Australian chef, restaurateur and food writer David Thompson is a widely respected world authority on Thai food and culture and how does he feel about cooking it after 20 years? "I still have the same innocent joy as I had when I started cooking," Thompson tells SBS. "It’s a timeless pleasure, I’m very lucky like that."
After making a name for himself with Sydney restaurants Darley Street Thai and Sailor’s Thai in the 1990s, Thompson took his passion for authentic Thai cuisine to London and opened Nahm – the first Thai restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. He has since opened his Long Chim restaurants in Perth, Seoul, Singapore and Sydney. Venues aside, Thompson has also brought Thai food into the kitchens of countless home cooks around the world with his well-researched books, Thai Food and Thai Street Food, celebrated for their adherence to authentic ingredients and cooking methods, as well as his SBS series Thai Street Food - watch double episodes on SBS Food (Channel 33) on Monday nights at 7.30pm from December 10 and then on SBS On Demand - and his recent appearance on Food Safari Earth.
In his book Thai Food, Thompson describes Thai cuisine as, “A singular cuisine that is easily distinguished even from its nearest neighbours” and despite the fact that Thai food uses many of the same core ingredients as other Southeast Asian countries – chilli, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, fish sauce, palm sugar and lime juice – it manages to retain a unique flavour all of its own.
Mimicry is the highest form of flattery and we're taking Thompson's authoritative lead on what makes Thai food absolutely pop. With a little TLC and a few snappy decisions you could easily revive your weeknight noodle and rice combo.
Chilli is his jam
"Chilli jam is a versatile condiment made from deep-fried chillies and garlic. It’s a good staple to keep on hand as it goes with just about anything and will keep in your pantry almost indefinitely."
To make the chilli jam, heat 2 cups of vegetable oil in a wok over medium-high heat and deep-fry 1 cup of red Asian shallots until just golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in a small sieve over a bowl. Repeat the process with ½ cup of sliced garlic cloves, 3 tbsp dried prawns, 10 long red dried chillies and 3 slices of galangal, cooking them all separately. Reserve the oil left in the wok. Place all the deep-fried ingredients in a food processor with a tsp of shrimp paste and process until finely chopped. With the motor running, gradually add about 125 ml (½ cup) of the reserved cooking oil and process until smooth. You may need to add a little more oil to help facilitate the blending. Transfer the mixture to a saucepan and bring to the boil over low-medium heat. Add 3 tbsp of finely grated palm sugar, 2 tbsp of tamarind water and 1-2 tbsp of fish sauce and simmer, stirring regularly, until thick and jam-like. Take care you don’t cook the jam too long, because it will seize as the sugar caramelises and will be too firm to use once cooled. The chilli jam should taste sweet, sour and salty, so adjust if necessary.
Now toss your clams in it... (we've got you covered with a 2-3 minute toss - recipe right here).
Know your noodle?
Soak them and drain them well before you cook with them. Thin dried glass or vermicelli noodles soak for about 20-30 minutes in warm water until soft, while medium-thick rice noodles soak for an hour.
"I’ve become enthralled by the twirl of the noodle,” says Thompson to Maeve O'Meara during his Food Safari Earth cameo. "I guess I’m just getting back to my peasant roots rather than the pretentious cook I aspired to be when I was cooking courtly food. The older I become, the less precious I’ve become. Even though it [this pad sii uu recipe] is bloody simple, it’s delicious!”
"The technique I use to cook [stir-fried] noodles is called ‘kua’ or dry frying. While I do add a little oil to the wok, to begin with, it helps to coat the noodles and allows them to char nicely which gives this stir-fry an added depth of flavour..."
It's all a balancing act
The essence of Thai food is all about balance – the harmonious cue when sweet, sour, spicy and salty come together. Pungent fresh herbs, such as lemongrass and galangal, tone down overpowering spices, while salty sauces are tempered with sugars and offset by acids, such as lemon and lime.
“Thai food requires a balance of taste and textures in each individual dish, but it also requires a balance of flavours across a combination of dishes. So you should never have too many repetitions - be it too many spice dishes or too many dishes with coconut cream. You also want to achieve a balance of techniques, so you wouldn’t serve five different curries at once. The entire meal should centre around the rice, this is the most important element, so it’s crucial that you get the best quality you can.”
This popular Thai street snack is designed to be eaten in a single bite – the salty, sweet, sour and spicy flavours combining in one sublime hit - get the recipe here.
It's no surprise when you see queues form around stalls serving made-to-order piping hot roti and Thompson's sweet vice comes in roti-form. "I find them irresistible, especially when stuffed with banana and served with a good drizzle of sweetened condensed milk and a sprinkling of sugar." And while making them from scratch can be fiddly and quite the task, the sheer satisfaction, freshness and homemade-quality from dough to whoa, really is unmatched.
The secret? Cold ghee or margarine rather than butter - just the way the locals do it.
When rice is sticky business
According to Thomspon in Thai Street Food, one of the most distinct parts to the Thai culinary repertoire is that "food is eaten with rice (arharn gap kao), which forms the basis of the meal proper.... salads, curries, soups and relishes are eaten with rice, the heart of the meal."
Also known as glutinous rice, white sticky rice becomes plump and sticky when cooked and is a northern Thai staple and also a dessert component. Wash the sticky rice, then soak in cold water for 2-3 hours, or preferably overnight. Drain the rice, then rinse until the water runs clear. Place the rice in a mound in a muslin-lined steamer basket, making sure it isn’t piled too high in the centre or it won’t cook evenly. Add the pandanus leaf to the steaming water if using and steam for 20-25 minutes or until the rice from the top is completely cooked and tender. You will need to top up the steamer with extra water during cooking to make sure there is always plenty of steam. Then pair it with mango or sugared bananas and coconut cream thanks to this recipe.
Rock 'n' roll from scratch
While there isn't much equipment required in Thai cooking, the mortar and pestle is Thompson's holy grail. Using a food processor may leave you short of the right texture and taste and don't be afraid to go big when it comes to stone.
Once you've got your mortar and pestle at-the-ready then you'll want to grind to the tune of Thompson's southern Thai mashed prawn coconut curry - an absolute highlight on the Long Chim menu.
You know Sriracha but did you know you can now buy David Thompson's favourite version of the world's coolest hot sauce here in Australia?! It comes as no surprise that Thai food royalty Thompson sticks to a truer version of the sauce, favouring a Thai take on Sriracha over the one by Huy Fong Foods. The authentically-sourced Aaharn Sriracha sauce (it's one of the few actually made in Sriracha) is used in all of Thompson's restaurants around the world. Thompson was drawn to its rich, mellowed flavour, which he thought paired perfectly with prawns, deep-fried fish and even oysters. As such, Long Chim Perth, Melbourne and Sydney have begun retailing Aaharn Sriracha sauce.
To make nahm prik plaa, simply add 3-6 chopped red and green birdseye chillies, 1 thinly sliced garlic clove, 2 tbsp of fish sauce and a squeeze of lime juice to a bowl. Set aside.
Place two peeled garlic cloves and salt in a mortar and pestle and pound into a paste. Heat a wok over medium-high heat. Add the oil and garlic and cook until the garlic just starts to colour a little. Crack one egg into the wok and stir until lightly scrambled, then push to the side of the wok. Add 1 cup of cold cooked rice, then stir until it is well coated in the egg. Add 2 tbsp of light soy sauce, a pinch of white sugar and white pepper, three spring onion stalks (cleaned and chopped) and half a handful of coriander and toss until well combined and the rice is hot. Stir in your meat - cooked crab, pork, prawn or squid and give it a quick toss. Serve your rice with coriander, cucumber and lime wedges, and nahm prik plaa dipping sauce.
“It was given the name pat Thai, in keeping with the chauvinistic tenor of the times, and to distinguish it from Chinese noodle dishes, even though it has much in common with them – bean sprouts, bean curd, salted radish, garlic chives and, of course, the noodles themselves,” writes David Thompson in Thai Street Food.
Like any good stir-fry, it takes only seconds in the wok, so the successes lie in a good, hot wok and getting all your ingredients prepared before you start cooking.
A creature comfort dish of smoky wok-charred chewy rice noodles in yellow bean gravy. It's one of Thai guru David Thompson's late-night go-to dishes and this recipe is inspired by his.
Forget custard powder. Packing a beautiful vibrant green, this Thai dessert is so easy.
In Thai, this soup translates literally as ‘broth with pork fat’, but if you’d rather not use so much saturated fat, you can just use vegetable oil instead.
These crunchy fish nuggets are fragrant with lemongrass and kaffir lime, with punch from homemade red curry paste.
This recipe has been passed down from my grandmother. I make the curry paste from scratch - toasting the spices and pounding fresh lemongrass and galangal together - for big depth of flavour.