The Thai cookbooks I’ve seen have until recently come in two varieties: the dauntingly authentic tome that commands you to grind your own curry paste in your own mortar and pestle, and the “easy” Thai that, when you get right down to it, turns out to be more Chinese than anything else.
Then along comes freelance food writer Leela Punyaratabandhu, who blogs at shesimmers.com. Raised in Bangkok and now living part time in Chicago, Punyaratabandhu set out on her blog to re-create the tastes of home using ingredients she — and therefore you — could find in this country. The work developed into this, her first cookbook, and it shows a confidence and care absent in many books by more seasoned authors.
Snacks are the first sign that this is a book that will steal your good sense and drown it in whatever cooking vessel is handy: Herb-baked cashews, tossed in a thick paste of scallions, limey honey, and herbs are more addictive than any honey-roasted peanut you’ll find. Sweet potato fritters, sizzling and spiced, get a nubbly surface from coconut flakes — perfect for picking up thick sweet chile sauce spiked with peanuts and cilantro. (“The batter will be thick and pasty, which may send your Spidey sense tingling,” remarks the author, in a typical aside.)
Thai classics appear as advertised: pad Thai has all the textural components — chopped peanuts, crisp sprouts, slick noodles — that keep each bite as interesting as the one before (though I prefer mine soured even more heavily by lime along with the tamarind). And spicy grilled beef salad, yam neua, to those of us who know and love it, is simple fare, marinated with a lot of pepper, grilled and tossed with an easy fish sauce and lime dressing
A straightforward chicken-cashew stir-fry is one of those Chinese-with-a-sweet-tooth Thai dishes, though no less tasty for it. But “Northeastern minced chicken salad” is bracingly tart and curious, underscored with the brawny herbal taste of culantro (different from cilantro, this has long leaves), sour and refreshing on crisp lettuce.
I used to puzzle over a lingering, savory sauce at a Southeast Asian noodle haunt, but “drunkard’s style” rice noodles solved that mystery at last. It’s a blend of fish sauce, oyster sauce, soy, and sweet dark soy along with “holy” basil. That such familiar ingredients could combine to form something perennially surprising amazes me. It’s the sort of revelation one hopes for, yet so rarely finds in a cookbook.
Punyaratabandhu doesn’t shun store-bought curry pastes, but she uses them as one of
several ingredients rather than as a substitute for other seasonings. Beef shank massaman curry is the most sinful version of this dish I’ve ever tasted, thanks to one-half cup of coconut cream, whose fatty luxury carries the flavors of green cardamom, star anise, and tamarind along with store-bought massaman curry paste. A turmeric-gilded and coconut-citrus-marinated pork satay stays moist on the skewer as you throw together an easy, red curry-based peanut sauce.
Curry noodles with chicken uses both red and yellow curry pastes. And while 3 cups of stock seems like a lot — you get a kind of curry-scented broth for your noodles to swim in — it’s tasty enough to eat with a spoon.
I struggled with only a couple of recipes during an adventurous week. A sweet dry curry of pork and long beans never indicates when to add the ground dried shrimp. And bite-size pieces of pork cook through almost instantly rather than in the 10 to 12 minutes as estimated. Still, the curry’s so good (especially with a glorious exclamation point of kaffir lime leaf) it hardly matters.
A ground pork omelet sounds like an innocuous, fast dinner until you get to the deep-frying part. I’m sure I did something wrong: Half my omelets fell apart, half foundered in a greasy heap. At the end the oil bubbled up ominously out of the wok.
Regardless, “Simple Thai Food” is what it says: unusually simple, and still really Thai. It’s written with grace, dedication, and humor, and there’s nothing like it on the market. It does the same thing that Raghavan Iyer’s “660 Curries” does for Indian food and what Louisa Shafia’s “New Persian Kitchen” does for Persian food. In other words, if you want a single Thai book, this is it.
T. Susan Chang can be reached at email@example.com.