Read this cookbook: “Bangkok: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Thailand” by Leela Punyaratabandhu (Ten Speed Press, $35)
By Wendell Brock
A bowl of fiery red coconut-based fish curry sits on a plate with rice vermicelli, a halved boiled egg and a scattering of fresh vegetables: cucumber and bean sprouts, cabbage and green beans, basil and bitter melon. One of the many composed plates in this splendid new Thai cookbook, it is extraordinarily beautiful, exotic and evocative.
Unlike so many authors, this Bangkok native and blogger does not go overboard trying to make her recipes accessible to American home cooks. If she does at all.
She instead goes for authenticity, down to the banana blossoms and fingeroot, describing methods in vivid detail and her hometown foodways with lovely anecdotes.
Punyaratabandhu’s instructions for cooking Egg Net Parcels with Pork-Peanut Filling tell you to “go all Jackson Pollock” when you dribble the beaten egg into the hot skillet.
Explaining why many Chinese cooks in Bangkok have given up lard for vegetable oil, she says it’s the air-conditioning: Specks of fat harden up mid-meal, thanks to “the cool swirling air.”
If you’re heading to the land of the sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy, this book will whet your appetite and point you to ingredients, dishes, markets and restaurants you might otherwise miss.
Case in point: How come my friends never took me to see the Victorian architecture and little sponge cakes of the Kudi Chin community?
And then there’s the story of “The GFB” (aka Grandma Fried Bananas) the author remembers visiting with her granddad. The famous street vendor was an excellent cook, and deliciously grumpy.
Punyaratabandhu recalls a shopper who once asked the GFB to transfer his purchase from one newspaper bag to another. Seems the gruesome crime news was ruining his appetite. So maybe wrap the fried bananas in the entertainment pages instead? Talk about a mad granny!
With this book, you can make those bananas — plus durian ice cream, pomelo salad bites, watermelon with fish dip, jade noodles with barbecued pork, and so on.
It’s a delicious introduction to The Land of Smiles, one that will fill you up with tales of the Thai New Year, “Train” fried rice and other addictions.
Wendell Brock is an Atlanta food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock).