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Excellent Introduction to Thai Vegetarian Cuisine.Buy It.
on March 4, 2005
`Budda's Table' by Chat Mingkwan looks like a typical `little cookbook' you commonly see published by Chronicle Books, some of which are decent and some of which are a waste of money compared to other titles available for a similar price. This book, published by a house with the incredibly modest name of `Book Publishing Company' out of Summertown, Tennessee, has lots to offer, even if it isn't published by Alfred A. Knopf, Harper Collins, or Artisan.
Unlike the dominant cuisines of India, Thai cooking is not inherently vegetarian, and yet Buddhism, a religion with strong vegetarian tendencies is the most important religion in Thailand. This gives rise to the book's title and subtitle, `Thai Feasting Vegetarian Style'. This means that fish sauce, one of the most important Thai ingredients, has been removed from all recipes. This is probably about as dramatic as removing anchovies from all Italian dishes. Fortunately, the wealth of southeast Asian fermented bean pastes are up to filling in the gaps left by removing the famous `Nam Pla' from all recipes.
This is not to say Chat Mingkwan has abandoned Thai traditional cooking. He begins his book with an excellent little guide to Thai ingredients which is no replacement for good references such as Bruce Cost's `Asian Ingredients', but it is an honest coverage of the field with a firm commitment to the belief that there are a lot of Thai ingredients with which you cannot substitute and expect to achieve the right Thai taste. Foremost of these in my mind is galangal, a rhizome with some resemblance to ginger. But, based on the scientific names of the two plants, they are not closely related. They certainly do not belong to the same genus. Another unmistakable and unreplacable ingredient is tamarind. While I have never knowingly tasted galangal, I have tasted tamarind and can think of nothing in the western pantry that comes close to its taste. It is sharp, but its bite is somewhere between cassia (Asian cinnamon), licorice, and vinegar.
Thai cuisine is an ancient fusion of Indian and Chinese cuisines, jolted to an entirely new level with the addition of the capsicum chilies from the New World. I know less about Indian cooking than I do on just about every other major cuisine you can name, but it seems to me that the primary transformation from Indian to Thai cuisine seems to be the shift of curry mixtures from powders in India to pastes in Thailand. This generalization may be all wet, but it is quite true that virtually all curry bases described in this book are pastes, making the mortar and pestle a very important tool in the Thai kitchen. I agree entirely with the author and millions of Mexican home cooks and Jamie Oliver and everyone else who wants to weigh in on the subject that the mortar and pestle is simply a superior tool for making pasty mixtures than any modern blender or food processor. If you want to make serious use of this book, get a good, heavy set and find yourself a good source of Thai ingredients.
To reinforce this point, the author opens with a 15-page chapter devoted to chili and curry sauces. These recipes also reinforce the fact that you will not succeed with these recipes unless you can find a source for galangal, Kafir lime leaves, and lemongrass. Most of the other ingredients should be no problem in Mittelamerica. In my darkest Pennsylvania, my local farmers market carries fresh lemongrass and cilantro with roots and my local megamart has all the chilies, bean pastes, and tamarind you want.
The next chapter on salads and snacks includes easy recipes with that oh so distinctive Thai taste based on peanuts, lemongrass, chiles, cilantro, and tamarind. This chapter includes a recipe for the famous Pad Thai salad, where, unlike many famous French salads, the only difficult task is finding all the ingredients. The chapter also presents rice as a salad ingredient, something rather uncommon in western menus. And, if rice isn't your dish, there is always tofu.
The chapter on soups brings back my most indelible memory of eating Thai food when I asked for clear Thai soup to be done `spicy'. It was very, very, very spicy hot! Chef Mingkwan immediately scored points with me when I saw his vegetable stock recipe. My fussiest and most highly respected French sources on stocks insist that vegetables are simmered no more than an hour in a stock, and Chef Mingkwan puts his daikon and cilantro and chiles to the hot water for no more than 45 minutes. This chapter also includes a great foodie talking point recipe with a `Hunter's Soup'. This is the Thai vegetarian version of the soup one makes when the hunting has not gone too well.
The next chapter deals with stir-frying, one of the strongest influences from China on the cuisines of Southeast Asia. I have seen street food people from Burma to the Philippines use woks with almost exactly the same techniques as you may see in Shanghai or Beijing. The introduction to this chapter is a fair example of the author's sense of humor as he points out that uses for the wok include steaming, smoking, deep frying, floating on flood waters and sledding in the snow. While the stir fry recipes are very good, this book is no primer on stir-frying technique or stir-frying equipment. If you are not familiar with the wok through experience with Chinese techniques, I suggest you check out Ken Hom's `Quick Wok'. I suspect Martin Yan's earlier books are also good sources, but I have not gotten around to reviewing them yet.
This is a sample of the good Thai cooking experience available to you in this book. The value of this little book is capped with an excellent bibliography that oddly omits a reference to the definitive new work `Thai Food' by David Thompson.
A recommended easy intro to Thai cooking for vegetarians.