Cookbooks are more than just collections of recipes. They can be invaluable memoirs, recapping the social and cultural background found during the authors' time of living.
In Thailand, where the joy of food is at the centre of our everyday life, many meaningful historical moments are learnt through a cook's culinary narrative.
Launched last week was Banthuek Nuek Aroi, a collection of cookbooks inspired by the kitchen manuscripts of Thanphuying Prasarnsuk Tantivejkul, a head chef of the royal household of the late King Rama IX and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit the Queen Mother. Thanphuying Prasarnsuk, who passed away in 2002, had served the royal family for more than 40 years.
Produced by the Chaipattana Foundation, the books were granted publishing permission by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who graciously bestowed the title Banthuek Nuek Aroi, loosely meaning A Diary Of Delicious Ideas.
Readers can find in the collection, which took eight months to complete, more than 200 recipes through four volumes categorised according to cooking method.
There is also a glimpse of the royal family's daily meal plans, for breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack and dinner, as well as menus for royal guests including Princess Benedikte of Denmark and Prince Philip, the late Duke of Edinburgh.
"This [set of cookbooks] is an important historical document," said Sumet Tantivejkul, secretary-general of the Chaipattana Foundation and the only child of Thanphuying Prasarnsuk.
Thanphuying Prasarnsuk Tantivejkul.
"From the menu, which my mother created according to the destination His Majesty was travelling to, we can learn about the late King Rama IX's hardworking schedule, who always visited people in many provinces throughout Thailand," he said.
A native of Phetchaburi province, Thanphuying Prasarnsuk began serving the royal family as a Thai cuisine chef at the Chitralada Royal Villa in the 1960s, before being promoted to palace head chef.
"It was a high-expectation duty and could be very nerve-racking, considering the possibility she could receive comments on her food up to four times a day," Sumet said.
Thanphuying Prasarnsuk was given profound kindness and learned a lot from the many cooking masters of various palaces in the royal court during her time there.
"The mentors from these palaces wholeheartedly shared with her the recipes and cooking techniques, knowing that the recipes would be prepared for the King," Sumet said.
A bagful of handwritten recipes and detail-orientated cookery notes, many including her drawing sketches of plating design, were discovered by Sumet after she passed away.
"I decided to give these notes to Princess Sirindhorn, and the idea of sharing them with the public was initiated," Sumet recalled.
"It's not just about her cooking finesse but also to honour her teachers, who were always given credit in her notes."
They include Princess Chongchitthanom Diskul, ML Sae Kridakon, Thanphuying Maneerat Bunnag and other culinary expert courtiers at Wang Varadis, Wang Sa Pathum, Wang Ban Mo and Wang Khlong Toey palaces.
"I was trying to find her teachers, but the Princess said they had all passed away," said Sumet.
The collection includes Thanphuying Prasarnsuk's original recipes as well as those she learnt from other cooking pros.
The dishes served to the royal family range from very simple and low-cost recipes to intricate fare including khao chae (rice soaked in jasmine-scented water served with a variety of side items) and gaeng buan (pork offal curry with roasted fish meat).
The books also list long-forgotten recipes and rustic provincial dishes. Readers can find recipes such as nam phrik phak chi (coriander relish), khang khao phueak (deep-fried taro dumpling), khanom jeen khram daeng (fermented rice noodles with roasted chilli curry) and khanom lum-jeak (a dessert made with a strained mixture of candle-scented flour and coconut).
Uncommon yet very awe-inspiring ingredients such as catfish bones, young coconut shells and tamarind flowers are also featured as an edible highlight of the dishes.
To transcribe Thanphuying Prasarnsuk's age-old notes into a publication required a great of physical care, said Pattrawan Pultawekiat, the cookbooks' editor-in-chief.
But the biggest challenge, according to her, was to recreate the original flavours without precise measurements.
"The recipes were documented by an expert cook. Without referring to a standard measurement system, quantity and sizes were written down roughly as 'a pinch', 'a handful' or 'a bowl'," Pattrawan said.
The terms "a lot", "a little", "a thumb-size" and "the size of a chicken egg" are also used. Pattrawan fondly calls the style "intricated simplicity".
"It is a charming characteristic of Thai cuisine and a fun element of this cookbook. It doesn't just provide recipe ideas but also inspires your culinary instinct," she said.
The project was a dream for Thailand's star-studded leading chefs, who helped to recreate dishes from the notes. They include ML Kwantip Devakula, Bo Songvisava, Ian Kittichai, Vichit Mukura, Ann Khanarak and Champ Panichkul.
Banthuek Nuek Aroi is available at leading bookstores throughout the country. The price is 1,500 baht per set. All proceeds from sales will go to the Chaipattana Foundation.