The last week of April, while I was still recovering from my cold/sinus-explosion, I spent some time in the kitchen cooking Thai food. The experiment was prompted by the book Simple Thai Food, which was the April selection for the Food52 Cookbook Club. I wrote about my first foray, simple egg crepes stuffed with pork, here. But I continued trying recipes from the book, just barely squeezing in with four dishes by the end of the month. It was a fun month, and I enjoyed everything I made; not a failure in the bunch, although I did like some things better than others, and I've already made the egg crepes more than once. One advantage of that recipe, if you are cooking for one, is that the filling can be made in advance and simply reheated to add to fresh egg crepes for subsequent meals. That may not be the Thai way of doing things, but it works in my life.
So I recommend Leela Punyaratabandhu's cookbook. Her instructions are clear, and many, if not most, of the recipes are simple and easy to prepare. Nothing I made took as long as half an hour, although one or two things required some advance planning, and everything was, as stated above, very good. I would say that the book is well worth adding to my collection of Thai books, shown above. Of these books, Leela's may well prove to be the one I use the most frequently as her instructions are clear and she makes the process very accessible. I love David Thompson's books, and there are many similarities between Leela's recipes and David's, at least when they overlap, but there are also a lot of recipe variations in Simple Thai Food that are not in my other cookbooks. Besides, although I have cooked from Thompson's books, and will again, his recipes are not always clear to the beginner or cook who is unfamiliar with Thai food. Many recipes are time consuming, although perhaps thoroughly authentic, (I can't really say as I have not yet been to Thailand), and instructions are written for a cook who possesses a pretty high level of skill before he/she even opens the book. Still, Thompson offers the best reference available.
But what did I cook? Apparently a lot of chicken, as it was what I had on hand. Chicken Ginger Stir-Fry, pictured above was fast and excellent. I used dried wood-ear mushrooms, as I keep them on hand, and they did require soaking. You can use fresh mushrooms if you prefer and Leela explains what kinds of mushrooms work and why. I soaked the wood ears while I took Tikka for her walk, but they can probably be soaked while you prep the ingredients, or even earlier in the day and set aside until time to cook. This was the only meal I served with rice, which would be more authentic, but, much as I love rice, I don't eat it very often.
I also made Chicken with Chile Jam, which was very good as well, but it probably ranked 4th of the four meals I made. I loved the combination of flavors, but felt I might have preferred less onion. This could have been simply due to my stove, which doesn't really go to high, difficult for stir-frying, and I felt the onion should be cooked more. But I also think I might prefer to replace some of the onion with bell pepper. I'm not worried if this is what a Thai grandma would do, but it would work for me, and this could be as much because I did not serve it with rice, and most Thai dishes of this sort are served as accompaniment to rice. Anyway, it is a really simple dish with a high flavor profile, that is not necessarily hot, but can be adapted to taste. Leela also includes a recipe for Chili Jam, or Nam Prik Pau. This is available in oriental markets, and there are several varieties in my market, most of which are gluten-free, but her recipe is also good, very similar in terms of content to David Thompson's above, but with simple, clear instructions that make the process understandable to the regular non-Thai cook. I like making my own because I can regulate the quality of the ingredients.
Perhaps my favorite dish, or second-favorite dish (I'm pretty fond of those crepes) was for salmon in red curry. I did plan to serve that dish with rice, but the sauce was so yummy that I ended up just putting my salmon and sauce in a shallow soup plate and eating up my sauce with a spoon. I'm sure my grandmother would be shocked, but hey, it is my kitchen. I served it with a spicy apple salad, that is much like a green mango salad, which I've been making for a few years now. I didn't take a picture of that, but the recipe is from Leela's blog, shesimmers.com.
Simple Thai Food is a good addition to my collection. The other cookbooks shown above all stay, and I would have to say that at this point, a new cookbook would have to offer something noticeably different before I would consider it. Punyaratabandhu offers a unique voice, and truly supplies simple recipes that are big on Thai taste. Unlike a lot of cookbooks that claim to offer simple Thai food for western cooks, this book seems more authentically Thai. Cooking from this book is much like having a Thai sister in the kitchen, one who understands the pressures and stresses of modern Western life, one who takes the time to meld tradition with convenience.
As to the other books, I consider Pok Pok to be unique unto itself, Thai and yet also a chef's cookbook. I didn't like the restaurant much, but I love cooking from the cookbook, although I admit that most things are somewhat adapted due to my own gluten-issues. Still it has changed my way of cooking and my understanding of food. Dancing Shrimp and It Rains Fishes, both by the same author, focus primarily on fish and seafood. It Rains Fishes is really more a story about a culture, lifestyle and an approach to food with a few recipes, than it is a solid cookbook. I don't cook from either one a great deal, but I've learned a great deal from both of them, and can't imagine not having them.
In the spirit of one-in, one-out, I did release one cookbook from captivity in my cabinet. Keo's Thai Cuisine was the first Thai cookbook I ever used, and I've held on to it for a long time. This is where I learned to make Tom Kai Gai, Tom Yam, and chicken lap. But I no longer use Keo's recipes for those dishes and I held on to the book mostly for sentiment's sake. That is no reason, and it's space on the shelf has been relinquished.
The only dish from Keo Sananikone's cookbook that I still make is Evil Jungle Prince, but that too has evolved to the extent that my current version is nothing like the original, although I have retained Keo's name for the dish. Long ago I started adding my shredded cabbage to the dish itself and simmering it together with the sauce and chicken, rather than serving the dish on a bed of cabbage. This makes the dish more of a one plate meal, especially since I increased the quantity of cabbage in lieu of serving this over rice. Then, after I discovered I had celiac disease I could never find a gluten-free version of Thai yellow bean sauce, so I substituted Nam Prik Pau, which completely changes the dish, although it does not make it less Thai. And yet I retain the name. This is somewhat keeping with family tradition. My mom made a Country Captain which is nothing like the original Southern dish called Country Captain. I didn't discover the truth until I was somewhere in my 20's. I still make my family version and think of it as the true "country captain", just as I will always think of Keema Matar as "Missionary Curry", and believe that matzo brei should be cooked in bacon grease. My own Evil Jungle Prince is the version of choice, the prince I want in my kitchen.
I suppose what we all think of as authentic is what our mothers and grandmothers cooked.