Thai Street Food
by David Thompson
Publisher: Penguin Lantern, Country: AU
ISBN: 9781920989071, Edition: First (Australian), Year: 2009
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.


“Thai Street Food” is David Thompson’s homage to the markets, food stands and mobile vendors of Thailand. As with his groundbreaking previous book, “Thai Food”, Thompson explains the evolution of the food, and the systems and culture that sustains it. However, readers should not think of this book as being a street food version of his first book – to do so would only lead to disappointment. Thompson’s aim here is to give the reader an insight into what Thais eat every day and how it fits into their lives. The hour-by-hour changes in the food available to Thais in the street markets is constantly emphasised in the book. The combination of his writing and Earl Carter’s photographs is so seductive that it’s hard to resist the urge to catch the next flight to Bangkok to experience the culture Thompson has adopted as his own.

Full review

Structure of the book

The book is divided into three main chapters, “Morning”, “Noon”, and “Night”. Each of these chapters is further divided into sections, “Breakfast and morning snacks” and “Kanom jin noodles” for the first chapter, “Lunch”, “Curry shop”, Snacks and sweets”, and “Noodles and noodle soups” for the second chapter, and “Made to order”, “Chinatown”, and “Desserts” for the final chapter. The chapters and the sub-sections start with essays that describe the history of the food and how it fits into the modern Thai diet and lifestyle. The recipes then follow.

Each recipe has its Thai name as its heading with an English translation beneath. The ingredients are listed on the left hand side of the page. Underneath the English recipe name, Thompson writes about the dish, and then the recipe instructions follow. Every recipe comes with a photo of the final dish.

The book also has a large number of double page photographs that depict various aspects of Thai life. There can be up to thirty pages of these photographs between the chapters. At the back of the book, the photos are reproduced with short descriptions of the photos.

There is also a glossary explaining ingredients and providing basic recipes, and an index at the end.

About the author

David Thompson is an Australian born, French trained chef. On a holiday to Thailand, he fell in love with that country and its food. He opened his restaurant, Darley Street Thai in Sydney, and later, Nahm in London. Nahm was the first Thai restaurant to win a Michelin star. “Thai Food” was his first book and “Thai Street Food” is his second.

How is this book interesting/special/new/useful?

When I first looked at this book, I had many reservations. Beyond the issues of the large-format size and price of the book, it seemed to me that there were far too many photographs and a lack of recipes and writing from Thompson. However, the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover” applies. This book sets out to give a reader a visual and written insight into the street food of Thailand and it achieves this aim extremely well. The photographs, essays and recipes work together to give the reader a peek into the food markets of Thailand that could only be bettered by a visit to that country.

In the essays that open each chapter, Thompson describes the sights, sounds, and smells of that part of the day. Beyond the obvious – the people and food – small details like “lights are dimmed, cats sleep” in his description of noon bring an extra level of reality to the scenes he describes.

Going through the photographs, you get a sense of just how varied Thai life can be. A photo of a train flanked by its platform and the edge of a market shows how densely packed Thai cities are. But another of someone rowing a boat on a countryside river shows that quiet can be found.

The recipes are a collection of dishes that will be found in the markets depending on the time of day, and in some cases, the time of year. Despite the street nature of the food, the photographs make it seem that many of these dishes wouldn’t be out of place in a restaurant. Thompson writes notes, often with personal anecdotes, about each dish. In the recipe for sour pork sausages from Udon, he mentions how he could only get one secret from an old woman’s recipe.

The recipes range from the incredibly simple plain rice conjee to technically challenging Thai wafers. The wafers involve making a wafer from batter, golden strands from a syrup, and candied watermelon rinds. If people are to cook from this book, the various curries appear to be the most achievable for the majority of home cooks. Thompson’s instructions are very detailed, and he often gives instructions on how the dish’s texture, colour or aroma should be. He not only says how a dish should be if everything goes correctly, but he will often mention how the ingredients will react if the instructions are not followed to the letter.

A close reading of the recipes reveals some interesting quirks of Thai cooking. In the recipe for roti, Thompson recommends the use of margarine instead of butter. The roast pork recipe requires that the pork be deep fried in order to create the crackling.

I suspect that Thompson is more motivated to show you the skills involved in making street food than encouraging the reader to cook these dishes. For example, the photos of the Thai cup cakes make them look little more than fried batter with a sprinkling of spring onion on them, but reading the recipe, along with Thompson’s tips, he makes it clear that a lot of practice will be required before you can make them correctly.

What problems/flaws are there?

The main issues with the book are its size and cost. At a size of 33 cm x 28 cm x 4 cm, it is going to take up a lot of space on the kitchen bench if you are going to cook from it. It’s price in Australia is high and people may feel that they would be getting too many photographs and not enough recipes for that amount of money, but the editions published in the UK and US have been a little more moderately priced.

Who might enjoy/use this book most?

People who love photography, travel, Thai food and street food will find plenty of enjoyment in this book. It is a stunning coffee table book, but it is also one where any competent cook will be able to cook many of the recipes.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 5. Highly recommended
Visual appeal: Beautiful
Suitability as a gift: Likely to be strongly appreciated
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Rating: 5.0/5 (2 votes cast)
Thai Street Food, David Thompson | 2009 | AU, 5.0 out of 5 based on 2 ratings

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