumsticks), noodles, garlic, red chilies, cilantro, lime and other ingredients, plus the noodles and fresh vegetables. Since drumsticks can often be purchased very inexpensively, this is a good recipe to try when you are on a budget.
When you are not quite as hampered by cost, you might want to try the author’s recipe for NOODLES WITH PRAWNS AND GARNISHES (KANOM JIN NAM PRIK). On the other hand, the recipe only calls for seven ounces of prawns—you could substitute a less expensive smaller shrimp, since it gets chopped up anyway. There is also a wonderful recipe for NOODLES WITH PINEAPPLE AND PRAWNS (KANOM JIN SAO NAM) that is made with only seven ounces of redfish, red snapper or swordfish. This recipe is served with a Coconut Cream Sauce that finds its way in this and other recipes in CLASSIC THAI CUISINE.
There are an assortment of recipes for curries, soups, salads, stir-fried dishes, dishes featuring fish and pork and beef. DO try Scallop Salad (PLA HOI SHENN) and Grilled Beef Salad (NEUA NAM TOK).
Curries are the food most associated with Thai food. Originally from India, they were cooked in ghee and heavy with spices. The Thais, however, lighten them with a substation of coconut cream and the addition of fresh spices, such as lemongrass.
Although an entire chapter is devoted to desserts, what WE think of as desserts are considered snacks by the Thais. Usually, a Thai meal is finished off with a platter of tropical fruit, saw as paw-paws, mangoes, and pineapple, with perhaps a sprinkling of lime juice (oh, yum!). there ARE interesting recipes to try, however, including one of my favorite comfort foods, tapioca pudding, and even though the Thais might not serve a standard-type of dessert at the table, the author notes that flexibility is a key note to Thai cooking so DO serve dessert if you wish.
This is really a lovely cookbook with wonderful illustrations. There is a Glossary to identify all the various dishes, foods and ingredients. If I had only one complaint to make, it’s that the recipes don’t state how many people a dish should serve. I thought perhaps – if the meat or fish ingredient is about half a pound, I would think it serves two—and if you are cooking for more than two people, I would double or triple the recipe accordingly. I know from long experience of making stir-fry dishes that even a combination of ingredients starting out with a small amount of meat or fish can easily serve 4 to 6 people by the time you get everything into the Wok. I used to make stir-fry for three – myself, Bob, and a girlfriend who often came over for dinner – we’d eat heartily and then had enough leftovers to take to work for lunch the next day.
If you are at all interested in Asian cooking, this is an especially nice way to be introduced to it.
You can find CLASSIC THAI CUISINE on Amazon.com, listed at $9.98 new or starting at .30 for a pre-owned copy. Alibris.com has pre-owned copies starring at 99c.
David Thompson is also the author of:
Thai Food, published in 2002
THAI STREET FOOD, SEPTEMBER 2010
Review by Sandra Lee Smith