Cooking Thai Food With a Master

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

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To try David Thompson's recipe for Grilled Beef With Roast Chili Sauce, click here.

Tangled herbs are piled high like clipped shrubbery. Chickens, factory-fattened and free-range, bathe in ice. Pink pork loins hang from hooks, beside a polka-dot tapestry of eggplants and chilies. My market in Bangkok is blur of produce, one that I try to walk through each day, nose in the air, eyes wide. We're just getting to know each other.

Many of us have an intensely personal relationship with the food we eat. But when you're living in such close quarters--cooking, eating, and, in my case, writing about it--it can be difficult to decode a certain cuisine's mystique. As close as Thai food has been to my heart, it took another person to help me fully appreciate why. That person has been David Thompson, a lauded Australian chef who wrote the seminal book in English on Thai cooking.

When I arrived in Bangkok last year his book, Thai Food, guided me through Bangkok's maze of markets. His words helped me appreciate the manifold sensibilities of the Thai palate. If you want to know what it is to cook Thai food, Thompson's book is as indispensable as pestle and mortar.

"People talk about great Thai chefs--but anyone can do this, if you've got the right ingredients."

Generally speaking, I like eating simple but special things--French butter, Atlantic oysters, summer tomatoes. But, I thought, my great affection for the complexities of Thai cooking stood in opposition to things I believed about food. Namely that good produce, rather than elaborate seasoning, is the determining factor in eating well.

Last week in Bangkok I ate exceptionally well. And that's because I spent two days with Thompson, watching him work and tasting the results (all the while peeling shallots, plucking herbs, and picking his brain). And over those two days, as we talked about Thai food, my own blurry perceptions of the cuisine came sharply into focus.

With knife in hand, the soft-spoken, professorial chef spoke passionately about why he's been drawn to Thai cooking for twenty-five years: "It's a completely unique style of cooking, one that is born in chaos. The flavors are confrontational, almost paradoxical. But the Thais cook as if it is embedded in their DNA, and over a thousand years they have achieved great balance amidst all of this chaos."

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The chaos that Thompson speaks of is what makes Thailand's food so exciting; it's the head-spinning chaos of wonderful ingredients. "Produce defines this cuisine, just like Italian or French food. The Thai people celebrate and embrace their ingredients, and demand good quality. People talk about great Thai chefs--but anyone can do this, if you've got the right ingredients."

This, too, Thompson argued, is why Thai food doesn't work as well in a restaurant context (this, from the first person cooking Thai food to be awarded a Michelin star). "It is one of life's great contradictions, that in this country where food plays such a integral role, that there is no such thing as The Great Thai Restaurant."

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Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of greasy cheese steaks. More

Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of (and occasionally returns for) greasy cheese steaks. Jarrett's first trip to Asia came as a college student, when he traveled to Beijing to study Mandarin Chinese. He returned to China after graduation, and began writing about Chinese food in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. After a six-month stint in Chengdu, he moved on to Shanghai, where he worked as a food critic and magazine editor for four years before striking out on his own. After six years in China, he recently moved to Bangkok, where yellow-clad protesters immediately shut down the airport where he had just landed. Luckily for him, he couldn't leave—and now intends to stay. Jarrett is presently working on a series of modern Chinese cookbooks with Hong Kong chef Jereme Leung and writing features that focus on food and culture in Asia. He'll be bouncing around the region as much as possible and writing about things he encounters along the way. His blog trains an eye on food but addresses other cultural phenomena, tidbits of travel, and the oddball politics of East Asia.

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