Home cooking : by Mark Whitman

A friend, recently arrived from the U.S.A. to settle here, expressed the wish to learn Thai, difficult enough at a ‘certain age’ and all the more admirable for that. A second notion, to learn to ‘cook’ Thai seems altogether less feasible and, indeed, necessary – especially in Chiang Mai.
Someone who enjoys cooking and is possibly a competent domestic provider (dinner parties for six or eight are a far cry from being a real cook or chef, as so many enthusiastic – and now poorer – amateurs have found to their emotional, physical and financial cost) might find the idea of learning a new cuisine rather attractive. It is, however, a process that is time-consuming in the sense that one has to learn a whole new regime and assimilate a key aspect of an alien culture.
The Italians are the most familial in this respect. The Italian matriarch is, as we know, the ‘fountain’ of all inspiration, especially to the male members of her tribe.
Thais might run a close second, but certainly most of us who attempt to rustle up a decent meal for ourselves and friends have usually learned the basics at the family stove. Like learning the language, it is hellish difficult to start late.
The hundreds of ‘local’ Thai eateries in this country generally have a woman in charge of ‘the wok’ (though as in the case of other professions where assertiveness and bossiness are key features – classical conducting, film direction – men dominate at the higher levels). Wander down any soi, or on the big road before Chang Puak and this will be borne out. Or head for the excellent Pad Thai (only) open air restaurant just before Suthep Gate for further confirmation. The point is that the expertise of a lifetime is passed on so easily, let alone cheaply. Two Thai friends and I had the Pad Thai mentioned above only last week – the cost just 75 baht for all us. No plus-plus either! As so many Thais find, it is both more social and cheaper to eat out.
The notion of ‘home cooking’ can be an attractive one (given the presence of a washing up machine or staff) and for the invitees it should blend comfort and taste. But, usually, it needs an expert in the kitchen. Most of us have a few signature dishes and a raft of lesser ones acquired over a long period and adapted during that time. Few people are truly multi-lingual and a similar number – I guess – can cook a variety of cuisines.
There is one large restaurant in the Loh Kroh Road which ‘boasts’ five different menus. It is not somewhere I would eat, not least because I am not sure that they have five chefs and five kitchens. I’m sanguine about what is called fusion food, since we live in such a changing and ‘small’ world that influences are inevitable and food preparation evolves as language does.
The big hotels such as D2 offer fusion food and some smaller places like the recently re-opened Green Mill, have a Thai menu with European and other undertones. But at the very highest level one either needs an inspirational cook or there is no substitute for uncorrupted food as there is no substitute in language for purity. Ask any Frenchman.
Don’t they blanch at someone saying ‘le fortnight’ rather than ‘quinze jours’. Just as his English equivalent will shudder at ‘nite’ rather than night. In the main, the better the dish, the more it will adhere to the original conception. You may adapt, or leave out, an ingredient in, say, a salade nicoise, but don’t call it by its rightful name minus anchovies or fresh (not tinned) tuna or the ‘right’ radishes.
Cooking is like theatre, perhaps repertory. It varies with the seasons and the ensemble. It is a question of balance too. In the case of food, the balance has to be achieved within a particular dish and then again with the courses. This is why it is difficult in ‘home cooking’ to learn a completely new discipline, just as an experienced actor schooled in one area might find it difficult to shift from serious drama to the most difficult area – comedy, where the timing lets so many of them down.
Most cooks are poachers (in the old days, literally) and we filch a variety of national dishes into our repertoire. And, coming from a country without a recognizable cuisine (America?) but only identifiable or regional dishes, this is inevitable. A move abroad might find that a useful characteristic since a lack of identity, which is the characteristic of most of us amateurs, will be excused by ‘availability’ and so on.
Lots of restaurants in Chiang Mai offer up respectable farang food, but the presence of coq au vin or crème caramel on a menu does not assure French food anymore than a camembert qualifies the cheeseboard as being French. Food is often now called ‘International’ and some big hotel dining rooms actually put that on as a seemingly enticing claim. What foolishness.
The success of Favola at the Meridien is because the chef there is sensible and experienced enough to cook Italian food with personal inspiration. He has travelled and worked internationally but uses his imagination, not superfluous ingredients. He might assimilate (fully) some external influence but not let it dominate. And, to be fair, because the prices are high he can use the best quality ingredients or ‘improve’ on the basics.
It is an inescapable fact that the quality of ingredients will save an ordinary cook from disaster (provided he or she keeps things simple) and will enhance the cooking of a real chef. It is impossible to rear a cow, a sheep or even a chicken cheaply. Similarly fish and so on cannot be taken out of their natural habitat inexpensively. Hence the horrors of battery and fish farms. If you eat meat or fish cheaply you can be assured that the animal has suffered in the process and the fish has been ‘farmed’ with attendant problems. Eating on any modest budget needs to be confined to staples and fruit and vegetables etc. if you are concerned for animal welfare or your health.
Luckily much Thai food can be adapted to those concerns and I can see why the amateur cook might want to add a few Thai dishes to a repertoire, even accepting that the average farang will find it difficult to reproduce the ‘original’. One problem will be fear. An unwillingness to go whole-heartedly into this new territory with the accent on ‘heat’.
My cooking, which I might loosely term ‘rustic’ is criticised for being at the opposite extreme. Years of eating Thai, Sri Lankan and Indian food means that I have become over indulgent with spices and seasonings, not to mention alcohol. This does not occur when following the doyenne of her profession, Elizabeth David, whose recipes and books are possibly the best ever written on French (Provincial) and Mediterranean cooking. Would that we had a restaurant in Chiang Mai able to transplant her vision. But could we afford to eat there? Yes, possibly since time (which equals cost) would be on the side of the owner, if not availability of ingredients,
So, good though the overall standard of many restaurants is in the city, I don’t think that we have a great one, just a few excellent ones hovering below that. The only definite conclusion – and it is one I’ve argued before is that Thai food inevitably offers the best general quality and certainly the best value, followed by the ubiquitous Italian eateries.
Not that we should complain, since with around a quarter of a million inhabitants, Chiang Mai can hardly be expected to rank with Brussels, New York, London or, in the case of the most recently voted ‘best restaurants’, Madrid. These and other cities, possibly in more exotic centres, may offer wonderful experiences. Since the prices they charge are beyond most of us I guess we will never truly know. And nor does it really matter.
Let’s content ourselves with knowing that we have a whole raft of good indigenous restaurants which make dining out a pleasure and the necessity of ‘home cooking’ a thing of the past.


Lemon Fish

This week’s recipe is for the fish lovers out there and almost all types of fish can be used, but the flat fish such as Pomfret, Plaice or Lemon Sole are particularly appropriate. It calls for four long red chilies, but if the family like this toned down, you can simply reduce the number, and I recommend that you remove the seeds before chopping. With all chilies, remember not to rub your eyes while chopping!

Ingredients                     serves 2-4
Pomfret/Plaice/Sole                  1 medium
Cooking oil                                     30 ml
Garlic finely chopped                   2 cloves
Chilies, long red finely chopped               4
Fish sauce                                      30 ml
Lemon juice                                    15 ml
Sugar                                         2 tbspns
Soup stock                                     60 ml
Corn flour                                   2 tbspns
Coriander leaves as garnish

Cooking Method
Clean the fish, rinse and pat dry. Now shallow fry the fish, making sure it remains moist, remove and set aside.
Heat the oil and add the garlic, frying until it is golden in color. Now add the chilies, stirring quickly and then the fish sauce, lemon juice, sugar and soup stock.
Pre-mix the corn flour with 30 ml of water and add 5ml of the flour mixture at a time to thicken the sauce slightly. When the consistency is thick enough, place the fish on a serving platter and pour the sauce over it. A garnish with coriander leaves finishes the dish and serve immediately.