Talking Thai: David Thompson on Thai Street Food

Pat Nourse: Just how late is this book, exactly?
David Thompson: It is perfectly on time as far as I'm concerned. It developed, I started writing more and more and more about it. I got really involved with the historical side of it because I'm always interested in that. To me, food and history are a delicious combination, and a meaningful one at that. You can chart the course of a nation through its grits. I was starting to find out about satays, I was starting to find out about kanom jin noodles and other things and it was just fascinating to see the waves of the various arrivals, new ingredients, new people, new immigrants and new dishes that become ingested into the Siamese repertoire.

So the book expanded with your interest?
Yes. I was chasing satays and I got back to the 14th century, I was getting into kanom jin noodles and tracked back an old mural to the 1650s and then speculated on the rest, because that's all you can do with a lot of food research, I think.

What was the original brief?
It was what this book became [laughs]. I had a meeting with [Penguin publisher] Julie Gibbs and started spinning what I thought was this wonderful magical web, this gossamer-like snare, trying to seduce her into making the book bigger and broader and more meaningful and more weighty… unsuccessfully.

I intend to chase down all the leads I found for things such as kanom jin to do a huge book, as fat and as weighty as the pink book [2002's Thai Food].

Julie, who insisted on shaving back this book, is in fact a gentleman because she said she'd take the next book of mine once I finally write it. She's very clever because she got the book that she wanted and realised that this other one will take 25 years for me to write. 

Street Food has a fair bit of heft as it is, though.
Yeah, but a thousand years of history have been shaved off. I think as a consequence the book is now far more accessible. I've only glanced at the finished product once or twice, myself. I'm quite bashful about it, though I have been riveted by Earl's magical, transporting photographs, because he's such a wonderful, exquisite photographer. He's a bad back-seat driver, but a wonderful photographer. Earl was a rally-car driver in a previous life, and when I was driving around Bangkok (quite solicitously, I thought, not wanting him to drive because it can be a little bit overwhelming), I drove fast and I drove a little bit recklessly, and all I could hear was him moaning and tsking and sighing and farting in the back seat. I thought he was condemning me, but all it was was him itching to get in the front seat and take over. You could hear him being disgruntled. One of my favourite things I said to him was "shut up while I overtake this elephant, would you?" Which quietened the whole car. But then he took over and took to Bangkok's streets with relish and as much skill as he did to the markets.

What are the key things you've learned over the course of researching this book?
Never put a photographer in the back seat is the first thing. Secondly that street food that seems so established is a relatively new phenomenon that really came out of the enclaves of the Chinese areas of Bangkok and farther afield in the 1960s and 1970s. That street food is turning the cuisine inside out. Originally Thai food was cooked at home. The demographic and economic shifts have had a huge influence.

It's not something that would have been a part of village life.
No, you'd have a little shop which mum and dad operated and to the side there'd be a noodle stall and that would be about it. And that's the way it still is in some of the more remote areas. But as the Thais hitched onto a global economy, they started to leave their paddies, leave their hearth and move into industrial areas where they were housed often without kitchens, and enterprising cooks came to supply their needs. Originally it was Chinese stuff, because that was the cuisine of the people who were cooking for them, or Sino-Chinese stuff, like stir-fried noodles. Then about the 1980s, Thai food started to appear on the streets. There was always some, but now proper Thai food, nam priks and salads and so on, started appearing on the streets because people simply didn't have time any longer to cook at home. And that's increasingly the case; fewer and fewer Thais cook at home now. But at least their fast food is pretty agreeable fast food, and truer to their culture.

One of the things I did find surprising, though, is that most street food ain't Thai in origin, whether it be satays, noodles, roast duck, roast pork, most of the things one associates with street food and market food is Chinese or brought by Malays. Street food was the food of immigrants; it was their way to establish themselves in a new country. The Thais were farmers, there were restrictions on various types of employment and most of the immigrants were city-dwellers anyway, and though most of them had other enterprises as well, selling food was something that could sustain them in hard times.

The Thais also had an agreeably languid approach to commerce, and it's still there, although that is beginning to change. That's one of the charms of the Thais: they're not so readily seduced by the idea that life is about making money alone. The Chinese on the other hand have always had an immigrant's approach to establishing themselves. They're enterprising and they want to build up their stall so they can look after their families, even if they're back in China. The two groups managed to live side by side, though, and they've fed off each other. One of the interesting things is the way the Chinese have been absorbed so readily into mainstream Thai culture. There's still a distinctiveness, but the two cultures have managed to change each other.

Would we be right or wrong to assume that this book's focus on street food makes it easier to cook from at home?
Yes and no. One of the paradoxes is that you think street food is much simpler but sometimes it ain't. Some of the noodle dishes can be quite complex because very often that noodle vendor sells just that one dish, so they spend all day preparing it. It might be difficult to do for four, but it's the same amount of work for 40. They'll go to the market and you can buy food there at any stage of preparation, whether it be still kicking, unpeeled and unprocessed, straight from the dirt, or killed, peeled, processed, chopped, pastes made, fish filleted, right up to foods cooked completely to eat there or take away. At every stage of preparation there is a vendor who has it, and that's the glorious thing. It's bloody handy because labour is cheap, but also the thing about the Thais is that they all like their food, and food is the most heart-felt of their undertakings or occupations. It's also the one that's easiest to get into.

There's a parallel between the fact that immigrants established themselves in Siam through the 1920s and '30s through their food, and that's what's happening again now in Bangkok with waves of Burmese and Karen people on the streets.

You've noted in the past that Bangkok is a very Chinese city. Are you seeing much food from the Thai provinces becoming part of the city's culture?
Som tum is an example of that. Som tum, the green papaya salad, is a north-eastern dish. It was a foreign dish that only really came into Bangkok in the '40s and '50s and it was dismissed as being peasant food. The central plains Thai used to look with disdain on the outer provinces and some still do.

You think pad Thai is quintessentially Thai, but it's Chinese in origins and was created, in one of the few instances of a government creating a dish that's subsequently become very popular, in the 1940s. There was a bout of nationalism at the time and they tried to Siamise the Chinese. They excluded them from selling their noodles in certain places - near government offices, schools and so on - and they created a competition to find the best Thai noodle. The dish has all the hallmarks of being Chinese - the noodles, the beancurd, the beansprouts, the garlic chives you see in every Chinese dish, dried prawns as well, but what made it slightly different was the use of palm sugar and tamarind. It took on a life of its own: a new dish, a government-sponsored dish, one that you think has always been around, but no.

I was very interested to see you devote an entire chapter of the book to kanom jin noodles.
It's because they're wonderful.

They've only become a common sight in the street in the last few decades as well, right?
Only because they were so f***ing difficult to make that it was only on the occasions that the community could come together could they produce them. As the communities grew, there came some people who specialised and sold them to other people who were celebrating, and it remains celebratory and ritualistic.

But it's also brunch.
Because it was part of a Buddhist ceremony, it became associated with lunch because monks had to eat before noon. It's still eaten mainly in the daytime but that convention is slipping away.

It's a dish you now see very occasionally on Thai restaurant menus in Australia which is interesting.
I don't know whether there's fresh kanom jin available in Australia; they need to be fermented, just very slightly, to give a creamy chalkiness to it.

One of the problems with kanom jin or at least kanom jinn nam ya, which is the more traditional form, is that the ingredients for it can be hard to get outside Thailand - fresh grachai, the wild ginger, is an essential component. You can get it here, but it can be damned expensive, so if you're in a little restaurant you're going to be tempted to take the shortcut and get the canned stuff, which isn't the same. Still, it's a stumble in the right direction.

One of the problems with Thai food overseas is that Thais are so unfailingly polite that they will cater to what they think Westerners will want to eat, but I think they're finally getting the message - not everywhere, but in some places here in Australia - the message that some Westerners want to eat something that's a bit more real than fish cakes and moneybags.

You can get some bloody sterling stuff in holes in the wall in Thailand, but I'm afraid I can't comment on what's happening in Thai food outside of Thailand because I don't want to eat it.

What do you think the next step is for Thai food in Australia?
F***ed if I know.

Why should we buy Street Food?
Because Julie Gibbs will kill us all if you don't. She has all our numbers [leans into the microphone] including yours, gentle readers. Her tentacles are everywhere.

It's a delicious diversion, but then that's what Thailand is. Hopefully it can offer some food that you would not necessarily see in your malls yet, and it might be an introduction into the delicious, skilled, deft jobs that Thais do when they sell food on the streets of Bangkok and the vicinities thereabouts.

What are the dishes you really want us to tackle as home cooks?
The kanom jin dishes really are delicious, and there are just 10 or 12 recipes in that chapter. The pineapple one seems unusual but it's not that uncommon in Thailand and it's an easy one.
You need to have a particular fish called pla chorn to make the best kanom jin nam ya. It's a freshwater fish and it really is… fibrous is the wrong word, but it swells when you cook it and thickens the sauce wonderfully. I reckon Murray cod is the man for that job, but I can't see many people using Murray cod for that purpose. Maybe catfish. It should be a thick sauce because it has to coat the noodles. The sauce only comes into its own when you have lots and lots of vegetables, and with nam ya it's beansprouts, usually some pickled mustard greens, lemon basil, but then it could also be banana blossoms, green beans, it could be  whole boiled eggs, lots of dried chillies - all of those mixed together. Each region and each vendor has different things. It could be pickled bean sprouts, you can have acacia, it could be almost anything.

Is it Chinese in basis like the other noodles?
No, it became integrated into the cuisine much earlier. It's not made like traditional rice noodles. It's fermented, which allows them to break up the rice and pound it into a puree. The mills that you make rice flour with (and therefore noodles) came with the Chinese and were not very common until the late 19th century. Even though that's a Neanderthal-like technology, they just weren't common, whereas everyone had a pestle and mortar and fermenting softens the rice, allowing you to make a noodle-like dish. People assume "kanom jin" means Chinese pastry, but it is in fact a mispronunciation and a corruption of a Mon word for sticky paste. The Mons introduced it into Thailand; I traced it back firmly to 1650 where there's clearly someone making kanom jin noodles next to a Buddha on an Ayutthayan library wall. But the Siamese were coming into the central plains, they adopted many of the habits of the Mon, in fact they adopted their religion, Theravada Buddhism, and with that they took on their noodles as a ceremonial thing. It goes back much further than that, though, and probably first came over with Buddhist merchants, and probably has its origins in south Indian, where you have the ippiapam. I think that's the common or shared answer.

And there are many types of sauces. The nam ya is the most popular and each region has their own; the central plains version in this silly book of mine is not a bad one, but then you have others using seafood, some using catfish, some using prawns and I've seen some using crabmeat as well which is quite unusual. Then you start to move on to other ones with chicken, with game, with beef. The other thing that's interesting with kanom jin noodles is that it's the only noodles you can have with curry - green curry in particular is quite common. Curiously, though, it's only curries of Thai origin, not Muslim-style, so it's a Buddhist noodle.

What other dishes are you happy to bring to a wider audience?
Some of the noodle dishes, because I found them very attractive. I used to disdain those because I thought they were too simplistic, too popular and not quite pure Thai. Now I love them. And pure Thai? Researching this book made me realise there's no such bloody thing. I used to quest for authenticity thinking it was some kind of immutable thing. It ain't. It's as immutable as your grandma. She might be implacable, but certainly not immutable.

Where did you do the bulk of your research?
In Bangkok. But then when Earl was sighing and scratching himself like some flea-bitten Labrador in the back seat, we went to the southern central plains.

What have your Thai friends said about the book?
They've all liked it. It seems the consensus is that it's more accessible.

The use of Thai type on the page is arresting.
It's because this one is about Thailand as well as Thai food. The pink book [2002's Thai Food]  was written here in Sydney, whereas this one was firmly planted in Bangkok.

Did that affect your writing?
It made it more immediate, and, if anything, less pompous. I was more relaxed here about personalising it and including myself in it, and just being more easygoing.

What do we need to cook from this book?
Cook what you bloody like - there's only 100 or so in there, but there's got to be something you'll like. Most recipe books, if you cook four from them, that's going well, so you've got to be able to find at least that many in there.

And if this is your first go at real Thai food?
Go for some of the stir-fried noodle dishes, they're the easiest. All you need is a wok, a noodle, a will and a tongue.

And if you're looking for a challenge?
Flip over to the curry section. That'll f*** you over. If you want to do these curries for real you'll have to make your own curry pastes.

And make coconut milk.
Exactly. The only reason I insist on making fresh coconut milk is because I don't have to make my own. Get other people to do it. I can't imagine cooking without it, but I'd hate to have to do it myself.

And what's this about a new restaurant in Bangkok?
We're in the throes of working out conditions and things, yes.

Is it going to be called White Man's Folly?
I hope not. Nor do I expect it to be a white elephant.

What's the deal?
It's just another bloody restaurant in Bangkok. But I'd like to think we can do it reasonably well.

Are you daunted by the prospect of cooking Thai food for Thai people in Thailand?
The only thing that was daunting was getting an arrangement where it would not be too expensive and therefore inaccessible. It's going to be at the Metropolitan hotel, where the existing restaurant is. It should be quite interesting. Like Nahm in London but a little more relaxed and not at London prices. At Nahm we have to fly everything in, and with rent and labour costs factored in it becomes expensive. I think we're looking at 1500-1800 baht spend on food per head, which is, what, around $50 or $60.

Do you have a name for the restaurant?
I think they're going to call it Nahm.

There's surprisingly little in the way of upmarket Thai food in Bangkok, isn't there?
Thais love food but they don't have a strong restaurant culture. The food will probably be better than at Nahm in London because it'll be in situ, and we're hoping to get growers to do things for us - you know, all those good things that cooks do. Get some decent prawns, a good fish supplier.

I'm surprised some sneaky farang hasn't exploited that gap in the market to better effect.
I think some sneaky farang is about to.

David Thompson's Thai Street Food is published by Penguin Lantern ($100, hbk).


This web exclusive interview was posted in October 2009.


Check out our excerpt of David Thompson's Thai Street Food,including recipes for kanom jin sao nahm (pineapple and dried prawns with kanom jin noodles), neua pat bai grapao (stir-fried minced beef with chillies and holy basil), raat nar gai (charred rice noodles and chicken with thickened "gravy"), pat Thai and som dtam malakor (green papaya salad).

View Full Site