In new cookbook Baan, Kay Plunkett-Hogge sets out to demystify Thai food. She tells Ella Walker all about it.

For a decade, Kay Plunkett-Hogge has patiently been writing and co-authoring cookbooks with the likes of Leon and actor Stanley Tucci ("He's wonderful, we had a hoot").

But however exciting those other projects were, all that time, a cookbook of the Thai food she grew up eating was formulating in her mind. "Baan is the book I started food writing to write," the columnist, food consultant and cookery teacher explains, looking brilliantly glam over coffee in a tiny Italian cafe in southwest London.

Plunkett-Hogge was born in Thailand in 1964 - "just as the Vietnam war was really gearing up" - and raised in Bangkok, where her father, who worked for Ford Motors and "had the gift of the gab", was transferred in 1961 to sell tractors. "They sent him for two years and he ended up staying 35."

She spoke Thai before English, and returned to the UK for boarding school aged 11 - which, admittedly, was a shock: "I had to wear shoes - didn't like that", and the food, she recalls, was "devastating". She'd go home to Thailand two or three times a year, and still does.

Calling her childhood "incredibly idyllic", Plunket-Hogge, now 55, spent much of it between her family's two kitchens: Inside for Western food (where the fridge and freezer reigned supreme); outside for Thai (all polished concrete floors and charcoal burners). Her mum and their family cook, Prayoon, would teach each other about their cuisines, while Plunkett-Hogge toddled greedily from one to the other. "I was very chubby because I'd eat about 10 meals a day," she says with a laugh. "I was in and out all the time!"

Between the array of dinners and her menagerie of animals ("I had 20 cats at one point, I had pygmy owls, flying squirrels, chipmunks, my dad had a falcon and a hawk in the aviary in the back garden, a crow, ducks, geese, a civet cat..."), 'idyllic' doesn't seem to quite do it justice. She was, she adds, "so spoilt!"

Fragments of her early years in Thailand spill across Baan (which means 'home'), where the pages, ablaze in Seventies Technicolor, are strewn with family photos. The recipes themselves are a patchwork map of memory, friendship and shared culinary love, from her ultimate comfort dish of prad kapow moo (pork stir-fried with holy basil) to her godmother Shirley's soi thonglor ribs, that would always be accompanied by a scary film and "large and potent" G&Ts.

Plunkett-Hogge cooked from an early age but mainly cakes - she doesn't bake at all now - and it was only when she quit as a model agent and began catering for high-end fashion shoots that she found her way into food writing. "Nothing in my life has ever been planned, it just rolls along," she says acceptingly, explaining she has "no training, just instinct, good taste buds and palate, and [the ability] to put flavours together".

So she is pragmatic when it comes to people's potential fears around attempting Thai food for the first time. "It's not Thai food made simple," she explains. "I try and demystify it slightly." Your main obstacle, she says, is prepping everything, "but once you've got that done, the rest of it's quick, and a curry's a doddle."

It helps that, despite owning numerous pestle and mortars (and no fewer than seven woks "all for different things, and the cheapest ones are the best"), she's all for buying curry pastes.

"You don't have to make a curry paste from scratch, none of my Thai friends do," she says frankly. "They go to the market every morning and buy their favourite vendor's paste, or they buy the Nittaya brand."

Making your own only makes sense if "you're in a village and have got no choice", or if you're making her "damn fine" green curry. "If you're going to make any from scratch, make that one."

On the topic of Thai green curries, she is firm. The "sweet, mild green thing" you're usually served in British takeaways is not how it should be. "If you had the real thing, you're just like, 'Wow'," says Plunkett-Hogge. "It's a weirdly complex dish, a lot of prep, a lot of ingredients, and when you have a good one, it's really good - you can tell the difference.

"It shouldn't have any sugar in it; it's not a sweet curry, and it's one of the hottest."

She has similarly strong views on street food. "If it's not on the street, it's not street food - you can make something similar at home, but you're never going to have that fierce wok flame, you're never going to have the expertise of the guy who does it every single day for 30 years, like my guy who makes chicken and rice. Thirty-five years on the same spot, from 6am to 3pm, just one dish!"

You can't help but be convinced by her. And as an expert on boozing - she's authored drinks books Make Mine A Martini and Aperitvo - she's also to be trusted on Thailand's drinking culture, which happens to revolve around food.

"There's a tradition of having food to stop you getting drunk, so there's lots of little snacky things to have while you're drinking," she says, conjuring the image of cramming handfuls of spicy nibbles into your mouth between sips of beer, which is normally served with ice in it: "It's a very nice local way of drinking, especially in the heat."

She also advises against drinking spirits neat in Thailand, unless you're in an air-conditioned bar, otherwise they'll "knock you for six". Best to stick with a salty-sweet Thai lemonade.

Back in London, Thai food is still on the menu two or three times a week (she couldn't live without deep-fried eggs), especially on the weekends, and whenever friends come over.

"Luckily my husband likes Thai food," says Plunkett-Hogge with a cackle. "We always said if he didn't, there wouldn't have been a second date."


"This is the one curry paste you should always make from scratch. It's also the easiest, the best one to learn and practise on, and the best way to remember why the green curry became famous in the first place."


(Serves 4)

For the paste:

1/2tsp coriander seeds

1/2tsp cumin seeds

1tsp white peppercorns

A good pinch of salt

1tbsp finely chopped galangal

1tbsp finely chopped lemongrass

2 Thai shallots or 1 regular shallot, peeled and finely chopped

12 green Thai bird's eye chillies, de-stemmed and chopped

2 long green chillies, de-stemmed and finely chopped

4tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander root, with some stem attached

1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped

2cm piece of fresh turmeric, finely chopped

Zest of 1 kaffir lime

1tsp kapi (shrimp paste)

For the curry:

2tbsp vegetable oil

1 x 400ml can of coconut milk

350g chicken thighs, cut into 2cm dice

1-2tbsp nam pla (fish sauce)

A pinch of caster sugar (optional)

65g pea aubergines (these are available from Amazon and certain supermarkets)

2 Thai round aubergines , cut into quarters

100g bamboo shoots, chopped (canned or vacuum-packed)

2 long red chillies, diagonally sliced into 3 pieces

A large handful of Thai sweet basil

1 long orange chilli (optional)


1. To make the paste: Pound all the ingredients in a pestle and mortar (starting with hardest ingredients first, as listed, working down to the softest), until you have a uniform, close-textured paste. If it's not completely smooth, don't worry. If you prefer to use a food processor or a blender, again work from the hardest to the softest ingredients, and add about one tablespoon water or more to bring the paste together.

2. To make the curry: Heat the oil in a wok or saucepan and fry the paste until it smells fragrant, about one minute. Add half of the coconut milk, bring to the boil slowly, stirring to dissolve the paste. Once the paste has dissolved, let the coconut milk simmer a little until you see oil appearing on the surface. Then add 200ml of water and bring to the boil.

3. Add the chicken and bring back to the boil, then add the rest of the coconut milk. Bring back to the boil and simmer for about six minutes. Add the nam pla and the sugar, if using. Taste and adjust the seasoning. If it seems a little thick, add a little more water - you want a soupiness, not a thick gravy.

4. Add the aubergines, the bamboo shoots and one of the long red chillies. Simmer for another three minutes or so. Taste - you want this to taste vibrant, hot, salty and herbaceous. Add the basil, the remaining red chilli and the whole orange chilli if you have one, and serve with some jasmine rice and Nam Pla Prik (Fish Sauce with Chillies).

Baan: Recipes And Stories From My Thai Home by Kay Plunkett-Hogge, photography by Louise Hagger, is published by Pavilion Books, priced £20. Available now.