Not two months ago, the Co-pilot and I went to Thailand for 2 weeks and gorged ourselves on delicious, authentic and cheap Thai food. But from Bangkok to Koh Tao, the street food was the tastiest fare that never failed to plaster satisfied grins on our faces. I was so enamoured with the delicious food we devoured that, with a few hints from the Co-pilot, his family bought me a copy of David Thompson’s Thai Street Food cookbook for my birthday.
David Thompson is the undisputed Godfather of Thai cooking. The lauded Australian chef started with Darley Street Thai (now closed), then opened the iconic Sailor’s Thai in the Rocks in 1995. The establishment has been managed by his partner, Peter Bowyer, for 11 years and has since opened up in 2 more locations: Potts Point and more recently, The Ivy. David Thompson’s Thai restaurant in London, Nahm, was the first Thai restaurant in Europe to be awarded a coveted Michelin Star but the greatest recognition has probably come from the Thai government. David Thompson was invited by the Thai government to consult to and teach authentic Thai dishes to Thais at the prestigious Suan Dusit College! In every interview his passion for authentic Thai cooking quickly bubbles to the surface and he preaches the importance of preserving authentic Thai dishes and cooking methods and turning away from adulterating it with fusion cuisine.
Similarly, David Thompson’s passion and knowledge of all things Thai is evident in the Thai Street Food cookbook. The seductive lull of Thailand beckons from page after page of glossy photos depicting typical Thai street scenes and dishes. Each page displays a new recipe that causes me and the Co-pilot to pause and paw at the page hungrily. Finally we decided to try one of the epic recipes: the laksa with beef and dried prawns (guay tio kaek).
Studying the recipe we realised we were signing ourselves up for a cooking marathon. The ingredients list was long and comprehensive; the method and preparation required even longer. Collating all the ingredients needed in this recipe took a full day’s shopping starting in Cabramatta and finishing in Thainatown, the Thai quarter just off Chinatown.
With all the ingredients on hand, we started the Thai laksa preparation which basically involved a ridiculous amount of spice manipulation that produced a chilli laksa paste, a ground up curry powder, and barbequed and roasted ground spices. About 4 hours of non-stop prepping shared between 2 people to be exact. Of course, we could have reduced the time slightly had we chosen to use an electric grinder instead of the traditional mortar and pestle, but we are gluttons for punishment.
As per the recipe’s instructions, we started by making the laksa paste. This involved char-grilling and roasting spices that filled our kitchen with their aromatic pungency that had us sniffing deeply and remarking on how amazing our apartment smelt. The Co-pilot set about vigorously pounding together some of the herbs in a mortar a pestle; bruising and bashing with such a calamity that he had to move to our carpeted living room to muffle some of the noise before we provoked the ire of our neighbours. The recipe was truly authentic and called for an obscene amount of chilli – an amount that Thai’s would presumably nod their heads in appreciation to, but would cause me and the Co-pilot to spontaneously combust. We only put in about a third of the required amount (about 6 bird’s eye chillis) which was more than enough to colour the mix in the mortar and pestle a vibrant red and fill our lungs with choking capsaicin.
Even the simple act of pounding the herbs and spices in the mortar and pestle the proper way was enlightening. David Thompson’s recipe requires the ingredients to be pounded in order from the hardest ingredient to the softest, ensuring that each ingredient gets a thorough pulverisation and the flavours gel together properly. When done, the ground spices that make up the curry powder are mixed through.
The laksa paste is then cooked with plenty of coconut milk and cream and the beef added. The recipe calls for a tougher cut of meat that we would normally use – a stewing cut, but this is typical of Asian dishes.
Whilst the beef cooks in the simmering laksa paste we prepared the noodles and then set about preparing the all important condiments that give an extra dimension of freshness, flavour and texture to the final laksa. In the photo below we have a selection of some of the condiments (clockwise from top left): crushed peanuts; dried and ground prawn floss; boiled eggs; and Chinese preserved vegetable, spring onions, coriander and lime wedges.
Once the beef was cooked through, we placed the noodles in a bowl, ladled on the piping hot beef and laksa soup and piled on the condiments. Because the artery clogging amount of coconut cream and milk in the recipe wasn’t quite enough, we drizzled another silky splash on the soup. Finally, the Thai laksa was ready.
And simply because it took us so long to put together, it deserves another closeup photo.
Before there was any chance that the laksa got cold we enthusiastically dug in, spiralling the egg noodles about in the creamy, fragrant soup and spearing condiments that strayed in the way of my fork. There were so many complex flavours and textures assaulting my tastebuds at once: the slippery noodles coated in laksa; the fresh herbs; the salty crunch of the preserved vegetable and peanuts; the rich and fatty egg and coconut flavours, and the omnipresent heat as the ruthless little capsaicin hooks of the chilli embedded themselves firmly in my tongue. It tasted proper.
The flavour of a Thai laksa isn’t like the Malaysian laksas we’re accustomed to in Sydney. The flavours reminded us of laksas that the Co-pilot and I tasted on a trip to Chiang Mai and Pai in 2004 – the Khao Soi curried noodles popular in Northern Thailand. Incidentally, David Thompson’s cookbook features a recipe for Khao Soi too – a recipe we plan to try another time.
So was all the work worthwhile to create this bowl of noodle soup? Creating a Thai laksa from absolute scratch was definitely a satisfying experience. Not to mention how much insight we gleaned about Thai food and cooking from this one recipe! For instance, the spices that we roasted before grinding were not largely different from the ones that didn’t require pre-roasting, but we reasoned that the aromas released in roasting must create enough of a different nuance on the flavour that the separation and different treatment of spices was justified.
Having said that it’s certainly not a dish I’d decide on cooking on a weeknight whim. I imagine that Thai laksa cookeries might make a big batch of the curry powders and laksa pastes at the beginning of the week and slowly chew through it all week – that makes more sense than all that work for one meal. And buying all the ingredients and spices proved a costly exercise when we only used a pinch of this and a sprinkle of that.
The most economical thing to do now is to continue cooking Thai dishes to make better use of all the herbs and spices we bought. As far as sensible recommendations go, that’s a pretty easy and tempting one to fulfill.
I leave you with David Thompson’s Thai laksa recipe. I’ve kept it as original as possible (who am I to dare suggest changes to his recipe?), the only area we did reduce was the amount of chillies used, just to ensure we still had the ability to taste and enjoy food at the end of this meal. Enjoy!
Laksa with beef and dried prawns (guay tio kaek)
Ingredients (serves 4):
- 400g (12 oz) beef flank, cheek , shin or brisket
- 2 cups of coconut milk
- 3 cups of stock or water
- 2 1/4 cups coconut cream
- good pinch of salt
- 3 cardamom leaves or dried bay leaves
- 2 Thai or green cardamom pods
- 3cm (1 1/4 in) piece cassia bark
- 2 pandanus leaves, knotted
- 2-3 tbsp fish sauce, to taste
- pinch of white sugar
- 1/4 – 1/2 tsp roasted chilli powder, to taste
- 1/2 cup sliced red shallots
- vegetable oil for frying
- 5 – 10 red bird’s eye chillis (we used 3)
- 150g (5 oz) firm bean curd
- 250g (8 oz) fresh rice vermicelli (we used egg noodles)
- 3 cups bean sprouts, trimmed
- 1/4 cup dried prawns, coarsely ground
- 2 tbsp preserved Chinese vegetable, rinsed & drained
- 3 eggs, hard boiled, shelled and cut into quarters
- 1/4 cup roasted peanuts, coarsely ground
- 2 tbsp chopped spring (green) onions
- 2 tbsp chopped coriander
- wedges of lime and roasted chilli powder to serve
- 2 bamboo skewers
- 5 dried long red chillies (we used 2)
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 2-3 cloves
- 5 slices ginger
- 4 garlic cloves, unpeeled
- 4 – 5 dried bird’s eye chillis (we used 3)
- pinch of salt
- 2 tbsp chopped lemongrass
- 1 tbsp chopped galangal
- 2 tbsp chopped red shallots
- 1 tsp Thai shrimp paste
- 2 tsp curry powder for beef
- pinch of grated nutmeg
Curry powder for beef (makes 1/2 cup)
- 5 long peppers (we used 3)
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 1 1/2 tbsp coriander seeds
- 1 tbsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp cloves
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 7 Thai cardamom pods or 4 green cardamom pods, husked
- 2 tbsp turmeric powder
- 1 1/2 tbsp ground ginger
- Make the laksa paste first. Soak skewers in water for 30 mins. Nip stalks off the dried long red chillies, cut lengthways and scrape out seeds. Soak the chillies in water for 15 mins until soft.
- Separately roast the coriander, cumin and cloves in a dry, heavy-based frying pan, shaking the pan, until aromatic. Grind to a powder using an electric grinder or a mortar and pestle
- Thread the ginger and garlic onto individual skewers. Grill all the skewers: the ginger need only be coloured; the garlic must be charred and the flesh soft. Allow to cool then peel the garlic.
- Make the curry powder for beef by grinding all the spices in an electric grinder or mortar and pestle. Add turmeric and ginger then pass the powder through a sieve. Store unused powder in the fridge.
- Drain the soaked chillies, squeezing to extract as much water as possible, then roughly chop them. Rinse the dried bird’s eye chillies to remove any dust. Using a pestle and mortar, pound the long red chillies with the salt and when, reduced to as paste, add the bird’s eye chillies. Continue to pound, adding the lemongrass, galangal, shallots, ginger, garlic and shrimp paste, reducing each to a fine paste before adding the next. Alternatively, puree all the ingredients in an electric blender. You will probably need to add a little water to aid the blender but avoid adding too much to dilute the paste and alter the flavour of the dish. Halfway though, turn the machine off, scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula, then turn it back on and whiz till completely pureed. Finally stir in the ground spices, curry powder and nutmeg.
- Trim the beef and cut into thin slices about 2cm (1 in) squares. Rinse well and dry. In a large saucepan or stockpot, bring the coconut milk, 2 cups of stock or water and 1 cup of the coconut cream to the boil with the salt. Add the paste and, when it has dissolved, the beef. Simmer gently, stirring gently until the beef is just cooked and beginning to become tender. This could take anywhere between 25 – 45 mins, depending on the cut and the quality of the beef. In a dry heavy-based frying pan, briefly roast the cardamom or bay leaves, cardamom pods and cassia bark, then add them to the beef, along with the pandanus. Simmer for another 5 mins, skimming occasionally, but not overly scrupulously.
- Return the soup to the boil and season lightly with the fish sauce, sugar and chilli powder. Add the remaining cup of stock or water and add another cup of coconut cream. Leave to simmer very gently, stirring as needed. It improves if left to stand for an hour or so at this point.
- Meanwhile, pour the deep-frying oil into a large stable wok or a wide, heavy-based pan until it is about two thirds full. Heat the oil over a medium-high flame until a cooking thermometer registers 180 degrees C (350 degrees F). Deep-fry the shallots in the oil until golden, stirring so they cook evenly, then drain on paper towels. Deep fry the dried chillies for a few moments, then drain on paper towels and when cool, cut into 5mm (1/4 in) slices. Reserve the deep frying oil, in case a little is needed to enrich the laksa.
- When almost ready to serve, reheat the soup and check the seasoning. It should taste spicy and salty, but should not be too thick – it’s a soup, not a sauce. The surface should be dappled with an attractive amount of oil. If it isn’t add a tablespoon or two of the deep frying oil.
- Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Pull apart the noodle strands and add them to the boiling water together with 2 cups of bean sprouts. Simmer them for a moment or two then drain and divide among 4 bowls. Add the beef and ladle over the soup.
- Sprinkle the soup with the ground dried prawns, preserved Chinese vegetable, quarters of boiled egg, roasted peanuts, and the remaining cup of bean sprouts. Garnish each bowl with 1 tablespoon of the remaining coconut cream, 1 tablespoon of the deep fried shallots and some spring onions and coriander.
- Serve with wedges of lime and chilli powder.