Cookbook Review: Simple Thai Food by Leela Punyaratabandhu

When looking up essential cookbooks to buy, I consulted a lot of online lists, curated by acclaimed chefs and food writers, and more than once, this cookbook popped up. I had never heard of Leela Punyaratabandhu before, but I do love Thai food, so I was sold.

First of all, there's no ignoring it--this book is gorgeous. Even from just the cover, with that glorious salmon in red curry sauce, you know you're going to be in for an experience that is as pleasurable for the eyes as it is for the taste buds. The food photography is truly stunning, and about half of the recipes come with an accompanying full-page photo.

The recipes themselves are delicious, unique, and authentic. However, they are sometimes far from simple. The title is a little misleading. Punyaratabandhu teaches you how to cook humble Thai food. Food that you might find at the table when going to a friend's house for dinner. It's not food that is meant for beginning cooks, and unless you have a well-stocked Thai pantry at home, you'll have to track down at least five or six ingredients at your local Asian store. Punyaratabandhu knows that most of her readers have never tasted nam phrik phao before (Thai chile jam), and so she has a lengthy description of what it tastes like, how to find it at the store, and even includes a recipe for how to make it.

The entire first part of the book is a primer on the basics of Thai cooking, including essential ingredients, equipment, and the different elements of a Thai meal. From there, she dives into recipes, some that may be familiar to Americans, such as Pad Thai and Drunken Noodles, but with a more authentic take, the way that Leela is used to eating them in Thailand.

Photo: Erin Kunkel

Other dishes are new and surprising, such as Ground Pork Omelet and Son-in-Law Eggs. The recipe instructions for the most part are clear and easy to follow, and the recipes diverse. I cooked the aforementioned Fish in Red Curry Sauce, which was addictive and produced very tender, flavorful salmon. I also cooked the Phanaeng Curry with Chicken and Kabocha Squash (delicious) and Pork Satay (the pork was a little bland, but that sauce was dynamite). Less successful was the Stir-Fried Pumpkin with Eggs. I followed the instructions exactly, but when I went to scramble my eggs, they immediately stuck to my wok, and the entire dish fell into mushy chaos. She should've recommended adding a little more oil into the center of the wok before pouring in the eggs. My fiance and I found the finished product a little too fermented in taste, with its double whammy of fish sauce and oyster sauce against the very mellow kabocha squash. A small misstep for an otherwise wonderful volume of recipes.

Photo: Erin Kunkel

Punyaratabandhu rounds out the book with several dessert recipes, which had me drooling. The back of the book includes an ingredient glossary, which was helpful (but might've benefited from some pictures of what to look for packaging-wise when descriptions fail), and a pretty functional index.

Overall, this cookbook was excellent, but I wouldn't put it in the Pantheon of Cookbooks. The writing style is earnest and professional, but can sometimes be too serious. Punyaratabandhu's main goal is to teach, not to entertain, and that comes through with her writing voice. I personally like cookbooks with a little more personality, but I know I'll be coming back to it whenever I want to dip my toes in the more authentic side of Thai cooking.

Overall Rating: 4/5

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