Want to eat like a king? You already are, says Chef McDang

Want to eat like a king? You already are, says Chef McDang

Fed up with Thais for knowing "jack s**t" about their own food, the outspoken celebrity chef and royal descendant has spent his own money to publish a book, "The Principles of Thai Cookery"
Chef McDang“Thais are very clever at adopting other cuisines and making it our own,” says Chef McDang.

To most people, royal Thai cuisine is an object of fanciful imagination or second-hand research. To celebrity chef, teacher, writer, TV personality and royal descendant Mom Luang Sirichalerm Svasti -- better known as Chef McDang -- it was everyday grub.

And not just everyday grub for him -- everyday grub for all Thais. The nephew of Queen Rambhai Barni dismisses the practice of some Thai restaurants that claim their cuisine is made with recipes that came from the royal palace, as nothing more than marketing gimmicks.

“There is nothing grand or magical about the royal cuisine,” McDang says. “We ate the same stuff that ordinary Thais eat.”

The only differences, he says, were the quality of the ingredients and the final presentation.

Nothing would be served with bones, peels, or pits in it. For example, fried pla tu (Thai mackerel), the quintessential accompaniment to nam prik kapi (shrimp paste-based relish), would be painstakingly deboned with tweezers then reassembled to resume the original whole fish appearance. All vegetables and fruits would also be meticulously peeled and carved.

Teaching Thais about Thai cuisine

Though people’s curiosity, understandably, may be more about his privileged life and food celebrity status, the former resident of Sukhothai Palace has a greater goal to accomplish -- to educate the Thai people on their own cuisine.

A man known for his candid opinions, McDang speaks wearily about how Thai people have taken their cuisine for granted.

He says he's baffled by how “everybody is going crazy” over the recent controversy surrounding non-Thai chefs claiming a stake in the Thai cuisine market right in the heart of the kingdom.

Agreeing with some informed observers, McDang puts the blame on the apparent apathy of his compatriots, saying “Thais don’t like to go back through our history.” The straight-talking chef adds that while a few Thais actually do know the history of Thai food, “the rest of them don’t know jack shit.”

For this reason, without government support, the jaded-yet-determined McDang says he put up nearly 4 million baht of his own money to publish what he considers a long overdue comprehensive textbook on Thai cooking -- “The Principles of Thai Cookery.”

McDang’s first English-language book, it focuses not on the formative years of his life but what he believes to be the formative principles of Thai cuisine.

Click through to page 2 to read more about Chef McDang and his new book.
Those hoping to get a tome of recipes and cooking tips from the palace will be disappointed, for McDang is neither a raider of ancient recipe treasure troves nor a compiler of recipes of times past. The chef-cum-teacher who abandoned his career path in diplomacy for a stint at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America is a fierce proponent of teaching cooking through science as opposed to the rote memorization of ingredients and procedure.

In "The Principles of Thai Cookery," first the basic foundation is laid out then followed by a handful of recipes representative of each cooking technique. 

Chef McDang bookCover of Chef McDang's first English-language book, "The Principles of Thai Cookery."The most important thing about a country’s cooking is the ingredients, for they define a country’s food profile, McDang theorizes. His first rule states that Thai food derives its salinity from fish sauce as opposed to soy sauce; its acidity from sour fruits instead of vinegar; its sweetness from palm or coconut sugar.

The other rule is that a pounded paste of herbs and spices is indispensable to all traditional Thai dishes (the only exceptions are soups that are infused with herbs instead of flavored with a paste, e.g. tom yam).

Adherence to these rules, which transcend eras, will preserve the authenticity of traditional Thai cuisine says McDang. The implication is that focusing on a specific era and the cuisine from then is a misguided attempt in reclaiming authenticity.

Looking to the royal palace as the source of authenticity is also an exercise in futility. If anything, the palace, being the center of government and first contact point to the outside world, was actually the breeding ground for Western-influenced dishes. 

“Thais are very clever at adopting other cuisines and making it our own,” he says. “Thai food has developed using other people’s techniques.”  

With his given name preceded by a royal title and the family name that reminds the Thais of his famous food critic father, it has not been easy for McDang to be regarded by the public as who he really is -- a professionally trained culinary educator in his own right.

Yet, he has spent the past two decades earning such recognition.

“I don't want you to think that a measure of a person is his title, where he was born, or how much money he's got,” says the chef, who is just as vivacious and hilarious in person as he is on TV. “A measure of a man is how much good he does for society as a whole.”

McDang's contribution is to educate Thais about their cuisine. 

We managed to snag Chef McDang as one of our expert judges as part of CNNGo’s massive “Best Eats” region-wide feature. You can find out what his favorite Bangkok restaurants and dishes are in mid-November, when we publish the Best Eats awards. 

After having spent years studying ancient inscriptions, Leela recently came to realize that she would rather write about food than decipher old chicken scratch.
Read more about Leela Punyaratabandhu