Along with her late mother, the restaurateur Leeann Chin, author Katie Chin cohosted the PBS cooking series “Double Happiness” and has appeared widely in the lifestyle media. Fans call her the “Asian Rachael Ray.” “Everyday Thai Cooking” is her third print venture. While Chin is Chinese-American, her enthusiasm for Thai food and Thailand (where she and her husband honeymooned) is the driving force behind this volume. So the crucial question is: Does that enthusiasm translate to expertise?
Chin is a big fan of sweet flavors, and many recipes make heavy use of either palm sugar (you can subsitute brown sugar) or granulated sugar. Spicy Thai cukes are a fast, sweet pickle topped with salty, crunchy peanuts. There’s nothing complex about it, but it’s still satisfying. Because I’m not sure what Chin means by “dice”— in the photograph they look like batons — I chop them into something halfway in between. Thai barbecue chicken (gai yang) differs significantly from the peppery version I usually make, which depends on cilantro roots and coconut milk. This is a tamer, very sweet version, where the marinade is imbued with a bit of lemongrass and a lot of palm sugar, honey, and fish sauce. Of course, it’s hard to argue with that much salt and sweet on grilled chicken. But the high dosage of sugars makes it very hard to grill without blackening.
Flat noodles with broccoli, the pad see ew you know from Thai restaurants, comes together quickly, with white pepper, eggs, sweetened oyster sauce, and dark soy defining it. I miss the bite of vinegar that usually awakens pad see ew, though; it mostly tastes like a sleepy chow fun.
Green beans in a stir-fry with ground pork get chopped into such tiny pieces that they scatter and blend into the meat, picking up flavor from the oyster-soy-fish sauce mixture. The same seasoning works even better for a stir-fry of asparagus, shiitakes, and tofu, though it’s not clear how large the tofu is to be cubed, and you’d better use all the oil at once rather than half, as suggested, if you hope to get any kind of searing on the tofu.
I’m not sure I’ve ever had bad peanut noodles, so it was not surprising that Chin’s version was a hit with our family; the heat, such as it is, comes from a bit of red curry paste. The usual suspects (galangal, shallot, chile, garlic, fish sauce, lime, sugar) transform a box of linguine and a handful of cilantro into something memorable. The most authentically Thai-seeming dish of the lot comes in neat packets of fish wrapped in banana leaves, with a fragrant paste of kaffir, lime, lemongrass, galangal, and coconut milk. The banana leaves look classy and the paste smells divine, but in the end the fragrance stops at the surface of the fish, leaving the interior moist but bland.
The sleeper hit turns out to be garlicky Thai eggplant, in which a liberal handful of Thai basil and a whopping measure of garlic work magic on one of my kids’ most despised vegetables. They would have gotten more, but their mom kept snitching from the pan.
Although everything turned out well — attractive, flavorful, enjoyed by all with few to no leftovers — there was, in the end, a certain sameness about the dishes. You could say that these recipes are basically southern Chinese food plus palm sugar, or with fish sauce instead of soy.
But it isn’t just that. My impression is that true Thai food is a sensory assault: saturated color, a high index of all five flavors, and a good deal of attention to fragrance. In the final analysis, these dishes seem like sketches, sure-footed in the balance of salt and sweet, but willing to leave behind a good deal of complexity for convenience.
There’s nothing wrong with making that trade-off. We live busy lives, and Chin is realistic. Still, you’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s worth it.T. Susan Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.