When Is Cooking At Home A Waste Of Time?
Regular readers are well aware that we endlessly encourage you to live like locals when you travel by doing a cooking class to learn to make the local cuisine, by shopping at the markets, and by cooking a meal or two at ‘home’, wherever that may be. It’s a way to make your stay in a destination an experience that feels less like being a tourist and more like being a resident. So when is cooking at home a waste of time?
Well, a recent story on an Australian news website suggested that cooking certain cuisines was a waste of time – and one of the cuisines was Thai.
The article, “Don’t waste time making this dish at home” was clearly a quickly put together piece with only one person quoted, Elizabeth Meryment, the food critic for Australia’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper. It begins: “Put down your ice cream maker. Ditto the pizza oven. Yes, even the pasta maker, and any other expensive tool you bought so you could cook your favourite restaurant dish at home.”
Sometimes those kitchen items end up in the back of the cupboard soon after being purchased, along with that horrid electric bread maker. But when I’m back in Australia staying with family or friends, I’ll use all of those regularly, with the exception of the electric bread maker – they’re awful.
While I’m usually the only person at Lara’s uncle’s house who makes ice cream – and bread, for that matter – he has two pizza stones that get a workout once a week for bread and pizza when we stay. And his KitchenAid with pasta attachments helps us make everything from fresh tagliatelle to pizza bases to rolling out dough for Russian pilemeni.
My ice cream does cost more than the horrid stuff you generally see in the supermarkets. I’ll use quality eggs, cream and milk to make it, as well as get a consensus of what flavour everyone would like the latest batch to be. Sometimes just a great vanilla bean ice cream is thing of wonder. I don’t worry about there being no preservatives in it – it never lasts long enough in the freezer for that. But yes, making bread and pasta requires some skill and experience to get it right every time, but I think the end product justifies a little work.
When food critic Elizabeth Meryment is asked what dishes should never be attempted at home, she says:
“For me, there are a whole heap of no-go areas when it comes to D-I-Y in the kitchen and most of those revolve around Asian food, and especially Thai. I’m actually not sure why anyone would want to make Thai food at home, not even Thai out of a ready-made-kit. Considering you can spend about $10 to get a sensational pad Thai or green chicken curry home delivered, it makes no sense to buy the multitude of ingredients you need for to do it at home.”
We were in Australia last year. A “sensational” Thai takeaway dish for $10 couldn’t be further from reality than one of those Aussie reality cooking shows. Most dishes were over $18 plus delivery for anything approaching ‘average’ and were nowhere near ‘sensational’. The only place you’d find a $10 pad Thai is at shopping centre food court.
But the idea that Thai requires a multitude of ingredients is somewhat of an overstatement. When we did the cooking course with Poo in Bangkok, Poo’s ingredient list for making a green curry paste at home was this:
1 tbs kaffir lime rind
1 tbs diced galangal
10 green chillies
1 tbs lemongrass
3 diced garlic cloves
1 diced red onion.
While that’s half the list of ingredients that renowned Australian chef and Thai cuisine expert David Thompson uses in his recipe, it’s still going to be a wonderfully fragrant and fresh curry paste. While Poo makes it the old-fashioned way with a mortar and pestle, she hinted that people have been known to simply stick the ingredients in a blender with a little oil.
Now if, like the Sunday Telegraph food critic, you’re still skeptical about how easy it is to make Thai, just buy a jar of curry paste from the supermarket. While it’s not the same as a freshly made paste, the pastes preserve very well in a jar. One very prominent Thai chef – who probably won’t want to be quoted – confessed to me that the most popular brand of curry paste available in the supermarkets wasn’t bad at all.
Another Thai chef in Bangkok who makes several batches of curry pastes daily told me the secret to using these store-bought pastes is to heat up some oil first before adding the paste to help “wake up the flavours” of the paste, something they don’t do with fresh paste where it’s spooned into the bubbling coconut milk.
Regardless of whether you use fresh or store-bought paste, here’s the exhaustive list of the other ingredients you’ll need:
500 ml coconut milk
4 kaffir lime leaves; torn, not sliced
6 tbs fish sauce
1 tsp sugar
20 Thai basil leaves
That’s it. It’s not exactly a “multitude” of ingredients nor is it an impossible list to fill in a medium-sized rural town in Australia such as the one where we stay with Lara’s uncle – one where it is impossible to find a Thai restaurant with “sensational” takeaway dishes.
Of course if you make Thai food regularly you’ll appreciate that you’ll be using palm sugar instead of regular sugar, and using it often, so it doesn’t end up in the back of the cupboard for about three years, like Ms Meryment’s did.
When we wrote a story on Poo’s cooking course for Australian travel magazine Get Lost, the recipe had so few steps that it just appeared as a single paragraph in print, not a set-by-step breakdown:
“Add 250ml coconut milk to saucepan and bring to boil. Add curry paste and stir for 2 minutes. Add torn kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, sugar, and meat, and simmer until meat is cooked. Add eggplant, 250ml coconut milk and water. When eggplant is soft, add Thai basil, and serve with rice.”
Easy. And it’s delicious (that’s it pictured at the start of this post). It is basic because the whole point of Poo’s classes and recipes are to show foreigners how easy it is to cook Thai. I usually add a few pieces of sliced chilli to mine to give it some more kick, but the flavour profile is that of a simple, clean Thai green curry.
If you are going to talk about cookie-cutter takeaway-menu Thai, a pad Thai is just as easy to knock over to go with your curry. The hardest thing to cook for your meal will be the steamed rice. Just buy a good rice cooker. That’s what they’ll have at the Thai takeaway shop anyway, just much bigger.
Oddly enough, the one dish that Ms Meryment says is a cinch to do at home is pizza:
“Pizza is one of the easiest and most successful things to make at home, with relatively few ingredients. If you have flour and yeast in the pantry you can make a good base in 30 minutes and all you need on top of that is tomato pasta (sic) and a tub of bocconcini. In the time it takes to get a pizza in the oven you could have a soggy processed pizza home delivered. It’s not worth it.”
Sure you can make pizza at home that’s easily better than takeaway pizza – we used to joke on our family pizza-making nights when discussing toppings that someone ordered a ’chicken with BBQ sauce’ or ‘cheese-stuffed crust’ as a reference to how horrible the local home delivery pizza was. Takeaway pizza steams in a box, rendering the base of the pizza soft and soggy, the slice flopping like a ragdoll cat when you pick it up.
But to make great pizza is arguably harder than making Thai. Unless you’ve bought a real wood-fired pizza oven that gets up to a gazillion degrees and cooks pizzas in 45 seconds, you’re not going to get great pizza, you’re going to get good pizza. Great pizza comes from the sort of pizza oven we had at the holiday rental in Puglia where we needed a pizza peel the length of a barge pole to get anywhere near the furnace.
As someone who has been reviewing restaurants for guidebooks and magazines and writing about food professionally for many years, I feel that in order to be able to do my job professionally, I need to have some idea of how to cook the type of food I’m writing about. I would have been too embarrassed to interview David Thompson without knowing how to cook a Thai curry.
When I was – misguidedly – considering entering the world of cheffing in Sydney many years ago, I worked my way through the first cookbooks of Neil Perry and Tetsuya from cover to cover, cooking every dish. If you want to know what a “multitude of ingredients” looks like, try cooking one of Tetsuya’s dishes!
Back in Australia last year, we house-and-cat-sat for a couple of our close friends. Being the nosy type when it comes to kitchens, I was astounded by how many Asian ingredients they had in the fridge and in the cupboards. Feeling inspired when they returned from holidays, I made them a Northern Thai feast with ingredients that are now readily available in Sydney – a feast of dishes you’re unlikely to find on any take-away menus in Sydney. My favourite Issan sausages, betel leaves, and excellent Thai pork crackling were just some of the ingredients I found in a Thai supermarket in Sydney that were inspiring to work with.
On another night, I did a Sichuan menu for the same friends, inspired by dishes we ate at Spice Temple and Dainty Sichuan in Melbourne. Admittedly, those dishes weren’t quick stir-fries. Both feasts took around three hours to cook, but everyone joined in, from prepping ingredients to preparing the BBQ, to just making sure glasses were full and the music loud. It was fantastic fun.
After a couple of months overseas, we arrived back at our friend’s house in Sydney for a few days before heading off again on our current journey. Catching up with them, I was surprised to hear that they had recreated my Sichuan menu for a dinner party they had with friends.
To me, that’s what cooking at home is about. Learning to cook new dishes, especially dishes from a cuisine you’re unfamiliar with cooking, and discovering dishes that you want to add to your cooking repertoire. It’s also about enjoying time in the kitchen – as much as the dinner table – with family and friends.
So when is cooking at home a waste of time? Never, as far as I’m concerned – no matter how tricky the dishes might be. Every time you cook you learn something and if you’re a competent cook it’s nearly always going to be better than takeaway. Even the mythical and sensational $10 Thai home delivery dish.