South East Asian cookbooks
Find culinary inspiration in recipes from Thailand, Indonesia, Burma and beyond
Thai Street Food
David Thompson, Conran Octopus, £40
A bright orange whopper of a book, David Thompson’s latest work weighs nearly 3kg and fills a man-bag or commuter’s rucksack. This is a trophy book destined for the coffee table, not so much the kitchen counter. Earl Carter’s photography of Thai street scenes is stunning. His portraits transport you right there: all that’s missing are the smells and sounds. The photographs dominate the book, but these are interspersed with David Thompson’s words and recipes.
Australian-born Thompson has spent much of the last two decades living in Bangkok, where he has taught himself the Thai language and immersed himself in its food and culture, while researching historical and regional recipes. A recognised expert on the subject, he teaches in Thai culinary academies. He also runs the only Michelin-starred Thai restaurant in the world, Nahm, in London. You might say he’s qualified.
Thompson’s first book, ‘The Top One Hundred Thai Dishes’ (1993, now out of print), is a masterpiece of clearly explained, easy-to-follow recipes (and is the one from where I taught myself to cook Thai food). In contrast, ‘Thai Food’ (2002), while far more erudite and clearly the work of many years of meticulous research, is a reference book rather than a practical recipe book. It’s that pink tome which regularly appears near the top of ‘best-ever cookbook’ lists – but many cooks abandon it after few recipes, preferring simpler dishes they can find online.
Which brings us to ‘Thai Street Food’. It’s well written, and the research is impeccable. But I’ve tried cooking several of the recipes, and had to cut corners with every one. Why? Ingredients such as coriander root or Asian pennywort are hard to locate in London, and no substitute ingredients are suggested. The methods, although correct, are hugely time consuming. I’m not going to make my own red curry paste from scratch every time – in Thailand most people buy theirs fresh from the market, they don’t have time to make their own.
So what’s this book for? Inspiration. It clarifies the difference between a Westernised version of a Thai dish, and how it should be done. It describes the history and context of these dishes. It explains the importance of the balance of flavours. But above all, it gives you a sense of place, and is a joy to leaf through. If you love cooking Thai food, put it on your Christmas wish list (but get a bigger stocking first).
Guy Dimond, Time Out London issue 2095: October 14 - 20 2010