“Bangkok” is Leela Punyaratabandhu’s detailed portrait of the bustling metropolis she grew up in. Though she eventually moved to Chicago for college, the food of her youth always remained important. She started writing the wildly popular blog She Simmers (www.shesimmers.com) about cooking Thai food and now splits her time between Chicago and Bangkok.
As its name suggests, “Bangkok” (10 Speed Press, $35, 368 pages) doesn’t spend any time on other parts of Thailand. “It’s a snapshot of Bangkok,” says Punyaratabandhu. “There are dishes that are older than the city itself and dishes from my family.” She also mostly avoids the clichéd images of street food hawkers and characters milling about Khaosan Road. She focuses on the everyday experiences, from a turbulent boat ride on the Chao Phraya River to the many family meals at her grandparents’ house that is “big enough for the entire clan should anyone need a place to stay in times of need.”
Though this is her second book after 2014’s “Simple Thai Food,” she’s been thinking about writing it for five years. “This is the book I wanted to write before my first book,” she says. In the end, Punyaratabandhu and her publisher decided to release the relatively leaner “Simple Thai Food” first. “The goal was to ease people into traditional Thai food,” she says. “The book ended up being just as authentic, but the mission of the book was to pare down the recipes to ones that were easier to make.”
“Bangkok” makes no such concessions. The hefty book includes recipes with ingredients you’d be hard pressed to track down at your local grocery store, unless you regularly can find fermented red tofu, pandan leaves or winged beans. Fortunately, you do have options. You can order most ingredients online now. “If Golden Pacific Market doesn’t have it, you don’t need it,” says Punyaratabandhu.
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Even with the focus, Punyaratabandhu wasn’t able to include everything she wanted. “It was like trying to fit an ocean into a shot glass,” she says. “Paring down the list of foods was painful. I actually cried when making the final decision.”
What finally made the cut differs from what most people might associate with Bangkok. There’s no basic red curry or tom kha gai soup, but you will find recipes for 24-hour chicken matsaman curry and braised chicken in coconut-galangal cream sauce. Pad Thai pops up, albeit wrapped in an omelet and requiring 24 ingredients, including fresh shrimp tomalley. No matter what your level of comprehension of Thai cuisine is, you’ll inevitably learn something new.
It also turns out that the city of Bangkok is much more diverse and varied than you might imagine. As Punyaratabandhu writes in the beginning of the book, Bangkok cuisine can be described as an “indigenous Central cuisine” of Thailand with “Chinese, Mon (a state in Burma), Persian, Portuguese, modern European, North American, and more.”
That means some dishes that made the cut look surprisingly inauthentic to outsiders. “Every race and cuisine and ethnic culture that has come through Bangkok, we retain that and come up with something unique,” says Punyaratabandhu. “A lot of recipes you can’t find anywhere else, even in Thailand.” For example, a recipe for train fried rice includes ketchup, not exactly an ingredient one considers authentically Thai. As she explains in the book, in the early 20th century, “rail dining was all about luxurious imported items that weren’t available to everyday people.” At that time, “butter, sausage, peas, and European seasoning sauces” were as prized as “foie gras, burrata, or lobster is today.”
“Bangkok” presents a more complicated and intriguing portrait of the city, one that differs from the general stereotypes. Turns out, lard used to be used extensively, before vegetable oils were adopted because they were considered healthier. This trend is reversing, as more people embrace the classic ingredient.
Punyaratabandhu hopes the book corrects some misconceptions about the food in Bangkok, specifically the idea that people there only eat street food. “When people think of Bangkok, they think of street food, but Bangkok is a lot more than that,” says Punyaratabandhu. “The best food is not found on the street at all. There is destination street food, but those are rare. We have more to offer. Look deeper into the parts of the city that (tourists) don’t normally get to see. Especially the food cooked in homes.”
Spicy beef tenderloin stir-fry with holy basil
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 6 minutes
1 tablespoon Thai thin soy sauce or thin soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1/44 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon grated palm sugar
8 large cloves garlic
8 to 10 fresh bird’s eye chilies or to taste
1 1/2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil
1 1/2 pounds beef tenderloin, sliced against the grain on a 40-degree angle into small pieces, about 2 inches long, 1 inch wide, and 1/4 inch thick
3 or 4 makrut lime leaves, lightly bruised and torn into small pieces
1 1/2 cups fresh holy basil leaves
Stir together the soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce, stock and sugar in a small bowl. In a mortar or small chopper, grind together the garlic and chiles into a coarse paste.
Put the lard in a large wok or a 14-inch skillet and set over medium-high heat. Add the paste and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. (Lower the heat a little bit if the garlic turns brown.) Add the beef, and stir-fry to separate. With a rubber spatula, scrape every bit of the sauce into the wok and stir-fry until the beef is only barely pink, about 2 minutes. Stir in the lime leaves, and continue to stir-fry until no pink remains on the beef, about 1 minute longer.
Remove the wok from the heat, and stir in the basil leaves, which will be wilted by the residual heat. If desired, pick out the lime leaves (which you won’t be eating); transfer to a serving plate and serve with rice.
Per serving: 476 calories, 35 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 109 mg cholesterol, 4 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 31 g protein, 570 mg sodium, 0 g fiber
Train fried rice
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
2 teaspoons Thai thin soy sauce or regular thin soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper, plus more for dusting
1/4 cup liquid from red fermented tofu
1/4 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon pork cracklings
4 large cloves garlic, minced
3 eggs, lightly beaten
8 ounces yellow or white onions, cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch-wide wedges
1 Roma tomato, cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch-wide wedges
1 pound pork shoulder, sliced thin against the grain into bite-size pieces
3 cups tightly packed cooked Thai jasmine rice, cold
2 or 3 fresh bird’s eye chilies, thinly sliced crosswise
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 small pickling cucumber, peeled and sliced crosswise 1/4-inch thick
4 green onions, trimmed
2 limes, halved lengthwise around the core
In a small bowl, stir together the soy sauce, pepper, tofu liquid and ketchup. Set it near the stove.
Put the lard, cracklings and garlic in a wok or 14-inch frying pan, and set it over high heat. Stir until the garlic is fragrant, 30 to 40 seconds. Add the eggs and scramble until partially set. Add the onions and cook without stirring too much, 2 to 3 minutes. You want them to brown a little and the moisture in the wok to evaporate. Add the tomato wedges and pork, and cook them the same way you cooked the onion until the pork has firmed up with some pink still remaining, about 3 minutes. Use a rubber spatula to scrape every bit of the prepared soy sauce mixture into the wok, then add the rice and stir-fry until well blended and heated through. Turn off the heat.
To make the sauce, in a small serving bowl, stir together the chiles and fish sauce and set it on the table for anyone who may want this Thai equivalent of salt and pepper shakers.
Divide the warm fried rice evenly among four dinner plates. Arrange some cucumber slices, a green onion, and a lime half on each plate. Invite diners to squeeze the lime over their rice and to eat bites of the cucumber and green onion alternating with bites of the rice.
Per serving: 448 calories, 15 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 188 mg cholesterol, 52 g carbohydrates, 7 g sugar, 24 g protein, 1,875 mg sodium, 2 g fiber