I am in awe of those people whose adoration for the heat of the summer months allows them to roast away in the sunshine hour after hour. Sure we are told that we are not to do this these days but we all see them on the beach, bikini clad, looking a little like an old brown leather bag I once had.
I can only compare it myself to the hours of heat exhaustion one gets from working mid summer in a restaurant kitchen. If you think that your work place is hot, try working in very close proximity to ten gas burners, several ovens all on full steam and far too many people in close proximity to one another in clothes designed to keep you from the immediate danger of hot spills and spits. I wilt just remembering it!
Luckily I have hung up my kitchen whites for spending time elsewhere in the world of food but still after a hot day at work talking food all day I get home and think quite simply “It’s tooooo hot to cook!”.
As cooking is my ultimate form of stress relief I make the effort most nights, only giving in to allow my husband some time to exercise his talents in the culinary realm.
But in the heat of February I turn more to construction than cooking to create dishes that are bright with flavour but cooling on the body.
The Thais have it down. South East Asia is a place that reminds me of being in hot kitchens. Sweat dripping from you at 9 in the morning, the sounds of yelling and the immediate threat of danger from some irate individual parallels work in a professional kitchen oddly enough.
But they have the key to remedy the too hot to cook situation through the use of flavour, ingredients and a close eye to detail.
One of the most intricate cuisines on earth and often the mostly poorly executed, Thai food has a rich history orally handed down from mother to daughter. The Thais believe woman make the best cooks as only they have the sufficient patience and dexterity to deal with the intricate nature of Thai cuisine.
Much of the traditional fare would never have been written down, relying on the memory of those teaching others, indicating the importance of sight and taste for cooks rather than the written formulation of recipes.
Naturally variation would have occurred but I think this is more about the nuance that an individual cook brings to a dish marking it their own rather than their mothers, fathers of teachers.
True Thai food has a robust subtlety. I know this makes little sense as a statement but think of the flavours that come to mind-shrimp paste, fish sauce, chillies, mint, coriander, kaffir lime, lemongrass….big, bright and somewhat aggressive flavours that once combined artfully have a richness that cannot be matched. A delicate and well woven flavour balance that brings French cuisine to it’s knees in my humble opinion. When in other cuisines an over abundance of flavours brings dullness and palate confusion, it seems that the more the merrier with Thai cuisine. The very strict tutorage is to thank for this harmony and the Thai people even have a name for what we can only translate to mean ‘correct’ taste-rot tae. This means the balance and understanding of flavour is the most important aspect to their training, something that I have a great deal of respect for and something I feel is lacking in the education of our young chefs today.
I am in no one under the allusion that every single meal one will eat in Thailand will be a veritable adventure of taste. I myself was sorely disappointed with the food that appeared before me in Bangkok and it went a long way to shatter some of illusions I had that somehow the Thai people were the finest cooks on earth. I am sure that somewhere in Thailand I will find that clean, well balanced harmony that will make my palate sing and my brain zing with absolute admiration for the handed down talents of the chef. I truly do hope to find that and I do look forward to what will be an arduous eating adventure when it happens.
Meanwhile, all I have is my own kitchen and the heat of summer to help me get into the right frame of mind to create unified, well balanced Thai food.
Of all those out their writing about Thai food, David Thompson is my favourite. His book simply entitled ‘Thai Food’ is a masterpiece. Heavy enough to work as a door stop but beautiful and information rich enough that I am happy to make it a bedtime read. His sheer admiration of the Thai cuisine and wealth of information is enthralling. I refer to him for all sorts of decisions in my Thai repoitre as without a small Thai grandmother to show me the culinary way, I have to resort to reading. I could translate some this to you but I am sure you don’t have all day but quite simply, if it is a cuisine you are interested in, look him up.
So my own Thai cooking is a mere affectation of what it could be. At least in the heat of mid summer it provides me with the clean burst of flavour that you need after a far too hot day at work and no energy to get to the beach sort of attitude.
More salad than anything else, it is all about constructing parts and them combining them right at the end.
All up a fifteen minute affair that has required very little cooking and best of all the sort of thing that is a great way to use some bits in the fridge.
Well balanced and harmonious, I feel smugly virtuous due it’s rather delicious taste but also its low fat nature. I make up for this by eating way more than what would be a fist full of food but still feel good enough to go and water the garden and do the ironing rather than sit complaining of eating too much.
Try it out sometime this week. It will take a little organising to get all your ingredients and a little time to construct but believe me in saying that it beats a bbq anyday.
Thai Style Pork Salad
250g pork mince
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
2 cm of fresh ginger, grated ( I don’t bother peeling here)
1 fresh red Thai chilli, deseeded and chopped finely
1 large shallot, peeled and finely sliced
2 kaffir lime leaves, spine removed and discarded and the leaves very finely chopped
1 tablespoon light Chinese soy sauce
½ teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon nam prik poy (available at good Asian supermarkets)
Mix all ingredients together well and set aside to marinate for up to an hour.
Heat a little oil in a wok or heavy based pot and when really hot, add the pork and break up using a spoon. Stir fry till crisped and all liquid has evaporated. Remove from wok and set aside. This step can be done well in advance and set aside.
6 tablespoon skin on peanuts
Toast gently till golden brown in a little oil and salt well. Once cooled place in a mortar and pestle and crush into irregular chunks. Set aside to use when ready.
For Pickled Vegetables
1 small packet of fresh beansprouts
1 spring onion, finely chopped
1 cucumber, peeled and either grated and allowed to drain well through a sieve or finely cut into long strips using a mandolin
1 green papaya, peeled and shredded (optional or if available- I have been known to use a ripe papaya here which is a total no no but works well with chicken rather than pork as it is quite sugary but really refreshing)
1 small bunch of fresh mint, leaves picked from stems and torn roughly
1 small bunch of fresh coriander, chopped finely
Place all in a large bowl.
To make pickling base
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons sugar
100ml rice vinegar
Place all in a saucepan and heat on a high heat to a boil. Remove from the heat and pour over the vegetables. Allow to cool then add 1 -2 teaspoons fish sauce to taste. Mix well. Drain all liquid just before serving.
Cook vermicelli or noodles to instructions on packet, drain well and rinse in cold water to thoroughly cool. This step can also be done well in advance and the noodles can be gently separated in cold water before placing them into bowls.
Assemble in large deep bowls with the noodles, top with pork, add vegetables and sprinkle over peanuts. Serve immediately.
Table Dipping Sauce (nuoc cham)
This can be used at the table to moisten your noodles as you eat
Makes ¾ cup that can be stored in the fridge for up to a week.
¼ cup lime or lemon juice
¼ cup Thai fish sauce
¼ cup water
2 teaspoons cider vinegar or rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
1 small bird’s eye chilli, left whole
Simply combine all in a jar, place the lid on and shake well to combine. Serve in a bowl at the table.