How do you trump a classic book on Thai cuisine? In 2002 Ten Speed Press published Dave Thompson's Thai Food, almost 700 pages of recipes for dishes from relishes to sweets, illustrated with color photos and prefaced by a short history of the culture.
The press (now an imprint of Crown, owned by Random House) has just outdone itself with the same author's Thai Street Food: Authentic Recipes, Vibrant Traditions. This time the book is oversize (11 x 13") and generous with photos not only of many dishes, but also of the markets, klongs (canals), and street stands at which an astonishing array of food can be purchased.
Thai cuisine is now available in many of the world's cities, along with exports of food items such as rice, shrimp, and chili paste. Why an elaborate book about street food found in Bangkok?
One reason is that, for an armchair traveler, this book could be, visually and gustatorially, the closest they will come to the Thai capital. The scenes of food-related outdoor commerce are mostly candid photos, and they show a side of the city that is far from the skyscrapers and big roads that can make central Bangkok, from on high, look like a tropical Los Angeles plus temples with jagged roof lines.
Another reason is that Thompson, who has started Thai restaurants not only in his native Australia and in London but also in Bangkok itself, lavishes attention on the competition to the white tablecloth experience: the cheap, tasty, and plentiful food you can get right on the street.
As a lover of Thai food from afar since the early 1980s, I have enjoyed Jennifer Brennan's Original Thai Cookbook. Between then and now, some excellent collections of Thai recipes have appeared in English. What is distinctive about Thompson is the combination of deep scholarly investigation and practical experience conveyed in his books and the brilliant photos by Earl Carter.
Thai Street Food is as much a travel book as a cookbook, exemplary in both categories. For those whose business does not take them to southeast Asia or who don't want vastly to enlarge their carbon footprint, this book gives a feel for ordinary people that you don't get from the usual tourist photos of wats (temples) or golden Buddhas
Bangkok has been in the political news for turmoil and in the literary news as the setting for a recent dystopian novel, The Windup Girl, which is a little like "The Blade Runner" set in southeast Asia. Written by Paolo Bacigalupi, and winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, this novel is set in a future Bangkok, after oil scarcity becomes obvious, the sea level has risen, and the city is kept dry only by dikes and coal-fired pumps.
The text begins in the food markets of Bangkok, where the hero is shopping for tropical fruit. He says he doesn't want the mangosteen but prefers "the one with the red skin and green hairs," called in Siamese ngaw. Is this the astonishing fruit that Thompson displays on the title page of his earlier book?.
Thompson suggests that, if you lack the time or patience to prepare dishes from the royal end of the continuum of Siamese cooking, street food offers a relatively simple alternative. Since these dishes can be prepared on a cart, in the street, we can probably manage with ease in our kitchens.
If you read through the thorough chapter on ingredients in the earlier book, you quickly grasp that many of the necessary items will not be found, even today, in your neighborhood supermarket. To take only one brief sequence from the list: "fermented soy beans, fish sauce, flattened rice, galangal..." However, many cities have Asian markets, and though the author praises fresh coconut milk and cream and tells how to make them, canned coconut milk is now widely available, along with jars of chili paste and other necessities.
My former brother-in-law had a Fulbright to Nepal and got there via Bangkok. Tasting Thai food, he fantasized briefly about staying in that magical city and just eating out for the year. Thompson would understand his temptation, if by "out" you included not only restaurants but also street vendors.
Whatever its troubles, Thailand has the distinction of being, as Tibet once was, an almost totally Buddhist country. According to Thompson, the rite of passage for a Thai adolescent boy is becoming a monk, at least for a few months, before which he is not considered a man. However it plays out in practice, there's something special about a Buddhist civilization, whether the diet focuses on barley and potatoes, as in the Himalayas or includes the dazzling variety of Thai cuisine.
As anyone knows who has accidentally bitten into an specially potent chile, Thai food can quickly remind us of the Scoville heat scale used for peppers. In Santa Fe, for example, you find a macho attitude that says, "the hotter the better" and "I can stand it, can you?"
Thai food contains many other elements, but capsaicin (the chemical that makes peppers hot) is often present. It is best regarded not as a spice, but as an agent that creates a new mouth in which food is tasted and felt. The difference is between trying to light a log in a cold fireplace and putting it on top of hot coals in a wood stove.
Thai food is delicious in the ordinary mouth, but special in the be-chili-ed mouth. My sister says that in tasting Bangkok food we encounter three stages: ordinary taste, the shock of hotness, and the subtle tastes and textures that emerge in the be-chili-ed mouth once it's accepted. Many people never get past stage two.
Andrew Weil, the "integrative" doctor who is almost trademarked as the jolly bearded alternative physician, has a sophisticated account of his love for chilies: if you pass through the shock, he writes, the sensation transforms into "something between pleasure and pain that enforces concentration and brings about a high state of consciousness." In this sense, Thai cooking offers a natural and quite legal high.
Because of its size and heavy use of color, Thompson's new volume is a luxury, priced more like an art book than a cookbook; but if you can get our hands on a copy, it's a treasure.