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Testing the Principles of Thai Cookery

While pounding together white pepper, garlic, and woody cilantro root in the mortar and pestle, their spicy, tannic smells unfolded with the first loud thwock. Chili peppers – 15, in fact – and garlic set my nose tickling and my eyes watering.  And as an entire fish sizzled in a wok full of oil, two neighborhood cats appeared, yowling their demands for a share of the meal. The food I cooked today, from Chef McDang’s new book The Principles of Thai Cookery (download this free pdf excerpt), is the best-smelling I can remember.

Princples of Thai Cookery by Chef McDang

Princples of Thai Cookery by Chef McDang (click to enlarge)

Chef McDang is Thailand’s most famous celebrity chef, author of several Thai-language cookbooks, and appears regularly on Thai television as a culinary expert. He also took Anthony Bourdain to eat roast suckling pig in Bangkok on his show No Reservations. Chef McDang attended the Culinary Institute of America and teaches at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts – and it doesn’t hurt his celebrity status that he is a member of the Thai royal family who grew up watching food cooked inside the palace kitchens.

But The Principles of Thai Cookery isn’t about complicated “royal- style”  Thai food. It instead sets out to teach the basics of Thai cooking in a textbook-style. Its aim: “to accurately define and illustrate Thai eating culture to the outside world.” It picks out unique aspects of Thai cooking, explains the “Thai Flavor Profile,” and is structured around Thai cuisine’s most important techniques.

Thai crispy fried fish using Chef McDang's recipe

Thai crispy fried fish using Chef McDang's recipe (click to enlarge)

With the idea of basic Thai food in mind, I chose two very simple recipes to test out this book. Deep-fried Fish with Garlic, Cilantro Root, and White Peppercorn Paste Marinade (Pla tod gratiem prik Thai) uses a flavor-paste to marinate a whole, fresh fish, and Seafood Dipping Sauce (nam jim seafood) is a basic hot, sour, salty, and sweet sauce for fish and seafood.

Garlic, White Pepper, and Cilantro Root - Spices for Marinade Paste

Garlic, White Pepper, and Cilantro Root - Spices for Marinade Paste (click to enlarge)

When I tasted (and smelled) the rich marinate for the fried fish, I wondered what other meats I could use it on. Apparently the answer is everything, as a similar marinate paste appears later in the book other recipes for  fish, deep-fried chicken, and deep-fried pork. After a 30 minute marinade, I deep-fried the fish for about ten minutes. The flavor penetrated the meat of the fish, but not overpowering, perfuming the fish with garlic and cilantro roots. The book suggested deep-frying more garlic and cilantro roots to sprinkle over the fish, and I’m sure this would have been a gorgeous presentation, but I was in a hurry – the marinade flavored the fish enough without these garnishes.

15 Thai Chilies in a Mortar and Pestle

Thai Chilies in a Mortar and Pestle (click to enlarge)

The seafood dipping sauce called for 15 chilies, but tasted much tamer than that. The only other ingredients were lime juice, fish sauce, and palm sugar, all pounded together in a mortar and pestle. The strongest flavors in this sauce were zesty citrus and salty fish sauce, with very little sugar flavor – this combination lets fresh seafood’s natural sweetness come through. This is a simple sauce, quick to put together, and now I have a small jar of it in my fridge for the next time I cook fish.

I was impressed with both of these recipes, and will definitely be cooking more out of this book. Though it’s not exhaustive – only a few recipes per chapter – and the history sometimes quite simplified, Principles of Thai Cookery has a lot to offer both beginners and experienced Thai cooks.

Thai Fried Fish with Spicy Seafood Sauce

Thai Fried Fish with Spicy Seafood Sauce (click to enlarge)

Are you curious about any other Thai cookbooks? Want to see any other dishes tried out? Let me know in the comments and I’ll investigate.

Temple of Thai offers numerous Thai cookbooks and the ingredients that you’ll need to inspire your own Thai cooking explorations.

Here’s a video showing McDang on Planet Food cooking another fried fish dish.

Editor’s note: Visit ChefMcDang.com for his spicy blog post  which asks “why does it seem that all the best Thai Chefs are farang (Westerners)? Moreover, who made all these farang “Thai” Chefs. It is the duty of Thai people to provide the correct information, structure of our food, and what it’s about to the rest of the world. Yet it seems we Thais have encouraged Western Chefs so much that we’ve now ended up with David Thompson…”.   Further he states, “I guess I see my role as bringing ‘real’ Thai food to the rest of the world to educate and inform people and Chefs about what it is and show them how they can further it.”  The Principles of Thai Cookery (ISBN 9786169060109) can be purchased at both Amazon and Barnes & Nobles.

Kaitlyn MooreAbout the Author, Kaitlyn Moore:
Kaitlyn is originally from North Carolina but moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, so that she could eat more noodles and avoid snow. She’s been abroad for over a year, with occasional stops in other parts of South and South East Asia.

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  • CarlJ. Hewitt

    I would love to learn more about this part of Asia. I have friends in the Philippines, but would like to make some in Thailand. I am not a big fan of Filipino food, but I do love Thai food. Could you please point out the contracts between Thai and Vietnamese food, both of which are delicious, but prepared differently.

    • http://www.templeofthai.com Temple of Thai

      This requires an in depth answer, so we are going to have to do a blog post to answer it adequately. We will post that link here when we get to it, but for a short quick answer, here are a few things that come to mind – Vietnamese food is influenced by French cuisine, because of its history – resulting in fusion dishes like sausage slices on French bread and often served with delicious drip coffee (hot or iced). Vietnamese curries are made with curry powder, while the large majority of Thai curries use pastes made of fresh herbs and spices. A good place to read more about Vietnamese food is the Wikipedia entry and also the excellent website of cookbook author, Andrea -Nguyen, http://www.vietworldkitchen.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/chefmcdang Chef McDang

    Thank you for all the kind words about my book. I just wrote in my blog to give some guidelines in what Thai food is all about. Just in case anyone doesn’t understand it from my book.. lol. I noticed that you did not use Thai garlic; Guess you can’t find it there at your current location in South East Asia. You’ll have to make do with regular western garlic because we can not export them. Also if you ever find it hard to find cilantro roots, like back in the states, heres a trick I just thought of:

    Toast about 10 Coriander seeds, don’t burn them. Then go to the grocery store and buy a bunch of cilantro. Using only the stem, cut up half a cup of cilantro stem, put it in a pestle and mortar, add the toasted coriander seeds, and pound it into a paste. This can be used as a substitute for cilantro roots.

    Enjoy :)

    Chef McDang

    • Kaitlyn

      Oops, I have a big bowl full of both kinds of garlic on my kitchen table … I must have grabbed the wrong one! The fish was still delicious, though – I ate the whole thing myself after taking these pictures.

      That’s a great tip for cilantro root substitutions, fresh cilantro roots aren’t easy to find where I’m from in the US.

      Thanks for checking out our blog!

      Kaitlyn

      • http://www.templeofthai.com Temple of Thai

        That’s right, Thai garlic is more mild, and most of the year it’s a challenge to find fresh cilantro roots in American supermarkets. There’s more information about Thai ingredients on our website: http://www.templeofthai.com/cooking/ingredients.php.