Get Cracking with Thai Food

April 16, 2012
By Holly Jennings

By David Thompson
Ten Speed Press
688 pp

David Thompson, author of  Thai Food, doesn’t cut any corners, and he doesn’t expect you to, either. The result? Some of the best Thai food you have had—better than what can be had at most restaurants—prepared right in your own kitchen.

There is a downside, however; the same rigorous recipes that create lively, nuanced food have the potential to leave a trail of disgruntled home cooks in their wake. One DCCC member so disliked the book that she returned it! Those of us who soldiered on all enjoyed the foods we prepared, finding them unlike, and more vibrant than, the more familar and probably overly Westernized version of Thai food we’ve had access to in the States.

There is no question that if you are new to Thai cooking, or even if you’ve done some Thai cooking at home using other cookbooks, you will be challenged when first cooking from this book, which is a truly amazingly, in-depth look at Thai food and Thai culture (the first recipe doesn’t appear until page 191!).

There are multiple reasons why Thai Food is not a walk in the park: ingredients can be difficult to find—particularly if you live in a small town or rural setting, or any place without an Asian population of some size—and there are very few suggested substitutions; for such a complex, text-heavy cookbook, the index could be much better, more complete, and provide more than one way to look up an ingredient or dish; in some cases, the instructions in the recipes proper could be clearer or more fully explained. (Many answers are provided, however, often they are found in the 45-page-long ingredients section rather than in the recipes themselves, requiring a read-through there before making a recipe, and sometimes the information in the ingredients section doesn’t always precisely correspond to what’s in the recipes.)

DCCC club members setting our Thai feast out

But then, oh but then, once you do the work of gathering 90 percent of the ingredients, get into the groove of using new techniques, like “cracking” coconut cream (to crack coconut cream, you simmer it until it separates into oil and solids), you will be set to enjoy some superior Thai food. Each and every recipe that I tasted (prepared by me or by other club members at the potluck or in their kitchens) had a subtlety, complexity, and richness of flavor that surpassed anything I’ve eaten in Thai restaurants in New York, Cleveland, Boston, Detroit, Columbus, Toledo, and any other city where I’ve lived.

Even after stocking your pantry and refrigerator with Thai ingredients, you may need to do some creative substitutions, making judgments as best you can about what is least likely to alter the essence of the dish. For example, one of my favorite dishes in the book, Stir-Fried Pork with Beans and Green Peppercorns, called for snake beans and grachai, or wild ginger. I substituted regular green beans for the snake beans and regular ginger for the wild, though used less regular ginger assuming the wild version to be more delicate in flavor. The recipe also called for the not-so-terribly-hard-to-find long red or green chiles, but I could not find them in my area and so simply upped the number of dried long red chiles by one or two. (Click here to see my adapted version of the recipe.)

Another adjustment you may want to make when cooking from this book is the serving size. Most recipes yield a small amount, and use a small amount of meat, by American standards. I believe this is because the author assumes you will be making other components that are part of a complete Thai meal: a soup, a relish, a salad. If you like leftovers, I suggest you double or even triple most of the recipes.

One of the things I appreciated most about this book is that Thompson tells you how a dish is supposed to taste, so that you know what you’re going for, and can adjust seasoning to achieve the desired result. Which is what Thai cooking, Thompson emphasizes, is all about—tasting and adjusting the food according to the ingredients you’re using, and to your palate, while staying true to the basic character of each dish, and its particular balance of salty, sour, hot, and/or sweet.

A Rundown of Just a Handful of the Well-liked Recipes

The curries in Thai Food are time consuming as you are required to make curry pastes from scratch, but are worth the effort. There are many other dishes, however, that do not take as much prep work, such as the soups—including the popular chicken and galangal soup, among many others—and salads and relishes like the Cucumber Relish, a refreshing table condiment that goes with most things, and is very useful in cutting the richness of coconut-based curries.

Marinated Beef Salad
The flavors of this dish, like the Latin seviche, pop with purity and brightness. The beef, cooked only by the lime juice, is exceedingly tender.

Steamed Eggs
This is now my favorite way to hard-cook eggs. The method results in a very tender white, and fresh eggs when hard-cooked this way are relatively easy to peel.

Deep-fried Eggs
This, the fastest way to cook eggs yet, results in a delightfully crunchy white surrounding a still fluid yolk.

Minced Pork, Chicken and Prawn Paste with Pineapple and Mandarin
An exquisite appetizer made of contrasting, stimulating flavors—sweet and salty, juicy fruit and savory meats (pork, chicken, and shrimp)—that is suitable for any fancy occasion or dinner, Thai or not.

Deep-Fried Rice
David Thompson compares these delicious rice morsels to rice rissoles. Cooked jasmine rice is flavored with an aromatic coconut-cream-simmered paste, minced pork, and Chinese sausage, and bound with egg. The rice is then formed into dumplings, dipped into egg white, then flour, and deep-fried. There’s not a much better cocktail partner than these.

Mussaman Curry of Chicken
This delicately flavored curry is a favorite among most club members. Mussaman curry has always been my least favorite of the Thai curries because it is the least spicy, and, to my taste, bland by comparison to the others. This Mussaman, however, though certainly not as spicy as the other curries in the book, is full of complex flavors—with a lot more going on than any Mussaman I’ve ever had out at a Thai restaurant.

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