Thai Green Curry

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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.

Thailand Plaza

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I went to the local library and borrowed a couple of Thai cookbooks. I was used to reading Japanese cookbooks with lots of pictures, so I searched for similar ones. Thai Curry, Papaya Salad, Shrimp Salad and Ginger Chicken, most of the things I wanted to make were in the book. It was fun and exciting to look at those pictures and recipes because I could just think of the way to cook. When I read the recipes for Japanese dish, I could imagine how to cook by looking at the ingredients. However, reading Thai cookbook was different. I had no idea how to cook them. Upon looking at the recipes, I immediately came across many ingredients I had never heard of: galanga, kafir lime leaves, Thai basil, fish sauce, cane sugar, lemongrass, sweet soy sauce and Thai eggplant. “What the hell is coconut sugar?” I said to myself. I had never heard of it and no idea such thing existed. Where could I get all these ingredients? For a moment, I felt at a loss. Then suddenly, I remembered something: Thailand Plaza. I remembered my friend Eiji told me about this place, a Thai Grocery Store in Hollywood. He told me about the restaurant and famous Thai Elvis, and that was what I remembered. Thai Elvis.  I knew that was the place I could get everything I needed to make Thai Food in the book. Now, all I had to do was go there before I start my shift at Rock ‘n Hollywood Sushi.

Thailand Plaza was in East end of Hollywood Blvd. all the way passed from Chinese Theater and end of Walk of Fame. The area was known as Thai Town, six-blocks between Normandie and Western Avenue with apsonsi (a mythical half human, half lion angel) by the entrance.   A Thai-American friend of mine once introduced me to a small restaurant called Yai, which was just at the corner of Western Avenue on Hollywood Blvd., right next to 7 Eleven. One of my favorites was Thai Ginger Chicken over rice for mere $4.75, and it was the best Ginger Chicken I ever had. I also loved their Sweet and sour shrimp. The restaurant was nothing fancy, or precisely, you could say it was a hole in the wall, but boy, was their food fantastic!

I was fortunate to have my Thai friend took me there because he ordered many things I would have never ordered: not Pad Thai, not Tom Yum Kung, no fried rice. He ordered Nam Sod, spicy Thai pork salad, Lad Na, wide flat noodle, and Shrimp cake. Everything I had was as close as what I had in Thailand. They even had various Thai dessert, sweet coconut rice, mango with sticky rice and most of which, I had no idea what they were. After my first visit, I was hooked to Yai restaurant. Because there was no “authentic” Thai restaurant on West side of LA, I used to drive all the way from Santa Monica to Hollywood just go visit Yai for their awesome food. Forty-five-minute drive was not a problem at all.

I left home two hours early to go to Thailand Plaza so that I had enough time to shop.  In front of the store was a big tall neon sign in faded red and purple that shaped like Thai Temple. Silom Supermarket was on the first floor. Upon entering, I was amazed by how much and what they carried – it looked just like a grocery store in Bangkok. The store was the twice or three times the size of a regular convenience store.  Just like a Chinese grocery store, it had a distinctive smell of spices and sauces, which reminded me of my trip to Thailand. I strolled around looking at my list of ingredients, searching for what I need for the evening: Green Thai Curry. Curry paste and coconut milk were easy to find. Fish sauce and coconut sugar were somewhat challenging. I walked around their aisle, carefully looking at the shelf and each product to see what they were.  Because I was unfamiliar with most of the products, I was unsure which brand of fish sauce to choose from, which soy sauce was the right “sweet” soy sauce, and so on. Of course, I was unable to read Thai, so most of the items remained mysterious because I never saw them before in my life. Some had English words written on their package, so I could tell (also from their appearance) that, they were curry paste. It was fun to walk around the store, searching for ingredients and learning new products.