Thailand: The Cookbook: A beautiful compilation of Thai cooking and culture

Jean-Pierre Gabriel spent three years traveling through every region of Thailand visiting homes, markets and restaurants, sampling dishes from every corner and collecting recipes along the way. The result is a collection of 500 easy-to-follow recipes and 200 breathtaking images of Thailand’s landscape, people, and food. The scope of the book is truly impressive; hundreds of Thai cooks contributed recipes (you’ll find the list of contributors in the back) and all regions of Thailand are represented. Most Thai cookbooks marketed to American audiences seem to focus on well-known dishes like pad Thai that are on American Thai restaurant menus; here you’ll find insect-based dishes from Thailand’s Northeast (Issan), where ingredients such as bamboo caterpillars, house crickets, and giant water bugs are foraged, pork dishes from Northern Thailand (including many sausage-based dishes), desserts from Central Thailand, seafood from Eastern Thailand, and Indian-influenced / Muslim dishes from Southern Thailand.

The book begins with a series of essays that explore the history of Thailand’s regions and cuisine and includes chapters on snacks and drinks, salads and soups, curries, stir fries, rice and noodles, grilled and fried dishes, desserts and more. Each recipe includes the dish’s name in Thai (no English transliteration), the region, preparation time and cooking time. Measurements are given in imperial, weight, and metric, with British terms in parentheses where applicable. There are generally two recipes to a page (four to a spread). Throughout the chapters, gorgeous matte photos of Thai landscapes, markets, ingredients and people give a comprehensive view at the diversity and natural abundance of Thailand. Staged photos of raw ingredients are like miniature artworks.

Thai cuisine is based on several principles, the most important being the four fundamental taste areas: spicy, sweet, sour, and salty. Two of the fundamental cooking methods, steaming and stir frying in a wok, are inherited from the Chinese. A nonstick wok is bet for stir-frying rice or noodle dishes, while stainless steel or cast-iron woks are more suitable for stir-frying fish, meat or vegetables. I was fascinated to learn of the history of various fried rice dishes; the few times I’d seen them on the menu in Thai restaurants, I assumed it was an attempt to cater to Chinese food enthusiasts, but fried rice a long history in Thailand, and you’ll find many complex and delicious variations here: seafood fried rice (shrimp paste fried rice with sweet pork, crab fried rice), Thai pork fried rice with fried eggs, fried rice with pineapple, etc. I also loved the noodle dishes like fried noodles in coconut milk with shrimp, which has a tart element from tamarind sauce, sweetness from coconut milk and palm sugar, and heat from chilies.

There is an extensive collection of curry dishes, which introduced me to a whole new range of Thai cooking including fish curry in banana leaf (luckily our Central Market always carries fresh banana leaves), roasted duck curry, coconut milk curries, and mango curry. Seafood is also amply represented, with many seafood curries along with grilled, fried, and stir-fried fish and crab dishes.

I have an infamous sweet tooth, and the only Thai dessert I was familiar with before “Thailand: The Cookbook” was sticky rice and mangoes, but I was fascinated to learn of the candied fruits and vegetables that reminded me of Mexico (pumpkin in syrup, sweet potato in ginger syrup, candied sugar palm fruit), steamed puddings, and bean-based desserts (mung bean porridge with coconut milk, colorful mung bean noodles in coconut milk, mung bean puddings and custards). Not surprisingly, fruit plays a starring role, particularly bananas and coconut.

The final chapter is a list of guest chefs from Thai restaurants in Sydney (Sailors Thai, Chat Thai), New York (Kin Shop, Uncle Boons), London (Rosa’s Thai Café), and Bangkok (Bo.lan, Kiin Kiin) and their selected recipes.

The most challenging aspect will be finding the fresh (and staple) ingredients called for in many of the regional recipes (pandan leaves, sugar palm fruits, durian, tiger grass leaves, pork floss, dried buffalo skin, some seafood, frog, and fresh insects (crickets, ants, ant eggs, giant water bug eggs). There is no list of suggested online (or local) Thai markets, and no substitutions suggested in the ingredients (although you will find suggested substitutions in the glossary for select ingredients). For this reason, I will not be able to make many of the more “authentic” recipes, but there are still plenty that I can try with my limited range of Thai ingredients that I can purchase locally (lemongrass, Thai chilies, tamarind, kaffir lime leaves, banana leaves, fish sauce).

Overall, “Thailand: The Cookbook” is a labor of love and a beautiful travelogue that will introduce you (or take you back to) Thailand’s rich cultural and culinary diversity. The staggering number of recipes is sure to feature something for everyone and provides plenty of variety to keep you experimenting happily for many months (if not years) to come. The book itself is gorgeous, starting with the gold-embossed fabric cover and extending through the book’s design, including intricate geometric designs that mark each particular chapter in the Table of Contents. Whether you are already familiar with Thai cuisine or are looking for an approachable introduction, “Thailand: The Cookbook” deserves a place on your cookbook shelf.

(Review copy courtesy of Phaidon)

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