Today was a good day; a day of achievement; a day of activity; a day when you get to the end of it and think, ‘that went pretty quickly and I have achieved something good.To do list ticked off, spent time with the kids and got to do self indulgent stuff’. In my book, that’s the perfect the perfect ten. Actually, that’s a nine. A ten is too rude to mention on this blog.
Why a nine? It started with a cycle to all the amazing eastern beachside suburbs of Sydney, possibly the greatest backdrop for a local, semi-causal ride in the world. Then, and to my amazement, I was given the green light from the Ministry of Home Affairs* to cook an authentic Thai meal. Does life get any better?
I kept it to two dishes because I didn’t have a lot of time. So I paired a classic papaya salad that I have made many times with a curry I’ve never tried before. The curry is a southern Thai dish. The curry paste is neither a green nor a red curry. It’s a fiery Geng Gati# curry paste – fiery and dry. All recipes are by the legend of Thai cookery, David Thompson (he even has a Michelin Star in London at his restaurant Nahm). The recipes I cooked today are from his beautiful Thai Street Food cookbook. This book – unlike Marcella Hazan – is full of fantastic street photography. This is a classic coffee table book. If you’re not bothered about photos, then buy his authority on Thai cookery, Thai Food. He takes you through the heritage of Thai cookery. There are photos, but not many. If you are into Thai food and are thinking of buying a couple of cookbooks, buy both of these and that’s all you’ll need, forever.
This salad is rustic, and that’s why I love it. It gives me a chance to used my prized pestle and mortar. My wife went to Bangkok with friends (without me) and as a gift, she brought me back a large, sturdy, granite pestle and mortar which cost A$5. It’s my pride and joy. Forget gadgetry such as blenders, mincers and grinders. This is the heavyweight of the kitchen. It will be with me forever, probably outlasting me. My epitaph might say ‘if only he were made of granite, like his pestle and mortar’.
For the salad, get all the ingredients ready mis-en-place. Then throw the garlic, salt, dried prawns and roasted peanuts into the pestle and mortar and grind, pound, stir and bash until you get a coarse paste. Don’t worry if there are a few solids still in there. I think it adds to the rustic-ness of the dish (is there such a word?). Then add the rest of the ingredients. One thing I have learnt from Mr David Thompson; the more you bruise a chilli, the hotter it is. It’s a really good way to regulate the heat other than the amount of chillies. Hit them with a feather and you’ll have a mild dish. Bash the chilli to death and you’ll have a smouldering volcano in your mouth. So, bruise the chillies depending on how hot you like your papaya salad.
I cheated with the curry. David Thompson’s recipes are meticulous. If you are using a pestle and mortar, you should pound in the order of the listed ingredients. In small print he says use a blender. Because I was pounding the papaya salad, I opted for the blender.
The paste calls for 13 dried chillies and ten bird’s eye chillies. I used the full amount and it was hot, but still tasty. My wife and I were sweating, but it was manageable (although we drank the first bottle of wine very quickly!). If that amount of chillies frightens you, then tone it down, especially the dried chillies. Maybe half them.
The curry is simple. Bring the coconut milk to a simmer in a wok. Add bruised lemongrass and half the lime leaves. After a few minutes, add the fish. Cook until tender. Don’t worry about overcooking the fish slightly. In this kind of dish, it’s forgiving. After the fish is cooked, add the paste and cook for a few minutes. Then add the seasoning ingredients (pinch of palm sugar, 2 tablespoons of fish sauce, a few bird’s eye chillies, lightly bruised, and a squeeze of lime juice). Add the rest of the leaves and serve with Jasmine or long grain rice.
We drank a bottle of Pinot Gris for starters and moved on to Pinot Noir. Not sure the second choice was the right pairing. I’d like to hear advice from Italian Wine Geek for a red good wine with very spicy Asian food.
Even though David Thompson’s recipes are meticulous, they are thoroughly gratifying to cook. And so different from anything you’ll find in a standard Thai restaurant. I feel like I am cooking history, for a king and his suitors. They take a lot of effort, but that’s what makes them special. Rather like appreciating how clean your clothes are after using a mangle. Hard work, but it’s your own hands that get the results (apart from me using the blender of course).
#Gen Gati paste
- 13 dried bird’s eye chillies
- 10 fresh bird’s eye chillies
- pinch of salt
- 1 heaped tablespoon of fresh glalangal
- 2 tablespoons chopped lemongrass
- 2 teaspoons chopped garlic
- 1 teaspoon chopped turmeric
- 1 tablespoon ginger
- 1 tablespoon dried shrimp paste
*The Ministry of Home Affairs was originally coined by someone from the Dream Team Cycling Club. It refers to our wives.