Later I found out about the Thai restaurant on the second floor of the Thailand Plaza. In fact, Thailand Plaza was the name of the restaurant, not the building nor grocery store. The food was authentic, and the inside had Christmas lights and reminded me of the restaurants in Bangkok or Patong beach. The restaurant was large could hold over sixty to seventy people comfortably. It looked like shopping mall cafeteria/dining area, or a banquet room at a Chinese restaurant. There was a stage filled with speakers, microphones, electronic keyboards and drums for a band to play. On Fridays and Saturdays, there was a famous “Thai Elvis” Impersonator, performing two live shows a night, singing all the Elvis hits. Yes, Thai Elvis was famous in Hollywood, believe it or not. I did have a chance to see Thai Elvis with my friends and sure enough, he came up on the stage and gave a fabulous entertaining performance.
I bought curry paste mix, fish sauce, coconut sugar, fish sauce, coconut milk, kafir lime leaves, lemon grass, bamboo shoots in a can and Thai eggplant. The total came around $30 or so. From Thailand Plaza, I drove directly to Rock ‘n Hollywood Sushi to start my shift, arriving way before my shift started.
I started my prep just like I do every day. First, turn on the switch on the refrigerator, put the long cutting board down, and then wash all the hand towels before I start rinsing rice. Towels were very important. I could not start my shift without towels. I don’t think any chef could or should start working without towels. Towels come first before anything else. I kind of picked that up as I worked in the restaurant kitchen. There were set-ups I needed to do before I even start doing prep work. They were like building a foundation of a house. Without the foundation, you cannot build a house. Getting towels, cutting board, knives ready were all like that. After spending two hours setting up the bar and prepping, I went on my break. I took out all the ingredients I purchased earlier at Silom Supermarket and started cooking the curry, carefully reading the recipe from the book.
Anything you make for the first time is always difficult, as you never know what to put in, how much to put it, how to cut ingredients and how it should taste. Because I had so many Thai curries both in the US and Thailand, I had a pretty good idea of how to cook, how it should look like and how it should taste. I was unsure how to make my curry taste the same as the ones I had in Thailand or restaurants in Thai Town.
I believe cooking is an art form, which requires a lot of imagination. A chef must be able to visualize the final dish. I can taste ingredients and imagine how they would taste after I cook them together. I can also imagine what a dish would taste like by looking at the ingredients list in the recipe, given I am familiar with all the ingredients. It is difficult to make a dish without visualizing the finished product because there is a chance of the dish becoming something different from what you wanted it to be, only because you had a vague image of the dish.
In the end, the curry came out different from what I expected, or tasted I was unable to determine what was missing. It was different from the ones I tasted before. I was frustrated. Toshi and Jun said the curry was good and that did not help because I was not happy with how it tasted. The next day, I decided to go to Thai restaurant to taste green curry so that I could figure out what needed to do differently. The curry I had at the Thai restaurant had more complex flavor – thick and had a richness of coconut milk, broth from fish sauce, vegetable and meats all nicely blended with the fresh scent of Thai herbs. What was it I was doing differently? Was it the curry paste I purchased? The book said that each household in Thailand made their own curry paste – fresh, mashing their own blend of herbs and spices in a stone grinder. I wasn’t into making my own curry paste. It sounded too time-consuming. I knew I could use the ready-made curry paste and could make a good curry.
I tried it again later and again and again until it came out quite close to the ones at the restaurant.
I still have no idea what I did differently the first time, compared to what I do now. I know it’s different – probably something so simple and seems so little and makes a world of difference.
After curry, I made papaya salad – getting fresh young papaya from Silom Supermarket with fish sauce, limejuice, cilantro and dried shrimp. I used Japanese mandarin to shred green papaya, seasoned it with sweet vinegar, fish sauce for an hour or two, adding peanuts, lots of lime juice, minced cilantro and dried shrimp to add more umami. I learned fish sauce is like dashi stock in Japanese cuisine, works like the base for almost all the Thai dishes and the source of umami, MSG. No wonder Thai people love Ajinomoto – the artificial MSG.
I’ve also made ginger chicken, Pad Prik Kong and Thai Chawanmushi, steamed egg custard dish, resembling the one from Japan. The more I cooked Thai, the more fun I had. I made Tom Ka Kai and Tom Yum Kung and they all came out excellent.
All the sushi chefs loved Thai Food I cooked. Sometimes, I took me over an hour to cook Makanai, which left me time to eat and started working immediately. Even then, it was worth my time because I was learning Thai cooking on my break and receiving feedback on the food I made. It was fantastic.