ADVENTURES IN DOMESTICITY: The Epic Thai Cook Book Test

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Last week I headed to Book Soup to see the inimitable Anna David read from her new book Falling For Me, and after all the reading and signing was over, I of course perused the cookbook section, as is always my tradition in any book store. Soon I stumbled upon Modern Thai Food by Martin Boetz, who apparently helms an acclaimed restaurant in Australia called Longrain. As this was the only Thai cookbook I could find in the store, I perused its pages with great interest. You see, I’ve been on a major Thai kick lately, having eaten it seemingly every other day for the past two weeks. It was time for me to get a Thai cookbook.

When it comes to ethnic cookbooks, however, I find it’s important to do a little research. Nothing like trying to recreate a dish from a restaurant only to feel like you’ve made a watered down “American” version. Yes, that sounds snobby, but I think y’all know what I’m talking about. I felt like throwing some caution to the wind though. I wanted a Thai cookbook, and I wanted it NOW. My friend Jessica and I carefully examined the recipes with each page eliciting more and more enthusiasm. When we hit the surprise section in the back dedicated to cocktails, I knew I had found my Thai cookbook. Sold. Literally.

I wasn’t more than twenty steps out of the store when I began contemplating all the fun things I could make. Panang curry, tom kha gai soup, pad thai. Wait… did I see a pad thai recipe in the book? I opened up Modern Thai Food and leafed through it. No Pad Thai. In fact, there was neither a noodles section NOR a rice section. This was absolutely shocking. What sort of Thai cookbook was this? Well, it was a modern Thai cookbook. Hence the name. I contemplated returning the book right then and there, but I decided no. No, I would not do that! After all, the book’s recipes had attracted me enough to buy the thing. I would not return the book unless I had a more compelling reason not to. And thus I announced to Jessica (and to anyone who would listen to me) that I would TEST (finger pointing in the air!) the book! I would make two of my favorite Thai dishes (the aforementioned panang curry and tom kha gai soup), and based on the results, I would determine the fate of this cookbook.

Results after the jump. This one, my friends, is a loooooong one.

First up is the soup. Tom kha gai is one of my favorite soups of all time, and I have yet to recreate it effectively at home. I’ve tried. Lohhrrrd knows I’ve tried. The results of this recipe would be a strong indication if I had made the proper decision in buying this book. Anyway, I can’t be 100% positive that this recipe truly IS tom kha gai because the book annoyingly doesn’t have Thai names for its recipes (ie. this recipe is called something like coconut shrimp soup), but I’ll have to assume they are one and the same.

First things first. Boetz casually instructs us to make chili jam on page eighteen. Okay. Sounds simple enough. Let’s do that first.

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TIme to make the chili jam! I start by slicing up some galangal and putting it on a pan to be roasted in the toaster oven. So far, so good.

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Next we have some aromatic dried shrimp.

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The chili jam calls for half a cup of the little guys.

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Lil’ shrimp.

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9:16 PM. I soak the shrimp in hot water for ten minutes. In the meantime, I move on to my next steps.

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Gotta slice up a red onion. Smooth sailing so far.

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Garlic? I has it.

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The galangal roasts away.

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This is annoying. I have to split and deseed a cup or so of dried chilis.

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The process takes about ten or fifteen minutes.

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Time to measure out some palm sugar. It sort of looks like one big, raw cookie.

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The recipe also calls for tamarind pulp mixed with water and then squeezed through a paper towel. I couldn’t find pulp; so I just used concentrate and hoped for the best.

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It’s now time for me to lay down plenty of paper towels. Why? Well, it’s time to begin cooking, and this recipe calls for deep frying four different components. Argh.

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The galangal is done, FYI.

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Here we go. Four cups of, gulp, canola oil.

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I have a makeshift straining setup ready involving a sieve and a wok.

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The oil goes in. I’ve never deep fried before, and I’m quite scared.

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The thermometer is about to get a heavy workout.

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Once the oil temperature makes it halfway into the “deep fry” zone of the thermometer, I drop in the onions. I only add one or two at first to test it out. I then add the rest in bunches, being sure to stand as far away from the pot as possible. I probably looked absolutely ridiculous. I was really scared of violent bubbling.

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A few minutes later, the oil settles down and the onions begin to just turn gold.

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Further darkening.

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I’m impatient. It’s been ten minutes. I decide this is a golden enough hue. Time to remove the onions.

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I strain the oil into the wok. I’m to use the same oil throughout the entire recipe.

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Draining the onions. I’ve survived my first deep frying experience. I feel manly. And ALIVE.

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I retire the onions to the paper towels and move on to my next deep fried component.

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‘Tis the garlic. Here it is after the deep frying.

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The garlic and onions enter my food processor. On to the next component…

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Time to heat up the oil again. I have to reheat the oil after each component, and each time takes about eight to ten minutes to get up to proper deep frying temperature. This is turning into a rather tedious process. Also, I can’t say the oil looks particularly appetizing now (not that it ever did).

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Once the oil is hot enough, I deep fry these chiles. I don’t have a spider to fish them out though; so in order to retrieve them, I have to strain them out, which once again causes the oil to cool down. ARGH. Getting sick of this.

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Finally. The last component. Here’s the oil bubbling away with the dried shrimp. The oil is now dark brown and forming strange bubbles. This is all perturbing, and my feet are tired to boot. I’m resenting Martin Boetz greatly at this moment.

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The dried shrimp. The time is now 11:00 PM. I’ve somehow spent an hour deep frying.

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Macro shot!

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Here’s the leftover oil. It’s not the last we’ll be seeing of it…

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All the deep fried stuff and the galangal go into the food processor.

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Ready for liftoff.

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And there we go. Because I used a food processor, this isn’t as pasty as it could be, but my mortar and pestle are just too small to take on this job. Oh well. I’ll live.

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There it is. One hour of deep frying, pulverized to smithereens.

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The quest for chili jam continues! The muck goes into the pot for further frying.

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All of the oil goes BACK into the pot. I bring it to a boil. I should note that this is all so I can use a tablespoon or two when making the soup.

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When the mixture comes to a boil, I add the tamarind, the palm sugar, and fish sauce.

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I resentfully take the pot off the heat and let the sludge cool down. I know I can purchase commercial-grade chili jam (or chili paste), but since I’m judging this cookbook, I want to follow the directions and not take any shortcuts if I don’t have to.

Interestingly, Boetz says nothing about all the excess oil in this chili jam. One might be led to believe that we’re supposed to just pour the whole thing into a container and stick it in the fridge. Luckily though, I’m somewhat resourceful. I do some research about chili jam and learn that while there’s supposed to be oily, I most certainly don’t need all this leftover oil. I scoop out the sludge and ditch the leftover oil. The final results:

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Not very appetizing. I can’t believe I just spent two hours making this stuff.

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I dip a chopstick in to sample the chili jam. OH MY GOD IT’S SO GOOD. HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?

Color me enthused. I want to end on a high note. I call it a wrap for the evening and endeavor to make the soup the next day.

Before I make the soup, I make a detour into the curry recipe. I have to make a homemade curry paste for this, and thankfully, it doesn’t appear to be nearly as involved. Curry pastes are also commercially available, but I have to admit that in my experience with curry paste, they always trend salty. I’m therefore quite excited to make my own paste, which will hopefully lead to a more flavorful curry.

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I start by roasting peanuts. Simple enough.

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Lisa Timmons drops by just as I’m mashing up some red onions and galangal in my mortar and pestle.

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Oh God. Here come the tears.

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Such an emotional experience.

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Honestly, this is like the smallest mortar in the world. Why do I even bother?

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My eyes are BURNING.

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Next I have to roast some shrimp paste. This stuff smells like ass, and it’s not even exposed to air yet (that’s wax on top).

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Oh man. OH MAN. This is by far the worst smelling ingredient I have ever encountered.

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It looks like feces and smells like feces. No. Worse than feces. It’s so bad that Lisa has to retreat to the balcony. Can you imagine that I then have to roast this? Lisa and I become seriously convinced that I had purchased a tub of shit. Literally, shit.

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While horrific aromas seep out of my toaster oven, I zest a kaffir lime. The bright smells somewhat offsets the dung odors lingering in my kitchen.

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In the magic bullet, I grind up some cumin, coriander, white peppercorns, and salt.

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The spice mix enters a food processor along with the onions, lime zest, galangal, peanuts, and the shrimp paste. Some chiles, garlic, and lemongrass are also present.

And that’s it! Curry paste is done. It wasn’t difficult; although, the odors were quite intense at one point, thanks to the shrimp paste.

On to the soup!

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We start with a cup of coconut cream and a cup of chicken stock.

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There’s the coconut cream. It’s thicker than coconut milk.

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Our aromatics for this evening: lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves.

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Hey, y’all! It’s a shallot party!

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Galangal returns!

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Some shrimp defrost. The recipe calls for jumbos, but I can’t find them; so I stick with this large-ish variety.

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I need oyster mushrooms, but it appears I may have purchased king trumpet mushrooms instead (ooh — a quick glance at Wikipedia informs me that king trumpet mushrooms are the largest variety of oyster mushrooms. Score!)

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I love the small cast of mushroom characters on the bag. You just know they’re the star of their own cartoon in Asia. Also, the lady oyster mushroom is clearly a slut. (And the king trumpet mushroom looks like a total asshole)

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More ingedients: we’ve got our shallots, lemongrass, galagal, and kaffir lime leaves. Also making a showing are some Thai chiles, cilantro (in lieu of cilantro root, which I couldn’t find), sugar, oyster sauce, and the notorious chili jam.

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I add the chicken stock to the coconut cream and heat.

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Once the mixture is boiling, I add the lime leaves, cilantro, shallots, lemongrass, and galangal. Basically all the aromatics.

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I then add two tablespoons of chili jam, one tablespoon of sugar, and three tablespoons of oyster sauce. Oh, and a third of a cup of fish sauce. I ignore the part where Boetz says “season,” which indicates that I should be adding these ingredients to taste. Oops.

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I reduce the soup to a simmer and add the mushrooms and shrimp.

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While the soup simmers away, I squeeze some lime juice into a bowl and add some sliced chiles.

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Pretty chiles…

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Five minutes later, the soup is ready.

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Creamy, rich, and fragrant — I’m very excited.

The verdict: really, really good. Almost amazing except that the soup was entirely too salty. The texture was spot on, and I could tell the flavors were just about perfect. I over-seasoned with the fish sauce though, which is a shame because this could have been mind-blowingly outstanding.

This recipe makes two to four servings, depending on how big your servings are. Since this was my dinner, I poured myself half the pot, and quite frankly, it was totally delicious. It ran salty, but it wasn’t a problem. The soup was so awesome that I then went back for more. This was where the saltiness really hit home. The fish sauce had clearly settled because the serving I took from the bottom half of the pot was simply too salty. I will clearly make this again and use much less fish sauce.

So far this book was looking pretty good. But what of the curry? I finally got around to making the curry last night. Here goes (I told you this was a long post):

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Peanuts. They look so happy in the bag. Little do they realize that soon their lives will be…

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CRUSHED.

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The palm sugar returns. Half a cup of it, specifically.

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More coconut cream.

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Some Thai chiles, kaffir lime leaves (sliced), and the peanuts.

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The curry paste, looking like a dog’s breakfast, as Ina Garten would say.

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First I heat up the coconut cream. I accidentally added the fish sauce too early; so it gets brought to a boil too. I’m not terribly concerned. I did, however, go light on the fish sauce.

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The directions say I have to heat the coconut cream until it separates. I don’t know when that’s supposed to be, but I feel like it’s around now.

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In go three lumps of curry paste. The shrimp paste is raw; so it has to be cooked in the boiling coconut cream.

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Boiling, etc.

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Next I add the palm sugar.

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Some coconut milk enters the equation. This all smells amazing.

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Things eventually smooth out.

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Once we’re back to a boil, I add the chiles, the lime leaves, and the peanuts.

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It’s starting to look pretty!

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I take the curry sauce off the heat and focus on this sirloin from Ralph’s.

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Well hello, pseudo-Foreman grill.

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The steak goes in the grill for five minutes and emerges looking sad and colorless. But whatever. It’s going into a curry.

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As per the directions, I pour the accumulated meat juices into the curry.

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Next up: slice the meat.

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I return the sauce to a medium heat and throw in a bunch of Thai basil.

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Time to assemble the dish. First, I place the beef at the bottom of a bowl.

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Next I spoon the sauce over the meat and garnish with peanuts and more basil. Oh, and coconut cream, as per the book’s suggestion. Looks kind of strange. Plating has never been my strong point.

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Macro shot!

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I’m feeling enthused.

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I serve the curry (to myself) with a side of brown mushroom rice, courtesy of Madhur Jaffrey.

The verdict: flawed. At first blush, this curry tasted absolutely amazing. I couldn’t believe I was enjoying this from my kitchen, not a restaurant. But it soon became apparent that it was entirely too sweet. I like sweet things, but this was out of control. It actually made it difficult to eat. There was entirely way too much palm sugar in this thing. Aside from that though, the texture was rich and silky, and the other flavors were totally delicious. Again, for the second time in a row, this was a matter of seasoning.

I suppose the lesson learned with Boetz is that you have to be careful with the fish sauce and palm sugar. In fact, the issues with the seasoning in general could be a major strike against this book. On the other hand, it’s clear that there is plenty going right with these dishes and that with some finesse, they could be grand slams.

Hmmm…

I think I’ll hold on to the cookbook. As it happens, I’ve since ordered another Thai cookbook with rave reviews, and it just arrived this afternoon. We’ll see how that book works out, and if it renders Modern Thai Food redundant, then I shall return it.

Although, let’s be honest. I’m probably going to keep it at this point. Besides, I really ought to try out one of the cocktails.

Developing…

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13 thoughts on “ADVENTURES IN DOMESTICITY: The Epic Thai Cook Book Test

  1. Part way through the jam I realized, “this isn’t even THE dish.” that’s a lot of work for a less than stellar dish. Although I guess next time it will be. I have Land of Plenty (because of you). Those dishes are involved but so freaking good! Looks like the same is true of this book with some tweaks.

  2. Wow. Way to take one for the team. I now know to stick to my favorite Thai place and not bother to try it myself. Ever.

    • Yeah, me too! This isn’t any cheaper (I assume), easier, or healthier than what I’d get from a restaurant (my three main requirements for cooking at home over going out or ordering in).

      • To be fair, the soup and the curry were really easy and quick to make. It was the chili paste that was the real problem. The soup was just a matter of heating up the coconut mixture, dropping in the aromatics, and then letting it all simmer. Easy!

        As far as healthiness is concerned, I actually do think it’s a shade healthier. The first big thing is that I can oversee things like MSG (as in, I can eliminate it). Also, some thai restaurants serve up the tom kha gai soup with a layer of orange oil that I find rather off-putting. My soup had no orange oil!

        This wasn’t a total bust, but according to some sites online, commercial chili paste is on par with homemade; so in the future, I’d save myself some time and go that route. I did, however, really like the homemade curry paste.

        • For what it’s worth, I don’t get much pleasure out of cooking anyway (while you clearly do), so take my comments with a grain of salt (ha, cooking joke). And I was basing my healthy comment on the oil and frying part of your recipe, but you’re right about the orange-oiled soup. In any case, I may have to get myself some Thai food this weekend (from a restaurant)!

  3. OH MY GOD I am dying @ work looking at the pictures of “the shit” it looks so gross, I could not continue. Kudos to you!! You freaking crack me up!

  4. That is amazing that you did all that work for the chili paste. I think it would be a good idea if you make the chili paste again to invest in a spider. Then you wouldn’t have to spend all that time straining the oil and bringing it up to the right temperature again. I think that’s why your oil turned so brown – you reheated it 4 times. I’m surprised you didn’t notice a burned flavor from the oil in your chili paste. Do you think it was worth it to go to so much trouble to make a soup that you could buy from your local Thai place? How much did you end up spending on all those ingredients?

  5. You know you have quality shrimp paste when it smells like ass! In this case the assier the better! Shrimp paste tends to be salty so definitely go easy on the other salty ingredients.

    I love thai food but am way too lazy to cook it myself so kudos to you!

  6. Colanders, Strainers and Spiders…oh my!!!
    I am just realizing I have a kitchen gadet fetish for things with holes in it.
    I just learned thru your blog what a Spider is and now I have to get one.
    Not since I found a slotted heat resistant spoonula have I been this excited.

    B-side, you get a standing O from me for your effort and thanks for that journey thru 2 of my all time fav Thai dishes…I read thru every screencap only to be amazed for what I have been taking for granted.

    LA has always been my fav place to seek Thai food because even as far back as the early 80′s there was always 2 types of delivery options in the San Fernando Valley…Pizza and Thai food. It was a wonderful trip down memory lane.

    If I even attempt Tom Kha Kai (chicken) as home it involes throwing together in a pot the following: store bought curry paste, boxed broth, lite coconut milk, kirkland chicken leftovers, green onions, random frozen veggies and my super secret ingredient…Ling Ling frozen Potstickers.

  7. Looks really good although I have one suggestion: canola oil: not only it’s bad for you but also gives out a fishy smelly odor when deep fried. So I would use vegetable oil or peanut oil, peanut oil improves the smell and taste of your food

  8. Congratulations on conquering your fear of deep frying! I recently spent a couple of days laid up with the flu reading all of your past Adventures in Domesticity posts. Very entertaining. Came for the Housewives, stayed for the food porn!

  9. Well, to be fair, you shouldn’t return an item you’ve already used anyway. food looks delish though!

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