The first thing I notice when I open Mae’s Ancient Thai Food is how vibrant it is. It’s exciting, brimming with colour, energy and undeniable joie de vivre. The book begins with a tribute to its inspiration, Gobgaew Najpinij, followed by a minutely detailed introduction to Thai herbs, spices and techniques, including a page devoted to the author’s favourite, coriander root. The recipes are split into categories: curries, salads, seafoods, nibbles & canapes, vegetables, noodles & stir-fries and desserts.
Each recipe is accompanied by photos of mouth watering food, and rich Thai tableaus, interspersed with historical photographs and some cute cats for good measure. I chatted to the book’s author Carole Mason about what drew her to Thai food, her fondest food memory, and her inspiration for writing the book.
Tell me about your book in a nutshell.
The book is called ‘Mae’s Ancient Thai Food’ and it is the recipes of retired professor Gobgaew Najpinij who was the secret weapon behind many famous chefs. She was my one-on-one teacher for almost a year and this book is my tribute to her.
What was it that drew you towards Thai food? Do you feel a particular affinity to that style of cooking?
In the late ‘80s I had my first Thai food experience in a Thai restaurant in London. I was blown away by the taste sensations and promptly booked a holiday to Thailand with a friend. While she was off scuba diving, I embraced the world of Thai food. I ate at every street stall I could find, volunteered at an orphanage, cooked with the staff and made local friends. I wheedled my way into their kitchens and began to understand the basics of everyday Thai food.
What happened next?
I went back to Thailand whenever I could, finding opportunities to get involved in restaurants and learn more. I was drawn to the food. It felt so complex and yet in many ways there’s a simplicity to its everyday style.
Did your childhood and formative years shape your food philosophy?
My childhood experience of plain stodgy food in Lancashire certainly did not prepare my spicy palate, but somewhere in my DNA is the cooking bug. My grandmother loved to cook and ran hotels, so the memories of being in a busy kitchen piled high with steaming food, are deeply rooted.
Who is the particular person who has most influenced the way you cook?
That is such an easy question – Gobgaew Najpinij and I spent so much time working together on a one-on-one basis in the kitchen, that I called her ‘mother’. That is why my book is called ‘Mae’s Ancient Thai Kitchen’ (Mae means mother).
What is your most potent food memory?
My most amazing memory of eating out is at a food stall last year. I wanted to try a raw crab dish, but I had to convince the lady behind the counter that I really wanted it. She was worried that I was “Farang”, that it would be too hot for me, so I had to argue my case in Thai! Despite my terrible Thai I finally won the argument. I got the dish but was dreading the ensuing embarrassment if I couldn’t eat it. To my delight though, it was like the most delicious oyster I had ever had and I went back for seconds!
When you write recipes what comes first, the inspiration or the ingredients?
I love coriander root, so I am always looking for recipes that use it. I am only really interested in historical recipes, so my style is to seek knowledge from traditional Thai sources – I don’t create recipes from nothing. All of the recipes in my cookbook come directly from Mae.
What was the initial inspiration for writing your book?
Mae was always interested in me writing a cookbook for her. Initially I didn’t have the time or skills I needed but she won that discussion and with dogged determination I’ve finally done it. Gobgaew’s inspiration was to pass on her recipes to her students. Even though she advised many famous chefs from around the world including David Thompson (who gives a tribute to Gobgaew in his book) she never had her own collection of recipes printed.
Did you have a particular process for collating it?
I went to Bangkok for several long stretches and worked with Gobgaew for many busy days of cooking, tasting and photography. I could not have got through all that without the help of Ning (Mae’s daughter) who helped in so many ways.
You have a lot of beautiful, colourful and evocative images in the book. Tell me about the process behind them.
When I determined that I would do the book, I splashed out on a better camera and set about learning to take a better photographs. I still don’t feel like a particularly confident photographer, and I continue to work at improving, but the colour and vibrancy of the food and the city really speaks for itself. It’s the perfect subject.
What would you suggest as a complementary three course meal from the recipes in the book?
I would never suggest a three-course meal as Thai food should be served as several dishes in sharing bowls. It’s best to balance the dishes so that you have a good mixture of tastes – salty, sour, bitter and sweet – but always with a bowl of rice and a soup to sip on one side, and plenty of dips. My favourite things in the book though are heavenly beef, gang hanglae and for dessert tap tim grob. I also love chilli jam. It takes a while to make it but once you have it you can make so many delicious things so quickly.
If you could sit down for dinner with any one person in the world who would you choose?
Sadly Gobgaew passed away last year and if I could sit down with her just one more time I would show her the book and we would remember all the time we spent together. It makes me so sad that she has not seen the finished item. The reaction it has had so far from her ex-students all around the world would make her so happy.
What would you choose as your last meal on earth?
I would, of course, choose to cook Mae’s recipes with Ning, and I would definitely include her Massaman!
Chicken or steak?
Butter or olive oil?
Wine or spirits?
Herbs or spices?
Why did the chicken cross the road?
To get to the Gai Yang Stall.