Combining an eye for the visual with an adventurous spirit, photographer and author Jean-Pierre Gabriel scoured the length of Thailand for three years. He unearthed a trove of cooks willing to share their culinary secrets and authentic recipes for dishes both iconic and unusual.
In the pages that follow, Gabriel shares his journey that created his new book “Thailand: The Cookbook” (Phaidon, 2014), and offers several mouthwatering recipes.
Q. What inspired you to undertake “Thailand: The Cookbook”?
A. I have never encountered a cuisine as fascinating as Thai. It seduces through its flavors—which come both from certain ingredients and legendary recipes—and the great sense of freshness it imprints on one’s memory.
From the start our project was fascinating. Our goal was to travel through most of the country, from the north to the south and to seek out diversity wherever it was. That’s what we did.
I like to understand history, development. I like to collect information to the last detail. There were mysteries in history that I tried to understand—without always succeeding. For example, how and when chilies arrived in Thailand and the trajectory they followed. Was it the Spanish or the Portuguese who brought them over?
It’s also astonishing that the central plains and Bangkok have, to this day, kept recipes based on egg yolks—typical of convent cooking in Portugal. The Portuguese were present in the court of Ayutthaya from the 17th century.
I like to meet people, which helps put things in context. Since I am also a photographer, I have a thirst for images, even those I don’t photograph and simply keep in my memory.
Q. What surprised you in the course of putting this book together?
A. There were many things. In part, the human aspect.
It seems like stating the obvious, but we need to eat to live. Different societies have different relationships to food. In Thailand today, you’ll find an immense variety of food-related behavior. Next to a 7-Eleven, where you’ll find industrial food, you’ll find a young woman who, in less than 1 square foot, prepares papaya salad in her mortar made of terra cotta.
In certain markets, I think in the northeast and the north, you find totally local things, whether insects, water buffalo skin, or tree barks with medicinal properties. And especially what you’ll find nowhere else—one of the roots used in Thai cuisine, black krachai, only grows in certain provinces in the north.
Q. More than 300 cooks contributed recipes to your book. How did you find them? What are some of the memories you have from meeting them?
A. Even though one gets used to the concept of street food while traveling, this phenomena, pushed to an extreme in Bangkok, remains surprising. There are hundreds of thousands of cooks in Thailand whose activities repeat day after day, focused on the preparation of one or several dishes that they’re going to sell. What surprised me most was the freshness, and most of the time, the flavor of their dishes. I admire their courage. They cook to earn their livelihood. Some get up during the night, to get ready for the first morning market, which generally starts around 5 a.m.
Our main collection is based on the incredible network of field staff from the Ministry of Agriculture. We interviewed them to learn about the local specialties. The cooks in this list could be classified into three main categories.
First, there are the communities of women (and sometimes men), who produce agricultural products, whether dried bananas, roselle juice, or mango paste.
Secondly, there are the people who sell on the street or in the markets one or several dishes that they execute to perfection. We spent a whole morning in central Thailand with an elderly lady, Duangduan Jamesiri, who possesses incredible expertise with desserts based on egg yolks.
And, third, depending on the place, we stopped in small local restaurants where we knew they were cooking original recipes—not transformed by development.
One of my most touching memories took place in Chomporn Province, in the south.
We arrived in the extraordinary garden of Srisamorn Kongpem. With his wife, both almost octogenarians, he tended a parcel of native forest, preciously preserved in the middle of immense palm plantations.
Beneath the canopy of trees with their gigantic trunks, which included a four-year-old durian tree as well as a mangosteen trees dating back three centuries, the couple had planted some nutmeg trees.
These had grown magnificently and their fruit, with its four concentric layers, was fascinating. At the center of the fruit was the nutmeg itself, covered by a fine, but very tough casing. This was contained in a blood red, translucent, net-like sack known as mace, a spice in its own right. The whole thing was surrounded by a final layer, which was the color and texture of apricot flesh.
As we were leaving this magical place, Srisamorn encouraged us to try a little creation that was unfamiliar to everyone—the flesh of this fruit was divided into strips and then candied (crystallized) with sugar. The flavor was intense—the nutmeg somehow infused with subtle hints of, among other things, ginger. It was a pure taste sensation.
I’ll add that we paid each of the cooks that collaborated with us and we tasted all of the dishes.
Q. What culinary similarities did you find between the different regions of Thailand?
A. I think the similarities derive in particular from the culinary techniques. Throughout the country, the same cooking methods are used: tom yam (soups), steaming, and the wok. Not to forget the mortar, an indispensable instrument for preparing spice pastes and other sauces.
The way of cooking with the wok is one of the secrets of the flavors in Thai cooking: First, you heat up the most aromatic notes, the staple notes: garlic, shallots, and curry paste. When their aromas are released, you add the vegetables, meat, or fish, and finish at the last minute with the freshness of herbs: mint, cilantro, basil, and scallions.
As far as ingredients, it’s clear that chilies are omnipresent. Surprisingly, certain ingredients typical of coastal areas, like shrimp paste (kapi), are used in the central plains.
But, flavors are clearly different from one region to the other. In the north, for example, dill is used, which is totally nonexistent in the south.
Q. There are recipes for crickets, ants, and silkworm pupae. How widely are insects used in Thai cooking and how do you like them?
A. According to studies I consulted, 200 species of insects are eaten in Thailand, traditionally in the regions of the north and northeast.
Among the most popular are the bamboo caterpillars, house crickets, giant water bugs, and grasshoppers—not to forget weaver ants and silkworm pupae. Although the majority of the types of insects, including larvae, are foraged in nature, there’s now recourse to farming: crickets in the northeast and palm weevils in the south.
During the fifth trip, I asked Khun Tip, who assisted and guided me through all of my trips, to find me authentic recipes from the north and the northeast. We arrived in a rural community, and the ladies had prepared dishes with different types of insects. The next day, at dawn, going to the market, I again saw all those insects and larvae being sold. They’re totally part of everyday life in some regions.
As for the silkworm pupae, I had the chance to taste them while visiting a great silk-weaving master. I wasn’t really impressed by their flavor. On the other hand, fried crickets, in particular with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, have a real delicateness, with a fresh beer for example. You can detect the taste of shrimp bisque.
Q. You’re a visual artist. What kind of scenes caught your attention?
A. Above all, I adore scenes of rural life: the fieldwork with water buffalos, the drying of rice on country paths. The landscapes in the north are magical, notably in the tea gardens in the morning, before the mist lifts. Coming back from Ayutthaya, we saw a small group picnicking next to a submerged rice field. One of the men threw a net from time to time. That gesture was ancestral as much as magical. I tried to capture the elegant pattern of the movement and of the net.
In Bangkok, we went to a restaurant where, myth has it, pad Thai was invented. The cooks work outdoors with large woks. The play of flames licking the metal, the rapid movement of the spatula in the wok. It’s simple, but it’s enough to enthrall me.