I was recently interviewed about cookbooks that I like and when I thought about the ones I’ve been most intrigued with, a few stood out. They were single-subject books that explore a single topic, which I find useful when looking for a straightforward recipe to try out. But the more complex, thorough books help me understand cuisines that I’m not all familiar with. For example, I have a massive, magnificent 688-page book on Thai cuisine that is the ne plus ultra of Thai cookbooks. But every time I’ve cracked it open, I feel like if I don’t get all twenty-seven ingredients called for in the recipe, it’s not going to work. Or that I’m doing something wrong and I’ll be cursed by a thousand Thai grandmothers (or the internet) for the rest of my life.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great book and I love sitting in am armchair, reading about food traditions and so forth. But in reality, and in the kitchen, it’s a different story. And often we have to make compromises or make do with what we can, if we want to make a dish.
It can quickly become tiresome having the authenticity police breathing down your neck, with people picking out anything that you’re doing wrong when making dinner. (As I wrote in my recent book, cultures and traditions change over time. Italians didn’t always have tomatoes, chiles weren’t always part of Thai cooking, and hamburger meat didn’t originally come from America.)
So it’s a true pleasure to have a reassuring voice like Leela Punyaratabandhu, in her terrific book, Simple Thai Food, telling you that – you know what? – you don’t need to make yourself crazy to cook Thai food. We can all breath a sigh of relief. And, if necessary, you can make a few adjustments and still retain the original flavors of the dish.