`Thai Food' by Australian chef, restaurant owner, and Thai food scholar David Thompson is one of those books which, if you have an enduring interest in food, you genuinely regret it took any more than a few days since its publication to acquire, read, and assimilate the book's material. It is one of those books where you can open it to virtually any page and find evidence of its quality.
I recall some reviews of this book which noted that although it was certainly comprehensive, it may be criticized for giving recipes containing hard to find ingredients. While I think this is a valid criticism of a book advertised as having recipes for the home cook such as `Vatch's Thai Kitchen' by chef Vatcharin Bhumichitr, it is not a valid criticism of a scholarly book where the object of the author is to present an accurate picture of a national cuisine. And, Thompson has done this as well or better than virtually every good survey of national cuisines I have reviewed such as Diane Kochilas `The Glorious Foods of Greece', Jean Anderson's smaller book on `The Food of Portugal', Marcella Hazan's `Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking', Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless various books on Mexican cuisines and the granddaddy of them all, Julia Child's `Mastering the Art of French Cooking'. This may be just a bit unfair to these authors, as not all of them were aiming at a grand scholarly treatment of an entire cuisine. Child, for example, was giving us `cuisine bourgeois', leaving the three other types of classic French cooking to others. Kennedy and Bayless have covered Mexico in not one, but in at least two or three different books, with Kennedy's latest, `From My Mexican Kitchen' being a model treatment of some special subjects in a national cuisine.
Thompson has covered the whole range of Thai cooking, including very good essays on Thai history and geographical regions and the regional influences on Thai cuisine. One look at the map of Thailand and you can see how broadly different one part of the country may be from another. The northern section virtually pokes its head into the China, and Chinese make up about 11% of the population, as they seem to do in virtually every country on which they border or every nearby island group such as the Philippines. Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam surround the Northeast. The southern peninsula borders on Malaysia. The central rice-growing region is close to Burma and India. There are some parts of the country such as the far north and northeast to which it was literally impractical to travel from capital Bangkok until the mid-1920's when a railroad was build from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on the Ping river.
While China, India heavily influences Thai cooking, and it's Southeast Asian neighbors, it is also different from China and India in important ways. While the wok is important to Thai cooking, it is not used in the same way as their Chinese neighbors. The most traditional Thai wok is actually earthenware, replaced by brass upon contact with European traders. `Traditional Thai stir-frying was not the fierce and furious method of the Chinese, but gentle frying over radiant heat in an earthenware pot.' It is obvious in this very same paragraph that Thompson is not a `scientific' food scholar, as he correctly states that the proper technique is to heat the wok before adding the oil, but describes the level of heat as `white hot'. White-hot temperatures are found only in the centers of stars, not in Bangkok kitchens. Nevertheless, his cooking advice is solid and entirely consistent with observations made by Shirley Corriher on heating metal pans before adding oil.
Every major cuisine has their classic techniques for preserving food. In fact, one may almost measure the sophistication of a cuisine by their representative preparation and preservation methods. The Italian cuisine is one of the world's leaders because of their cheese-making for milk preservation, salumi techniques for preserving meats, drying and curing methods with ham, winemaking and olive oil techniques, and salting techniques for fish and capers. While salt is a signature ingredient of Mediterranean cuisine, it is simply not as common in southeast Asia, so Thailand and surrounding countries extending as far north as Korea use fermentation as their primary preservation technique. It seems they simply ferment everything the can get their hands on, such as bamboo shoots, bean curd, fish, rice, watercress, and soybeans. Like the Italians with Parmesan and anchovies, the fermented products are often sources for adding saltiness to dishes.
When I go to a Thai restaurant or look at recipes in popular Thai cookbooks, many Thai dishes seem to be a mix of a great number of ingredients. Thompson, on the other hand, states that the ideal of a Thai salad is simplicity, but it is also about a balancing of ingredients, as exemplified in Alford and Duguid's book title, `Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet'. I will venture the hypothesis that this great mix of tastes comes from the intersection of the sour of fermented ingredients and the strong capsasian chiles used to combat the oppressive Thai heat.
Some people, even some foodies, may be inclined to dismiss this book as simply not a type of cooking with which they have any interest. I would recommend they get and read much of this book anyway. One example is the chapter on salads. In spite of the great difference in ingredients, I find a remarkable similarity between Thai and French salad making. This means that Thompson's essay and survey of Thai salads contains some insights into saladmaking that you simply may not get anywhere else. Even if you never go out of your way to find red shallots, holy basil, or Kaffir lime leaves, there is much you can learn here!
This book should be on the shelves of anyone who wishes to be sophisticated about food.