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Fusing tradition and innovation
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  1. #1
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    Fusing tradition and innovation

    Fusing tradition and innovation
    Bangkok Post, 26 February 2006
    Prisna Boonsindukh

    For at least 35 years of my adult life I've been privileged to have always had the best of home-cooked Thai food served up to me. While I cooked farang food in my modern kitchen for David and for our friends and, after that, for my students and my columns, Ladda, my housekeeper, in her separate kitchen, cooked Thai food and fed me the best of pad thai, tom yum, green curries, et al.

    She still does so to this day.

    I would end my morning class around midday, leaving my students ecstatic with the Western food they'd just cooked and packed up to take home, and trip upstairs to my khao mun gai or tod mun kung or even just a plate of excellent fried rice with salted fish. Why then have I not learned to cook Thai food? Because good cooks do not always make good teachers.

    Ladda, or Auntie Lad as she is universally known, does not recognise measuring cups and spoons as necessary kitchen equipment. She is a member of that most enviable of species: The natural or instinctive cook. While she is happy to give me the recipe for any dish I want, the lack of precise measurements makes it difficult for me to document them. I do have her recipe for green-curry paste - wrested out of her after a full hour of the most intensive grilling - and yet every time I made it, she would say, "oh, you should put in more of this, less of that", and "this is missing" or "that shouldn't be in there". Oh, frustration!

    Then I had the brilliant idea of learning to cook Thai food from Thai chefs working abroad who have published Thai cookbooks written in English. Well, I can't say, after conducting that exercise, that I've produced any Thai dishes that I'd like to repeat. Browsing in Waterstone's book shop one holiday, I discovered David Thompson and his Thai Food, a veritable bible of Thai culinary culture.

    I was so in awe of the 670-page volume that I have yet to cook from any of its hundreds of recipes, but the ingredients section I use extensively as a reference. It was from Thompson that I got a full roster of Thai food ingredients - with names in both English and Thai (transliterated into English) - over many of which I can be heard making the "Japanese" exclamation, "ahh ... so!", like when I learned that betel leaves are bai cha-plu and dok mai jin, dried lily stalks; that grachai is wild ginger; and lemon basil, bai maeng luk.

    A trendy cookbook by Neale Whitaker called The Accidental Foodie (Murdoch Books) brings Thompson into narrower focus, however. Whitaker came into the food business accidentally, but quickly found distinction for himself. He was the original editor of Food Illustrated in the UK and founding editor of popular Australian food magazine ABC delicious. This put him in a good position to bring together 23 chefs who had touched his career at some point and whom he calls his "food heroes".

    These chefs, from Jamie Oliver to Joan Campbell, contributed over 90 of their favourite recipes. The four submitted by David Thompson make a complete meal and I followed his clear instructions to meet with resounding success. Even Auntie Lad conceded that the dishes were quite edible. I thought that if any treatment could make bland chicken breasts taste delicious, it would be a spicy yum, and I was right. The salad of chicken and pomelo is, as Thompson notes, salty, and equally sweet, sour and hot. Add to that some juicy pomelo and you get a very refreshing dish. Remember, though, that it is much better to choose a sourish pomelo for this than a really sweet one.

    Luckily, betel leaves grow in abundance in my kitchen garden, because, for once, Villa failed me, and I'd probably have had to go to a fresh-produce market for them otherwise. Betel leaves in a sour orange curry is new to me. I've never seen the leaves used in anything but mieng and in an excellent Vietnamese dish wrapped around fingerlings of beef. But they really added a fresh, green taste to the sour orange curry of prawns. I extended Thompson's use of yellow bean sauce in his stir-fried bean sprouts to the spicy/hot yellow bean sauce I found which gave even more heat to the crunchy bean sprouts.

    Great chefs always make a great point out of using seasonal ingredients, so I felt free to use strawberries, available in abundance at the time of writing this, to replace the absent mangosteen in the sweet dish. If anything can add more flavour to sweet, juicy fruit like strawberries, lychees or rambutans, it's Thompson's perfumed syrup plus his use of shredded green mango and deep-fried shallots as a topping for the dish.

    After conducting an interview with Thompson, then working in Australia, Neale Whitaker wrote that, ".. he cooked magical food that bore no resemblance to the Thai food I had eaten in London, or indeed on any of my own visits to Thailand."

    Taking Thai food beyond its traditional boundaries - maybe that's the secret that makes Thompson's Nahm (in London) the first Thai restaurant ever to be awarded a coveted Michelin star.

  2. #2
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    Here's a quartet of recipes from David Thompson, of Nahm restaurant fame, which managed to elicit grudging praise from a very dyed-in-the-wool Thai cook:

    Salad of chicken and pomelo

    To serve four as part of a shared meal

    Ingredients:

    100g blanched and shredded chicken

    225g pomelo segments, peeled

    2 stems lemon grass, finely sliced

    2 shallots, sliced

    Handful of mint and coriander leaves

    Deep fried garlic*

    Deep-fried shallots*

    For dressing:

    2 coriander roots

    1 large red chilli, de-seeded

    4 Tbsp lime juice

    2 Tbsp sugar

    2 Tbsp fish sauce

    A few small bird's eye chillies

    A good pinch of salt

    Preparation:

    1. Combine all the dressing ingredients in a mortar and pound with a pestle. The dressing shouldn't be too strong, otherwise it will overwhelm the chicken and fruit, but nor should it be too weak. It should be salty, and equally sweet, sour and hot.

    2. Combine dressing with the remaining ingredients and serve sprinkled with the deep-fried garlic and shallots.

    *Deep-fried garlic: Slice one cup of garlic lengthwise into thin, even slices. Heat oil in a wok until moderately hot, then add the garlic and reduce the heat a little. Deep-fry, stirring constantly with tongs. When the garlic starts to lose its sharp peppery aroma, smells nutty and starts to turn amber and then a light honey-gold, remove it from the oil. Drain and then spread it out on absorbent paper to cool. Pass the oil through a sieve to collect any scraps before re-use. The garlic will keep for two to three days in an airtight container.

    *Deep-fried shallots: As for deep-fried garlic. The shallots are removed from the oil when they give out a nutty aroma and turn a golden colour.


    Sour orange curry of prawns with betel leaves

    To serve four as part of a shared meal

    Ingredients:

    750ml chicken stock

    5 shallots

    1 Tbsp tamarind water

    2 Tbsp fish sauce

    2 Tbsp (heaped) sour orange curry paste

    12 prawns, shelled, and deveined

    3 deep-fried long red chillies

    A few betel leaves, torn

    A pinch of chilli powder, or to taste

    A pinch of sugar

    For sour orange curry paste:

    2 Tbsp dried long red chillies, roughly torn

    3 Tbsp minced garlic

    3 Tbsp ground dried shrimp

    1 Tbsp shrimp paste (kapi)

    A few bird's eye chillies

    A good pinch of salt

    Preparation:

    1. Curry paste: Using a pestle, pound each ingredient in a mortar, in the given order, until thoroughly pureed, before adding the next ingredient, with the shrimp paste last.

    2. Curry: Add a pinch of salt to the stock and bring to the boil. Add the tamarind water and the shallots and simmer until tender. Season with sugar and fish sauce. Add the paste and simmer for a minute or so.

    Check the seasoning: This thin curry should taste salty, sour and hot. Add the prawns, betel leaves, chilli powder and deep-fried chillies and simmer just until the prawns turn pink.


    Stir-fried bean sprouts with yellow beans, garlic and chillies

    To serve four as part of a shared meal

    Ingredients:

    2 cloves garlic

    1 long red chilli

    150g bean sprouts, topped and tailed

    3 Tbsp yellow bean sauce

    125ml chicken stock

    2 Tbsp light soya sauce

    A pinch of sugar

    A pinch of salt

    Vegetable oil for frying

    Preparation:

    1. Crush the garlic with the salt in a pestle. Add the chilli and bruise with the pestle.

    2. Heat a wok, add the oil and then throw in the bean sprouts, crushed garlic, chilli, yellow bean sauce and sugar.

    When the bean sprouts have wilted, add the stock and light soya sauce. Serve immediately.


    Strawberries, lychees and rambutans in perfumed syrup with green mango and deep-fried shallots

    To serve four as part of a shared meal

    Ingredients:

    200g sugar

    300ml water, ideally perfumed with a little jasmine or rose water

    1 pandanus leaf (bai toey), knotted

    1 Tbsp shredded green mango

    3 Tbsp deep-fried shallots

    Lime zest

    A little lime juice

    A good pinch of salt

    10 strawberries, 10 lychees and

    10 rambutans

    Preparation:

    1. Make a syrup by simmering the sugar and water, adding the pandanus leaf, lime zest and salt.

    Just before removing from the heat, pour in the lime juice. Simmer briefly, then remove from heat. Cool and strain.

    2. Hull the strawberries, peel the lychees and rambutans and prise out the stones.

    Pour the cold syrup over the fruit, sprinkle with the green mango and the deep-fried shallots.

  3. #3
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    Working in as a pastry chef in a hotel and using established recipes as a "guide" to keep products consistant is pretty much normal. There are still times to tweak the recipes depending on quality of flavors available.
    I have found that using the same recipe in a different locatin doesn't always produce the same effect. Recipes are great to give a procedure and ingredient list. Doing the actual cooking or baking requires skill acquired to produce that flavored dish that will be aroi.

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