Thailand: The Cookbook

Cookbooks and cultural conversation starters top our summer reading list

Food, Foodies, Foodways

Thailand: The Cookbook

by Jean-Pierre Gabriel
Phaidon Press, 528 pp., $49.95

Jean-Pierre Gabriel is a Belgian photographer, sociologist, and food historian who became intrigued with Thai food and culture. He spent three years traveling throughout all of the regions of the country, with the full support of the Agriculture Department of the Royal Thai Government. Gabriel was keenly interested in capturing the real food of Thailand, concentrating on authentic dishes prepared by street and market vendors, home style cooks, and local restaurants. He is convinced that some of these dishes will soon disappear, so he felt compelled to document them. His process involved first tasting and then watching each dish getting cooked, writing the recipe in Thai, and then translating the recipe into English. Some of the dishes will seem esoteric to the average Thai food fan, but there are more than 500 recipes from which to choose, representing every menu category and every region (selected from over 1,000 recipes in his first draft).

The recipes are reinforced with 200 captivating photographs of Thai food and culinary culture, the welcoming people, and the breathtakingly beautiful land. Early chapters cover the history and influences of the cuisine. Gabriel captures the culinary diversity of the cuisine, from border to border, including many ancient recipes known only by the grandmas. The recipes are logically arranged and easy to follow. A glossary clearly explains ingredients, and cooking methods are exhaustively detailed. Whether you're cooking an Isaan mushroom curry in banana leaves, a spicy Southern squid-and-jicama stir-fry, hunglay curry with pork from the northwest, or a classic Central beef-shank dry curry, the recipes are all spot-on. This is your best bet at discovering the real Thailand, short of buying a plane ticket and hiring a wizened guide who really knows the secrets of the food.

If I had one minor quibble, it would be that there is no transliterated Thai name for each dish, although each recipe does have the name in Thai script and in English; it can make finding a dish a little more difficult. If you have any interest in cooking Thai food, or learning about Thai culinary culture, Gabriel's Thailand is an absolute must to add to your kitchen library. It's definitive, detailed, and delicious.

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