This Cookbook Explains the Complexity of Thai Food and Its History

Leela Punyaratabandhu on the culinary history of her hometown Bangkok, and how Thai food is represented in the United States
Bangkok Cookbook
COVER/PHOTO: COURTESY OF 10 SPEED PRESS

It’s not just a cookbook; it’s also a book about Bangkok’s history and how the city’s food emerges and evolves out of it.

Not long after she debuted her Thai-food blog She Simmers in 2008, my former Reader colleague Mike Sula introduced me to the work of food writer Leela Punyaratabandhu, a Bangkok native who divides her time between her hometown and Chicago.

I’ve been reading her ever since.

Her first book, Simple Thai Food: Classic Recipes from the Thai Kitchenwas a great addition to our library. Dishes familiar from American Thai restaurants with often-complex recipes and difficult-to-source ingredients were made doable for the beginner. Her second book, Bangkok: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Thailandis on the other side of the spectrum: faithful recipes representing the broad swath of the city’s food, from traditional home cooking to famous restaurants to street carts to food stalls.

They’re grounded in the many cultural origins of Bangkok cuisine: a dessert called golden threads is traced back to a Portuguese Japanese woman from the 17th century who created Thai-Portuguese desserts; there’s a pork chop recipe in the style of the “cook shop,” a hybrid Western/Chinese/Thai restaurant (which is served with slices of white bread and Worcestershire sauce); chicken and rice, Thai Muslim-style from Jio, a halal restaurant; fried rice from the menu of the early 20th-century Bangkok-to-Hua Hin train; a hot pot recipe modeled after a popular Cantonese hot-pot restaurant.

It’s not just a cookbook; it’s also a book about Bangkok’s history and how the city’s food emerges and evolves out of it. I spoke with her about how she came to write it, the history and current state of the Bangkok culinary scene, how Thai food is represented in America (and Chicago), and more. Hungry already?

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Visit Chicago Magazine to read the full interview and get a delicious recipe for beef green curry from the cookbook.