Food for joy and 5 feelings on the tip of the tongue: how in Thailand they treat cooking with awe

If your cooking routine isn't fun, then nothing good will come of it. For the inhabitants of the country, this is an axiom

The joy of life, sanuk, rules the universe of the inhabitants of Thailand. He also dominates the kitchen. Therefore, Thai cuisine is one of the most delicious in the world.

Food to joys and 5 feelings on the tip of the tongue: how in Thailand they treat cooking with trepidation

A pretty girl deftly wraps the filling in the leaves of a pepper tree. Crispy fried coconut, dried shrimp, baby peanuts, finely diced fresh ginger, shallot, lime, bitter orange, juicy carambola, a pinch of palm sugar and refreshingly sour tamarind juice. All ingredients in a one bite envelope. Miang Kham, a favorite Thai snack, works like a firework of impressions, evoking a whole bunch of feelings.

First: a sense of diversity

The mouth-watering miang kham vendor is strategically positioned near a footbridge that carries shoppers from one part of the market to the other. From the bridge, you can see a canal filled with colorful boats full of goods.

Fifty years ago, canals in Thailand were safer than roads. Therefore, the tradition of living by the water has survived to this day. Amphawa, part of which turns into a market every weekend, is built along the canals and the Maeklong River.

Houses and shops face the water, while backyards look out over rice paddies and coconut groves. The path of food from the field to the counter is reduced to a minimum. No wonder the people of Bangkok love this market and are ready to spend an hour on the road to buy the freshest goods.

Food for joy and 5 feelings on the tip of the tongue: how in Thailand they treat cooking with awe

Floating “counters” are crowded along the embankments. The boat with greenery is loaded so that it almost draws water from the sides. In wicker baskets, covered from the sun with an umbrella, five varieties of basil, wild coriander, giant flat pods of “stink beans”, prickly gourds, bamboo stalks. The large ginger family is represented almost in its entirety. And of course, chili in all colors and sizes.

Fruit boats are moored next to the greengrocer. On them are bunches of thin-skinned bananas, yellow and green pyramids of mangoes, mountains of pomelo and coconuts, armadillo-like snake fruit, bouquets of lychees, shaggy rambutans. In Thailand, the basic food basket is much richer than in our usual latitudes. The Thais have learned to make the most of their country's geography and climate.

Toward lunch, street food vendors come to the fore, turning the floating market into a culinary ark. Fish, cuttlefish, rays, scallops, crabs, shrimps, shells. Freshly caught, still wet, they immediately turn into food – baked in banana leaves, grilled, deep-fried, steamed, in pots, with or without sauce.

There is a queue to the boat, where the whole fish is baked in salt. Pla thu, a tropical mackerel that comes from the Gulf of Thailand into the estuary of the Meklong River, is valued throughout the country for its fatty meat and delicate taste. The saleswoman does not even have to worry about getting a running place near the embankment. Her goods will be found. A businesslike woman moored on the “second” line, behind the backs of other boaters, and served customers remotely using a long pole with a basket at the end.

I take out a plate with ready-made fish from the outstretched basket and put money in return. I sit down on the concrete steps leading down to the water, break the salt crust with a spoon and taste the juicy meat with the aroma of smoke and citrus notes of lemongrass. I am filled with the joy that always comes with delicious food. I wave to the mackerel saleswoman and gesture that I feel good.

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Second: a sense of time< /h2>

“My favorite market  is Talat ban mai. It's not as photogenic as other floating markets, but there is a richer selection of products there,” says Ann Kanarak, founder and chef of the culinary studio Bangkok Bold. “I like choosing vegetables and herbs. It is necessary to take into account not only the freshness and quality of the ingredients, but also the color, and the smell, and the texture.

Food for joy and 5 feelings on the tip of the tongue: how Thai people treat cooking with awe

Ann's Studio is located in the historical center of Bangkok on the banks of a quiet canal, in a traditional shop house. This is how they call houses, where on the first floor there is a store of all sorts of things, and on the second floor there are the living rooms of the owners of the shop.

“Here the city lives at a “human” speed,” says Ann. “It is important for me. I don't like to rush in the kitchen.”

In the studio, almost the entire space is occupied by a common table. On the wall hangs a portrait of the favorite of all the inhabitants of Thailand – jazz player, photographer and poet, King Rama IX. The decor function is performed by polished pots, boilers and an impressive oven of perfect cleanliness. Ann is wearing a white dress and a strict beige apron. Her movements are economical and precise.

Ann heats large dried red chili peppers in a wok. “These chillies are dried in the sun. They almost do not give sharpness. Peppers are used to give the dish an appetizing golden color. And they have a very pleasant aroma. Ann tosses cardamom, coriander, and cumin seeds into another wok. Spices crackle and smell stronger.

“We love to try new things,” says Ann. “Thailand has many dishes that are reminiscent of countries with which we have historically had close trade and cultural relations. Most people talk about China. But, for example, this version of Thai curry is called massaman – from the distorted word “Muslim”. The seasoning became popular in the 17th century, when Thailand actively traded with Persia and India. Dry spices -their influence.

Ann pours the hot mixture into a stone mortar. Adds cinnamon stick, nutmeg color and powders the spices. Then he takes a heavy cleaver and with the flat side flattens the stalks of lemongrass and the roots of young coriander. “To release the fragrance,” she explains. She crushes garlic and shallot cloves with a single movement of her palm. And shifts all the ingredients into a mortar. I think that it is very convenient for a chef to combine male and female essence in his work. Ann is transgender.

“Fresh spicy additions like lemongrass, coriander and garlic soften the harshness of dry spices. They make it taste Thai,” says Ann.

Food for joy and 5 feelings on the tip of the tongue: how Thais treat cooking with awe

I take over the baton and start crushing spices and roots with a pestle. After half an hour, the muscles of the right hand are so tired that it begins to tremble finely. But the mixture of spices changes the smell and texture, turning into a plastic mass.

Ann commands, “More!” I shift the pestle to my other hand and try to get into the meditative rhythm of the melody that comes from the radio. “You can use a blender or buy a ready-made curry base from the supermarket, but the taste will not be as clean and bright. The blender shreds spices, not giving them time and opportunity to “make friends”. And in the mortar, we start a chemical process when one flavor penetrates into another. And the texture is completely different. Velvet.

Ann pinches off a piece of oily paste, rubs it on her fingertips, evaluates the shine and taste, and says, “That's enough.” After working with a mortar, the cooking process seems lightning fast. Heat curry paste in coconut milk, add chicken, potatoes and onions. Bring to readiness.

Anne's exactingness and uncompromising nature make sense. Rich and thick massaman curry is so delicate that it really resembles velvet. “This taste is like hugging you,” says Ann.


Literally, the word “sanuk” is translated as “bringing joy.” Everything you do should be in the wake of the sanuk. If you have a hard day at work, you should definitely make time for a break, listen to music, chat with a friend, eat something tasty. Sanuk in the process of work is often more important than the result. A person who has finished an important business meeting or who has arrived from a business trip is usually first asked: “Was that sanuk?” And only then they clarify: “Did everything go well?”

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Third: a sense of harmony

“Thais love and know how to combine tastes. It feels like it's from birth. And I have been studying this for twenty years and am still learning,” Reymund Venzin, chef and restaurateur, walks along the narrow rickety walkways with the confidence of a tightrope walker. Reymund and I got to the fishing village of Ao Salad on the island of Kood, having met at a culinary master class.

Food for joy and 5 feelings on the tip of the tongue: how in Thailand they treat cooking with awe

“Over here!” Reymund ducks his head to avoid crashing into the low shed and sits down at a table made either from a former door or from a piece of roof. “Cafe” is located on the pier, where a couple of fishing boats are moored. Through the holes in the floor you can see the water of that alluring color for which Raymund came to this country thirty years ago as an ordinary tourist. On his first trip, he fell in love with the local cuisine and decided to learn how to cook like a Thai. As a result, he opened two Thai restaurants in his homeland – in Brisbane.

An Australian orders a stocky owner of a village cafe. In fact, the Thai cooks food at home, earning money by feeding the neighbors with their own catch. Tourists do not drop in here.

“Here, the crabs are of the same quality as those served in the best restaurants in Bangkok,” Raymund says. “And they are cooked right, without unnecessary ceremony.” I see a Thai fishing for crabs from a cage at the base of the pier, and five minutes later a crumpled metal tray with ready-made crabs is placed on the table in front of us. “Wait!” Raymund slaps my hands.

The owner returns with a bowl of rice, a bowl of vegetables and herbs, a bowl of chicken broth, a bowl of curry, and a saucer of fragrant sauce.

< p>“What do you think is the main dish?” Reymund asks. I silently nod at a tray of luxurious fleshy crabs, looking at which I'm already whining in unison with a couple of village dogs standing nearby.

“Wrong. The main course is rice – Raymund gives me a generous portion – Leaving street food out of the brackets, every meal in Thailand  is rice with additives.   Food for joy and 5 feelings on the tip of the tongue: how in Thailand they treat cooking with awe

It is unthinkable for Thais to eat alone. Hence the tradition of serving & nbsp; – samrab: several people order rice and at least 4-5 different dishes for everyone. The task is to assemble a whole composition, where different tastes complement each other.

“Samrab, by the way, helps to overcome the barrier of spiciness,” Reymund says. “Thais eat rice, mixing a pharmaceutical dose of curry into it. Then the sharpness is not an obstacle, but a conductor of taste.

Reymund compares unleavened boiled rice with a palette on which the eater mixes “paints”. Tender crab meat, tangy spicy curry, refreshing vegetables, tart herbs, sour lime. Everything is delicious on its own, but together it is much tastier.

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Fourth: a sense of balance< /h2>

While I am laying out a still life of flavors on a plate, Reymund hands me a bowl of stinky sauce. “And this is nam prik, a key ingredient in Thai cuisine.” I dip the crab meat in a dark liquid. Salty, rich, spicy sauce emphasizes the sweetness of the meat. Nam-prik performs the same trick with vegetables, making an ordinary cucumber a work of art.

The Thais distinguish nam-prik as a separate ancient category of snacks in the form of sauces for dipping and spreading. There are dozens of options for us-prik. But they all have one task: to enhance and saturate the taste of any dish. The trick is that the sauces are based on products with a high concentration of the natural variant of monosodium glutamate, which gives an umami taste.

Food for joy and 5 feelings on the tip of the tongue: how in Thailand they treat cooking with awe

The most popular version, nam-prik-kapi, is made from ingredients that are always in every home. Garlic, chili are mashed in a mortar, lime juice and “secret weapon” – capi shrimp paste are added. This is what gives the sauce its characteristic stink. And this, it turns out, is the smell of capi, and not rotten fish, as I thought, accompanies us throughout our stay in Ao Salad.

Most of Kood Island, where the village is located, is occupied by mangroves. Microscopic translucent shrimp are found in mangroves. They are used to make Kapi pasta. The crustaceans are mixed with sea salt and the resulting mass is laid out in a thin layer to dry in the sun. After three days, the shrimp acquire a dark pink color and a pungent odor. They are turned into a paste by forcing them through special metal sieves. After that, the capis are packed in tight containers, kept for another month and then sent for sale.

Nam-prik with shrimp paste is used everywhere in Thailand as an inexpensive all-purpose seasoning.

“Nam-prik is used by Thais to customize the taste of any dish on the table,” Raymund says. “It's like a game where the task is to catch and balance all sensations. So that at the same time it is salty, and sour, and sweet, and a little bit bitter. This sauce is adored by street vendors. If something goes wrong, you can always calibrate the taste of the dish by adding namprik. It is also used in gourmet restaurants. It's just not as open.”

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Fifth: a sense of beauty

Tiny “Ikebana” of red crab meat and forest flowers is stacked on top of a weightless wafer made from a slice of pork fried to a crisp. The wafer is lubricated with “chili sauce according to the recipe of 1688”. What is reported in a separate line in the menu.

Food for joy and 5 feelings on the tip of the tongue: how Thai people treat cooking with awe

“In the English version of the menu, we write 'chili sauce', not 'nam-prik'. Foreigners are not familiar with this type of Thai condiment,” says Bi Satongan, chef and co-founder of Paste, one of the best restaurants in Bangkok according to the Michelin Guide.

Petite Bea watches my enthusiastic reaction to the dish. The food in Paste is reminiscent of an Impressionist painting, where each color is made up of multiple hues that create a sense of life in the painting. It's just about taste here. Even the sharpness of us-prik is complex and refined.

“I think chili is too direct. There is very little of it here. Instead of chili, I put wild ginger, nutmeg, cloves. This is a different, warm witticism. Don't forget that Chile is a foreigner. The first peppers came to Thailand in the 16th century, and they began to be widely used only by the end of the 17th century.

Thai cuisine has been greatly simplified over the past half century. Here and the influence of unassuming tourists, and social change. Women began to work more and spend less time cooking. As a result, many recipes have faded, losing complexity and depth of flavor.

This process was aggravated by the fact that in Thailand for a long time there was no written tradition of recipes. One of the oldest sources is love poems written by the future King Rama II at the turn of the 18th-19th centuries. The poems are dedicated to the numerous dishes prepared for the prince by Princess Banroth, who later became his wife. The images of the prince are intelligible, but not very informative in culinary terms: “The massaman curry prepared by my beloved is fragrant with zira and spicy spices. Any man who tastes this curry is doomed to desire it.”

Food for joy and 5 feelings on the tip of the tongue: how in Thailand they treat cooking with awe

Later, in the 19th century, there was a custom to make posthumous memorial books, where relatives collected stories about the deceased. The main place in these collections was occupied by his favorite recipes.

“There are a lot of dishes in old books that we eat today, but they are designed for a different level of perception. Everyone knows catfish salad with green papaya. The modern recipe operates with a dozen ingredients, and earlier it had more than twenty components.

Bee opens containers with petals, roots, stems, blades of grass, mushrooms. I forget that behind the wall of the kitchen is a multimillion-dollar city of concrete, metal and glass. In front of me are coniferous forests from the north of Thailand, rivers and lakes surrounding Bangkok, jungles and mangroves of the southern islands.

Bee selects purple flowers, which she calls “hummingbird flowers”, and decorates her salad with them. On the plate is a spectacular color composition of orange-pink crayfish, white pheasant meat and sauce based on yellow chili and turmeric root. Bee dusts the poultry meat with golden powder.

“This kind of cuisine is called ‘royal’ because the dishes are mostly known from the books of the royal families. But I do not focus on aristocracy, but on the diversity and refinement of taste, which our parents appreciated, but we somehow missed. Powder, for example, is made from the pulp of golden apples. You won't find them on the regular market today, and they smell so good! My grandmother still likes to put a golden apple next to her pillow to make her sleep sweeter.”

I ask Bea to show me the culinary memoir she's working on. The chief brings two books in tattered covers. Inside & nbsp; – columns of numbers, curls of letters and drawings made by hand. According to Bea, the recipes in the memory books are not for the general public, but only for family members. This is their special magic. In fact, these are personal wills. Words of love spoken in the most familiar way for Thais: at a table where food is one of the conditions for happiness.


Material published in Vokrug Sveta No. 6, June-July-August 2020, partially updated in February 2023

Marina Mironova

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