I don’t publish anything on Thai food before running it past Friend of the Food Chain Leela Punyaratabandhu. In English, no one is writing more authoritatively on the subject than she. For readers of her blog SheSimmers this has been evident for years, and it was only cemented with the publication of her first cookbook, Simple Thai Food, which was a come-to-Jesus for anyone familiar with the broad array of disparate dishes that seems to appear on the menus of Thai restaurants everywhere in the world—except for Thailand.
Her second cookbook, Bangkok, released yesterday, is a deep dive into the culinary landscape of a city most visitors only scratch the surface of. There’s a lot of food you won’t find on the streets, like home cooking (steamed dumplings with chicken-peanut filling), royal cuisine (fried taro dumplings with shrimp-coconut filling), restaurant cooking (fried chicken in pandan leaves) and cook-shop cooking (pork chops, cook-shop style), recipes resurrected from the dusty pages of history (pork belly-green juice curry), seasonal recipes (fire-roasted river prawns with tamarind sauce and blanched neem), Portuguese-Thai (rice vermicelli with chopped chicken curry and yellow chile-coconut sauce), Chinese-Thai (khao ka mu) and, yes, even street food (grilled meatballs with spicy sweet-and-sour sauce). It’s all seasoned with the sometimes-bittersweet memories of a lifelong Bangkokian who spends about half her time away from home, a lot of it in Chicago.
Bangkok’s publication is extraordinarily timely in light of the Bangkok city government’s reported planned crackdown on street food, news that alarmed food writers worldwide. Naturally, Punyaratabandhu, who’s written on the subject for CNN, has a more informed and nuanced view of this complicated issue.
Always generous with her knowledge, Punyaratabandhu participated in an e-mail interview (edited for continuity) about street food, the difference between her two books, and the increasing love Thais have for crispy fried foods. And she contributed a recipe from the book for crispy water spinach salad, a dish that hits all the pleasure centers. You can find it here in Chicago at TAC Quick and Andy’s Thai Kitchen.
You’ve published persuasively about the street-food controversy in Bangkok, and the book coming out right now seems so timely in that context. Suddenly here’s this document underscoring everything you’ve ever said about how there’s so much more to Thai cuisine than street food. And it illuminates how much of what’s been published in English enables that shallow attitude about Thai street food.
Yeah, that myopic view of Thai food and the Thai eating culture is unfortunate. It actually deprives you of so many good things you could be experiencing—which is the exact opposite of what you want when you think you’re on an exciting street-food adventure. A guy once said to me—very proudly—that in all the years he had visited Bangkok, he had always eaten on the street only and never, ever at a restaurant. He obviously thought he came across as a smart, experienced foodie/traveler who knows where the real food of Bangkok can be found. And the whole time I was thinking—oh, man, you clearly have no idea what you’ve missed out on all these years. (This crispy water spinach salad, for example, isn’t found on the sidewalk.)
The fetishization of cheap Thai street food, or at least what seems like it, is mind-boggling to me. But it’s benign. I mean, you like what you like. But the misguided equation of cheap Thai food in rustic locales with real Thai food or the essence of Thai food—especially on the media’s part—is not so benign. It breeds a set of beliefs about Thai food that has far-reaching ramifications. It affects the attitude people have about the pricing of Thai restaurants in relation to other “ethnic” restaurants in the U.S. Read the first two paragraphs of this James Beard Award-winning piece where Japanese cuisine is treated with such awe and veneration (“But soba smells your anxiety,” “the meditative culture of Japanese noodle making,” “a cuisine of purity and contemplation”). This is not the only example. Has anyone among the influencers in food media ever written about Thai food in those terms? Hell, no. It’s always been this mad chant of cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap.
Now look at the first chart in this article. It makes sense, doesn’t it?
Is Bangkok the book you wanted to write first?
Yes and no. The materials had always been there, floating like an amorphous cloud, for the past seven years or so. And I wanted so much to incorporate a lot of them into Simple Thai Food, my first chance—and, for all I knew at that time, my only chance—to write a book on Thai cooking. Long story short, I wasn’t able to, and for a while I looked at all the Simple Thai Food outtakes and felt really, really sad.
Then again, back then, even though the materials existed, the idea of packaging them into a book about the food and the food culture of Bangkok did not. That idea emerged only after I took a long look at the things that didn’t make it into Simple Thai Food and saw clearly what they all had in common, which is that they represent my life not just as a Thai but as a Bangkokian. So it all worked out in the end, and I came to see that the materials that I wasn’t able to put in Simple Thai Food actually fit better in Bangkok, which is a different book, written for a different audience.
So in this context Simple Thai Food is like Thai Food 101. Can you call it a reset for people whose knowledge of Thai food comes from what they’ve eaten outside Thailand?
Simple Thai Food is meant to be a book that eases people around the world into traditional Thai cooking. So to write that book, I put myself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t know much about Thai food. Where do you start? For most people, it would be to start eating at a local Thai restaurant. When someone wants to go beyond eating Thai food and to learn to make it, I believe they should start there as well. This is because when you replicate the dishes you already know, you have at least a vague idea of how things are supposed to look and taste instead of trying to shoot at an invisible bull’s-eye. So, in this aspect, coming up with a list of recipes to include in Simple Thai Food wasn’t very difficult. With most Thai restaurants outside Thailand having nearly identical menus (mainly because these are the dishes that have proven popular among people around the world), Simple Thai Food’s recipe list pretty much formed itself (with a few uncommon dishes thrown into the mix just because I couldn’t help myself). The common thread that runs through these Thai menu staples is, therefore, their popularity among non-Thais; that was the theme. My job was to make these dishes easy for home cooks. Assuming the role of an interpreter and trying to steer the appearance and the taste of each dish as close as possible to the version in Thailand (as opposed to that made in the kitchens of most Thai restaurants outside Thailand) was the hardest part of writing that book.
But an overseas Thai restaurant is an artificial world of Thai cuisine, arbitrarily created based largely on what sells best to non-Thais. Coexisting under the same roof at a typical Thai restaurant overseas are dishes you’ll rarely, if ever, see together in the same place in Thailand (in this artificial world, they do). You take dishes out of their regional, cultural, historical contexts and put them together on the same menu, because (1) they’re popular among the diners and (2) why be different when other restaurants do that too and they’re successful?
But Bangkok is a completely different book . . .
In writing this book, I’m taking people to a city far away from their local Thai restaurants—to a scene that is not artificially constructed but one that came together organically throughout the 235-year history of a city. The collection of recipes in Bangkok reflects that world.
I ran the final recipe list by my friends and relatives, and one of my aunts said that looking at the dishes in the book was like looking at the people at her wedding party: a group of people, all in one place, who came from various stages of her life and from various places she’d been. They all were meaningful to her in different ways, and looking at them she saw her life in its totality—from the beginning up until the present time. I wasn’t aware I was doing that when I finalized the recipe list, but I have to agree with my aunt that, in the end, looking at these dishes really does give me the feeling one would have of seeing the people one has known and loved all one’s life who have crossed one’s path in various ways and in various places. As a born and bred Bangkokian, when I look at them, I too see my whole life from the beginning up to the present time.
The book, to me, is both a challenge and an invitation to those unfamiliar with the city’s cuisine. It’s a challenge, as the dishes I have chosen were chosen not because they had proven popular around the world but because the Bangkok locals have loved them for so long regardless how these dishes might be perceived or received by anyone else. In other words, how popular a dish is outside Thailand did not influence my decision to include something in the book in the least. So you will see an unusual pairing of watermelon and dried fish; you’ll see a set meal of rice in iced flower-scented water with accompaniments that can only be described as an acquired taste; you’ll see a soup or a relish where shrimp paste no longer lurks in the background but is featured front and center. That’s the risk I was willing to take. I was born into a very opinionated and outspoken family, so if nothing else, I knew I needed to write this book in such a way that would not get me disowned. That means no watering down of anything.
At the same time, it’s an invitation for people to expand their Thai food repertoire and to enter a world that is largely inaccessible to visitors. Many of the dishes in Bangkok are cult favorites; some have been enjoyed since my great-grandparents’ generation of Bangkokians were still teenagers. It’s my way of showing that there’s so much more about Thai food that has never been written about. People often talk about wanting to eat like the locals when they travel. Even if they don’t cook, Bangkok still introduces them to how Bangkokians really eat and where. I want people to look at Bangkok beyond the cheap food from sidewalk carts. That part of our eating culture gets so much press that people come to see the food of Bangkok as synonymous with street food. There is so much more than that.
The book is such a personal statement from you. But since it arrived I can’t help but think that you have more work to do. I’m wondering why you don’t grab the reins and start writing a series of regional Thai cookbooks, Bangkok being just the first.
I actually did pitch the idea to my editor at Ten Speed the same time I pitched the idea for Bangkok to her, and we decided Bangkok was the better idea of the two at that time. I still have six or seven bulging folders of materials I’ve gathered since 2009 waiting to be turned into a book about regional Thai food. I hope I have a chance to write it.
I vaguely recollect you telling me that the crispy water spinach salad was something the kids were into these days, perhaps influenced by American fast food. Did this dish evolve from something else?
It’s not exactly among the trendiest dishes these days. At least, people currently in their teens wouldn’t think of it as such. But compared to the majority of the dishes of Bangkok (and the ones in the book), it’s definitely one of the more recent ones. The version of water spinach salad I knew growing up (the one my grandparents and parents grew up eating) is made with fresh water spinach, sliced about a third of an inch thick and blanched ever so briefly just until they’re tender-crisp (the other ingredients are the same as in the deep-fried version). But for the blanched version to be good, you need to use the freshest of water spinach (and it has to be the crunchier, juicier—albeit harder to source—Siamese water spinach as opposed to Chinese water spinach). I guess this is why you hardly see the fresh version outside the home.
But as far as the genesis of the batter-fried version, my theory is that it started out like most previously nonfried dishes that are now deep-fried, e.g., crispy papaya salad (also in the book). And that is more of a way for restaurants to hide the lack of freshness of the main ingredient (kind of like how you slice up stale bagels to make bagel chips) than a way to demonstrate the spirit of inventiveness. (In some cases, it could also be a way to hide the lack of cooking skill, because it’s easier to deep-fry something to a crisp than to create something with multiple complementary textures.) And when the idea initially proved popular among Bangkokians who grew up with Japanese tempura and American KFC, it took off and spread.
The increasing preference for crunch among Thais (and the increasing tendency to turn something previously noncrunchy crunchy among Thai restaurant cooks) is not very well documented but something longtime observers of Thai food have noticed (and, in some cases, complained about). This preference has given rise not only to the deep-fried versions of dishes that didn’t used to be deep-fried. It has also encouraged the practice of turning some dishes from being partially crispy previously to being crispy through and through. The mussel fritters (in the book), for example, used to be chewy inside and crispy only around the edges and on the bottom. These days, they are often made to be so crispy that you wonder why they bother panfrying the darned thing when they can just drop the thing in a deep-fryer and get it over with. When made traditionally, coconut rice pudding cakes (also in the book) are soft and molten in the middle and crispy on the bottoms and sides where they touch the pan. But these days, some vendors get into the habit of intentionally overfilling the hollows of the pan so that the batter spreads on the surface of the pan and forms crisp “wings.” (There are also many other examples which aren’t in the book.)
All that said, in the case of crispy water spinach salad, regardless of what might have motivated the batter-frying of the water spinach, it works. I love the batter-fried version just as much as I do the blanched version. I did think about going with the blanched version in the beginning when I finalized the recipe list, but I eventually decided against it for two reasons. One is that it’s the batter-fried version that has crossed over to the U.S., not the blanched version. The other is that American home cooks will find the batter-fried version more practical, because the blanched version requires Siamese water spinach (Chinese water spinach just won’t do), which can’t be found in the U.S.
What you say reminds me of the deep-fried pad see ew at Rainbow. I was under the impression that this was an accident—that [the chef] Wanpen misunderstood someone’s order and just threw it in the deep fryer, and people liked it and it became a thing. But is it in line with what you’re talking about? Are people deep-frying noodles in Thailand too?
Yep. There’s even a version of pad thai that’s made with deep-fried egg noodles or wonton skins. Vendors have been finding ways to make their food stand out. Crunchy stuff particularly appeal to younger people—school kids, especially. If you hang around the entrance of a school at the end of school day, you’ll see that most of the street carts that gather around there sell mostly deep-fried stuff (crappy stuff too, like cheap fish balls bought wholesale, wrapped in wonton skins, and deep-fried).
Crispy water spinach salad
This popular salad in Bangkok and in a few Thai restaurants in large cities in the United States can be enjoyed as a stand-alone appetizer with cold beer or as a rice accompaniment. To keep the water spinach fritters from becoming soggy, serve the salad unassembled, which is how Thais usually serve it. Then, just before you are about to take the
first bite, pour the wet part over the dry part. Serves four.
CRISPY WATER SPINACH
8 ounces water spinach
1½ cups Thai rice flour
½ teaspoon table salt
½ cup ice-cold water
½ cup limestone solution, or ½ cup water mixed with ½ teaspoon baking soda
Vegetable oil, for deep-frying
3 or 4 dried bird’s-eye chiles, stemmed
¼ cup roasted cashews
12 ounces shrimp, peeled, deveined, and cut into half-inch pieces
2 ounces shallots, halved lengthwise, placed cut side down, and sliced lengthwise, paper thin
3 tablespoons chile jam, homemade or store-bought
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 to 2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons packed grated palm sugar
3 or 4 fresh red bird’s-eye chiles, cut crosswise into slices an eighth of an inch thick
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
To make the water spinach, keep the top eight or nine inches of each stem for this dish and save the remainder for a stir-fry or other use. Cut the water spinach into three-inch pieces. In a large bowl, whisk together the rice flour, salt, water, and limestone solution (or water and baking soda). Add the spinach to the batter and mix well with your hands, making sure every piece is coated. Let stand for 15 minutes.
To begin the dressing, meanwhile, fill a one-quart saucepan halfway with
water and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat so the water is only steaming and not bubbling. Add the shrimp and stir until they turn pink, less than two minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the shrimp to a small bowl and let cool.
Line a sheet pan with paper towels and set it near the stove. Pour the oil to a depth of one inch in a wok or Dutch oven and heat to 350° F. Mix the batter-coated water spinach again so the batter that has fallen to the bottom of the bowl won’t feel left out. When the oil is hot, grab a handful of the water spinach and scatter it evenly over the surface of the oil, doing your best to keep the pieces as separate as possible. Deep-fry the water spinach, flipping it around, until thoroughly crisp and golden brown, about two minutes. Using a mesh skimmer, transfer the spinach to the prepared sheet pan to drain. Repeat until you run out of water spinach. Once the last batch leaves the wok, throw the dried chiles into the wok and fry just until they turn maroon, 15 to 20 seconds, then transfer to a corner of the sheet pan.
To finish the dressing, add the shallots to the shrimp bowl, followed by the chile jam, two tablespoons of the lime juice, one tablespoon of the fish sauce and the palm sugar, and mix well. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more lime juice and/or fish sauce as needed. Aim for sour first and then equally for salty and sweet, and don’t forget that you are seasoning the dressing that will be used with the bland water spinach fritters, so don’t be afraid to employ a somewhat heavy hand. Once the dressing tastes good, stir in the fresh chiles. Transfer to a serving bowl and top with the cilantro.
Place the dressing bowl in the middle of a large platter, arrange the crispy water spinach around the bowl, scatter the cashews over the water spinach, and put the fried chiles to one side of the plate. The moment you are ready to dig in, pour the chunky dressing over the water spinach. The fried dried chiles are there for you to crumble over the salad if you need more heat.
Reprinted with permission from Bangkok by Leela Punyaratabandhu, copyright © 2017. Photography by David Loftus. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.