I was always fascinated by exotic cuisine. Maybe it has to do with personal history: my childhood was spent in a time (and places) where nothing much existed apart from pseudo-Chinese restaurants. That, together for my curiosity for other cultures, is probably the cause why I'm always ready to try something new, is it a restaurant or a recipe. Sort of as if I had to make up for time lost. I "discovered" the cuisine of Southern Asia (or better of India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia) in the year I lived in England and my fascination with the recipes and traditions of these countries has been growing ever since. My book collection has also been growing :-), so I thought I'll take the chance, with this and tomorrow's post, to talk about two books I quite enjoyed and tried out. I'll start today with David Thompson's Thai Food.
Thompson's book describes a cuisine that's miles away from the first "chinese" dishes that my dad would cook every now and then (and which I still remember fondly) from a small recipe book he bought in the states: cellophane noodle soup, fried rice and a curried meatball dish with sprouts, mushrooms and onions (does that even exist in Chinese cuisine?). The book is divided in an introductory and a recipe section, both very exhaustive. First the cooking.
The recipes in the book make no compromise on ingredients, taste or preparation methods. They're taken straight from the Thai tradition with no "western" adaptation. They call for the proper and original ingredients, heat levels :-) and lots of mortar pounding! Quite early one understands that this is no beginners book: short recipe descriptions although sometimes IMO not 100 percent clear. What I find really helpful is the description of how most recipes should taste, something more cookbooks should do. The only thing I would improve is the ingredient description. A couple of photos wouldn't have gone amiss, considering how often some of these ingredients go under other names here in the west. But what makes the book great (or one of the things) is that it manages to transmit many different aspects of Thai cooking: from direct, simple and fresh dishes, to elaborate ones, that work through a delicate balance of strong flavours, ending with dishes, like many sweets, that seem more a work of art than something to eat (though I bet they taste great).
What I liked even more than the recipes is the introductory cultural historic chapters. This information is great to put the food into context. This sort of read always makes a cookbook shine to my eyes. I believe food has to be seen in its cultural context otherwise it loses a lot of the meaning it has, otherwise it becomes just a pile of nourishing substances. On the other hand this chapters made me understand that a nation's culinary history is a bit like an onion (sort of like ogres), or in this case a red shallot :-). Once you get over a superficial knowledge you get to a new "layer" of notions. After a while you discover there's more to know, you have questions... and this can go on and on I guess. This book had exactly this effect on me: I know a bit more about Thai cooking but I'm now a ware that I know so little. I want MORE!!!
One aspect that might be missed at first sight about this book is how little Thompson appears in the book. Given he's so famous, that he's a starred chef (although not everyone is so enthusiastic about his cooking), that's quite unusual. This other very well written review makes a very good point about it.
Reading through the book I found loads of very stimulating recipes to try. Also loads of very frustrating ones, for me. Unless I plan to drive to Berlin I have no chance of finding most of the needed ingredients :-(. Still I managed to find a couple that I could cook. The first test was satay, maybe not the most exotic of choices, but one does what one can :-).
The recipe comes from Mom Luang Nuang who is:
Since the recipe linked above gives no amounts here they are:
Mom Luang Nuang's Satay
200g filet of pork (or chicken, or beef)
1/2 cup coconut cream
1 tsp turmeric
1 Tbs condensed milk
1 Tbs palm sugar (I had to use dark sugar)
2 Tbs fish sauce
a little Thai whisky (used aged schnaps here)
4 Tbs chopped red shallot
3 Tbs ground roasted peanuts
1 Tbs coriander roasted
1 Tbs cumin
5-6 long chillies
3 red shallots
1/2 cup white vinegar
1-2 Tbs superfine sugar
Above you see the result, and yes I forgot to make the chilli sauce. Or actually, once we managed to get Saami in bed I was so tired that I just cooked the meat and some rice and used some of the marinade as sauce. Probably a crime against good food as serving pasta with no sauce would be. I hope you can excuse me. That's one of the side effects :-) of having a small kid who's ill, I guess. Apart the evident lack of heat the satay were really tasty, with the ingredients of the marinade well balanced except maybe a bit too much cumin. Definitely worth another try, with chilli sauce next time.