David Thompson: It is perfectly on time as far as I'm concerned. It developed, I started writing more and more and more about it. I got really involved with the historical side of it because I'm always interested in that. To me, food and history are a delicious combination, and a meaningful one at that. You can chart the course of a nation through its grits. I was starting to find out about satays, I was starting to find out about kanom jin noodles and other things and it was just fascinating to see the waves of the various arrivals, new ingredients, new people, new immigrants and new dishes that become ingested into the Siamese repertoire.
Yes. I was chasing satays and I got back to the 14th century, I was getting into kanom jin noodles and tracked back an old mural to the 1650s and then speculated on the rest, because that's all you can do with a lot of food research, I think.
Yeah, but a thousand years of history have been shaved off. I think as a consequence the book is now far more accessible. I've only glanced at the finished product once or twice, myself. I'm quite bashful about it, though I have been riveted by Earl's magical, transporting photographs, because he's such a wonderful, exquisite photographer. He's a bad back-seat driver, but a wonderful photographer. Earl was a rally-car driver in a previous life, and when I was driving around Bangkok (quite solicitously, I thought, not wanting him to drive because it can be a little bit overwhelming), I drove fast and I drove a little bit recklessly, and all I could hear was him moaning and tsking and sighing and farting in the back seat. I thought he was condemning me, but all it was was him itching to get in the front seat and take over. You could hear him being disgruntled. One of my favourite things I said to him was "shut up while I overtake this elephant, would you?" Which quietened the whole car. But then he took over and took to Bangkok's streets with relish and as much skill as he did to the markets.
No, you'd have a little shop which mum and dad operated and to the side there'd be a noodle stall and that would be about it. And that's the way it still is in some of the more remote areas. But as the Thais hitched onto a global economy, they started to leave their paddies, leave their hearth and move into industrial areas where they were housed often without kitchens, and enterprising cooks came to supply their needs. Originally it was Chinese stuff, because that was the cuisine of the people who were cooking for them, or Sino-Chinese stuff, like stir-fried noodles. Then about the 1980s, Thai food started to appear on the streets. There was always some, but now proper Thai food, nam priks and salads and so on, started appearing on the streets because people simply didn't have time any longer to cook at home. And that's increasingly the case; fewer and fewer Thais cook at home now. But at least their fast food is pretty agreeable fast food, and truer to their culture.
Yes and no. One of the paradoxes is that you think street food is much simpler but sometimes it ain't. Some of the noodle dishes can be quite complex because very often that noodle vendor sells just that one dish, so they spend all day preparing it. It might be difficult to do for four, but it's the same amount of work for 40. They'll go to the market and you can buy food there at any stage of preparation, whether it be still kicking, unpeeled and unprocessed, straight from the dirt, or killed, peeled, processed, chopped, pastes made, fish filleted, right up to foods cooked completely to eat there or take away. At every stage of preparation there is a vendor who has it, and that's the glorious thing. It's bloody handy because labour is cheap, but also the thing about the Thais is that they all like their food, and food is the most heart-felt of their undertakings or occupations. It's also the one that's easiest to get into.
Som tum is an example of that. Som tum, the green papaya salad, is a north-eastern dish. It was a foreign dish that only really came into Bangkok in the '40s and '50s and it was dismissed as being peasant food. The central plains Thai used to look with disdain on the outer provinces and some still do.
It's because they're wonderful.
Only because they were so f*ing difficult to make that it was only on the occasions that the community could come together could they produce them. As the communities grew, there came some people who specialised and sold them to other people who were celebrating, and it remains celebratory and ritualistic.
Because it was part of a Buddhist ceremony, it became associated with lunch because monks had to eat before noon. It's still eaten mainly in the daytime but that convention is slipping away.
You need to have a particular fish called pla chorn to make the best kanom jin nam ya. It's a freshwater fish and it really is… fibrous is the wrong word, but it swells when you cook it and thickens the sauce wonderfully. I reckon Murray cod is the man for that job, but I can't see many people using Murray cod for that purpose. Maybe catfish. It should be a thick sauce because it has to coat the noodles. The sauce only comes into its own when you have lots and lots of vegetables, and with nam ya it's beansprouts, usually some pickled mustard greens, lemon basil, but then it could also be banana blossoms, green beans, it could be whole boiled eggs, lots of dried chillies - all of those mixed together. Each region and each vendor has different things. It could be pickled bean sprouts, you can have acacia, it could be almost anything.
No, it became integrated into the cuisine much earlier. It's not made like traditional rice noodles. It's fermented, which allows them to break up the rice and pound it into a puree. The mills that you make rice flour with (and therefore noodles) came with the Chinese and were not very common until the late 19th century. Even though that's a Neanderthal-like technology, they just weren't common, whereas everyone had a pestle and mortar and fermenting softens the rice, allowing you to make a noodle-like dish. People assume "kanom jin" means Chinese pastry, but it is in fact a mispronunciation and a corruption of a Mon word for sticky paste. The Mons introduced it into Thailand; I traced it back firmly to 1650 where there's clearly someone making kanom jin noodles next to a Buddha on an Ayutthayan library wall. But the Siamese were coming into the central plains, they adopted many of the habits of the Mon, in fact they adopted their religion, Theravada Buddhism, and with that they took on their noodles as a ceremonial thing. It goes back much further than that, though, and probably first came over with Buddhist merchants, and probably has its origins in south Indian, where you have the ippiapam. I think that's the common or shared answer.
They've all liked it. It seems the consensus is that it's more accessible.
It's because this one is about Thailand as well as Thai food. The pink book [2002's Thai Food] was written here in Sydney, whereas this one was firmly planted in Bangkok.
It made it more immediate, and, if anything, less pompous. I was more relaxed here about personalising it and including myself in it, and just being more easygoing.
Cook what you bloody like - there's only 100 or so in there, but there's got to be something you'll like. Most recipe books, if you cook four from them, that's going well, so you've got to be able to find at least that many in there.
Go for some of the stir-fried noodle dishes, they're the easiest. All you need is a wok, a noodle, a will and a tongue.
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.
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.
It's just another bloody restaurant in Bangkok. But I'd like to think we can do it reasonably well.
Thais love food but they don't have a strong restaurant culture. The food will probably be better than at Nahm in London because it'll be in situ, and we're hoping to get growers to do things for us - you know, all those good things that cooks do. Get some decent prawns, a good fish supplier.
I think some sneaky farang is about to.
This web exclusive interview was posted in October 2009.