When we talk about Italian, French or even British food these days, it’s all about provenance, yet we don’t even think about that with Chinese, Thai or any foods we regularly order as Take Away. We wouldn’t dream of sitting in our favourite Indian restaurant and questioning them about the ingredients in the pickle. That was the revelation I had last night in a masterclass at Divertimenti with Sujet Saenkham to promote his new recipe book Spice I Am.
Sujet Saenkham is not chef trained, he was brought up on a small, remote farm in Central Thailand where he learnt to cook from his mother and grand mother. Produce was grown locally, freshly made and not tainted with preservatives. In 1985 he moved to Sydney and eventually opened his own restaurant in the suburbs, serving authentic Thai food cooked in the traditional way. He now owns five restaurants spread around the Sydney area, all of which adhere to his strong provenance principles. So much so, they are supplied with much of the produce from his own farm just outside Sydney.
I’d been sent Spice I Am to review a couple of days ago. Long enough to have a good look at it, but not enough time to gather together the ingredients, many of which can now be bought in the supermarket rather than specialist food stores. It is though, worth seeking out gems like Holy Basil, Krachai and pea aubergines from your local asian food shop. I’m pleased I’d bookmarked my favourite looking dishes before setting off for my Masterclass.
Top of my list was Deep Fried Fish Cakes With Sweet Chilli Sauce, so I was delighted to find that this was the first dish in the masterclass. Rather than the circular slightly rubbery things that usually pass as Thai fish cakes, these were little light, golden coloured, freestyle nuggets of flavour, topped with deep fried holy basil. Served with a sweet chilli sauce whose only resemblance to the orange sticky ketchup that is now a must in every home, was the colour. This was a dish of subtlety, yes there was heat but underlying that was complexity and so much more than the mere sweet and heat we’ve come to accept of most Thai food here. As each dish was served Sujet announced, “it’s in the book.”
We learnt that there’s an order for those essential asian flavours of salty, sweet, sour and spice. “Begin with the salt (fish sauce), sugar goes in last”. He pointed out that the sugar would depend on what vegetables you had in the dish and how much onion you put in, taste it. For Curries the curry paste can be very smooth, but in a stir fry it’s more interesting if the paste is a little coarser, all of which can be controlled in a blender. After putting coconut cream in your dish, don’t stir too much as this makes it release the fat. But critically, “Understand yourself what flavours you enjoy and then make that the recipe.”
As each delicious dish was put in front of us, gentle aromas wafting from the pan and bright colours and flavours served in the bowl, he continued to explain about the best coconut milk, what to look for in tamarind paste and why with the help of his book you should cook this food for yourself, as “you won’t get better in a restaurant”. Having now tried both, those aren’t arrogant words from a conceited chef, but just a talented man wanting to pass on his family recipes, his heritage and a different way to view Thai food.
Spice I am is not a book for vegetarians, but does have plenty of fish recipes, sections for curries, light meals, soups, salads, stir fries, rice and noodles and interesting desserts. At the back of the book is a very comprehensive section on how to make the pastes, sauces and seasonings. This will definitely be my ‘go to’ Thai cook book from now onwards.
If you’d like to try Sujet Saenkham’s food for yourself, he is cooking at Chateau Marmot roaming restaurant. Initially there were only two nights, but these sold out so fast that another night has been added on Saturday October 3rd. Take your chance to have stunning food in an equally stunning location. Click here for more details.
Spice I Am by Sujet Saenkham Published by Lantern Books, distributed by Quadrille. RRP £16.99