Welcome to this year's Piglet Community Picks! Until the Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks kicks off in March, we'll be posting weekly reviews of the best new books you cooked from in 2018—written by you. To see other reviews, head here. And to catch up on the books that made it into the main tournament, look no further.
I am sitting inside of my apartment, watching the snow fall on a day when the high will be less than 0° F. The weather just about matches my mood—it would have more closely matched if I were not nearly intoxicated with the aromas of ginger, star anise, coriander, and cardamom. I am bathed in the smells of someplace warm and wonderful, so far from this wintery urban drabness.
That is what I took away from The Food of Northern Thailand by Austin Bush. It is a very intelligent take on a topic that we might all believe we know—Thai food—and shows us that we still have a lot left to learn. Mr. Bush has lived and worked in Thailand since 1999, exploring and photographing the country. While immersing himself in Thai culture, and learning to speak and read the language, Bush also immersed himself in its various foods. He learned of the differences in cuisine not simply between North and South, but between the microregions within these areas. And from this exploration, it was in Northern Thailand that he found his true passion.
The foods of the region are, as Bush describes, a complex blending of flavors; not the typical balance of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy that one normally thinks of, but rather just one flavors, intensified, to create a bit more of a pronounced attack on your palate. He goes on to explain that Northern Thai food, while plenty spicy, is not packed with the incandescent heat the way that many think is the hallmark of Thai food.
Reading the recipes in this book caused me a bit of panic, at first glance. Few of the ingredients listed are staples in my kitchen: Shrimp paste, two kinds of fish sauce, three kinds of soy sauce, coconut milks and creams, banana leaves, and a shelf's worth of spices. However, most of these items could be obtained at my local Asian supermarket, and I expect can be more readily acquired if that local Asian supermarket is Thai. The items which I couldn't find locally were acquired easily on Amazon with some pre-planning.
Vegetables and herbs may be where it becomes an issue for some, as it was for me: Of the three kinds of eggplant called for in the recipes I read through, one variety, the Thai pea eggplant, is virtually impossible to find in mid-winter. Aromatics such as cilantro root, cha-om (a tropical member of the Acacia family, bearing tender, leafy edible shoots), and makrut lime leaf may present an availability problem, but lend an effect that makes the search worthwhile.
And how are the recipes? Very clear and direct, with a word of advice: Read and reread the recipes, and gather your ingredients in advance to make the mise-en-place. The mise is the true trick to the success of any recipe, but it is doubly so here. You will be asked to use a mortar and pestle to pound a curry paste, to grind spices, perhaps to chop vegetables for a salad, and always to make a phrik (a dip or sauce). Mr. Bush does seem to prefer that all items be made in a traditional manner, but will occasionally give the reader the nod that, yes, a spice grinder or food processor may be used to no ill effect. Often, the mise can be prepared well in advance so that you can come home from a long day and bring a complete Thai meal to the table within an hour.
I am a pretty hardcore home cook, but cooking Thai food is not in my normal skill set. I was surprised by the quality of the results of the recipes I made, especially on the first try. The Laap Kai (chicken laap) and Yam Makhuea Mathuea (a pounded salad of eggplant, bitter melon, and long beans) were excellent, though I must confess I did not garnish the chicken dishes with the suggested “chicken knees” (made of the fried cartilage ends of drumsticks)—to me, they seemed time-consuming and a little baroque.
Another meal that weekend involved Har Nueng Kai (steamed banana leaf packets of chicken, vegetables, and herbs), Het Nueng with Phrik Khaa (steamed mushrooms served with a galangal dip), and Tam Makhuea, another eggplant dish that reminded us of a spicy baba ganoush. All of this was accompanied by sticky rice, the perfect side to scoop up the sauces and flavors of the meal. The packets of chicken came together much more easily than the lengthy recipe might indicate, and the grilled eggplant was incredible. The mushroom dish had an excellent dry spice added to it with the galangal-chili mixture, but the texture and bland nature of the steamed mushrooms seemed out of place with such dynamic dining partners.
Finally, a bowl of tasty Khao Soi Nuea was just perfect—and is what I'm eating of this writing. For the uninitiated, it's a rich stew filled with meltingly soft pieces of beef shank in an aromatic broth of onions, garlic, spices, and coconut milk and coconut cream. The broth is generously ladled atop noodles, salty and sharp pickled mustard greens, and crispy, crunchy fried noodles go on top. This bowl of soup was complex and comforting at the same time. The dish was accompanied by a truly memorable statement from my husband: “This is better than pad Thai!” Since pad Thai was formerly his favorite Thai dish, that is high praise.
The Food of Northern Thailand is a beautiful paean to the varied cuisine from this region, many of which I'd never encountered before. Trust the author to lead you on this journey. With his direction, you will find yourself rewarded for the work with a great meal, that can transport you from the snowy winter in the Northern U.S. to a land of galangal, turmeric, and lemongrass. That’s enough for me to keep believing that the snow will not last forever.
"Because so much of this cuisine is a folklore and traditions handed down by word of mouth, rarely recorded works of like The Food of Northern Thailand are important not only for the joy of cooking, but for learning and providing insight to a culture. The book is akin to Mastering the Art of French Cooking or Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking in terms of its in-depth coverage of the cuisine. It truly illustrates how food meshes with the culture, the people, their history and the land they inhabit." —Summer of Eggplant
"This book is wonderful for guiding you through Northern Thailand and learning about the people, foods, and ingredients. Each section contains beautiful photographs and drawings of various techniques that are much more accessible seen than read." —Jocelyn Padilla
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