This week I was in New York, and I came across a bookstore that specializes in out-of-print cookbooks. You can find this place, Bonnie Slotnick Cookboooks, at 163 W 10th St in Greenwich Village. I left there with two unique books, Everyday Siamese Dishes by Sibpan Sonakul, 4th edition, 1966, and Chinese Medicinal Herbs compiled by Li Shizhen in 1578, “translated and researched” by Porter Smith and G. A. Stuart, MDs, 1977.
I had no idea who Sibpan Sonakul was when I bought this, but it turns out she was a princess among (one of) the royal family lineages. In Thai she is known as หม่อมเจ้าสิบพันพารเสนอ โสณกุล. She was daughter of Prince Sonabandhit, son of Rama IV (aka Mongkut, i.e. the king in The King and I). She died in 1985. I found an obituary for her online claiming that she was the favorite sister and teacher of Prince Dhani Nivat, who wrote much in English in the 50s on Siam’s history and its place in the world. She was also a teacher at the Rajini School for Girls in Bangkok.
The reason I was attracted to this book was because it contains several recipes that I haven’t seen before in English. To boot, it was written confidently, and for a different era. The recipes are geared towards a western audience, but they are not adapted. The recipes and introductory matter are written unapologetically, as if to say, “if you try it, you will like it.” When there wasn’t an appropriate translation for a food item, they would just use the Thai word. In addition, they keep annotation with the Thai script so we can be sure of what they are talking about. There is also a fairly detailed index and Thai-English glossary, and photo plates were taken by the king himself. For someone who would have been truly interested in Thai food back then, I’d imagine this to be a very illuminating book. For today, the recipes are just as usable as they would have been in the 60s.
Here is a sampling of some of the book’s unique recipes: Pigeon in sweet and pungent mixture (นกพิราบเปรี้ยวหวาน) page 22, Yam of roses (ยำดอกกุหลาบ) p. 29, Pratad lŏm (ประทัดลม) p. 15, Overturned eggs (ไข่คว่ำ) p. 22. There are a few hundred recipes that attempt to indicate the general idea, along with many suggested variations. This book is a pleasure to browse, and I’m sure I’ll be using a few of these recipes.
The second book that I bought was not a cookbook at all. Instead it is an analysis and explanation of Chinese herbs listed in Li Shizhen‘s 1578 work, 本草綱目, or Bencao gangmu, aka “encyclopedia of roots and herbs”.
The original was an encyclopedia of medicinal edibles, including many foods. The book is organized by the original Chinese entry, translated into scientific name, with common English name in the colophon. Then, the definition expands with when and where this item was previously referenced in Chinese literature, variations on the name, and what each item is good for.
This book was marketed as a “translation”, but it is really an analysis of the the original Bencao and later studies of the text, with explanations. The purpose of the book was to understand Chinese herbal medicine, not to try for exact translations of the original. For that, it is kind of misleading. It is still a fascinating book. I find it a pleasure to look up edible items to see when and where they were discussed in ancient China, and how ancient scholars thought about their medicinal properties. Later imports to China (i.e. tomatoes and chiles) are also included, with information as to when they are first discussed in Chinese literature and how they are used. Fun!