Thai Cookbook Author Kasma Loha-Unchit
An Exclusive Interview with the Temple of Thai!
Temple of Thai chatted with cookbook author Kasma Loha-unchit at home in Oakland about her book, Dancing Shrimp. So take your off your shoes and relax, while we share an interesting conversation with one of the best Thai cookbook writers in America today.
Temple: 'Dancing Shrimp' is an intriguing title, could you tell us why you chose it?
Kasma: Seafood, especially fish, is very much part of Thai cooking. In Thailand we have a saying 'gkin kao, gkin bplah' or 'eat rice, eat fish'. Rice and fish are an inseparable pair and together they are synonymous with 'food'. In the introduction to the book I tell a story about traveling along the Mekong River in the North East of Thailand, and of eating dancing shrimp (gkoong dten).
Temple: Your last cookbook was also about fish- why the fascination?
Kasma: I like to name my books after stories. It Rains Fishes is not really about fish but is named after a story about how as a child in Bangkok we could catch fish off the lawn in front of our house and in the little puddles left after a heavy tropical downpour. During the wet monsoon season, frequent flash flooding carried fish and fish eggs to temporary fresh water ponds and were literally everywhere. So even inland people enjoyed fresh fish and as a result fish became a staple of the Thai diet centuries ago.
Temple: How is this book different from the last one- what can we look forward to?
Kasma: My first book focused on Thai foodways and Thai cooking in general- the cooking of common folk, or homestyle cooking. It was my attempt to make available to my students the secrets of Thai cooking and of working with Thai flavors and herbs that are not covered in other Thai recipe cookbooks. And of course, to me food is inseparable from culture, so the cooking tips and recipes were woven into a cultural food tapestry. In my second book I continue with that theme but with a focus on fish. There are 3 recipe sections- fish, crustaceans, and mollusks- with more than a hundred recipes. For people who live in parts of the country where good fresh seafood is hard to come by, many of the recipes can easily be adapted to cooking with poultry and meats.
Temple: I really enjoyed the conversational type of writing you used in It Rains Fishes. Is there anything like this in the new book?
Kasma: Yes, I write as much as possible in a conversational style as if I am talking to my students in a class. Besides the stories contained here and there throughout the book, there is a chapter on Thai seafood culture. Another chapter with plenty of cultural information is dedicated to preserved fish like fish sauce, kapee (shrimp paste), salted fish, and salted crabs. In the winter (when it is not raining) in Thailand, country folk eat every type of preserved fish in one form or another: dried, ickled, salted, smoked etc. in just about every meal. A specialty of the North East is plah-rah: whole river fish salted and fermented.
Temple: Definitely sounds like an acquired taste! This doesn't sound like something for the Western kitchen. Can we make these exotic recipes on this side of the world?
Kasma: Certainly. In the beginning of the book I cover Thai cooking basics: how to balance flavors; what makes Thai food, Thai food; and also why fish is so important to the Thai diet.
In the West, ingredients are sometimes unavailable, so we need to substitute. This is okay though because the Thai taste is what matters, not the ingredients. It is in how you prepare and blend the ingredients, the process. To be a successful cook of Thai food you need to learn how to balance flavors by experimenting. Because an American diet is in general more bland, it might take an aspiring cook more time to learn to create the quintessential Thai tastes with substitute ingredients.
Temple: So what does make Thai food, Thai food?
Kasma: There is definitely a combination of flavors that defines Thai taste and that makes Thai food Thai. In Thai cooking, we make use of the 5 flavors: hot/spicy, salty, sweet, bitter/aromatic, and sour. Every world cuisine uses more or less of each of these elements, but unique to Thailand is the harmonious play of each of these flavors together in a meal.
Temple: How do you define what is "authentic Thai food"?
Kasma: Again it is the Thai taste that matters and not the individual ingredients. The history of Thai food is very creative. Asian food uses what is at hand, varying with the seasons. Thais have incorporated many foreign ingredients into their cuisine. For instance the chile pepper arrived only in the 16th century via South America. Peanuts are also a foreign adaptation. Even fish sauce they say has ancient Mediterranean roots. A cuisine is the taste preferences of a people-Thai, Vietnemese, American, etc. Thai food is totally ifferent than Vietnemese food even though the ingredients are very similar.
Even today Thai chefs are incorporating Western ingredients into Thailand's cuisine. An artist can paint on anything, not just canvas.
Temple: So how can Westerners learn to cook Thai? Is it difficult?
Kasma: Cooking should be a pleasure. The Thai character includes 'sanook'- fun! The very best cooking is playful or childlike. Cooking is not a science- recipes are merely guidelines. Do not be religious about following a recipe. Inevitably ingredients vary. Don't worry about making a mistake. Most can be doctored up!
I teach cooking classes and I hesitate to give exact measurements for my recipes but rather a range. You need to play around with the flavors as each batch of ingredients and each brand of sauce can differ considerably.
Temple: Is that why you started writing cookbooks, because of your classes?
Kasma: People in my classes wanted to have a record of the dishes we created and the cooking tips I give on how to achieve optimum flavor balances. I found it very difficult to write down the recipes at first! But Asian cooking is quite different from Western cooking, so my students needed a guide. They could not learn from observing their mother every day in the kitchen.
Interestingly I find that people trained in culinary school often have the most difficult time learning in class. It is best to be open and fresh- an absolute beginner.
Temple: What kind of equipment would you suggest for the beginner?
Kasma: You do not need a lot of gadgets to cook Thai food. For instance food thermometers are unnecessary. You test food during cooking by looking, tasting, smelling, or by using your senses. It helps to have a good wok, mortar and pestle and steamer, but you can improvise. Work intuitively- you interpret.
Temple: What final piece of advice would you give to the aspiring cook who is a Western born lover of Thai food?
Kasma: Cook Thai food because it makes you feel happy. Many Thai dishes take a lot of preparation. The cooking time is actually quite short. Using a mortar and pestle can be like therapy. Cutting up takes time, so don't worry about when it will be done. Enjoy the process. Enlist your dinner guests to help. And the best part is perhaps the reward of eating and sharing and you will become very popular!
Read an excerpt from the Thai cookbook Dancing Shrimp
Kasma Loha-unchit, a native of Thailand, has taught Thai cooking in her own home-based cooking school in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1985. Her first book, It Rains Fishes: Legends, Traditions, and the Joys of Thai Cooking, won the 1996 IACP Award for Best International Cookbook. As an active proponent of introducing her native cuisine to Westerners, she writes a monthly column for the San Jose Mercury Newsand leads cultural and culinary tours to Thailand twice a year. She lives in Oakland with her husband, Michael, who maintains her informational Web site at www.thaifoodandtravel.com.