Thai that binds … David Thompson depends on rice to balance strong Thai flavours.
David Thompson is the Australian-born executive chef of the acclaimed Nahm restaurants in Bangkok and London, an internationally recognised expert on Thai cuisine and author. Thompson is also fondly remembered at home for his Darley Street Thai restaurant in Sydney's Darlinghurst.
Need to know
Rice, as the authoritative Oxford Companion to Food states, is an ancient grain that remains the staple of humanity. It also now enjoys widespread favour in the cosmopolitan West due to the globalisation of eating habits. Rice delivers higher and more reliable yields than wheat and barley, with as many as 100,000 varieties of wild and cultivated rice grown in more than 110 countries. A grain of rice contains 80 per cent starch. When eaten and digested, this starch is converted to glycogen in the bloodstream, providing an excellent supply of muscular energy.
Rice, as Thompson says, is enjoyed in many guises - plain and simple, fried, in soups and congees or dressed up in a biryani - and even forms the basis for sake, the Japanese tipple.
''Rice is my staple,'' Thompson says. ''I depend on its sturdy wholesomeness for success … Thai food has extreme tastes that can overwhelm. With rice, however, the food becomes balanced. A Thai meal makes no sense without rice. In fact, rice is the meal and all other dishes - complex curries, elegant soups, brisk stir-fries and sprightly salads - are merely accompaniments.
''My first recollection of rice was my mum's version, boiled in rolling water, drained, rinsed and reboiled - a la The Australian Women's Weekly in the 1960s. I was not convinced by its gummy blandness. Come to think of it, I was rarely won over by much of my mother's cooking. God love her, she hated the kitchen and it showed.
''I first worked in Western kitchens and rice was a marginalised starch, pushed to the side of the plate, accompanying, say, some grilled kidneys with mustard, or perhaps an exotic pseudo pilaf. I had no idea of how good rice could be.
''Thais believe they have the best rice in the world - long, slender jasmine rice. I agree, but admit I am biased. The cooked jasmine grain has an alluring fragrance that beckons - no other rice has such a hearty aroma. It is one of the few culinary staples to become increasingly delicious the more often you eat it. Thais eat rice every day, two or three times a day. In fact, if they have not eaten rice for a few days they pine for it.''
''The best rice is the simplest, rinsed and cooked in water, simple, unseasoned and unadorned with any unnecessary garnish,'' Thompson says. ''Rinse the rice well, place in a wide pot and cover with water by an index finger joint. Bring quickly to the boil, turn down the heat, cover then simmer gently until cooked. It should take about 10 minutes. Leave to the side for another five minutes or so. You can add a pandanus leaf or two to enhance the rice's perfume.
''Contrary to many authorities, [in fried rice] I like to use rice freshly cooked but left to cool. I find it behaves much better with the grains separating easily, allowing the egg to coat each grain. I find rice is at its best about six months to a year after harvest. Younger than that, it's too soft and mushy when cooked. Happily, most of the rice available is around this age.''
David Thompson's fried rice with crab (kao pat bpuu)
1-2 garlic cloves
A good pinch of salt
3 tbsp vegetable oil - more as required
1 cup cooked rice, cooled
Large pinch of freshly ground white pepper
A larger pinch of white sugar
2 tbsp light soy sauce
100g cooked crabmeat
3 green spring onions, cleaned and chopped
Several slices of cucumber, to serve
1 lime, cut into wedges, to serve
Fish sauce with chilli (prik nahm plaa)
10 scud chillies
1/2 cup fish sauce
2 garlic cloves, sliced
Squeeze lime juice
1. In a mortar and pestle, make a paste with the garlic and salt.
2. Heat the wok and add plenty of oil, then stir in the garlic and fry until beginning to colour. Crack in the egg, allow it to firm before stirring and scrambling.
3. Add the rice, turn down the heat and fry gently. Crumble, mix and toss the rice.
4. Season with the pepper, sugar and soy, add the crab and the spring onions but reserve a little of both to sprinkle over the finished rice with coriander.
5. Serve with some slices of cucumber and a wedge of lime, and with a bowl of fish sauce.
6. For fish sauce, chop the chillies finely and stir into the fish sauce with the garlic. Squeeze in lime juice just before using.