Monday, 28 July 2014

A Passion For Old Siam

Five years ago today I woke up in a Bangkok hotel bedroom, unsure as to how I'd got there. Not as sinister as it sounds as I had just arrived a few hours before and I had terrible jetlag but I was at long last fulfilling a childhood dream by travelling to Thailand. As a child I had fallen in love with Siam, as it used to be known, whilst watching Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr dance around the huge ballroom in The King and I. Even though the entire film was made on a Hollywood sound stage and not a single glimpse of the real Bangkok was to be had it still provoked an air of exotic mystery in my wanderlust fuelled imagination. Interestingly, the film was banned in Thailand because of how it portrayed the king.

Ornate steps at The Grand Palace

Over three decades on and the modern version of Siam that we found did not disappoint. Bangkok was breathtakingly busy and exciting. There were many memorable places to visit, such as The Grand Palace and the Floating Market. The evening we spent at the vast Siam Niramit theatre was the one of the most awe inspiring, lavish spectacles I have ever seen and it will stay with me for the rest of my life.

After four days in the fast paced capital we flew on the island of Koh Samui, where we spent a wonderfully relaxing ten days in a hotel, in which the rooms were actually little bungalows. During our stay in the vegetation surrounded little house we shared our verandah with all manner of local wildlife. Lizards, snakes, ants, spiders, the odd rat and a particularly noisy toad who insisted on serenading us in the wee small hours.

Our verandah lizard, who I wanted to bring home.

The noise toad.

All through our time in this vibrant country we found the people to amazingly polite, warm and dignified. Nothing was ever too much trouble and any task was always performed with a smile and a bow. Of course the food was amazing and I fell in love with Thai cuisine. It seemed to combine all we loved of Chinese and Indian ingredients with the addition of less familiar flavours. During our stay in Bangkok and Koh Samui we deliberately sought out the smallest but busiest cafes where the locals ate, rather than the big tourist trap restaurants. Just down the road from our Koh Samui hotel were two small restaurants, that were basically on the patios of family homes and their kitchens were used to feed paying guests, as well the residents. The food at both was fresh and flavoursome and I think I sampled a different dish every night. Although I did develop a taste for the local crab cakes, delicately flavoured with ginger and lemongrass. I did try all the colours of curry; green, red and yellow but I think the yellow or Massaman chicken curry was my favourite and the one that when I taste it immediately transports me back to that tropical isle.

Dancers at the Siam Niramit theatre

Recently, a new Thai restaurant opened in the very hip Spinningfields area of the city, called Thaikhun. It is billed as serving Thai street food and has a rustic, beach side feel about it. Kim Kaewkraikhot, the Chef Director used to run her own small restaurant in Bangkok so she knows Thai food. When I ate there recently, just after it had opened, I was happy to see Massaman curry on the menu and ordered it without a second thought and it was just as I remembered. I was in Thai food heaven and in the ensuing days I constantly thought about, even dreamt about it. It was time to research a recipe and make my own Massaman at home from scratch.  As you know, I only every cook from scratch because I don’t believe that any pre-prepared, factory made substitute can ever provide a totally authentic flavour experience.  For this recipe I bought most of the ingredients from my local Indian food store as they carry stock from most parts of Asia. The main point is not to be afraid of cooking a cuisine you haven't tackled before. The recipes are there to guide you through and the best tip I can give you is to gather all your ingredients, prepare them, weigh them out and have them ready to go. There's nothing worse than getting to a crucial point in your cooking and realising you haven't peeled and finely grated your ginger, for instance.

Vibrantly decorated figures at The Grand Palace, Bangkok

The recipe I settled on is from the website. I have made a few minor amendments and additions to the ingredients but the method is the same. To see the original click on the website name above. Give it a go and take a trip to the tropics in your own kitchen.

Simmering in the wok

Serves: 4
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 40/50 minutes
400g chicken pieces OR chopped chicken breast/thigh
2 medium potatoes, cut into chunks
1 x 400ml coconut milk
1 small red pepper, thinly sliced
1 small yellow pepper, thinly sliced
2 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 tbsp vegetable oil
I medium onion, thinly sliced
2 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
1 thumb sized piece ginger, finely grated
3/4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 red chili, de-seeded and finely chopped
200ml chicken stock
1 stalk lemongrass, bashed a few times to release the aromas and oils
3 bay leaves
1 tsp turmeric
100g chopped unsalted dry-roasted cashews plus extra to garnish
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp whole cumin seed
½ tsp white pepper
1/8 tsp cardamom
1 tsp tamarind paste
¾  tsp shrimp paste
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp palm sugar OR brown sugar

  1. Heat a wok, large frying pan, or soup-type pot over medium-high heat. Drizzle in the oil and swirl around, then add the onion, ginger, garlic, and chili. Stir-fry 1-2 minutes to release the fragrance.
  2. Add the stock plus the following: lemongrass, bay leaves, turmeric, chopped cashews, ground coriander, whole cumin seed, white pepper, cardamom, tamarind paste (or lime juice), shrimp paste, fish sauce, and sugar. Stir with each addition and bring to a light boil.
  3. Add the chicken, stirring to coat with the spicy liquid, then add the coconut milk, star anise, cinnamon stick and potatoes. Stir and bring back up to a boil. Reduce heat to low, or just until you get a good simmer.
  4. Simmer 30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until chicken and potatoes are tender. Add red and yellow peppers and tomato during last 10-15 minutes of cooking time. Tip: if you prefer a more liquid curry sauce, cover while simmering. If you prefer a thicker curry sauce, leave off lid.
  5. Taste-test the curry, adding more fish sauce for increased flavour/saltiness, or more chili if you want it spicier. If too sour, add a little more sugar. If too salty or sweet for your taste, add a touch more tamarind or lime juice. If too spicy, add more coconut milk.
  6. Add a handful more cashews and fold in. Top with fresh coriander, if desired, and serve with Jasmine Rice.
The finished dish

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