A book review by Franz Scheurer
Literally for years, David taunted me, and no doubt countless others, with news of his ‘almost ready to be released’ new book. Little snippets of information, even a couple of pages of manuscript, these titbits were slowly waved past my nose, wafting deliciously, whetting an already ravenous appetite.
“It will be ready for Christmas,” he said, and true to his word it was, albeit two Christmases later.
Was it worth the wait?
David landed in Bangkok by mistake, a holiday plan changed at the last minute; he enjoyed it so much he moved there shortly afterwards. Living in the sprawling city of Bangkok, admiring the Thai’s ability to adapt, live with their glorious past without being overwhelmed by it, showing simple, openhearted hospitality, rooted in the ancient rice-paddy culture, maintaining tradition within their newfound busy urban existence.
It was his (and the world’s) good luck that he met Sombat Janphetchara, (affectionately called “Khun Yai”, Grandmother) a custodian of the Thai’s ancient tradition of cooking. She taught David for several months, her craftsmanship and sharply honed skills a continued inspiration.
A Thai custom of publishing memorial books (dating back to King Rama V 1881) often included a wealth of recipes and David devoured as many of them as he could get his hands on, gaining a solid understanding of Thailand’s remarkable cuisine.
Nothing about Thai cuisine is ‘instant’ and nothing is achieved quickly. To prepare a Thai meal takes time, labour, effort and finely honed skills. The rewards however are sensational tastes. David has mastered Thai cuisine like no other, converting the dining public around the world in the process. Disciple cooks and eaters in cities as far apart as Sydney and London faithfully repeat the mantra of a need for a perfect balance of ‘sweet, salty, sour and hot’.
In his book ‘Thai Food ‘ David has immortalised the ancient Thai cuisine in English, before it is eroded, altered and modernised. A mammoth task indeed.
I have a library full of cookbooks. I’m an ‘early morning person’ and one of my favourite pastimes is to get up at 5.00am and read a cookbook for an hour or so. It starts my day with a smile and a happy frame of mind.
Few cookbooks occupy me for more than a few days and David’s Thai Food, once started, made me worry that it may take me as long to read it as it took him to write it. The wealth of information is astounding. A thorough section on history and an equally intensive section on culture and society, paint a brilliant canvass of the Thai people, a section on regions of Thailand shows the differences within the culture and the regional influences on Thai cuisine.
You learn that the Thai eat rice and rice is fundamental to every aspect of Thai culture and cuisine. The colloquial Thai greeting ‘gin kao ruu yang’, commonly translated as ‘how are you?’ literally means ‘have you eaten rice yet?’. To the Thai, rice IS the meal. Curries, relishes, soups, salads are all subordinate to rice, allowed to flavour and enhance, but never to take over.
David goes on to describe the fundamentals of Thai cooking, the Thai kitchen, ingredients and basic preparations. You have to wait untill page 188 before you encounter the recipe section. By then you have a thorough understanding of what David expects from you to proceed and actually cook the food. David is a superb teacher but he does demand a lot from his pupils. There are no shortcuts here, no opening of tins, no second rate ingredients and no ‘she’ll be right, mate’ attitude.
I have attended many of David Thompson’s cooking classes, each time learning more than I could imagine and this book is no different. It is a gift of the highest order, pages and pages of revelations, instructions, mesmerising in the sheer volume and generosity of information.
I finally have read it all… once. I think I’d better start again.
Was it worth the wait?
Viking – Published by the Penguin Group
ISBN 0 670 86761 6
Btw: David, thanks for pages 608/609. It works!