Thai food is one of my favourite cuisines – but sadly it is almost impossible to find authentic dishes here. Like Indian food in Britain, it is both homogenised and pays heed to Western palates, so the result is almost unrecognisable as Thai.
When well balanced, Thai food is hot, sweet, salty, sour and pungent all at the same time – a fresh, vibrant and exciting explosion of food in your mouth. Dishes change from region to region, depending on what is grown on the surrounding land.
The Thai table is always communal; dishes are designed to be shared and always accompanied by jasmine rice. Spoon and forks are used – chopsticks have never been a part of Thai culture. Little dishes of tasty relishes are always served as accompaniments, allowing all to add their own touch while eating.
The recipes here are straightforward – but only a small reflection of this beautiful way of eating. To really understand this extraordinary cuisine, turn to David Thompson and his beautiful book bound in pink Thai silk, simply entitled Thai Food.
Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627, petershamnurseries.com
Green papaya salad with red-chilli nahm jim
Sharp, hot, sweet and salty, this salad is extremely refreshing. Serve with grilled fish or warm rice laced with coconut cream.
For the nahm jim
1 clove of garlic, peeled
1 knob of galangal, peeled, roughly chopped
3 coriander roots, scraped and cleaned
2 red bird's eye chillies, seeded
60g/21/2oz palm sugar, crushed
The juice of 2 limes
100ml/31/2fl oz fish sauce
For the salad
100g/31/2oz vermicelli rice noodles
1 green papaya, peeled
1 small bunch of Thai basil
2 small cucumbers, sliced in half lengthwise, seeds scooped out and cut on the bias
2 carrots, peeled and sliced into fine matchsticks
Pound the garlic, galangal, coriander roots and chillies with a pestle and mortar until you have a smooth paste. Add the palm sugar and pound once more, then stir in the lime juice and fish sauce. To retain its vibrancy, this dressing should be made as close to serving as possible. Set aside.
Gently separate the rice noodles using your hands and place in a bowl of warm (not boiling) water for 20 minutes or until soft but not falling apart. Using a vegetable peeler, slice the green papaya into long, fine strips and place in a bowl. Add the basil, soaked noodles, cucumber and carrots, spoon over the nahm jim, toss together gently and serve straight away.
Grilled quail with sweet chilli sauce
Viscous, sweet and slightly sharp, Thai sweet chilli sauce can be quite addictive. This recipe is more authentic than those found in supermarkets, and good with just about all grilled meat or robust fish. Make a big jar, as it keeps for a long time. If using as a salad dressing with veg, add a squeeze of lime juice as it can be cloyingly sweet.
Quail are good to eat through spring and summer as they possess a deep, satisfying flavour without having too overpowering a gamey taste. Here, they are rubbed with spices to add an Asian taste that works well with the chilli sauce. Allow two birds per person and encourage people to eat with their fingers, as there is not enough meat to warrant the use of a knife and fork.
1 tsp coriander seeds
3 star anises
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 dried red chilli
1 tsp sea salt
For the sauce – makes 500ml/17fl oz
140g/41/2oz red chillies, seeded
450g/141/2oz caster sugar
250ml/8fl oz water
250ml/8fl oz white vinegar
A good pinch of sea salt
First make the sauce. Blend the chillies to a paste in a blender and set aside. In a heavy-based saucepan, combine the sugar, water and vinegar, bring to a gentle boil and add the chillies and salt. Cook for five minutes then set aside to cool before pouring into an airtight container. The sauce will keep for six weeks in the fridge.
Now move on to the quail. Place all the spices in a pan and place over a medium heat. Once the spices begin to pop, remove from the heat. Pound, along with the chilli, with a mortar and pestle, grinding to a fine paste. Rub the quail all over with the mix, massaging gently, and season with the salt. This can be done up to 24 hours in advance.
To cook, heat a barbecue and, once it is hot and the coals have died down, lay the birds skin-side down. (If you don't have a barbecue, place on a preheated griddle pan on a hob at a high heat.) Cook for eight minutes, then turn the birds and cook for a further six minutes on the under side. This will produce a bird whose flesh is pink but not too rare. Remove from the heat, arrange on a large plate and spoon over the chilli sauce. '
Sticky coconut rice with palm sugar and mango
This is a dessert that I find irresistible. There is a little Thai hole-in-the-wall restaurant with a no-bookings policy at Bondi in Sydney whose name is Ploy Thai, where the cooking is exceptional – and this is the one and only dessert they offer. I almost look forward to going home to Australia just to eat this dish.
200g/7oz jasmine rice
375ml/12oz coconut milk
5 tbsp palm sugar
1 heaped tsp salt
4 ripe mangoes
Wash the rice and place in a saucepan along with the coconut milk and cook as you normally cook rice. As the rice becomes tender to the bite (after about 20 minutes), in a separate pan gently melt the palm sugar and stir in with the salt until the sugar is well mixed through. Taste and adjust the flavour if necessary – it should be sweet but with a pronounced salty taste. Allow to cool to room temperature, then combine with the rice. Just before serving, slice the mangoes and gently fold through the rice.