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."
Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
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."
Watch him work, and you'll understand why. It's slow. It's tedious. Dishes are tasted, seasoned, then tasted and seasoned twice more. "Thai cooking is not restaurant cooking, it's best cooked in small batches, with great care, for long periods of time. Many dishes, and particularly curries, also benefit from being left to rest. This is why best Thai food is and always will be found in homes and Thailand's wonderful markets."
As Thompson set up his mise en place for a stir-fry of squid, the credibility of his argument sat on the cutting board. There were emerald leaves of holy basil, fiery bird's eye chilies, glistening shallots, fresh green peppercorns, a large red chili, white tumeric and freshly-caught squid from the Gulf of Thailand. All of these ingredients came from the small, local market (Talaat Suanplu) just outside the studio, the same one I shop in almost every day.
Over the next two afternoons Thompson cooked soups, curries, stir-fry, and relishes, each one more vibrant than the next. He has a child-like enthusiasm when it comes to sharing the treasures he discovers in Thailand's markets--and I was all too happy to oblige.
"You've got to taste this!" he said, handing me a container of palm sugar he sources from an orchard south of Bangkok. "The sap is collected fresh each morning, and boiled down to make this amazing sugar, which I think was probably Thailand's first dessert." The sugar was toasty and reminiscent of maple, with a pinch of the salty earth from which it sprung. It was wonderful on its own--and added great depth to his sour tamarind water, made with fruit that Thompson sources from another local orchard.
At the heart of each dish was a pristine ingredient--a slate-gray slab of grouper drizzled in fish sauce; blue tiger prawns grilled over charcoal; chunks of plucked crabmeat or hand-minced pork. Around these ingredients, the chef assembled supporting casts of lime leaves, fish sauce, lemongrass, mint, coriander, tiny cloves of garlic, roasted rice and chilies or flat-leaf coriander.
Curry pastes, first fried in fresh, separated coconut cream, gradually released their ingredients in fragrant waves. First, a whiff of garlic and shallots; later the nose-stinging sensation of chilies, and finally cumin or lemongrass. Thompson stirred and sniffed, cupping the fragrant steam in his hand and ushering it up towards his nostrils. "You must pay close attention to the paste, as it reveals itself to you," he quietly instructed.
Too many ingredients to list were in concert inside the coconut cream of his green curry. Then he added chunks of slowly braised beef and sweet Thai basil, slivers of wild ginger, bitter pea eggplants, lime leaves and bruised chilies to the stew. And as I tasted this intrinsically complex dish, each flavor came together in composed harmony. Yes, it was a rush of tastes--that chaos of great ingredients--but they had been tamed. Balance had been achieved.
And then the chef, like a conductor pausing to appreciate the sound of his orchestra, took a spoonful and smiled.