Thai cuisine with Bo Songvisava
and her recipe for nam phrik

Thailand

Thailand

Thai cookery often combines many aromatic ingredients into skillfully balanced pastes, which form the foundation of different dishes; perfumed lemongrass and galangal are pounded with pungent shrimp, fragrant herbs like Thai basil, and warming dry spices such as cumin and coriander. Chef and restaurateur Bo Songvisava loves to cook the complicated curries that form a significant portion of Thai cuisine, tempering the heat of chilli and funkiness of fish sauce with coconut cream, cooked carefully until it ‘cracks’. This precision, she explains, is what makes Thai food so tricky to get right, and so exciting to eat.

What was your favourite food growing up?
“Soups! Lots of soups. My mum is Thai and my father is from Taiwan, and he would make a lot of Taiwanese/Chinese-style soups. One of my favourites is a clear soup with chicken and white asparagus. When I cook at home now, I cook really simple dishes like pasta or one pot dishes that easily feed the family.”

Your parents didn’t allow you to go to culinary school. What did your parents think of your decision to actually become a chef?
“They still hated it. Being Asian, I think they still prefer me to do something else, like being an accountant or lawyer rather than working in the hospitality industry. If it has to be hospitality, then management rather than the kitchen. But I don’t want to do that. I’m lucky: I’ve got five brothers and sisters and I’m the fourth one. They’ve been controlling the first two, but they haven’t been as harsh to the rest of us.”

You were trained in a Thai restaurant in London, not in Thailand. Do you think that young Thai chefs have more opportunities to train in Thailand than you had when you were that age?
“Offering stage [an unpaid kitchen internship] wasn’t common when I was a teenager, but more and more restaurants are starting to offer these opportunities now. So Thailand is a good place to start training to become a Thai chef now, but it’s still great to go to European kitchens to learn discipline and other important fundamental skills needed to become a great chef.”

What do you love most about cooking?
“The end result. The end products of the cooking, and how delicious dishes can turn out to be. I enjoy the cooking process itself, too, because you transform things. If you cook Thai, you play with magic, because you combine 20, 25 ingredients. By themselves they might not be particularly tasty, but when combined properly the result can be something really special.”

Do you have a surprising example of such a combination?
“In Thai food, everything is surprising because you mix so many things together. Lemongrass; garlic; galangal; shallots; dry spices like coriander seeds and cumin; different types of chillies; shrimp paste; coconut cream; Thai basil. Beforehand you think that if you put it all together it’ll come out really bad, but the opposite is true, and you can vary so much with the amounts of each ingredient to get different results.”

Dish in Bo.Lan

bolan.co.th

What are you favourite Thai ingredients?
“Chillies, shrimp paste and fish sauce. We also have lovely palm sugar that gives such a different dimension and deep sweetness to a dish. It’s nutty, creamy… I love the herbs like Thai basil, coriander, lime leaves and lemongrass because of their pungency and freshness. Sometimes when I cook Thai food abroad, the smell, taste or fragrance of a dish comes out very differently because the herbs are not the same.”

I think shrimp paste is such an interesting ingredient, but we don’t have much to choose from here in Europe. What do you look for in a shrimp paste?
“It should not smell like ammonia at all, and the colour shouldn’t be too dark. It should be purplish, rather than dark brown. It also shouldn’t be too salty. The problem with shrimp paste being too salty is that you sometimes want to put more shrimp paste in a dish to increase the body of a dish, but when it’s too salty you cannot add too much.

“There are many varieties, but I generally use two types: one for the curry paste that is quite salty and pungent, and another one for the relishes or dipping sauces. The shrimp paste for those dishes is a little bit more delicate, lighter in flavour but more sophisticated. Not that pungent. A bit like a good cheese! Unfortunately, import laws in Europe don’t allow for importing of these artisan products.”

Which seasonal ingredients do you most look forward to cooking with?
“With Thailand being close to the equator, the basic fruits and vegetables are the same year-round but we do have seasons in our food. Our summer (late March to May) is the fruit season. It’s the most exciting season for me as it’s when the rambutans [a tropical fruit similar to lychee] and different types of mango ripen. Many of these fruits are used in savoury dishes, traditionally, but many fruits in Thailand are labour intensive to work with. You have to peel them and remove the stones - not like apples or carrots that you can just cut up.

Salad in Bo.Lan

bolan.co.th

"Thai salads can be crazy spicy with a touch of sourness, but refreshing because of the herbs and vegetables."

Bo Songvisava

“In the winter time (November to February) we have a lot of root vegetables that are at their best; sweet, with a great texture. We also have the new harvest rice in November. It’s like Beaujolais, you have to eat it within three months, and ideally, as soon as it’s harvested. The best time to eat it is between November and January. You can keep it, but it won’t be as good.”

What’s your favourite Thai dish?
“To eat, I love the salads. Thai salads can be crazy spicy with a touch of sourness, but refreshing because of the herbs and vegetables.

“To cook, I enjoy doing the curries, because it’s quite complex. You have to do everything at the right moment to have a great curry. People often undervalue that. People think curries are easy to cook.

“What makes the process difficult is the ratio between the curry paste and cracked coconut cream [coconut cream is ‘cracked’ by simmering until its oil separates out]. When you use fresh coconut cream it can be sweet, or not, it can be oily, or the oil doesn’t come out, and you have to adjust for those variations. Even with the curry paste that I make myself, sometimes it’s hotter than other times because the chillies have varying levels of spiciness. Once you go past the stage of the correct ratio between curry paste and coconut cream, you have to fry it until it’s cooked but not overcooked and season it at the right moment. If you miss that golden window, your curry is still fine to eat but will not be exceptional.

“Then, when you finish the curry, you have to make the decision between adding coconut milk or stock to achieve the consistency that you like. The style of the curry dictates whether it needs to be thicker or runnier, and adjusting consistency is a skill that is important. Sometimes I fuck it up as well, but it gives such satisfaction when everything goes right and the saltiness, spiciness, creaminess all fall into place.”

Pad Thai

Pad Thai

What makes Thai cuisine Thai?
“What makes Thai cuisine Thai is the balance of the flavours and the textures, because when you have a Thai meal, it’s not just the salad. There’s the curry, the soups, the stir-fry, the relish – everything is served together. That is what achieves the balance in flavour.

“I think that Japanese or European cuisines, for instance, can be quite one dimensional. A steak will be meaty and salty. If you have pasta carbonara, it’s creamy and salty but not sweet or sour. It’s not just about the balance in the flavours; it’s also about the balance in the textures. Pad Thai, for example, has soft stir-fried noodles and crunchy bean sprouts. Or the papaya salad with sticky rice: the salad is crunchy and crispy, while the rice is soft. That’s what makes Thai cuisine Thai.”

What are the biggest misconceptions about Thai food?
“First of all; Thai food shouldn’t be cheap. People go out for Thai food and think it has to be cheap, but good quality Thai food isn’t. Flavour-wise, people tend to bastardise the flavours and tame it down, so that foreigners are less offended by it. I think that’s a misperception by the people who run Thai restaurants abroad. People nowadays are adventurous enough to taste proper flavours, but they tame it down and make it so sweet. Too much coconut cream. Real Thai food is never that creamy, but sometimes curries abroad are like a cream soup rather than a curry.

"Another misperception is about peanuts. We don’t put peanuts on everything. People think that sprinkled peanuts make a dish Thai. The worst one is eating Thai food in courses: the soup first, followed by the salad, then the curry, then the stir-fry. It doesn’t work like that. It has to work together. When you take things apart you lose the ‘Thai-ness’ and the etiquette of eating Thai food - the balance of the textures and the flavours. If you eat a spicy tom yum soup by itself as a course, you can’t keep eating it because it’s too spicy. But if you have tom yum together with a stir-fry that isn’t too spicy, you can go back and forth. That’s how Thai food should be eaten.”

But Thai food is cheap in Thailand too, right?
“True. Thai people themselves undervalue their food as well. People take Thai food for granted and feel like Thai food can’t be expensive. One of the excuses is: coriander is five baht a bunch. But organic coriander is like 500 baht a kilo! The smoked fish that we use in the restaurant is 1500 baht a kilo. If you want to eat quality Thai food, it doesn’t come that cheap. People think ingredients are cheap but they’re not. We want to give a farmer or fisherman a fair price. It’s funny how our palm sugar sells in the market for 15 baht a kilo but I say: you can’t sell me your product for 15 baht a kilo! You work so hard for it. We tell them to up the prices because their prices sometimes are 20 years old. If you keep doing that, no one is going to value your work and take advantage of you. Our farmers hardly value their labour. If they would, the food costs would go up a lot more.”

Fishing boats in Thailand

Do you think the palate of Thai people has changed?
“I believe so, and in a way I don’t really agree with!” She chuckles, “But I’m really conservative. People hardly cook at home. Unless people actually love cooking, they see cooking as a waste of time. Especially with Thai food. If they don’t eat out, they’ll buy anything that’s easy to cook with. Everything has been pre-cut, pre-seasoned with industrialised flavours. The same thing happens in the restaurant business: they look at the costs, so they buy all the industrialised products. Consistent flavours and a controllable to maximise profit is what’s important to them. So the palate of people becomes more industrialised as well. If you keep eating a specific brand of seasoning sauce (not even a fish or soy sauce!) you’ll get used to it and think it’s yummy. If you then eat craft fish or soy sauce you don’t feel like it has the same effect. The whole palate of society becomes industrialised. Some restaurants want to keep the traditions alive, but it’s a niche.”

Is there anything else you want to share?
“Next time you’re in a Thai restaurant, be open-minded. Let them cook and season the dishes how they would eat them. Don’t ask for medium spicy. You’ll discover a lot more about Thai food!”

Nam phrik

The Dish

What’s the importance of nam phrik in Thai cuisine?
“It’s valuable everywhere in Thailand. You can say: pad thai [a stir-fried rice noodle dish] is Thai food but the people in the south and north of the country don’t really eat it. It’s a dish common in the central plain part of Thailand, but everybody eats nam phrik in their own versions. In the north they make it using green chillies with garlic, coriander and salt, and they will have a particular local vegetable that they also use in the nam phrik. In the east, there’s one with fermented fish and dry chillies – not too sour. The version I’ve provided is from the central plains and uses coconut cream. The south would have shrimp paste as the main ingredient in the nam phrik. Every province, every small town have their own version.

“In the old days, this would be the main dish of the meal. Chilli, salt and then you add whatever you have in your region. If you’re lucky enough that you, for example, can catch a fish from your rice field, you might grill it and have it as an accompaniment but the nam phrik is the centre of the meal.

How do the nam phrik and other dishes relate to each other?
“If you have a really spicy nam phrik, you’ll make the curry milder. If your nam phrik is mild, the stir-fry or curry can be spicier. The nam phrik dictates how spicy the rest of the meal can be.”

Why do you prefer a mortar and pestle instead of a blender?
“When you crush it with the pestle, I think the essential oils in the ingredients come out much easier. The texture is different too when you use the blades of a blender instead of the pestle. Also, when you use a blender without adding liquid it doesn’t mix well. Adding water dilutes the flavour. It’s harder to clean too!”

Is there a vegetarian alternative?
“You can use dried tempeh instead of prawn floss, but you need more salt because the prawn is usually quite salty. You can also substitute the fish sauce with soy sauce.”

 What is kii lo / (extremely) cracked cream?
“If you have the coconut cream and boil it, it’ll separate into oil and sort of sediment. If you keep boiling it, the sediment gets bigger and will clump up. That’s the stage of the cracked coconut cream. You want a lot of oil for this recipe. You can use just coconut oil, but you lose the flavour of the coconut and the caramelised flavour of the coconut sediment in the cream. It’s best to buy canned coconut cream and boil the shit out of it until it separates and use that.”

And prawn floss?
“Prawn floss comes from Chinese dried prawn. We pound it until it becomes fluffy. You can buy fresh prawns, really tiny ones. If you can peel them, peel them. If they’re too small to peel, just leave the shell on. Sprinkle them with salt and chuck them in the oven like you do with dried tomatoes. Cook on a low heat for a long time, around 70C/160F for three to four hours. Or use a dehydrator. Then pound it until it becomes fluffy.

And maeuk?
“They’re yellow, hairy eggplants. You can replace them with heirloom aubergines. Choose a slightly sour variety if you can get them.”

The Ingredients

3
makrut limes (zest of all 3, juice of 2)
1
regular lime, juiced
2
large, dried chillies
1 tsp
shrimp paste, toasted and ground
1
shallots, diced and charred in a dry pan
3
cloves of garlic, roughly chopped and charred in a dry pan
0.5 tbsp
palm sugar
2 tbsp
prawn floss
0.5 tbsp
tamarind water (or to taste)
1 tbsp
fish sauce (or to taste)
120 ml
kii lo (extremely cracked coconut cream), or 2 tbsp coconut oil
3 tbsp
Thai garlic, pounded
1
maeuk (or small, round aubergine), finely sliced
Garnish
1
chilli, cut into strips and charred a little over a flame
1
candied makrut lime (optional)
3
makrut limes (zest of all 3, juice of 2)
1
regular lime, juiced
2
large, dried chillies
1 tsp
shrimp paste, toasted and ground
1
shallots, diced and charred in a dry pan
3
cloves of garlic, roughly chopped and charred in a dry pan
0.5 tbsp
palm sugar
2 tbsp
prawn floss
0.5 tbsp
tamarind water (or to taste)
1 tbsp
fish sauce (or to taste)
0.5 cup
kii lo (extremely cracked coconut cream), or 2 tbsp coconut oil
3 tbsp
Thai garlic, pounded
1
maeuk (or small, round aubergine), finely sliced
Garnish
1
chilli, cut into strips and charred a little over a flame
1
candied makrut lime (optional)

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 45 minutes | Yield: paste for a couple of servings | Category: main

  1. In a large mortar and pestle, pound the chilli to a paste. Add the makrut lime zest followed by the shrimp paste and pound again.
  2. Next, add the grilled shallots and garlic and pound.
  3. Season by adding the makrut lime and lime juice. Set aside.
  4. In a brass (or other) wok, bring the cracked cream to the boil and simmer until it’s just beginning to colour (or heat the coconut oil). Add the pounded paste and mix. Finally, add the finely sliced mauek or aubergine.
  5. Season using the prawn floss, tamarind water and fish sauce.
  6. Serve garnished with julienne grilled chilli and candied makrut lime, if using.
< Beninese Kuli-kuli Saudi Saleeg >