Sunday, 27 July 2014

Jungle Curry of Fish with Deep-Fried Shallots

The Jungle Curry (or Kaeng Pa) has it’s roots in Northern Thailand. It is distinct from curries originating further south in Thailand as it has no coconut milk due to the rarity of coconuts in the forested areas in the North.

My knowledge of Jungle Curry prior to making this dish didn't extend much past the “hot” aspect knowing that it is one of the hottest curries made in Thailand. This isn't what attracted me to the recipe, I like hot food but I know my tolerance would have the “wimp” factor if you were to ask David Thompson.

After sifting through the curry recipes in “Thai Food” David’s first foray into the cookbook market I settled on this recipe as it differed from the other David Thompson curries I had made in the past. My past experiences involved vast periods of time extracting the flesh from coconuts in order to squeeze my own coconut milk and cream. I was after a change in pace and with no coconut milk listed in the ingredients and a relatively short “method” for this recipe I was deceived into thinking cooking the jungle curry of fish was going to be a walk in the park.

As far as techniques go if you can assemble a curry paste and use a wok yes you can make this dish. Where I struggled was the balance of flavours and the speed and which everything comes together in this recipe, I found I didn't have the time to try and balance them. It was a little like a runaway freight train. Once that flame was burning under the wok there was a quick succession of ingredient additions and you were done. No time to contemplate the flavours.

Hot, nutty and salty is what David promises of this recipe and I feel my final result reflected all of those tastes but the difference in the look of my curry to the one in the picture indicated all was not right. The picture showed a broth like consistency and quite a strong red colour. Now I know that reducing the number of chilli’s as I did (as I am not a sadist) will affect the colour but the consistency and texture are still a mystery to me. Mine was far more textural and less broth like. Without having David’s version to compare mine to it is hard to know where the flavours were out. My first instinct was that it was “tart” enough and the fact that I couldn't  get a hold of the long leaf coriander and substituted it for normal coriander or the Kaffir lime zest and used a normal lime would indicate those elements may be vital to the final flavour.

Overall I enjoyed it but the flavours were a little mellow, it didn't have that pop that other David Thompson curries I have made offer. I will reserve final judgement until a second attempt at this recipe as there were places I could have improved.


  • Assembling a curry paste either by hand with a mortar & pestle as I did or with a blender.
  • Deep Frying sliced shallots this provides the nutty taste to the curry
  • Frying off curry paste (recommended by David it is ready when you sneeze)
  • Cooking fish in curry (without overcooking, only takes 1-2 minutes)

Deep-Frying Red Shallots

Curry Paste

Pressure Points:

Be careful with the garlic paste, it went from golden to black in seconds and I think this had a strong effect on the final outcome of the dish.

Time Commitment:

This dish took me 60 minutes to make, this included making the curry paste with a mortar and pestle which was by far the most time consuming aspect. If you used a blender you would likely reduce this recipe to 35 minutes.


  • Ensure all of your ingredients are chopped and ready before you turn on that burner. Once going you won’t have time to step away from the wok to prep anything. If you do you may burn your paste.
  • Reduce the Chillies dependent of your heat tolerance. Whilst I am still in two minds about doing this as I like to eat authentic food I also wanted a dish I could actually consume. David recommended between 13 & 18 chillies in total including in the garlic paste and I used 8 (this is to 100 grams of meat which served 2 people). It was spicy but not burning and at the time of eating it I thought I should have gone a few more chillies but that ominous rumble in my tummy late in the night told me I was glad I didn't go for more.
  • David’s recipes are designed for a banquet style serving so the protein quantities are small. This recipe has 100 grams of fish and whilst fine when served with a selection of other dishes like salads and relishes you will need more meat to serve a family with one dish. I found there is plenty of “sauce” in these dishes to just increase the quantity of the protein and not the rest of the ingredients.

Questions For David:

What would have caused the textural difference in mine that made it less like a broth and more like a thicker sauce?

Does hand pounding the curry paste differ the final result over using a blender?

Why you should cook this dish:

Cooking with David is a true authentic Thai experience. It is wondrous to be able to take the decades he has spent studying this cuisine and have it presented for you step by step to enjoy for yourself. Thai food also presents a challenge in the kitchen which is all a part of the fun.

This dish is unique to the North of Thailand and it is great to experience the range of curries in Thailand. Don’t get hung up on the recognisable green and red curries, expand your horizons. It was also lovely to have it with fish, a change from the more common chicken and pork curries and we stuck with the Mekong Catfish as this recipe was originally intended (sold in Australia as "Basa").

This recipe is a testament to the skill of Thai cooks. Whilst offering a relatively simple set of techniques it is all in the balance of flavours. I have not mastered this by a long shot but I will have fun trying.

Where to find it: Thai Food by David Thompson 

You may also be interested in my review of "Thai Food" by David Thompson

Originally posted on Sunday, 27 July 2014 by

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Thai Cooking with David Thompson

"Thai cooking is at odds with the modern world where speed and simplicity are paramount"
David Thompson.
Thai food can be a cruel mistress indeed but cooking Thai cuisine with David Thompson could be compared to being bound and gagged by a 6 foot bitch in black leather and whipped into submission.
David is a purist, this is traditional Thai cooking at it’s best and he is the master of balancing the sweet, spice and saltiness of Thai cooking.

His first major book “Thai Food” is an intimidating tome. Less of the food porn photography we have come to know in in modern cookbooks and more hardcore lessons in authentic Thai cooking . It is not for the beginner but with a little knowledge and determination and an epic hunt for ingredients you will be able to create some tantalising Thai dishes.

The techniques this book presents are cumbersome, David guilts you into making your own coconut milk from scratch and toasting and grinding whole spices individually. No store bought canned goods here just good old fashioned elbow grease.

The spice factor will kick your little western arse, only years of burning the nerve endings in your mouth will prepare you for some of these dishes. Although David would likely tell you to not be a pussy I would recommend adjusting the amount of chilli’s in some of these recipes to make them more palatable depending on your heat tolerance. I like chilli but 30 little green chilli’s in one green curry is out of my league, we halved that amount and it was still damn hot.

His follow up book “Thai Street Food” is more to my taste. Again a behemoth of a book that will require a reinforced bookshelf not to collapse under it’s weight it is filled with fast exciting photography of everyday happenings in Thailand. It is a cultural journey as well as a cooking journey. The recipes whilst still authentic are more recognisable and achievable by home cooks and the layout and photography is a pleasure to read.

I have been to Thailand a number of times but I must admit at the time I was too afraid to eat the street food. Meat and fish left out in the open festering in a Bangkok summer leaves me with visions of stomach parasites and eventual death. Rick Stein recently informed me on his far Eastern Odyssey that that food hygiene in Bangkok has improved immensely over the last decade and if that is the case I look forward to heading back and getting my hands on some of the street food David talks about in his book.

Yes some of the ingredients are still tricky to find. You may have to hunt through the aisles of a number of Asian Grocery Stores or the internet to find what you need and in some cases you may need to substitute and this is where a little general knowledge can come in handy. Despite this and the time and difficulty factor of some of these recipes once you get this food in your mouth you will forget all about it. The smells and tastes are uniquely Thai, your mouth may burn and the aftermath is worse but you know you are experiencing a culture whose food is bold and punchy and unlike anywhere else on earth and just like when your hour is up with the dominatrix you will be left feeling all warm inside and just a little sore.

So if you are looking for a true food adventure then suck it up, put on your gimp gear and get ready for the spanking of a lifetime with David Thompson.

Thai Food by David Thompson
Thai Street Food by David Thompson
Originally posted on Sunday, 20 July 2014 by

Saturday, 19 July 2014

In Search of a French Experience

I favour particular style of travel, small group grassroots experiences. You have the camaraderie of a group of like minded travellers, the experience of a local tour guide and the free time to explore and discover on your own terms. It may not be for everyone, different styles of travel suit different people for different reasons. You can read more about style of travel in my article “what style of travel suits you”.

In 2013 I took up a very enticing deal on offer to travel agents and a travelling companion to go on a French River Cruise with one of the big brands advertised heavily here in Australia (whose name I will not mention in fear of a defamation lawsuit). I knew from the start that this particular product was not aimed at my age group but in order to sell a product you need to know it well, so I went anyway and took my mum for good measure.

Unlike many travel agent familiarisation trips we were not only with travel agents we were on a cruise sold to the public so we received a genuine travelling experience.

Sailing from Tarascon and ending in Chalon-sur-Saone over the duration of 7 nights the itinerary was magnificent and really took you into the heart of Southern France, the mode of transport on the river cruise boat was unique and convenient and with only unpacking once it was a nice change from the usual fast paced travel I undertake. The crew onboard were so wonderfully accommodating. In those respects I couldn’t fault the trip at all and the fact that the clientele resembled a floating nursing home was something I was expecting so I can’t complain on that front.

Views of Avignon from the river

There were faults with the ships design and decor which I won’t go into that I felt did not live up to it’s “luxury” branding but with an open bar all day I could easily forget about the glaringly mundane decor. Where I was left bitterly disappointed was that there was no effort at all made to connect with our surroundings and the country we had come to see.

I can make up excuses for them, I am aware it was this particular company's first foray into the French market having previously plied the rivers of Eastern Europe. It was also the first departure of the season and maybe the kinks were not ironed out but for those on board who had paid upwards of $10 000 for a cabin I felt even more disappointed for them than myself.

Travel is all about exploration, new experiences and connection with the unfamiliar. It doesn’t need to be overly energetic or adventurous, I understand the elderly clientele aren’t going to be swimming in rivers and hiking mountains but there needs to be that connection with the country you are travelling through.

Mum at the castle of Tarascon

Me at Les Baux

With my love of exploration through the local cuisine the food on the ship was the most upsetting aspect of the trip for me. Was it too much to expect to have some French food onboard whilst we cruised the rivers of France. There wasn’t a Macaron, Bisque or Eclair to be seen for the whole week. Instead we were served up primarily Eastern European cuisine which after our tour of the kitchen with the Eastern European chef this came as no surprise. The other disconnect was that the specialty restaurant onboard the ship was Italian. The food was of varying standards. I enjoyed the degustation menu served up at the specialty restaurant but the general buffet style meals on offer were not befitting a “luxury” brand and no amount of Moet at breakfast can make up for bready pastries and stodgy stroganoff.

At most meals if you didn’t want to partake in the buffet you could order a la carte from a small menu that didn’t change for the whole cruise. The swordfish I tried was overcooked and unpalatable but this menu provided a dish they did produce very well, steak and chips. Not exactly what I was hoping for in France but based on the number of people ordering steak and chips on a nightly basis I know there were others who felt the same way about the food.

The other aspect that missed the mark as far as offering a connected cultural experience were the day tours. Aside for the odd interactions with locals like on the Olive Farm visit we were mostly subjected to inane walking tours that I am certain I saw a snail overtake us on. The commentary provided by the local guides via our little headsets was incessant and dull. There is an attention span that a single human being is subject to and after the 5th hour of non stop drivel most people had tuned out and were following each other around like mindless drones.

The places I felt most connected to were the ones where I opted out of the day tour on offer and me and mum spent our own time exploring.

Never let it be said you can get a good Foodie down. Oh no I wasn’t letting another serve of watery goulash stop me from finding out how the French really eat.

Our prayers were answered in Lyon, we docked here on a weekend and it was market day! The local producers were selling vast arrays of everything from sweets and breads to vegetables and fresh flowers. As we wandered through the chilly winter air along the banks of the Saone we purchased bagfuls of local delicacies cheeses, croissants , macarons, bread. Deciding we still didn’t have enough we found a local patisserie whose stunning window display could not be passed by and we stocked up on flatbread flavoured with olives and tomato.

Like little kitchen mice in the night we nibbled away in our cabin back on the boat delighted in our cunning ability to foil the chefs plans to convert us to oppressed tourists. Full of our Lyon fare we felt buoyed by the experience of sourcing our own food and that led us to the highlight of the trip.

In Cluny we carefully selected from the cabinet of a patisserie two pert looking raspberry tarts, golden pastry topped with creme patissiere and juicy plump raspberries dusted in icing sugar. They looked divine. Not having a fridge in our room we left them out on the balcony of our cabin to chill in the winter air till we were hungry. Food never lasting long around me I tucked into my tart first. My first bite was a revelation. The pastry was crumbly and buttery, the filling rich, smooth and creamy and the raspberries sweet with no hint of bitterness. I ate it with noisy abandon exclaiming that mum better hurry up and eat hers or I was going to have it too. Her enthusiastic consumption of the tart confirmed my beliefs that is was the best tart ever made. As our river boat chugged downstream I knew there was no way to get another tart with Cluny back in the past behind us and I trudged disappointedly into the dining room shoulders slumped  for another lackluster dinner.

With a little effort on our own part we had managed to redeem what was on track for being a very dull cultural experience indeed. It highlighted to me the importance of choosing the right style of travel for the right person but even then I can’t imagine the elderly are also looking for a culturally vapid holiday either.

Never fear, if you want to undertake a river cruise there are companies out there who have a better reputation for offering a more rounded experience, one of my personal favourites is Uniworld Boutique River Cruises the unique European styling of their ships won 11 ships in their collection a place in the Conde Nast Travellers top 40 river cruise boats of 2013. This along with their 6 star status,  “go active” and “do as the locals do” tour programs onboard you will find that there is a river cruise experience on offer to satisfy even the most whiny of travellers like me.

Have you ever experienced cultural disconnection whilst on tour or holiday?

Originally posted on Saturday, 19 July 2014 by

Maximon, Meeting a Mayan God

The last thing I expected to be doing whilst in the Guatemalan highlands was meeting with a god, not even in Holy Week. My first thoughts were, which god? Being Easter and with the country in fervent celebrations my best guess was the Christian god, but what would an atheist know anyway.

With absolutely no expectations, and no ascension required, we headed over the vast expanses of Lake Atitlan from Panajachel to Santiago Atitlan in our brightly coloured, slightly unstable motor boat. Surrounded by the ancient landscape of towering volcanoes some dormant, some not so dormant I had to wonder what could we possibly be going to see?

Boats on Lake Atitlan 
When you have no expectations it is hard to be disappointed, but even if I was expecting god himself to be standing at the Pearly Guatemalan Gates I would still not have been disappointed with what we eventually found.

My sense of excitement was heightened by the wind whipping, bone jarring, free-standing ride on the back of a utility vehicle taking us ever closer to our final destination. The sheer blood pumping thrill of racing along the dirt roads of a Guatemalan village many days from respectable medical care had me hoping there was a god at the end of all of this.

And a god there was. Hidden away in nothing more than a shed at the back of a shanty house standing in a dirt covered, rubbish filled yard, looming in a dimly lit room filled with candles and the acrid scent of strong alcohol and cigar smoke was an effigy of Maximon.

A blend of the Mayan god Mam and other more Spanish influences and surrounded by legends of baudy bed hopping, I can’t say I am any the wiser as to how Maximon became a god but I am not sure that was the point of the trip.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I first realised I was about to catch alight as my lightweight travellers pants hovered over the open flame of one of the many candles on the floor. Crisis averted my attention turned to Maximon himself. Dozens of business like ties and scarves hid any form or shape except his carved wooden face. A black hat in the local style was atop his head and a cigar hung from his mouth, cigar removed you could pour liquor down Maximon’s throat which was conveniently collected via a tube into a container for later consumption.

Photo courtesy of Sstepper
The two attendants shared their spirits with Maximon pouring a drink for him along with their own. Or more likely, (based on the fact that we made a monetary donation at the door) Maximon was sharing his spirits with the attendants. Their reverent faces were in stark contrast to the confused and slightly amused faces of myself and my fellow gringos peering through the haze the get a glimpse of a god.

In the hazy gloom strange forms and shapes started to appear, there was a skeleton in a glass coffin. Real? I do not know, and later with the tricks time plays on memory I wonder if it was really there or if I conveniently slotted the macabre imagery into my memory. Offerings to the god were scattered on the floor dried flowers, money, cigarettes and alcohol. I can’t deny I wanted to partake in a drink with a god but it didn’t seem to be the done thing not being a local, so I abstained.

What appeared to be gourds hung from the ceiling and christmas lights twinkled on the walls. It was a wild meeting of religion, vice and kitsch design.

Worshipping (or gawking) over we respectfully departed the room and headed into the bright glare of daylight where I was left with the overwhelming feeling that I would consider religion as a viable option if only more of them involved Maximon.
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