Two recent cooking explorations have been influenced by Thai cooking and encouraged by an inclusion in my sister’s spice send of a Thai spice rub. I don’t make any claim to authenticity here and there is no attempt to recreate any kind of dish I found on my recent travels there. Both dishes were concoctions I’d had a hankering for and so set out to make – from where that impulse comes I do not know and am less willing to analyse; that it exists is, I think, enough to make me want to follow.
I had a stick of lemongrass in the fridge I’d included in my luggage when I returned home here after the Christmas holidays. The best before date claimed a time around January but numbers can be deceptive and I’d rather judge things on how they look, smell and taste. Indeed, this particular aromatic showed no signs of having lost too much in the way of freshness. The rest of the staples were relatively easy to obtain: fresh herbs – mint, basil, coriander – and coconut milk from Twin’s as well as red chillies (which, I have found, keep for ever if left in the freezer), ginger and garlic from the greengrocer’s next door. The owner of which greets me with a slightly sardonic ‘Halloooo!’ whenever I show up. It is the only word of English he knows I think.
Also compartmentalised in the frozen cabinet were salmon steaks and thin slabs of beef skirt, both of which I’d bought at some earlier time with no clear plan of how to use them. With the arrival of the Thai rub I had ideas.
I tackled the fish first. I smothered it in the spice mix, knowing that on previous occasions my lack of liberal generosity had resulted in dishes that were lacking in flavour and intensity. Then I fried it skin-side in a wok, gently, only to crisp up the skin. Removing the fish I tipped out most of the oil and wiped the wok down before pouring in the coconut milk – in the event only three-quarters of the tin – and adding the sliced and chopped aromatics. The idea was to poach the fish in this liquid until pink and falling apart, the flesh taking on the subtle but pungent flavours therein.
Meanwhile I had the rice on. A long time ago a Sri Lankan colleague in the bookshop where I worked taught me the perfect way to cook rice on the hob. A gas flame is essential as is a bold approach to a minuscule amount of it. How much water to rice? The eternal question. Soak the rice first, put it in the saucepan then add the water. The liquid level above the grains should be equivalent to the length of your thumb. Bring it to the boil, add a pinch of salt then after a quick stir turn the heat down to the lowest level possible and cover. Leave it for ten minutes then turn the heat off. Leave it a further ten minutes and then, finally, remove the lid. Result should be fluffy rice and all the water evaporated. Mine turned out more or less like that and I am grateful for that conversation I had next to the Mind, Body and Spirit book section some fourteen years ago.
The dish itself was a success although I think I could have been even more daring still with the spicing. The fish can stand it.
The second dish involved fewer processes and was essentially about jumbling together things that harmonise naturally. Beef, tomatoes, the usual Thai aromatics, fresh herbs, cucumber, peanuts, lime. The cooking method used to amalgamate all the flavour was stir-fry and before attempting the dish I watched a brief video featuring Ken Hom explaining the rudiments. If I’ve had a problem with this methodology in the past it’s because I’ve been sceptical about frying off the garlic and ginger first in the hot oil; in my experience they’ve just ended up burning really quickly, tainting the oil and therefore the entire dish. But when I watched Hom he didn’t seem to have that problem (dress sense apart, brown does not age well) and I realised that I’d missed a fundamental aspect of the method. The clue is in the name. Stir-fry.
Rather than moving the ingredients around the pan I had simply added them and watched them toast and blacken. So this time I stirred. Another essential is to have every ingredient chopped and ready so there is no danger of any burning. Bigger things get added first and I did not forget to keep things on the move: rotating the pan, thrusting with the spoon, generally getting shaky with it all. I’d marinated the beef with the spice rub and it cooked in no time at all. All the things added at the end gave the dish a zing my head needed.