I remember my introduction to Thai food: Take-out Pad Thai.
In one corner of the box were fresh bean sprouts, a lime wedge, and a gaggle of chopped peanuts. The noodle dish melded fresh, soft, crunchy, tangy at once, and was like a treasure box of tasty morsels - tofu, chicken, bits of scrambled egg.
Pad Thai is easily the gateway Thai dish for many of us on this side of the globe; long ago it was adapted to suit our western palates, but also westernized through the use of ingredients available at the time. No tamarind paste? Ketchup can sub in, it's plentiful here. Take-out orders from humble family-run spots have households familiar with approachable dishes like red or green curries, satay skewers, and coconutty Tom Kah soup.
Though I graduated from take-out basics and learned to slurp bowls of hearty, funky boat noodles and take the brutal heat from fiery Southern Thai specialties, for me, Thai food has remained a mystery I couldn't fathom unlocking in my own kitchen.
In Vancouver, when we want that hit of Thailand's layered, nuanced flavours - that seductive meld of sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and spicy - we are so lucky we can turn to restaurants like the award-winning Maenam.
Maenam has been a standout since its debut a decade ago when chef/owner Angus An turned to modern Thai cuisine for his West 4th Ave restaurant space. There he offers a menu of traditional Thai fare made with bold contemporary and West Coast-fuelled influence. I remember leaving my first sit-down meal there some time ago in wonder, because what I thought I'd known about Thai food had just been shaken - deliciously, at that.
Now An has released a cookbook featuring many of Maenam's signature dishes. Titled Maenam, An offers precisely what the subtitle promises: "A fresh approach to Thai cooking."
Featuring over 100 recipes, the cookbook takes the reader and home cook through the essentials of Thai cookery, including an ingredient glossary. Beautifully presented with evocative photos that will instantly have you hungry, Maenam includes thoughtful introductions to each section, and goes so far as to include recipes for cocktails, and offers a section on wine pairing (penned by Vancouver wine pro Kurtis Kolt). Thanks to this tome, you can try your hand at dishes ranging from Pad Si Ew to Squid Ink Cupcakes.
I recently connected with An to talk a bit about Thai cooking, and for some encouragement for any home cooks like me who need his fantastic new cookbook to inspire some kitchen adventures.
V.I.A. : In your intro to the book you say that you thought Thai cooking was too casual. I think for many home cooks it seems incredibly nuanced and complicated! What kind of advice would you offer to someone apprehensive about giving these Thai recipes a try in their kitchen?
Angus An: My original thought was it was too casual, but I quickly realized how complex a cuisine it was. That being said, there is no need to panic. There are many dishes that require little preparation. It is simple and intuitive, and living in Vancouver we are blessed to be surrounded by a lot of the ingredients needed. My advice is to try some of the simpler recipes. Once you get comfortable, you can get to know more ingredients by trying dishes like soups and salads; eventually, you will be pounding out curry pastes by hand, guaranteed.
And, is there a recipe you recommend a home cook start with to ease into Thai cooking?
I think the Green Papaya Salad (page 107) or the Heirloom Tomato Salad (page 109) is a great starting point, or the Scallop Ceviche (page 19). The Hot and Sour Soup of Halibut and Thai Basil (page 100) is simple, too, and perfect for the season.
Are there any misconceptions about Thai food you hope your recipes can help people move past?
That it is overly spicy. Thai food is about balance, and, if you taste your food as you cook, you are meant to adjust the seasoning and balance the flavours between hot, sour, sweet, and salty. A balanced dish should never taste overwhelming.
For many, this year has changed their relationship with cooking. As a chef and cookbook author, what are your thoughts on how passionate so many people have become about getting in their kitchens and finding a lot of joy and purpose in cooking?
Myself being one of them! I remodelled the kitchen at home during COVID and have been spending so much time there. Cooking is essential, our kitchen is the heart of our family. I think the more people cook at home, the more appreciation they have for good restaurants that put effort into the food they serve. Good home cooks, like good chefs, take pride in their creations because they are creating food for their loved ones. I think after this is over more people will appreciate and understand the importance of good food.
Where are some great places in Vancouver to shop for the tools and ingredients to make your recipes?
So many! We have tons of options in BC. To start I think T&T Supermarket is a very safe bet for many. They carry just about everything we would use in the book. For the very rare specialty herbs, like holy basil, or ingredients like fresh baby corn, I would recommend Mytho on Kingsway. We import our fresh goods through them weekly.
Maenam: A Fresh Approach to Thai Cooking by Angus An is priced at $35 and is available online from major booksellers (Indigo, Amazon) and at local bookstores. You can also order it from online grocery and prepared foods delivery service Legends Haul, where you'll also find packaged foods and sauces from Maenam as well.