It was Saturday evening, the 19th of November 2016 when our five teams met up for an epic battle in Round 1 of the Cookbook Club Competition (read our previous article here). We had chosen to cook from David Thomson’s book Thai Food, a thick compendium, gorgeously covered in Thai silk, filled with advice and anecdotes about his experiences. While not all of us had actually placed hands on this book (it was a wedding present to Team Kell & Sal and jealously guarded), it was not without trying. In the lead up to the competition, this book had more of a social life than some of us. It made the rounds, being carried from here to there and even spent an entire night at Kinki from sundown to sunrise. Still, not all of us actually touched the paper on the book but we did get the recipes we needed in the end.
“I loved the idea of the Cookbook Club from the get-go. Like most creative cooks, we added our own twist to things and then by simply adding a ‘competition’ element, things really started to heat up” – Kell
Some teams shopped, prepped and schemed days in advance. Some teams left it until the afternoon of the competition to get started. Thai food itself is one of the freshest cuisines in the world, in my view. The emphasis is on fresh, quality ingredients. More than half the teams made a trip to Tekka Markets to source their Thai basil, kafir limes, even live crabs and shrimp paste. Almost all the elements for the dishes were made from scratch, from pandan juice to curry pastes, broths and aromatics.
Throughout the day, while teams worked on their dishes, there were WhatsApp updates, pictures of progress, a bit of trash talk. Tensions were high but some still managed to fit in a yoga class, a walk in the park and a nap. One team cooked with a glass of champagne in hand and other teams painstakingly pounded fresh curry paste in a mortar and pestle for hours in order to extract the best flavours.
When we all arrived at our host’s house (Team Mehru & Noon), we were ready for action. The important aspect of Thai cooking is that many of the dishes would need to be cooked a la minute and served fresh out of the wok. Team Kell & Sal (albeit minus Sal, the stock master, as he was at work and could not make it) brought with them live crabs, one of whom drew blood from Kell before being executed (humanely, of course).
There was no time to sit down and relax with a drink prior. It was our first round of the comp so we will all forgive ourselves for the chaos.
We did find time to present limited edition Vanilla Beige aprons to each team and take a group shot. Then for some, it was straight into the kitchen. My team, Angie & G, had arrived with warm, steamed fish curry that we insisted be eaten right away before it got cold (this perhaps made the difference in the scoring). There were “oooo’s” and “aaah’s” around for this dish and perhaps the strategic planning of being the first dish on the table worked in our favour.
Team Ann & Julius kicked off with a powerpoint presentation, an effort to impress which it certainly did. They shared a lovely explanation about their inspiration (read that below) before serving up their Green Chicken and Vegetable Curry and Stir-fried Rice Noodles with Chicken and Chinese Broccoli. Next on the menu was Ed’s Shredded Chicken and Lemongrass soup which was aromatic, tangy and completely comforting.
In the kitchen with Kell who expertly stir fries the Crab with Curry Powder.
Kell, on her own, then served up her spectactular dish of Stir Fried Crab with Curry Powder. The paste was handmade, the crabs were fresh and this could (or maybe should) have been the dish of the night. We rolled up our sleeves and happily picked out the tender crabmeat. Soon after came Noon’s Minced Beef with Thai Basil, a spicy and savoury, well flavoured dish that was moreish on top of white Jasmine rice (I have to admit that I took some home with me and ate it the next evening, topped with a runny fried egg).
What followed was Mehru’s Prawn Pad Thai which was well executed. Getting a Pad Thai just right is a rather hard endeavour. It’s a true skill to balance the flavours and remarks were made about how a Thai restaurant will live or die by how well their Pad Thai tastes. There was very little to fault with Mehru’s dish though Kell with a cheeky smile did comment “it’s good… But I’ve had better.”
Kell then brought out her Kaffir Lime Juice Grilled Prawns which was just the freshness needed after all the heavy feasting that had been done. This dish was also a crowd favourite because it brought with it the flavours of tangy lime and fresh herbs.
The last savoury dish to be placed on the table was a Jungle Curry with Fish made by Jules. It was beautifully spiced and had a lovely aromatic quality which would attest to the hand pounded curry paste made with the freshest ingredients.
The amount of food left over was ridiculous, each of us cooking for 10 people and each team providing two dishes. Next time around, we all agreed that one dish would be enough. Apologies that we can not provide the recipes because they are copyright and direct from David Thomson’s book Thai Food which I highly recommend adding to your bookshelf if you’d like to try Thai cooking. Each of us did add our little amendments and alterations to the recipes as needed so if you do get the cookbook, you may need to do the same.
Oh, I almost forgot about dessert, presented by my team, the Pandanus and Coconut Agar Agar was loved by some and not so much by others. It was rather hotly contested if it should have scored so high as some thought it was a rather ordinary dessert. Most scored it well for execution, the distinct layers of Pandanus and Coconut looking rather pretty.
Dish of the night was the Steamed Fish Curry which we had pugnaciously insisted be eaten right away. Second place was the dessert (how, I do not know!) and third was the Stir Fried Crab with Curry Powder.
In the end, it was Team Angie and G that took the title. Completely surprised and delighted by the honour, I can understand why some competitors were slightly miffed. Yes, perhaps the scoring was flawed, the Vegetarian being unable to rate on the flavour of most of the dishes and a missing team partner in Sal. Maybe it was unfair that there was too much food and by the end of the night, we were all stuffed too full to really be able to taste and judge the last dishes properly. It was still a fantastic way to spend the evening, in the company of good friends, good food, lots of laughs and plenty to share.
“This was such a welcome change to the usual weekend dinner gathering – especially since it was done with like-minded friends who share the same love of food (and a bit of healthy competition)” – Kell
We’re all looking forward to Round 2 of our Cookbook Club Competition. Stay tuned! The winners, Team Angie & G, get to pick the book and still haven’t done so. Should we make a strategic decision with a cuisine that I’m more familiar with or should we give all the teams something challenging. Let me know if you have any suggestions! I’m thinking Western food and possibly Italian or French. Or I could go with a completely vegetarian cookbook, in honour of The Vegetarian, of course. Email email@example.com with your recommendations.
We’d love to see more groups join us in friendly competition so let us know if you’d like to form a group of your own. We’d be happy to supply the aprons and a prize for the winner. For more pics and updates about the competition, check out the Vanilla Beige Facebook page.
Thank you so much to Mehru & Noon for hosting us and letting us take over your kitchen and home.
Read on for Ann and Julius’s inspiration. This presentation struck fear into a few of us at the start of the night because we hadn’t prepared anything like this. We all had a laugh at their attempt to sway the judges with their comments about the ingredients used by other teams, however I can assure you that everything sourced was as fresh as they come and treated with the utmost respect.
All images were provided by the contestants of the competition.
Ann & Julius are very humble and down-to-earth Europeans who have travelled extensively around the Asia Pacific region. After numerous expensive and often disappointing culinary experiences, their choice (and budget) now lies with the traditional hawker-inspired food recipes. The menu choices below reflect the traditional hawker Thai dishes with a difference.
(Please do note, only organic ingredients and free range chickens were chosen for these recipes. Other dishes for example such as Steamed Fish Curry, Agar Agar, Stir Fried Crab with Curry Powder, Kaffir Lime Juice Grilled Prawns, Shredded Chicken and Lemongrass Soup, Jungle Curry, Prawn Pad Thai, Minced Beef with Thai may have involved inhumanely killing caged or captive poor little animals and fish)
Chicken and Vegetable Curry
This rustic curry comes from the mountainous, temperate north of Thailand. Special ingredients were sourced from far and wide across Singapore for this dish to retain the authentic taste, albeit with a slight spicy twist to cater to the more discerning chilli lovers among the group.
Stir-fried Rice Noodles with Chicken and Chinese Broccoli
A traditional noodle dish which can be found in the popular Thai hawker centres, and originated from the Chinese influenced cuisine. The original slightly bland recipe has been adapted with a strong Dutch influence and much love, fun and champagne.