We ask Jean-Pierre Gabriel about his epic adventure to compile Thailand: The Cookbook.
Thai cuisine, with its hyper-flavorful spice blends and ancient traditions, deserves a place in your home—outside the take-out box. That’s why we were absolutely thrilled at the release of the stunning, extraordinarily comprehensive Thailand: The Cookbook (Phaidon, 2014) by renowned French author and photographer Jean-Pierre Gabriel. Packed with over 500 recipes from multiple regions in Thailand, Gabriel spent three years collecting local recipes and documenting the culture.
Recently we had Gabriel answer a few questions about his experience in Thailand and the food that makes up the book. By the end of the Q&A, we hope you will be ready to book a flight, or at least try your hand at the Spicy Thai Mushroom Salad, Thai Pork Fried Rice with Fried Egg or Stir-Fry Tofu with Bean Sprouts.
Relish: Can you give us a bit of background on the development of the cookbook? What inspired you to take on such an extensive project in Thailand?
Jean-Pierre Gabriel: I’ve always liked big projects. My friends say that I can’t live without this sort of adrenaline even if, like everyone else, I have moments of hesitation and doubt. I also like encyclopedic works and gathering as much information about a topic as possible. When I discussed the idea for the book with Phaidon and Emilia Terragni—they supported me at once. We knew that by collecting recipes from people throughout both the countryside and cities of Thailand, we could draw a beautiful picture of Thai food and culture. But we also knew that this portrait would really just be a snapshot. Thai society is evolving, and its cuisine will continue to change as well.
RE: What surprised you most about the way Thai people cook in contrast to those in Western cultures?
JG: The thing that struck me most was their tools—specifically the use of the mortar and pestle. In Thailand, this tool is almost as useful as a knife is for a Westerner. Everyone makes chili or curry pastes and dipping sauces using the tool, and even some salads—like the Som Tam Thai or papaya salad—are prepared using a terra cotta mortar. Another difference is the use of wild edible plants—both fresh or cooked—in dishes. Since Thai dishes are incredibly spicy, you need to eat leaves and vegetables to balance out the heat.
RE: What was the most challenging part of piecing together the book?
JG: One of the biggest challenges was covering the incredible breadth of cuisines … We had to remain incredibly vigilant and alert when we were in the markets, on the road and among the people who cooked for us. We would often stop on the road to taste local specialties and then decide to keep the recipe for the book, meaning we would have to shoot it on the spot. Another issue was double and triple checking the ingredients, recipes and instructions, since we often only had one chance to get it right. A personal challenge was trying recipes that were extremely spicy or used strange ingredients—like rats. I tasted it just once!
RE: Can you tell us a story about shooting one of your favorite images?
JG: There are so many. Aesthetically, I think it was during the first trip to the far north. We got up early to hike to the top of a hill. It was packed with people who came to see the sunrise, so we decided to move nearby to a settlement of the Royal Project. As we arrived, the mist that covered the entire valley lifted slowly, unveiling the graphic alignment of hundreds of tea plants.
RE: Are there any particular places you visited that you would recommend to food‐minded travelers?
JG: At Ma Cha Rakbangpat’s restaurant (in Ban Bang Phat, a sustainable fishing village not far from Phang Nga Bay), I was fortunate enough to eat some of the best crab fried rice (Khao Phat Pu) in the world—it was so delicious and simple. Definitely worth the trip!
RE: What authentic dish from the book would you like to see have more worldwide recognition?
JG: I think that more people should try cooking with shrimp paste (Ka Pi) and candied nutmeg fruit, which I know can be difficult to find, but is delicious. In terms of dishes, I’d like to see more people try fish noodles. There are a few delicious recipes for fish noodle soups in the book.
RE: Thai food can feel a bit intimidating to a newcomer. What is a good technique or recipe to start with?
JG: The wok is unquestionably the easiest technique to tame. In Thailand, woks of all sizes are used for stir-frying, and to a lesser extent, for deep-frying. Cooking with a wok ensures that everything will be done quickly—so be mindful!
RE: For tackling Thai food for the first time, what are must‐have ingredients to have on hand? Where can they be found (or ordered) if not at the local grocery store?
JG: A few must-have and easy-to-find products are soy sauce, papaya, mango, shallots, cilantro, scallion and mint. Ingredients that can be found in most Asian markets are fish sauce, coconut milk, dried coconut paste, lemongrass and lime leaves.
RE: What Thai recipe do you find yourself making at home these days?
JG: As the father of four teenagers (boys from 14 to 18), cooking can be a challenge. But I really enjoy and love to prepare meals for our family, and I try to make them as healthy as possible. Fried rice is almost always a big hit. Thai pomelo salad and stir-fried ginger chicken are also some of our favorites.
For more from Jean-Pierre Gabriel, add Thailand: The Cookbook to your cookbook collection and try the following Thai Recipes.
Mushrooms, shrimp and ground pork combine in this traditional Thai salad.
Tackle this traditional Thai dish featuring a fried egg and pork fried rice.
A traditional tofu stir fry served in the central region of Thailand.
This spicy sauce is perfect for grilled tofu, grilled or raw vegetables, and cooked noodles or rice.
This filling vegetable curry has many Thai classic tastes and textures.
For a creamier version of this dessert, pour a little coconut milk over each serving.
Serve this room-temperature, easy-to-assemble supper throughout the summer.