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Apr 8, 2009 08:29 PM

Can you recommend a Thai cookbook, given these proclivities?

Hi. I'd like to pick up a good Thai cookbook. Here's where I'm coming from, in case it affects what you'd like to recommend (sorry, this post got long!):

I love fresh, distinct, carefully-put-together ingredients that together make a great blend of flavors.

By that I mean I really appreciate some restaurants nearby, here in L.A., where you can detect each of several ingredients in a curry paste that was just made, and there's a sliver of kaffir lime leaf on top, and very little comes from a package or can. I don't like very Americanized versions, and there's also a bunch of presumably authentic but middling Thai food out there that I don't need - a lot of takeout falls into this category. I never want to taste canned bamboo shoots again.

I'm OK with a cookbook that could include selected things from nearby Thailand too, but mainly Thai. (Great fusion, I'd entertain. I'd call that different from just Americanized. And I'm still learning the basics of authentic Thai.)

Some of my favorite things Thai and not are:

panang curries
crying tiger beef salad (with basil, mint, chilies, etc.)
green papaya salad
tom yum koong
summer rolls (shrimp, rice paper, etc.)
tom ka gai of course
really good jasmine rice, sometimes enhanced with black sticky rice
things with lime
things with cilantro
things with tamarind or pomegranate molasses
things with star anise or cinnamon
stir-fries on the dry side - a little oil but not much liquid
what I believe was called Singapore noodles - a citrus and udon dish with shrimp
...and I love beef - especially short rib, duck and shrimp

I've made my own panang paste. Some of the ingredients I have on hand are:
dried shrimp
palm sugar
tamarind paste
fresh and dried Thai chilis
fresh basil, galangal, lemongrass, shallots, mint, cilantro and kaffir leaf
frozen coconut shreds
rice paper for summer rolls
fish sauce
sweet chili sauce
rice vinegar
black sesame seeds

... so where can I go from here with a good cookbook? I also like pictures, both for identifying interesting herbs/fruits and noodles, and seeing how a dish is supposed to look finished. (Prep pics are great too but not strictly necessary.)

Thank you!

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  1. I wish I could help you. I, too, love Thai food, but have never attempted to cook it myself. I'm looking forward to the answers to your questions, as I hope to 'borrow' some of them as well. The problem I have is that although I do love traditional Thai foods, I have a very 'tender' mouth, and so have to cut back on the chilies, which would be much easier to do were I cooking it for myself. I can't wait to see what suggestions you get. Good luck.

    1 Reply
    1. re: FibroLady

      Well, while it is not what I'd recommend at full strength for a tender mouth, I tried Green Papaya salad recently and found the enzymes seem kind of amazing. (I've tried powdered papaya enzyme before but the real deal seems to be helpful in terms of digestion and feeling sort of non-achy. Can't say for sure, but am inclined to keep trying it.) There are certainly ways to make Thai foods on the mild side, and I like tamarind as a punch of flavor where otherwise chilies might be.

    2. One of my first Thai cookbooks, and still a favorite, is David Thompson's comprehensive "Thai Food".

      I also like Cracking the Coconut: Classic Thai Home Cooking by Su-mei Yu

      2 Replies
      1. re: Rubee

        Thank you - David Thompson book looks marvelously in-depth and I will check it out.

        The second book is an inside joke to me in terms of the title. Both my thumb and my counter bear small scars from trying - badly - to open coconuts. I grew up in the subtropics but it is not a native skill !!

        1. re: Rubee

          I've had Thompson's book and have one by Judy Bastyra.
          For a beginner: I think it is good to get one that is not overly sophisticated, or one with really complex recipes, and perhaps one that allows use of more common ingredients or substitutions.

        2. Triple and quadruple recommend "Aharn Thai", by D. Thompson! This is the only book that (I have seen) gives a thorough understanding of Thai flavor balance and harmony with a wide diversity of recipes. A good bit of food history, too, at least as much as helps you to put the dish together. Look to see if there are enough photos for you, but his descriptions about how to cook/finish every dish I find sufficient.

          Perhaps you'd be interested in starting a thread with recipes you've completed? They're terribly delicious....

          24 Replies
          1. re: evergreengirl

            Thai Food by David Thompson again.

            I am passionate about Thai food largely as a result of this book and attending a cooking class with David (he signed my book!)

            While many of the recipes are complex (it is thai food after all), the recipes are easy to follow - there is a friend pork neck with green papaya salad recipe that i must have served at at least 30 or 40 parties.

            Interesting side note, he has actually worked extensively with the Thai Palace on maintaining and preserving Thai cuisine, technique and food culture.

            Many of us who live in Australia, still deeply miss his restaurant Darley Street Thai in Sydney.

            I have such a cursh on that man.

            1. re: Samuelinthekitchen


              I have Thai Food on order from the library. Thanks for the tip about the green papaya salad.

              1. re: dkennedy

                Actually, I am on a waiting list for Thai Food. Any chance someone could paraphrase the recipe for me.

                1. re: dkennedy

                  Here you go. No moratorium on new cookbooks yet...although my husband always has a look of disbelief everytime he sees a new one.

                  Green Papaya Salad with Crispy pork

                  Make the pork a day in advance. Make a syrup with 1 c palm sugar, 1/2 c kecap manis, 3 T oyster sauce, pinch of salt and pinch of star anise (optional). Simmer about 3 minutes to reduce and then cool. Slice 6 oz pork neck into 2" x 1" pieces and marinate in the syrup overnight. Dry on a rack for a day until almost dry.

                  Salad- pound 3 cloves of peeled garlic, pinch of salt and 4-6 brid's eyes chiles in a mortar and pestle, add 1 heaped T of roasted peanutes and 2 T dried shrimp snd pound into a coarse paste. Add slice of lime (optional) then 4 quartered cherry tomatoes and 2 Chinese long beans (cut into 1/2" pieces) and mash gently. Add 1 c shredded green papaya and bruise. Next season with 2 T palm sugar, 1 T lime juice, 1 T tamarind water and 1-2 T fish sauce.

                  Deep fry pork in oil on med heat until mahogany colored and fragrant. serve alongside the salad.

                  He suggests eating this with wedges of cabbage, cucumber slices and Chinese long beans. Coconut rice is also something to eat with the salad.

                  Please report back if you make this.

                  1. re: BigSal

                    Thank you so much BigSal, I can't wait to make it. I think I can get my hands on all the ingredients for this recipe so I will try to make it next weekend and report back.

                    I have to say the 1 c palm sugar for the syrup is enough to make me run away and hide from this recipe. Scraping 1/4 c. is a days work, I don't know how I am going to manage 1 cup. I may have to substitute brown sugar if I become too desperate. If anyone knows any tips on how to soften palm sugar, it would be greatly appreciated.

                    1. re: dkennedy

                      You can zap it briefly in the microwave - that's what it says to do on the tubs of palm sugar I buy.

                      I was taught to make papaya salad by a Thai lady who is from Northern Thailand where this dish comes from (Issan). This recipe looks pretty similar, apart from she didn't use tamarind water.

                        1. re: dkennedy

                          i wonder if one kept an apple in a glass jar with the palm sugar that it might soften up -- like brown sugar does.

                          1. re: alkapal

                            Big Sal,

                            You asked me to report back when I made the papaya salad that you very generously set out above, so I am. Went to the Bangkok Market this morning and bought the ingredients needed for the Papaya Salad, along with the ingredients for a red curry, and sticky rice. This will be my first time making sticky rice so I also bought a sticky rice steaming vessel. The recipe for the sticky rice will be out of Seductions of Rice, which I am devouring! The red curry is a quick dish I make all the time.

                            I made the marinade for the fried pork-neck accompaniment, and the meat is marinading as we speak. Tomorrow I take it out and dry it, if I understand this correctly. I am planning on doing that on a cookie sheet. If I am going about it wrong, please let me know. More when I am further along.

                            1. re: dkennedy

                              pretty much there, but put them on a rack over the cookie sheet so all sides have an airflow to dry them. LOVE that pork neck.

                              If you get the energy, the chilli jam in the book goes extremely well with them also.

                              1. re: Samuelinthekitchen

                                Still don't have the book so the chili jam will have to wait. I will use the rack.

                                1. re: dkennedy


                                  One more question re drying it on a rack. Is this left in the fridge while drying or at room temperature?

                                  1. re: dkennedy

                                    Re drying meat at room temperature:

                                    After doing some research online, I think the answer must be at room temperature. I hope I am right. The meat looks almost candied, but I really am hoping for some confirmation. Thanks for your help.

                                    1. re: dkennedy

                                      room temperature - unless you're drying it for hours at a time - then the fridge. That candied look is the one you're looking for. Once it has that, you're good to go

                                      1. re: Samuelinthekitchen

                                        At the candied look now. Thank you Samuelinthekitchen for walking me through what to do. Can't wait to cook it up tonight. Let ya'all know how it comes out tomorrow.

                                        1. re: dkennedy

                                          Very happy to help. You're actually cooking my single favourite recipe in all of his books. Those little bits of pork over a papaya salad wrapped in a lettuce leaf cup is proof of the existence of a divine benevolent being. Simply amazing.

                                          1. re: Samuelinthekitchen

                                            Hi Samuel,

                                            Dinner last night was amazing. My sticky rice came out just right, the green papaya salad was perfectly seasoned, IMHO, and the candied pork was the best part. My 12 year old son even asked to take the leftover pork and rice in his lunchbox to school. Thank you for holding my hand through the process. I couldn't have done it without you.

                                            My copy of Thai Food came in at the library so hopefully I am going to stop pestering the board with all my questions. But I have to say, after reading the recipe verbatim from the book, I would not have trusted myself to serve the pork if I hadn't had this board to go to. There was no info in the recipe that explained about drying the beef safely or that the soy sauce was acting as a cure.

                                            If this recipe is an indicator of the level of knowledge assumed by the writer then I am doomed. I know we are considering this as an option for a future COTM but I think it will be way above a lot of people's abilities. That said, I am enjoying the book and plan to continue experimenting. I think i will try the Crying Tiger beef next, unless someone steers me in another direction.

                                            1. re: dkennedy

                                              Here's the link to another thread that has people trying recipes from this book. I do admit, it does look intimidating, but after speaking to others about methods and substitutions (for example, skipping the making-your-own-coconut-milk part) it doesn't seem nearly as inaccessible. There are more fast and simple recipes in the book than I had previously thought (although it definitely has its fair share of time consuming ones), and once you get the hang of making curry pastes, the rest of it comes together rather quickly.
                                              Either way, I'm just pleased that there are other discussions out there regarding this book that I can refer to without it being a COTM.(Next time though, I think my vote may have to go to Seductions of Rice.)
                                              It's great to hear about your papaya salad! I have been looking forward to your updates. Is it worth the effort? I was going to try the one in the Seductions book which is similar, but without the pork, but I may have to try the Thompson one instead.
                                              Thanks for writing about your kitchen endeavors!

                                              1. re: dkennedy

                                                Thanks for reporting on the recipe. I'm glad that it turned out and also glad that Samuelinthekitchen was able to walk you through part of it. I have to admit being intimidated by the book, but am also hopeful given the success of your first recipe. I will be looking forward to your next review.

                                                1. re: BigSal

                                                  Big Sal and Allegra,

                                                  Again, thanks for all your help. Allegra, I think Seductions would make an outstanding COTM and the recipes are varied and many are uncomplicated. Looking forward to tomorrow when we start our AMFT discussion.

                                                2. re: dkennedy

                                                  oh I'm thrilled it worked out for you. Thank you so much for your kind words, really brightened my morning. Fittingly, I'm now off to lunch at David Thompson's restaurant in London. Thrilled, and thanks again!

                                                    1. re: dkennedy

                                                      it was amazing. Here's an extract of a review I sent to a friend.

                                                      We started with those stunning amuse bouches of
                                                      chilli jam on fruit. I then had, and I'm sure you'll remember this,
                                                      those coconut cupcakes with red curry duck. Followed by a char grilled
                                                      rice noodle dish with sprouting broccoli and chicken. It was just
                                                      extraordinary, the noodles were somehow both comfortably soft and a
                                                      bit toothsome. There isn't a concept of al dente in SE Asian cooking,
                                                      but thats what this was. Spiced very very well with a heat that
                                                      bloomed on the palate rather than scorch.

                                                      1. re: Samuelinthekitchen

                                                        sounds great. i love love love rice noodles. i'd love the recipe for the best pad kee mao, please.

                                                        by the way, we've had long discussions on the meaning of *toothsome.*

              2. Real Thai by Nancy McDermott


                That is a really good book just for reading as well as for recipes. It explains in depth the various regional cuisine within Thailand, and the cookbook is divided by region. Very, very informative with good recipes.

                1 Reply
                1. re: luckyfatima

                  I like this book, too - I have a few others but it's the one I always go back to for Thai food.

                2. David Thompson's Thai Food is the seminal work.

                  I also like A Taste of Thailand by Vatcharin Bhumichitr.

                  12 Replies
                  1. re: greedygirl

                    I haven't been inspired by David Thompson's book -- it's more like an encyclopedia than an easy flip to, here's what I'll cook kind of book. But I haven't found a book I love.

                    I cooked from Bhumichitr's Gourmet Thai in minutes, though not entirely satisfied. It's a bit too quick and easy (though his prep times are ridiculously short -- sure 5 minutes prep when one of your ingredients is fried tofu. Oh wait -- first I have to fry the tofu!)

                    I too am still on the search for a Thai cookbook where I can make my own curry paste, rather than used canned. So in the meantime, I chop up the ingredients and wing it!

                    1. re: NYchowcook

                      I've got the Thai in Minutes book too and quite like it for quick suppers. The other one is more "authentic". I have to admit I don't have David Thompson's book, partly because I've heard that he's such a purist it's very hard to find the ingredients outside of Thailand.

                      I have to say that at the Thai cookery class I went to in Ko Lanta we used pre-prepared curry pastes (the same brand I can get in my local Asian supermarket - Mae Ploy) and apparently real Thai people use them all the time!

                      1. re: greedygirl

                        yeah, I've heard that many times. I'd point out that many Italians use store bought pasta, doesn't mean that it's not worth learning to make handmade pasta or that the difference in the final product won't be noticeable.

                        Handmade paste is an extremely fresh product, full of volatile oils and aromatics. Inevitably, no matter how good the process is, you will lose a lot of that subtleness and delicacy when you process it for jarring.

                        That said, I would no more prepare a fresh paste for a Wednesday night stir fry than I would hand roll pasta for a Thursday night carbonara. If I was having friends for dinner or felt a cooking jag coming on on a Saturday afternoon though, then no question it would be a freshly made paste.

                        Different uses, but the jar is reserved for when I don't have time for the fresh.

                        1. re: Samuelinthekitchen

                          Since I posted that I did another Thai cooking class in Ko Mak where we did make everything from scratch and the results were wonderful. I discovered today that a very good friend has the David Thompson book and never uses it, partly because her girlfriend refuses to eat fish sauce. So I've borrowed it and am going to see what I think.

                          1. re: greedygirl

                            Totally just nick it. I recommend making the chilli jam from it, just an absolutely wonderful condiment. If it's Thai Food, there is a Thai sausage you smoke in coconut in a wok (of course you can also grill it) that is just absolutely amazing. If it's Thai Street Food the sir fried beef with holy basil is fab.

                      2. re: NYchowcook

                        fwiw, i just read some hounds have bought pre-fried, packaged tofu at the market.

                        1. re: NYchowcook

                          So far I've been tinkering with the instructions at for that ... once in awhile there's something missing from the instructions, but so far so good, and they have a nice explanation of ingredients at different parts of the site.


                          (And yes, real Thai people use curry pastes pre-prepared all the time, and I'm sure there are some good ones as well as some meh ones... but the ingredients fresh are just amazing and not hard to put together if you have a good food processor or... better I think... a gigantic rock mortar and pestle.)

                          1. re: NYchowcook

                            you know every single curry recipe in Thompson's book includes the paste recipe, and that he devotes a section exclusively to paste prep?

                            1. re: NYchowcook

                              Real Thai by Nancy McDermott also includes paste recipes. I just made green curry paste tonight and froze it into tablespoon size blocks using an ice cube tray.

                              1. re: megmosa

                                I just read in Thompson's book that there's no point in making real paste and then freezing it, as it will lose most of its fragrance.

                                1. re: greedygirl

                                  I've never tried freezing pastes, but my spidey sense always told me it wouldn't be a success.

                            2. re: greedygirl

                              I also recommend Vatcharin Bhumichitr books. Very user-friendly, simple recipes and serious about real ingredients and not westernized substitutes. Suggest you see if there are any in your library or bookstore and have a flip through.

                              I think just about any Thai cookbook will teach you a recipe for the basic curry pastes.

                              Thompson's seems to me more like a book I'd keep by the bed than in the kitchen. I've looked at it numerous times, and could probably enjoy reading it, but I never see myself cooking from it.