Review: Simple Thai Food

I’ve been Kon-Marie-ing my house (more on that later, if I ever finish) and today tackled the bookshelf in my kitchen which was overflowing with cookbooks. Since moving to Bangkok over a decade ago, the number of Thai cooking books had quadrupled.  It was time to rid myselfof a few dust catchers. On the opposite extreme is, Simple Thai Food: Classic Recipes from the Thai Home Kitchen, by Leela Punyaratabandhu. Published in 2014, and purchased by me as soon as I could get my hands on it.

This is one cookbook I can’t imagine living without.

Leela began blogging about Thai food back in 2008 to honor the memory of her mother and document her recipes. The same easy, conversational style that you can find on her award-winning blog, along with more charming anecdotes from her childhood in Bangkok raised in a food-obsessed family fill this cookbook. In addition, you will find recipes for and the encouragement to try most of your favorite Thai dishes.

CHAPTERS – ORGANIZATION

The book is organized into 4 main chapters: Noshes & Nibbles, Rice Accompaniments, One-plate Meals and Sweets. There is also an ample introduction outlining the organization and intent of the book, a solid index and food glossary in the back and even suggestions for mail-order sourcing of ingredients if needed. Further, each chapter has a prelude that gives particular advice on techniques or cultural aspects of dishes common to that chapter.

RECIPES

The Thai dishes you have grown to love at restaurants at home and abroad are represented. Green papaya salad, chicken galangal soup, pad thai, curries. Check, check, check and check. Ginger Chicken, Thai Omelet & grilled beef salad. Check, Check & Check. The few Thai dishes I enjoy that are MIA here were possibly disqualified due to complexity. Attempting egg noodle and wonton soup with red pork, for example, likely does not fit into the definition of simple cooking. Just writing it down is complicated.

I cook from this book all the time.

Even so, I noticed two things in preparing to write this post:

1) Basic Recipes and Prep. This is a chapter at the end of the book I sort of forgot about and have under-utilized. If I ever get around to making curries from scratch I will be sure to revisit it. Recipes for all the key curries are housed here. (Leela gives us a hall pass on this point, though, noting that even in Thailand, many restaurant cooks purchase curry paste rather than make it themselves.)

2) Sweets ** Prejudice Alert ** I have to admit I pretty much ignore this chapter due to personal taste. The Thais like their desserts sweet with a capital “S,” and I just don’t have any interest in going there. Every time I have been talked into trying a Thai dessert I find my tongue curdling within 2 bites and end up setting my spoon down. To my palate, the best dessert in Thailand was, is and always will be fresh mango with sticky rice (of which there is, naturally, a recipe included in this book). And actually, you can take away the sticky rice and it’s still just as good.

Because I use this book so frequently it was difficult to single out just a few recipes to discuss. But then it dawned on me that I might try applying a health and nutrition filter…

So here goes:

• Turmeric Grilled Chicken: Thais know how to grill, and this dish is as delicious as it is healthy. This is a great way to get in some anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-oxidant benefits of turmeric while impressing your friends and family with your Thai cooking skills. It’s also one of the easier recipes in the book, and one which you can see for yourself here. It will make a tasty addition to any cookout.

• Green Mango Salad. I’m become quite fond of this sprightly salad, which at Thai restaurants often garnishes a big fried fish. The tartness of the green mango and chile/limey/fish sauce-y dressing complements the fish well. If you don’t want to eat fried fish, though, Leela suggests (in her blog) a brilliant alternative. It turns out that a simpler, healthier, though no less delectable, accompaniment to this mango salad is a couple of medium boiled eggs. This pairing is one I became immediately addicted to upon first try. The recipes (for both the green mango salad and perfectly medium-boiled eggs) are freely shared here.  Immediately after trying this recipe, I lnged headlong into a 3-month phase where, if I was home for lunch this was the only thing I wanted to eat.

• Stir-fried beef with banana peppers: This mellow Thai meal is one to appreciate if you are eating cleaner and paleo-ish. New Zealand grass-fed beef is increasingly available here in Thailand, and I buy it. Of course, the good stuff is not any cheaper here than elsewhere on the planet.  Stir-fries like this one are a smart way to extend the grass-fed goodness by making it a friendly contributor to the meal rather than the main event. While this dish is intended to be eaten with rice, it also works in a lettuce wrap. I don’t see why it couldn’t sit atop cauliflower rice either. Beef-eaters love it. It is flavor-packed without being chile hot. And it allows you to cook up quality beef without breaking the bank – a triple win!

• Finally, though lower ranking on the health meter due to the cooking method of the chicken – we’re going the way of the deep fryer again, I need to comment on Leela’s cashew chicken recipe. She describes this foreigner favorite as “one dish with a thousand faces” because the recipes, flavor and results vary so much within the Thailand restaurant scene. Then she gives up her preferred version. This is another recipe I have made repeatedly. I follow Leela’s instructions to the letter, and while it takes time (it’s a weekend recipe in my opinion) none of the steps are particularly challenging. The results? My 15 year old who is, as they can be, a food critic, tells me that “my” cashew chicken is better than what he gets out. Ditto from visiting relatives. I will never need another recipe for cashew chicken.

Note: The only regular modification I make to Leela’s recipes these days is to swap out vegetable oil – since I now understand that it is evil – in favor of quality coconut oil.

TECHNIQUES & SUBSTITUTIONS

Leela does everything she can to guide you through techniques and possible pitfalls in the recipes with her words. She is a linguist, too, by the way, and her respect for language, I think, serves us readers well as her instructions are written with thoughtful precision.  She informs us how to grating papaya, green mango and other Thai salad vegetables so as not to bruise the fruit. She takes the time to explain how to determine the right ratio of the typical Thai salad (“yam”) dressing ingredients so that you can learn by doing and get the own hang of it quickly. When substitutions won’t mess with the plot she encourages them – green apple can work for the green mango salad mentioned above, for example. In short, Leela’s writing leaves nothing to doubt on recipe execution.

PHOTOS

Just a personal bias of mine is that I love photos. In this case I wish there was one representative photo of every dish featured here. About 1 in three recipes comes with a full color photo. These are full page and attractive.

IN CONCLUSION

This book did demystify Thai cooking for me. To be fair, I read it while living here and eating my way through this country, so I may not be the best one to advise others. I think anyone who is 1) a big fan of Thai food; 2) knows, more or less, what to aim for as far as flavors go, and 3) determined to cook Thai food at home, will be delighted with this book.

Thankfully, for me, Leela still has more to say on the subject. Her new cookbook, Bangkok: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Thailand, will be released May 9, 2017.

I, for one, can hardly wait.

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