THE GLOBAL GOURMET Man with a mis­sion

Sian Pow­ell meets Thai­land’s an­swer to Gor­don Ram­say, celebrity chef McDang

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

HAT is this black stuff, this black sauce?’’ ex­claims the celebrity chef and mi­nor Thai royal known as Chef McDang. He is talk­ing about the in­creas­ingly fre­quent use of Chi­nese oys­ter sauce in Thai restau­rants, and wav­ing his hands in frus­tra­tion. This is not Thai. No­body knows the roots of Thai food, no­body cares about the his­tory of Thai food, no­body has pride in the cul­ture of Thai food.

No one cares, they just want to make money.’’

Chef McDang is a house­hold name in Bangkok; he’s the Thai equiv­a­lent of Bri­tain’s Gor­don Ram­say (but far more cour­te­ous) or Aus­tralia’s Neil Perry. With four Thai-lan­guage recipe books and two Thai-lan­guage restau­rant guides to his name, a weekly tele­vi­sion pro­gram, and a weekly news­pa­per col­umn, McDang is a culi­nary force ma­jeure . Now, as well as his other com­mit­ments, he is writ­ing and com­pil­ing his mag­num opus: an English­language com­pen­dium to be called

McDang is a com­pli­cated moniker: a com­bi­na­tion of his fa­ther’s nick­name Muck, mean­ing squid or ink, added to his mother’s nick­name, Dang, mean­ing red. McDang’s real name is M.L. Sirichalerm Svasti, or Siri to his friends. M.L. is the pre­fix de­not­ing his stand­ing in the royal fam­ily.

McDang was born in 1953 and raised in the Sukhothai Palace in Bangkok, now the home of Thai­land’s Crown Prince Maha Va­ji­ra­longkorn. When McDang was a child he lived in ut­most lux­ury with his great-aunt, the dowa­ger queen of Thai­land, Queen Ram­phaiphanni (who coined his nick­name). Revered as near deities, Thai roy­als were not ex­pected to peel or pit their own fruit, or even to debone their fish; it was all done for them.

Lunches lasted for 21/ hours. So did din­ners. The food was amaz­ing, I used to sneak into the lower kitchen,’’ he re­mem­bers. Then, the shock. He went to Bri­tain to be ed­u­cated, to Chel­tenham Col­lege board­ing school. There he was in­tro­duced to blanc­manges, over­done roast beef and soggy York­shire pud­ding. He gri­maces. The food was ter­ri­ble in Bri­tain; there was noth­ing to eat.’’

Still, he wound up speak­ing English and French with re­mark­able flu­ency. At one stage, he thinks, his French was bet­ter than his Thai. So how does a boy who grew up eat­ing ex­quis­ite food,

Royal rebel with a cause: Chef McDang is pas­sion­ate about tra­di­tional Thai cui­sine pre­pared for roy­als, then chok­ing down English board­ing-school fare, learn to cook?

McDang’s fa­ther is a renowned gour­mand in Thai­land and hosts a pop­u­lar daily ra­dio pro­gram. So it may not be so strange that McDang wound up work­ing as a pro­fes­sional cook, host­ing a TV food show and writ­ing Thai cook­ery books: he was fol­low­ing in his fa­ther’s foot­steps. His par­ents wanted him to be­come a diplo­mat, but he aban­doned the study of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions for a course at the Culi­nary In­sti­tute of Amer­ica. Still, McDang points out that cook­ing is not re­ally re­garded as a proper pro­fes­sion in Thai­land, not like law, medicine or even en­gi­neer­ing.

Who the hell would want to work in a kitchen?’’ McDang asks. It is so hot, you’re un­der so much pres­sure. I had my restau­rant in the US for 20 years. That was enough.’’

He sold his Back Porch Cafe in Delaware a long time ago but he spent nearly three decades away from Thai­land. Now ev­ery year he leaves Bangkok to go to the US to teach and lec­ture on the prin­ci­ples of Thai cui­sine at a hand­ful of cook­ing schools and culi­nary in­sti­tutes.

He has had fun in­tro­duc­ing Amer­i­cans to the more ex­otic el­e­ments’’ of Thai cui­sine: he re­cently served the mayor of Los An­ge­les cubed yel­low and red wa­ter­melon lib­er­ally frosted with a mix­ture of fish flakes, shal­lots and gar­lic. He prof­fers me this frost­ing for a taste: it is de­li­cious.

Sit­ting in his ex­traor­di­nary du­plex apart­ment be­side Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river, with a panoramic view of the wa­ter­way, McDang gets pas­sion­ate about his self-pub­lished English­language com­pen­dium of Thai cook­ery. He says he has to make a mark with it in English first, to earn the re­spect of Thais. Even though Thai food, flavour­some and eas­ily di­gested, has swept the world, with thou­sands of Thai restau­rants and take­aways across Aus­tralia and green curry and pad thai now fea­tur­ing heav­ily in West­ern di­ets, McDang says, Thai peo­ple are still strangely ig­no­rant about their own food her­itage.’’

He adds, We don’t even know our cui­sine very well. We don’t have a dic­tio­nary of Thai cui­sine. We don’t have any­body who is Thai who writes about Thai food [in­ter­na­tion­ally]. There are pretty cook­books done by

[for­eign­ers],’’ he says. Aus­tralian restau­ra­teur

David Thomp­son, once famed in Syd­ney for his Dar­ley Street Thai restau­rant, is one of th­ese Now based in Lon­don, where he runs the Miche­lin­starred Thai restau­rant Nahm, Thomp­son’s com­pre­hen­sive book was pub­lished in 2004. It was a ser­vice to Thai cui­sine,’’ McDang says.

But, he adds, for­eign writ­ers of­ten make ba­sic mis­takes about Thai food. McDang wants his

to pro­vide a struc­ture, a frame­work for Thai food, to for­malise the gram­mar of a cui­sine in much the same way that Es­coffier or Larousse for­malised French cui­sine.

I’m well known in Thai­land, but I want peo­ple to take me se­ri­ously. I want them to look up to me for knowl­edge. But it won’t hap­pen un­less I am ac­cepted by the rest of the world. This book is my ticket to com­ing back to Thai­land; to help my coun­try take pride in its own cui­sine and its own food cul­ture,’’ he says.

McDang es­ti­mates the self­pub­lish­ing project will cost him about 5 mil­lion Thai baht ($180,000). The pho­to­graphs have been taken and the book will have 15 chap­ters: the first five on the his­tory and cul­ture of Thai food, and the re­main­ing 10 fea­tur­ing recipes and explanations. He ex­pects to launch it in the US this year.

It will set out the rules of Thai cui­sine and ex­plain why cer­tain in­gre­di­ents and prac­tices are ac­cept­able and oth­ers are not, such as gran­u­lated su­gar, which he says too many Thai restau­rants use. The more dif­fi­cult-touse palm su­gar is the ap­pro­pri­ate sweet­ener. Oil on a salad is out; se­same oil on a Thai salad in­fu­ri­ates him. Thai sal­ads have no fat.’’ At first en­counter, McDang seems some­thing of a rebel. There are shocks of per­ox­ide white in his hair, he is wear­ing a T-shirt and a pair of flow­ered shorts, and ex­ple­tives pep­per his speech. Yet it is clear the chef is a pil­lar of the Thai culi­nary es­tab­lish­ment. Later, at a nearby rus­tic restau­rant, where we sit out­side, he clearly and care­fully ex­plains each dish, its ori­gins, tex­tures and tastes. The food is ex­cel­lent: even down to the slightly odd (to West­ern tastes) dessert of what ap­pears to be caramelised popped rice topped with shaved ice. Mem­bers of the owner’s fam­ily ar­rive to chat and pay their re­spects to McDang.

This is what makes Thai­land,’’ he says, an ap­pre­ci­a­tion and a fun­da­men­tal un­der­stand­ing of the na­tional cui­sine. You just have to taste what our food is like and you know what our cul­ture is like.’’

www.chefm­c­ Sian Pow­ell is a free­lance writer liv­ing in Bangkok.

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