Monday, August 1, 2011

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Bookshelf: Thai Street Food

In any provincial town, and in many crowded areas of Bangkok, there is always a place — a corner or two, a few blocks or a square — that is brightly lit well into the night. These are the night markets of Thailand and they are filled with people, food and noise, as flames lick around woks and wood smoke from charcoal grills lingers in the still night air.

~ David Thompson

We’ve come to expect big things from Australian writer and Michelin-starred chef David Thompson, but let’s just get the obvious out of the way. Thompson’s Thai Street Food is enormous. The book is over 13” tall, racks up 372 pages, and weighs almost as much as three liters of good Kentucky Bourbon. It’s big.

It’s also gorgeous. Years ago, my in-laws gave me Thompson’s earlier book, the opus Thai Food, as a birthday present. Although a more manageable height, it, too, was huge. 674 pages. Hell, the introduction was almost as long as my entire book Moonshine. It taught me more about Thai cookery than all the other Thai books in my library combined.

Sure, you could use it in a bar fight as a formidable weapon, but Thai Food’s length is justified by the scholarly and eminently readable copy. Thompson goes into exquisite detail from historical and gustatory angles on how big and complex Thai flavors come together into harmonious wholes. Likewise, Thai Street Food makes sense when you consider the topic. Huge, full-page color photographs by Earl Carter evoke the hustle and bustle of Bangkok markets and street vendors on a scale that isn’t possible with a smaller, shorter book. A guide to Bangkok’s street vendors might fit in your pocket, but it’s not going to prepare you for the vibe of what’s there when you hit the streets.

I’ve been cooking out of Thai Street Food for a few months now and it’s just a stunner. I’ve a soft spot for street- and market- type takeaway in the first place, but when it’s flavored with hits of fish sauce, garlic, basil, chiles, ginger, galangal, bitter greens, coconut, lime, cilantro, tamarind, and more — ah, man, my knees go weak.

Bags of sweet chile sauce (photo: Earl Carter)
The book is broken down into three main sections following the arc of the day and the street foods one might find sold then; Morning (with breakfast and morning snacks as well as some noodle dishes), Noon (lunch, curry shop, snacks and sweets, and more noodles), and Night (made to order, Chinatown, and desserts). For those unaccustomed to Thai cookery, an appendix includes ingredient and basic technique descriptions.

Recipes cover the expected such as Pat Thai (even if Thompson’s ambivalence about this ubiquitous Thai restaurant dish — invented for a WW II-era noodle recipe contest — is obvious) and mangos with sticky white rice. But don’t shy away from sour orange curry of fish, banana rotis, deep-fried dried beef with a chile-tamarind sauce, prawns and chile jam, sour pork sausages, barbecue or roasted pork, and…well, all the recipes I’ve tried simply work. Don't shy away from any of them.

One of Thai Street Food’s strengths is Thompson’s consistent hand-holding for those unfamiliar with Thai ingredients or techniques. This isn’t some best-hits collection of Thai restaurant favorites, but clearly a work of someone who has eaten and cooked these dishes time and again and understands the variations that can come into play and why one might choose to do one thing over the other.

Thompson is not adamant that readers use unfamiliar ingredients, but describes them in a way that certainly makes me want to. Take, for instance, his description of maengdtaa fish sauce that goes into the above chile-tamarind sauce. Now, I like fish sauce as much as the next guy, but blink and you may miss what makes this one special: “I like to use maengdtaa fish sauce (made from rice roaches, bugs that scurry through the paddy fields), for its haunting aroma, but any good-quality fish sauce will do.” Out came my shopping list: M-A-E-N… No luck so far finding it in San Diego, but I still look.

Muu Bing (photo: Earl Carter)
We’ve taken a shine to Muu Bing, simple grilled pork skewers akin to Indonesian or Malaysian sate. Thompson calls for using an optional pandanus brush, so some explanation is in order. Pandanus (also called pandan, duan pandan, rampe, bai toey, lu dua, or screwpine) has been called the vanilla of Southeast Asia, but perhaps only for its ubiquity; its flavor and scent are all its own. Fruits and flowers of some species are edible, but recipes that use the plant more frequently call for the long, thin, green leaves. Torn or crushed and tied in knots, they are not generally eaten but are removed after cooking much like knots of lemongrass. Fresh leaves are scarce in the US, but  may be found frozen in many Asian grocery stores.

Muu Bing (Grilled Pork Skewers)

Thompson writes “I am addicted to these.” Try them; you’ll see why.

300 g (9 oz) pork loin or neck
50 g (2 oz) pork back fat (fatback) — optional

1 teaspoon cleaned and chopped coriander roots
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
2 tablespoons shaved palm sugar
Dash of dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

12-15 bamboo skewers
3 pandanus* leaves (optional)
about ¼ cup coconut cream

Slice the pork into thinnish pieces about 2 cm (1 in) squares. Cut the pork fat, if using, into small rectangles, say 2 cm x 5 mm (1in x ¼ in).

Next make the marinade. Using a pestle and mortar, pound the coriander root, salt, garlic and pepper into a fine paste. Combined with sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce and oil. Marinate the pork and the fat in this mixture for about three hours. The more cautious can refrigerate this but, if doing so, then it is best marinated overnight.

It’s a good idea to soak skewers in water for about 30 minutes. This prevents them from scorching and burning as the pork grills. Some cooks like to use a brush made out of pandanus leaves to baste the pork. To make a pandanus brush, fold each pandanus leaf in half then trim to make and even edge. Cut up into the trimmed ends four or five times to make the brush’s “bristles.” Tie the pandanus leaves together with string or an elastic band to make a brush. Of course a regular brush will do too.

Prepare the grill. Meanwhile, thread a piece of fat, if using, onto the skewer first followed by two or three pieces of the marinated pork. Repeat with each skewer. When the embers are glowing, in fact beginning to die, gently grill the skewers, turning quite often to prevent charring and promote even caramelisation and cooking. Dab them with the coconut cream as they grill. This should make the coals smoulder and impart a smoky taste. Grill all the skewers.

On the streets, they are simply reheated over the grill to warm them through before serving, although this is not entirely necessary as they are delicious warm or cool.

David Thompson (2010)
Thai Street Food: Authentic Recipes, Vibrant Traditions
372 pages (hardback)
Ten Speed Press
ISBN: 158008284X

1 comment:

dien thoai di dong said...

i love thailan foods. Thank for this info