`Vatch's Thai Kitchen' by chef Vatcharin Bhumichitr is a relatively inexpensive (cover price $24.95) collection of recipes and adaptations of recipes he prepares in his various restaurants in London and Miami. My first impression is that this is a book on the fast track to the budget tables at Borders and Barnes and Noble, as it is in an oversized format with big pictures and a less than big name publisher. But one can be wrong about these things, so I press on.
If a book is very good (at least five stars) or very bad (three stars or less), you can tell it after reading a page or two. I cannot tell after a few pages whether this book is very good or very bad, so there is a good chance that you can also reliably assign four stars after just two or three pages, but I will go further, because it is easy for a four star book to still have strong appeal to a special audience.
There are at least two special audiences that can do better than this book. The first is easily those who want a taste of real Thai cooking from an authoritative source. As luck would have it, there is an excellent, authoritative book in English on Thai cooking, the book `Thai Food' by David Thompson', published by Ten Speed Press. While this book lists for $40, it has 670 pages compared to the thin 144 pages from chef Vatch. Thompson's book has been criticized for being pretty parochial for requiring a lot of hard to find Thai ingredients.
Bhumichitr's book promises to give recipes one can make with ingredients available at your local supermarket. Well, I think not. He has several recipes that make use of ingredients I tend to have a hard time finding even at my local megamart. Lemongrass is becoming pretty common these days, but I still cannot find Kafir lime leaves on a regular basis, and I have never found fresh galangal, even in New York City in Chinatown, Dean and Delucca, or Zabars. The best I did was a tin of dried galangal. So, if you are going to the trouble of ordering ingredients through the Internet, why not simply get Thompson's authoritative book to begin with.
I also found more than one case where the basic style of Thai food as described by Thompson is violated by Bhumichitr's dishes. Thompson says Thai salads are simple affairs with little added to distract from the featured ingredient. Bhumichitr's salads seem to have everything but the kitchen sink.
I have other difficulties with this book. While I am usually willing to forgive a few minor errors in recipe writing, they usually mean that a book containing such lapses in editing are not suitable for beginning cooks, since an experienced cook will easily think through the lapses. In this book, I think the prep instructions are not very carefully checked, as there are several times when I believe the intention was to peal vegetables, yet there is no mention of this step. I am also not thrilled about the author's stating that deep-frying can be done with equal ease with either a wok or a deep fryer.
The introductory section on ingredients looks good, but I think it is only fair at best. There are several Asian ingredients used in the recipes that are not covered in the chapter on ingredients. I also question some of the statements in this section, as when the author says that galangal was `immensely popular' in late Medieval Europe. I checked my medieval cookbooks and found it mentioned in only one out of three books, and only in a minor role in a few less common recipes. There was no mention of it in my Renaissance cookbook. Much of the effort going into this section is wasted, as there are pictures of some of the ingredients, but nothing to connect those pictures to the text. Tsk, tsk.
So this book is certainly of little value for people interested in authentic Thai cuisine or to people interested in easy Thai cooking. One audience that may find value here is experienced Thai cooks who want to add interesting entertaining recipes to their arsenal. Many of the recipes are easy, with very fancy, elaborate looking results. For that purpose, almost every recipe is accompanied by a better than average photograph of the dish. This is not something you will get from `Thai Food', so, if this is your cup of tea, then this book will help you.
While I have not reviewed it, if you are interested in Thai cooking and find Thompson's book a bit dry, try Alford and Duguid's book `Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet'.