David Thompson’s Thai laksa with beef and dried prawns

by Forager on June 6, 2010

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.

Thai laksa recipe

Doing the prep for David Thompson's Thai laksa recipe

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.

Grinding up the laksa paste

Grinding up the chilli laden laksa paste

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.

Mixing in the aromatic curry spices

Mixing in the aromatic curry spices

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.

Cooking up the Thai laksa mixture

Cooking up the Thai laksa mixture

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.

Compiling the thai laksa condiments

Compiling the thai laksa condiments

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.

David Thompson's Thai laksa

The finished Thai laksa

And simply because it took us so long to put together, it deserves another closeup photo.

David Thompson's Thai laksa recipe

Four hours of preparation for this one Thai laksa dish

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.

Digging into the laksa

Enjoying the laksa

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

Laksa paste

  • 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

Method:

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Serve with wedges of lime and chilli powder.
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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 mademoiselle délicieuse June 6, 2010 at 10:58 pm

This does sound like a laborious process, but one which reaps you great rewards in the end. And you’ll be bound to further use your purchased ingredients – you have to show us more cooking from this cookbook!
.-= mademoiselle délicieuse´s last blog ..Epicure Recipe Card #21: Chilli con Carne =-.

2 Karen June 7, 2010 at 1:34 am

You know, I’ve spent most of my life having laksa made from ready-made pastes that I’ve all but forgotten what actually goes into a laksa. Most Malaysians/Thai families that I know don’t even make their own anymore because store bought pastes are quite good and it’s a lot less hard work!

But it’s really great to see your massive effort in doing it all from scratch. That ingredient list is just mind blowing! Your laksa looks stunning Trina :)

3 Steph June 7, 2010 at 8:22 am

Mmm that laksa looks fantastic! Can’t go wrong with David Thompson. The long list of ingredients is always the part I find intimidating about these recipes but it looks totally worth it. I definitely like the sound of the obscene amount of chilli!

4 Betty @ The Hungry Girl June 7, 2010 at 9:17 am

David Thompson’s book is so beautiful! It really captures the beauty of Thai street food. I think this effort deserves an applause! Well done! It looks fantastic… I wouldn’t mind a bowl of laksa now actually!
.-= Betty @ The Hungry Girl´s last blog ..Pho Bac Hai Duong, Marrickville =-.

5 Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella June 7, 2010 at 10:13 am

Wow that is definitely an intimidating looking recipe! Well done getting through it as it looks worth the effort!
.-= Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella´s last blog ..Iron Chef Dinner 2010, Sydney =-.

6 Sara (Belly Rumbles) June 7, 2010 at 11:20 am

That looks really delicious. I have David’s first book, have had it for years, and I still haven’t made anything from it, but you have inspired me to do so.
.-= Sara (Belly Rumbles)´s last blog ..Daring Bakers’ Challenge, May – Pièce Montée =-.

7 Gourmantic June 7, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Wow! You’ve really got to be in the mood while making this recipe. The end result looks worthwhile. I particularly liked the photos of the spices being prepared.
.-= Gourmantic´s last blog ..Winning the May Grantourismo Travel Blogging Competition: A Personal Post =-.

8 The Ninja June 7, 2010 at 8:33 pm

Pretty damn sexy. What cut of beef did you end up using?

Looks a little like a green-curry-ish version of laksa which intrigues me to no end. But maybe that’s just my eyes…

9 penny aka jeroxie June 7, 2010 at 10:17 pm

Laksa made from scratch is very satisfying. When I make the paste, I always make a big batch and freeze!
.-= penny aka jeroxie´s last blog ..Station Hotel, Footscray =-.

10 Melissa June 8, 2010 at 8:45 am

I love a good Laksa and any recipe from David Thompson is sure to be good. I’ve been hinting for his book as well but will give this recipe a go in the meantime. Just waiting for my b’day to get here!
.-= Melissa´s last blog ..Pear crumble. =-.

11 foodwink June 9, 2010 at 12:40 am

Absolutely admire your passion to make laksa from scratch. The convenience of packet pastes makes people reluctant in spending time to make laksa from scratch. I shall adopt this recipe and get myself some core ingredients for a laksa long weekend!
.-= foodwink´s last blog ..Twinkle Twinkle Two Michelin Star – L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon =-.

12 Adrian @ Food Rehab June 10, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Gaaaawd this looks good! I could taste the creamy coconut milk mixed with the amazingly good lookin paste you made from scratch. I’m with you on ‘the laskda getting cold’ theory- I hoover mine down perhaps way too quick…
.-= Adrian @ Food Rehab´s last blog ..19 Bowls of what in 5 hours? Noodling around Melbourne for the best Ramen =-.

13 Trissa June 11, 2010 at 7:41 pm

My favourite Laksa place in the city is from a place near my office called Jimmy’s. I adore their laksa and the place is packed every lunch time. Yours I have to say, looks better. I don’t think I am going to look at the laksa in Jimmy’s the same way again after this post.

14 Geoffrey Wu June 14, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Hi there,

Love your blog & photos & thank you for leaving a note in my site too regarding Shanghai. I will start reading your blog as much as I can!

Take care & also find us on facebook too!

Geoff

15 Forager June 18, 2010 at 10:37 am

Hey MD – Absolutely! More on the way!

Hey Karen – Thanks! I know a Malaysian laksa is quite different – and I’m keen to try making it one day. You use candle nuts right? Never used candle nuts before.

Hey Steph – The obscene amount of chilli was definitely crazy. I imagine I’d end up in hospital if I tried eating that amount!

Hey Lorraine – Definitely satisfying and worth it cos of that. Unsure if I’d spend another 4 hours making it again though.

Hey Sara – do it! I haven’t got his first book but now it’s definitely on my wishlist. His recipes are amazing!

Hey Gourmantic – Oh you’re absolutely spot on. You have to be in the mood and know what you’re getting youself into. Too bad there aren’t prep times on the recipes.

Hey Ninja – It does look a tiny bit green, but it’s not a green curry version. More like a curry version. I know because we’ve made the green curry now. Totally different.

Hey Penny – I wish we’d thought of that before we started this dish. If I’d know it’d take us 4 hours I would certainly have made more to freeze!

Hey Melissa – Hint hard – it’s a great book for recipes and travel food porn. Makes me want to go to Thailand everytime I flip through the pages

Hey foodwink – Sounds like a brilliant idea. And having extra time to make it on the long weekend is genius!

Hey Adrian – Couldn’t agree more! 4 hours to make, 10 minutes to demolish!

Hey Trissa – that’s right near me too. Love their prawn laksa!

Hey Geoff – No problems and thanks for visiting!

16 Anh June 18, 2010 at 11:21 am

This is absolutely stunning. I made laksa from scratch once, but have been too lazy to make it ever since.You have inspired me big time with this.
.-= Anh´s last blog ..Ice-cream in winter. Recipe: Spiced quince ice-cream =-.

17 Iron Chef Shellie June 18, 2010 at 2:56 pm

I’ve been meaning to get his books for ages.
When I have half a day spare I’d love to try this, it looks amazing!
.-= Iron Chef Shellie´s last blog ..Product Review: Bakers Delight – Passionfruit and White Chocolate Scones =-.

18 Bonnibella June 18, 2010 at 7:23 pm

This dish definitely looks like it takes patience. The egg looks perfectly cooked without the green rim between the egg and yolk.
.-= Bonnibella´s last blog ..Hangover Sunday Brunch at the Cheesecake Factory =-.

19 Trisha June 24, 2010 at 10:26 pm

This is a labour of love.. I cannot even begin to imagine how many ingredients it has. I love laksa but very scared to make my own curry (note: have never made own curry paste before!). This is fantastic though and a perfect soup for winter! Good on you, Trina!

20 Forager June 27, 2010 at 12:28 am

Hey Anh – Definitely an experience to make it from scratch. It did take an extraordinarily long time to make, but it was satisfying

Hey Shellie -Lol – agree, you do need to set some time aside for it, and be in the mood – but not every recipe in there takes this long so I’d definitely recommend the book.

Hey Bonnibella – Patience is the right word for this dish!

Hey Trisha – Thanks Trisha! I don’t normally make such labour intensive dishes either (don’t hope to make a habit of it), but it was satisfying to make and learn the intricacies of Thai cooking along the way!

21 ken August 12, 2010 at 2:16 am

Laksa is not Thai.
Thank for the info.

22 Forager August 12, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Hey Ken – You’re right, Laksa isn’t strictly Thai in origin, but this recipe is for the Thai version of Laksa. Probably brought to Thailand from all the Chinese migrants from neighbouring countries. And when the Thai version of Laksa is well-known and well ingrained amongst the Thai community, who’s to say that their version of Laksa is wrong? It certainly doesn’t try to be the same at least.

23 Paul Blazey August 24, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Hey nice post and blog too! Laksa looks really intense and I will try and make it, I’ve got the book but haven’t got around to it yet. I love a good laksa so I’m putting together the ultimate laksa guide, http://www.squidoo.com/ultimate_laksa_ guide please feel free to add to it anyway you can. cheers.
Paul Blazey recently posted..All New and Refreshed Laksa GuideMy Profile

24 Brett @ OnlineReputationEdge.com October 15, 2010 at 11:00 am

You did a fantastic job on this challenging recipe. Great post!

So far, from the new Thai Street Food book, I’ve only made the rice seasonsed with shrimp paste (easy) and the aromatic curry of prawns (good, but not spectacular.. mild)

25 Forager October 15, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Hey Paul – Thanks for visiting and I’d love to see a good laksa guide. I do find them very subjective & biased though as I think a good laksa is a matter of personal preference too.

Hey Brett – Aww thanks – it’s been a while since I did that recipe. Funny how time makes you forget how long and arduous the process is! It’s a great book though & there are definitely plans to cook more from it. Thanks for visiting too!

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