Austin Bush – A Thai Food-Fueled Cookbook Author, Writer and Photographer you should meet
Thai food has always been in the limelight of the world’s culinary trend but only a few versions of it really show Thai cuisine at its best. And let’s face it, there’s merely about a fistful of storytellers slash cook slash writer whose missions are the perfect mouthpiece for Thai fare in all its splendour and glory – one of them being Austin Bush, an American writer and photographer.
Having lived in Thailand for over two decades, not only did Austin become exclusively fluent in Thai, his role as a photographer, journalists and full time eater has been fuelled greatly by the spirited Thai food – especially those from the northern parts of Thailand.
In his new cookbook, The Food of Northern Thailand, in which he wrote and photographed and was nominated as a finalist for the 2019 James Beard Foundation Book Award, Austin talks about in-depth northern fare from all six Northern Thai provinces, beyond the celebrated yet hackneyed dishes like khao soi and sai ua. Apart from that, his nose has always been featured in well-known medias like Bon Appétit, the New York Times, CNN Travel, Condé Nast Traveler, The Wall Street Journal Asia and the Washington Post.
Read all about Austin’s insights and thoughts into eating, Thai food and cookbook writing in this exclusive interview.
Favorite dishes of Thai food for each region?
In central Thailand/Bangkok, I love naam phrik kapi.
In northern Thailand, my favorite dish might be northern Thai-style laab.
And in the northeast, it’s probably northeastern-style grilled chicken.
First drawn to Thai cuisine and inspired you to be here for 20+ years?
I hadn’t tried Thai food until I first visited the country in 1998.
At first, food was mostly a way for me to improve my Thai language skills. Thai people love talking about food, and I would ask people about dishes and ingredients to practice speaking Thai. But soon this shifted to an interest in this vast cuisine that I knew very little about.
Other cuisine you’re into?
I love Portuguese food.
Words to describe Northern Thai cuisine?
Rustic. Herbaceous. Bitter.
In your opinion, what are the most important techniques and ingredients in Northern Thai cuisine?
Grilling is a very important technique in northern Thai cooking. Even the ingredients for northern Thai curry pastes are grilled over coals before being pounded up with a mortar and pestle. And herbs are so important to northern Thai cooking, especially home cooking (as opposed to restaurant cooking).
Is there any specific way you use to learn about the in-depth knowledge of Thai food?
Not any single, specific technique. I’ve lived in Thailand since 1999, and my knowledge comes from a combination of eating, cooking, asking questions and research for the last 20+ years.
Can you share with us your process of writing cookbooks?
My approach to researching and writing is similar to that of a journalist. The Food of Northern Thailand is a snapshot of what people actually, really cooked and ate in northern Thailand.
First I considered what dishes I wanted to include. I then spent time and did a lot of research in libraries, online and reaching out to people to find the best places these dishes are made and/or eaten with food writers, academics, cooks and chefs. Then I headed up to northern Thailand with my notepads and camera gear to record people making these dishes. Next came recipe testing. Then, finally, writing and editing. It was important to me to be as accurate as possible in representing what people cook, eat and say.
What stage do you hate and love most about writing a cookbook?
I love cooking, but the recipe testing stage can be quite frustrating. Every amount needs to be recorded meticulously, and every action needs to be recorded and scrutinized. And if a dish doesn’t work, it all needs to be done again!
Who are the readers of your cookbook?
I feel like many people who run Thai restaurants in North America and Europe have bought my book. But my hope is that there’s enough beautiful photos and narrative text that it would appeal to anybody who happened to visit northern Thailand and who liked the region and its food.
How many cookbooks do you have at home at the moment?
At a glance, at least 100, maybe more.
Any cookbook you worship?
Traditional Recipes of Laos, which features the recipes of Phia Sing, the former chef of the Lao royal palace in Luang Prabang, is fascinating.
How to tell a good cookbook from a bad one?
Cookbooks can be bad in many different ways. But ultimately, you want the recipes to work.
What is the current project you’re working on right now?
I’m currently trying to sell my next book concept, which will be about southern Thai food.
What inspires you to write about Southern Thai cuisine?
I love southern Thai food, but I also feel like it has a lot of appeal to people outside of Thailand: It’s colorful, vibrant and spicy, and fits people’s notion of what Thai food is.
Is there any food trend you want to see more of in 2020 or near future?
I’d love to see more Thai cooks and chefs cooking the food of their hometowns and home provinces.
One single dish of Thai food you can choose for your life?
Naam phrik kapi..?
Thank you Austin.