Once considered an exotic Asian cuisine found only in big cities, Thai food seems to be everywhere these days. Everywhere, that is, except probably cooking on your stove. Getting those dishes from restaurant menus to your table is the thrust of Simple Thai Food (Ten Speed, $24.99) by Leela Punyaratabandhu.
Author of the shesimmers.com blog on home cooking, Punyaratabandhu divides her time between Chicago and her native Bangkok. She has a deep understanding of the Thai cooking culture and knows how to translate it faithfully — and practically — into the ordinary North American home kitchen.
Punyaratabandhu explains every detail of every dish. Most of the recipes, she writes, are meant to be served alongside plain steamed rice and are seasoned, and portioned, accordingly. She offers do-ahead tips, possible substitutions for hard-to-get ingredients, and how to store or freeze finished dishes. She even apologizes for and explains why her salad recipes call for the cook to "season to taste." Punyaratabandhu is one of the few cookbook authors I can think of who has ever stopped to explain what "season to taste" means and how to determine what that should be for you.
Her subtitle is "Classic Recipes From the Thai Home Kitchen." All the usual restaurant suspects are here: green papaya salad, pad Thai with shrimp, pork satay, fish cakes and various curries. But there are other lesser-known but even more intriguing dishes to try, southern hot-and-sour turmeric-chicken soup, pork in spicy dressing with iced broccoli stems and son-in-law eggs.
If you're like me, you'll want to try them all. And that's a change. Thai has long been underrepresented in my pantry, my refrigerator and on my cookbook shelves because I never felt I had enough support to cook much beyond a beef curry made with canned coconut milk and a commercial red curry paste. Punyaratabandhu's practical and calming tone and her delicious-sounding recipes make me want to do much more Thai cooking.