Based on centuries-old wisdom of Thai holistic teaching, the author Su-Mei-Yu, originally from Thailand, develops her healthy Thai cooking book for a contemporary home cook seeking balance in life through food and lifestyle tuned to the four natural elements – Earth, Water, Wind and Fire. Being currently based in San Diego, California, Yu adapts the book to the climate, seasonal ingredients and local availability in the United States. For example she advices using ginger instead of galangal if it cannot be traced fresh and without preservatives at a local market or an online store.
Traditional healthy Thai cooking principles
Her mentor Dr. Pennapa Subcharaen was a holistic doctor using both Western and Eastern medicine practices. Her experience inspired the former Thai chef and restaurant owner to share her knowledge about the eastern folk wisdom that food can serve as a medicine in the same spirit as Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine taught. This Thai folk wisdom believes in fresh natural food, its major substances, aromas and textures that we ingest or surround ourselves by, affecting our health and a general sense of harmony.
There is a small number of unhealthy advices in the book though. Like using white sugar in many recipes and microwaving, both known to or being suspicious to do harm to our bodies.
Eastern definition of your home element
Similar to the precepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the holistic and individually viewed approach to human health is aligned with nature. Each of the four natural elements (forces) is present also in our body as our “home element”. The author points out that, when one of these elements takes a dominant position in nature, it is believed that a change in the weather has occurred.
In Thailand there exists a firm belief that our home element is bestowed upon us at the time of conception. It is not a simple process of calculation to determine such a precise and highly individual moment of creation, but there is a tool that was proven to work attached on the last page of the book. This “wheel” created by Dr. Pennapa might look somehow mystic on the first sight, but once you find your element and cook the dishes suggested for you, you will understand. At least for me, the dishes had proved to fit my appetite and what my body asked for in certain weather conditions. I was also more aware of how I felt during and after each meal.
Good health and a sense of well-being according to this view is a harmony between your home element, the remaining three elements present also in our bodies, and the momental element prevailing in nature as well as time of the day.
Lifestyle benefiting you and nature
The resulting book is a daily and seasonally morphing guide to the right lifestyle choices for each element. From food, drinks, to essential oils for skin and aromatic treatments, to homemade cosmetics. The author also suggests adjustments for each element in the second “Basics” chapter common to all home elements. In this part plant milks, broths, curries, rice and stir-fries are made from scratch. Homemade curry paste, tamarind puree, almond and coconut milk are indeed often superior in flavour and nutritional value than the store-bought packaged products.
Further, creating balance in your kitchen leads to a balance of your health, so the author gives tips on storing food and sustainable, waste-reducing guidance.
Starting with a broad definition and characteristic of each element: Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, she gives reference tools for recognising the personal element, how it can change throughout the life, but also during seasons, and in what kind of weather certain elements tend to dominate in nature. Balancing all of them is key to healthy body, mind and environment.
Sustainability is seen essentially as our balance with nature, necessary for our own health. Using most parts of the plant, pulp residues after making plant milks and only seasonal and local produce are all in sync with the contemporary trend towards sustainable lifestyle. Almond pulp can be used in a facial mask, scrubs as well as in a hair conditioner. Coconut shells can be used for grilling or smoking food. This book guides the readers to the most natural lifestyle possible. If your busy schedule allows for preparing all the homemade potions then embrace it fully and observe the states of your body and mind as they holistically react upon these lifestyle adjustments.
Later in the book she features, element by element the key healthy Thai cooking ingredients, their substitutes in America, suitable cooking styles, and finally the recipes. The prevailingly Thai recipes are thoroughly described and easy to follow. With each, the chef an author describes the health benefits and the effects of the dish on your emotions. There are also mostly non-alcoholic drinks suitable for each element. Either using fresh fruits, vegetables or herbs, some, like the Watermelon Juice, have also tip on how to make them into a refreshing bubbly cocktail by adding Champagne or a sparking water.
Tried and recommended recipes from healthy Thai cooking
I made from scratch my own delicious almond milk (I couldn’t stop myself from sipping it how wholesomely rich and tasty it was!) and some of the Curry Chile Pastes in a mortar so I could use them for the more complex recipes.
The sweet, warming and sour Kiwi Ginger Dressing (p.61) perfectly accompanies salads, while the Black Sesame Dressing (p.55) was perfect both with salads or noodle dishes.
Another recipes that I tried and liked were the Curry Stir-Fry on page 68, my favourite Thai Coconut Cream soup – Tom Ka (p.91) and immune boosting and cold relieving soup with seasonal vegetables and red miso – Gaeng Liang (p. 94); as well as the more Western in hot weather refreshing Minty Cucumber Soup (p. 212).
Unfortunately, for most of the drinks and desserts I would need a better supplier of Thai ingredients and herbs around the Côte d’Azur, where I currently live and cook. I could not try preparing these. I only savoured them when I visited Thailand and bought some for home like my favourite Lemon Grass and Pandan leaf or Rose Bud infusions.
Not just focusing on the healthy Thai cooking, but being a holistic guide, Yu adds aromatherapy oils, herbal sachets, home beauty treatments, remedies and her family’s as well as personal stories to illustrate more vividly the emotional and physical needs of our individual composition.
Although, the aspects of elements-based lifestyle may sound complicated and too excluding to many Westerners, healthy Thai Cooking is no different from many of the other Eastern traditions such as Ayurveda and Macrobiotics or popular modern diets such as vegan, raw, Atkinson, and others since all of them require familiarity with what is allowed and what not. What I like about this approach more though is that it is even more personal, it regards taste, flavours and climate. Don’t you crave different foods on a cold day, a rainy afternoon or during a sizzling hot summer? I realised that I do.