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Damon Lee Fowler's Review of Dancing Shrimpcover

by Damon Lee Fowler

Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes For Seafood by: Kasma Loha-unchit, Simon & Schuster, October 2000 (304 pages, $30.00 ), Hardcover, ISBN: 0-684-86272-7. Now out of print. Although now out of print, you should still be able to find a second-hand copy at many places where used books are sold.

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A Passion For Flavor: Kasma Loha-unchit's Magical Book Makes Fish Dance to Thai Rhythm

Reading Kasma Loha-unchit's cookbook, Dancing Shrimp, is like watching an exotic tropical flower slowly open on a warm summer day. Carefully, fragrantly, the fish and shellfish cookery of her native Thailand emerges like a blossom from prose that sings with the grace of a master poet, wisdom of a philosopher, and passion of an evangelist.

From its evocative title, through its vivid introductory essays, to recipes so clear that one can almost taste them, this book weaves a magic spell with fish and shellfish, a spell that envelopes mind, soul, and palate. If you are not already in love with Thai food, Kasma Loha-unchit will make you fall for it – and her – hook, line, and sinker.

This native of Thailand has been teaching the cooking of her homeland to Western students for more than fifteen years, and the clarity and grace for which her teaching is celebrated shines through in this book. From the first page, you know you are in the hands of a master teacher, though not necessarily the kind of teacher that you might expect.

"Thai cooking is an art," she says matter-of-factly, "not an exact science. Thai people are not very linear by nature. We act from the heart, not the mind. We cook with our senses. I learned to cook from my mother, without recipes, relying on taste rather than exact measurements. When I started to teach, that is how I taught the dishes."

"I feel more like I am an art teacher than a cooking teacher. I teach technique, yes, but the techniques of Thai cooking are mostly very simple. They are always secondary to taste. Achieving harmony of flavor is the most important thing."

"Many cooking teachers emphasize technique too much – they say, 'you must do it this way!' – but I say, no! There are many ways to get there! Slavery to technique stifles creativity. You have to find your own way. I teach my students to develop taste sophistication, to use their senses, to work toward a harmony of flavor."

That harmony of flavor is the key to true Thai cooking. Those flavors fall into four basic groups: salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. Within the umbrella of these four flavors are dozens of sub-categories. Loha-unchit explains, for example, that there is no single salty taste, but many. Sea salt is more salty than the salt the is mined from the earth – and it has a different taste. Briny fish sauce introduces another kind of salty element.

Loha-unchit teaches her students to "measure" by learning to balance these four basic tastes as a true Thai cook would do. None of them should dominate, yet all four have a place. (See Creating Harmonies with Primary Flavors.)

Unfortunately, Loha-unchit says that many Westerners do not have a true sense of the Thai flavor balance from restaurants that serve Thai food.

"Many western Thai restaurants emphasize rich dishes, and often overuse the sweet taste. It throws the cuisine out of balance and creates an impression that Thai's eat many very rich, sweet foods. This is not true! Our food is simple, and not always sweet. The more predominant flavors are sour and hot (spicy). But still, a good Thai cook works toward balance and harmony in all flavors."

Loha-unchit says that one reason Americans have trouble grasping the Thai sense of flavor harmony is because we do not understand the role that rice plays in a Thai meal.

"Rice is the main course," she explains. "The other dishes accompany the rice and not the other way around."

This is a difficult idea for those accustomed to larger portions of protein, and may be the reason some Americans are put off by the intensity of Thai flavors. Everything on the table is primarily a condiment for plain rice. If these "condiments" of meat and fish are eaten in western proportions, their intensity can be overwhelming.

Not that Thai rice is plain. It is fragrant and delicious all on its own. Once, there were many regional varieties of rice in Thailand, not just the "Jasmine" rice familiar to Westerners. The number of these varieties is dwindling as modern farming techniques, with rice hybrids that are better suited to those techniques, overtake the ancient farming methods and heirloom rices of the Thai countryside, but even the hybrids are distinctive.

When asked what other misconceptions Americans have about Thai cooking, Loha-unchit immediately says, "Peanuts. For some reason people have the idea that if it has peanuts and fish sauce, it's Thai."

Yet she says that Thai cooks traditionally do not use Georgia's favorite legume as much as their Malaysian and Chinese neighbors.

If our preconceptions about what is "typically" Thai are a little off, then what is one element that would be typical? She has an immediate answer for that, too. "Fish."

In fact, Loha-unchit says it was natural to follow-up her first award-winning cookbook, It Rains Fishes with a book on fish and shellfish cookery, because rice and fish are the foundation of the Thai diet. She explains, "Fish as a food is second only to rice [in Thailand]."

That is one reason Thai cooking is of particular appeal for Savannah cooks: this is a diet any Lowcountry native understands instinctively. For centuries, rice culture and fishing were mainstays of our own economy, so rice and fish were naturally the staples of a Lowcountry kitchen.

Still, it may seem like a stretch to say that our cooking has anything at all in common with that of Thailand, since the very nature of Southeast-Asian food is alien to palates shaped by Euro-African traditions. But cooking, tasting, and learning to appreciate Thai food in context, you will notice many common threads between this lovely cookery and ours, which may be one reason that Thai cooking is so appealing for Savannahians.

Another possible reason for the appeal is climate. Thailand is a tropical country. "Warm" is not a word that usually describes a Thai summer. "Steamy", "muggy", "hotter than Hell's gate-hinges" all come to mind. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

It is not without reason that a friend of mine refers to a Savannah July as "hot mayonnaise month" – that is exactly what the air feels like here.

Appetites lag in that heat, and even the thought of going into a kitchen to do more than open the refrigerator induces a sweat like Niagara Falls. Thai cooks understand the conflict between climate and a need to cook tasty, appetite-stimulating food all too well.

Yet, living in such a climate can have its compensations. Just as the thermometer begins to settle into the eighties and nineties – and stay there – Shrimp season settles in for us, tempting us to brave the hot kitchen in spite of ourselves. And with Loha-unchit's book as guide, shrimp season does not have to signal an endless succession of Lowcountry boils and mayonnaise-based shrimp salads.

Damon Lee Fowler is the author of more than 8 cookbooks, including the classic Classical Southern Cooking: A Celebration of the Cuisine of the Old South. His book Damon Lee Fowler's New Southern Kitchen: Traditional Flavors for Contemporary Cooks was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2002 (Hardcover, 368 pages, ISBN: 0684871696). In addition to many other books, he's written The Savannah Cookbook published by Gibbs Smith in May 2008 (Hardcover, 224 pages, ISBN 1423602242). He is a regular contributor to the Savannah Morning News. Do check out his website at www.damonleefowler.com

Copyright © 2001 Damon Lee Fowler. All rights reserved. – From pages 1b & 6b of Savanna Morning News May 30, 2001. Used with author's permission.

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