“River prawns are a very valuable ingredient for us Thai people,” says Chudaree Tam Debhakam, head chef and owner of Job 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 prepare dishes that honor traditional Thai ingredients.
Today she goes to the Sam Khok district outside of Bangkok to fish giant river prawns. She is accompanied by one of her mentors, legendary chef Prin Polsuk from Samrub Samrub Thai, who is known for discovering and reinventing ancient Thai recipes. Together they collect ingredients to cook Kanom jeen nam ya, from an ancient text that Polsuk discovered. “My passion is collecting old recipe books and cooking food from the past,” says Polsuk. “I wanted to prepare this dish because it reflects the traditional way of life in Thailand – living near the river and cooking with fish, shrimp and shellfish.”
At dusk the two go fishing in a small boat. After excitedly catching prawns that are closer to lobsters, they head out into the woods to cook their food over an open flame. When killing the shrimp, they are careful not to ruin “the most valuable part,” as Debhakam calls it – the fat in the head. They chop and puree spices and flavorings to make a curry paste and press the milk out of desiccated coconut. They start by preparing their curry and combine these ingredients, pla ma fish, ki or fermented krill paste, raw sugar, nam koei (a by-product of ki), fish sauce and dried chilli flakes. As a base they prepare thin fermented rice noodles.
Once the soil is ready, they make an impromptu grill out in the woods using bamboo stalks as a grill grate. The prawns are cut in half and placed on the bamboo, then sautéed quickly to add to the curry. You plate the noodles, add the curry sauce, vegetables and grilled prawns.
“I think it’s very important to go on a journey,” says Debhakam. “We get to know the different ways of preparing the dish and learn how different the recipes are from each person. I also love it when I find new ingredients that I can take with me in the kitchen and use. “
“Thai culture is a culture of sharing; we eat together, ”adds Polsuk. “When we eat together, it’s a kind of love language between the cooks and the people who eat. It’s a way of expressing love and happiness. “