Cookbook: Simple Thai Food: Classic Recipes from the Thai Home Kitchen by Leela Punyaratabandhu
Overall Impression: Simple? Not exactly. But totally worth it to make beautiful, delicious Thai food at home? Absolutely!
Toasting grains of rice over low heat for a half hour tested my patience. I didn’t realize it was possible to dirty quite so many bowls for the sake of one lunch. Leap-frogging from one recipe to consult another recipe, which referenced yet another recipe (a big pet peeve of mine) nearly drove me nuts.
But by the time it was all over, I was so glad I’d finally taken the plunge into cooking authentic Thai food at home.
Recipes I Tried
- Pork Satay, pg.19
- Northeastern Minced Chicken Salad, pg. 74
- Long-Grain White Rice, pg. 168 (sort of)
- Toasted Rice Powder, pg. 182
- Satay Sauce, pg. 188
- Cucumber Relish, pg. 191
Cooking From Simple Thai Food
Thumbing through the intro of Simple Thai Food helped me understand the logic behind how the recipes are organized — each category is a component of a classic Thai dining experience. Noshes and Nibbles are meant to be eaten as snacks between meals, Rice Accompaniments are dishes best served alongside a steaming bowl of rice, and One-Plate Meals can be served on their own, without rice alongside. Sweets are for any time of day (not just after meals), and Basic Recipes and Preparations consists of the sauces and condiments required to create many of the dishes in the previous categories. As such, you’ll often find yourself flipping back and forth between sections.
From shopping for the ingredients, to prepping the individual components of each recipe, to cleaning up the kitchen (which looked like a tornado had passed through by the time I was done), this cookbook took me on a journey.
Thai long chilis eluded my grocery sleuthing powers, though I live in an area populated with markets of every ethnicity you can imagine. Once I got home and flipped through the book again after my grocery trip, I realized that the “Long Chiles from Mexico” I’d triumphantly scored at a Japanese market turned out to be more like Anaheims than the finger-sized peppers pictured in the book. I was also unable to track down Wild Betel leaves, so I forewent trying out one of my favorite items to order in Thai restaurants, Leaf Wrapped Salad Bites (pg. 25).
Cucumber Relish and Satay Sauce
Reading through the Pork Satay (pg. 19) recipe intro will give you a good idea about Ms. Punyaratabandhu’s style of recipe writing, and the amount of care and research that went into this cookbook. She opens by telling you what you’re getting into (read: a delicious appetizer of tender pork skewers served with two accompanying, contrasting sauces). The next paragraph outlines the provenance of the recipe, which has some serious street cred — it’s from a family friend who runs a pork satay shop. Finally, we get a primer on how to eat satay like they do in Thailand, without extra utensils and using the leftover skewers to pick up the lightly pickled relish condiments.
The satay skewers emerged just as promised — tender and charred from the broiler (you can make these on a grill or in a grill pan as well). The peanut butter-based Satay Sauce (pg. 188) and Cucumber Relish (pg. 191) absolutely made the dish — since the pork is marinated without any salt, you really need the condiments to punch up and bring out the flavors of the meat and spices. Next time, I’d probably use about half the turmeric, as it added a bit of a dusty, medicinal note when deployed in such large quantity (two teaspoons for a pound of meat).
While the pork marinated, I moved on to another recipe, Northeastern Minced Chicken Salad (pg. 74). This is one of my favorite dishes to order in Thai restaurants, and my husband loves it too. As he says, “How can you go wrong with a meat salad?” In Thai, it goes by the name “lap kai,” which I’ve also seen spelled phonetically as laab, lab, or larb.
A beautiful lunch, so rewarding after using every dish in my kitchen!
Whatever you call it, the version in Simple Thai Food is simply awesome. Intensely seasoned and spicy, it packs a wallop of perfectly balanced flavors — you’ll definitely want to make the recommended pot of rice to serve alongside it. Savory, salty fish sauce is tamed by fresh lime juice, and a big punch of chile heat contributes spice and beautiful color to the sauce. Chili Heads, rejoice.
You’ll have to do some advance preparation to make this dish, however. In the “Basic Recipes and Preparations” section at the end of the book, you’ll find the necessary recipes for Toasted Rice Powder (pg. 182), as well as Red Chili Powder (pg.181). The rice powder is fairly simple to make, but it does require a watchful eye and near-constant fussing. Luckily, the recipe makes a full cup, which will keep well for up to six months (the salad recipe required just two teaspoons). Next time, I think I’ll try spreading the rice out on a baking sheet and toasting it in a low oven to save myself some work.
The chile powder is blessedly easy to make — it’s just toasted, processed dried chiles. However, two whole cups of bird’s eye chiles may be difficult to track down. Thai Kitchen sells them in a small jar, so buying enough to make this recipe ended up costing more than I was willing to spend. Instead, I substituted Pequin chiles, which the friendly shopkeeper at World Spice Merchants informed me were similar in flavor profile and heat level to Thai Bird Chiles.
What Could Be Better
Ms. Punyaratabandhu’s explanation and recipe for Long-Grain White Rice (pg. 168) stymied me from start to finish. Fully acquainted with steaming a good pot of rice at home, I could not understand her logic. She contends that imported, new-crop rice tends to have a higher moisture content than old-crop rice, so it requires a higher ratio of water to rice to cook properly. If anything, wouldn’t the higher moisture content mean that it needed less water? In any case, I took no heed of the suggested water to rice proportions, and went with my usual method of adding water to the pot until it covered the rice by about 7/8”, a.k.a. one knuckle's-worth of water. The rice emerged perfectly cooked, the grains easy to separate and fluff with a fork before serving, as recommended.
Aside from this unusual hiccup, all of the proportions and methods made sense, were easy to follow, and produced delicious results! Do be aware, though, that many of the Basic Recipes and Preparations will produce far more than you need to make a single recipe. I have two cups of extra peanut sauce in my freezer, dolloped into a mini muffin tin for fast thawing and single serving convenience. There’s a lot of toasted rice and chili powder in my cabinet as well. To me, this is a good thing — I can’t wait to make that Northeastern Minced Chicken Salad again, and this time it’ll take way, way less advance preparation.
"Simple" doesn’t quite describe the amount of time and pots and pans it takes to make these recipes, but it’s worth it for restaurant-quality Thai dishes made in your home kitchen. I’m so glad I got over my trepidation and delved into cooking Thai food at home!
Simple Thai Food provided a great guide into this new-to-me territory. Reaching beyond my comfort zone of store-bought curry pastes and simple soups brought a new level of confidence and understanding of the powerful but balanced flavors of Thai cuisine, and I look forward to making more recipes from this book. I am happy to add this beautiful debut cookbook from Ms. Punyaratabandhu to my collection, and I’ll be following her writing from now on!
Find the book at your local library, independent bookstore, or Amazon: Simple Thai Food: Classic Recipes from the Thai Home Kitchen by Leela Punyaratabandhu
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(Image credits: Coco Morante)