Leela Punyaratabandhu first fell in love with the vibrant home-cooking traditions of Bangkok at her family’s home on a canal on the northwest outskirts of the city, surrounded by wild mango trees and basil plants. But as she writes in her forthcoming cookbook, Bangkok(Ten Speed Press, out May 9), “It took coming to the United States for me to recognize, for the first time, how the culture of Bangkok had shaped my life and my food.”
The new book, like Punyaratabandhu’s blog, She Simmers, is a mix of the dishes of her childhood and the recipes that she cooks in her own kitchen in Chicago, which draw from the flavors and techniques she grew up with—deep-red curries prepared with fresh river prawns, and sticky rice turned a shade of pale green from pandan juice.
The 120 recipes, interspersed with vivid photos of street markets and food stalls, tell the story of Punyaratabandhu’s relationship with Bangkok—the foods she ate there as a child and the foods she seeks out when she travels there as an adult. We get a primer on the ingredients that give Thai food its identity (banana blossoms, galangal, cilantro roots) and the foundational recipes that appear again and again throughout the cuisine of Bangkok (glutinous rice, chile jam, flower-scented water).
The book reveals ambitious recipes for complex noodles and curries, but it also demonstrates more streamlined cooking that can be thrown together with just a handful of ingredients. For a weeknight intro to Bangkok cooking beyond pad thai, here’s a quick omelet speckled with chewy bits of sweet preserved radish and crispy fried basil leaves. We’ve also included a savory dip made from shrimp, pork, and coconut milk that can be eaten with rice crackers and packed for lunch the next day.
With the exception of the basil and preserved radish, everything you need to make the omelet is probably in your refrigerator right now. The dish can be eaten on its own or turned into a feast with a spread of salads, pickles, and some of the pork-shrimp-coconut dip.
Preserved radish is an underrated and underused ingredient. Even when it’s used sparingly—almost like a condiment—as in pad thai, its absence would be acutely felt by anyone familiar with how pad thai is traditionally made in the city. But preserved radish can be so much more than a sideshow. For example, it goes famously well with eggs, as this dish demonstrates. The omelet, which is studded with soft, chewy preserved radish slivers, is pan-fried, but the basil leaves are deep-fried—a perfect interplay of flavors and textures. Preserved radishes are sold both salted and sweet. Be sure to get the latter for this dish.
Pour the oil to a depth of 1/2 inch into a wok or Dutch oven and heat to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a sheet pan with paper towels and set near the stove. While the oil is heating, rinse the basil leaves, shake off any excess water, and then use a kitchen towel to pat them as dry as possible without bruising them. When the oil is hot, drop in the basil and step back right away. There will be some splattering, but it will subside in just a few seconds. Stir the leaves around until the bubbling subsides and the leaves look somewhat translucent. Using a mesh skimmer, transfer the leaves to the prepared pan. (To minimize the splattering, you can skip the rinsing, but the fried leaves will turn dark green and brown rather than be a beautiful bright green.)
Rinse the preserved radishes under cold running water for just a few seconds, then squeeze bone-dry. Crack the eggs into a bowl, add the fish sauce, and beat with a fork until frothy. Stir in the radishes.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the lard in a 10-inch frying pan (preferably nonstick) over medium-high heat. When the lard is hot, pour in the egg mixture, spreading it evenly over the bottom of the pan. Turn the heat to medium and cook until the bottom of the omelet is golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a wide spatula, lift up the omelet just enough to allow you to slip the remaining 1 tablespoon lard underneath it. Then, instead of lowering the omelet back into the pan, flip it over and cook the other side, pressing down lightly along the way, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes longer.
Slide the omelet onto a serving platter, top with the crispy basil, and serve immediately with Sriracha and rice. Another popular way to serve this omelet is to incorporate it into a set meal with plain rice porridge.
2 dried Thai long or guajillo chiles, cut into 1-inch pieces, soaked until softened, and squeezed dry
1 teaspoon white peppercorns
1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro roots or stems
4 large cloves garlic
½ cup freshly extracted coconut cream, or 1/2 cup canned coconut cream plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin coconut oil
1 tablespoon fresh river prawn tomalley (optional)
2 ounces shallots
1 cup coconut milk
8 ounces ground pork
8 ounces shrimp, peeled, deveined, and finely chopped
1 ½ tablespoon packed grated palm sugar
1 tablespoon tamarind paste
1 teaspoon salt
⅓ cup unsalted roasted peanuts, very finely chopped
2 tablespoons coconut cream, for garnish
3-4 fresh red chile slivers, for garnish
3-4 cilantro leaves, for garnish
fried rice crackers, for serving
Rice crackers, khao tang, are the traditional (and the best-tasting) vehicle for this creamy, flavorful dip. Together, they form this old-school dish that is still very much in demand, even though the city is flooded with all kinds of modern appetizers these days. The dip looks reddish but is not—should not be—hot. The color comes from river prawn tomalley, which also contributes extra creaminess and flavor.
In a mortar, grind together the chiles, peppercorns, cilantro roots, and garlic to a smooth paste. Transfer the paste to a 2-quart saucepan and add the coconut cream and tomalley. Place the pan over medium-high heat and stir constantly for 1 minute. Stir in the shallots, coconut milk, pork, shrimp, sugar, tamarind, and salt and adjust the heat to maintain a gentle boil. Cook, breaking up the pork and shrimp with the blunt end of a wooden spatula into fine crumbles, until they are opaque, 6 to 8 minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed; you want it to be salty first, then sweet, and finally ever so slightly tangy (keep in mind that you'll eat this with unseasoned rice crackers). Once the taste suits you, stir in the peanuts. Remove from the heat and let cool until just slightly warmer than room temperature.
Transfer the dip to a bowl and garnish with the coconut cream, red chile slivers, and cilantro leaves. Place the bowl on a large platter and arrange the rice crackers around it. Serve immediately.