There’s no easy way for those of us not ingrained in the life of Thailand to get authentic, or even close to authentic, with the cooking techniques of a born and bred Thai cook. Take these words from Australia’s most committed exponent of Thai cooking, David Thompson: when asked, in a Gourmet Traveller interview about how to learn, and commit to, the recipes of Thailand—in particular from his brilliant Thai Street Food (Lantern 2009)—his responses would send all but the steeliest of cooks to the supermarket looking for jars of curry paste and cans of coconut milk, or worse, dashing for mediocre Thai takeaway.
If you're looking for a challenge (from the book)? Flip over to the curry section. That'll f*** you over. If you want to do these curries for real you'll have to make your own curry pastes.
And make coconut milk? Exactly. The only reason I insist on making fresh coconut milk is because I don't have to make my own. Get other people to do it. I can't imagine cooking without it, but I'd hate to have to do it myself.
Thai Street Food is Thompson’s take on his constant wanderings through the streets of Thailand, brought to life with his beautifully written interpretations of the recipes of the street masters, and by Earl Carter’s glorious photography. Thompson does nothing half-baked in the kitchen or in print. His 2002 masterpiece, Thai Food (Penguin), runs to 674 pages; more than that, the detail in every sentence, referring to the layers of Thai culture and cooking techniques, is astonishing. Any aspiring food writer (or any writer for that matter) can learn from this work: you can never have too much detail, as long as it is presented in an engaging manner.
I met Thompson more than 20 years back, at a dinner party hosted by TMix+ contributor Stephanie Wood. We chatted for ages over dinner, then later on the rickety stairs out the back of Wood’s art deco flat. He was then learning his craft at his first Sydney restaurant, Darley Street Thai, in Newtown. Now he is wowing the world with his Nahm brand of restaurants in London and Bangkok, and Long Chim in Perth.
Thompson’s uncompromising approach to his craft made a huge impact, especially in Sydney, which still has Australia’s most vibrant Thai restaurant scene. Unfortunately, too many once-over-lightly Thai joints continue to profit from the easy flavours of those great teammates: coconut, chilli, lemongrass and coriander. Applying that sort of cooking to the beauty of Thailand’s deep-seated cooking culture is like saying soccer is just a round-ball game; or that Sydney is just the Opera House and the bridge.
Here at TMix+ we’re made of steel, and so too is the Thermomix. The Thermomix makes the making of the coconut milk (almost) a cinch, helped along by the crack of a hammer. Peeling the skin from the flesh takes some energy, and on at least one occasion, took some of my flesh, but the sense of achievement overcame all negatives.
With fresh coconut cream to hand, it’s easy to make any one of Thompson’s many versions of red curry paste—from his books and videos—and then bring it all together, simply, in a rich vegetable curry.
The paste requires nothing like the labour required for coconut cream. In the first instance, just collect the ingredients and pound them in a mortar; when making something for the first time I prefer to do it by hand before employing machines, but in this case, given this is a magazine for the Thermomix, you have our permission to go straight to the machine!
The hero of the curry can be anything you like—in this case, gently cooked sweet potato, with other hardly cooked additions providing colour and texture; the coconut-paste mix brings it all together, providing a wonderful set of flavours blending with the major ingredients, but never overwhelming.
This luscious mix of the coconut cream and paste can be the base of any mixture that takes your fancy: shellfish, white fish, cooked chicken or duck, or shredded long-cooked pork. And remember, recipes for curries and paste are never truly prescriptive; as Thompson says on a YouTube video for a red curry of pork belly: “Cook it the way you want it: if you like it tart add tamarind water, if salty, add fish sauce.”