We are nearing the end of the feverishly-working-to-finish-the-first-draft stage of our cookbook, and Lauren suggested that we include some old photos of family getting together to share a meal when I was young. Alas, I have almost no photos of this at my house. It’s kind of strange how that is, when we only meet up over lunch or dinner or dinner parties.
The oldest one I can come up with is this one. Needless to say, I was not a cute baby.
Another photo at a meal features just my husband and me, before we were married, on a trip (with his parents, because I grew up in the stone ages) to the Netherlands.
The photos that I do have featuring the food itself are noticeably absent of people. This one is of a breakfast spread in Chiang Rai that looks like it was a buffet for ghosts.
The closest I can get to something that captures the vibe of what I’m looking for is a super old photo that doesn’t have me in it at all. Instead, my husband’s parents and their cousins are in it. It’s in the 70s or 80s (hard to tell), at a family party on the beach in Hua Hin, probably during Songkran. Anyway, the point is that Thais like to party, but it’s not a real party until there’s good food. Only then can much merriment be had.
In any case, the search will continue apace, so my post to you will be uncharacteristically brief. Wish Lauren and me luck on our deadline. Until then, stay safe and healthy everyone!
It’s been a tough third COVID wave for us in Thailand, and it doesn’t look like it’s improving anytime soon. My son has taken to running to his computer every day at noon to check on the latest numbers; they are always grim. The effect on the local economy — and by extension, the dining scene — has been predictably grave. A few weeks ago, Bo.lan announced they were shuttering their doors, hopefully in order to morph into another iteration at the end of this particular tunnel.
But there were also some small glimmers of light during this time, for me at least (and isn’t that what’s really important?) I got to go up North and traipse around a farm, taking photos of the literal fruits of other people’s hard labor.
The lovely Aarya made us a gorgeous spread that included a whole roasted seabass “acqua pazza”-style and a faithful rendition of a Veronese duck stew enriched with chestnuts and an entire bottle of red wine. It inspired me to attempt my own duck stew (whole Barbary duck ordered via Paleo Robbie), which was then discovered in a freezer while marinating due to some communication issues (my Thai is truly terrible), and ended up becoming a pretty good duck fried rice and jab chai (Chinese-style veggie stew) with duck broth.
I am also sort-of celebrating the imminent arrival of one book, originally slated for release in 2020. The COVID-delayed third edition of my Thai street food guide is … hopefully? … coming out at the end of this year. This book *may* join its sister on the shelves — tentatively titled “Real Thai Cooking”, it’s my very first cookbook with co-author, photographer and genius recipe doctor Lauren Taylor in New Zealand. We have just finished the first draft of our manuscript and are ready to send it to our long-suffering editor Doug (insert fingers crossed emojis here!)
When I originally sent out my book proposal (written during our first COVID wave with help and guidance from Jarrett Wrisley and Paolo Vitaletti, who generously allowed me to see their proposal for “The Roads to Rome”), I envisioned a book in which all the focus would be on my essays, which would place the recipes in context and make them less of a consideration. What I ended up doing — with generous assistance from both my mother’s and mother-in-law’s kitchens and a treasure trove of funeral cookbooks from my husband’s family — was literally stumble into a bunch of recipes that have deepened my own understanding of Thai food and how it has evolved. TLDR: a lot of these recipes are the bomb tbh. This is coming straight from the horse’s mouth.
There are a bunch of recipes that I really love in this book so there’s some competition, but I think my favorite recipe of all is the one gifted to me by my friend Tawn C., who is a designer in his normal life. While we were in Phuket he made a nam prik out of store-bought peanut brittle that was a flavor explosion; when paired when grilled salt-encrusted fish and all of the accoutrements for a mieng pla meal, it ended up blowing everybody away.
The main ingredients, I kid you not, are a good-quality fish sauce and local peanut brittle (tua thad, or “cut peanuts”, made out of peanuts, sesame seeds and palm sugar) from the candy aisle.
Needless to say, it’s a fine tightrope walk between super-sweet, salty, spicy and tart, all the while making sure not to overshadow the main star of the show (What’s that? Oh yeah, the fish).
So here it is, Tawn’s chili dip recipe, and don’t ever say I don’t give you anything!
“Nam prik tua thad”
6 pieces of tua thad, or peanut brittle
4 goat chilies or bird’s eye chilies
2 cilantro roots, cleaned
7 garlic cloves
the juice of 2 limes
3 Tbsps fish sauce
1 tsp golden syrup
In a mortar and pestle, pound chilies, roots and cloves together into a paste. Scrape out of mortar and set aside.
Pound your peanut brittle until it is pulverized, then add your paste to it. Mix well.
Season with lime juice and fish sauce. Taste. It should be a balance between salty, acidic, spicy and sweet.
Add golden syrup if not sweet enough. Surprisingly, the sweetness will amplify all the other flavors.
Out of all the cuisines that my family likes to eat, Isaan food is probably the most popular. It is definitely the food of choice for my husband — so much so, that whenever we get back home from abroad (a distant memory for now), he is on the phone ordering delivery from Polo Fried Chicken (usual order: one whole fried chicken, extra garlic; one som tum Thai; one bamboo shoot salad; one pork liver salad; lots of sticky rice).
But if we are really lucky, our housekeeper Somporn will be around to cook for us. While Polo Fried Chicken (aka Jae Gi) is good, Somporn’s food is really excellent. I used to think that one day if I ever moved to New Zealand I would take Somporn with me and open New Zealand’s best Isaan restaurant. Alas, we are no longer doing that and I will have to find new dreams amidst the rubble of my old ones, but at least I can still occasionally enjoy Somporn’s cooking at home.
Luckily, my in-progress cookbook gives me plenty of excuses to plumb her brain for more recipes. This one is for larb, but the Isaan kind. And I have to say (like with almost every other recipe in my book), I learned something new about Isaan larb while working on this recipe. Yes, it has roasted rice kernels and mint in it, and obviously, plenty of chilies, but I also learned that the little flourish of lime is a Bangkok thing and not part of the Isaan salad flavor profile. Instead, larb is supposed to be salty and spicy, and when Somporn cooks it for herself, she doesn’t add lime.
That’s not to say Somporn isn’t above adding some flourishes of her own. She is partial to kaffir lime leaves, so you’ll find plenty of that in the salad. I have to say, both Lauren and I have made this larb, and the lime leaf really makes it sing.
Here’s the recipe.
250 g minced chicken
3 Tbsps water
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp fish sauce
1-2 Tbsps dried chili powder
1-2 Tbsps roasted rice powder
3 fresh cilantro leaves and stems, chopped
3 small shallots, sliced thinly (you can use red onion instead if you like)
3 sawtooth coriander leaves (if you have them), chopped
3-4 kaffir lime leaves (if you have them), sliced thinly
juice of 1 lime to squeeze at the end (optional)
Heat saucepan until a drop of water sizzles on it, then add 3 Tbsps water. Add minced chicken immediately after. After juices come out of the meat, the bits of chicken will stop sticking to the pan. Cook through until the pink is all gone.
Transfer chicken (and pan juices) to a mixing bowl and add your shallots and herbs — the cilantro, sawtooth coriander and kaffir lime leaves. Add the ground rice powder and mix everything together well with a spoon.
Add salt and fish sauce. Taste for seasoning.
Add chili powder. Taste for seasoning.
If you wish, add your lime juice, mix well and taste.
Garnish with mint leaves and enjoy with sticky rice, young savoy cabbage leaves, fresh cucumber, and some cut up long beans!