A deep exploration of rich Thai history


January 01, 2003|By Cynthia Glover | Cynthia Glover,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

To call David Thompson's thai food a cookbook is to do it a disservice. It is more a life's work for this Australian chef and restaurateur.

He has spent the past 15 years studying Thai cuisine, and has incorporated almost everything he has learned about its history, peoples, geography and foodstuffs into this 673-page reference book. His Thai restaurant in London, nahm, is the first Thai restaurant ever to earn a Michelin star. The man knows his stuff.

Yes, thai food (Ten Speed Press, 2002, $40) has recipes -- more than 400 of them -- but it also includes more than 185 pages of cultural information, including excellent sections on regional cuisines, rice-growing and ingredients ranging from ash melon and assam to santol and water mimosa. A number of these foods are native to Thailand and nearly impossible to find in the United States. That said, many of the recipes are feasible for Americans wishing to cook the real thing.

The backbone of Thai cuisine is a series of pastes and relishes, pounded in mortar and pestle (cheaters like me use a food processor). Thompson provides exemplars, including the classic Shrimp Paste Relish and Old-Fashioned Tamarind Relish, as a lead-in to chapters on soups, curries, salads, snacks and street foods. A menu section organizes recipes into sets for special-occasion meals.

Although preparing the ingredients is time-consuming, Thai cuisine employs relatively simple techniques. Most recipes require little more than a mortar and pestle or a wok and a flame.

Making quenelles for the Green Curry of Trout Dumplings is about as difficult as things get. Still, this is not an easy introduction to the cuisine. The sheer variety of recipes makes choosing difficult, especially when picking around unavailable ingredients. In addition, no recipe has a serving size; all are meant to be set out, Thai-style, as part of a multidish spread.

Having cooked such recipes as Fried Rice With Pineapple, Prawns and Curry Powder; Stir-Fried Minced Beef With Chiles and Holy Basil; and Mussels With Thai Basil, I can attest to the fact that it takes study and experimentation to achieve the sparkling balances of hot, salty, sour and sweet that characterize the best Thai cooking. The quality and style of the ingredients -- soy sauces, chiles, shrimp pastes, etc. -- are just too mercurial to guarantee success without experience.

There are certainly easier books from which to cook a few Thai dishes. Still, the wealth of background information, the detailed headnotes about each recipe's origins and the evocative photography make this a book every serious student of Thai cuisine will adore.

Mussels With Thai Basil (hoi malaeng puu bai horapha)

6 ounces mussels

2 stalks lemon grass

1/2 cup chicken stock

1 small bunch Thai basil, chopped

Clean and beard the mussels. Add lemon grass to stock, bring to the boil and steam mussels, covered, until they open. (Discard any that remain closed.) Sprinkle with Thai basil and serve.

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