HE might be universally regarded as the world’s leading expert on Thai cooking, whose encyclopaedic Thai Food tome is the chilli, lemongrass and kaffir lime-filled equivalent to Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion, but David Thompson says the most important thing when it comes to cooking is simply the confidence to make a mistake.
“Thai food is very complicated when it comes to taste. The employment of seasoning, the sweet, sour, hot and spicy inherent in every dish is peculiarly Thai and it’s a complicated beast,” he says.
“So I’m a great believer in mistakes. By making mistakes you understand the mechanics of a dish and you learn a lot more. Even though it’s frustrating, confounding and you want to throw the dish against the wall, it prompts you to think, consider and understand a little bit more about what you’re doing.”
“There’s the taste of the ingredients, then the texture of the dish, and the tertiary level is the seasonings, which helps to tighten, hone and bring together the first two elements. If Western food is like playing checkers or draughts, cooking Thai food is like playing chess.”
The chef, whose fine-dining Nahm in Bangkok is consistently rated as one of the best restaurants in the world, brought his fun and funky street food offshoot Long Chim to Crown where it’s just celebrated its first anniversary.
Mastering what the Thais call “rot chart” or “correct taste, or balanced taste”, David says, is something that only comes with experience — and making those mistakes.
“Cook a dish three or four times, you’ll start to get a nice honed taste that pleases you — and that’s also important when cooking. To cook what pleases you.”
Bold and beautiful
“The next thing that’s important when cooking Thai is boldness,” David says.
“You need that intrepid quality as a cook when seasoning, to take a risk.”
While Western-style Thai often errs to the sweet end of the flavour spectrum, authentic Thai food is “intensely seasoned”.
“It’s not a shy cuisine, it’s a cuisine of the tropics. It’s intrepid, and it requires intensity.”
Twice as rice
David says the key to balancing this intense spice and heat is to do as the Thais do, and eat every dish with rice.
“Thai food is never eaten alone, it’s eaten with rice, which diffuses that intensity. In a Thai meal, 60 to 80 per cent is rice; that’s why individual dishes can be so powerfully seasoned,” he says.
“The main dish that Westerners wolf down is actually an accompaniment that seasons the rice. Don’t blame the food for being overly spicy if you’re not eating rice.”
SEASON TO TASTE
“In any cooking, it seems obvious, but I’m often astonished how often it doesn’t occur — you have to taste what you’re cooking at every stage in order to achieve the balance,” David says.
“Even with professional cooks, it’s a struggle to get them to taste, not just to follow a recipe. It’s a habit that ought to be formed and it will serve you well. Always, always taste.”
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
David nominates a granite mortar and pestle as the most important piece of kitchen kit for cooking Thai, almost unperceptively followed by a properly seasoned wok.
“The mortar and pestle is essential, as Neanderthal as that might seem. It works in so many capacities, making curry pastes, making dressings, making garlic paste. It’s the Thermomix of the Neanderthal world!”
That properly seasoned wok also needs to be treated boldly to bring out its best.
“Dishes need to smack of the tang of the wok, what the Thais call the ‘breath or fragrance of the wok’. Don’t be timid with it comes to heat and flame.”
“It’s a misconception that Thai food is cheap ethnic cuisine,” David says.
“That’s just wrong. Thai, like other cuisines, needs the bricks of quality ingredients on which to construct a dish.”
That means using good-quality palm sugar, fresh lime, even fresh coconut if you can get your hands on it.
It especially means using the best quality fish sauce you can find.
“Fish sauce is the blood of good Thai food,” David says.
He uses the MegaChef brand — “it’s the best fish sauce I know of that’s available commercially around Australia” — for its pungent, briny qualities.
THAI IT OUT
To start out on a Thai cooking adventure, David says neua pat bai grapapo — or stir fried beef with chillies and holy basil — is perfect to try.
“This is the quintessential Thai dish, it’s the dish Thais miss most when they are out of Bangkok, he says.
“It smacks of garlic and chilli and salt and the headiness of the clove-like holy basil.”
Simply fry a paste of garlic, salt and Thai chillis in oil until aromatic, add beef and stir fry quickly, add water to loosen and fish sauce to season.
“It’s eaten with a bowl of fish sauce, usually with more chopped chillies to the side, and topped with a fired egg, the crowning glory,” he says.
STIR-FRIED MINCED BEEF WITH CHILLIES AND HOLY BASIL
(Neua pat bai grapao)
120g beef skirt
2 tablespoons peeled garlic
Nice pinch sea salt
5 or 6 large Thai bird’s eye chilli (scuds)
Pinch holy basil buds and tops
300 mls oil plus 3 tbsp
3 or 4 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons fish sauce
a drop dark soy sauce
pinch white sugar
pinch clove powder
large handful of holy basil leaves
Nahm pla prik
4 tablespoons fish sauce — 60 mls
3 — 6 sliced large Thai bird’s eye chillies
1 teaspoon sliced peeled Thai garlic — 3 g
Combine and serve in a bowl.
Coarsely mince the beef. It needs to be quite fatty and don’t be afraid of including a bit of gristle.
Make a coarse paste with the garlic, salt and chillies by pounding in a mortar with pestle.
Heat the tempered wok.
Heat the oil and fry the eggs. Try to keep them joined together
Lift out and leave in a warm place.
Add oil and immediately the paste and stir-fry for a moment.
Add minced meat and continue to stir-fry for a minute until just cooked.
Moisten with water.
Season the meat with the fish and dark soy sauces and sugar. Be careful not to make it too salty.
It should taste rich, hot, salty and spicy with the basil.
Serve by placing the eggs in the bowl.
Ladle the beef with its spicy sauce over one half of the eggs. Fold the
other half over the beef.
Serve with nahm pla prik
GRILLED PORK SKEWERS
Makes 16 pieces
300g pork neck
1 teaspoon coriander roots
1 teaspoon peeled Thai garlic
1 teaspoon white peppercorns
Large pinch finely ground toasted coriander seed
2 tablespoons palm sugar
Dash dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons condensed milk
About ¼ cup coconut cream
Slice the pork in thin-ish pieces, 2cm x 2cm
Make a paste by pounding the coriander root with the salt, garlic and pepper.
Combine with sugar, the soy and fish sauces, spices, condensed milk and the oil. Marinate the pork in this mixture for at least 1 day.
Thread the pieces onto the skewers.
About 3 pieces of pork per skewer.
Grill gently brushing with the coconut cream for about 2 minutes a side or until golden.