“River prawn is a very valuable ingredient for us Thai people,” says Chudaree Tam Debhakam, chef and owner of Baan Tepa in Bangkok, Thailand. “I think it’s one of the most expensive Thai ingredients.” In her kitchen, Debhakam uses her world-renowned skills to craft dishes that honor traditional Thai ingredients.
Today, she heads to the Sam Khok district outside of Bangkok to fish for enormous river prawns. She’s joined by one of her mentors, the legendary chef Prin Polsuk of Samrub Samrub Thai, who is known for uncovering ancient Thai recipes and reinventing them. Together they gather ingredients to cook kanom jeen nam ya, from an ancient text Polsuk uncovered. “It’s my passion to collect ancient recipe books and cook food from the past,” says Polsuk. “I wanted to make this dish because it reflects the traditional way of living in Thailand — living life near the river and cooking with fish, prawns, and shellfish.”
The pair head out on a small boat at dusk to fish. After excitedly catching prawns that are closer in size to lobsters, they go to the forest to cook their meal over an open flame. Killing the prawns, they’re careful not to ruin “the most prized part” as Debhakam calls it — the fat in the head. They chop and mash spices and aromatics into a curry paste, and squeeze the milk out of shaved coconut meat. They begin making their curry, combining these ingredients, pla ma fish, Kapi, or fermented krill paste, raw sugar, Nam Koei (a byproduct of Kapi), fish sauce, and dried chile flakes. For the base, they prepare thin fermented rice noodles.
Once the base is ready, they make an impromptu grill outside in the forest, using stalks of bamboo as a grill grate. The prawns are cut in half and placed on the bamboo, then quickly sautéed to add to the curry. They plate the noodles, adding the curry sauce, vegetables, and grilled prawn.
“I think going on a journey is very important,” says Debhakam. “We learn about all the different ways of making the dish and how different each person’s recipes are. I also love it when I find new ingredients which I can bring back to the kitchen and use.”
“Thai culture is a sharing culture; we eat together,” adds Polsuk. “When we eat together, it’s a form of love language between the cooks and the people who eat. It’s a way of expressing love and happiness.”