I imagine that most food bloggers have their ‘Julie and Julia’ fantasy cookbook: the one cookbook from which you would love to cook every single recipe. Mine is David Thompson’s Thai Food. At 673 pages, this would certainly be quite the challenge. It’s such an incredible book; the detail about Thai food and how it relates to Thai culture is exhaustive.
Thai Food also features some awesome descriptions of taste. Hopefully I’m not breaking too many copyright laws by sharing here Thompson’s description of how shrimp paste relish – or nahm prik – ought to taste (research purposes only, I swear):
It should taste hot, salty, slightly sour and slightly sweet. The structure of the tastes should be seamlessly poised. The garlic prevents the shrimp paste swamping the dish; the chillies sharpen the taste and hone the palate; the shrimp paste, the principal ingredient, enriches with its redolence and prevents the disparate tastes pulling away from each other. The seasoning then tightens the various tastes: the fish sauce lengthens and concentrates the flavour, the sugar rounds and smooths any abrupt tastes, while the lime juice finally cleans and reveals the finished product.
I wish I could describe food like that! I’m still stuck on single words like ‘good’!
So far, I’ve only cooked one recipe from Thai Food: the ubiquitous hot and sour soup known as tom yum goong – or, as Thompson spells it, dtom yam gung. This version is pretty simple and more about ‘balance’ than mountains of ingredients.
The recipe here is enough for about four servings as part of a larger meal of shared dishes, which is the Thai way. That said, I quite like to eat tom yum soup on its own when I’m feeling a little under the weather – it’s kind of like a prawn version of chicken soup.
10 uncooked prawns
4 cups water
large pinch of salt
1 tbs fish sauce plus extra, to taste
3-7 birds eye chillies (be brave – go for 7!)
2 stalks lemongrass, chopped
3 kaffir lime leaves, torn
3 tbs lime juice
a handful of coriander leaves
- I only like to use really fresh prawns because otherwise they taste too ‘prawny’. Blackened heads indicates that the prawns are not fresh. To prepare, peel the prawns and cut out the ‘veins’ (or poo shoot as they were calling it on masterchef). I remove the ‘vein’ by lying the peeled prawns flat and then slitting along the back with a sharp knife. Reserve the heads and shells.
- Rinse the heads and shells briefly. Add to a saucepan of the water and salt and bring to a simmer. Do not cook for longer than 15-20 minutes.
- While the stock is simmering, prepare the remaining ingredients. Bruise lemongrass and chillies with a pestle. Tear the kaffir lime leaves, squeeze the lime juice and chop the coriander.
- Strain the prawn stock and press down on shells to retain as much flavour as possible.
- Return stock to the stove and bring to the boil. Season with fish sauce.
- Add the lemongrass to the stock along with the torn kaffir lime leaves.
- Add peeled prawns to stock and simmer for a minute or two until they have just changed colour.
- In the serving bowls, divide up the lime juice, chillies and coriander. I only used 3 chillies because my mum hates spice! But in hindsight the soup definitely could have done with more heat. Perhaps I should have pounded them a little harder with the pestle.
- Ladle the soup into the bowls. Adjust seasoning as needed – I added a fair bit more fish sauce. I’m sure the exact quantities required depends on the brand of fish sauce you are using – and personal taste of course.
I have made a vegetarian version of this using water and tofu. It still works! I loved this prawn version but I wonder whether my stock was a bit cloudy. It didn’t have the vibrancy that I was hoping for in terms of appearance. Perhaps I simmered the prawn shells for too long? I don’t think I have quite mastered this Thai classic yet…
Ok. Only 672 more pages of recipes to go…