Heat, smog and cooking to kill for

Fresh lemon grass, hot ginger, cool coconut ... Simon Hopkinson has returned from Bangkok with his chef's palate whetted It seems that a Thai restaurant opens every day somewhere in London. I could not be happier. It is a style of cooking that refreshes

Having first eaten Thai food at Chiang Mai, in London's Soho, I had always longed to taste the food at source. So it was with much excitement that I finally arrived in Bangkok for a three-night stay, en route to Australia.

It is a smoggy, smelly, hot and steamy city, with a traffic problem that beggars belief. But life and soul seem to be held together by food, the cooking of it, anywhere, any time, anyhow.

Stalls fill the pavements. It does not seem to matter one jot whether a rickety charcoal grill is only going to dispense maybe five or six servings of pork satay over a lunchtime, the vendor seems content. I was, too, and returned for a second helping.

It seems that a Thai restaurant opens every day somewhere in London. I could not be happier. It is a style of cooking that refreshes and perfumes the senses quickly and with vigour.

I can smell the frying and steaming from those street woks now; the fragrant whiff of lemon grass and lime leaf, the sting of chilli with pungent ginger and acrid coriander leaf, and the familiar savoury "eat-me" niff of fried onion and garlic. All this calmed by a constant river of sweet and cooling coconut milk.

These ingredients, along with the proteinaceous seasonings of kapee (dried shrimp paste) and nam pla (fermented fish sauce), seem to me to be the backbone of Thai cuisine.

While in Bangkok, I was invited to dinner at a place where the fare was far more sophisticated than that of the street vendors, but the vibrancy of flavour and freshness of taste were the same. One of the other guests was a charming fellow called Chalie Amatyakul, who used to be the chef of the renowned cooking school at the Oriental Hotel. He took me through some of the dishes he had chosen for dinner, in particular the curries.

One of these turned out to be remarkably strong both in spice and depth of flavour. Chalie explained: "The sauce here uses dried fish, where the stomach has been allowed to ferment."It was one of the finest things I have tasted. The other two curries both used duck; one was "thick and creamy" made with red curry paste, and the other a lighter, green curry that included fresh green peppercorns.

But what really differentiates these curries is chillies - red and green - and the thickness of the coconut milk. The red curry's thickness is achieved by letting the coconut milk cook until it almost separates, and clings to the meat. The green curry was "hotter", more aromatic and very liquid.

I met Chalie again two days later, when I was treated to an elaborate Thai picnic. There were strips of fish and prawn in wrappers that had been deep-fried, and with appropriate dips; crisp little disks of puffed rice on which to smear a hot and sweet sauce, peanut I think, and little hollowed-out towers of cucumber filled with a spiced and finely minced chicken salad. The dish is called laab gai. There is an almost identical version made with prawn.

But a discussion of Thai food would not be complete without a mention of the famous Thai condiment, nam prik. It is the ketchup of Thai tables, and a meal is unthinkable without it.

Nam prik is best when fresh. The ingredients are inexpensive so don't fret if you have some left over, It can be used the following day, but does not quite have the same zing. Use this for grilled or cold shellfish, grilled steak, chicken or lamb cutlets.

The dried shrimps, or paste, are essential, and one of the most common ingredients in oriental grocers, but if you cannot obtain either, the sauce is still quite good without them. I have used mashed up anchovies with some success. Don't be afraid of these unusual ingredients. Discovery is one of the most exciting aspects of cookery.

Nam Prik (Thai chilli sauce)

Enough for 4-5 as a dip

Ingredients: 2 tbsp dried shrimps, or shrimp paste

8 peeled cloves of garlic

4 dried red chillies - seeds removed or not, depending how hot you like it

11/2 tsp sugar

3 tbsp fish sauce

3-4 tbsp lime juice

2-3 fresh green chillies, seeded and finely chopped

Preparation: Process everything briefly in a food processor. Add a touch of water if it seems too stiff. Against all tradition, I like to add some coriander leaves too, but that's just personal.

Chalie's Recipe for Laab Gai Enough for 6 people nibbling

Ingredients: 450g/1lb cooked and finely chopped chicken meat

2-3 small and thin cucumbers, cut into 2 cm/3/4 in slices, centres slightly hollowed out with a teaspoon

1tsp shrimp paste

10 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

10 purple, Thai (or French) shallots, peeled and crushed

10 red chillies, dried or fresh; seeded or not

1tbsp finely chopped fresh galanga ginger or ordinary ginger, peeled, coarsely chopped

1tbsp fish sauce

1tsp palm - or ordinary - sugar

2 tbsp lime juice

2 tbsp finely sliced lemon grass - tender bulbous part

a few leaves of mint and or lime leaves, shredded

3-4 tbsp vegetable oil

Preparation: Dry roast in a medium oven, or non-stick pan, the first five ingredients until golden and toasted. Grind to a paste in a food processor. Add the second five ingredients and fry everything in the vegetable oil until "fragrant". Now add to the chicken, mix thoroughly and pile on to the cucumber cups. Garnish with coriander leaf.

`Roast Chicken and Other Stories' (Ebury, £17.99) by Simon Hopkinson, with Lindsey Bareham, has just won this year's Andr Simon Award.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
life
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Life and Style
tech
News
The Commonwealth flag flies outside Westminster Abbey in central London
news
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
theatre
Extras
indybest
News
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
tvWebsite will allow you to watch all 522 shows on-demand
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Recruitment Consultant (Trainee), Finchley Central, London

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    Day In a Page

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor